Image from The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque by Thomas Rowlandson and William Combe (1813)
A Little Chat Among Friends: Untimely Thoughts about Experiences with Oneself as Another
Interview with Jörg Eschenauer
(Version française ici)
(Deutsche Version hier)
by Jörg Eschenauer (Aix-en-Provence, France)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is based on a speech delivered by PICT association president Jörg Eschenauer at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées on the occasion of receiving the Ordre des Palmes académiques, an honor awarded by the French state for distinguished service in the field of education.
Jörg Eschenauer – French (JEF): My dear friend and colleague, thank you for making yourself available for this interview, occasioned by the end of your professional career. How do you feel on the day you end your work at the École des Ponts after 18 years?
Jörg Eschenauer – German (JEA): I feel like I’m on a pass separating two mountainsides. My professional life is behind me, and a new form of activity lies ahead. When I look back, I see my path as a whole, with all its branches and lines, sometimes straight and sometimes full of curves, with its more or less steep ascents and descents. Is this experience of a compact life, not running on a linear timeline, where everything experienced is found as a simultaneous unity in my mind, what Bergson calls “duration”? Perhaps…
This unique moment of letting go and transitioning to a more contemplative life is definitely an opportunity to take stock and express my gratitude. If, at such a moment, I am forced to speak about myself, I dare do so only on one condition. Do you know that strange experience one has of increasingly distancing oneself from oneself as one grows older? At a certain point in our advanced life, we begin to see ourselves “as another,” to use Paul Ricœur’s expression. This, by the way, is also the reason why Rimbaud’s famous sentence, “Je est un autre!” has touched me so strongly. Since J and E are the first letters of my name, I have always felt particularly addressed by it.
JEF: The fact that you speak of gratitude suggests that you see your life as a gift. What would you then say about this life, looking at it with this double view of yourself as if someone else?
JEA: Yes, that’s how I see it. The German language has a very forceful word to describe the experience of something coming at us from outside without our contributing anything. Widerfahrnis is an incident, an event that “comes towards us.” We are never the sole masters on board the ship of our existence. What happens to us against our will, or without our intention, can be a tragic experience, like an illness, but it can also be a positive experience that brings us happiness and opens up promising perspectives. There are many reasons why I feel this gratitude.
JEF: To whom is this gratitude addressed?
JEA: First of all, it is gratitude towards life, which has given me a very varied curriculum vitae with completely improbable twists and turns. May I allow myself a little biopoetic deviation?
JEF: Feel free to improvise! We are in France, after all, and this is just a little chat, isn’t it? What do you mean by “biopoetics”?
JEA: I would call any attempt to give poetic meaning to one’s own life, one’s own biography, “biopoetics.” It is the opposite of “storytelling,” which is so fashionable today. Storytelling emphasizes our achievements, our social success, and who we are as role models. A biopoetic reading of our lives does just the opposite: It highlights the surprising side of our lives, our irreducible uniqueness, and all that has happened to us without us ever having earned it. Take our name, for example, which of course we did not choose. Eschenauer means “The one who lives in the ash clearing,” and indeed, he was born in the town of Aue (in Saxony), which means “clearing.” Sixty-eight years later, the same man finds himself in Aix-en-Provence, another three-letter town that begins with an A. Aix means “water source.” What a beautiful biopoetic coherence, isn’t it? Of course, this coherence has come about without the slightest prior plan on our part, but through a multitude of small and large decisions in the face of the choices life has offered us. You know that we do not lead predictable lives, quite the opposite. We never know during the migration of our lives what the passport to retirement will look like in the end.
JEF: You moved from Germany to France in the 80s.
