Writing Cures (a letter to the disenchanted)
by Michael Larivière, Ph.D.
For Estée Chiara
“Man is not blessed with the perfection of the horse.”
First it was Literature; then Philosophy.
I found a home in the exile they provided. A home without domestication.
For years I sat quietly in the shade of their monuments, acquiring a very private, very intense language. A language incomprehensible to those who pretended to have nurtured me. Nothing gave me greater joy than keeping out of things, alone with a book.
The joy of separation.
But a day came when I realized that I had merely been trying to get a foothold on absence. That I had spent years looking for a counter-weight to evils older than myself, the existence of which I had never even suspected. Childhood revealed itself for what it was: a heritage of incurable wounds.
So, after all those years spent in silent waiting for something I couldn’t identify, of sitting on usurped chairs, of gathering the ashes of spent lives, I knew the time had come for me to leave.
It is my contention that we rarely know what we are doing as we are doing it. Hence my life very soon derived from the books I read. Books were my decoys. They enabled me to escape the family community, the gangs children formed, at a later age they enabled me to escape even the most elementary aggregations, even the friendly, even the loving.
I loved hiding, passionately: in the hope of finding happiness, of finding at last what childhood had refused me. But I hid in vain. No one ever escapes the culture one’s family imposes: that culture remains the model for all the relationships one later feels forced to form. And that is what we need to hide, as well as to hide from: family secrets. This dissembling is a novel; the impossibility of this novel is madness. Madness was threatening.
One afternoon as I was coming out of a class at University, a Professor whom I liked very much passed by me in the corridor. I grabbed his arm and asked him for the name of a good psychoanalyst.
One thing I learned during those first years on the couch was that one never can tell in advance the nature of the past that will inevitably assail. But that was about all I learned. So I repeated the experience, still to not much avail.
A third time did the trick; it was with Joyce McDougall, to whom I shall forever be grateful. My first two analysts did nothing, said nothing to help clarify the obscure desperation in which I was entrapped. The immediate evidence bore a leaden seal that neither one had had the wish, nor the courage, to break: far more preoccupied with conforming to what they understood as being the analytic dogma than with engaging with their rather desolate patient, they resembled, as I was later to realize, most of those who call themselves analysts: mimeticians who ape their idols’ languages and scarcely ever utter anything worth listening to.
Their institutions, schools, groups and clans, with their collective rhythms prescribe behaviours, manners, thoughts, a language. Each is forced to find a compromise. The hardest thing is not giving in to mannerism, which is a form of veneration of the past. Venerating the past is a way of dying. A way of building (or destroying) one’s life around what it is lacking. Constantly harking back to the past is a way of preserving the community, the domestic, the family tyranny; it is too much solidarity, too much alliance. But one can’t move away with impunity from the narrow perimeter to which one’s world had long been limited. One can rapidly be overwhelmed by a feeling of tragic helplessness, having to endure oneself, much in the same way one sometimes has to endure trying circumstances, to the point of exhaustion. One then finds oneself living out one’s story as if it were someone else’s, suddenly, inexplicably disjointed.
Analysis helps – and it has its limits.
Analysis helped, immensely.
But in the end, it was writing that restored me, to use Samuel Beckett’s words, to the feasible. Specifically, writing in correspondence, daily. It was this writing, more so than analysis, that taught me the limits of what I was willing to do for myself, as well as the limits of what re-describing myself (revisiting my story) could do for me. It was this writing, more so than analysis, that taught me that childhood is the fire that language aims to put out. It was this writing that helped me make a mockery of (and see the mockery in) the belief in the necessity of imitative fidelity to exemplary lives. It was this writing that helped me realize that the aesthetic exigency of resemblance never is but a melancholy response to the impossibility of merging with oneself. That enabled me to see that the major illusion in life is the belief in one’s “identity”. It helped me come to terms with the notion that I will probably die uncertain still of what it was that my name had represented. It was this writing, more so than analysis, that helped me invent the solitude that had to be mine. That taught me both to forgive and, more importantly if paradoxically, to forget myself. What I mean by this is that it radically altered, although imperceptibly at first, my “relationship” (what else to call it?) with words: the more I wrote, the less interested I became in knowing what language could sustain in me, the less mindful I became of the enigma language is.
One of the recurring themes of these correspondences was fatherhood.
Fatherhood is not easy to define. Perhaps all one can say is this: it is men’s terror. A terror in which men remain impeccably alone, in which they approach death.
During the twenty years we had to live with one another, my father and I remained timorously installed in a terror as vain as it was exhausting, as ardent as it was secretive. Rage and shame were our arch-passions.
