June 2012

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Self-Portrait in Trash: Edouard Levé

In Marrakech, in November 2005, in the space behind an arcaded portico at the back of a courtyard in the El Badi Palace, there was an art show. And although the Internet can't seem to remind me of the name of a particular artist whose work was on display (or find any images that correspond to the ones I've kept in my head of that artist's photography), I hold that the show took place, and that it included a short series of self-portraits, each of which was a simple photograph of the contents of the artist's trashcan emptied onto the floor. And although the images themselves may not have been particularly lovely, I hold that I was utterly charmed by the concept. Those piles of trash struck me as uniquely sincere. That trash, as portraiture (and even despite any possible contrivance of artistic arrangement), seemed able to say something more about the artist (about art?) in scattered piles on the floor than if the artist had photographed the corresponding contents of kitchen cupboards, medicine cabinets, ashtrays, or coffee table tops in their lives before the can. Ironically, the trash portraits seemed to present more coherent and comprehensive pictures than might have been possible in photographs of the same objects when those objects were in use.

But most poignantly, the vitality of those self-portraits in trash at that art show at the El Badi Palace in Marrakech lay in the fact that they were effectively negative images of the photographer. And in saying so I don't mean to imply that they imposed on the viewer a negative opinion of their author, or even that they expressed any of the sort of general negativity connoted by the idea of trash. It's rather to say that each of the portraits represented an inversion of the active life of the photographer, a kind of portrait of the artist in reverse (as, well, the negative of a photograph) -- a wily artistic maneuver that also took the voyeuristic potential of the photographic medium to an extreme by actually allowing viewers to go through the artist's trash.

And that is not (exactly) how the French photographer and author Edouard Levé presents himself in his book Autoportrait. I did, however, find myself thinking of the trash portraits as I read it, because, in a way, my consideration of those portraits does resemble how readers of Levé in English translation have been obliged to consider his life. Because those of us who know Levé's Suicide also know that Levé's life is done.

Of course, there are surely those readers who will have read Autoportrait first, despite it being the second of Levé's books to be translated into English (it was his second to last to be published in French). I have taken issue with the interpretation of the fiction presented in Suicide simply on the basis of Levé having killed himself after his submission of the manuscript for that book. Still, that Suicide and the fact of Levé's suicide were the first of Levé's life and literary lifework to be introduced to readers of English isn't without a bearing on what we will understand of the works of the artist to which we have yet to be introduced. Regardless of how the photographer Levé might have criticized a series like the one in that show at the El Badi Palace, the posthumous appearance in English of Levé's self portrait in Autoportrait (and especially after the earlier appearance of Suicide) won't escape being read (at the very least by some) as a picture of Levé in reverse, the inversion, now, of a finished life. That is what it is.

And I resisted. Because, of course, Autoportrait should naturally be extended the critical courtesy of being considered on its own, and, just as with Suicide, the circumstances of the author's death shouldn't necessarily determine the color of our consideration of his other personal and artistic decisions in life. But the (blasted) knowledge is there, and its shade slips over our lens. Which is not to say that Autoportrait presents itself, as a result, as a diary of a suicide, or that it expresses any of the sort of general negativity associated with the idea. When, however, Levé states that "at thirty-five, I was thinking of killing myself," the jump to the conclusion is difficult to stifle. For those of us who know how the objects in the portrait finally fall, a pathos overcomes Levé's measured, almost toneless tone and looms for the rest of the page. Unlike the fictional narrative of Suicide, the declarative statements that comprise Levé's self portrait in Autoportrait are declarations of fact.

Or? But no. The truth is (...the truth...) that Autoportrait is a work of nonfiction: the series of statements that form Levé's portrait are ostensibly statements of fact about the author himself. Still... And perhaps this is simply my desire to distance myself by whatever means possible from an understanding of the author prefigured by his death, but although Autoportrait is superficially a portrait of the artist, it also isn't -- or it doesn't have to be. Those of us familiar with Suicide will recognize the premise for that fiction in one of Levé's declarations in Autoportrait, and whenever the author mentions the subject of suicide reflexively, we can't help reacting a bit more keenly (or zealously) than a certain statement -- indistinguishable in its unmodulated delivery from the ones around it -- demands. Still, the portrait of the artist in Autoportrait is enormously mutable – even if we aren't able to completely escape the idea of the English translation as a negative image. At the same time as Levé's string of statements is simple and seemingly straightforward, its unsentimental delivery and nonlinearity open it wide to, if not interpretation per se, then at least to some amount of play. Autoportrait is a self-portrait of the author, but it's also a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure in the life of Edouard Levé.

The thing is, Edouard Levé is kind of like me. And in all of the ways that he's not, he's kind of like you or someone else. (And not just as we all might be represented by a different list of banal and blasé observations.) Although Levé's picture of himself does build in coherence and dimension as he piles up his statements -- in other words, as he accumulates them into a whole -- for each of us readers of his book there will inevitably be certain statements which separate themselves naturally from that whole based on our different sympathies or antipathies; and the collection of those statements in relief from the rest of them presents the possibility (reality?) that the unified portraits of the artist that each of us pieces together will be radically different.

Like Levé, "I cannot do without literature," and as such, I really would like to be able to wholeheartedly sympathize with his assertion that, "At the beach girls arouse me less than at the library." But alas, girls don't arouse me at all. As someone who couldn't do without literature in translation, I value more Levé's statements on that subject than on others that I've already forgotten. "I try to write prose," he writes, "that will be changed neither by translation nor by the passage of time," and I wonder how Lorin Stein (who also translated Suicide) felt when he translated that sentence. Without Stein's decision to include in parenthesis the crucial word in French, I would not have understood why when Levé heard the English word "god" he thought of both God and a dildo. Later I think about the possible irony of Levé's statement that he does "not trust untranslatable texts." As an American, I am drawn by the idea of Levé's project of photographing U.S. cities that share a name with a city in another country, although I imagine that I might not like the photographs. "I started a photo project," Levé recounts, "in which I would photograph the forty-one places where Charles Baudelaire lived in Paris, but four years later I still hadn't finished," and I remember the early abortion of the André Gide reality tour that I planned for myself the one time that I visited that same city. Then I do start to wonder what Levé would have thought of those trash portraits. (I know that he wouldn't have seen them in Marrakech, because Morocco is not on the list of the twenty-two countries that the author tells us he visited.)

And then I appreciate that the same consideration of the mutable image of the self-portrait in Autoportrait should extend to having first had knowledge of Levé's suicide, as well as to having read Suicide first. That if it's possible to (or impossible not to) let some of the declarations in Autoportrait take precedence over others depending on our own personal reactions to Levé's presentation of himself, then our reactions to certain of his statements that are influenced by our knowledge of his death are just more of the same. The pathos that might imbue a particular sentence as a result of our familiarity with Levé's suicide is no different in quality from any other emotion that, for one or another reader, might infuse a different sentence as a result of a personal experience with its subject. If Autoportrait is a negative image of Edouard Levé, that should be only because it reads, at the most personal level, as an inversion of the reader himself. "I dream of an objective prose," Levé writes, "but there is no such thing."

And that's it. But what, exactly? What, ultimately, does Autoportrait reveal about its author? "I know how much I'm seen, but not how much I'm understood." We sympathize. Maybe the truth is nothing more than that this portrait of the artist simply reveals that he's an artist. And in Autoportrait he has given us a work of art -- which will just have to do, even for the most ardent of devotees, because we're not going to have the opportunity to look through his trash.