JEA: Yes, that was in 1984. As Freud said, in the best case (as, fortunately, in my case) it is love and/or work that moves people to leave their home. I was really excited to learn French when I lived in the centre of Paris between 1984 and 1992. At the time, I was working for a German Protestant organisation in West Berlin that offered young German adults 18 months of community service in a country that had suffered atrocities at the hands of the Nazi occupiers during the war. We were the forerunners of the European Voluntary Service, which is based on this kind of civilian service model. During those years, I was fortunate to discover a French society made up of many admirable, humanistic, solidary, committed, and creative women and men. My various professional activities enabled me to move in all social milieus: from an institution for the elderly like the Petits Frères des Pauvres to the Shoa Memorial, to the Lycée international de Sèvres, the École Polytechnique, and the École des Ponts, where I taught German and history for about thirty years.
JEF: Looking back, how do you see your integration into French society?
JEA: As a “Persian” observer, you notice things that a native has no eye for because they are self-evident to him. Immersing myself in another society, one whose language I didn’t speak at the time, made me develop an ethnological eye for the behaviour of the people I had to deal with. I had to sharpen this eye in order to be fair to others while also not losing myself with my otherness. This is certainly the origin of my interest in the intercultural dimension of our existence. My life in France has enriched me greatly. It is impossible to summarize here, in a few words, the totality of these fusions which today I consider very profound and overall rather successful.
JEF: Tell us about at least one intercultural experience that has had a particular impact on you.
JEA: There is one anecdote that says a lot about the difference between French and German cultural frames of reference, a kind of critical incident that first shocked me and then changed me in a positive sense. It was the winter of 1985/86, with very cold temperatures of up to minus 20 degrees and huge icicles forming on the edges of the roofs, sometimes thawing and then freezing again, growing to threatening sizes of one metre and sometimes even more. When one of these blocks of ice hit the pavement after falling from the roof of a Parisian building in the 12th arrondissement, the young German, worried about the deadly risk, rushed into a perfumery to warn the shop assistant of the mortal danger that would hover over her head if she decided to step out onto the pavement. While we were cautiously contemplating the shard of ice above our heads, a man who was calmly passing by looked up at the sky and said, “Well, we all have to die some day!” I could only agree with him about our inevitable finality, but for me it was not at all the right time to take the risk of dying “here and now.”
After this incident, I thought a lot about how a good dose of French levity and self-irony could somewhat reduce my moral hypersensitivity as a German born right after the war. This is an example of a successful fusion, even if I have remained fundamentally attached to a certain ethical consistency brought about by my country’s unfortunate history. I learned through this incident that a proper amount of self-irony, and irony in general, can be very salutary for my personal everyday life. The same is not necessarily true for the political challenges of our societies. 1986 is a particularly significant year in that respect.
JEA: It is the year of the Chernobyl accident.
JEF: I didn’t know if I should go into that…
JEA: That’s understandable—it’s not a very glorious chapter in the history of the Parisian intelligentsia, who at the time were endlessly gloating over the completely irrational Germans. How could anyone in their right mind fear that radiation would end up in our lettuce thousands of kilometres from the accident site? The French state even prevented the publication of research results that confirmed the contamination of mushrooms in the Jura and as far as southern France shortly after the disaster. After that, self-irony à la française came through again, as it usually does here in France. Since François Mitterrand had refused to allow American military aircraft to fly over French territory on their way to Libya in April 1986, it was said that the French president had naturally also forbidden the passage of the Russian clouds.
The incident with the ice block in the 12th arrondissement, like the Chernobyl accident, confronts us with a radical question: What to do in the face of an incalculable risk? It is no coincidence that two very important books by German authors were written around that time: In 1979, Hans Jonas published The Principle of Responsibility: An Ethics for Technological Civilization, and in 1986, Ulrich Beck published The Risk Society: Towards a Different Modernity. It was to take a few more years before the “master and (Cartesian) owner of nature,” with his unconditional belief in scientific and technological progress, finally bumped his thick head against reality.
JEF: History is very important to you. Were you surprised by the different ways of teaching history in our two countries? What do you think about these differences as a German who has taught history in the French education system?
