I live for uselessness:
An interview with Elsa Charléty
by Patrick Carey and Hadley Sorsby-Jones
Hadley and I were in a course on William Faulkner taught by Arnold Weinstein last semester, and when we decided to try some interviews with people who think a lot about reading and writing, our teaching assistant Elsa was one of our first picks. We did this interview together at Amy’s Place in Providence on a Thursday afternoon.
Patrick: First things first. Can you tell us a bit about your work?
Elsa: I started off not doing much American literature in any kind of way. I didn’t think there even was an American literature, or history, or culture, because I was one of those anti-American left-wing students when I was in school. I protested and all that.
Patrick: Well there’s a lot of reasons to be anti-American…
Elsa: But it was very generalizing. Because I was in a high school in France in 2001, with a lot of American students who were white kids from rich ex-pat families. So the vision I had of the United States was this horrible, valley-girl thing, you know? But then when I went to college, I had to take this class on American history, and that was a game-changer for me because I discovered all this new information and felt so stupid. And parallel to this, I had to take a literature class where half of the syllabus was American and I was like, this is really good, I really like it. My professor at the time introduced me to Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell, who is one of the guys I am working on. And I thought, wait a minute, this reminds of this Faulkner guy I had sort of read. And I just kept reading the short stories, O’Connor and the others, and I guess Faulkner is the one who stuck with me because he insists: I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it (the South). You know, that’s kind of him in a nutshell. He has this relationship to the south which in itself is how I felt, looking more and more into Faulkner; so I thought, if I want to understand Faulkner, I have to understand the South. Once you start opening the box “South,” you know…
Patrick: One thing leads to another.
Elsa: Yeah, one thing leading to another I ended up writing a first Masters on Southern Gothic short stories as American Baroque drama. It was a comparative analysis, I was already very comparatist in my approach, looking at all the excess in Southern Gothic literature as something tied with European Baroque forms of excess. And the fact that behind the visual excess you have something about the human condition. It was very naïve, but I still think there’s some value in what I wrote at the time. It was also written in English, and it was poorly crafted because I didn’t really know how to speak English at the time. But it was a very good start to my own research. And then I started broadening the whole thing to notions of relationship to the place, to the history, and how Faulkner situates himself in the narrative of the South, and how he deals with stuff that is not said, stuff that is being said, all of this. And basically I’ve been working on this ever since I was in college; it just came along naturally, one thing leading to another, one text bringing me to another. Recently I’ve been reading this guy, John Esten Cooke, he’s this terrible writer and he writes Civil War epic novels that are just terrible. But it’s also wonderful, because he talks about cavaliers with plumages and he rewrites the history. He says: I’m not interested in the facts of history, I’m interested in the grandeur, you know? And it’s fascinating, his eagerness to rewrite history like this.
Hadley: But does he ever think, you know, grandeur at whose expense?
Elsa: No, never, it’s completely first-degree. And it’s fascinating that this is what was being produced at the time.
Patrick: So it was contemporary to the Civil War?
Elsa: It was right after. And that’s actually what I’m writing about for my dissertation right now. After the war, it’s very complicated to write about what happened. And the people who are closest to the war, they can’t talk about it because they are in this position of trauma. It’s very complicated to write it, and when they do they’re not being listened to; or it’s not being published, because this isn’t what people in power want to be published. At least in the South they wanted this counter-narrative to the North’s victory; they’re saying, we won because we fought with panache. So the only thing being published at the time— which is different from what is being written, because a lot of what’s written goes unpublished— are these horribly written epic novels that are just so blindly pro-Confederate without any reflection. There’s a couple of them, and they failed completely. This is why you have this emptiness in literature at the time. And when that ended, people started writing all the Old South novels that are just as bad but don’t talk about the war. They try to compensate for the absence of the Civil War by writing about this South that never existed, in order to win a cultural war that was lost militarily. And this is where Faulkner comes in, at the tail end of all that. He says, wait a minute, it’s more complicated than that, let me bring all this dirt to the surface.
