Did we talk about Thérèse as a family?
Since her youth, my mother kept a rose petal like they sold in Carmel. It was a somewhat superstitious relationship with the saints.
When do you read his texts?
As a teenager, I read a short biography of her, without being affected by it. Then, around 19 or 20 years old, I started reading a lot: the mystics, John of the Cross, the manuscripts of Thérèse of Lisieux and many other things. A few years later, I was asked by Editions du Seuil to contribute to a small collection which published texts by mystics. Spontaneously, I proposed a volume on Thérèse of Lisieux. When writing the preface, my closeness to her became apparent to me immediately, through the analogies between her family history and mine. Like her, I had been separated from my mother as an infant. I had lost my grandmother – a kind of mother to me – at the age when she lost her mother… Above all, I too had been ill.
Thérèse died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. You suffered from cancer…
My choice of texts by Thérèse of Lisieux was that of an ex-patient. I tried to reach a reader who was not necessarily a believer and who had gone through a human ordeal such that he could understand that described by the Carmelite
By understanding that she was condemned, she would have entered into a “night of faith”.
I think – and the theologian Maurice Bellet spoke about it magnificently – that it is something else. Thérèse refers to nothingness. It is not the doubt, the search, which all people of faith experience, but an interior collapse. We lose everything we believed in. I am not a believer in the religious sense, but I have experienced this at times, losing this form of faith which animates artists, writers, mobilized by a deep attachment to their research.
Thérèse, dying, nevertheless continues to affirm her faith…
She is very clear that she experiences what atheists experience. Little by little, she transforms the ordeal of collapse by projecting a possible meaning into it. Continuing to want to believe allows him to stand up.
Wanting to believe, is that not still believing?
When I say that Thérèse loses her faith, it is to oppose the euphemism of “the dark night”. But I find this woman admirable who internally loses all her confidence and retains a form of belief.
Is this feeling of psychological collapse familiar to you?
At times, unexpectedly, I experienced very brief but profound breakups, in which I felt a kind of dread. I find that in Thérèse: the sudden evidence that there is nothing. Like a breach, then sealed by life, but which I know is always present within me. I have great empathy for Thérèse because I intimately recognize what she experiences, this complete lack of confidence. If I could have one faith, it would be a faith absolutely without expectation. As if God didn’t exist. Something that is not chosen, but suffered. I think Jesus on the cross suffered, “Why have you forsaken me?” (A word from Jesus on the cross according to the Gospels, Editor’s note). For me, these breaches are complete exposures. There is no longer culture, there is no longer faith, if we have a faith. Sometimes I didn’t even have faith in literature anymore. All that remains is the naked being, facing the immensity of the unknown and the anguish.
The experience of love cannot resist this breach?
What keeps Thérèse going is the projection she makes on the face of Jesus. And that’s admirable. In his film Therese, Alain Cavalier took over a very moving scene. The young woman on her deathbed plucks rose petals from the Jesus of her crucifix. And she laughs about it. The rose symbolizes love. She makes a gesture of care, basically. Love manifests itself essentially in care. I saw it while caring for my grandfather at the end of his life, and as a patient, cared for by my partner. In extreme situations, only this treatment which does not even wait for healing allows us to hold on.
What did you learn from supporting your grandfather at the end of his life?
It took me very far. With my mother, we accompanied him as one takes care of his child, night and day, washing him, changing him. On various occasions, he would become delirious, see dead people, then return to his normal state. It lasted four months. It tests love, beyond affect. Such a relationship cleanses us of our necessarily ambivalent relationship with the people we have loved. We are just with the body-mind of the other which is leaving. It’s very trying and it seems to me to be a great human comfort. This relationship gave me immense respect for the dying person. Being it to the end.
Going through such an ordeal marks a step forward in the inner life?
I was not able to truly write before experiencing the destitution that the illness imposed on me: the extreme fatigue, the chemo, the feeling that we could get to the other side. Before, I wrote, I was looking for a kind of extreme. However, the inner journey begins when we no longer seek but endure. I wrote my first book based on my experience of illness. There, we are really humble.
You are familiar with Thérèse. Is this a literary device?
I live with my imaginary beings. I speak to my dead, I speak to Jesus, I speak to Madame Bovary, to Pascal… I have my “inner aviary”. When I reread Thérèse’s autobiographical texts, she remains alive in me. So, familiarity is natural. It’s not a posture. If I want to reach a place of shared psychic intimacy with her, I have to be real.
You have left the practice of medicine. Why do you write?
It is a real conversion, to use a religious metaphor. Not a reconversion. At some point, as in the religious domain, writing requires everything. My first unpublished writings were a form of personal therapy, but writing for me is beyond therapy. It comes, like spirituality, when we have gotten rid of all the psychological aspect. We’re touching on something else.
Perhaps this needs invariants. As a teenager, I was fascinated by mathematics and physics, that is to say the laws, the constants. In writing, I aim for something like that. Find these human invariants which resonate in me, in others.
You mention Thérèse’s “love tension towards an invisible face”. Does this resonate with you?
In writing, there is the construction of a book, and then, at certain moments, I feel my mind reaching towards… a presence. In a sense, this ties in with the religious phenomenon of faith. And the only way to experience a form of touch of this invisible is through words. It is a source of immense joy when language captures something. In a way, it’s very Jewish: God, the presence, is in the letters. The metaphor and the oxymoron – “luminous darkness”, the quintessential image of mysticism – allow us to fleetingly touch something definitive, in a poetic brilliance.
March 14, 1968 Born in Melun (Seine-et-Marne).
1974 Death of his grandmother.
1997 Defends his medical thesis in psychiatry.
1998 Begins to share his life between France and the United States.
2008 Selects and prefaces a choice of texts by Thérèse of Lisieux : Trust and surrender (Ed. du Seuil).
2009 Death of his grandfather.