Professor of French Language and Literature at McGill University, François Ricard is a curious mix of academic and saboteur. An instinctive resistance toward received opinion as well as an agile prose style make him a writer of constant elegance and subtlety—a true symbol of Paul Valéry’s “Idol of the Intellect.”
No surprise, then, that Ricard penned one of the most fascinating and ironic responses to Canadian novelist Nancy Huston’s controversial book-length essay Professeurs de désespoir (Actes Sud, 2005). In her book, which triggered a firestorm of debate in Québécois and French letters, (Huston who lives in Paris) accused novelists and thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer, Samuel Beckett, Emil Cioran, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera and Michel Houellebecq, among others, of belonging to a global syndicate of nihilists. According to Huston, these “professors of despair” are nothing more than misogynists and slanderers of the flesh—negativity proselytes partly to blame for the hatefulness now ascendant in the modern world.
Ricard sees things differently. The “novel,” for him, is the literary form capable of being most enriched by “intellect”—the most free, the most pessimistic, the most dangerous and, therefore, the most capable of disturbing the arrogant euphoria of our era. For Ricard, to agree with Huston’s thesis would be to agree that disillusionment has no place in novels of resistance, to ignore the profound moralistic instincts of these so-called misanthropes, and to encourage mere politeness and half measures in our literature to repudiate lies.
This counterargument informs the following excerpt. A classic example of polemic as parody, Ricard keeps his tongue firmly in cheek and adopts a faux-serious tone to wring humour from—and thus challenge—Huston’s ideas.
Why are famous authors so inclined to slander life? Nancy Huston has an answer, which she offers up in an easy, three-step argument.
First, she observes that the “professors of despair” all suffer from having forgotten what it is to be a child. We can see this clearly when we look at each writer’s personal life. Whether they had miserable childhoods and seek revenge, like Schopenhauer, Beckett, Bernhard, or Houellebecq; or, like Kundera, they keep strangely silent regarding their first years; or, as is often the case, they’ve made sure never to experience procreation first-hand or share their lives with youngsters; they are, in Nancy Huston’s cute coining, “anti-parous” (against birth). In short, such people do not like children, not one bit, and cannot benefit from the life lessons and hope that radiates from these little beings.
Second. This “infantphobia” (my word) would be less serious if it didn’t cover up something much more troublesome: “genophobia” (Huston’s word), meaning fear or hatred of sexuality, fertility and reproduction; a sentiment one could also label the “King Herod complex” by reference to a passage cited in Kundera’s Farewell Waltz, in which Jakub (clearly an alias for Kundera himself) regrets the failure of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.
But these dreadful phobias (of children, birth and sexuality) are mere symptoms of an even more terrible disease: “matrophobia.” This is the ultimate source—third step!—of contemporary nihilism. Huston’s evil, oh-so-unforgivable sickness is analogous to the “sin against the Holy Spirit” of Christian faith. It’s enough to send shivers down your spine. Writers of all genders can catch this illness, although heterosexual males are most susceptible. But don’t confuse this warping of heart and mind with simple misogyny—another common characteristic of all professors of despair (and we all know nihilism is just another name for misogyny). No, the object of matrophobia is not “the woman” (nor women in general), but rather “the woman as mother.” Not femininity, but maternity.
In other words, refusal of the mommy turns a writer into a very negative person. Not necessarily his own mommy, but all things maternal, the things that the “universe of the Mother” represents: gentleness, warmth, a generous body and heart, happy dependence, innocent smiles, first words, continuous streams of tenderness. The professor of despair sees only suffering and obscurity because his pride—or his wounded pride as an unloved child—has turned him against these elementary human values, and because he denies them even as he ridicules them. Orphaned through his own arrogance, a traitor to the woman who has brought him into the world, he has lost contact with his uterine origins: unclear but essentially good and innocent, overflowing with being, a world drunk with mother’s milk and discovered with the first words of the mother tongue, before any separation, any thought, any intrusion of nothingness. In such conditions, how could our writer feel anything but despair? What is nihilism but a cry for help from one who has renounced the reassuring world of the mother?
Drawing on this truth, the critical perspective of a woman, of a mother like Huston, can only consist of one thing: reminding these absent-minded children of what they have forgotten; namely, that they were once little children themselves. This is why, when telling the tale of each one, she gently calls them by their first names—“Arthur,” “Sam,” “Emil,” “Milan,” “Michel”—just as one would address children. “Even Goethe was once a child” she reminds them most aptly. Exasperated by their antics, she scolds them in the voice of a character named Goddess Suzy who accompanies her on travels to the Land of Nihilism. “What an idiot! He had problems, that one,” Goddess Suzy reacts after learning of Schopenhauer’s thoughts, like a mother reading her teenage son’s diary. “This guy’s starting to get on my nerves!” she exclaims after putting down Kundera’s Identity. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, Mr. Kundera, insulting the extraordinary machine that is the human body!?”
But the rowdiest remains little Emil (Cioran): “Are you sick in the head or something? Little boys like you, little ungrateful wretches, you need a smack, that’s what you need!” Goddess Suzy can hardly contain her impatience. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing! His mother carries him in her belly, brings him into the world, wipes his butt, feeds him, sings him lullabies, teaches him to speak, reads him stories, sends him to school, washes his dirty underwear, irons his shirts…” and all he can do afterward is forget the little critter he once was, denigrate family life and childbirth, and pretend that life is sombre or farcical, instead of falling to his knees and crying out until the day he dies: Thank you mommy, thank you mommy, thank you mommy!