« We are mammals

INTERVIEW DE NANCY HUSTON

Illustré par :

In the last Kairos, we published an interview with Nancy Huston, Canadian-born novelist and essayist, author of numerous books.(1) If in the first part, she evoked our relationship to others, to the Earth, the meaning of our lives, the role of the media…, the second part deals with a theme often treated by Nancy Huston, notably in Reflections in a man’s eyeIt is the relationship between men and women, an « unquestionable » reality, their fundamental differences, but also the place of sexuality in our societies. But we should not dwell too much on this theme of difference, because  » Meanwhile, we don’t care about the alpha males who are destroying the planet, these predators who run all the churches, all the governments, all the armies, all the banks, all the multinationals… ».

Kairos: Nancy Huston, in The Fabulous Species, you say: « What can I tell you about myself that is purely real? My name? We don’t have a name, we receive a name. My patronymic, my place of birth, my genealogy, my profession… ?  » But you clearly state « I am a female, no doubt about it » and add that « there is nothing to make a fuss about ». However, at the moment, we are making a big deal about the issue of sex in society. How do you feel about the current focus on difference?

Nancy Huston: You can take it from near, from far, from all sorts of intermediate distances. I can be in and have a discussion with you about the female orgasm and how it happens and under what circumstances. We can be halfway through and make a kind of history of women’s liberation in the West thanks to contraception and abortion. But one can also be quite far away and say that when a society talks about « ass » to this extent, it is a sign of decadence. I’m not saying it’s not interesting or important, but I’m struck by the extent to which, in our contemporary discussions of sexuality, reproduction is totally absent, as if it never had anything to do with it. I recently saw a documentary film on masculinity called Virilities, it was very interesting, full of testimonies of men on how they live their virility with new questions, and therefore new possibilities. But at no time is there any question of testosterone. So there is nothing hormonal, nothing determined! At no time is there any mention of contraception either, and the fact that the erection-penetration-ejaculation sequence may eventually lead to another life is not even mentioned… when in fact this is the goal of the operation. We forget that we are mammals. There is a determinism in the males of our species, as in the males of all other species of higher primates, which makes them react by the look to a fertile female body. And if you don’t take that into account, you can’t understand anything.

Beyond sex, you say that the difference between men and women is what has given rise to tales, stories, and legends, and that attributing meaning to this difference is one of the fundamental, not to say founding, traits of humanity. However, we come to a point where men and women, because they speak, think they are gods: it is enough to say they are men when they are women or women when they are men for this to happen, or almost. In England, Scandinavia or the United States, there is a movement of trans children who at the age of 6 say:

« I am not a little girl, I am not a little boy. And the parents, instead of entering into a dialogue, trying to see that it is more complicated than that, very quickly put hormone blockers… There is a documentaryTrans children, it’s time to talk about it which is very interesting… What do you think of this capacity to be able to say oneself differently, to play at disguising oneself as a girl, as a boy, but to get to the point where we refuse to recognize what nature has assigned us, to the point where we talk about gender reassignment? I don’t know if you’ve seen that show with Daniel Schneidermann talking about all these subjects with 4 men on the set?

No.

At one point, Schneidermann says that it is surprising that there are no women on the set, even though it is a subject that concerns them too; suddenly a bearded man in his forties says: « Who says I’m not a woman? » Obviously the presenter is completely stunned and replies: « Well, your appearance! Isn’t there a very important movement, perhaps a minority but very present in the media, which is entering into this delirium of the complete denial of gender difference? What do you think?

I think it’s probably not a good idea to put hormone blockers in children, because it’s better to make that kind of decision as an adult. But this subject is not one of my priorities. Since I don’t believe in God anyway, I don’t believe that human beings turn into God either.

No, they think they are God.