JEA: You raise two very important issues that one cannot simply gloss over without running the great risk of being misunderstood. However, in the context of this chat, I would at least like to say the following: I’ve always found it a great pity that French history lessons were mostly pitched at a very lofty level. In my classes, I’ve always tried to take two parallel “histories” into account, histories that are inevitably interwoven: collective history and the personal and family history of my students. I’ve applied Wilhelm Schapp’s concept of “Eigengeschichte,” which characterizes each person’s own path, but which is, of course, also part of collective history.
Schapp puts it this way: “Our past life constantly surrounds us, like the horizon, in the stories of the past, without it even being possible for us to raise our heads from this historical world in order to look at it from the outside. We only ever see it as the head sees its body, the body to which it belongs.” This phenomenological principle, applied to teaching pedagogy, allows an extraordinary space of resonance to emerge between the different “own stories” of the students in a class and thus enables a concrete, multi-perspectival relationship with history. One should not forget that the seemingly banal word “concrete” comes from the Latin concrescere, which means to condense, to grow together. It is not surprising that many students don’t develop a lively interest in a history that is perceived as completely removed from their own experience.
What was your second question?
JEF: What surprised you most in this context of French education?
JEA: Here, too, there would be much to say. I will confine myself to one aspect that is likely to raise a smile among both Germans and French. Ask a French student who has learned his history well whether Charlemagne was French. Of course, he will probably say, Charlemagne was French. But a few kilometres away, on the other side of the Rhine, the German student will say that of course, Charlemagne was German. The instrumentalization of the figure of Carolus Magnus and his Holy Roman Empire is still employed today in the stereotypical repetition of the same fictitious French national narrative. Yet we know that it is completely absurd to project onto the year 800 AD any kind of origin of the French nation. Neither France nor Germany existed at that time.
It might be time, in 2023, to clean out our ideological rump chambers and rid ourselves of these false national visions. We should replace them with a history of Europe, with all its endless civil wars and the rare but all the more impressive attempts at constructive federation. From such a perspective, Carolus Magnus would find the place he deserves, namely as a forerunner who contributed to the emergence of a certain idea of Europe that unites all its states in a supranational union. But who today still wants to interpret the challenges of our continent in this way? How many more wars are needed before people finally understand that a strong union is the only peaceable solution for us Europeans?
JEF: Are there any other people to whom you would like to express your gratitude?
JEA: My parents, and especially my father, who would have so much liked for me to follow in his professional footsteps. A passionate engineer, a professor of mechanics, and a specialist in elasticity, he built parabolic antennas all over the world. But his son was unfortunately much more attracted to the humanities than the sciences. Without wishing to offend any engineers, I must confess that I have always been bored by the muteness of the natural sciences in the face of the fundamental ethical questions posed by life. Should I adopt a child? Should I get married? Should I engage in resistance against a social or political reality that frightens me? The first law of thermodynamics will never answer such questions. Nor, for that matter, will the second. The answers to these questions can only come from Socrates’ side, that is, from thinking that is fed by philosophy and the human sciences. And it is precisely these sciences that today confront engineers with the ethical and social choices they must make in the face of the technological and climatic challenges of our time.
While my father had reason to lament—My only son will never become an engineer!—he himself had worked on interdisciplinary projects with colleagues from the humanities, and so he was able to cope intelligently with this “terrible experience.” It is this fatherly resilience that deserves my great gratitude. Can you imagine his “relief” and smile when this “ungrateful” son finally ended up at a great engineering college, even if only as a “mere” representative of the humanities and a teacher of language, history, and political science? To land this coup, I had to emigrate to France, where the grandes écoles require engineers to learn two languages and give department heads the title of “President,” which made such an impression on my father. I still look with great emotion at the photo of my parents taken in front of the École des Ponts in 2007. My father died the following year.
JEF: It is interesting that the concept of elasticity seems to form a link between you and your father, as it does between the natural and the human sciences.
JEA: I was actually surprised when I realized one day that, perhaps without my knowledge, this concept had migrated from my father’s work into my reflections on intercultural competences. Only in retrospect did I notice that an unconscious transference had left me with this beautiful heritage.
