In 2012, Theseus departs the “City of the West” and embarks on a new life to escape memories of his family. He takes three boxes of archives, abandons everything else and, with his children, boards the last eastbound train of the night. He believes he is moving into the light, towards regeneration. But very quickly, his past catches up with him. Theseus perseveres. He clings to the present and resists the self-inquiry his body is demanding of him, one which threatens to throw wide the windows of the past.

From the back cover ofThésée, sa vie nouvelle (“Theseus’s new life”)by Camille de Toledo, published by Verdier in August 2020.

© Oren Eliav, Listener (2011), oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv – www.oreneliav.com

DELPHINE HORVILLEUR I was very moved by the musicality of your book, the repetition in the prose. In the Jewish tradition it is often thought that it is only through repetition that change is possible. The verb “to repeat” is leshonen, and its root, shone, means “change.” Similarly, in your work, it is repetition that allows the writing to move forward. I was also struck by your choice of third person narration in reference to the main character. The effect is to keep the reader in a state of uncertainty, trying to work out whether the narrative is describing you or someone else. Are you describing yourself in the third person? And what does it mean to write about yourself as if you were not, in fact, yourself?

CAMILLE DE TOLEDO The element of repetition comes out of a practice of inquiry. A personal inquiry, because it means continually returning to the place where the wound is, and because it’s the way I heal myself. I don’t speak about it in the book, but part of my spine is damaged, and I have rituals of very deep meditation that I have to do daily. I’m constantly returning to the wounded place, bringing awareness to it, shedding light on it, so that my body can accomplish feats of autopoiesis, of healing, of reparation, of tikkun. It’s not something I’m entirely conscious of, but maybe this is where the theme of repetition comes from: this imperative I feel to go back, to return to the place where the wound is. This is the trauma piece—and it leads to the clinic in Thésée. You have to go back to where the trauma is in order to try to ease it, to calm the wounded part of your life, your physicality, your body. And it’s the way the narrator goes back to the promise his brother made him. It’s my way of going back, by using the medium of fiction, by alternating between I and he, to the guilt I feel after his death. Go back, go back—relentlessly. That’s what Theseus does. You’re right, it echoes that sense of repetition in Judaism. By going back, I would move a tiny step forward. And like this, sentences were woven together, interlaced. And like this the text was pieced together. There was an aspect of arrangement to the work, of montage, as there is in all my texts. I splice them, I arrange the pieces, and that’s what allows the repetition to be a stutter with forward momentum, a limp. I begin at the wound, so, the suicide, and then I step back, giving the stray text to the reader and saying: “I know there’s a key, but I don’t know which one.” And when I place that stray text, it’s a deliberate act, a reminder to myself that I will have to dig, that I’ll have to return to the labyrinth, for a long time.

DH It’s interesting, because the heroes of Jewish texts are characters who stutter or limp. Moses and Jacob, for example. And these characters, who are supposed to be powerful, who are people of action, are hindered in one way or another.

STÉPHANE HABIB I want to return to the idea of repetition. You say it’s not always conscious, but that there is an element of arrangement, of montage, in your act of writing. There is a significant link between psychoanalysis and this type of juxtaposition in terms of free association—Godard says of montage, in the context of film editing, that when you bring together two isolated images it creates something different, a new image. Repetition works the same way. As I read Thésée, right from the title which immediately invokes the world of myth, I was reminded of Lacan’s assertion that “myth gives form to structure.” Structure is those things that are repeated, across time. And I believe that repetition is the organizing principle of your entire book. The book functions through repetition, repetition is enacted even in the narrator’s body, because history is repeating itself inside the narrator’s body without his even knowing exactly what is being repeated—it’s the whole business of the book. And therefore, the insistence of the repetition is, unconsciously, what underpins the very existence of the book. It is tempting to think of this book as being about impossibility, in which repetition continually returns you to the places that cannot be moved through, the places that catch. And so, the writing is compelled by the insurmountable. And through the power of repetition, or rather the “weakness” of it, something new emerges; a “new life”, truly, because this is a book of moving from death to life. In Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan says that “repetition demands the new” and this book makes demands, I think, demands for the future.

