An Interview with Jalal Toufic
by Aaron Kunin
Most things that are strange are actually strange in a fairly predictable way--e.g., "You're different from me, but I understand you completely; I know exactly what you're going to say." Jalal Toufic, who is, in his own description, "a writer, film theorist, and video artist," writes books that really are different from anything else I've encountered. To say, for example, that they're about film or dance would distort the way in which they're engaged with--or obsessed with--these subjects. To say that they're about politics or psychology would require forgetting their fundamental disengagement from politics as it is usually practiced, and from conventional accounts of consciousness. To say that they're autobiographical would be missing the point: they're about death and undeath as well as life. Toufic's books include Distracted (Station Hill, 1991), (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film (Station Hill, 1993), Over-Sensitivity (Sun and Moon, 1996), and the recent Forthcoming (Atelos, 2000). His video and installation works include Credits Included: A Video in Red and Green and Radical Closure Artist with Bandaged Sense Organ. He lives in Beirut.
The following interview was conducted by email between February and May 2001. Generically quite various, it includes letters, scenarios, and short essays. There's frequently a distinct contrast between my somewhat pedestrian questions and Toufic's extravagant responses; at one point, he uses one of my questions as the answer to another question. Rather than a detached commentary or conventional profile, the interview is here conceived as an extension of Toufic's writing.
Aaron Benjamin Kunin: How would you characterize your writing formally? You frequently cite Nietzsche as a model "laconic" writer, but "laconic" suggests a limited formal range, whereas your recent books include dialogues, scenarios, texts for installations, essays, and letters, as well as aphorisms. Do you consider all of these to be laconic forms in the same sense?
Jalal Toufic: At one level, every fine work of art or literature is laconic: it is because an artwork is the densest manner of rendering and conveying something that it cannot be properly viewed in terms of a message--if a reader insists on speaking of the message of an artwork or of a literary work, he or she should consider it to be the latter as a whole. At another level are laconic only artworks and literary works that effect in their readers or viewers an absence of the interior monologue with its associations.
AK: I'm particularly interested in the way you use letters
Two of the joyous events of my life were related to letters. I remember a period of about three months during the writing of (Vampires) when the most that I would say during the day would be something along the lines of: "Two eggs overeasy, French fries and a coffee. The check, please." My increasingly harsh solitude was leading me into a deadpan disposition to dullness (for a considerable while the working title of my third book was Makes Jack a Dull Boy). It was in this context that on arriving home on 25 March 1993, I found a letter from one of my favorite contemporary writers, essayists and theater artists, Richard Foreman, in which he wrote to the author of a book, Distracted (1991), that was then (and still is) unreviewed and of which one could find only four or five copies in the Chicago metropolitan area: "I glanced at it [your book]--and literally couldn't put it down. I find it an amazing book--and I am not easily amazed. I can think of nothing book-like emerging in the U.S. literary scene for many years that seems to come from a consciousness so totally unique, rigorous, unfathomable' in the best, most potent sense--and yet gripping in a dramatic and engaging way. I'm truly knocked out." I felt I had received the letter through telepathy so distant and disconnected from the world did I feel during that period. Shortly after, I received a fan letter from one of my favorite contemporary musicians, John Zorn. This time, I did not feel I was receiving the letter telepathically.
A fan letter presupposes the solitude of the addressee--even a fan letter to someone idolized by millions. Any star who opens a fan letter, unless he or she is totally insensitive, must feel at least momentarily solitary.
AK: You sometimes address people who may not necessarily be there to receive the communication, such as the model Christy Turlington. Why, in these cases, is it important that the letter actually be sent? Or, to put it another way, what is the role of the recipient?
JT: I can now better appreciate the resistance of people to well-written letters: there is actually an intrusion in these publishable letters though less from the reader in general, than from the untimely collaborator.
