Archive for July, 2009

Not a saviour, but a reason to hope

The Washington Spring — 2

The great Portuguese writer Miguel Urbano Rodrigues has criticised me for speaking of Barack Obama as though he were a saviour or messiah. Rodrigues’ criticism seems to me excessive, though I admit that I expect much from the American president and that I saw his election as somewhat providential — a modifier I use simply as a synonym for ‘unhoped-for’. I am a staunch advocate of reason, if not in behaviour than at the least in analysis. I strive to make sense of the world with unblinkered clear-sightedness.

What I liked about candidate Obama in the first place, and President Obama in the second, is precisely that he appeals to reason, not instinct. This reveals in his attitude a respect for his listeners that, in my opinion, is the only worthy attitude in a democracy. When politicians try to manipulate rather than convince their audience, democracy loses its sense.

It is Obama’s attitude, and this alone, that leads me to expect great things of him. The world is in a bad way, in large part because of the United States. As the world’s leading power, it plays a decisive role in everything that happens on the planet, and its behaviour in recent years has more often aggravated crises than helped resolve them.

I have just devoted a book to all the troubles —strategic, economic, intellectual, ethical, environmental — from which the world suffers, and I am convinced that we face grave perils. It is crucial that we pull ourselves together to try to weather the storm. However, I don’t want to discuss my book here. This is a forum for thought where I express myself not as an author but as a worried citizen — a deeply worried one, unquestionably, yet one still fervently searching for reasons to keep hoping.

Until proven otherwise, Obama’s election is one of the strongest reasons we have for keeping hope. Just two years ago, I barely knew his name. There are very good reasons for his meteoric rise to power since then. He rightly identified the world’s most pressing problems, and he explained to the people of the United States that they must restore their nation’s moral standing in the world, particularly the Islamic world. And despite his father’s African origins — yet perhaps also paradoxically due to them — he won the election and became the most powerful man on the planet. Is it unreasonable to hope that he will change the course of events, in the United States as much as in the rest of the world?

Do the countless people, young or otherwise, who applaud Obama wherever he goes see him as a messiah or rock star? I don’t think so. They are simply aware that they live in a difficult and dangerous time, and they see in this man a reason to hope. To dismiss the enthusiasm of the young as ‘Obamamania’ is reductive and insulting. The majority of them are demonstrating political hope, one that is well considered, noble and legitimate.

I share their hope passionately but with a clear head. I plan to keep up a personal column under the heading ‘Washington Spring’, where I can think out loud and write about my joys, disappointments and questions. My hope is that the spring will prove long, fruitful and groundbreaking, but I will monitor it without complacency. Indeed, I have begun preparing my next post, in which I feel obliged to address a number of causes for concern.

(First published in French on July 17th).

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The Washington Spring – 1 -

15 July 2009.

The course of events in the United States and the rest of the world since Barack Obama’s election amounts, for me, to a fortuitous spring — one that follows a long-drawn-out winter.

The word ‘spring’ preys on my mind, arousing both hope and concern. Hope, because for the first time in a long time, we have a world leader who understands the necessity for an historic reconciliation between the West and the Arab world, and who understands the need for the United States to restore its moral standing.

But also concern, because the word — which, in recent decades, has been applied to events such as the Prague Spring at the end of the sixties — contains within it a sense of fragility, and even the connotation of a fleeting sunny spell that runs counter to the relentless course of history, and which is sure to be swept away.

Indeed, we may wonder whether, a few years down the track, Obama’s election will look like the beginning of a new era or else a brief excursion, a final attempt to prevent the world from sliding into the abyss. I write these words in a state of uncertainty. My hope is that he succeeds. It is more than a hope — it is a fervent prayer. I dare not imagine what will become of the world should Obama fail. If that were to happen, then the only people who will thrive and cheer will be those who adhere to suicidal ideologies, who exploit hatred and never-ending conflict and who cannot conceive of a reconciled world.

Though I put my trust in Obama, in his vision and political skill, the task that he is expected to pull off is so Herculean that his success is far from assured. It is too early to reach any conclusion, of course. The president’s mandate began barely six months ago, and at this stage it is enough to take stock of what has been promised without demanding results. For my part, I see many encouraging signs, but also some causes for concern.

For the time being, then, I will limit myself to this preamble; but I have resolved to come back, over the coming days and weeks, to the Washington Spring and the many expectations it creates. A few of these have already been met, while others have already been thwarted. Most, however, are still up in the air.

(First published in French on July 15th).

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Between “French” and “francophone”

Like all tools, a concept must be handled dextrously and advisedly, lest it proves dangerous and damages more than it mends. My preceding article could just as well have been entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of diversity” — a concept precious to me, and one that often recurs in my writing, given the great importance I attach to cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as to the diversity of living species.

