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December 06, 2004


In 1983, in Paris, a woman found an address book lying in the street. She picked it up and later photocopied it, then returned it anonymously to the owner whose name and address were indicated inside.

Using the photocopy, the woman began contacting the people listed in the book.

Earlier, the French daily Libération had offered the woman part of its front page to use however she wished for an entire month. The woman told the people she was contacting that she wanted to use what they had to say about the unknown man, the owner of the address book, a man she had never met, to build a portrait of him. Over the period of a month, she told them, she would use what they had to say about him to construct a portrait of that man on the front page of Libération.

This apparently delighted the people she had contacted. They said that if it was anyone else but the man in question, they would never participate in such a thing. But they said since it was this man, they would do it. They said he would love it.

And so the woman went and talked to all the people. One man talked about the leak the unnamed man had once had in his roof. Another, who had not seen the unnamed man for 5 years, talked about the unnamed man's mother. Others had other, presumably less mundane things to say.

And so it developed that for 28 days, back in 1983, Paris was riveted by the portrait of this unnamed man developing daily on the front page of Libération. There were reports that during this time, circulation at rival Le Monde noticeably dropped.

By fortune or misfortune, the unnamed man was not in Paris when all of this was happening. In fact, he did not return until 3 weeks after the portrait's "run" was over. When he found out what had happened, it turned out that the unnamed man's friends and contacts had been wrong. He did not love the idea. He was outraged.

Lawyers were summoned. Suits were filed. Fortunately for the woman, the unnamed man (or, more likely, his lawyers) did not hold her responsible. They blamed Libération.

But then somewhere along the line, more imagination than anyone could have reasonably hoped for was introduced into the process. It turns out that sometime earlier, the woman, in exchange for free photography lessons, had modeled nude for a photographer. The unnamed man (or his agents) discovered a copy of this nude photograph, and so he made his settlement offer.

If Libération would publish the nude photo of the woman on its front page, the unnamed man would drop all legal proceedings. The woman was consulted. The solution seemed to her a far more intriguing and effective way of balancing the scales than anything any court of law might come up with, so she agreed. The picture was published, and for all official purposes, the incident was over.

Readers far more hip than I will have long ago recognized the woman in this story as Sophie Calle, a fascinating and disturbing more-or-less "accidental" artist born in Paris in 1953. The particular piece described above was called "The Address Book".

This morning, I heard a story on Ms. Calle on WNYC's The Next Big Thing. You can listen to an .ra of it here.

Now, there is a temptation here based on the above story to think of Sophie Calle as some sort of cheese-eating abuse monkey. What right did she have to make a "piece" out of some unknown stranger's life? She can do this, what, because she is an "artist"?

The truth is, though, it's not entirely clear that Sophie Calle started out actually trying to do the strange and (to me) fascinating stuff she does. The story goes that in the same year of "The Address Book", shortly before it, Ms. Calle was living in Paris and her life wasn't really going anywhere. She was, as they say, lost. She went to a party and met a man. He left for Venice the next day. Unbeknownst to him, she followed. She dressed in a trenchcoat and sunglasses and followed him around at a discreet distance, taking photographs of him, more or less documenting his life without him having any idea it was being documented. These days, of course, this is known as stalking.

In another of her famous pieces, she took a job as a cleaning maid in a hotel. When she entered a guest's room to clean it, she would carefully document the room, taking pictures and noting various items and their placement in the room. Then she would open the guest's luggage and go through it, documenting all of that as well.

Weird. Creepy.

In the WNYC story, she talks about what she is working on now. There was a young girl in Paris who had said that she wanted "to be like Sophie Calle". One day, this young girl was going down some stairs and some firemen who happened to be near saw her passing by. That's the last anyone has ever seen of the young girl. The police contacted Sophie Calle on the basis of the statements the girl had earlier made, but of course she had never heard of the girl and knew nothing of her disappearance.

But this got Ms. Calle thinking about missing people in general, which got her thinking about people hanging on to the notion that people missing in their lives must still be alive. And that got her thinking about ghosts of people. And that got her onto a project of trying to trace the collision, literally, of two lives. She wanted to trace back the lives of two people who died in an auto accident, from the moment of the collision back to when they had started the day. Two strangers, getting up in the morning, having nothing whatsoever to do with each other except for the fact that in a few hours they would become the most important people in each other's lives. They would bring each other death.

So she started by talking to a man whose son had been killed not too long before.

