SUBTRACTION CHRONICLES # 14 – Who can do less can do more

Chronicle by Jean-Baptiste Farkas

Summary

In his fourteenth SUBTRACTION CHRONICLE, Jean-Baptiste Farkas compares two fictional heroes who have deliberately chosen to reduce their lives to the limits of insignificance. In this time of lockdown, these two readings help us analyse the limits or perhaps the hopes of such a choice.

“ — I still can’t find the right dose for existence
When in doubt, I’ve always lived very little for fear of poisoning myself.”

Despite its brevity, this sentence from Régis Jauffret’s short story Les replis du disque dur (Withdrawal into the hard disk), (Microfictions, Gallimard, 2007) announces precisely what is to follow.
A programme. Namely, the scrupulous description of a way of life deliberately destroyed by moderation, which we learn is exercised as much by the odious narrator as by his wife, whose name is Lisbeth, and their only child. Moderation, which is sometimes so loaded with praise, is cast here in a nightmarish light:

  • Life? “as narrow as a cut”.
  • Child-rearing? limited and leading to a total lack of scope.
  • Work? at best, indexed to the minimum wage.
  • Meals? potatoes and ham.
  • Health: “content oneself with organs of modest performance”.
    Adding in passing:

“ — We’ve never got drunk or smoked.”

Rendered extreme and intrusive, moderation dictates an entire relationship with the world, constraining even the slightest action, the slightest gesture. In order to survive, as the narrator seeks to demonstrate, it is up to us to live as little as possible and face the infinite danger of existence, to eliminate both excess and complexity.
Confinement from the start.
Testing out this strange experience in the digital age, our narrator’s ethics may seem less delusional than at first glance. For example, the phenomenon of discretisation is often referred to in computer science. It too may be interpreted as a form of moderation or limitation of excess. It is a scythe. And a confinement within certain limits. It consists in converting the flow of infinite variations into a finite number of points. On the path to abstinence, is our narrator seeking to reduce his life to a combination of zeros and ones? Ever fewer sensations, fewer unexpected events, fewer differences, to arrive at the most elementary of differences: 0/1, yes/no. Appallingly impoverished, would his existence then be discretised?

In the arts, limitation is an old story, which is sometimes even slightly rancid. Especially when it mingles with the idea of purity, “the spotless, the stainless”, or when it dreams of being “freed of”. Purity, on the other hand, is a term that, not surprisingly, was essentially used in religious language. In art, are purists ever approached without a certain apprehension?

In 1957, the American artist and essayist Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989) published an article entitled “Pure Paints a Picture”. This mischievous take-off describes Mr. Pure, an artist by trade, who has reduced his creative scope at least as much, if not more, than the narrator of Les replis du disque dur. The same drabness, the same insignificance, everything connects the two characters, created about fifty years apart:

“Brought up by a distant cousin […] who sterilized milk-cans for a farmers’ co-operative”, it was while helping him that Mr. Pure first had the idea of becoming an artist. “Purity cannot be created directly, nor does it exist beforehand in nature. It must be achieved negatively, i.e., by the removal of impurities. This negative approach is absolutely necessary for Correct painting.” […] Mr. Pure sets out the Tables of Law to define what pure art is not: (edible, credible, frangible, visible, saleable, scrutable, remarkable, tenable, lovable, able) which he summarizes with a maxim derived from the famous Less is more: “The more pure your art is, the more you can give less”. In his studio with its one window – a porthole, in fact – always heavily curtained, Mr. Pure ends up making nothing but circles, and again, neither by hand nor with a compass, simply by drawing a square and discarding the corners! Before each work session, he compiles his file of Renaissance and Baroque reproductions until he is sufficiently filled with disgust to be able to paint on a completely sterilized canvas. The session itself lasts only 45 minutes: “To work on a painting more than 45 minutes is to be a Bohemian. Art should take as little time as possible. For my next show, which I will paint next week, I am going to use dimes as stretchers.” […] His approach by subtraction, elevated to the art of life, leads him to seek only one form of success – total failure (the kind one pursues all one’s life because it must not be attained too soon!): “If any paint remains on the picture-surface at the end of a day’s work, I have failed […]. And to fail […] should be the highest aspiration of the fine-artist.”

“Why open up the floodgates when a thin trickle of water will do the job?” is one way of summing up Mr. Pure’s self-imposed programme. Combinations, again, of zeros and ones? And yet today, this trickle of water is our daily fare. But let’s come back to what is of importance from the Chronicle’s point of view.

The Covid-19 outbreak has led to the need for sanitary measures to be taken. At present, and around the world, in every city, because nothing better has yet been found, more and more “non-essential public spaces” have been closed until further notice. At first, the measure often scandalised people. With the need to avoid contamination, comes the “little life” and the intolerable dullness that it implies. But what do these measures really deprive us of? To this crucial question, the ruthless voice of the narrator of Les replis du disque dur replies:

“One day you’ll realise just what torture your wonderful lives are.”

From his point of view, which is the opposite of our own, it is our unrestrained lives that pose the real problem and not their preventive, prophylactic reduction. As everything can be reduced to 0 and 1, excess, our daily excess has a poisoning effect. To live well in accordance with our views is thus not only illusory but also, and above all, idiotic. This is a radical and total reversal of perspective: once you subscribe to it, if only as a dream, surely the greatest fear is coming out of confinement? The return to normality? What we pseudo-ingenuously call “normality”, but which in reality, and for a very long time, is nothing more than a gigantic tour operator, where every human is merely a visitor? Should we fear returning to lives that we thought were “wonderful” but which in reality were “torture”? Who among us, moreover, especially in recent months, thought they had a wonderful life? In a few decades, the oil supply is expected to run out. By then, we will have finished off the job, everything will have been methodically ransacked. Agreed, but Covid-19 has come as a windfall, all the more so as it is unprecedented, no human intention could have provoked or even been bold enough to imagine: everything has stopped – it’s up to us from now on to do everything, everything it takes, to avoid going back to our cheap “wonderful existences”.
There is no present, according to Stéphane Mallarmé:

“Suicide or abstention, why would you choose to do nothing? — This is your only time on earth, and because of an event I’ll explain later, there’s no Present, no — a present does not exist… For lack of the Crowd’s declaring itself, for lack of – everything. […] Therefore, keep yourself, and be there.”

The fact that we are locked down, forcibly narrowed, does not mean that this is the case for our scope of action and horizons of expectation. Quite the contrary, in fact, and it is in this sense, that Mallarmé’s “Therefore, keep yourself, and be there” suddenly takes on its full meaning in today’s context. If our desires and their expressions remain intact, and we do too, they take on new forms, subject as they are to a greater effort of awareness, while we seek to rethink our place, confined in our own homes, experimenting with boredom.
What more can we ask for than this less which can only compel us to evolve internally?
Covid-19 is terrible. But could anything less terrible have stopped us in our madness and toppled all the pretences in such a radical way?
We know nothing, it’s true, about the right dose for existence, except that it sometimes turns out to be a monster.

This was : “I’ve always lived very little” as addition.

Translation by Angela Kent

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