AK: The letters invariably open conventionally (date, location, salutation) but do not close conventionally: there's no signatory, which sometimes makes the ending difficult to detect; I find myself reading the following pages of the book as a continuation of lines already traced in the preceding letter. Why is aperture strongly signaled and not closure?
JT: "We are perfect for each other. You are young enough not to have read many books; I am an old enough writer to have been forgetting for years now what I learned in books, art, and films. Gone is my erudition and much of my vocabulary. I presently gravitate towards a few films and a few words, like cadaver." What he was saying was misleading, a form of seduction: they would have fit better together when he was more erudite.
J'ai découvert aujourd'hui vos sites. C'était une belle surprise. MERCI beaucoup d'y avoir pensé. Ils sont intéressants.
Je dois d'abord m'excuser de ne pas vous avoir appelé l'autre jour comme je l'avais promis; quelque chose de désagréable est arrivé: j'ai perdu votre numéro de téléphone. Pour le retrouver, c'est simple, il me suffisait d'appeler Monique. Je l'ai appelée. Elle ne me l'a pas donné. Là, je serai de nouveau en contact avec vous, seulement si vous avez la gentillesse de m'envoyer votre numéro pour que je vous appelle--sinon
Eh vous barbare, beau sultan, ami du Coeur et du malheur... comment va votre belle allure de fakir cireur? Ça serait sympa qu'on s'écrive de temps en temps.
Allez, je vous laisse de la plume mais non du Coeur.
Sara's college schedule: Monday: till noon; Tuesday: till 3; Wednesday: till 2; Thursday: till 4; Friday: till 2.
Jalal Toufic, Naqqâsh,
When she was away from him, he, naturally, missed her. Nonetheless, he intuitively did not ask her to write letters to him. But one day he received one. He felt happy. But he soon became aware, having reread her witty letter several times and desiring to receive a second one then and there, that the letters, while at first a way to minimize missing the beloved, were opening another occasion and avenue for missing. He now missed her presence but also her letters; meeting her in person did not end the latter kind of missing. While waiting for her one day in a café, he wished that she would show up with a new letter and that on characteristically going to the restroom to place water on her hair--"to feel energized"--she would hand it to him to read. "Write to me!" Can this request be satisfied when, however much its addressee writes, the lover will insist that the beloved should have written more, or in such a dense manner that the letter's absorption would take not one or two readings but scores of them? Have Christians been rereading the epistles of St Paul again and again, for many centuries, not necessarily because these letters demand so much perusal in order to be fathomed but because they love St Paul? When a letter is reduced to inscribing the addressee's Name and complaints about the infrequency and shortness of his or her letters, we can be sure that the correspondent has reached the proper state of love.
Did he, naturally, stop missing her when she was with him? "I miss you even when you are with me" (wahishnî winta usâd înî, as an Umm Kulthûm love song says). Is this not the unnatural but paradigmatic situation when with the vampire, who is there with her victim and not there--as shown by the absence of her image in the mirror at the same location? Is it at all surprising that so many of the vampire's victims fall in love with her?
I just called Sara. She cannot meet me today. She is behind in her studies. We are to meet on Sunday.
I just spoke to Sara on the phone. She has exams. She cannot meet me till next Friday.
Jalal Toufic, Naqqâsh
Fortunately, I've been getting much better at waiting these last few years, probably as a result of my renewed keen interest in Duodeciman Shi'ites, this hermeneutical sect still awaiting a messiah whose occultation started over a millennium ago.
AK: Maybe the most striking stylistic feature of your earlier books has been the use of parenthesis: the sentence expands both from within (parenthesis, and parenthesis within parenthesis, and so on) and from without (footnotes). (In this respect Nietzsche seems less useful as a model: your punctuation mark is the parenthesis, whereas his is the dash.) This tendency seems somewhat muted in Forthcoming, which nonetheless identifies, in a footnote, "discontinuity, whether stylistic or thematic" as a recurrent effect in your writing. What accounts for the change in style?
