The Invisible Armada

The left-hander's revenge

Alain Brossat



The left-hander's revenge

The challenge, in the particular conditions of this summer university, is to give, especially at the opening, a presentation which, at the same time is likely not to disappoint the expectations of my philosopher friends, who have come in large numbers, and not to leave out the others, more numerous still, and no less deserving even though they would never have read a line either from Plato, or from Kant, or from Deleuze or Foucault. The exercise is difficult, I did my best to maintain an equal balance between the two parties, the exercise is difficult, we will see, from your reactions, how I got out of it.

I looked for my inspiration in The Words , the autobiography in the form of self-analysis by Jean-Paul Sartre. The track that I wanted to find there, having read it a long time ago, is that of destiny, without capital letters and in the particular sense that Sartre gives to this word: how, in our childhood, is forged or formed our destiny, how the major folds of our life are shaped later, in a set of dense interactions between assignments or interpellations coming from the entourage on the one hand and, on the other, lines of force that the subject draws himself. In my case, and to go straight to the subject of our week of reflection, what I would like to explore with you is how, very early on, I entered the path of a minority destiny. And the way, therefore, if we follow the path blazed by Sartre, we then only continue in the same direction, through situations and experiences, challenges and opportunities.

As you can see, I immediately set aside all sorts of dimensions of the problem raised by our general title “Being/becoming a minority”, this in order to focus on questions of subjectivation in relation to experience and “the proper”. So I'm not going to consider the problem at all from the angle of minorities as entities that can be identified, objectified, legitimized if you will – sexual, national, religious minorities, etc. What interests me here is not minority as a state or status, but as a condition, to be a minority in (a) situation , to use the Sartrean vocabulary – there, then, where the world or the given and a human subject equipped with his own experience meet.

My minority destiny is, I am convinced, now that I have most of my life behind me, inseparable from my left-handed situation . For people of my generation, being in the minority as a left-hander was not quite an almost normal and banal, to be sure, situation - as it is supposed to be today; rather an anomaly and a source of inconvenience. We were (the left-handed people of my generation, in France), in the family space as in the framework of the educational institution, located on a fault line: no longer openly repressed as left-handed (as my paternal grandfather who, being left-handed, nevertheless had to learn to write with his right hand, while using his left as soon as he would grasp a tool, hence his writing in "fly's legs") ; but still, I had to face from the start, the constraint of the straight norm: my parents taught me to hold a fork and a spoon as if I was like them, like everyone else . It stuck with me, but I can just as well eat left-handed – which allows me, when my Taiwanese friends congratulate me on the dexterity with which I handle chopsticks, to go one better: and what is more, I retort; I also can with the left hand, which is probably not your case!

But this is only a weak revenge on fate, which is infinitely less glorious. When you arrive at the preparatory course (first class of the elementary school)  and it turns out that, decidedly, you cannot hold your pen holder equipped with a sergeant-major pen  (such was its trademark name which left its inprint on generations of schoolboys and girls) in your right hand and regularly poured in the hole installed in the desk in front of you, the teacher does not insist and lets you grab the thing with your left hand. And that's where the problems start. You wear a regulation black or gray blouse and infallibly, as soon as you draw the first lines with a clumsy hand, and on a notebook made for right-handed people, your sleeve comes to rub on the paper, and this with an awkward hand writing: you make “blocks” (stains), and as you have to write according to a procedure that thwarts your natural, instinctual gesture, you form the letters badly and it does not take long before you undergo your first Althusserian interpellation: the teacher proclaims to the face of the world (the world class) that you write like a cat (chicken scratch, in English).

And whoever began to write like a cat at five or six years old will generally write like a cat all his.her life - the reason why precisely even today, when my wife who has learned to write in ideograms before she became familiar with Latin characters tells me that she can't read what I've scribbled on a shopping list, my first move is to hang her on the nearest coat rack...

The reason why I have always, I am convinced of it more than ever, fared poorly in the rare competitions (school and academic competitions) that I have sit for - not that I was more stupid or less studious than another, but that, writing like a cat , I could only alienate the best-disposed of examiners.

What must be understood is the rapidity and the inevitability with which, starting from this originary experience, everything can be linked: to write like a cat, can be  easily associated with the difficulty to set on paper and addition, a multiplication or a division, to sketch a square or a circle, very simple things, to draw numbers no less than letters. So you head straight for the aversion to calculation, then geometry, then mathematics in general and then, by extension, the so-called scientific disciplines in secondary school – physics and chemistry. Let's not talk about the manual work which was then a minor discipline but compulsory and where I have kept alive the bitter memory of having made fun of myself for a few years - then equipped, as the teacher kindly pointed out to me, with two left hands. 

