THE WHITE DEER
Back then, I was crazy. I had a seven-hundred-page screenplay on the life of Melville crammed into a box. Herman Melville, the author of Moby-Dick, the greatest of all American writers, the one who, in launching Captain Ahab in search of the white whale, incited a mutiny of global proportions, and through his books offered dizzying prophecies I adhered to for years. Melville, whose life was a never-ending catastrophe, who constantly fought against the thought of killing himself and, after having wonderful adventures in the South Seas and great success telling about them, suddenly converted to literature, that is, to conceiving the written word as truth, and wrote Mardi, which no one read, then Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which no one read either, then The Confidence Man, which, again, no one read, before holing up for the final nineteen years of his life in a customs office in New York, and declaring to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”
Maybe I was crazy, but I had written that screenplay to express what inhabits the solitude of a writer. I knew, of course, that such a thing is impossible to portray. No one can truly represent the thoughts of someone else, because thought exists precisely beyond any external representation. However, that’s what I had attempted to reveal in my screenplay: Melville’s thoughts—that which populated his thoughts.
That population of thoughts is a world, and even the books Melville wrote and published aren’t enough to convey the immensity of the world that inhabits the head of a writer like him. What’s more, there is a line in Moby-Dick that describes that teeming immensity. Talking about the sperm whale: “the unique interior of his head . . . those mystical lung-celled honeycombs.” Well, that’s exactly what my screenplay was about: the mystical honeycombed interior of Melville’s head.
When I talked to producers, I knew it would be a challenge to lay out the subject of my screenplay, and when, at a certain point in the conversation, one of them asked, “But what’s it about?” I really enjoyed saying it was about this: “the mystical honeycombed interior of Melville’s head.”
Was it the word “mystical” or the word “honeycombed” that stunned them? No producer, of course, ever followed up. But I wasn’t discouraged. When you act against your own interests (when you sabotage yourself), it is always out of loyalty to something more obscure which you secretly know is right. After all, what is most precious is as difficult to attain as it is rare.
What’s more, back then, I wasn’t really trying to please, or even to be recognized. What I was looking for was someone who wouldn’t laugh when I told him about the mystical honeycombed interior of a head, someone who wouldn’t look at me as if I were crazy (even if I was), someone who wouldn’t tap on his phone or think about his next meeting while pretending to listen to me, someone who, if I said this to him, “the mystical honeycombed interior of a head,” would simply smile, because what I said pleased him, or because he really understood what it meant. But that someone, if he exists, would have to have the inside of his head mystically honeycombed, as well.
Anyway, I was alone, and The Great Melville was on its way to joining the huge herd of abandoned screenplays. Somewhere there is a great plain covered with dust and bones, maybe a sky, or the moon, where exiled screenplays are piled up. It’s possible they’re waiting, already half-dead, for an actor, an actress, a producer, a director, to look at them, but in general their solitude is forever, and the dust gradually covers up any light they may have emitted.
Most of my friends thought the screenplay was nuts. They thought it was nuts for me to devote my time to such an unbelievable project. In their opinion, no one would ever consider making a film from that screenplay, no one would ever want to watch a film about the life of a writer who fails. What’s more, my friends didn’t want to see me fail because of it. They thought it would have been smarter to write a book about Melville—for example, a biography, but not a screenplay. Screenplays are the death of writers, they said. The moment a writer starts to dream about making a film is precisely the moment that marks his death as a writer. The signal of his impending ruin— for a writer, financial ruin, and above all moral, psychic, and mental ruin—is when he gets it into his head to write a screenplay.
But I had already written the screenplay, I had nothing more to fear. What ruin could I dread? I had written novels, I would write more—I had a thousand ideas for novels in my head, but first I wanted to pursue the adventure of this screenplay to its end. I was devoted to The Great Melville, I wanted to express the solitude of the writer and the mystical nature of that solitude, I wanted to reveal what is inside a mystical honeycombed head.
Because most people, and even my friends, consider writers to be mere raconteurs, possibly good raconteurs who possibly have unique ideas, even enthralling ones, about life and death. Except writing about a guy whose head is mystically honeycombed inside—they usually found that a bit much.
Anyway, back then everyone thought exactly that: that it was all a bit much. I did nothing to try to convince anyone otherwise, I had my idée fixe. Because of course The Great Melville was an impossible film, but that was the point, exactly. The “impossible” was the subject of the screenplay.
Basically, a writer—a true writer (Melville, and also Kafka, I said to myself, or Lowry or Joyce: yes, Melville, Kafka, Lowry, and Joyce, precisely those four, and I repeated their names to my friends and to the producers I met with)—is someone who devotes his life to the impossible. Someone who has a fundamental experience with written words (who finds in the written word a passage for the impossible). Someone to whom something happens that takes place only on the level of the impossible. And it is not because that thing is impossible that it doesn’t happen to him: on the contrary, the impossible happens to him because his solitude (that is, his experience writing words) is such that that type of inconceivable thing can take place, and it takes place through sentences, through the books that he writes, sentences and books that, even if they seem to be about something else, are secretly only about that.
