“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.