JT: At one level, there has been a break between Distracted and (Vampires), since I died before dying in the interval between finishing the first and starting the second. At another level, and given that style is the renewed variation of the same, whether motif, figure, etc., there has been no change of style between my books. For example, and as Forthcoming mentions, "discontinuity, whether stylistic or thematic, is encountered throughout my work. In Distracted, aphorisms separated by blanks [as well as aphoristic dashes and, in the first edition, parentheses within parenthesis within parenthesis]. In (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, the tunneling of the undead and the specific blanks that stop this tunneling, producing a freezing; the over-turns; and the empty space-time sections of the labyrinth, which produce lapses. In Over-Sensitivity, the irruptions in radical closures, and the empty space-time to the other side of the threshold that dance crosses. And here [in Forthcoming], the atomistic temporality of Islam." Discontinuity is encountered throughout my work also in the form of the untimely end: in Distracted, in the manner of the youthful passionate impatience for suicide; in (Vampires), in the manner of the detachment of sacrificial interruption (the yogic sacrifice of the fruit of the action); and in Forthcoming, in the manner of both the messianic end of the world and the renewed creation of the occasionalist atomistic universe of the Ash'arite Moslem theologians and the Sufi Ibn al-'Arabî.
I dislike relative breaks; they can be eschewed either by constant embedding or else by atomistic or aphoristic absolute breaks.
Nietzsche writes: "To say in ten sentences what everyone says in a book " One can accomplish this objective in a monadic manner. The ten sentences would then have plicated in them (in the form of parentheses within parentheses within parenthesis) or inserted in them (in the form of footnotes--but one would then have to have footnotes within footnotes, which is inelegant) a whole book or even a world. The paradigmatic limit is a monad where the world is plicated or inserted. Interpretation would then be a monadic unfolding: to see a world in less than a grain of sand, in a monad. And that indeed is made explicit in Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, where he writes in the preface: "I have offered in the third essay of the present book an example of what I regard as exegesis' in such a case--an aphorism is prefixed to this essay, the essay itself is a commentary on it." So the third essay is the exegesis of "Unconcerned, mocking, violent--thus wisdom wants us; she is a woman and always loves only a warrior (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)." Thus Nietzsche's book can be considered to consist of ten sentences, the rest being the exegetical unfolding of these.
AK: On the level of the sentence, too, closure and aperture appear to be special problems: it's easy enough to enter the parenthesis but it's often quite difficult to find a way out. What effects do you imagine these sentences having on your readers? Do you envision a reader capable of connecting the end of the parenthesis to its beginning, or do you assume that the technology of the sentence will to some extent outstrip the reader's capacity to enjoy it?
JT: If on reaching a parenthesis that at long last closes many intervening ones, the reader cannot remember the beginning of the sentence whose continuation he now faces, he will experience being slower than oneself. Such a structure of writing is thus partly an apprenticeship in that offbeat state of speed.
AK: Somewhere in Distracted (I note that it's sometimes difficult to locate remembered passages in your books) you disclaim any interest in stream-of-consciousness writing. Does your writing present consciousness as something other than a stream (as, say, a series of interruptions)? Or do you not conceive of your writing as presenting an image of consciousness at all?
Another stylistic effect: the laconic "no." What kind of answer is "no"?
The copyright notice to Distracted says: "The whole of this book or any parts of it can be created by others and hence may be produced by them without permission from the author and the publisher. No part of this book may be paraphrased in any form or by any means." Your other books seem to conceive intellectual property somewhat differently: part of the task of the footnotes, it seems, is to provide elaborate documentation for references to other books (including your own). Moreover, in Over-Sensitivity, Werner Herzog is called "dishonest" for failing to credit Iraq as the producer of Lessons of Darkness, his film documenting oil fires in Kuwait; in Forthcoming you suggest that, in the case of a quotation that irrupts ahistorically within a radical closure, it would be irrelevant to give information about the source. What, for you, is the value of citation?
