interview with CONSTANCE DEBRÉ by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by CASPER SEJERSEN
style by CAMILLE BIDAULT-WADDINGTON
french writer constance debré recently published a new novel, nom (name), an autofiction in which she advances her radical political program: “i am for the abolition of inheritance, i am for the abolition of parental authority, i am for the abolition of marriage, i am for the abolition of filiation, i am for the abolition of the family name, i am against guardianship, minority, i am against patrimony, i am against domicile, nationality, i am for the abolition of civil status, i am for the abolition of the family.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — You speak of a manual for existence in your stories. Is literature a tool for living these days?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — The first thing I seek when reading other authors is a manual for existence because we understand nothing about life and our own lives. That’s what interests me in literature. For me, it’s not a distraction. It doesn’t serve as an escape from the world or from myself. The purpose is to try to understand what I should do for myself. I’m looking for answers I can use right away, a manual, a practical philosophy. More generally, what I’m looking for is thought. I believe in philosophy over psychoanalysis. So, I poke about in books. Others, at least for the most part, manage to enunciate clear ideas in their books.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Georges Perec, the French writer, has a lovely novel title to that effect: Life: A User’s Manual.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes. It’s perfect. Another book of his I enjoyed a lot is A Man Asleep. It’s about a guy who suddenly starts to abstain from everything, but we sense he’s looking for the right move. He thinks it’s a matter of restraint, until he starts to feel that his restraint is, in the end, a kind of slow, untenable death.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You once said: “My books don’t relate my life. They explain what is happening, and how we should live it.” We all need a manual for life because we’re completely lost. CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Events are the only material we have to feed on. For me, once you start writing literature and not philosophy, you have to be factual. Life is made up of the facts and events that we encounter. We only share things that happen to us. But we can relate all these things without anything ever happening, by being completely off the mark.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In a narcissistic or a flatly autobiographical way?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes, or by stepping outside yourself. What you must get down in writing is your position in relation to events. Writing is a matter of positioning. But liberty, too, is a matter of positioning yourself in relation to events.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In this sense, a great writer — whether it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Lowry, or Louis-Ferdinand Céline — is always delivering a life lesson.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes, and it’s plain in every sentence they write. They’ll describe the way someone takes up a glass of water or crosses a street, and we understand that what they’re describing is a relationship to the world. It’s not the world itself but a relationship to it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you reach this level of intimate comprehension you have with literature? Do you ever experience fear?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — You can’t be afraid all the time. And, besides, fear is exciting. I either write books, or I don’t. If I do, I try to hold my own position. It’s not a matter of writing lovely sentences. It’s like sex: you strip naked and go. That’s the fun, too. I think literature, like sex, is a matter of fear. You can’t be afraid of what’s going to happen, of what’s going to occur. You can’t be afraid of the future.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What would a manual for the future be? Today, we have no representations of the future, or we have hyper-technological, consumerist representations of virtual worlds — each one in every sense an evasion. There’s even the phantasmagorical evasion of colonizing other planets while we abandon our own to the programmed destruction of criminal capitalism. How can we not, then, withdraw into the present, into what we can still experience before catastrophe plays out? How can we live today under the aegis of the future? Should we follow your lead and withdraw into inner experience “when the world is running to ruin,” as Marguerite Duras used to say?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — The future, however terrible we can imagine it to be, is not a time I’m unacquainted with… No doubt like many anguished people, I like it when my anguish bursts, and I suddenly feel relieved. At such moments, I have the impression that discourse crumbles, and structures that, at least to me, always appear stable and treacherous seem no longer able to deliver on their promises… We then enter a period of uncertainty, which, to me, seems totally philosophical and rather exciting. I find it absolutely fascinating. I’m very curious about the future: the future, that is, of the era we’re in. I suits me rather well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you like about that uncertain future?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — The most interesting moments, for me, are when things start to crack. The fissures can appear anywhere, at whatever level, individual or collective. My sense is that today we no longer know. And there you have it! It’s a start. It’s the first philosophical thought there ever was. It’s already one idiocy less to admit you don’t know.