They think they are God, but since God doesn’t exist, they might as well think they are God. I mean, I don’t mind. Each one is made ? That’s true, up to a point. What disturbs me is this sexual obsession that characterizes our society… There are so many magazine topics that talk about sex and desire. A recent study states that a woman is much more likely to reach orgasm with a woman than with a man and I am totally willing to believe it. Trans people, if it fits them, I obviously have nothing against it. Everyone is working again. The world is a stage, as Shakespeare said, and we reinvent our roles as we go along. What disturbs me in this sexual obsession of our society is that during this time, we don’t take care of the alpha males who are destroying the planet, these predators who run all the churches, all the governments, all the armies, all the banks, all the multinationals… They are the ones who have the power and who abuse it If you open any newspaper, you will see the news about predatory males. So whether people want to dress like this or like that, women as men, men as women, whether they want to have surgery or take hormones, to tell you the truth, for me it’s a bit like the hippies in the United States during the Vietnam war. Even though I was part of that somewhat « drop-out » movement at the time, now, in retrospect, I think it suited the Nixon administration. It was demobilizing us. Similarly, it seems to me today that if we don’t look at what alpha males do, we’re not dealing with the real problem of gender difference. I recently asked a biologist friend of mine if we couldn’t advocate the chemical castration of all alpha males from birth, because they are the ones who, for centuries, have been destroying the planet, making wars, promoting poor fictions of « us against them », and valuing rivalry, war, head-on clashes… I don’t need to cite the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, as an example; examples abound. Alpha males should be calmed down.

Without having wanted it, we women are largely responsible for this state of affairs, and I think that scientists will confirm my statements. Because there is not only natural selection, there is also sexual selection, a phenomenon that is not talked about enough. In prehistoric times, we women selected males for their physical strength and aggressiveness because it helped us to survive our children, and to survive ourselves. In a hunter-gatherer society, it was impossible to practice exact equality in the distribution of tasks. During the period of their fertility, women were objectively weighted by the children they carried in their bellies or on their backs. They have therefore systematically chosen to reproduce with strong men. And today we have males that are far too violent for our current needs, as we no longer need physical force to kill large numbers of people. But a high proportion of males continue to have and cultivate this violence that we have selected in them. That’s the problem with humanity: what do we do with all this male violence? She is the one who is murdering us all.

But precisely, by denying these differences between the sexes, we will not succeed in understanding where this male violence comes from…

Indeed.

You say that this difference generates very different innate behaviors, that the man’s view of the woman’s body is innate, programmed into the genetic hard drive of the human male to favor the reproduction of the species and therefore difficult to control completely. Its repercussions are incalculable and largely underestimated, and this link is denied because it implies the link between seduction and procreation.

That’s it, all women know this, except for a certain number of feminists. When I talk like this, they call me an essentialist. But I don’t know if they do the same for the gorillas. If a female gorilla said that, would she be an essentialist too?

You also say that gender theory denies the Darwinian evolution of the species.

Yes, at least implicitly.

To come back to this domination, to explain in particular the fact that men mistreat women more often than the opposite, you say that it is in these exceptionally long and intense exchanges between mother and child that human language was born, but also misogyny. You say that the feeling that a man can have of being attacked, controlled, manipulated in his flesh by women can also be linked to the fact of being born of the flesh of a woman, of having been made inside a female body: « He still reasons subjectively as if his carnal nature was the « fault » of the mother. You don’t hear that often…

If this phenomenon is not often mentioned, it is because many men prefer to forget this period that they experienced as humiliating or that was objectively humiliating: more than we want to admit, mothers rape their children. Even a gesture that is not meant to be aggressive is sometimes resented. Afterwards, because they experience this as an injustice, men may become misogynistic, feeling the need to take power in other areas. Françoise Héritier says that « the differential valence of the sexes » is due to the feeling of injustice that men feel when they understand that women can make their daughters while they cannot make their sons. I don’t know if it’s that, but in any case the idea that, volens nolens, you owe your life to someone of the other sex, and that, yourself, you can’t do that at all, can indeed be experienced as humiliating. If there was a #Metoo site for men who wanted to testify anonymously, not about the violence suffered at the hands of their spouse, but about the humiliation suffered at the hands of their mother, there would be many.