JT: The resort to citation in my books indicates either that I did not receive the unquestionable line or paragraph at the end of a perforation of a wall (Distracted); or that I was not the untimely collaborator of the writer I am quoting, that he or she wrote it at the price possibly of his or her madness, that realm where he or she is "alone with the alone," the double, and with the (diegetic) voices(-over). I would not use quotation were my work to become a radical closure in which what seems to be sentences or figures from the work of other writers or artists irrupts (despite the remarkable similarity of Toba Khedoori's Untitled [railing], 1996, to one of the panels of Magritte's diptych The Disguised Symbol, one should not hastily consider it in terms of influence or imitation or appropriation or citation, since both Magritte and Khedoori are radical closure artists; it would be more accurate to think that the former painting irrupted from the black of the terrace panel in Magritte's diptych--one day another specimen of that Magritte painting may irrupt in the white of Khedoori's painting).
AK: When you cite yourself--when you refer to earlier books or when you refer, inside a book, to another passage in the same book--is that an expression of continuity (demonstrating that you've always been saying the same thing) or discontinuity (you refuse to take responsibility for something said elsewhere, because you're not the same person--as you say, "unique, and thus irreplaceable, that which cannot be replaced even by himself/herself")?
JT: If I sometimes quote myself, it is because I have a loathing of paraphrasing--even myself. In terms of the relation between my various books, the crucial issue is less whether the person who wrote them has changed in the meanwhile, as whether in the writing of a certain book the author's concern was to establish a universe or to break it up and disperse it (émietter l'univers, as Nietzsche says). While the latter was the crucial thing for me in (Vampires), what was important to me in Over-Sensitivity and Forthcoming was producing a universe that, as Philip K. Dick puts it, doesn't fall apart two days later.
AK: It always startles me to see you offer corrections of existing artworks and past historical events; these corrections are sometimes done in the mode of obligation (Saddam "should have" appeared on TV dressed as Hitler), less frequently in the mode of chance (it "would have been felicitous "). What authorizes these corrections?
JT: I sometimes feel that the writer or artist either did not heed his or her untimely collaborator (in this case, myself); or else that he or she tampered with or paraphrased the unquestionable that he or she received at the end of a perforation of a wall. In such cases, it would have been felicitous
AK: In several places in Forthcoming, you describe yourself as "afraid," "surprised," "anxious" on discovering any confirmation of what you've written. Why is this possibility so troubling? How do you feel, on the other hand, about the possibility that you could be mistaken? (Is that possibility addressed in your writing on portraiture?)
JT: Why was it of such importance to me to publish (Vampires), when it was actually basically addressed to the dead, specifically to my amnesiac version in the undeath realm? It was to a considerable degree so that the few living authors whose writings mattered to me would show me how erroneous my scary ideas were, prove to me that they are fancy notions, making it easier for me to dismiss them. What genuine thinker has not been apprehensive that at least some of his alarming ideas prove right? Instead the book was, as usually happens in such cases, for the most part and for a long time overlooked. There is also the circumstance that whenever one's out of this world concepts appear in the world, one has the apprehension of an imminent psychosis (Lacan's formula for psychosis: "What is foreclosed from the Symbolic returns in the Real").
That is the Question
In the diegesis of Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, 1942, the Polish actor Josef Tura is each time interrupted by the disruptive departure of an audience member at the moment when he declaims on stage Hamlet's "to be, or not to be--that is the question." We quickly discover that this line that begins Hamlet's soliloquy is the coded signal for the pilot infatuated with Tura's wife to meet her backstage. But maybe the more basic reason Tura is recurrently interrupted at that point is that "to be, or not to be" is not the question; the question is rather the one that theater artist Romeo Castellucci poses in and apropos of his Amleto, 1992: to be and not to be. Indeed soon enough Tura, who is now impersonating the Nazi collaborator Professor Alexander Siletsky, is ushered by the Gestapo into a room where the corpse of the "real," murdered spy Siletsky is seated: Tura is thus intimately implicated in a situation where someone is in both states of being and non-being, is and is not.
