- Il existe d’autres mondes by Pierre Bayard
After the Sokal hoax of the late 1990s it takes courage to engage with science as a literary theorist, and it seems almost foolhardy to seek interdisciplinary exchanges around multiverse theory, which is already a matter of controversy within the scientific community itself. Yet Pierre Bayard is nothing if not brave, having previously advocated surrealist experiments with inverted chronology (Le Plagiat par anticipation (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2009)), counterfactual reattribution of works to other authors (Et si les œuvres changeaient d’auteur? (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2010)), and non-reading as a strategy of literary interpretation (Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2007)). This most recent experiment posits that the quantum-mechanical hypothesis of parallel universes is capable solving a number of problems and paradoxes inherent to the humanities. Tracing the history of this hypothesis from Schrödinger’s cat to Hugh Everett and Bryce DeWitt’s many-worlds theory, Bayard establishes a framework predicated on the concept of ‘bifurcation’, which entails that every decision made in history or in the lives of individuals opens up a multitude of parallel universes. These universes are not simply allegories or metaphors illustrating the drama of human choice: Bayard insists on a ‘realist’ interpretation that recognizes the endless bifurcations as actual co-existing realities. Taking the argument several steps further, he speculates that alternative worlds interact with each other, and that it is possible to hear ‘echoes’ of other worlds or even ‘slide’ from one world to the next. These audacious claims are analytically put to the test in an impressionistic suite of examples and case studies beginning with quotidian occurrences (déjà-vu, feelings of Otherness, and love at first sight are all interpreted as echoes of alternative realities) before progressing to a range of foundational questions of literary history and theory. Literary untimeliness, Bayard claims with Kafka as his witness, should be seen in spatial terms as interference between worlds rather than temporally as a prefiguration of things to come. Similarly, the figure of the ‘double’ in literature, particularly in the writings of Dostoyevsky, is not the outer manifestation of psychic conflict, but amounts instead to an embryonic theory of parallel realities. What is ultimately at stake is literary creativity. Unconvinced by the Freudian theory of sublimation, or indeed any other view of literature as the expression of interiority, Bayard proposes to regard the literary work as a ‘monde intermédiaire’ (p. 118), reopening the possibilities negated by choice and thereby enabling an exchange between what is and what might have been. Bayard’s trademark irony evidently makes a pedant of anyone questioning his scientific credentials or doubting the logical coherence of his arguments. His is an experimental criticism that replaces strict scholarly regard for truth with an emphasis on innovation, implicitly arguing that shock tactics are the best way of changing our vision and nourishing our hermeneutical imagination. Even when judged by this measure, however, Il existe d’autres mondes is less successful than the best of [End Page 277] Bayard’s past efforts: while original and often thought-provoking, it is not the paradigm shift that the author, tongue firmly in cheek, claims it to be.