CDT I’m reminded of the image of Jacob, wounded by combat with the invisible. I believe this is a book that struggles with the invisible. Throughout this whole journey of trying to restore my spirit—the journey that fueled the book—it often felt as though I was struggling with spirits from the past: I was constantly asking the dead for permission. Asking them to grant me my acts of recharacterization, of renaming, of conversion, so that a faith could be transposed, so that Theseus could go from the past towards a place of reconnection with what had been lacking in prayer. Our talk of repetition also makes me think of the relationship between repetition and integration. Like a text you’re trying to learn by heart. As you’ve seen, Thésée is fueled by a very strong impulse of rejecting familial roots, because, for one thing, I fundamentally refuse to be bound to genealogy—this is where the word “orphalineage” comes from. I reject, almost emotionally, anything that confines me, confines us, to an ancestral house. And yet I had to keep revisiting the past, keep integrating my family history and aligning it with a new life. It’s something I’m still working at. I must keep returning, through my meditation exercises, to the point of birth—to unbaptize myself, to anchor myself differently in the world, starting with the turmoil of the Marranos, which I entered when I took this name back from the ether, from my maternal grandmother. I return to this name constantly. I come back to it as if chased by a stone thrown from the past. I do in order to re-examine life, again and again, to make a shift, asking: what is the actual truth of the name, of the word? So, yes, in a way I had to ingest or swallow my ancestors, talk to the dead, ask their permission to recharacterize myself, to rework myself through fiction. It’s reminiscent of what is sometimes said about the rituals of some indigenous tribes—that they swallow the bodies of other people. I swallowed the dead, and it’s very hard to digest a dead person, especially when the death was violent.

DH In the Jewish tradition we always refer to the Abrahamic lineage, which we believe we descend from—which is to say that we belong to the lineage of a person who broke away from his own lineage, because it is a characteristic of Abraham’s that he left his home. So the whole paradox of identity, as the Bible tells it, is that you have to work out how to be a child belonging to the ancestral house of a person who left his own house. Something else I find fascinating in the book is your analysis of the boomer generation, the people who lived through Les Trente Glorieuses—the “thirty glorious years” in France after the war. I find it particularly interesting how you force us to realize that this generation was came out of something. Often there’s an idea that it was tabula rasa after the war, that our parents’ generation was born from nothing because everything had been destroyed—that everything started from scratch. And here we are, the children of the boomers. But you show us that they themselves were someone’s children, someone’s grandchildren. And even when we want to remove all the traces, even when there is silence—even that speaks volumes. Whatever rifts there might be, the story never begins with us and it never begins with our parents. When it comes down to it, there is always something haunting us. Have you worked on this question of heritage, origins you can’t shake, before now?

CDT In Le hêtre et le bouleau, there was a whole ontological meditation on the h of honte, shame, and of hante, what haunts us: hantologie, hontologie. And so, there was haunting, an enchantment, the idea of phantoms, these inertias of memory. For me, persevering through the rift, or being allowed to move from death towards living again, towards a new life, had to come out of an enormous exercise of forgiveness. In particular, I had to understand the fear that the character of Nathaniel, who is the displaced double of my maternal grandfather, was running from. In the book, he is fleeing a father’s hidden suicide. But beyond this, and because when we write we’re trying to say something about History, trying to pull back from the “dirty little secret,” I had to get a sense of what he was fleeing over the long term, in the tangle of generations. I see Thésée as the pendulum swing of history, with fear as its starting point. I particularly wanted to understand the drive towards Industry and Growth which, as we know, has left the Earth in ruins. But merely making accusations didn’t work for me. I wanted to make sense of the drive of Les Trente Glorieuses towards excess, towards abundance—from fear. And so I tried to look hard at the great fear of the first half of the 20th century, fear of death, of hunger, fear of the front line, of disease… the collective fear which the generation of the post-war reconstruction responded to by looking to the future, by rising from the ruins and, like Lot, by not looking back. The generation that said, “look, it’s wonderful, this world of sugar we’re giving you, this world without death” is the generation the baby boomers descend from. The world is, in fact, entirely connected to fear, the immense fear of the time before, which still haunts it. And the ghost returns in 1973, the date of the brother Jerome’s birth in the book, the date of the first oil crash, which put an end to the fiction of abundance and the legend of Les Trente Glorieuses; the era of fallibility, of ghosts, the return of a nightmare…

SH In fact, you talk about this book as being an “archaeology of fear.”

