(see also blog post: On an impact of WWI)
Hayden White, in his 2007 review of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History Forgetting observed: “I am not sure whether it is significant for his philosophical development that he was orphaned as a child was technically considered a ward of the French state, and was raised by grandparents …” (Reprinted in H. White, The Fiction of Narrative, 318-39, 2010, p. 338).
Ricoeur, in the set of interviews he gave over the course of 1994-95 to Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay begins his reply to the question about his childhood, by stating: “Le fait décisif de mon enfance est d’avoir été un pupille de la nation” (The decisive factor of my childhood, was having been a ward of state La Critique et la conviction, 1995, p. 11).
Here he describes a photo of his father, taken in early 1915 when he had come home on leave from the Front, when the young Paul would have been barely 2 years old, sitting on his father’s knees with his 16 months older sister Alice (1911-1934). He explains how the photo hasn’t moved, but how he himself had got older to a point where he was forced to accept the paradox that he now had a father who was younger than himself.
Ricoeur alludes to a similar experience described in Camus’ unfinished posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme, which had just been published in April 1994. Here, the protagonist stands in front of the grave of his father whom he does not remember, when he suddenly spies the dates on the gravestone, and realizes that he at forty is now older than his father who died in his twenties, and reflects with pity and sorrow on the unjust fate of his younger father, le père cadet (p. 31).
Although Camus, too, was a ward of state like Ricoeur, he unlike the orphaned Ricoeur had a mother, a partially deaf and largely silent woman whom the young Camus adored and whose silent suffering he observed over the years.
Silence was what Ricoeur experienced about the mother he never knew. He once explained he had never met anyone who had known his mother or who could describe her to him.* In La critique et la conviction, he admits to his two interlocutors that the absence of his mother, and her family, and a mother figure in his life, as being highly traumatic (p. 13). He confesses that his only experience of the maternal is what he has learned from seeing his children with his wife. “Le mot <<maman>> a été un mot prononcé pas mes enfants, mais jamais par moi” (p. 13 -The word mother is one used by my children, but never by me).
Given some of Ricouer’s philosophical enquiries into memory, forgetting, and the passing of generations, as well as his emphasis on recounting stories, narrativity, and his search for who we are, our identity, a tentative answer to Hayden White may be that traces of Ricoeur’s traumatic beginnings lie at the very heart of his life’s work.
**Jean-Francois Duval’s interview with Ricoeur in 1997, Paul Ricoeur <<Ce que je suis est foncièrement douteux>> republished in Philosophie magazine 67 mars 2013.