JEF: Life, your parents… are there other occasions for gratitude?
JEA: I am also very grateful to French society for giving me, as a German, the opportunity to respond to the insane wars of the 20th century through my commitment as a citoyen and educator. In 1914, my then 11-year-old grandmother lost her three brothers, who all died in the trenches at Verdun in the course of just a few days. And as late as 1980, my grandmother still greeted the appearance of a young French woman by my side with very mixed feelings. Fortunately, my parents no longer harbored any resentment, but France was still a distant neighbor at that time, quite poorly known and understood in my family.
I am happy to have made a very modest but clear contribution to the constructive development of Franco-German relations and European history through my personal and professional involvement. Languages have always played an important role in promoting exchange and the transfer of knowledge between our countries. History goes on. “The present is always the sum of all present possibilities,” says Raymond Aron. It is now up to younger people to work for the consolidation of a Europe that is proud to be federalist and humanist.
JEF: After putting your life in historical perspective, tell us about the 18 years you spent at the École des Ponts, where you were head of the Department of Languages and Cultures.
JEA: Why not? It is true that one forgets so many things so quickly, especially at a time when everything is accelerating at a dizzying pace. You can divide my years at the École des Ponts, from 2004 to 2022, into three phases. First, a phase of pacification, which was necessary because in 2004 there was a very conflictual atmosphere of mistrust within the department. I will always remember the unrest I caused by simply scheduling a staff meeting for all permanent teachers. It was suspected that the new head was about to announce redundancies! You can hardly imagine the extent of my astonishment!
In fact, the only reason for this meeting was the proposal to organise the congress of the Union des Professeurs de Langue des Grandes Écoles (UPLEGESS) at Les Ponts in 2006, and I was naïve enough to believe that such a collective project was a sufficient means to unite all my colleagues. The congress finally took place, but I had to count on the support of the school management to stop an ad hominem cabal aimed at nothing less than the dismissal of the new department head. On the other hand, the colleagues who were behind these machinations enabled me to study in depth the psychological phenomenon of projection.
The second phase, from 2010 to 2014, was dedicated to the introduction of an authentic quality approach. During this time, the department created a humane and stimulating basis for a continuous improvement process that is still in place today.
JEF: Can we go into more detail about this phase of continuous improvement, which you call “authentic” action? What does this word mean to you?
JEA: This is a really crucial point. What is the purpose of a quality initiative? What is its real purpose? As so aptly stated in the ARTE series En thérapie, we live in a time when “everything is fragmented in a phantasm of perfection.” Many people suffer from this kind of collective madness. Barbara Stiegler has brilliantly analyzed this “new political imperative” of our ultra-neoliberal society in her book Il faut s’adapter.
The concern for quality appears in two opposite but superficially similar forms of discourse today. With Valérie Darthout, who was in charge of quality at Les Ponts at the time, we once summarized our experience by clearly separating the genuine quality approach from the purely cosmetic approach. The latter only aims to obtain a seal of approval while changing the working reality as little as possible. An authentic approach, on the other hand, aims to change this reality by involving all actors in the organization and ideally providing them with an improved well-being at work. Obtaining the FLE (French as a foreign language) quality label was also the result of such solidarity-based teamwork.
There aren’t many authors who know how to aptly summarise the human challenge of “authentic quality.” I would like to refer the reader to Pascal Chabot’s great book, Traité des libres qualités, in which thefollowing enlightening statement can be found: “An open philosophy, in the face of the severe limitations imposed by the technical age, should aim to support the free qualities, i.e., the qualities that one wants to develop in order to enjoy life. The challenge of our time is to combine the value of quality with demands for freedom and the need for justice. The challenge is great if we are to build a common world in which our different ways of life can flourish.”
JEF: Indeed! It couldn’t be formulated more clearly and far-sightedly. How, then, would you characterise the last phase, once your team had engaged in a real quality process?