Your destiny is shaped when you begin, by force of circumstance, to face this type of summons or interpellations (“Hey, you, there, the left-hander!”) and, possibly, to imagine and improvise subjective and practical parries, counter-behaviours. I mean by this that the minority destiny (because left-handers are distinctly and quite exhaustingly perceived and designated, in this context, as a minority), is something that we give ourselves, that we forge, as much that we undergo it. So, you'll start to invent strategies and tactics, countermeasures, make choices – which you don't yet know are life choices, which engage your entire existence. You're going to say to yourself: well, I'm bad at maths, physics and chemistry, but that's okay – these things are not of great interest. The same goes for manual work – it doesn't matter if, in compensation, I'm good at physical education, if I'm good at football (soccer). It's the principle of communicating vessels: the worse I am at maths, the more I will excel in literary subjects, foreign languages, history-geography...

Which is the royal road, of course, to becoming a precocious intellectual, and an intellectual not well aligned, even slightly dissenting, because in conflict with a whole section of school education – hard to imagine how many times, in class councils the maths teacher categorically opposed that  I would be granted the ritual “congratulations” claimed for me by the teachers of literary subjects - to be so bad at maths, he would argues, it takes a lot of zeal and efforts, it's crudely making resistance!

But destiny is really sealed when the strategies and tactics that one adopts by force of circumstance within the framework of the school institution (in order to comply with all that is related to the bad luck od being left-handed) is, so to say, legitimized and validated by the only other authority that weighs against School – the family. As far back as I can remember, I have always heard my parents say in unison and with a big smile, when relatives or friends inquired about my school performance: “Alain? Alright, but he sucks at maths!” this as if it were the distinct mark of a superior intelligence...

How, under these conditions, not to be tempted to make one's own nullity in mathematics a kind of work of art and to persevere there... to the bitter end? In other words, one becomes a kind of snob : one displays one's nullity in maths and sciences as a distinction, the one by the grace of which one reverses the stigma: you put me in my place, that of the left-hander who writes like a cat (variant: like a pig), well, I take my revenge and I regain the ascendancy by giving the finger to maths and all that is related to it! I become interesting (in my minority singularity) only insofar as my talent in literary subjects expressly has as counterpart my ostensible contempt for all I can associate with troubles deriving from my small (left-handed) difference...

Then, once again, everything will follow as if automatically, quite naturally, like in a Lego construction game (registered trademark): from good in French and in Latin, I move on to good in philosophy, and when you are lucky enough to come across two successive philosophy teachers who spot you and encourage you, the path is traced, all you have to do is continue on this resolutely minority road, up to a point eccentric, suspicious to tell the truth, non-compliant, possibly subversive...

 In the good city of Besançon where all this happened in the 1960s, my two philosophy teachers, Pierre and Ariane Lantz, a couple, were known to the entire local bourgeoisie like the white wolf, a two-headed white wolf, as opponents of the war in Algeria, free thinkers, driving around in 2CVs (Citroën's car for low income people, at that time), professing radical ideas quite shocked by the war in Algeria, free thinkers, professing rather shocking radical ideas, potential suborners of the young people they were in charge with, etc. Displaying my philosophical vocation by following them, I knew what I was doing.

Here, I would like to open a parenthesis, to make a clarification: the left-hander, in the configuration in which I found myself, is neither repressed, nor openly stigmatized, nor even, strictly speaking, thwarted, as the psychologists say . No one ever called me a dirty left-hander , as some say "dirty Jew", "dirty Arab", "dirty Negro", "dirty queer"... But  at the same time, tangible vexations and annoyances have been there, long-lasting and heavy enough, to such an amount that, looking over my shoulder, I can state, auto-analytically, that they have, in a decisive way, contributed to making me a destiny. It is this interval between normality (as belonging to the majority) and what assigns a subject to a variable a-normal condition (and for this reason minor) that interests me here - precisely because this condition is placed under a sign of uncertainty: I was not discriminated against as a left-handed person, I can't call myself a victim of anything, but I can say that I was bored enough as such to be driven to arrange all kinds of counter-behaviours on my awkwardness and, at the limit, as I said above, to be tempted to make a work of art out of it (in the relationship of oneself to oneself – Foucault's care for oneself) .

