How Tom Cox saved me from Bourdieu

I started writing when I was 9. I remember my first short fiction very clearly. It was a school project, some kind of homework, and I had written the story of a single mother who went mad looking for her children all over the house, up to the point she would call the police. Then the police showed up, and they would find the bodies of the children dismembered, in trash bags, next to the garage, and the reader would never now what had happened. I think I was very pleased with my work at the time, although in retrospect, I must admit there would have been little reason not to start a full-time psychotherapy just there.

In any case, this first story started what could only be called a writing frenzy. I didn’t have much interest for books at first, and I would rather play video games and program my first TI graphics than read. I got enrolled in a chess club, in which I did poorly, never raising above second place in a regional team tournament and getting traumatized by the one-armed veteran who would keep his scoresheet straight with his stump. To all outside observers, I was then very much a geek in the making, and by high-school I was railroaded into chemistry classrooms and other mathematical nonsense. (To be fair, when I was 11, I did spend quite a lot of time pondering the possibility of adding to the infinite, and how it would affect simple equations — with no success.)

Thus, there was no reason to suspect I was doing anything else than training Pokemons, playing with abstract concepts, and undressing my Action Man in ways that should have render any coming out pointless. Yet, by 14, I had move from prose to poetry and written my first French alexandrine sonnet, intended to be a parody of the dark, emo soul-twisters some of my friends would read and carved on desktops and what not. The following year, I would learn English reading Yeats, and compose my first haiku in German, which was strange, since I wasn’t any good in German. Still, by the time I finished high-school, I had written a few thousands poems and a handful of short stories, the most part of which must have now been recycled over and over in tetrapacks.

That year, I fought hard with my mother: we would spend long suppers silently staring at each other. She wanted me to become a doctor, as I had expressed a keen interest for dissection. She had been already disappointed by my sister, who had wanted to be a psychiatrist when she had begun high-school, before realizing it involved a lot of science stuff, and she was not very good at it. But I didn’t like mathematics any more, and had never enjoyed chemistry. I found the little I knew about mechanics, and physics at large, to be boring, and had lost my interest in programming by the age of 13. Long walks in the Alps looking at rocks in the cold of autumn had failed to get me excited about geology. I wanted to go into humanities.

And so I did. For two more years, I kept writing. I wrote and burned a short story about Majdanek, but also many more cheerful things. I felt poetry was my strong suit, and I translated most of Dickinson into French. Strangely enough, I had no hope nor desire to be published, and although I would think of myself as a writer, I didn’t want to be famous or acknowledged. I would show some of my work to those closest to me, and that was it. I had this romantic notion that my work of art couldn’t be traded, bought and sold, and that it would diminish its aesthetic value to fall prey to any sort of commercial endeavors. It was really more of an intuitive feeling, than a thought through ideology, since I was fully aware, on the other hand, that I would not be able to enjoy Dickinson, or Yeats, or Flaubert, or Char, if someone, somewhere, hadn’t decided to make money out of them.

At 19, I had just started working on what I intended to be a study of ontology building up to a reworking of some elements in Spinoza’s ethics, when something truly terrible happened to me: I read Bourdieu. I had fought the urge as long as I could, but it finally crept in there, and there I was, with Les Règles de l’art. Sadly, I thought it was very good. And thus, the whole of literature became to me a capitalistic world, and aesthetics a way to sell more newspapers. By the time I finished the book, I wasn’t able to write anymore. I could produce texts, and a lot of it for sure, I became a scholar, but I couldn’t think of myself as an artist. I kept reading poetry with a feeling of shame and disbelief, but there was no poem to be composed, no song to be sung, and I went out of my way not to write about poetry either.

During the 8 years that followed, up until last October, I wrote less poems than I would have in a week. Many, many times, I would wake up in the middle of the night with half of an alexandrine in my head, or the opening lines of a poetic prose, and scribble them down, and tore the page out, and go back to sleep in shame. I thought since I couldn’t be a poet, I could be a scholar, but it wasn’t as much fun. I had yet to understand that all I ever wanted from poetry was this, the playful pleasure of words, and that if any insight should come, any purity of soul and mind should rise, it was a task up to my readers. In that way, it was fine to be selfish, as long as I avoided any romantic grandstanding.

A few years ago, before my liberating epiphany of uselessness, I had downloaded a book by someone named Tom Cox. I had really no idea what it was, but some folks had recommended it on Twitter. It waited there for many months. I had more pressing things to read, books by scholars and classical authors, all sorts of well-respected men and women, and surely I could find no time, after all, for some guy in Devonshire who wrote about his cats. Never in my life had I been so wrong.

One day during a trip, I think I was going to give a speak in a conference of some sort, having flickered through all the books I had intended to read, I found myself rummaging in my computer for something to kill time, and there were the cats. For hours in the train, and then in my hotelroom, deep in the night, I sat there reading and reading, as the sweet, tender, beautiful stories of a common, everyday life unfolded before me. There was no glory in it, and sure I didn’t felt on the bridge of a rimbaldian revelation about the meaning of life, but when I fell asleep that night, I finally knew what art meant to me.

Tom Cox made money out of his books and I didn’t care. Rather, I was happy for him. He could buy more music, and pay the vet bills, and keep writing. Maybe he was truly a London cocaine addict who had never seen a cat in his life, and passed himself as a hedgehog enthusiast while investing heavily in the stock market. It felt unlikely, but in the end, it didn’t matter. The book was true, and I had made something of it, and that was the whole point. Every time I read about Proust, I want to punch him in the nose, and still, I find the Recherche to be one of the deepest artistic experience of my life. That Tom Cox looks like a nice chap after all, that’s added benefit.

The book took some time to sink in, and many other things built up on these first impressions. Most recently, it was the speech Tina Fey gave, last October, for her Lew Klein Excellence in the Media Award. Sure, over the years, she became part of the media elite, whatever it could mean, but she was a writer nonetheless, one whose work I’ve admired for a long time. There was something out there, that didn’t live in the narrow, constrained world Bourdieu has sought to describe and that my khâgne teachers had sold me as the one, true, cultural capital.

I always remember with some perplexity how, once, my khâgne literature teacher, to whom I do owe a lot, had praised Julien Gracq for Le Rivage des Syrtes (The Opposing Shore), because there he had invented an entire country all by himself. Sure, I thought, but what about Toklien? What about Rowling and Pratchett? What about all the sci-fi series on the TV, and the video games, and the comics? If the measure of talent was the capacity to create unfathomed worlds, then surely the greatest of modern talents were living in Hollywood. And at last, it struck me, how for a long, long time, in my eyes, Flaubert and Stendhal stood there in the lone splendor of the literary field, with nothing to offer but the unescapable complex of Bourdieu’s bourgeoisie.

In France, right now, some intellectuals who know nothing about writing seem to find some great pleasure in their spite for the growing interest in narrative television. Yet, truly, every time I read one of their polished tribunes in the press, I can’t help to feel sorry for them, for they are more in a dire need of a Shakespeare crash course than anyone I know. It is not only that they appear to be so ignorant not to spot a Dickens reference when it is delivered to them on primetime TV, but that they’ve narrowed their understanding so much they can’t even conceive its mere possibility.

But I seem to have wandered off the point, which was that, would I time-travel to meet Bourdieu right now, I would offer him a nice cup of tea, and a good book on cats.


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