JEA: The years from 2014 to the present have been years of creativity and pedagogical innovation, with the range of language courses becoming more diverse and the established working dynamics of the team developing in calmer waters. We have managed to combine change and openness to new pedagogical practices with what has been pedagogically proven, and the whole team has dedicated itself with energy, humanity, and efficiency to the care of all our French and international students. A telling sign of the times was the change of the department’s name. The misleading name, “Department of Language Education,” was replaced by “Department of Languages and Cultures.”
The attractive range of courses on offer today encourages the development of creativity, self-confidence, and knowledge of others in the use of the “foreign” language without neglecting the linguistic requirements aimed at a very good level of written and oral proficiency. Students achieve situational mastery through speech competitions, theatre, body-oriented and artistic approaches, tandems, as well as courses on creative writing and intercultural experience. The evaluations of the language courses by the students and the Commission des Titres (CTI) are excellent. I am very pleased to read in the CTI audit that language teaching is one of the most positive elements of an École des Ponts education.
JEF: After so many years as a teacher, which educator would you consider an example for today’s young teachers?
JEA: This is difficult to answer, but I accept the challenge of your question. I would definitely advise young colleagues to read John Dewey’s books.
JEA: Dewey placed the phenomenon of experience at the centre of his philosophical thinking and his practical work as an educator. Only experience, and especially the learner’s experience of autonomy, has real transformative and performative power. Dewey masterfully demonstrated that the challenges of education are inseparable from democracy. At a time when the foundations and structural principles of pluralist democracy are increasingly and explicitly being questioned or even rejected, reading Dewey is essential.
JEF: Do you have other memories that will make your heart beat faster for the rest of your life? Or are there any projects that are still close to your heart?
JEA: Of course. Above all, I really appreciated the multilingual context in which my work took place. Madame de Staël once said, “Everything that is natural is diverse.” Hearing so many languages at our university every day, meeting teachers of Arabic, Chinese, German, English, French, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish, and having exchanges with them about “God and the world,” has been an extraordinary pleasure for me. Further, I am very happy to have been able to develop certain projects at the school, such as tandem work, but also outside our university, at UPLEGESS and the Conférence des Grandes Écoles, all of which have contributed to the reputation of Les Ponts. I would like to mention five particularly significant examples here:
The UPLEGESS Congress at Les Ponts in 2006 on the theme, “Internationalization of Our Educations,” with an unforgettable lecture by the philosopher François Jullien who spoke about the universal, the uniform, the common, and the dialogue between cultures;
The IDEA Day of 2016, entitled “Learning, Accompanying, and Training Through Tutoring: The Role and Forms of Work of the ‘Emergent Tutor’”;
The 2018 international colloquium on “Gouvernance linguistique des établissements de l’enseignement supérieur,” organised by the Observatoire Européen du Plurilinguisme (OEP), the University of Paris Diderot, the École Polytechnique, the École des Ponts, and UPLEGESS;
The launch of the Programme for Refugee Students (Programme des étudiants réfugiés, PER), which our department created thanks to the determined commitment, enthusiasm, and professionalism of our team;
I am also very pleased to have been able to contribute, recently, to the production of the Institut Mines Télécom and Télécom MOOC, entitled “Un carnet interculturel pour une mobilité universitaire,” on behalf of Les Ponts.
What remains for me today is to prepare the publication of my second book to appear from Presses des Ponts. It will follow a first book entitled L’ingénieur citoyen and will again contain several articles on the importance of language learning for future engineers and managers. It is more important than ever for engineers and managers to be multilingual.
JEF: A question about management, then: What is a good manager to you?
JEA: I was waiting for you to ask me a question like that. We have often discussed what a “good management culture” would consist of, haven’t we? You know I don’t like the word “management.” Its Latin roots bring it too close to “manipulation” and “dressage.” I distrust any form of vertical or pyramidal management that does not work without courtiers and, therefore, without voluntary servitude. The Danish visual artist Olafur Eliasson has summed up our current problem very well: “People have forgotten how to doubt. They are asked to be affirmative and self-confident. But you also need people who are not sure!” We need such people to enable and systematically incorporate controversial debates in our decision-making processes. This is an indispensable condition for minimizing the risk of “absurd decisions” (which Christian Morel has analyzed so well).