CDT Yes, I’ve tried to overcome an ancestral fear by plunging into a lineage of men who keep dying. I did it by offering my personal experience to my double, Theseus. My double, which means there is distance between us. I had to experience, in my body, a brother’s fears; what passes from Jerome, the day he is found dead, to the narrator, a few moments after the suicide is discovered. After that, I had to go about undoing the enchantment. I had to follow the threads of fear. And this has less to do with Theseus and more with real life. I’m talking about the whole journey it takes to try to breathe new life into yourself, which in particular meant the use of family constellation techniques, an approach which allows you to bring the invisible, your ancestors, face to face, and to work towards forgiveness with those who are gone. From there, I was able to see that the accusation at the beginning of the book—“Who commits the murder of a man who kills himself?”—opens into infinite threads of causation. You can always go back further, further, further. And in this “further” is where forgiveness lives. It’s not the last word, the last domino; there’s always another domino behind it, and another and another. And there is no doubt that the displacement I’ve caused in mixing up genealogies goes back to what I believe to be an enduring struggle, a fracture, a lasting rift: the fractured Marrano story, and the fact that this fracture between Judaism and Christianity is constantly being re-enacted.

DH Listening to you speak brought a verse from Genesis to mind. Genesis opens on the death of a brother, on Cain and Abel. When Abel is in the ground, under the earth, God turns to Cain and asks him, “What have you done?” The next phrase is puzzling: “The voices of your brother’s bloods cry out to me from the ground.” What has fascinated commentators is the presence of the plural in this verse, when it would be more natural to say, “the voice of your brother’s blood” (and indeed it is often translated this way in English). Biblical commentators explain that it is the voices of all the generations Abel would have given rise to that cry out from the ground at his death. The idea is that, with this one deed, everything that has been prevented, everything that will not happen, everything that could have been, has been murdered too. What I am struck by, as you speak, is the fact that you carry these “bloods” up through ancestry as well: when someone dies, the blood crying out is not what could have been, but what has already been and what is also, perhaps, now being killed. There is something about bloodlines going back infinitely, like dominoes ascending. It’s completely dizzying. Because the crying out can go on forever. And so that raises the question of how to stop it. This is perhaps what you call tikkun: a moment in which the cry is transformed.

SH When it comes down to it, perhaps you are saying that forgiveness, to use that big word, always resides in what is yet to come. That is, even as the book is a reflection on forgiveness, why, forgiveness is never actually there. It may come later, but it’s not there when it’s needed. I was struck by the fact that the book’s epigraph is from Ezekiel: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” Was the question mark an addition of yours?

CDT The whole phrase is spoken by the Lord: “Why do you quote this proverb concerning the land of Israel: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” So, the question mark comes from that “why?” But what affects me even more is the echo in Jeremiah when, again in the voice of the Lord, this edict is put to an end by saying no, from now on, “everyone will die for their own sins”, as if seeking to sever the curse between the generations. I believe that Thésée, sa vie nouvelle is in conversation here with what the Lord has said, but also with the promise of liberation that seems implicit in “everyone will die for their own sins.” Contemporary society, too, promises us this separation, this ethic of individual responsibility. And yet—and this is what Theseus discovers—that old, lasting enchantment still binds us.