This focus on the female victim also prevents us from seeing that being a man today is very hard. You have to be manly, present, have a good job, responsibilities. And that, one cannot say it any more because the man is sometimes at once guilty to be a man…

I find it frankly candid when a young woman says: « I am myself, I dress the way I want, I walk where I want », and she interprets any reaction of young men to her as an aggression. She can’t imagine what these young men go through in their bodies. We refuse to imagine this. As long as we have decided to assert our desire and to be able to be full of sexual ardor, we don’t want to hear that we are not able to imagine what happens in a man’s body. But the fact is, we can’t. Here we are, among well-educated and healthy women, saying to each other and repeating loud and clear: « This is what makes me come » or « I have the right to dress like this or like that », but do we wonder for a moment what the erotic and love life of the hundreds of thousands of boys who, in contemporary French society, have no money, is like? Are these boys entitled to enjoyment as well? Do they have a right to pleasure? How should they go about asserting their desire? In what way can they seduce, have a sexual life that would not be an aggression and would not go through pornography or prostitution? Who are they supposed to « hit on », and how? Honestly, who can they persuade to sleep with them? Who will agree to sleep with them? We never ask ourselves these questions.

It’s getting harder and harder, isn’t it, in a society where naked women are exhibited everywhere?

Indeed, we live in a society of permanent ignition.

Therefore, these women are also not able to realize that abstinence for men is different than for women. In Mexico and elsewhere, women made in sign of protest the strike of the sex… We have never seen men go on a sex strike. They are incapable of recognizing that too, this kind of feminists…

I saw a website where men were trying to stop masturbating because they wanted to stop using porn. They had really gone through a process, a reflection, and understood that pornography, in fact, was not OK. So there are groups, chats between men, to try to stop masturbating and from what I’ve read, it’s difficult. I do think that women can’t put themselves in that body. I’m not saying that there aren’t feminine men and masculine women, with or without surgery or hormonal treatment. But basically, I think it is very difficult for a woman to understand the sexual drive of men.

Maybe we don’t talk about it enough together too…

Yes. But if we never knew how to talk about these things, it is perhaps also because men are very modest. Pornography says the wrong things about male sexuality. Men are shy because it’s hard to get it right.

This denial of the difference of the sexes also leads to other denials, to other denials, notably the role played by the woman. It is by reading Fucking Nelly Arcan(2), that you realize the innate tendency that women have to make themselves beautiful.

We’ve talked about it a lot already. Since the dawn of time, girls have made themselves beautiful to arouse the desire of boys. If you hang out in any store, cafe, theater and listen carefully, you will see that very often the discussions between young women revolve around their appearance. The sales figures of feminist newspapers do not match the sales figures of women’s newspapers. It’s a bit like when we talk about the people: maybe the people is a very nice concept and we like to imagine a generous and « left-wing » people but, in fact, the people is not necessarily that. « Women » are not necessarily what feminists would want. « Women » continue to buy glossy magazines en masse that allow them to compare clothes, hairstyles, makeup, jewelry and so on. And the more they liberate themselves, the more money they spend to make themselves beautiful. It doesn’t suit us, but it does.

It is Nelly Arcan who says in fact that the whole Self has become body. Women have never been so objectified as in our Western societies. But she speaks of an anti-narcissism. It is not self-love, in fact, but a form of self-hatred. I pretty much agree with that.

I’ve been there too.

They destroy themselves by thinking only of the reflection they offer to the other.

Yes, when they are pushed to this extreme. Nelly Arcan taught me many things about the behavior of young contemporary women, for example the prevalence of cosmetic surgery, including on the genitals. There are thousands of young women, in France as well as in Canada, who undergo surgery on their labia or clitoris to reduce the opening of their vagina. Many women shave their pubic area too, to make their sex look like a little girl’s. Nelly Arcan spoke about plastic surgery with full knowledge of the facts: she herself has had many operations.

We must remember who Nelly Arcan is.

Nelly Arcan is the pseudonym of Isabelle Fortier, a Quebecer who has published novels, to my knowledge, without equal on the sexual alienation of women in the contemporary world. She committed suicide at the age of thirty-six in 2009. She was a bright young student who was born in the country and moved to Montreal. While writing a dissertation at the university on one of Sigmund Freud’s famous cases, she decided to prostitute herself for a while to understand, because this thing existed…

But did she fall in?