JEF: What was your compass in navigating the stormy sea of team coordination?
JEA: I aimed to create a framework that was stable enough, and at the same time flexible enough, to provide our team with a space for creativity and resonance. To me, “being a supervisor” meant acting like a coach, encouraging through recognition, thinking of new things together and doing them together, and combining them in an intelligent way with a proven pedagogical practice.
I developed the idea of acting as an “emergent tutor,” the only possible role for someone who aims to insert a team into the dynamics of the living. To play this role in all humility, I have always asked myself the question: Did you really listen to what the other person said? Of course, I haven’t always listened well, but I think my ability to listen has improved over the years. Listening precedes speech because speech is always addressed to a specific audience in a specific time-space. Don’t you have to listen carefully before you speak? Isn’t every speech basically a reply addressed to someone? If teaching languages is the most beautiful profession in the world, it is because we are basically teaching active listening first, without which one cannot learn to speak a new language.
We’d do well to reflect on Heraclitus’ Fragment 19: “Since they cannot listen, they cannot speak.” Marguerite Yourcenar, in Mémoires d’Hadrien, recounts a scene that reflects the same challenge: The emperor Hadrian, on a journey, is approached by an old woman. Tired, he turns away and continues on his way. She stops him and says: “If you don’t have time to listen to me, you don’t have time to govern.” This is the radical challenge of every speech: It must above all be the result of a great listening!
JEF: And what kind of management do you distrust the most?
JEA: A management that is exclusively geared towards numbers! You can do anything with numbers. Numbers are the favorite arguments of modern managers for whom manipulation has become second nature. A sentence that has deeply impressed me and left a strong mark on me is this one by Isabelle Stengers: “A number can hide another, and it can even hide a phenomenon for which there are no numbers.” The human factor can never be reduced to numbers. There are important numbers that have to be taken into account in politics and administration, and in the management of a team—this is a matter of course. But to reduce the human factor to mere numbers is a frightening aberration.
JEF: Such a radical position would not be easy to convey at an engineering school, would it?
JEA: Of course not. But Saint-Simon already aptly formulated this tendency in his own time: “The administration of things will replace the government of persons. The engineers will be the new dignitaries.” It is all the more important that we know where we stand in relation to these two paradigms. I have tried to do this by giving priority, as often as possible, to people over things; by giving priority to wisdom over the laws of nature; to the arts over technology; to subjective sense over objective truth; to understanding over explanation; to words and symbols over numbers and formulae; to uniqueness over universality; to action over model; to feeling over reason—in short, to the spirit of finesse over the spirit of geometry.
JEF: So, learning a language would not be limited to learning a “grammatical geometry”?
JEA: One cannot learn to swim by memorising a book on human anatomy. One day, one must jump into the water and have the experience of swimming. Speaking is always an “act,” an action expressing a strong symbolic, sensual, and bodily commitment that touches us and concerns our innermost being. The language teacher is a kind of ferryman who helps one to be reborn in another language. It is precisely the experience of what François Jullien calls the “gap between languages” that fosters the development of the fine spirit.
JEF: Can you elaborate on the reasons why our engineers should ideally be multilingual?
JEA: We have known since Heraclitus that we are always cut off from reality. For example, it is impossible to explain the taste of Camembert to a person who has never eaten this cheese. Clément Rosset demonstrated, with much humor, this dilemma that characterises our efforts to make ourselves understood. Language is the “hard core” of human existence, as it is the only means to “fill” this void with an always provisional meaning. Our words are bottles that we throw into the infinite sea of the implicit in the hope that someone will open them on the other shore. Philosophers have always told us this, starting with Heraclitus’ river into which one cannot climb twice, Bergson and his book Creative Evolution, and Bruno Latour, who published a “Compositionist Manifesto” shortly before his recent passing.
