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ArticleArtistes en résidence

Miserrimus 2 : feuille de route

Nouvelle étape de la résidence de Christophe Cognet

After a year of debates and conférences, followed by a one-year hiatus, Miserrimus returns in a fictional form! I plan to write the scenario for a film about this quest for the most unhappy of men: the fictional work-in-progress will be written in synergy with my ongoing project of collecting narratives (a project I plan to continue this year.)

Everyone is invited to help nourish this scenario by sharing his or her experiences, reflections and ideas : to relate anecdotes, confessions, adventures, fables, accidents, lies, objects, images, sets—even if they are fragmented or merely suggested or otherwise incomplete—on the subject of unhappiness.

And this as a way of continuing to reflect together on the notion of unhappiness, unhappiness for which no social institution wants to take responsibility—perhaps because it is so blatantly obvious and self-evident… But maybe also because the old belief endures: if we don’t speak of something, that ‘something’ cannot really exist, or exists to a lesser extent…

However, I believe that today, at the beginning of the XXIst century, misfortune needs to be rethought, reformulated, circumscribed and defined in a new manner. Because the conditions and contexts, the possibilities of unhappiness have changed. Its hierarchies too : there is an economy of unhappiness, a politics of misfortune.

During this year of research at Khiasma and the year I spent making my film on the art produced by artists interned in Nazi camps, my real and imagined voyages in those countries of misfortune, it came to me that fiction was the only way to succeed with such a quest: the sense of play, invention and simulation that are characteristic to fiction liberate us from the real, all the better to return to it once the powers of imagination have been asserted.

Because it is a question of finding the appropriate distance for speaking of the unhappiness of all, the unhappiness of each one of us. I dream of a sort of benevolent, peaceful and caring irony. To affirm the vanity of such a quest—determining the most unfortunate of men—in a tragicomic register, at the same time making sure that his route will be fruitful. To talk about the notion without taking ourselves seriously, yet according the subject the seriousness it merits: to take note of the sense of derision and pain simultaneously.

Writing a film scenario involves not just inventing a story and imagining developments, but creating a plan for direction, visual elements, sets, accessories, landscapes and incarnation—the actors—who will nourish the fictional universe.

I give myself a year to write this scenario, a year of encounters with the inhabitants of Les Lilas and the Seine-Saint-Denis department. And of course, at the Espace Khiasma there will periodically be rendezvous where I will update the public on this writing-in-progress: readings, fragments of installations related to the visual environment of the film and debates.

Background: individual mythologies


In the cloister of the Worcester Cathedral in England there is a funeral stone with the single word « Miserrimus » for inscription. Nothing else is mentioned—no name, date, place or epitaph, no symbol or image.

In Latin Miserrimus means « the most unfortunate ».

It is said that the tomb was opened, but that no human remains were found, no trace of anything at all. If a body did exist—and everything leads us to believe that no tomb in this church was built without purpose—what happened to the occupant of the sepulcher?

In a short text called: « The most wretched—an enthusiastic harangue of ‘men marked by death’—Friday perorations », Soren Kierkegaard imagined a contest to determine the person—male or female, dead or alive—worthy of occupying this empty tomb: who is the most unhappy of humans, the most unfortunate?

« It is there, at the site of this empty tomb, that we will search for the most wretched, and some will find him ; for as believers have the nostalgic desire to go the Holy Sepulcher, so the unfortunate are attracted to the west, towards this empty tomb, and each one of them cherishes the idea that it is his rightful place of repose. »

The idea for the project is to continue this quest today, at the beginning of the XXIst century.

Even if we can find numerous examples of particularly unfortunate destinies in literature, it seems necessary to complement this project with contemporary accounts, in this way anchoring the project in our times and showing its specificity—our contemporary relation to misfortune.

Occupying the territories of politics and sociology, philosophy and anthropology, the project remains, first and foremost, artistic. It questions the ways of recounting misfortune, of representing and expressing unhappiness.

It could, ultimately, consecrate the world’s most unhappy person, amongst all those whose woeful destinies will have been evoked… But isn’t being recognized as or elected « the unhappiest » person the first step to a return of (good) fortune ?

Another option: to concede the impossible nature of such a quest. The most unhappy person is perhaps the person suffering intensely, now, at this precise instant. Is it even possible to imagine a universal scale of unhappiness, to measure misfortune ? Or is unhappiness just a question of expression ?

On misfortune

In philosophy there are more texts on happiness than on unhappiness (in addition to Kierkegaard, there are several reflections on the concept in short texts by Pascal, Hegel and Simone Weill, for example). But the theme of misfortune is very present in other forms of literature—poetry, theater, religious texts, short stories, novels, epics…

There are two main meanings for the words « unhappiness » or « misfortune », two distinct concepts. The first designates an event that affects someone painfully, a bad turn of fate, synonym to accident, affliction, calamity…

The second concerns an entire destiny, it is misfortune, disastrous fate.

It is the second sense that interested Kierkegaard ; « Miserrimus » can also be translated as « The most unfortunate », « The most wretched ».

Each one of us has suffered from unexpected twists of fate, more or less important, more or less intense. Collecting the accounts of all these individual miseries represents the compilation of a long litany of complaints, of varying degrees of intensity and sincerity, all incomparable because singular. It is not the twists of fate, themselves, we need to collect, but the way in which they alter the course of a life, the sense they give to destiny: we need to tell stories.

Thus, only the narrative of an unhappy destiny can be shared, because it touches on the universality of the human condition even as it reveals mechanisms, periods, morals, beliefs and thoughts.

The project will try to stage a direct and continuous contemporary anthropology, even as it reveals the process of conceptualization; an anthropology composed of what Joseph Beuys called the ‘individual mythologies’. It is often a determining event that shifts a particular destiny into another register—a destiny that could become, as concerns us here, most unhappy. For Beuys, it was the airplane crash he survived in Crimea. The idea will be to compile the narratives of these key moments of shift.