The project had to be abandoned almost immediately. In talking to that first man, both the man and Calle were so quickly overcome with grief that neither could go on. She was sitting there asking him what the boy had had for breakfast, what color his sweater had been that day.

The details were too much. The story was too harmful to tell.

And here we get, I think, to what fascinates me about this woman. She seems obsessed by narrative, but she doesn't seem to be able, in a sense, to control herself. She needs details. She needs to know what happened next in someone's life. In many ways she seems cruel and unfeeling and as insensitive as stone, but if you listen to the WNYC piece you find out rather quickly that she is not that way at all. She is still guilt-ridden about what she did to that poor unnamed man in "The Address Book". She seems to know, once she finds herself in a situation like the one with the man whose son had been killed, that what she is trying to do is a terrible mistake. You can't make a "piece", you can't document a "narrative" of what the boy had for breakfast, or what color sweater he was wearing on the day he died horribly. There might be other reasons to document those details, but her constructing a "piece" from them isn't one of them.

She seems, pardon the coinage, a storiopath -- a Nosy Parker quite insensible to the everyday norms and conventions of standard gossipry. It's normal to be curious about our fellow beings. It's normal to seek to satisfy that curiosity. To a point.

She seems almost oppressed by her need for stories. At one point, she asked her mother to hire a private detective to document her (that is, Sophie Calle's) daily routine. She didn't want to be aware that her story was being documented, but of course she could not help but know it was being documented. This is storytelling run amok. Certainly you could make the argument that this was a "piece", but it seems to me that it is more than that.

But then by now the careful reader will have guessed I would think that. By now it should be obvious to the careful reader that this particular post is more about my storiopathy than Sophie Calle's.

I wish I had her nerve, or her lack thereof. While I have always been open-minded and curious about this sort of art, I often feel that I don't quite get it, or that the point of the thing doesn't quite justify the effort that went into creating it. But Calle's work feels unequivocally compelling to me. I think I share her obsessions, but I lack the means to act on them, at least to the degree that she is able to act on hers. I should've grown up to be a detective, or a spy.

Stories feel like my way back into the world.

I did just start a blog, after all. I check my logs. I click through to see who these people are that are visiting the site, and what do I discover? Documents. Stories. Pieces of luggage open on hotel room beds. Rummage, rummage. Snoop, snoop.

You read a document by somebody who seems interesting. You google. You produce the papers. Nosy, nosy, nosy. Need, need, need to know more. Who is this document -- er, I mean -- person?

What document shall I produce today, for the consumption of all those other documents out there? Above all, it has to be interesting.

Document sharing. There's even a name for it now.

One time a guy accused me of being a stalker because I had googled his name which I'd seen in a public document on the web and then written him a pleasant email about something pleasant the google search had produced.

My god. A stalker, he called me. He was out of his mind. There was nothing further I could or even wanted to say to him. My documents had, in his view, violated his documents. There was nothing to be done except to go away.

I was innocent, but I've never repeated the mistake. And I have been careful ever since to conceal my storiopathy. I am not an artist. I am not a detective. I am not a spy. And so I strive to give every appearance of being nothing more than an ordinary, well-socialized gossip. Anyone just looking at me would think my curiosity could actually be sated somehow. I am among the ranks of story-obsessives forced to settle for narratively desperate lives.


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» storiopaths r us from storytelling
This entry on storiopathy is why the blogosphere can be such a good thing. I found the author (Mike) and his blog (The Corpuscle) through comments at Making Light. You'll have to read it to figure out what he means... [Read More]

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Also via Making Light: A story about a storiopath And here we get, I think, to what fascinates me about this woman. She seems obsessed by narrative, but she doesn't seem to be able, in a sense, to control herself.... [Read More]

» storiopaths r us from storytelling
This entry on storiopathy is why the blogosphere can be such a good thing. I found the author (Mike) and his blog (The Corpuscle) through comments at Making Light. You'll have to read it to figure out what he means... [Read More]


I have to say, this entry of yours is (as far as I'm concerned) an excellent example of what good things are to be found in the blogosphere. I will be thinking about it for a long time.

Brilliant. I don't know how yet, but I have the feeling that this piece of yours, and the thoughts herein, will have some influence on my own art at some point.

This reminds me of "All the names" by Jose Saramago, about a guy who works in a census office and becomes obsessed by one of the records/people he comes across, never having met them. It's an incredible book, very strange and emotional, full of storiopathy. I can't recommend it enthusiastically enough.

Curiously "All the names" entered my book collection just after I'd stopped working in a small 2nd hand bookshop. Apparently a guy came in and left it for me to pick up, because I'd recommended him a good book a while back. I have no idea what book this was, or who this man was.