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your point of departure for not-knowing is the rejection of any principle of identity for yourself. Your novel is titled Nom so as to reject identity through descent, family history, or childhood, on the occasion of your father’s death. And it goes beyond this: to be ready for the future is to refuse the imposition of any identity whatsoever?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — I don’t refuse to believe that the essence of what we are, what we think, what we endure, what we can be or want to be arises from the notion of identity. I’m struck by the apparent contemporary passion for identity, for the proclamation of identity, for sexual identities, for gender, color, and class identities. As it happens, I speak of class in the book. It’s as if we absolutely had to define ourselves. I’m not saying identity doesn’t exist, that certain identities aren’t privileged and others don’t suffer alienation or violence, but it exists on a social level that is not the one where I as a writer reside. I don’t think it’s the deepest truth of living beings — a floating truth, to be sure. I can understand that people need something to grab onto to, that they often need to mobilize politically, but in truth, for me as a writer, identity is an illusion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A “semblant,” as Jacques Lacan says.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Exactly. Nom because in French the word is pronounced like “no.” Because your name is your first identity, and your last, the one they’ll etch on your tombstone. The future of each of us begins with the rejection of that mark. With the rejection of passports, of birth certificates, of family histories, and of gender as well. It’s something that defines us with respect to family and the past. That old matter of administration, which for a long time has yielded to our passion — our now totally banal passion — for psychoanalysis. I don’t mean to say that psychoanalysis doesn’t represent a great movement in human knowledge and intelligence, but it’s become banal, and for that reason, all it does today is take us back into the past. Precisely in light of this question of the future, I’m struck that we’d want to be taken back into childhood, as if our period of least liberty should define us and our future, and deprive us, in a way, of a much broader desire. What do I want to do? What do I want to become beyond my supposed identity?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It goes beyond childhood and the family circle because the passion for identity is also the desire for control within the scope of nations and increasingly nationalist governments. We see this plainly with the control of the body linked to Covid-19.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — That’s why, for my part, my name is “Nobody,” like Ulysses.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The principle of identity is also political. It takes us back to our origins, our nationality, and therefore to increasingly strict border controls and to general checks of our papers. People without proof of identity — they’re also the people without working papers, the foreigners in our midst. They are the face of fear. Like the migrant on the highway headed for Roissy [airport] who stops traffic.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Absolutely. There’s a growing political desire to control individuals. It’s stated in all the great dystopian novels. The less we understand the present, the more uncertain it is, and the more they’re going to control every aspect of our lives. It’s very curious. I think having this passion for identity…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like keeping the future pent-up.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Pent-up desire, which is to say pent-up libido, ruins our capacity to live in the present. We’re well aware that the future doesn’t exist. We know there’s only the present. So, what brings about the future — and it’s the same with the past — is our desire. And identity is a belief, a matter of having faith in the past. We cling to the past, for reassurance. I don’t believe in it. I want no part of it. It begins with childhood, family history, and it continues throughout our lives. And if I believe absolutely in the future, it’s because I have no need for an identity. It’s something you postulate personally. Then you have to inhabit a non-identity, take on its flesh. You must invent new, non-identitarian gestures that are nevertheless related to who or what you are.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Gestures of beauty? You rail against what you call “the lamentable life” in your novel. What do you mean by that expression?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — The lamentable life is not taking responsibility for your existence, for your existential choices. It’s failing to acknowledge not only that we’re all victims — it’s obscene to remark that all life begins with suffering — but also that we’re all guilty. Or, to put it another way, that we’re all responsible. This responsibility is what shapes the future. It’s a magnificent thing to take responsibility. That is the bulk of our liberty, if it isn’t liberty itself. It’s all I desire.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Right from the start in the story, you set forth your non-identitarian or trans-identitarian position, your position as a writer, as an exemplar. Without batting an eye, you go so far as to proclaim: “I salvage the world’s meaning with my life.” Is this non-identity also an exemplar?