On history and the fabric of life

Paul Ricoeur ends his magisterial work on history philosophy, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli with a reference to Søren Kierkegaard’s discourse on the biblical birds in the air and lilies in the field (2000, p. 656). Why does he do so?

The works of his compatriot, Albert Camus, may hold a clue. Camus, too, similarly to Ricoeur endeavoured to make sense of the history of the 20th century which they were born into. While their beliefs were unalike, Camus contrasts the fates of his characters against the sun, the light, and the sea.

What does this have to do with history philosophy, one may wonder. Many years ago, I followed a university course on history philosophy with a brilliant teacher, where we read the classical 19th and 20th century works of history philosophers. While I failed the actual exam, my readings and reflections left me with a vague glimpse into how human beings considered their relationships to the divine and to nature. Over the course of history up until today, it is our changing views of this threefold relationship that constitutes our thoughts on history. At times, we treated the forces of nature with awe, as being divine. At other times, we have believed that the divine had given us lordship over nature or that we had raised ourselves above nature. That humankind was progressing to a higher form of development.

It took a Freud to remind ourselves that we too are a part of nature. The muddy trenches of WWI shattered forever our dreams and visions of mastery. In the Shoah or Holocaust of WWII, we tasted its bitter dregs. In the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, very much current in Camus’ lifetime (he died on the 4th January 1960), we foresaw what destruction humanity was capable of. Ricoeur who lived into the 21st century and had time to reflect on both the Truth and Reconciliation commission at the end of Apartheid and the wars in ex-Yugoslavia before his death on the 20th May 2005, endeavored to find a way for human beings to live together with truth, justice and reconciliation.

What our present generation of human beings can leave to the future generation is thus, according to Ricoeur, in Kierkegaard’s words, for the human in distress to contemplate the birds and lilies, and see how glorious it is to be a human being, thereby releasing their worldly cares. Ricoeur proposes: “…in opposition to this ruinous competition … the possibility of a work of forgetting, interweaving among all the fibres that connect us to time: memory of the past, expectations of the future, and attention to the present.” (Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004, p. 504; á l’inverse de cette ruineuse compétition…le possible travail de l’oubli, tissé entre toutes les fibres qui nous rattachent au temps: mémoires du passé, attente du futur et attention au présnt-original French version, 2000, p. 654-655).


On a present absence

(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.

On an impact of WWI

Among the approximately 1.3 million Frenchmen killed in WWI, were two young family fathers: 28 and 33 years of age respectively.

The first, a member of the 54th Company of the 1st Zouave regiment died in hospital on the 11th of October 1914 as a result of wounds from the first battle of the Marne in September 1914. The second, a sergeant in the 75th infantry regiment went missing in Perthes-lès-Hurlus, during the second battle of Champagne and was declared dead on the 26th September 1915.

The first was buried in Saint-Brieuc, far across the sea from his family and home in Algeria, in a country he had never lived in before, while the body of the other was only found in 1932 when a field was being ploughed, and the body identified by its tags.*

The first was a poor vineyard worker, a cellarman by trade, and the other a teacher of English.

The first left behind a partially deaf, illiterate widow, Catherine Hélène née Sintes (1882-1960), and two sons born in 1911 and 1913; the other  already a widower, left behind a daughter and son, again born in 1911 and 1913 respectively.

The first had grown up in an orphanage from infancy, after the deaths of both his parents, and his widowed wife moved with her 2 young children to her mother’s home, eking out a living thereafter as a cleaner.

The sergeant’s orphaned children continued living in Rennes with his parents and sister in whose care he had left his motherless children before he went off to war; his children having scant or no contact to the family of their mother, Florentine née Favre (1878-1913).

The deaths of  Lucien Auguste Camus (1885-1914) and Léon Jules Ricoeur (1881-1915) not only had a profound impact on their bereaved families, but also on 20th-century literature and philosophy through the writings and political engagement of their fatherless younger sons, Albert Camus (1913-1960) and Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) respectively.

* Paul Ricoeur, La critique et la conviction, 1995, p. 11.

Do authors read book reviews?

Would Camus have read a review of his book, L’Homme revolté (1951), written by his compatriot Paul Ricoeur in the 1952 edition of Christianisme Social (no.60, 229-239)? This intriguing question arose in my mind one Saturday morning, when shaken out of my usual lethargic Saturday morning daydreaming by a husbandly voice with the exciting news that I had mail in our snail mail letterbox from our university library.

Over breakfast, as I skimmed through the 11 paged photocopy of closely written prose in small-sized font – my excitement knew no bounds (fn. Seeing certain parallels in the lives of Camus and Ricoeur, my googling found a blog entry by Olivier Abel, professor of philosophy and ethics, who referred to this book review).

For the past 7 or 8 years, I have been ploughing my way through the translated works of Ricoeur, starting with Time and Narrative, History Memory and Forgetting, Oneself as Another, as well as the essays in Course of Recognition, The Just, and Reflections on the Just, these essays being easier to read and understand than the three monographs (and The Rule of Metaphor which I’m attempting now). Usually a half an hour a day on my bus ride to work.

Not having had any courses on philosophy or any talent for logical thought, especially in the early years of reading Ricoeur, it wasn’t a great deal I understood, but what little I understood intrigued me. With an interest in 20th-century history, from the interwar period onwards to the end of the century, I had often wondered how the great thinkers of the 20th century dealt with the Shoah and the Cold War. Although I had begun with Hannah Arendt, something, which I can’t quite remember now, made me turn to Ricoeur. Yet, the more I read Ricoeur, the more my thoughts turned to a novel we had to read as a set book for our French A’ levels in the sixth form, Camus’ La Chute (1956).

Seen from today’s sensitivities towards religious texts, it is interesting that, in those far off days, forty years ago in a convent school, our French teacher, a devout Catholic herself, could present and go through, word for word, idea for idea, a novel with a protagonist who declares that no one is innocent, not even the infant Jesus, the Mystical Lamb, whose very existence caused Herod to slaughter the innocents.

The foggy canals of Amsterdam, along which the Jean Baptiste Clamence, proclaims this good news is the Dantesque hell in which we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Shoah, on the threshold to nuclear annihilation with the incipient Cold War, and in Camus’ own case, also the unravelling of his beloved Algeria in the background. Clamence calling himself a judge pénitent forms the subject of another blog entry, when we come to consider a section in Ricouer’s History, Memory, Forgetting on moral guilt.

Here, in Ricoeur’s review of Camus’ L’Homme Revolté, what makes me wonder is that he, Ricouer, devotes the final section of the review to an examination of the issue of innocence and guilt, an issue that constitutes a central theme in Camus’s novel a few years later. So, the question remains: Do authors read reviews of their books? Might Camus have read Ricoeur’s review?

Admittedly, times were otherwise, and in a pre-digital world, one was most likely dependent on word of mouth or a sharp publisher or agent with their nose to the ground to find a review in what seems to me today, a somewhat obscure journal. (fn. Very soon after I wrote this post, a search online brought up an article by Guy Basset, philosophe, directeur des Hautes Études Camusiennes, who also wondered if Camus had seen this review in Bulletin of Etudes Camusiennes, 77, January 2006, pp 14-16.

Would the papers of Camus or Ricoeur contain evidence of any correspondence between them, I wonder.