Patrick: So this is your work right now.
Elsa: Yeah. And this is where questions of haunting come in, which are really my thing, because they want to write this epic drama of the South, and because they fail to do so they are haunted by the novel that was never written. And I think that someone like Faulkner— you know when there are all these male characters haunted by cavaliers and that type of stuff? I think this is a reference to this epic novel that was never written. Characters like Hightower [in Faulkner’s Light in August], who is haunted by the horse of his dead grandfather; we’re not even sure if he was in the war, and he dies in a lame way, but that doesn’t matter. So you see, he’s sort of paying homage to that while saying it’s more complicated.
Patrick: How do you write about the stuff that failed?
Elsa: I love digging up old texts that haven’t been taken into account. And the way it works is you read a guy who mentions a text, and you go see the text, and he mentions another guy, and so on. And then you go on the Internet and find out some university has digitized all of these novels. I can’t read a novel on my computer, so I find it or buy it.
Patrick: Okay, and does history play a big role in your work? You said your path was finding Faulkner and then moving to the history. And for us it’s kind of the opposite, of course, because we’re learning a certain version of history in the United States long before we touch Faulkner.
Hadley: Right, and Faulkner would never make it into my public high school because there’s incest and all that in his novels.
Elsa: But that’s what makes it good. And this is exactly what I’m writing about: how we create the South as an identity even though it’s not true, we create the North as an identity even though it’s not true. But these identities have consequences on the real lives of people, and I’m fascinated by the power of knowledge and the use of knowledge as power.
Hadley: I was sixteen years old before I learned that Reconstruction was a really cruel time in American history. We were taught that the Reconstruction was when the South was rebuilt, and that was that.
Elsa: It’s really interesting, because that’s tied with where I’m taking my research now. When I realized how much the history of the United States was constructed, I went back to France and realized that the first time I ever heard about the Haitian Revolution was in a history class when I was a sophomore in college. It was the first time I ever heard that France owned Haiti, that there was a revolution and a Declaration of Independence of the first Black republic, and that France crushed them in 1804. And even that was just mentioned in passing. And so I started to think: I had to go the United States and look at how literature, history, race, class, and gender were intertwined around this question of the South to then realize that I could use what I had seen in someone else’s space to go back to my own space and question what was really going on, in the way France was constructing its own history. And this is how I got interested in Haiti, which is where I’m bringing my second research project: the way the Haitian Revolution was portrayed in the pre-Civil War South, what effect it had on planters, and whether it played a role in consolidating certain ideas of slavery or made the slaveowners especially afraid about revolts. It’s a lot of intellectual gymnastics, but I live for this work.
Hadley: Can we zoom out for a bit so you can tell us why you chose to study writing?
Elsa: Because for me it’s the only medium that is respectful enough and true enough to convey the human experience. I’m not satisfied when I do only history or theory, I’m not satisfied when I don’t study literature because when I read a text, it’s like what Emily Dickinson says, if I feel like the top of my head has been chopped off then I know that it’s poetry. And then it becomes about why it’s important— we deal with this a lot in the United States because literature is in the humanities and there are no hard facts, and we’re told it’s useless because we have no hard facts and no method. I live for uselessness. This is all it’s about, being useless is wonderful because it leaves space for amazing creative stuff to happen. If we had asked Faulkner to be efficient we would never have had The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! It’s not just writing, but songs and stories; it brings you closer to the human experience. I’m a French girl from the Alps, how did I end up living in the South in my head? It’s literature, it’s what Toni Morrison says.
Patrick: What does she say?