SH The question mark leaves us in radical suspense. I am really taken by the idea that the book opens with a question mark, that it is constantly turning this question over and over, and that it closes, essentially, on the word “future”: “And now this will be the beginning of another story, the story of a future restored and made whole.” There’s that sense of renewal again. The end of the book is the opening of another. It’s striking, because Thésée seems to me like the third volume of a series in which the first two volumes are Le hêtre et le bouleau and L’inquiétude d’être au monde. And here comes Thésée, telling us that the question—and it’s a whole book of questions, like any number of Jabès’ works, a book of connections—that the question will never be put to rest. Forgiveness is yet to come, and so the question remains unresolved; history has yet to be written into future. This makes Thésée a book of transitions—the transition of leaving the dead and coming back to life, for one.

CDT Yes, the future; it opens things up, it seeks to rebuild possibilities out of death, out of what’s dying. I have been working along these lines from my first book, already trying to attack the end (of art, of history) from behind, trying to make everything infinite. I revisited the theme with La Chute de Fukuyama, the opera. With Le hêtre et le bouleau as well, I went back to sadness, working out the shape of what haunts me, but doing it as a path back to life, towards joy and a new story of the future. And again, with Herzl, une histoire européenne [see Tenou’a 171], and Le livre de la faim et de la soif, and now… plunging into the heart of the darkest thing, a brother’s suicide, and trying to tie a knot from death to life. This is often what history is, the tragic part of it: the murder of possibility, of everything that could have been. Ricoeur spoke of the “unfulfilled futures of the past.” Throwing wide the windows of time means connecting with the unfulfilled futures of the past. This comes back to what you were saying about what is “yet to come”: going back to the wounded place is simply about remembering and certainly not about claiming suffering as an identity. It’s about opening up possibilities for the days yet to come. Take Oved’s prayer, which I invented, in the vein of Romain Gary, who invented letters from his mother. The tale Gary tells is that his mother, before she died, wrote letters to him so that he would keep on receiving them. Through fiction, he invented something which is the profound truth of his life, namely that he survived for his mother, that he fulfilled his destiny for his mother, in order to live up to what she hoped for him. In Thésée, Oved’s prayer is the same thing. The prayer does not exist in the manuscript I mention, which I quote. But there is within me a call that comes from my father to find Judaism again, to find faith again; and the act of writing, of fiction, makes a path for my soul to follow, guides my becoming, and complicates my identity. Out of the past I am rebuilding a future. And this undertaking, somewhere between fiction and archive, is connected to all my work around how language destabilizes, how it spins.

SH I’d like to talk to you about your relationship to language, because while rereading these three books as if they were a single work, I was listening to your writing and noticed an increasing distrust of language. Very paradoxical, because at the same time—you’re writing. And for me, this echoes the impossible we were speaking of, which compels the act of writing. Writing, which is not the same as speech, by the way, and probably for good reason. And this distrust of language also forces the reader to be alert to language; that is, to hear all voices at once, meaning all the possible ambiguities within the language. And this is how Thésée, sa vie nouvelle fell upon my ears: with homophonous ambiguity. At first, I heard “Thésée” as the imperative of the French verb tairetaisez-vous!, which means “keep quiet!” And after having read the book, I heard “Thésée” (apart from the connection to the Theseus of myth) as ils taisaient, meaning “they kept quiet.” And I wondered if this book might not be a book about the transition from “keep quiet!” to “they kept quiet.” And thus, you write.

The act of writing, of fiction, guides my becoming and complicates my identity.

CDT This gives me the chance to return to the question of he and I, and to the suspicion of language. As a child I was dyslexic and didn’t speak well. I was brought to language by a speech therapist; wobbly little Alexis—my legal name—had to be straightened out. Today, I see everything, especially names, as a sign, and I think there’s something about that name: Alexis. A-lexicon. The one who has no words. So, the experience of beginning to speak was challenging for me. I was made to straighten out my speech and start speaking more precisely. And I think that left a strong imprint on me, especially since there were other languages spoken in my family as well, particularly when we crossed the border to go to Geneva and visit the “diaspora,” as my father called it. When you enter one language, as Daniel Heller-Roazen says in Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language, you forget all the others you could have learned. Here we have the possibilities of the past again. In becoming a speaking being, you also forget how, as a child, you communicated with trees, forests, with the various beings of the natural world. This extended understanding of language persists within me. A distrust of polished, bourgeois language, and an interest in what spills over, what speaks beyond words. It was clear in the invented language of the little Elias in Oublier, trahir, puis disparaitre. This is something I have been ruminating on for over twelve years: the idea of translation, for one thing, which is in line with of what for me was a kind of surrogacy in terms of the departed brother’s name, “Jerome.” “Jerome,” the vanished brother, whom I mentally uprooted and displaced into a figure I could translate. There is a pattern in Thésée of displacement, widening the gulf—in both sides of my ancestry, the fracture between Christianity and Judaism is very marked. Then, in 2016, I began pursuing the same thing through theatre—the play PRLMNT, and the project set around the Loire, the river, which extended the notion of “language,” of “speaking beings,” to include the natural world.

