Percival Everett: theory, philosophy and fiction
organized by the ERIAC Research Center (ED 4705)
at the University of Rouen
on May 2ndand 3rd 2019
Percival Everett’s work has been delighting its readers with engaging plots, rich with suspense and surprises. The diverse gallery of his characters offers many an opportunity for sympathy, identification, empathy, criticism, amusement or estrangement. One of the feats achieved in Everett’s work consists in blending sometimes complex theoretical and philosophical backgrounds into his (breath-)taking plots, thus granting further degrees of satisfaction to the attentive readers. The extra layers thus admitted into the reading experience, variously perceptible according to the readers, contribute to the singularity of Everett’s style. Despite the variety in genres, tones and topics from one book to another, all are marked by such tension between realism and theory, illusion and metafiction, all happily resolved in Everett’s unique literary pieces.
Theory and more specifically philosophy feed his narratives, and visibly appear through quotations, of authors’ names, words and sentences, and inform the structures of his novels and stories. Literary criticism, its excesses and deviations are targeted in erasure, for instance, through a parody of S/Zand the absurd behavior of the representatives of the Nouveau Romansociety, as well as in Glyph, in which Roland Barthes is given the part of an inveterate seducer. Mathematics and more precisely logics widely inform Everett’s work, as perceptible in Glyphfor instance, through baby-genius Ralph’s calculations and speculations. Percival Everett by Virgil Russellincludes mathematical formulae (pp.127, 129), refers to Russell, while mathematical symbols even offer their structures to the title of Everett’s poetry collection Re: f(gesture).
Many a passage throughout Everett’s works consists in playful logical arguing, as ironically emphasized through numerous logical links and markers. Dialogues especially bring out the ambiguities and logical discrepancies in communication, hence the numerous opportunities for misunderstanding. At the heart of such playful dialogues, sometimes verging on the absurd, Everett’s studies in Language Philosophies pervade his whole oeuvre, partly turning it into a playfield. The great names of Language Philosophies run throughout his work: Wittgenstein, Austin, White, Russell, Frege appear in Glyph, The Water Cure, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, to name but a few. According to Everett himself, fiction allows one to try out language structures much more efficiently –and enjoyably-than in readymade, artificial dialogues, disconnected from any actual situation or context. Yet in his fiction many a dialogue, in its forms and structures, is redolent with those artificial test samples, as in The Water Cure, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, with its ontological quiz set by the protagonist’s first name, “Not Sidney”.
More generally Everett’s whole oeuvre abounds in puns, jokes and witticisms. Overtly or more insidiously the many ways in which language escapes its user’s control are being explored, to enhance the infinite possibilities for ambiguity, misunderstanding and creativity offered by language. The distorted passages in The Water Cure bring to the fore the vulnerability of meaning and language while exposing some of the main principles upon which reading and communication rely, mostly anticipation, thus opening ways for prejudice to deviate the speaker’s/writer’s originally intended meaning. Such wide philosophical questions are raised in Everett’s work, through both its topics and forms, with the question of responsibility looming in the background, so to speak, as well as that of the canon and more largely of norms.
Some of the following questions may be pursued:
How do theory and philosophy inform Everett’s narratives in their topics and structures, at the macro- and micro-levels both? How does such massive presence inflect the nature and definition of fiction, allowing for a renewal of the genre? What is the specific part played by metafiction in his work? How does it contribute to blur the limits between tones, genres and possibly art forms while questioning the very creative process? More largely, the emphasis may be laid on the making of books, and the various sources of inspiration flowing into them. To what extent and in what ways do Everett’s writing and painting relate, and what forms does the quest for abstraction take in each? What can narrative and fiction in general bring to the theoretical and philosophical fields?
Alain Badiou has emphasized the necessity to reconsider the relationships between philosophy and art at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, after the didactic, Romantic and classical schemes have proved to no longer be able to define the relations between art and philosophy. Badiou’s concept of “inesthétique” may offer an angle of approach of the specific place of philosophy in Everett’s art: “By ‘unaesthetic’ I mean a specific way for philosophy to relate to art, itself understood as a source of truths, so that philosophy in no way claims to take art as an object of philosophical study. Against aesthetic speculation unaesthetics describes the strictly internal philosophical effects generated by the independent existence of a few artworks.”
Indeed the reflection carried out in common during the conference may keep as an aim the attempt to bring forth some of the truths produced by Everett’s work, or at least some of the main phenomena observable in the work, as related to our perception of and being in the world. Among them, one may try to highlight both “the ambivalent role and the absolute singularity of the literary fact” (Jean-François Favreau, Vertige de l’écriture, 8), as well as its subversive power. Indeed Everett’s work brings to the fore the nature of the artistic writing as resistance, according to Foucault’s view of literature as “some kind of monster as well as a resource, but also as a formidable resistance”, the “permanence of some subterranean trend in Western thought that has been kept aside by the ruling order” (Favreau, 9). The conference will ultimately have as one of its ambitions to explore the complex interactions between the canon and the margins, creative practice and critical thought, art and philosophy.
Abstracts should be sent to Anne-Laure Tissut (email@example.com) by September 30th2018