Photo by Philippe Matsas
You’ve probably never heard of Martin Monestier, but he is literally one of the best people ever. He used to be a photojournalist but after taking his millionth photo, he went through a bizarre phase which involved boarding himself up in his flat and contemplating suicide for two years. After this crisis, he came back to the living with a book that examined, not too surprisingly, the many facets of suicide. He then went on to write a whole bunch of obsessive masterpieces about fascinating subjects like human monsters, child criminals, flies, shit, and spit. Only a handful of them have been translated into English, but if you ever run across a copy, snatch it up.
Vice: Do you consider yourself a historian?
Martin Monestier: No, historians concentrate on the big picture, the important historical events. I like the details. When they say that Napoleon was in love with Josephine, it’s a real historical fact. I only got interested in it when I discovered that he had trouble approaching his wife’s bed. She had three huge dogs that would jump on him every time he tried to have sex with her…
How’d he deal with that?
By kicking them. He got bitten a few times, though.
Do you get annoyed when people call you an “encyclopedist of the weird”?
It’s pretty nice to have a title. But it’s not really weirdness—it’s all the little things that are pushed away from general knowledge and discussion.
Yes. Shit is present in every part of the human thought. There is not one philosophy, not one religion, not one architectural project that hasn’t incorporated shit into its making. I myself have an excellent collection of turds.
That’s nice, what exactly have you got in your turd collection?
Shit can be a great material for painting and sculpting. I own fascinating paintings of turds which have a lot of personality. For example, I have a painting illustrating the pope’s shit and the shit of a nun who was following him. They are completely different although they had eaten the same thing. The pope’s shit shows clear signs of phenomenal diarrhoea while the nun’s is very well shaped. I can therefore say that the pope must have had intestinal problems, at least on that day. It’s fascinating. Excrements were present in the thoughts of the greatest thinkers. A famous quote by Montaigne goes “kings and philosophers shit, and women too.” Did the son of God take dumps like everyone? The question remains… In Tibet, people fought over the Dalai-lama’s turds and the ones of famous monks. Every day, their shit was gathered up and sold as far out as in China. It was sacred. They even dried it to use it for cooking.
Why do you say that flies are Man’s worst enemy?
Everyone thinks that cockroaches will outlive us, but they’re wrong. I’m sure that flies will do. Every year, flies kill one and a half million humans. They live on a total surface of 10 million km2, which is the size of Canada. Flies are the only animal that follows men everywhere they go… The North Pole, the equator, everywhere. They have even been in submarines and in spaceships.
OK. You’ve written about cannibalism. How many cannibals live on Earth today?
There are more than you would think. In Russia, the police face one case of cannibalism every month on average. We estimate the number of people who regularly eat human flesh at about 2.5 million. There are two groups: the ones who do it to survive, and the others. In the latter group you also get cannibal serial killers. We think that there’s about 100 to 150 living free in the United States only. There are a lot in developing countries, but no one talks about it because it’s pretty bad for the reputation of these places. It’s just like criminal children. There are about 50 murders committed by children each year in France. And these are young children, not teenagers. In Japan, there are about 250 every year.
Oh man, children are seriously scary and bad…
They’re not bad, they’re evil. They have the exact same reasons for killing as adults: love, revenge, hate. Just like experienced killers, they prepare an alibi before committing their crime.
When you were 15, you left school and started working so you could buy a scooter to meet a girl in Sweden…
Yes I did. I still remember her name. It was Lina Anderson. I wanted to buy a scooter to go see her in Sweden. Everything seems so simple when you’re young. But really, it was all because of Jack London. My dad used to tell me that everything Jack London wrote was true, so I told myself that high school was boring and that I should go out and see the world.
Were you a beatnik?
No not at all. Honestly, I thought hippies were retards. They had stupid ideas and their “make love not war” philosophy was bullshit… After all, they needed Dad’s house to make love and Mom’s purse to buy weed.
So you wanted adventure. Is that why you joined the army?
I had already been to Turkey and Israel because I loved horses. When it became independent, an accord forced all French people living in Israel to do their military service with the Tsahal [the Hebrew name for the IDF]. After that I enlisted in the French army.
You went to Algeria.
Yes, I went to French Algeria. I was fascinated by the empire France had built. I loved the drawings of explorers in the jungle…
Weren’t you disappointed by how it turned out?
No, I loved the three years I spent there, mostly because I got to choose my weapon. I had volunteered, and I chose to go in the desert where the atomic base was. I loved all the missions they gave us. I was linked to the troops in active combat; we drove them to the conflict zones. When you’re driving a 40-ton truck in the desert, you really feel like a king.
So after three years there, did your views on the colony change?
No. I’ve always supported French Algeria. When I saw what France had built there, millions of roads, millions of Haussmannian buildings and huge cities like Algiers, I thought it was all extraordinary. Of course Algiers existed before the French arrived, but they really made it something amazing.
After your service did you go back to Algeria?
I went back to Algeria to do some photojournalism during Dounbien’s coup. It was very interesting.
Why did you stop doing photojournalism?
When German chancellor Willy Brandt tripped and fell while getting out of the plane on his visit to Israel. Instead of reporting the historical visit, journalists only wrote about the incident.
But aren’t you interested in little anecdotes like this one?
I like anecdotes when they complete the big story, but I’m still a journalist. My books are works of journalism in an informational tone. I write very long articles that require 10 years of research, but in the end it’s the same thing. Some journalists are interested in the picture of a king coming back from combat on a horse. I’m more interested in the subtitle that explains that he’s fleeing from battle, the full context.
And then you went through a strange depressive phase?
Yes. I was 36 and I went through a mystical crisis where I did not leave the house. I stayed there with my dog, I even sold my shoes. I slept in a sort of coffin surrounded by candles. My apartment was completely in the dark and I had put up my X-rays on the windows to decorate.
Were you ill?
No. Well, maybe psychologically ill. I did this to get the closest I could to death. I was fascinated by it and admired people who had ended their own lives well. I was really into Stoicism and Schopenhauer. This fascination led me to work on my first book, about suicide. I also really wanted to kill someone because of a love affair that had ended badly, and I used this urge to write a book about hit men.
Did you actually think of hiring one?
I did hire one, but I cancelled at the last minute. What’s really important in the end is that all my negative forces are reused in my books.
Is that why you say that if god exists he must be the devil?
I obviously do not believe in god.
Do you think that France has arrived to the point where it doesn’t belong to the present, but to the past?
Yes. London, Milan and Barcelona are serious political, economical and intellectual competitors, not even to mention New York. I do think that France is interested in its current history—it’s just that current events need time to become historical. Just like when Charlotte Cordet assassinated Maras in his bath, that was simply a news story. No one could have predicted that this event would travel the centuries and become a key symbol of the French revolution. No one can predict history.
Do you see anyone as a historical figure today?
Personally, I don’t think so. The only individual who will really make history will be the one who gets assassinated in the next five years.
So somebody has to die for us to be part of history?
God loves heroes who die young, historians do too. I hope that Sarkozy isn’t going to be assassinated, but if he becomes the great reformer he claims he will be, it is a possibility. Like Stendhal, I’m for a dictatorship moderated by political assassination.
When the guy starts to screw up, get rid of him.
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The History Issue