© Karen Russo, Morlock Temple with Barlach Head, 2015, charcoal on paper 121 x 86 cm
Courtesy Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv

DH With respect to the issue of he versus I, is writing in the third person a way of keeping language at a distance?

CDT It came about over the course of the work. In the, shall we say, textual rushes of Thésée, there were elements drawn from a sort of liminal diary: “I saw that.” “I heard that in the night.” When I practice depth meditation, when I delve into my core—the osseous, the aqueous—I am in communication with some fairly deep energies. But this liminal diary had no shape to it, it was too dark, too, well, limbic. And so that’s where the he came in, as an attempt to return to language from the unspeakable place of trauma, from this daily exchange with the dead. And then there was a story, and also a shift towards character, to the narrator/character of the story I was trying, in spite of everything, to tell. There was a narrative: the departure for Berlin, the train, the children, the work of trying to come back to life, the trips made up the hill in an attempt to walk. So this is how the I and the he connect: by digging a gulf of fiction, a gap, between experience and story. On one side is trauma, spoken only from a devastated I. And on the other is narrative, a path which can be walked, possibly, by the he. For me, this echoes the structure of the brain: there is the limbic brain, the reptilian brain, frozen, overwhelmed, the obstructed I of post-traumatic stress, stuck in repetition, unable to take it anymore. And there is the he of the verbal, narrative brain, which is still managing to hold on. We know suicide often happens when there is a failure to integrate the two: the reptilian brain, with its trauma that cannot be shared, and the narrative brain, which can go through the motions without ever touching what is going on deep inside.

DH I’d love to speak more about the ghosts that haunt this book and haunt our lives. If you had to pinpoint the moment you first encountered your ghosts, or at least knew they existed, could you?

CDT Oh yes, I know the moment very well. It was very early, when I was around four or five years old, and it took two different forms: when I was a child, there were bad spirits in my imagination whom I spoke to and who pushed me to do things that, pretty early on, I judged pretty “not nice,” who took me to a bad place, in many ways connected to things relating to getting out of diapers and the forbidden. And then more tangibly, more visually, we lived on the first floor behind a church in which there was a sculpture, and at night, the sculpture cast a shadow through the stained-glass window, and that shadow had a presence. Since there was a backdrop of Christianity in my family, even if no one was really practicing, I knew that things happened there, in that church, which had to do with another dimension of life, with the invisible. And then as time went by, the dead came along, so many of them, and they linked me to absence, to the presence of the absent ones, the ones who cross over, the ones who sustain Thésée.

SH Your writing is a broad, expansive form of address. It could not be any other way. It’s an appeal. An appeal worrying about whether it is being heard. Often, you ask Jerome, “Can you hear me?” So much so that in reading these repeated appeals to Jerome, I could not help but hear them as part of a chorus, and I was haunted by the intertextuality between this and Conversations in the Mountains by Paul Celan. That text is punctuated by the same question, in the meeting between Klein the Jew and Gross the Jew—two cousins, as you and Jerome are two brothers: “Do you hear? You hear me.” These two works, Thésée, sa vie nouvelle and L’entretien dans la montagne, should be read aloud together (and maybe one day they will be), to understand the way the prose is always an address, whether we like it or not. Barthes said that in love, we are always addressing someone, though it may be “a phantom or a creature still to come.

Translated by Emma Roy