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — I set out first to get to the bottom of the position that interests me in literature, which is the use of the first person. I’ve never wanted to write novels without characters. I like the risk and arrogance of the first person. It always comes back to the same obsession: What do you do? What do you do? In my books, I strive to say what I do. Of course, it isn’t exactly the same as in my life. Still, there’s a form that makes you change things. You have to get to the bottom of that position.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe it’s not that you change things, but that you want to change them.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes, I want to change them. I want to make a proposal. For me, a book is a proposal beyond literature. Once I say “I,” I must inhabit that “I” completely. I must assume that arrogance totally. I must be able to say: “Yes, I’m writing ‘I,’ and you’re going to read me, and I set myself before you as an example. I will not permit you to think otherwise. Go ahead and slap me, if you like. I don’t care.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Besides, all we have are examples of lives. Examples are models. And not a subcategory of the model.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Right.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your position is that the future undoes the imperative of identity. Body and soul open to all transformation.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Rather than identity, what interests me is the question of sovereignty. We have a body and a mind. There are many things we can do with them. We have time, hours, and we can fill them any way we like. Once we’ve had that thought alone, we can proceed to think that existence is fascinating and ever-changing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You never raise a rallying cry for homosexuality. In no way is your homosexuality at issue in the book, or proclaimed. You could be a man when you speak. You could be a straight woman. And by your look and physique, you’re both. You are man and woman.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — No doubt. Here again, identity is what others project onto me. But yes, I’m aware that I’ve always been more or less like that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are we going to evolve into a genderless society?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — I don’t know if we’ll end up in a genderless society, but there will be possibilities of existence… I’m in favor not of getting rid of genders but of having more possibilities and differences…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you a moralist writer?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes. Not everything is right. I think the lamentable life is the one in which we fail to take responsibility for the good and the evil we do. I believe in good and evil.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, and good and evil coexist. It’s Georges Bataille’s “accursed share.”
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes, exactly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They’re inextricable, and if you try to separate them, in reality, you end up creating more evil than good.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — I believe in both. I think it’s ideal to take responsibility for the good and the evil you do, and to say that you are acting rather than reacting. I think we’re merely the result of our actions, not of our reactions, or of our ever-reacting identity. And I don’t give a damn what evil they try to do to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this not individualism?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Ah, no. Because once you pose the question of good and evil, you’ve moved beyond yourself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re a disciple of Jean-Paul Sartre, in a way. Liberty lies in the individual act of the decision, and never in obedience to an established moral rule that’s imposed on you.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — That’s right. What it affords above all is much greater breadth to every second, every day, every existence, beginning with your own. You have to seize this breadth, which in itself is a vertiginous joy. Of course, you still won’t escape the anguish of Blaise Pascal, the void that yawns beneath our steps and our acts.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But your writerly morality is nevertheless paradoxical. Are you aware that your novel is going to shock a lot of people? There isn’t a single page in your new novel Nom that doesn’t deliver a provocation. For example, you write: “Silence. Curb your tongue, the lot of you.” You’re taking exception here to the world’s lament. You’ve been an attorney and have fought against certain injustices. You’ve no doubt been disappointed with that or seen its limits.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — The suffering of the world and of individuals is so flagrant that it seems obscene to call attention to it. It’s so powerful, so omnipresent, that we can barely talk about it. Unless you’re insensible or an idiot… Once you enter into people’s lives, you see how they tremble, you see their frailties, their endless inner struggle. And then there are external struggles and such lives of atrocity… I’m almost ashamed just listening to myself say this. It’s obscene to reveal it; it’s so present and blatant…
OLIVIER ZAHM — How does a “moralist” writer like you take into account the suffering whose lament you reject?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — The only answer must address how to stand together in the face of suffering. What dignity will enable us to stay on our feet in the face of the suffering of others? It is, of course, evident that we’re not all equal in the face of suffering, that I’m very privileged. I’m not saying that my suffering is commensurate with that of others. But what matters to me is that we can all stay on our feet and regard the other from that perspective, coolly, without fear.