To be born left-handed in a world of right-handed people meant for me to live for a long time, if not perpetually, in a certain state of disorientation. Spatial, first, but this can easily tend to become a paradigm: until my early adolescence at least, I could not distinguish my right from my left by an operation of pure intellection, so I had to routinely make use of an infallible expedient : I looked at my thumbs, knowing that it is on the left one that I have kept a longitudinal scar, that of an injury that I inflicted on myself while clumsily wielding... a hatchet when I was a kid , during summer vacations in a village. There, we come close to the “do it yourself” which the left-handed person must constantly engage in to reorient him.herself in a world which has not been arranged and marked out for him. He.she must trick with the forms and rules established a priori in a naturally right-handed world and, to do this, enter into resolutely minority behaviors.

And once again, "from there, everything is sorted", as were regularly read in Sade's novels, where he describes complicated sex scenes. We must learn to constantly reorient ourselves, and to do so on our own terms, for our own account, that is to say without doing like "the others", the majority, therefore by inventing a minority mode which is not only different from the majority mode, but often opposes it. We then become familiar with an essential operation: that which consists in establishing chains of equivalence between the minority mode and the truth or thinking against it, thinking against the stream. The passage to the political sphere, in the extensive and global sense, is obvious here: we are left-handed, constantly decried as clumsy (“gauche” in French, like “gaucher”, left-handed)  so we are inclined to the left, we must learn to make that our thoughts tend to the left , –  associations and equivalences, can be here arranged and displayed  here almost too easily. 

But on condition of specifying that, believe me, during the years of my adolescence, the 1960s, orienting oneself to the left, in all the dimensions of the thing, in a city like Besançon, in a quite tight bourgeois environment , even teacher and intellectual, years before May 68 and the epoch-making strike of the Lip, it was really to espouse the minority condition. And it connects with all kinds of different matters, each of them more convincing than the other. I remember a day of Solemn Communion in high school – the Catholics, on this occasion would skip class, wear a white alb and, the next day, parade with the brand new watch received as a gift... Well, that day, out of a class of thirty, there were four or five of us in class: a Jew, a few Protestants and me, the only declared non-believer in the class. Then, you start wearing a red anorak and declaring yourself, more out of a taste for provocation than out of conviction, in 4th grade, a “communist”. And then again, as we were in the middle of the Algerian war, you say all the good that you think of the Arabs in general and of the FLN (the Algerian nationalist movement fighting for independance)  in particular, and to proclaim it all the more loudly, in 1962, that the first European “returnees” from Algeria  arrive,  addict to French Algeria and barded with OAS slogans (far right terrorist movement opposed to the independance of Algeria)   (but we're kids too – all that didn't prevent one of them from becoming one of my best buddies).

Under these conditions, the minority condition can become, if one does things well, a distinction, a plus as we say today. It's the paradigm of football game that I practiced for a long time: being left... footed, here, it provides certain advantages, as long as you know how to make good use of it.

So, basically, this is how, starting from a story of nerves not disposed like those of the majority, one manufactures a minority destiny. Once the frame is in place, all you have to do is follow the signs, the beacons, model, polish, refine – for example, activate simply and for a long time in order to give a more consistent turn to the vague being “from the left" - by becoming, for example, a professional revolutionary for a few years in a leftist organization that emerged from May 68. But basically, once the line is drawn, all these extensions, all these little “focus” are not that important.  What matters is the moral of the story, insofar as it has a philosophical significance, well beyond the anecdote.

Sartre, in The Words again, quotes Chateaubriant, (whom he nevertheless hated, to the point of going to piss on his grave in Brittany), saying: “I know very well that I am only a machine for making books”. And if he quotes it, it is, of course, to apply critically, ferociously, the same remark to himself, in a radically self-destituting mode. When I read that, I tell myself that I just have to take my turn in the queue: "I'm just a machine for making books", for laying out texts without a break; in other words, everything I'm dedicated to as the best of myself, and with more and more the energy of despair as I near senility, all that, that is nothing but the effect of a compulsion. And the worst is that this compulsion, this symptom, this typical effect of a neurosis, I know now that it is inexorably related to this primal scene where I take a penholder with my right hand not knowing what to do with it, then pass it to the left, and then, bam, when I approached the white squared sheet, I started by making a big stain...

As if, therefore, all the life of the mind supposed to be condensed in a passion for writing was ultimately soluble in this inaugural disappointment with writing and consisted in trying again and again and desperately to overcome the original trauma by gaining recognition through my writing... A poor miracle indeed, poor revenge and a terrible deconstruction: all the minority work of art, the work of a lifetime, is thus reduced to the dimension of a pathetic revenge – not that of a blonde, but of a clumsy left-hander... (see on that: Legally blonde, La revanche d'une blonde, in French, a film by Robert Luketic, 2001).