“Thus inevitably does the universe wear our own color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself.” So writes Ralph Waldo Emerson towards the end of his great 1844 essay, “Experience.” Earlier in that essay, Emerson describes the realization that “we do not see directly, but mediately” as constituting “the Fall of Man.” There is sorrow in coming to know that experience is subjectivity—that is to say, partiality and distortion—all the way down. Yet Emerson finally urges his readers toward exertion, not despair: “We must hold hard to this poverty, however scandalous, and by more vigorous self-recoveries, after the sallies of action, possess our axis more firmly.” The self, with all its insufficiencies, isn’t to be escaped from but held on to, possessed, mastered. It’s a tilted axis, yes, but it’s the only axis we have.
“I’ve always been interested in my own mental activity, to the point of making it my trade.” So writes Emmanuel Carrère in his latest hard-to-classify book, Yoga, translated by John Lambert. In being interested in his own subjectivity, the French memoirist, novelist, and filmmaker Carrère follows in the footsteps of his “patron saint,” Michel de Montaigne. (Emerson likewise loved Montaigne, describing him as “the frankest and honestest of all writers.”) Carrère, like Emerson and Montaigne, has long courted charges of narcissism. His 2000 book of nonfiction, The Adversary, opens like this: “On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son.” His 2009 masterpiece, Lives Other Than My Own, begins with a tsunami in Sri Lanka. But it really begins with his own romantic life: “The night before the wave, I remember that Hélène and I talked about separating.” (Carrère was on vacation in Sri Lanka in 2004 when the tsunami hit and subsequently spent time with families who lost loved ones.)
Both openings foreground rather than obscure the self and its involvements. In order to write about the fascinatingly repellant Romand, Carrère must first, or simultaneously, write about himself. Yes, Romand is a con man. But isn’t the writer one, too? After all, in writing his book, Carrère had to try to swindle the swindler, writing to Romand in prison with the hopes of charming him into a correspondence. Romand is a moral monster, absolutely. But isn’t the person who profiles Romand—who mines his life and the lives he ended for material—a kind of monster as well? (As Janet Malcolm famously put it, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”) Similarly, in order to write about the large-scale, historic tragedy of the tsunami, Carrère must first, or simultaneously, write about the small-scale, personal tragedies of his own experience. You don’t see others clearly by forgetting yourself, Carrère suggests. You see others clearly by seeing yourself clearly, by looking with care at yourself, and at them, and at yourself looking at them. Every object of perception—the killer you’re writing about, the tragedy you’re grappling with—falls into the subject itself. There’s no way out but through.
Carrère steers clear of narcissism in three ways: first, by acknowledging his own self-involvement; second, by making the case for the necessity of self-involvement in any act of seeing or thinking or writing; finally, by suggesting that this interest in the self is the route to becoming interested in other selves. In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Carrère described his attitude toward the people who live and work around him: “I know nothing about them. And I am not that interested. And I think it’s bad not to be interested. I think, even, it’s wrong.” Interest in others doesn’t come naturally to Carrère. But it’s only by attending to himself, by noticing that he doesn’t notice others, that he can begin to rectify this cognitive and moral weakness. In Lives Other Than My Own, Carrère quotes the nineteenth-century French doctor Pierre Cazenave, who spoke of his “unconditional solidarity with what the human condition holds of unfathomable distress.” How this solidarity can be achieved is, to use one of Carrère’s favorite words, mysterious. But it’s the task that he has set himself in his best work: to recognize himself in others.
This is not really the task that Carrère has set himself in Yoga. On the book’s very first page, he announces his initial aim is “to write an upbeat, subtle little book on yoga.” (At the time of the book’s genesis, Carrère had been practicing meditation for over twenty years.) The plan was simple: he would go on an intensive yoga retreat in the French countryside and write a bestseller about his experience there. Of course, going on a yoga retreat with the intent of writing about it seems to defeat the very purpose of the retreat. Carrère gets around things, or at least justifies his task to himself, by arguing that there is a deep similarity between the task of the writer and the task of the meditator. He quotes a favorite passage from the German Romantic Ludwig Börne, who urges the would-be writer to “take a few sheets of paper and for three days on end write down, without fabrication or hypocrisy, everything that comes into your head.” Carrère has thought about this advice, and its beautiful impossibility, for years, and he’s come to believe that Börne’s challenge to the writer is like the challenge to the meditator:
Writing down everything that goes through your head ‘without fabrication’ is exactly the same as observing your breathing without modifying it. Which is to say: it’s impossible. Still, it’s worth trying. It’s worth spending your whole life trying.
This is typical Carrère: take an apparent binary—interest in the self versus interest in others, writing versus yoga—and show that it’s actually a dialectic, yin and yang.
With this methodological problem solved, Carrère goes on retreat, eager to write his “own version of those personal development books that sell so well in the bookshops.” And the first hundred or so pages of Yoga are studded with self-helpy lines that you’d expect to read in such a book. We get one definition of meditation, then another, then another; we get telling anecdotes from Carrère’s own life and wise sayings from spiritual masters. Carrère goes so far as to write a back-cover blurb for his prospective book. The blurb ends, “[Yoga] is a path. Others have taken it before us and shown us the way. If what they say is true, it’s well worth embarking on the journey ourselves.” This kind of book might “sell like hotcakes,” as Carrère hopes. It would also be dull, closer to mere self-help than to Emerson’s “vigorous self-recoveries.” What differentiates the two? Here’s Emerson: “It is but a choice between soft and turbulent dreams.” You get mere self-help when the turbulence and difficulty of Emerson’s self-possession gets lost in bromides about the journey being more important than the destination; when a fundamentally tragic vision of existence gets replaced with a prelapsarian one; when tension and accommodation get smoothed into facile harmony.