Elsa: I was really lucky to meet with her one time at the American Embassy in Paris. And during the talk she gave she said, “What did Tolstoy know about writing for a little Black girl in Ohio?” So Toni Morrison reads Tolstoy, who’s this Russian writer, she’s the Black girl in Ohio, and it all contributes to Toni Morrison. And now I’m this French girl from the Alps reading Toni Morrison and reading Faulkner, and I may not be doing creative writing but I can still try to help explain, for example, why Faulkner is amazing. And that’s why I will always be a literature person— I don’t want to be just doing history or social theory, because every time I do that I get miserable and just want to go back to the texts, to look at them and the way language is being used there. For example, my guy with the horrible writing. At some point he quotes from La Chanson de Roland, this medieval French text.
Patrick: Is that the one where he has the horn?
Elsa: Exactly. And Cooke chooses that instead of Anglo-Saxon medieval texts. What does it say? It says: we as Southern people are not the same as the Northerners, we come from the French and not from the English, and we are this kind of hero and not that kind.
Hadley: Can we go back to Faulkner for a second? Before taking the course on Faulkner I had read some relevant theoretical texts like Racial Formation by Michael Omi and Howard Winant and Black Sexual Politics by Patricia Hill-Collins. In these texts, their writers outline a horrible and very systematic dehumanization of Black people in American literature and in cultural narratives from the time of the first colonies to the present, and in Faulkner I saw the exact thing the theorists had described. I didn’t realize it could be so explicit in a work of literature— the way that Faulkner consistently aligns descriptions of Black agricultural laborers on Southern plantations with references to animals, the way he portrays Black women as hyper-sexualized. I was shocked that his writing was such a blatant record of the horrifying cultural pattern of dehumanization that I had read about in those contemporary theoretical texts. So— do you think we can use American literature to help us untangle why our culture is the way it is in terms of racism and white cultural hegemony, and to change it?
Elsa: It’s so multiple, but I think it’s important for us to be able to go and find examples of the things they’re talking about. You read Faulkner, and it’s there. I think Faulkner is so pivotal— he’s at the tail end of the nineteenth century and launching into the twentieth century toward the Civil Rights movement. So he is a very good indicator of the questions that are boiling in the South at that moment. Might he be confirming some of the racism and misogyny, or might he be trying to challenge them? I think it’s important to observe it as it is. Is Faulkner racist? Yeah, probably. But we need records of that, so that when we say there is hyper-sexualization of the Black Woman in the literature of the South, no one can say: oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Trying to understand these other viewpoints doesn’t mean we are falling into cultural relativism, in that everyone should believe what they want; no, we should be challenging oppressive belief systems, and that’s why it can be worthwhile to read Faulkner, or those bad writers from the antebellum and Reconstruction South.
Patrick: Why do we still need history, though, if literature is a more direct account of all the human stuff?
Elsa: I think there is a lot to gain with history, and people do amazing work in history. I’m all for the humanities and interdisciplinary work between these fields. In France, historians are very politically engaged. They think that by looking at the past, they problematize the present. And so there’s a role for each discipline in the humanities. And we need to cling to it, because other disciplines need us. They might not know it, but they need us.
Hadley: It seems like a lot of other fields also have trouble accounting for ambiguity, for all of the stuff that requires a more intuitive understanding— how to confront the contradictions of our own lives and our own thought processes.
Elsa: And that’s why we need it. Like I was saying, with this narrative of the North progressing and the South moving backwards. This is a comfortable narrative because it’s straightforward. If we start saying maybe things are more complicated, maybe this is a construction, then people might just go for the more convenient narrative. We can say: no, I’m not comfortable with this, it’s more complicated.
Hadley: So what should our final question be?
Patrick: What’s your favorite book ever?
Elsa: Absalom, Absalom!
Patrick: I think that book took me like an hour per page.
Elsa: Yeah, but it has everything in it. Everything is in there.
Elsa Charléty is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris and a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown. Her work focuses on literatures from the South, with a particular interest in early short stories by William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. Her areas of interest include representation of bodies and voices in nineteenth and twentieth-century Southern American literature, the literary history of gothic and horror narratives, collective trauma, memory, and loss, as well as traces of the Civil War in Southern history. She comes from Grenoble, France and currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.