OLIVIER ZAHM — From the perspective of one’s own solitude?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — From solitude, from pain, from that thing because of which, if we think about it too much, we simply cannot put one foot in front of the other without stumbling. We know this, in fact. It’s truly part of us… I don’t speak of social or political injustices, though lord knows they exist. I speak of what lies upstream from them, the existential anguish that keeps us pinned down. We know it, we look upon one another from it, and sometimes we even love from it, but it would be obscene to shove that suffering onto the other, to proclaim it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You hold an existentialist position. You say: “What interests me is existence itself, and in no way the conditions of existence.” And for you, existence is the events that unfold in our lives, the living beings that come and go in our lives, and which you observe from an implacable distance. Does this amount to saying that we are only passing through, that life is but transitory?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes. It’s the condition that makes encounters possible, and it’s the acceptance of loss as well. That’s why my latest novel, Nom, begins with the death of my father.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Acceptance of loss in love as well?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — In love, in living beings, and in the places we leave behind… Existence is but the experience of loss, destruction and reconstruction, and destruction. Loss causes suffering, of course, but to believe that you’re not going to suffer if you deny the obvious and refuse to acknowledge loss, or if you seek to escape it — that’s even worse… You have to proceed as if loss were life itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve resigned yourself to it.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes. You’ve got to play the highest stakes you can… The only way to win is to lose. So, go for it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’d make a fine casino gambler.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — It’s a matter of enduring a trial, taking a risk, exercising your cunning. This is, of course, what Ulysses says when the cyclops asks, “What is your name?” and he replies, “Nobody.” And when he stabs the cyclops in the eye, it’s a twist. Ulysses is non-identity with agency. Heroic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking of entries and exits leads you to Ulysses?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Ulysses is all about entries and exits. Indeed, we never know whether he seeks to go home or stay abroad. He has no identity. There are only the trials of his passage. The Odyssey is the first book and, without a doubt, the most philosophical of novels. It is nothing but events, and that says it all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a philosophy of life for the future?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes, because I think that, in the end, we’re nothing but the events that go through us and that we go through. Our cortex and body are traversed by events, by others, by what occurs between the Other and ourselves.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about the body. The body is the locus of the future. It’s taken on such importance these days. In contemporary art, in fashion, in queerness, in sport, in genetics, in neurology, etc. You say that your body appeared before you when, all at once, you became a writer and a lesbian. Through daily swimming and a certain asceticism, you reclaimed your body. You rid yourself of many things, except for your body.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes. That’s my relation to matter. I limit myself to the matter that’s there, the closest matter to me, the matter that’s most mine, which is my skin, my body. Everything happened at once: writing in the first person, homosexuality, and swimming. There was a correspondence between the “I” I was writing while at the same time inventing it, in a way, and the body I was reclaiming and making use of. For 45 years, I said “I” like everybody else, without it meaning much of anything. Then, suddenly, through writing, I made superior use of the “I,” as the character in my books. The books are about the “I,” about what it means to be the “I,” how to invent an “I.” And at the same time, I made broader, deeper use of my body.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, reclaiming one’s body is fundamental today and will continue to be tomorrow.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — I think we must speak from our physical center.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Aside from your very anarchic relation to the absence of value, and your rejection of all preestablished ideas, there’s the matter of love and sexuality. As you’ve beautifully put it, the ideal of love is always torn.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — Yes, the tears are part of the reality. That’s part of love as well. In a word, love remains the sole adventure. The sole event is the Other. In love, you must be sure of yourself, accepting of absolutely everything, including loss and the end of love, right up to the death of our loved ones. In Nom, it begins with the death of my father. One must take it all: all the encounters and breaks alike, what might happen, and what does not. This is all, once again, the voyage of Ulysses. There are trials every day. A love affair is a series of trials, a journey.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Trials at all times.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — There are holes, fault lines, doors that slam in your face, extraordinary surprises…
OLIVIER ZAHM — And pretenders.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — That was in my previous books. There were more such passages in them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you discover your love of women?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — In the past, I spent a lot of time with men. With my friends at school — because I was always with boys. With my father because my mother died when I was young. Then with the father of my son. So, I used to live in a rather masculine world. And I dream of a world of men and women together. I dream of a world where there are no excuses or accusations. If the future looks like that, it’s going to be beautiful. And sexy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your love of women came about suddenly?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — From one day to the next. But things are no less difficult or conflictual than with men… I’ve dealt with a lot of women, and when they’re presented as sweet, well-balanced little angels, and when people speak of a sorority — that’s not my experience. And so much the better: folly and flaws interest me. I like my people virile, whatever their gender. I don’t mean masculine. I mean able to take a firm position, whatever it might be.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To finish, your father was a war reporter, and you’ve inherited from him a taste for military uniforms?