The spectacle of my father’s anxiety distressed me. I knew very early on that I never would be able to face his shyness, that our relationship would be reduced to fear, to a sombre, funereal war, to absence and to idle chatter.
My father’s lack of confidence, his self-distrust, his hopelessness frightened me.
I never could let him know of my sorrow. I never could break the silence with which (I was told) he had first greeted my birth and in which he had afterwards continued to take refuge.
My father would get up every morning at the same time and on his own.
He would immediately light a cigarette, then proceed to the bathroom to get ready for work; thus began the silence in which he would confine himself for the rest of the day. Once ready, he would return to the bed where his wife would still be sleeping. He would kiss her, wishing her, without having the slightest notion of what that might resemble, a “good day”. He would then go down the narrow stairway that led to the garage and take his place behind the wheel of his car to drive himself to the office.
The half-hour of solitude the drive afforded him each morning and night was, in fact, a journey upstream: during that time he would cease being the son, the husband, the father he had in spite of himself become and would return to his secret, thus calling back to life the man he had consistently failed.
He escaped his age.
Those early morning and evening drives were a kind of funeral rite: the re-birth of the man he never could allow himself to be reaffirmed the death of the one he had become. This funeral rite sheltered him from desire.
My father wore grey suits, or brown, or dark blue. His shirts were invariably white; his ties, which he thought to be daring, were merely gaudy. This dress code had been imposed on him by his own father and he had kept to it in spite of himself, in spite of the hatred he felt towards what he had been destined for. Never could he free himself from the obligations which were a habitual feature of the kind of alienated filiation into which he was born. Moreover, as his wife, my mother, would remind whoever would be kind or perverse enough to lend an ear, he apparently always was a reticent and therefore disappointing lover.
I was born out of that sexual deficiency. I am the fruit of that bitterness. The fruit of inaccessible love. Not surprisingly then, the language I was born into was equally deficient. It was poor, unimaginative, spent. A dead language, and deadly. That is how I came to keep out of things, alone with the books thanks to which, little by little, I learned to educate my complaint, thus freeing myself from the terror I had been born into.
Years went by and the day came when I in turn had to decide whether or not I wanted a child.
Very reluctantly, I gave in to my wife’s insistence.
We had a daughter.
She turned my life around.
With her I acquired yet another very private, very intense language.
A few years ago she passed on to me a disease she herself had caught at the age of three, a disease Jérôme Garcin describes as “old as mankind and for which there exists, to this day, no remedy. Those who are spared smile to themselves, sometimes make a mockery of it. They are wrong. It appears to be without gravity, negligible, amusing, whereas it is insidious, demanding, before it becomes tyrannical. It gives no respite. It tolerates no rival. It requires the sacrifice of much of one’s time, excessive energy, all of one’s savings, one’s body and, who knows, one’s soul. Much in the way of certain religions, it promises paradise after one has long suffered and learned to make oneself discreet. It detests the lazy and the cowardly. It is frightening and wonderful. It is sometimes lethal. It is horse fever.” (Cavalier seul, Gallimard, 2006, p.14-5. Translation mine.)
In passing this disease on to me, she enabled me, to use an equestrian term, to collect myself. For years I could do this only in angulo cum libro; it is now possible otherwise. I have been shown a way of dissociating myself from a devastating past. Of overcoming the influence of the archaic narrations that had long subjugated me. No longer am I haunted by the recurrent obsessive fears inherited from childhood. A day came when I realized I had become less semantic. Less interested in making sense of myself.
The loss of this tyrannical interest sometimes makes corresponding more difficult. Yet the letters exchanged daily were quick to constitute what to this day remains something of a miraculous hermitage. It is there that each day begins, with the urgent need to read my friends’ words faxed overnight (indeed most often faxed rather than sent electronically: I do enjoy reading their handwriting), to which it would be inconceivable not to respond immediately – the difference now being that language no longer holds the same fascination, nor is it vested with the same hopes. Thanks to my daughter I have acquired in the company of horses other ways not only of thinking but of feeling, of being. If indeed nothing will ever make it so that what was wasn’t, I no longer experience this as tragic. A door was opened where none had been.
Dr. Larivière was born in Montreal, Canada. He moved to France in 1971 to study Philosophy and eventually earned doctoral degrees in Philosophy, Psychology, and French Literature. He has met and worked with many scholars including Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Lyotard and Dolto. Dr. Larivière speaks (and works) in four languages: English, French, Italian and German. Currently, his practice is in France and he has lead seminars internationally in Italy, Canada, United States and Switzerland.
Dr. Larivière may be contacted at:
7A Rue Turenne, 67000 Strassbourg, FRANCE
Back to Academy Library