Our world is always changing, and a common world must always be built anew, at all moments and at all levels of our existence, at the level of a couple, a family, a team, a company, and at the level of a whole society. If our common world always has to be rebuilt or stabilzed, it is possible to fail in the attempt to do so. More than ever, this common world to be built is complex and characterized by a large number of languages. Each language has its own genius for building its relationships with the world. Only through translation between languages will we be able to capture the multiple meanings of this complex world to the maximum. Hence the need to multiply multilingual and intercultural skills and train adept mediators who can translate languages and “worldviews.” But be careful: We must always bear in mind that it is a question of building a common world and by no means an exclusive world. We must not forget that Eichmann learned Hebrew to be more effective in organizing the Final Solution.
JEF: It is obvious that you are a child of the Cold War and that the German past keeps catching up with you. Aren’t you afraid that this memory of Eichmann is counterproductive when it comes to advocating for multilingual education?
JEA: The Eichmann reminder merely serves to warn us against any superficial way of defending language learning that is too idealistic to be true. Any language (like religion, culture, and so on) can be instrumentalized to serve the interests of some ideological power. This has often been the case in history, and of course, it still is today. Every language teacher must therefore be aware of this ethical challenge of her profession. As honestly as possible, she must ask herself the question: What is the purpose of my teaching? Am I really contributing to the building of a common world, for instance through the way I manage the group dynamics in my class, through my teaching methods, through the topics covered and the materials chosen? Or am I participating, more or less consciously, in the maintenance of an exclusive world, for example by considering my language as the only one worth learning or as more important than other languages present in the same social space? An educational policy that promotes multilingualism is the best means to fight against any form of linguistic and cultural hegemony. Multilingualism is the fertile breeding ground for critical thinking. I don’t think it is necessary at this point to give examples of these exclusive worlds and how they are defended by their supporters today. The news is already full of them to an unbearable degree.
JEF: By entrusting language teachers with such a task, don’t you risk discouraging them?
JEA: It is precisely this task that has motivated me and given such a strong meaning to my work! I know many colleagues who understand the profession of teaching in the same way. Their aim is to build a common world by training multilingual mediators. They know, to use Michel Serres’ words, that ultimately “all learning consists of mixing.”
JEF: Finally, we also have to create a common world within ourselves in order to live in harmony and enjoy our lives. I suggest you add a third Jörg Eschenauer to conclude our conversation, because I believe that the two of us alone are not sufficient to represent the diversity of our inner being.
JEA: Yes, that is true. We are all living organisms, composite and complex. In fact, I don’t think we can end our exchange without giving the floor to the fearful, anxious JEB, our inescapable roommate.
JEF: Thank you for joining us to talk to the three of us about your relationship with the world, which is one of very great concern.
JEB: Unfortunately, our time no longer allows us to ignore concerned, pessimistic characters such as myself. What can I do for you?
JEF: Explain the reasons for your deep concern!
JEB: I am very concerned about the state of the world in which I see my children and grandchildren growing up. Allow me to quote myself. In my “Uncommon Wishes for an Unreasonable Time,” shared with my friends and colleagues in early 2021, it says: “Historians interested in the long duration of historical processes have known it for a long time. One does not have to believe in eternal recurrence to note the stuttering of humanity and the repetition of major crises at intervals of three or four generations. A century after a major traumatic event, the living transmission is interrupted. If we look only at the last five centuries, our Europe showcases this regular, dangerous return of the ‘sleep of reason that begets monsters’ (Goya). Every beginning of a century knows its dramatic events that herald approaching crises and wars: the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the wars of succession in the 18th century, the Napoleonic wars in the 19th as well as the Great War in the 20th, with the peace treaties of Vienna and Versailles that failed so quickly! Like the sleepwalkers of 1914, today we are again experiencing the critical moment of a high-risk turn of the century. We are again in a phase of the sleep of reason, which can produce the worst catastrophes. Added to the usual drama of humanity today are the new technological risks. ‘Now we tremble in the nakedness of a nihilism in which the greatest power and the greatest emptiness, the greatest achievement and the complete lack of knowledge of what it is all for, come together.’ This statement by Hans Jonas (in The Principle of Responsibility, 1979) has lost none of its relevance; on the contrary, it is of increasingly disturbing topicality.”