Luckily for Carrère’s book, though sadly for the world, life intervenes. In the middle of his retreat, Carrère receives a call informing him that a friend, Bernard, has died in the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and he’s been asked to give the eulogy. The retreat is over—and with it, we soon realize, Carrère’s planned book.
Yoga’s next, much shorter section tells of Carrère’s brief, if promising, friendship with Bernard, one largely forged through literature. Then, with another chapter break, we move into entirely new territory: an intense sexual affair Carrère had with a woman—he calls her the “Gemini woman” after a statue she gave him—following another, different yoga retreat. Then, with even less warning, the narrative jumps again. Without much preamble or explanation, Carrère experiences a crippling depression. He is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and enters a psychiatric hospital, where he receives electroshock therapy. This section is the strongest, and strangest, in the book. It’s up there with William Styron’s Darkness Visible as an attempt to name the unnamable pain of mental illness. As Carrère puts it, “What I’m saying here sounds horrible, but in fact it was much more horrible than that. It was an unspeakable, indescribable, unqualifiable, and—the word hardly exists, but no matter—immemorable horror.”
Within the text, what precipitated the breakdown remains unclear. Structurally, one might think that it’s the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Carrère himself says that he “date[s] the start of [his] meltdown” to a conversation he had with the Gemini woman. It appears an interesting formal decision: the mind in mysterious, psychic pain is “immemorable,” and so Carrère refuses to clarify the sequence of cause and effect. If you’re familiar with the French literary scene, though, there’s another explanation. Carrère and his wife, Hélène Deynck—who figures prominently in the Lives Other Than My Own and in several of Carrère’s other books—got divorced during the writing of Yoga. He signed a contract saying he wouldn’t mention her in his future writing without her permission. He reneged on this promise in the first draft of Yoga; the offending passages got cut. So the opacity here is less a formal choice than a legal requirement—though one that has interesting, if ultimately undecidable, formal effects.
Toward the end of this section, titled “The Story of My Madness,” Carrère is discharged from the hospital. “Good transient recovery but frequent relapses,” his final report concludes. A few months later, he travels to Patmos for the summer, “where we have a house at the foot of the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian.” (The “we” is left vague.) On vacation, the black dog of depression begins to stalk Carrère again: “I’m afraid the madness will return,” he writes. “I’m afraid I’ll be the plaything of some inner monster, over whom I have no control.” A journalist friend tells Carrère about her recent assignment to the Greek island of Leros, where she reported on the refugee crisis. An idea immediately presents itself: “On this nearby island, where serious things are happening, fate may be offering me a second chance to get away from myself.” And so we have one final jump to Leros, where Carrère teaches creative writing to migrants fleeing Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries. Once more, I hear the ghost of Emerson’s “Experience”: “There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here at least we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth.” Such hopes usually fail, though Carrère’s don’t—or not entirely. He teaches and drinks wine and hears of lives more broken than his own. This episode section ends with tempered optimism. The self and the world aren’t as one, but they aren’t at war, either: “it’s quite surprising, but the fact is that I almost feel good.”
Carrère’s books always thrive on a series of constitutive tensions. At the level of the sentence, they strive for, and regularly achieve, cleanness and lucidity. “That’s what I like in my work,” he’s written, “when it’s simple, obvious, when it gets things right.” Yet he addresses subjects that refuse clean elucidation: sex, desire, humiliation. His books are deeply self-indulgent even while they push the self to engage with lives and histories other than their own.
Yoga isn’t as interested as some of his other books in recognizing the self in others. “Perhaps that’s the most interesting thing in life,” Carrére writes at one point, “trying to figure out what it’s like to be someone else. That’s one of the reasons people write books, another being to discover what it’s like to be yourself. I mostly think about the latter.” Maybe so, but he usually writes as much about the former. Not so in Yoga.
Late in the book, Carrère writes about Yoga’s primary tension:
François Truffaut said that a film is a process of loss. The gap between the idea you had before starting it and the final result can be bigger or smaller: if it’s small, the film is successful, if it’s big, it’s botched. That’s what the artists of control think…. For others—including myself—the opposite is the case: the less the film or book resembles what they’d imagined, the longer and more unpredictable the path between the starting point and the end, the more the result surprises them, the happier they are.
Carrère wanted Yoga to be one thing and it ended up another. Of course, the same could be said about almost any piece of writing. What distinguishes Yoga is that this disjuncture between aim and achievement remains within the text itself. This refusal to close the gap—to fill the space separating initial idea from final result—is interesting, though maybe not as surprising as Carrère seems to think. After all, it’s a move often made in contemporary autofiction.
In my less charitable moods, I suspect that the writer’s principled refusal to close this gap is really just an excuse not to do the hard work of tidying things up. I don’t think that’s the case here. The book’s final chapter opens, “I continue not to die, as best I can.” Yoga displays hard work of a different kind: the hard work of recovering the self after it almost has been lost.
Translated by John Lambert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$20 | 352 pp.