Nancy Huston, born in Canada in 1953 and living in Paris, is a novelist and essayist.
She is the author of numerous books, including, to name a few:
Cantiques des plaines, Actes Sud; 1993; Journal de la création, Seuil, 1990;
Reflections in a man’s eye, Actes Sud, 2012, In Deo, with Guy Oberson,
Railroad Publishing, 2019.
Meeting Nancy Huston seemed inevitable:
deeply humanistic, it does not fit in with any identity deployed as a business card;
denouncing the domination of which the woman is victim, she does not confuse difference and discrimination; underlining the importance of the language in our « fabulist species »,
she knows that we are still mammals driven by unconscious forces.
We met her in February in Paris and publish her interview in two episodes.
Kairos: Nancy Huston, in The Fabulous Species you say:
« Where does time come from? From the fact that humans, alone of all living beings on earth, know that they are born and that they will die. It is from knowing how to give us the intuition of what a whole life is. » In the end, the world only has the meaning that we give it?
Nancy Huston : Exactly. The world makes no sense.
No sense to you?
If you say » for me « , then I enter the interpretation and give it meaning. But outside the existence of human beings, the world has no meaning. I agree with Hubert Reeves who said » If God exists, he worked very hard for a billionth of a second and has been on vacation ever since « .
Does this mean that our whole life consists in giving meaning to what has none?
The meaning we create really exists. We create fictions that help us live: religion, love, activism, family ties, all the goals we can set in life, all the interpretations we can make of what happens to us. All this is our way of tinkering with meaning, the favorite human activity that truly characterizes us. Other animal species do not make sense outside of what happens to them, their reaction to find food or to simply stay alive. We, to stay alive, must add a Meaning, with a capital S, an extraordinary symbolic meaning.
You say that people who think they are in the real world are the most ignorant and that this ignorance is potentially lethal. So, if there is no real apart from the meaning we give it, is there any relevance in speaking of truth? George Orwell has shown that the truth of the facts in a pure state cannot exist. Simon Leys, in Orwell or the horror of politics, said: « Facts by themselves never form anything but a chaos devoid of meaning. Only artistic creation can invest them with meaning by giving them form and rhythm. Imagination has not only an aesthetic but also an ethical function. Literally, it is necessary to invent the truth « . What do you think about it?
I am close to this, except that I would say that all interpretative activity gives meaning, not only artistic activity. If you take the example of wars, we can say that there are facts that occur, such as a certain number of deaths on each side. There is no denying it. But then we insert these facts into History with a capital H, and everyone will have their version of this History. The Algerian War will not be told in the same way in France and in Algeria, of course. The conquest of America will not be told in the same way in Mexico and Spain, and so on. The same facts will be taken up, reworked and served with extremely diverse sauces!
It’s interesting that you bring this up because we are in an era where the mass media have enormous power. They have the power to inform us or not to inform us. We are a fabulist species, we constantly tell ourselves stories, you say « in a thousand forms In our workplaces, in the streets of our cities, on the screens, we are told stories that are supposedly true and we are asked to feel concerned by them. How can one find a certain truth in a world where the monopoly of the representation of reality is left to a few? In France, the media are owned by 8 or 9 of the wealthiest people, and in Belgium, by 7 or 8 families. What do you think of what Alain Accardo says: « We can say that the media representation of the world as it is manufactured daily by journalists, does not show what reality actually is, but what the ruling and possessing classes believe it is, wish it to be, or fear it will become » ?
I will answer two things. The first is that this has always been the case. How did people in the Middle Ages imagine what was happening to them? Imagine the European peasants, the serfs in Russia… They had an official, religious version, which certainly did not give them access to the truth of their exploitation. Someone else had to come along with a militant, angry vision to say: » But that’s not fair! You have exactly the same rights as landowners « . We can do it through religion by saying « You are all God’s children and you are all equal », or we can say « This should be a democracy and you should have the power to decide « . Everyone can phrase this in their own way. The first answer is that there has never been a golden age of information where people knew perfectly well what was happening to them and what their reality was. The second answer is that there have never been so many alternative story possibilities as there are in our time. Social networks allow to have access to other versions than the official one; there are all kinds of fact checkers. Thanks to the Internet, we can question what is said in the media. Many people are used to doubting the media, we are not that gullible!
Do you think that the alienation of people is not greater than before? Hasn’t the imagination been confiscated? I’m thinking of 5G, for example. If you ask people on the street what 5G is, most don’t know that Elon Musk is sending satellites into space with stratospheric modification capabilities. Simon Leys, again, explained why people did not move: « If they don’t see anything in the end, it’s not for lack of eyes but precisely for lack of imagination. » Don’t you think that there is a lack of imagination at the moment?
