Truth and Anger

After my digression in my last post, I’ll now get back to the theme of this blog which is appreciations. Last week, February 9 specifically, the New York Review Daily sent out the text of an interview with the French writer Édouard Louis, who has just published the third in his trilogy of what the NYR-D describes as having “generally been called autobiographical novels.” That qualification is serious, because Louis begins by pointing out that France doesn’t go in for genre distinctions to the extent that North America does. “We don’t have ‘nonfiction’ for example,” he says, “and we mostly use the term ‘memoir’ for autobiographies of politicians.” Given the frequency with which I refer to writers of first-person illness narratives as memoirists, Louis’ comments have the welcome effect of upsetting my categories.

Most people who think about writing realize that fiction/nonfiction distinctions work more as either claims or disclaimers (e.g., “no relation to persons alive or dead”) than they describe how much of the writing is direct reporting of what happened versus what’s called imaginative. And as others have noted, imaginations don’t just spontaneously appear in writers’ heads; they begin in real-world observations. That distinction thus blurred, Louis then offers one of the most arresting accounts of why writing in the first-person has distinct value. His point seems highly relevant in decisions about what to teach in medical humanities and narrative medicine curricula, for example. I quote:

“So when I write, I ask myself, How can I prevent people from escaping what I’m trying to show? And I think autobiography can be a tool to force people to see reality, because when you do autobiography, you say: ‘Look, this is what is happening now, this body I talk about is suffering now, while you read.” That makes me think of fairly recent books like Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman or Christina Crosby’s A Body, Undone as writing that Louis describes precisely. But you could go back to Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life. I also think of illness narratives published posthumously, which say, to paraphrase Louis, ‘Look, I spent my last months writing this book, because dying clarifies, and what I’m tell you is necessary for you and others–you need to know this.’

The issue, maybe only one of the issues but I’ll give it pride of place, is anger. Louis has also written books about Foucault and Bourdieu, and I wish my French were good enough to read them; he might have something actually new to say. “Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault taught me something very important: that there is no truth without anger. That is the key to understand our world(s), that it’s maybe even the most scientific tool human beings invented.” Scientific tool–anger?–that’s worth thinking about.

Louis concludes: “Only if you are angry you understand that this violence is not normal. Anger is what allows you to take a step back and to understand the social structure you are stuck in. Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s books are full of rage, and so are my books, I hope.”

Louis does not exactly embarrass me, but he reminds me of what I continually forgot, because it’s dangerous to remember what he’s saying, if you want to get along in worlds of healthcare and medicine, to be asked to give lectures and to publish, much less to hold a job in a clinic or attract funding to a program. Healthcare is all about cooling out anger, to use Erving Goffman’s great phrase. The prose of academic journals has no allowance for expressions of anger. At most, there can be policy recommendations, but not anger. I had not put Louis’ books on my reading list. But I realize the same reasons why I don’t want to read them are why I should. I need his version of Bourdieu and Foucault, not the cooled out versions that sell better in the venues where I try to get along. I need to remember that “there is no truth without anger.”