Following this line of thought, this article could just as well be entitled “On the good and bad usage of the concept of francophonie”. When the concept was begotten in the 1960s, it was an excellent thing. France and her former dependencies were anxious to move past the traumas of the colonial era towards a consentient alliance, founded on the most solid and highest ground there is, that of a common language. No longer would there be colonists and natives; no longer would French ancestry be a condition of entry into the club. From Brazzaville to Phnom Penh, Lyon to Montreal, Bucharest to Port-au-Prince, all those who “shared the French language”, those who had been born in the bosom of the French-speaking world as much as those who had adopted it — and even those who felt they had been subjected to it — found themselves henceforth equal, all brothers in the francophone world, united by the sacred bonds of language, which are scarcely less indivisible than those of soil or blood.

The semantic drift occurred afterwards. I use the word ‘drift’ here because there was no pernicious intent behind it. Indeed, from the moment the French-speaking world had rallied together, francophone institutions had been established and francophone summits held, it seemed natural that we start talking about francophone literature and francophone authors. What, after all, is a francophone author? A person who writes in French. This is patently obvious, at least in theory. Yet the meaning was immediately perverted, even overturned.

In France, the word ‘francophones’ should have meant ‘us’; instead, it has come to mean ‘them’, ‘the others’, ‘foreigners’, ‘people from our former colonies’. And as the meaning drifted, our identities became indurated and old reflexes returned. Few would think to call Flaubert or Celine ‘francophones’; and even those writers who come from abroad are quickly categorised as French writers, so long as they haven’t come from a Third World country; I have never heard Apollinaire or Cioran described as ‘francophones’.

Wilhelm-Apolinary de Kostrowicki, known as Guillaume Apollinaire

In an attempt to find the factors that govern this divide, I recently itemized a long list of names. I would be ashamed to write the results I found. Even if I listed only the factors themselves, I would feel stained. They contain discriminatory subtleties unworthy of France, unworthy of her ideals, unworthy of her place in the history of ideas and of nations.

Should I reel off a few examples? No, I will stop here. I will say only in a low, solemn but firm voice: let us put an end to this absurdity! Let us use the word ‘‘francophonie” only in the diplomatic and geopolitical sphere; let us make it our habit to say ‘French-language writers’ without rummaging through their identity papers and baggage, or delving into their first names or their skin. Let us consider our earlier blunders as an unhappy detour, a regrettable misunderstanding, and let us set off again on the right foot.

Doing so would align us with what is practiced in the most widespread and conquering of linguistic spaces, those of the English and Spanish languages, which know no segregation of this kind. No one would think to distinguish Spanish writers from ‘hispanophones’, or the English from ‘anglophones’. There are simply English-language writers, whether they are black or blond, or whether they hail from Birmingham, Dublin, Sydney, Calcutta or Johannesburg; and there are Spanish-language writers, whether they are Andalusians, Chileans, Columbians or Guatemalans.

The basis for the differences in how the question has been addressed is found not in the character of the nations in question, but rather in the facts of history and demography. England may be the birthplace of the English language, but it is the United States that nowadays sits at its centre. The existence of these two poles — to which a number of others, of varying sizes, can be added — prevents the language from becoming locked into a British-centric attitude. They same is true of Spanish, which is spoken by more people in Mexico or Argentina than it is in its mother country, a fact which, again, guards against any temptation towards Iberian centrism.
We can say that the literatures of the English and Spanish languages have acquired a global perspective thanks to the waning of the influence that the hubs once had on their former dependencies. France hasn’t experienced the same drifting apart, and so remains ensconced at the centre of its linguistic domain, without feeling the need to question or change its attitude.
Certainly, some writers occasionally unite to say that it is vital to move from a France-centred literary attitude to a global one; and that we must be done with the awkward, damaging dichotomy between ‘French’ and ‘francophone’. But old habits of expression die hard.

Do I need to point out that reconciliatory language in no way diminishes diversity? The English language contains Indian literature, Australian literature, Canadian, Nigerian and South-African literatures, Caribbean and Irish literatures, and so on. The same can be said of French. One does not write the same way in Paris as one does in Dakar, Geneva or Liege; Algiers, Casablanca or Beirut; Montreal, Quimper or Fort-de-France.

The diversity of voices will remain. Plainly, it contains a vast literary wealth. What we must abolish are those barren and discriminatory oppositions such as a literature of the North versus a literature of the South; White literature versus Black literature; a literature of the metropolis versus that of the peripheries. The French language must not, for those who have chosen it, become another place of exile.

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