Lack of imagination and lack of information are two very different things. Not knowing what 5G is is not lacking in imagination. I myself am only moderately aware of certain contemporary realities, for example the development of artificial intelligence in China and the United States, the budgets that are invested in this, the work to colonize Mars or the Moon… I don’t necessarily want to know too much about these subjects, but I don’t lack imagination. It is very difficult to generalize about « people ». The same cannot be said of the French and the Americans. I just returned from Benin. Do the Beninese understand modernity the same way we do? I don’t think so, even though they have more and more smartphones. So imagination is not the problem. People have never had access to so much fiction, the best and the worst, films, theater and music from other countries, it is unheard of. The Berrichon peasants before the Revolution — I am Berrichon at heart — had a solitary and silent life, especially in winter. In the 19th century, they had no radio, no television, no telephone, and that’s yesterday, the 19th century! We have dramatically increased the number of openings to other cultures. We run the risk of cultural indigestion rather than a lack of imagination.
It’s interesting that you say, « I don’t necessarily want to know. That may be something that is very common and many of us, especially in the still privileged middle classes, enjoy this world and don’t really want to know either…
I want to know the big picture, not the details. I don’t want to spend my time keeping up with this headlong rush of technical means to multiply the brain’s capacities, develop transhumanism, artificial intelligence, etc. I find it more useful to spend my time on other things.
Are you protecting yourself in some way?
Of course. Everyone has to decide for themselves what they can and cannot handle. I don’t think I’m the ostrich with my head in the sand. But at the same time, I don’t much like people who are simply infinitely informed activists. I find it boring and it’s not the way I want to live at all.
You mean the activists who only find meaning in their lives through activism?
And by talking and rubbing everyone’s nose in it.
You agree that it would take a beginning of subversion, or at least a mass movement, for the people to regain a certain sovereignty. The choices made by the French president — but the same could be said in Belgium — are not choices that the people would decide, or that people would decide if they were informed and knew what they had to do.
Personally, I do not speak about « the people », there are many individuals who are theoretically part of the « people » with whom I do not get along and whose opinions I do not share, there are many individuals of the « people » who are extremely unsympathetic to me, who vote in a way that I disapprove… So I have a little trouble understanding the concept of a people who would aspire to « become sovereign again ».
During your conference in Liege(1), about your book In Deo, A journalist asked you which civilization your heart was set on, between the traditional and the white man’s. You said: « Neither of them. I don’t prioritize them. » I was surprised because in In Deo you consider that the Indians have a much richer humanity: they have more respect for the earth, for nature, for the other than in our western society which, as you say, has produced Mozart and Michelangelo but also colonization and wars…
It is very difficult for us, who grew up reading, to project ourselves into an illiterate society and to claim to value that society, to want to be in it. As for me, I am a woman of the book, a novelist, and there is no novel among traditional peoples. There are beautiful oral legends, tales, but no novel. And I would find it inconsistent, not to say pretentious, to « prefer » a world so different from the one that made me. It must also be recognized that wherever serious medical help — not accompanied by colonial oppression — has been provided to traditional societies, they have been receptive. People are willing to walk for days to get antibiotics, vaccines or effective medicines. On the other hand, we would find it difficult to accept living with traditional remedies alone. These are two small examples. I am glad that I understood from this text In Deo, written 25 years ago in the wake of Canticle of the Plains, that the qualities and defects of each of these types of societies are inseparable. You can’t say » I will take what is good about each other and then leave out what is bad about each other. « Alas, these are systems that hold together, mixed realities like all human realities. We won’t ever find a system that allows us to just be good, friendly, generous and warm! Mankind has tried many political systems, and we can see that each one has its faults and qualities. It turns out that most of the First Peoples, for example in Canada, oppressed their women in a spectacular way, which would be unbearable for me. I don’t want to be reduced to a maternal role, I don’t want to have to keep quiet. Other tribes, of course, emphasized women. Especially after the menopause, they could access certain political powers. But it was rare that a woman in the prime of her life could be a hunter or a warrior, only an elder could have a say, and even then! Educational violence was the rule, as it still is today in most African countries I know of. But it is understandable that in an economy of survival, the obedience of children is a matter of life and death. Surely you have to have reached a certain standard of living to ban spanking.
Does this mean that our progress ultimately justifies the worst? Can we not learn from these traditional societies that have much to teach us?
We must not jump from one extreme to the other. Just because I approve of some aspects of our society does not mean that it justifies the worst. I am simply saying that in our society as in theirs, the best and the worst are inextricable. So yes, of course, we can try to draw on some of the wisdom of traditional peoples, try to return to a more immediate understanding of what we eat, for example, try to be a little less cut off from nature, to feel a little less superior to other animal species. Naomi Klein has said that we have to learn from Aboriginal Canadians, not just inflict our « progress » on them, but we cannot live the attitudes they have developed over centuries in the same way they do. We can try to walk in this direction and at the same time, there are very few of us who are ready to go back to living in community in the forest! Personally, it is not a way of life that tempts me; I need my working hours, my life is built differently. If there really was a collapse, as in To Jean Hegland’sforest , and that there were none of the luxuries we are used to — our electric lights, our computers, our heating in winter — if we were to really return to a survival existence, many of us would have a hard time, including me!
To be continued…
Interview by Alexandre Penasse
- « Une soirée avec Nancy Huston, autour de son œuvre et de son engagement écologiste », 29 novembre 2019.