136. Subject X

Part 5 of the 'Perfectionism' series. (Starts here.)

DEAR INSPECTEUR DUHAMEL, I write to you in response to your inquiry regarding Subject X of 14th October. I have studied the video you sent me of her interview with police and have arrived at a number of surprising, indeed disturbing, conclusions. I should preface my remarks by declaring that my findings are likely to be found highly controversial not only in your investigative circles but also here at the IEO. Thus, just as you have asked me to keep my analysis confidential, I must also ask you, as a professional courtesy and at the risk of significant damage to my professional reputation, to keep my conclusions confidential and strictly off the record. (1) The language being spoken by Subject X is, just as you astutely guessed, a variety of Occitan - only it isn't contemporary Occitan, but an ancient Occitan that hasn’t been spoken, as far as I can gather, since the 13th century. (2) Subject X speaks the language fluently. Furthermore, I would even suggest (although this suggestion goes beyond my sphere of expertise) that this medieval Occitan is her only language. This conclusion is made based on the fact that, although Subject X is obviously in a state of distress, and although it is clear that there is a language barrier preventing her from communicating with her interviewers, she makes no attempt to speak another language, living or dead. (3) I have carefully analysed her accent. It betrays no influence of contemporary French (I can't vouch for the influence of other languages). In the 1970s, attempts to reconstruct the accent of medieval Occitan were made by researchers at the University of Bordeaux. The Occitan spoken by Subject X doesn’t correspond with the reconstruction of that period either. There is no indication that her accent is inauthentic. Therefore, much as I would like to, I cannot escape my final conclusion, hard as it is to believe, which is Subject X is a native speaker of medieval Occitan. Moreover, it would appear she has spent her life in complete isolation from the outside world. I can offer you no explanation for this, as it seems to me simply impossible, given the prevailing consensus on the history of the Occitan language and people. However, in my early days as an undergraduate in the 1950s I recall hearing rumours of the survival of a vestigial remnant population of what are popularly known as Cathars in the deep Pyrenees region. These rumours were considered comical then, a sign of the backwardness and superstition of the mountain people. However, in retrospect, given the modernisation that has since swept across the entire planet, I admit there is the slimmest of possibilities that a small community of mountain people, a people whose language, culture, religion and forebears had been the subject of genocidal attack, might have hidden away in one of the more inaccessible corners of the mountains – but to do so for several centuries without betraying their existence beyond the occasional rumour does seem to stretch the limits of credibility. Nevertheless, in my abortive translation of the interview (attached to this letter), Subject X makes frequent mention of ‘the family’, a word which, as far as can be ascertained, she is using figuratively rather than literally – in other words, as a synonym for ‘community’. She doesn’t use any of the signifiers historians usually employ to refer to the Cathars (Albigensians, Bogomils, etc) nor any of the signifiers the Cathars are believed to have used for themselves (the Perfect, the Good Men, etc). What are we to make of this? Does it strengthen or weaken the likelihood that she is indeed a Cathar? In my view, it may possibly strengthen it. Subject X appears to be so deeply embedded in a community of people who speak medieval Occitan that she is unaware of their designations by outside groups. If my interpretation of this video is correct, it would suggest that a very small remnant population of Cathars did indeed survive the Inquisition and Albigensian Crusade of the late medieval period, and has somehow - miraculously - survived to this day. Its language has not evolved very much, but this in itself is not surprising, as anthropological linguistics has shown several instances in which the smaller and more isolated a community, the slower the evolution of its language. Anthropologists have also hypothesised that other mountain peoples in other parts of the world - including the Caucasus, the Balkans and South-East Asia - have voluntarily isolated themselves as a survival strategy - a highly effective one at that. One can only hypothesise that this community remained in voluntary isolation over the six or seven centuries since the genocide that wiped out the rest of the Cathars, which would certainly throw most of the conventional wisdom on the history of the Cathars on its ear – and render much of my life’s work obsolete. On a personal note, of course I hope this isn’t the case, but on a professional note, it would be the most exciting development in my field in my lifetime - one that would prompt a major revision of several areas of scholarship. You mention that, since this interview was recorded, Subject X has gone missing. I very much hope she will be found again and interviewed at further length. It seems she has an especially interesting story to tell. As for translating the interview, I have attempted to do so, with mixed results. A number of sentences are fully translated. The great majority of sentences are partially translated, and a number of iterations were completely incomprehensible. It is my belief that all these sentences are in the same language, but that the linguistic skill of the speaker exceeds all knowledge of medieval Occitan currently at our disposal. If you wish to proceed with a fuller translation, my only suggestion is to consult a dictionary of Cathar language, culture and religion compiled in the 1950s and believed to be held in the Vatican Secret Archives. The incomplete interview transcript and translation is attached to this letter. You will note that Subject X is not unlike any other adolescent girl: she is evidently worried to distraction about the fate of her friends and loved ones, as it appears there was some kind of calamity in her community. Beyond that, I'm afraid it's hard to say precisely what occurred. I invite you to study the transcript and draw your own conclusions, or apply to the Vatican for access to the aforementioned dictionary. Yours sincerely, Joelle Lebecq, Institut d'Estudis Occitans.