Emmanuel Carrère’s Yoga Review – the terror comes from within | Fiction
RBetween novels, memoirs, experimental biographies and real crimes, the work of the French writer Emmanuel Carrère fiercely questions the rules of understanding. The opener to his non-fiction breakthrough, The Adversary (translated by Linda Coverdale), juxtaposes crazed killer Jean-Claude Romand murdering his family with Carrère attending a parent-teacher meeting, as if he’s determined to occupy, rather only to bridge the gap between author and subject. His biography of Philip K Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead (translated by Timothy Bent), eerily crumbles over this same distance, building for Dick a paranoid inner life so intimate it seems claustrophobic. Then comes Yoga, with a cast that is both real and invented.
One way to understand Carrère’s work is to free oneself from the idea that he is the author of discreet works. His books, each of which draws on and augments the above, are a single, interdependent project, the subject of which is the project itself – its tense emergence, its blurred boundaries.
When we last saw Carrère, at the end of the Kingdom, he was in a Christian retreat, finding solace in the ritual washing of a stranger’s feet. The version of him that we meet at the beginning of Yoga is seething. The Kingdom was a creative and professional high point. “I was full of myself,” he says. “I was happy. I thought it would last.
He may also be trying to regain control of the Kingdom alchemy of the personal and the spiritual. Carrère, we learn, has long been a follower of yoga and meditation. Now he realized that the subject matter would be “suitable for a short, unpretentious, conversational book” – one that, given the popularity of yoga, “could sell like hot cakes”. In search of material, he signed up for 10 days of vipassana silent meditation, in the heart of France.
Initially, this “conversational tone” seems almost flippant. Seemingly indifferent to differentiation, Carrère turns “Oriental” thought into a distinctly beige stew. We get bits of Chögyam Trungpa, Patanjali, tai chi, Iyengar yoga. When he first heard the voice of the Indian founder of vipassana meditation, SN Goenka, Carrére recalled, with disgust, “the English of Peter Sellers in The Party”..
Carrère, however, is well aware of his flaws. Paying attention to the patterns of his breathing, he finds a disturbing insight into his mode of being. According to yoga, says Carrère, “to inhale…is to take, to conquer, to appropriate, which I have no problem with. In fact, I can’t do anything else… Exhaling is different. It is giving rather than taking, giving back rather than keeping. It’s letting go. »
We glimpse here the project envisioned by Carrère – talkative, full of bankable insights, destined to sell like hotcakes. This is not the case. When terrorists attack the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing one of his friends, Carrère’s retreat was cut short. In short, yet another book seems possible, articulated around easy oppositions between asceticism and commitment, pacifism and violence. But Carrère winks at the reducer, to reject it. The Charlie Hebdo the attack is not, in fact, that of Yoga define the crisis. Nor is it that of Carrère. “My life,” he writes, “which I thought was so harmonious, so well fortified…was actually going to disaster. And this disaster did not come from external circumstances, from cancer, from a tsunami or from the Kouachi brothers kicking the door open without warning and slaughtering everyone with Kalashnikovs. No: it comes from me.
Carrère experiences a catastrophic nervous breakdown. “Everything that ever mattered to me,” he says, “everything I dreamed of, fame and mansions, love and wisdom, has lost all meaning.” He doesn’t just want to die, he wants”to be dead, never to have existed. At the age of 60, after being happy for a decade, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, transferred to a secure ward and given electroconvulsive therapy.
From now on, Carrère’s need for inspiration becomes not appropriative, but painful and poignant. Alienated from the person he thought he was, he tries to catch his breath. He reads his own psychiatric reports, where his “moral suffering” changes with terrifying rapidity from “significant” to “intolerable”. He returns to his own work, looking for traces of the mania to come. He even reviews a glowing New York Times profile of himself, fretting over the veneer of professional success, unearthing the personal nadir he barely conceals.
Carrère is dragged as if by sirens to the extreme. Desperate for a “chance to get away from myself”, he retreats to a Greek island and finds himself teaching a small class of young refugees. From its deceptively casual beginnings, through the shocks and disasters that rocked it, Yoga’s inexorable emotional arc has been evident. And yet, the strength of its last third, where a fragile and distressing unhealed Carrère fills his psychic wound with the wounds of others, borders on the unbearable. A child recounts packing a small bag, alone, knowing he will never come home, and remembers his aunt telling him, “Stop crying, boy. In life, you have to leave everything, always, and in the end it’s life you have to leave, so there’s no point in crying. Another can’t even verbalize his trauma and simply hits his head repeatedly, without a word, against the desk. In Carrère’s impotence, his bewilderment of inadequacy, we finally see what he has offered us: not a self-portrait, but a collective. Behold, anatomized, the Western capitalist white man – wandering the aisles of the spiritual supermarket, buying garishly packaged happiness, in terror of a threat from without, blind to the threat from within and utterly, tragically incapable of integrating into his reality the very subject of all the diluted oriental spirituality with which he is so enamored: the truth of suffering, the crushing inevitability of loss.
“Life, observes Carrère, is a machine for separating men”. What is the machine that brings them together? Carrère offers no easy answers. He doesn’t need it. His singular work, in constant expansion, in which one pain must never obscure another, in which truths and half-truths do not oppose each other, but in a delicate and precarious balance, is a response in itself.