Out of the Question
A man enters the hall of a hotel, sits at a table, and begins filling the different blank spaces in a form. First name: Safa; age: 27; hair color: brown; eye color: brown; height: 5 feet 7 inches; distinguishing marks: scar on right palm At the reception desk, a waiter is speaking on the phone: "Can you please give more specifications? Thank you." The waiter places the receiver on the desk and moves to the entrance of the large hall and surveys its occupants. There are only four men there. Although the man filling the form is clearly busy, the waiter heads towards him and asks him: "Excuse me, are you Sam?" On getting an irritated "No," he goes to the other corner of the large hall and asks the man sitting there, who is in the midst of a heated conversation and who is physically very unlike the first man--the two could not possibly answer to the same description the waiter received on the phone; indeed the man addressed by the conversing person is more physically similar to the one filling the forms: "Are you Sam?" He gets a negative response.
A few days later, Safa gives an attractive woman a dress as a gift. He is unaware that she is the lover of the other, older man who was questioned whether he's Sam. He worries that the dress may not be her size and thus not become fully hers. On meeting her the following day, and before he can ask her whether it is the right size, she says: "I don't want to lead you on; I have a lover. So, please accept your gift back." Nothing could have better indicated to him that that dress was already irrevocably hers; instantly it changed from being possibly not hers because the wrong size to being totally hers, since being a gift to her it would be totally useless and somewhat obscene if returned. He refuses to take it back. When they meet accidentally a few days later, she apologizes. A week later, when she shows up the first time at his hotel room, she is wearing it. He is very pleased to see that it is the right size. "You wonder if asking me to give you my Mondays and Wednesdays is too much to ask. Yes it is too much to ask because it is too little to ask--since you are not asking for everyday, or every other day, of the week." She takes off the dress saying: "I ran from place to place all morning in this humid weather. I am going to take a shower. Can I borrow one of your shirts?" When she comes out of the bathroom, the shirt reaches down to her knees. She looks charming in it. "What initially attracted me, a writer, to you is your name. The first time I heard it was two weeks ago. I had just been asked whether my name is Sam, when I saw this man come in the room and yell your name; at which point I saw you come out of the phone booth and join him. You may not know this: he is a counterfeiter of paintings. One day he may ask you to assist him in his work."
-- So you had never before
heard of anyone called Page!
-- No, being a foreigner.
-- Even so! How long have you been in this country?
-- Five years.
-- How old are you?
-- You're young.
-- With some people, age is better counted in terms of the number of years separating them from death--so I might be very old.
-- Like how old?
The two dissimilar men who were asked whether they were Sam, becoming doubles, embark on separate journeys to try to reach the acquaintances and documents that would redifferentiate them (the 27-year old man, who thinks that because he is suicidal he is older than his passport age, ends up that same year not being 27 because he turns into the double of someone in his late thirties). One of the two encounters a series of obstacles that prevents him from reaching his destination: his car breaks down during the trip; he hitchhikes a ride, but following a series of unexpected misfortunes, the driver, suspecting his companion of being a jinx, rudely ejects him by the roadside. The other reaches his destinations, but either these have been destroyed: the small hospital where his wounded palm was sutured had burned down; or the persons he questions, for instance the doctor-acquaintance who did the suture, have for some reason been affected with amnesia.
Some time later, the two doubles visit Page in prison. Her hair has been cut very short. One of the two men begins crying, repeating: "You look so different!" Hearing a guard yell that the visit time is over, she instinctively stretches her hand to caress them. A shiver goes through her as her hand touches instead the cold surface of the separating prison glass. The other man quickly finishes scribbling a few words on a piece of paper and holds it against the glass while grabbing the crying man's arm to lead him out. She espies: "Holding his hand, I am feeling exactly like you do as you move your hand over the glass." A shiver passes through her.