Next year will see the centenary of the birth of little-known French theorist, Jean-Louis Bouffard. Our correspondent in Brussels reports…
Literary historians are expecting that sometime soon an adventurous Belgian doctoral student will tackle the thorny and very likely provocative question of Jean-Louis Bouffard, the French theorist who died in August 1988 in circumstances that were as comic as they were tragic. His death had barely been acknowledged in French intellectual circles when, a few days later, the news of it was overshadowed by the exposure of Paul de Man’s wartime collaboration. The ‘de Man question’ so occupied the intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic that the ‘Bouffard question’ was quietly forgotten. In fact, it was probably never asked. Bouffard become known as ‘the theorist who didn’t make it’, which is to say, he did not become known at all.
It is true that he published nothing in his lifetime. His manuscripts, (no-one knows how many), were all rejected by the publishers of the day, (a dubious even if remarkable achievement), and, for obvious reasons, there has been nothing published since. Yet he was well-known at the time within the Paris intelligentsia and was on speaking terms with all the major figures. (‘Shouting terms’ might be a more apt expression, given his apparent intemperance and propensity to personal abuse.) He outlived them all except Jacques Derrida. Derrida seems to have had nothing good to say about him, and it may be that it was Derrida’s decision to take up an academic position in the United States that sparked Bouffard’s final mad act.
They would have had no inkling, the sapeurs-pompiers, of the scene that would confront them that morning in August when they were called to an apartment block in Rue du Beffroi in response to an insistent fire alarm. Inside the apartment they found the emaciated and fully naked (but still breathing) Bouffard overcome by smoke inhalation. It was the bizarre scene that surrounded him that became the subject of the police investigation. At some point during the night before, Bouffard had began tearing up his manuscripts, till by mid-morning that day there was not a sheet of paper left in the apartment that hadn’t been torn to shreds and thrown on the pyre.
Nothing was spared: rejected manuscripts, lectures notes, research notes, shopping lists, private letters and articles by his colleagues. Even Derrida’s de la Grammatologie had not escaped his wrath. The police estimated that, even in his frenzied state, it would’ve taken between eight and ten hours to complete the extraordinary mission. Exhausted from lack of sleep, from lack of food and from the Herculean task of tearing his life’s work to shreds, Bouffard lacked the strength to bring the plan to completion. The funeral pyre burst into flames then spluttered and smouldered, filling the room with acrid smoke from the charred and dismembered pages of Bouffard’s unappreciated works. It was ironic as well as tragic: he had botched his own self-immolation just as he had botched his intellectual career. He did not regain consciousness and passed away two days later. He was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery, thus ending his self-imposed exile in Belgium.
The student could do worse than begin this project with the work of the French Canadian sociologist, Michèle Lamont. Lamont explores the process of legitimation for interpretative theories using, as her example, the successful reception of Derrida’s work in the two very different cultural milieux of France and America. Her convincing account of Jacques Derrida’s phenomenal success, (‘How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida’), seems to be the perfect starting point for an exploration of Jean-Louis Bouffard’s phenomenal failure. The casual dismissal of Bouffard in Paris over the years — that as a theorist, he simply wasn’t ‘any good’ — rather misses the point, for, as Lamont so clearly demonstrates, the successful reception and legitimation of interpretative theory is unrelated to any intrinsic merit the theory might have.
Considerable fortitude will be required to undertake such a project as this. For a start, there are the sixteen garbage bags of charred and shredded paper that, since Bouffard’s death, have lay undisturbed in the evidence archives of the Bruxelles Gendarmes in Rue Marché au Charbon. It was fortuitous that the Brussels police decided to save them, although their explanation — that they felt there might have been a suicide note amongst the papers — beggars belief. Why would anyone incinerate their own suicide note? The garbage bags hold the key to the Bouffard mystery. We can expect insights into Bouffard’s mind, especially in those fateful last years, we might discover the mistakes and missteps that must have lead to his marginalisation, we can at last read his correspondence with Derrida, and ponder the details of his domestic arrangements. But most of all, this is the opportunity to re-construct Bouffard’s various theoretical texts from the fragments and re-present them to an interpretative theory community, hungering for new theoretical developments after many lean years. It will be an extraordinary opportunity for some talented and determined student.