A writer, I told myself, I told my friends, as well as those rare producers with whom I managed to obtain a meeting to talk about The Great Melville, a writer (Melville, and also Kafka or Hölderlin, Robert Walser or Beckett—because I varied my list) is someone whose solitude reveals a
relationship with truth, and who at every moment devotes himself to it, even if that moment comes out of minor tribulation, even if that truth escapes him and seems obscure, even insane. A writer is someone who, even if he hardly exists in the eyes of the world, is able to convey the beautiful as well as the criminal into the heart of that world, and who knows, expressing humor or desolation, the most revolutionary or the most depressing of thoughts, that it is essentially his destiny to do so.
I must say that when I uttered the words “destiny to do so,” even my most well-meaning friends appeared disheartened. They probably considered it a presumptuous delusion, but what could be simpler (and more complicated, of course) than doing so? What could be more important than devoting your life to doing so, and to ensuring that each moment of your life engages with that dimension? Because then, not only do you have a life, you have an existence: you finally exist.
I told myself that a writer, at least Melville or Knut Hamsun or Proust or Dostoyevsky (I really tried to vary my list), is someone whose experience writing words coexists with his experience of being; and fundamentally, because he is permanently committed to words—to what comes out when he writes—he opens up his entire existence, whether he wants to or not, to that experience.
Whether the experience is illuminated by God or, on the contrary, by the death of God, whether it is inhabited or deserted, whether it consists of allowing itself to be absorbed by the trunk of a tree or by grooves in the snow, to be open to the excessive heart of an unknown woman, or to decipher the signs on walls, it carries within something limitless that destines it to be a world unto itself, and thus to change the history of the world.
I lost myself a bit in my presentation, but I did not lose sight of one thing, the most important thing for me. Through Melville’s writing, we experience something about the destiny of being. The proof is that his head was mystically honeycombed.
I remember a friend who claimed that the absolute is only an illusion, a way of “getting all worked up,” as Flaubert once said (she cited Flaubert). In her opinion, Melville, before possibly being the saint that I imagined, was above all an ordinary guy, with his routine, his weariness, and his outbursts: a guy leaning on a wall, who simply speculated on the existence of a hole in that wall. She was right, but for me, that speculation, that hole in the wall, even if it was tiny, was enough. It is enough to think that there is a hole in the wall for the wall itself not to interest me anymore, and for all my thoughts to be drawn to the hole. The man or woman who has one day seen a hole in the wall, or who has simply imagined it, is destined to live with the idea of the hole in the wall, and it is impossible to live with that idea of a hole in the wall without devoting one’s life to it entirely, that’s what I told my friend, and what I repeated to most of my friends, and to the producers who pretended to be interested in the screenplay that I had called The Great Melville.
And then one day I read something by Melville along these lines: in this world of lies, truth is forced to flee into the woods like a frightened white deer, and I immediately thought of that film by Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter. In that film about the Vietnam War, which has lengthy scenes showing a game of Russian roulette featuring Christopher Walken, suggesting that that absurd war was only mass suicide, the hunter, played by Robert De Niro, pursues a deer through a forest in North America; when he finally catches up to it, when he has it in the crosshairs, he doesn’t shoot.
As in some legends, as in the story of Saint Julian the Hospitaller in which the great stag disarms the hunter, the deer spared by De Niro in Cimino’s film is the survivor of a world ruled by crime, it bears witness to a truth hidden in the woods, to something that goes beyond the criminality of the world and which, in a sense, overcomes it: the innocence that escapes an America absorbed in its bellicose suicide. Because the deer, by escaping the slaughter, reveals all that threatens it: the world which has become the sacrificial prey.
That afternoon I said to myself: that deer is Melville—it’s Melville-Kafka-Lowry-Joyce, or Melville-Hölderlin-Walser-Beckett, or Melville-Hamsun-Proust-Dostoyevsky—it is the destiny of literature, its mystical embodiment, maybe even its honeycombed head.
I was in my car, listening to France Culture on the radio, when I heard Tiphaine Samoyault, a writer I like, quote that line from Melville about truth that must flee into the woods like a frightened white deer. She explained quite brilliantly that this conception of truth was close to that of the Greeks, and to what Parmenides called aletheia, truth as veiling / unveiling. Truth is not an immutable concept, it appears and disappears, it is an epiphany, it exists only through the burst of light that makes it possible. I was absolutely enthralled with what I was hearing, and in my head, along with all the names constantly running around in it night and day and constantly forming relationships, now there was a white deer running through kilometers of forests, upon which my thoughts, night and day, were now concentrating (my head is a forest of names, which explains my fatigue). While thinking of the deer that appears in Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and which, in freezing opposite Robert De Niro, seems to expose the essential truth of human madness, I also thought of Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider, which you can see in the Frick Collection in New York, probably because of the stark whiteness of the horse stopped in the middle of darkness, as if the war were suspended for a few seconds, and amidst the hecatomb, in a brief flash, there arises the light of truth.But if I begin to tell you everything that comes to me, if I detail all my thoughts, and how and why they occur to me, if I tell you about their simultaneity, this story will go on forever.