I just wanted to thank people for stopping by to comment. Unfortunately, a few hours after I posted "Storiopathy" I was hit with Way Too Much Story when I received the news of the unexpected death of a long-time friend. As you will understand, I'm sure, I'm not really in a position to respond to much of anything else at the moment, but I did want to thank you for taking the trouble.

Just another book suggestion then:
Kôbo Abe's The Ruined Map. The way the main character tries to rebuild an identity out of a wallet's content might be to your taste.

This is an absolutely brilliant description about why I _ and many of my colleagues _ become journalists.

I have a journalist friend who will gossip to ne about people *I don't know.*

I have sat in that kitchen and watched that father cry and I have written down the details and published them.

I don't know if it's a moral thing to do but it's the only thing I know to do.

A journalist is probably the other thing I should have grown up to be. I've always envied them.

Or of course the other thing is telling stories.

I see real details and I compulsively make up context for them. I'll see someone doing something ordinary, or extraordinary, and before I know it I have a complex rationale for why they did it and who they are and what they were thinking. I don't want to take photos or contact their friends, I just want to fit them into contexted narrative.

I'm reminded of seeing Annie Hall in the theater when it first came out. The scene where they are sitting in a park making up stories about the people who walked by -- the date I was with thought this was hysterical and a little creepy. I was just confused. I thought everybody did that. It's how I get through long plane trips and waiting in the doctor's office. If the object of my momentary obsession talks, I make room in the narrative for what he or she says. I retrofit to suit what happens while I'm sitting there.

My husband won't sit on my right side at the movies because, he told me a few years ago, if he hold my right hand, I write on his palm the whole time. I had no idea I was doing this, but I was. Writing down dialogue as I heard it, processing it in more than one way, rewriting it sometimes. Now I try to stop myself, and can't.

Maybe this is some kind of syndrome that hasn't been recognized. Who knows?

When I was growing up, the book "Harriet the Spy" fascinated me. I wanted to be Harriet, and I even bought a notebook and started to carry it around, so that I could write down what other people did.
Now I make up stories, but Sophie Calle's process sounds a bit like anthropology, before the fact.
A few months ago someone found a memory card from a digital camera, and published the photos on a weblog, one a day, until the owner found out. Then she had to remove the photos. "I Found Some of Your Life." It's archived here: http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~fungus/life/

Thanks for this wonderful question. Don't you think, perhaps, that our fascination with ordinary details of an unknown's life fulfills a longing for the authentic? What's real after all? We're stuck with our own lives, actions, thoughts--which we know to be riddled with patterns--actions, responses, expressions we cannot claim to have created. All reflections, borrowings, petty thefts--from the world around us--or from our former, more authentic selves. An overwhelming sense of inauthenticity is forced by context, by apparently inescapable intimacy. Unable to experience the perfection of a moment in our own life's expression, we fantasize about it in others.

So much so that Sophie wanted to see the narrative of her own daily life observed by another to recapture its authenticity--like the end of the rainbow or the mysterious world in the corner of the eye--make a move toward it and it is gone. I understand this impulse.

It is a post-modern disease, caused by the inability to experience ourselves directly, our bodies, our feelings, the flow of our lives. We let our awareness wander out into the world and now it cannot find its way home. But it *is* a disease after all--not the reality. We fell out of love with ourselves is all. To truly experience/love anything at all, we must first experience/love ourselves. We *can* find our way back.

Sometimes the best stories contain only intriguing hints of what really went on. How's this, for a story, for instance?

I'm mistrustful of words like "authentic" because it's impossible to be inauthentic. Things are authentically what they are, even if what they are is plastic, watered-down and commercial.

I used to seek out authentic foods. I avoided Tex-Mex places and Mexican chains because they were inauthentic, Americanized fare; I wanted authentic Mexican food. Likewise, on the Chinese food menu, I never ordered chop suey or chow mein because I knew that they were foods invented by Chinese-American immigrants to please American palates.

But later I realized it's all authentic. Chop suey and chow mein are what they are. The fact that they are foods invented by Chinese-American immigrants, etc., makes them just as authentic as cuisines that are actually native to China. (I'm quite fond of chop suey now, although I never have acquired a strong liking for chow mein.)

We live in San Diego, 30 miles from the Mexican border, and yet our favorite burrito place is Chipotle, a chain owned by McDonald's. The food at the local taco stands seems too greasy to us. Although I do like a nice machaca burrito.

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