If a woman does it once, she « falls in, » as you say. At the same time, Nelly Arcan has never stopped being amazed by this thing. And I think that trivializing prostitution is not the best idea.

You say in Reflection in a Man’s Eye that, precisely because there is this ambivalence of the man towards his mother and later towards women, he goes to prostitutes to humiliate a woman.

That could be it, indeed. But, even if it’s just to have a relationship that is eventually smooth and pleasurable from the man’s point of view, for a woman who has had twenty clients in a day, it’s hard to get pleasure. In any case, it seems obvious to me that, more often for men than for women, the sexual act has a mechanical side. And this for obvious reasons: because the participation of men in reproduction lasts a few moments while that of women lasts at least nine months (not to mention the rest). For a man, it is in the interest of the reproduction of his genes to copulate with many women, while the reciprocal is not at all true. In a farm in the Berry region where I was a few days ago, two billy goats had knocked up the hundred or so goats in the barn.

Once again, this will not please the feminists…

Of course, I am not saying that humans should organize themselves in this way! But it is clear that men and women are not meant to get along. Please note that this does not mean that we cannot get along. But we are not made to get along because we are not made at all. Nobody made us, nobody manufactured us: we evolved to reproduce, like all the mammals on the planet Earth. Then we deal with it, we decide for example to contract, not to continue a pregnancy to the end, or not to have a child. These rights must be defended stubbornly . Nevertheless, the starting point is a mammalian body, male or female, where the only genetically inscribed projects are those of survival and reproduction. Individual freedom projects come later!

In any case, we could say thank you to the prostitutes who render an enormous service to society, allowing men to « free themselves ». Without them, there would be even more violence?

The problem is who should do this work. There is no satisfactory answer to this crucial question. Once, somewhat provocatively but not quite, I had suggested a prostitution service.

What does that mean? Like a military service?

Yes. If there were prostitutional service, the absurd value of virginity, the stigma attached to prostitutes and the insult « whore » would be over. If every man’s mother, sister, and daughter had had to go through this, prostitutes would no longer suffer scorn and marginalization. But this is probably not a good solution; I believe that most young girls would not tolerate being penetrated, kneaded, kissed or hit by strangers, having to comply with any particular request they might make — including the common one, as we know, of inflicting physical pain and humiliation on them, the clients. If we think that it is necessary to avoid at all costs to the young women of our entourage to live these ordeals, is it normal to make them live to the most deprived women of the society, namely the foreigners without money?

It is perhaps things like this that have deeply marked Nelly Arcan. She talks about a man, father of a family, who during a pass ejaculates in her face. She then said to him: « But you have a girl of my age… », to which the man replies: « Me that, I could never know that you could do that to her! » « But you do it to me! », says Nelly Arcan …

Now, that’s the problem, isn’t it? If you are not willing to consider your daughter as a prostitute, you should not go to prostitutes! I personally think it’s a real problem, I’m not saying that men should just control themselves. I don’t know what the feminists are seriously advocating about this, but I’m honestly not against robots. This already exists.

Unless it starts to replace real carnal relations.

But so much the better if there is real carnal intercourse. In our privileged and rich world, we are used to seeing sexuality as the most wonderful thing in the world. But, as in all human societies, sexuality has always been the cause of many dramas, violence, jealousy… And this has little chance of returning to order, because it is our animal part which escapes us, overflows us, submerges us. It is related to the vitality of the body that wants to reproduce — and therefore, also to the fact that we will die.

The woman is so mistreated because she would represent, much more than the man, the time, with the maternity, and the fact that it is her who gives life but also gives death. At one point you quote Samuel Beckett who said: « Women give birth astride the grave ». Thus, motherhood reminds men, as well as women, of the tragic finitude of our existence. It is because we are born that we will die… You say that women are held responsible for human mortality because life necessarily began inside their bodies. They are therefore associated with the need to die. There must be something deep within us that is related to this.

