This essay was first published in Ballast. Translated by David Broder.
There are three kinds of conception of the novelistic. There is what we could call the official lineage, which the academy presents as the history of the French novel, proceeding by way of Stendhal and Flaubert. Here, the novel is the narrative, the capturing of the real, in a rapid, narrative and stylised prose. Then there is the current that I would call the tendency of great totalisations: the novel has the objective of capturing the spirit and the uniformity of an era, of constructing a sort of vast universe in which the spirit of the time takes hold, like in an orchestra. I would include Balzac in this totalising current — and it was perhaps him who invented it, with his La Comédie humaine — as well as Zola, perhaps Proust, and Martin du Gard. Then there is a third current, which is rarely recognised as officially making up part of the history of the novel (more than a current in itself, it is a sort of space apart, a freak case). In this current we have a certain number of freak novels: Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Three literary freaks. We don’t really know how they should be classified. We have the epistolary Julie, or the New Heloise, which is today little studied or read, whereas in the eighteenth century it was an extraordinary best-seller. We have the Mémoires d’outre-tombe, which is a novel only in that we know that Chateaubriand was just recounting what he wanted to (and with many of his wonderful stories, it is doubtful whether they are real). But we can, ultimately, take it as a magnificent historical and personal novel. And we have Les Misérables, which we will concern ourselves with here.
Five years ago the Middle East and North Africa was electrified by unprecedented popular protests that heralded the start of the Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia popular movements swept regimes from power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and threatened to overthrow ruling elites across the region. Tragically, the Arab Spring has since become mired in counterrevolution and civil war with the extraordinary violence of the war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the escalating refugee crisis, and the establishment of a new dictatorship in Egypt emblematic of the profound challenges facing the people of the region. As tumultuous events continue to unfold we present Verso's reading list of key titles addressing the developing situation in the Middle East.
In July, in the wake of the ‘No’ vote in Greece’s referendum, the philosopher Alain Badiou expressed his hope that a new sequence was opening up. A few hours after Alexis Tsipras’s resignation, he bemoaned the Greek prime minister and his advisors missing this ‘unique’ political opportunity.
Translated by David Broder
1 We thought that we were right in thinking that the guiding principle of Syriza, winner of the Greek elections, was a vigorous ‘No’ to austerity. As such, we thought that it would categorically refuse all the anti-social, regressive conditions – attacking the most basic principles of the aspiration to equality and a tolerable life for the people – which the various financial authorities and their European cover made the condition of their loans. Many people furthermore rejoiced in the possibility of a new political orientation finally emerging in Europe, one absolutely different from the reactionary consensus in which all states have kept their respective public opinion for thirty years, whether out of consent or by force.
Is it selfish to want to be happy? On the contrary, thinks Alain Badiou: happiness is fundamentally egalitarian and to demand it, against its apparent impossibility, is a militant act. The interview below was translated by David Broder; see the original French text here.
(Photo: Badiou at Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Rapids, 2014)
What encounters proved most decisive in giving your life its direction?
Alain Badiou: Before theatre and philosophy, it was something that my father said. Indeed, during the Second World War I had this screen memory take form, which was of decisive importance for my subsequent existence. I was six years old at the time. My father, who was in the Resistance – for which reason he was appointed Mayor of Toulouse upon Liberation – put up a big map of the military operations, in particular covering the developments on the Russian front. The frontline was marked out by a thin piece of string, pinned to the wall with tacks. I saw that the string and the tacks kept moving, though I did not ask too many questions; as a man operating in clandestinity, in front of the children my father was evasive about anything regarding the political situation and the war. This was spring 1944. One day, at the moment of the Soviet offensive in Crimea, I saw my father moving the string further left, clearly showing that the Germans were retreating toward the West. Not only had their conquering advance been held back, but now it was they who were losing vast swathes of territory. With a flash of understanding I said to him, ‘But then, maybe we’ll win the war?’ and for once he gave a very clear answer: ‘But of course, Alain! We just need to want it’.
What is the meaning of death today? For Alain Badiou, it is a reminder that we are defined by finitude: 'we are only mortals' is the order of the day, underlying both capitalist and religious nihilisms. In a seminar given on 18 May 2015, Badiou offered a new conception of death as radical exteriority. 'Death is something that happens to you; it is not the immanent unfolding of some linear programme.' Translated by David Broder.