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — It’s true.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It suits you.
CONSTANCE DEBRÉ — We’d go to the flea market together. This is an old thing. When I was little, I wanted to be a soldier. I ended up being a writer.
Karin Westerlund at Artlist, make-up — Cam Tran at Artlist, manicure — Dani Bastidas and Rosalie Nguyen, photographer’s assistant — Kenzia Bengel de Vaulx and Aline Mia Kaestli, stylist’s assistants — A+V, set design — Artistry, production
All looks from the MIU MIU S/S 2022 collection.
[Table of contents]
a purple future
by Daniel Pinchbeck
cover #1 ram hanRead the article
the fragile skin of the world
by Jean-Luc Nancy
the future is everywhere
by Emanuel Coccia
the sources of time
by Carlo Rovelli
artificial intelligence the eclipse of human discretion
by Adam Greenfield
individual future and collective future
by Marc Augé
what will we eat?
by Grace Denis
by Mark Fisher
best of the season s/s 2022
by Haley Wollens
cover #2 loewe s/s 2022Read the article
cover #3 fendi s/s 2022Read the article
by Aleph Molinari and Olivier Zahm
cover #4 jon rafmanRead the article
cyber porn punk
by Ada Navarro
saint laurent s/s 2022
by Haromony Korine
cover #5 saint laurent s/s 2022Read the article
cover #6 saint laurent s/s 2022Read the article
by Olivier Zahm
balenciaga summer 2022
by Juergen Teller
cover #7 balenciaga summer 2022Read the article
paul b. preciado
by Olivier Zahm
bottega veneta s/s 2022
by Bruno Staub
cover #8 bottega veneta s/s 2022
by Bruno Staub
comme des garçons s/s 2022
by Takashi Homma
cover #9 comme des garçons s/s 2022
by Takashi Homma
by Aleph Molinari
by Jean Baudrillard
is there another future for fashion?
by Marta D. Riezu
by Roland Topor
courrèges s/s 2022
by Henrik Purienne
cover #10 courrèges s/s 2022
by Henrik Purienne
the will to power as disappearance
by Hakim Bey
the genesis machine
by Caroline Vreeland
for the world to come
by The Invisible Committee
body fillers and plastified diets
by Bárbara Sánchez-Kane
lovotic by soundwalk collective, charlotte gainsbourg
by Olivier Zahm
lovotic by soundwalk collective, paul b. preciado
by Paul B. Preciado
by Jérôme Sans and Olivier Zahm
chanel s/s 2022
by Philippe Jarrigeon
cover #11 chanel s/s 2022
by Philippe Jarrigeon
by Olivier Zahm
cover #12 eliza douglas
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
louis vuitton s/s 2022
by Kristina Nagel
cover #13 louis vuitton s/s 2022
by Kristina Nagel
imre and marne van opstal
by Olivier Zahm and Aleph Molinari
givenchy s/s 2022
by Markn and Brigita Žižytė
cover #14 givenchy s/s 2022Read the article
miu miu s/s 2022
by Casper Sejersen
cover #15 miu miu s/s 2022Read the article
by Olivier Zahm
loewe s/s 2022
by Colin Dodgson
cover #16 loewe s/s 2022Read the article
by Anfisa Vrubel and Aleph Molinari
by Bobbi Salvör Menuez
by Sandy Kim
celine s/s 2022
by Olivier Zahm
cover #17 celine s/s 2022Read the article
french afro futurism
by Suffo Moncloa
cover #18 calvin klein jeans s/s 2022Read the article
vanmoof bikes by purple
by Mathias Kiss, Nina Kraviz, André Saraiva and Mei
cover #19 vanmoof bikesRead the article
by Moni Haworth
by Aleph Molinari and Anfisa Vrubel
by Aleph Molinari
by Aleph Molinari
by Boris Bergmann
mount analogue by philippe parrenoRead the article
the only person with a plan
by Vivienne Westwood