Friday, July 21, 2023

The methods of truth are stranger than the methods of fiction - or maybe not



“Truth is stranger than fiction” – such is the truism. About truisms, one never says that they are stranger than fiction – on the contrary, a truism banalizes truth. They are, definitionally, obvious, self-evident. They are even, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, hardly worth stating. The energy used to state them could be used elsewhere – for discovery, for instance. Invention. To bring to light something previously not known. Not known to be true. Truism then exists on the lowest level of organization, as material to use in organization and not itself to be organized. It is not “worth” paying attention to, or at least for too long. In this way, some critics say – Karl Kraus being the chief of this number – the truism can operate as a disguise.

Truism, under the pressure of such intelligence, an intelligence that I would suggest is “modern”, reveals itself as unheimlich, uncanny. It brings out, so to speak, the truth’s unconscious lie, in bringing out the system in which the truth operates.

I mentioned Kraus, but I could mention Swift. Swift is, of course, an odd liminal figure in the rise of the modern, being committed as he was to the ancient. But the tools he employed, from picaresque satire to the essay-prank to the adventure novel, are all very modern – as is his prose, a prose that could have been recommended by the historian of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat. As a complete social fact, a surroundsound of all possible circumstances, the modern can only be fought, by the  reactionary – and Kraus falls in this character often enough – by  taking up shock, the most modernist stylistic device. It is a style that begins to diffuse through cultures that, for one reason or another, contain massive demographics that are existentially offended by the modern.

I diverge, I diverge from the question I meant to pose at the very beginning, the question about the truism about the true: by what measure is the truth stranger than fiction? In fact, the formalists say that making strange, estrangement, is one of the great devices of art to advance the “true” – in the sense of the authentic. Truth, here, emerges from the particular to the level of the entire circumstance, or the Gestalt.  Skhlovskii defines that strangeness as a form of de-routinization. A part of the world – a tree, say – is given a presence that seems to depart from the routines to which trees in the human world are subject – chopping them down, planting them in groves or along streets, cooling ourselves in their shade, etc. The tree in Tolstoy’s short piece, Three deaths, for instance, is given a more tragic and meaningful death than the two human beings who also die in the sketch, even though the tree is in no way anthropomorphized.

And is this only a fictional device? Isn’t it rather one of the great devices of journalism? Here is a field where, surely, the claim that  fiction is less strange than truth is abundantly verified by the truths that pour off the newspaper page or, now, the cable tv – internet!

Yet these outrageous, scandalous or simply weird truths gain that quality partly through the aids of fiction, through being mediated by devices that are, in their nature, rhetorical. The ancestor of the news, that unwelcome primitive at our table, is rumor. And rumor, as any glance at the recent history of the U.S. – or any “Western” country – will show, is a mighty force still, not a vanquished oral phenomenon of the villages. The blood of the serfs runs within us.


There are the truths that we know, and the truths that we fear.

Although rumor is characteristically “word of mouth”, the letter and the vocable are not so easily divided, one from the other.

In B. Janine’s  “memories of a private detective”, published in Police Magazine in 1935, there is a story about a detective agency in Paris that drummed up business by sending anonymous letters to various likely clients, and then sending advertisements for the agency that mentioned, among the agency’s specialties, the tracking down of the truth of anonymous letters.

This strategy was eventually exposed by the police, with the help of another private detective: “This singular agency had to close its doors. Its director confessed that by this little game, he had garnered 100,000 francs per month.”

France has a strong culture of the anonymous letter. Poison pen  epistoliers even have a nickname: corbeau – crow – from the movie by Clouzot, which was based on the famous case of Angele Laval, who between 1917 and 1921  flooded her village, Tulle,  with 13,000 inhabitants,  with a constant stream of anonymous denunciations – at least one hundred letters have been counted -  that caused a panic. “ The apotheosis of this odious campaign was achieved in 1921, when a large poster was pasted up on the door of a local theater, on which were listed the names of 14 illegitimate couples, which is, at that time, evidently of the nature to provoke a scandal.” When Angele was put under investigation, she really showed her true psycho colors:  she « convinced her mother to commit a double suicide with her in a local pont. But everything indicates that, in reality, she never had any intention of putting the quietus to her life. Her mother drowned herself under Angele’s eyes who watched her drown without ever immersing herself totally in the water.”

Surrealism, as we all know, was just realism in France.

Rumor by letter has a voice – or a distinct graphology. A criminologist named Edmond Locard became a celebrity for, among other things, his graphological detecting – notes, letters, jottings all revealed their authors before his eyes. The slant of the “t”, the capital letter “E” – these, given a larger writing sample, would sort themselves out prettily, leading to the perpetrator.

In one of his famous interwar cases, he intervened in another corbeau-esque panic in 1933 in Toulon. In this case, the accused was again a woman – Germaine Pouliot – and Locard pursued her relentlessly through the “buckles of her Ts”. These letters apparently lead to Germaine – although she had an odd defender in Aux Ecoutes. Aux Ecoutes fascinates me: that Maurice Blanchot edited this scandal sheet, known for publishing rumors and for orienting itself to an audience of stock market punters, is rather like Maurice Blanchot editing National Enquirer in its glory years. Alas, in Blanchot scholarship, attention has fixed on his essays in the paper, his columns, rather than the context.

In the Toulon case, the “corbeau” was particularly malevolent with the wife of a well known lawyer, Madame Septier, accusing her of adultery and general lasciviousness. The journalist from Aux Ecoutes takes as his starting point, oddly enough, that Toulon is a veritable Sodom, where bourgeois families go to church and then the local brothel together – etc. What really infuriates this anonymous journalist, however, is the supposed method of the famed Locard.

“Dr. Locard, in his report, claimed that all the buckles of the T were always shortened in the anonymous letters, as in the letters of the accused. To the courtroom Madame de Rous showed him one of the threatening letters, which contained 26 instances of the letter T. 17 times the “always” of Dr. Locard is wrong.”


In spite of this, Germaine Pouliot was condemned – although the sentence was only a suspended  six month sentence. But as Aux Ecoutes noted, in 1934 – by which time Blanchot was the editor – the sentence was overturned when it was discovered in Pouliot’s dossier some documents containing  certain words resembling those of the poison letters that were definitely not Pouliot’s letters. The judge of the appeals court agreed, as did the prosecutor. As the newspaper noted: “Rarely has the problem of the responsibility of experts and the reform of expertise been posed in terms as troubling as this!”


In the intersection between rumor and text culture, between the courtroom and the mailbox, it is true: the methods of truth are as strange as the methods fiction. Or, to quote from the “Postman of the Truth” concerning letters, purloined or not  – a matter addressed  by the great masters, from Poe to Lacan to Derrida -  “it belongs to the structure of the letter to be capable, always, of not arriving…”



Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Madame Verdurin and the Avenger


Clement DuvaL

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...