Yes, women are considered closer to the animal, to nature. This is the reason why, in many religions, they cannot touch the priesthood. There are some exceptions, such as Haitian voodoo where women can be priestesses on an equal basis with men. But in the vast majority of religions, in order for men to have a domain of sacredness vaguely comparable to this power to give life, to give birth, it was necessary to keep women out of the priesthood. My solution, since my very first book Playing Daddy and Lover, over 40 years ago, has always been to mitigate gender differences. On the one hand, this means that men should be involved as much as possible in childcare and domestic tasks. And not because they would be horrible chores. On the contrary, it is noble and beautiful: we feed, we care, we wash, we clean, we tidy… If all this has to be done by one person in the household, it is obviously oppressive. When people share these tasks, they know that they are in the material life, they can no longer talk nonsense about the immortal soul. On the other hand, it means that women must sit in the courts of justice, occupy positions of responsibility in government, business,… If women have only the domestic domain to express their power, they will obviously tend to oppress their children. In Rwanda, where there was a very high male mortality rate due to the genocide, women had to learn very quickly to take care of jobs that were previously exclusively male. Today, there are NGOs in Rwanda created by men to encourage men to take care of household chores, cooking, and childcare. And there is a higher percentage of women in Parliament than in any other country in the world. It’s terrible to have to go through genocide to get a change like that!

You make a connection between motherhood, the denial of the difference of the sexes and the image of the woman. Is there a link between this desire to deny our nature, motherhood, and the fact that « it’s beautiful » for a woman to give birth but that she has no control over anything?

Yes, although nowadays many obstetricians find that epidurals are becoming too systematic, so much so that sometimes women do not realize the importance of what has just happened, that they are entering a new phase of life. They don’t exactly give birth while painting their nails, but almost! It’s just a « bad moment »; right after, you get your phone back, your appointments, etc. With or without pain, this is a major event. I think there are many young couples, both boys and girls, who are stunned by the amount of work involved in parenthood. They are caught off guard. They thought they would handle it like they handle a few extra appointments in a week. It’s not like that! And the speech is not there to help them. The phases of life have been flattened out a bit. There is no more initiation in adolescence, no more rites of passage, puberty rituals. It is not the same thing to be prepubescent and pubescent, neither for boys nor for girls; but in our societies, nobody talks about it. People invent their own wedding or funeral rituals, but there is an awkward silence about puberty because of the insistence on equality and the pretence that differences are insignificant. But it is precisely at puberty that the differences between boys and girls become apparent, as spectacular for some as for others. Then, it is another spectacular moment to become a parent, especially for the woman. You can’t say it’s the same for the father and the mother, that’s where the difference is really very strong. But if we just say:  » I don’t breastfeed, I put the child immediately in the nursery or with people who, during the day, take care of him, her or .… of them, it’s a bit serious. « We don’t realize that we are in an existence that has a curve: we are born, we owe life to someone, we experience a thousand shares and exchanges, and we are going to die.

It is our deepest nature that we deny. Isn’t there a link with what we said at the beginning, the fact that we are further and further away from nature, from the Earth?

Indeed, I don’t see how to reconcile « ultra-genre » feminism with an ecologist approach.

This kind of talk goes very well with the financial capitalist system; it doesn’t bother it at all. That’s why this minority is getting so much media coverage, it’s dividing people and not uniting us around something that would allow us to change.

In the book After the World by Antoinette Rychner, a beautiful novel of anticipation (but hardly), there is a very beautiful invention: the feminine has become the universal gender… Men recognize themselves without any problem in this general « we » and I say to myself that inclusive writing should end up having this effect, that is to say that we will remove the points and the brackets, etc., and that we will just say that men are included in women, because you are included in us, you are different but we carried you, we brought you into the world, it is us who contain you And it’s going to sound absurd that we’ve always said:  » They, they, they … », when it was men and women.

Thank you, Nancy Huston.
Interview by Alexandre Penasse

Notes et références
  1. Pour n’en citer que quelques-uns : Cantiques des plaines, Actes Sud ; 1993 ; Journal de la création, Seuil, 1990 ; Reflets dans un oeil d’homme, Actes Sud, 2012, In Deo, avec Guy Oberson, Les éditions du Chemin de fer, 2019.
  2. Nelly Arcan, Putain, Éditions du Seuil, 2001.
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