JEA: It is indeed astonishing to hear such a statement made just a few months before Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine.
JEB: These thoughts, though forward-looking, are not very original. One just has to be realistic, look at the course of history, and not indulge in suppressing the risks that are upon us. How is it possible that a state terrorist like Putin has been able to play his perverse geopolitical game for at least two decades without our politicians smelling a rat? We were all aware of the cruel treatment that the despot in the Kremlin reserves for his opponents. No one can ignore their names now: Alexei Navalny, Yevgeny Roysman, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, or Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in cowardly fashion eight years ago after warning the world about Russia’s planned aggression against Ukraine. It is to be feared that many unknown opposition figures have experienced and will experience the same inhumane treatment.
My concern, by the way, is increasingly turning into anger. I speak here of an anger like the anger of Jesus when he overturned the tables of the merchants who conducted their business on the temple grounds and turned the house of God into a “den of bandits.” Thomas Müntzer, who is closer to us, is another example of this. Was his anger not the only truly appropriate reaction to the unreasonableness of the peasants’ extreme poverty in his time? And what does Spinoza do when he criticizes the criminal character of the government of his time? He is so appalled by the unbelievably cruel murder of the ruling regime’s opponents that he intends to paste a poster on the wall near the assassination site denouncing the terror of the ultimi barbarorum, the “worst of all barbarians.” Our philosopher of joy had to go through the experience of rage in order to express his indignation and defend, on his modest but all the more exemplary level, freedom of thought.
We know other examples of justified anger. Was it not a strong anger that led Georg Elser to want to eradicate evil in the person of Hitler? This anger turned into slow and determined action. He paid with his life for his courageous attempt to kill the “Führer” in November 1939! Mind you, in the year ’39! He prepared his assassination by digging a hole, every night, for weeks, into a pillar under which Hitler was to deliver a speech on 9 November. The reality of German society made Georg Elser sick. The rage increased his drive and courage.
Today, we feel a rage that responds to the obscene greed of those who refuse to accept the redistribution of some of their utterly meaningless wealth to the rest of society. One only has to read Lucas Chancel’s work on the evolution of inequality in the world. The ultra-neoliberal order that came into being with the Washington Consensus in 1989 has created a breathtaking global mess. One can take Kundera’s famous line from The Joke and apply it to our times: “Optimism is the opiate of our ultra-neoliberal society.”
I am indeed convinced that revolt and anger are the only appropriate responses to this stupid optimism that characterizes many of the speeches and decisions of our political leaders concerning, for example, the alleged benefits of the digitalization of our mentalities, our economic system that is completely out of joint, and our unjust social policies. Not to mention their hypocrisy regarding the challenges of health, education, and global warming. What is outrageous about the way our societies function is the tendency of our rulers to be “weak with the strong and strong with the weak,” as Philippe Corcuff so aptly put it.
JEA: Where does this deep revolt come from?
JEB: Is the present state of our world not miserable enough to justify it? Perhaps part of the answer lies in what you have called the biopoetic dimension of our lives. I would like to remind us why we are called Jörg. This name, chosen by our mother, was not at all fashionable in 1955. My grandfather Emil, a man born into the German Empire, did not like this name. My mother certainly wanted to make a statement, more or less consciously, by giving us this name two years after the East German uprising on 17 June 1953.
Martin Luther used the pseudonym “Junker Jörg” during the time of his retreat to the Wartburg. Luther had to go into hiding because he had been sentenced to death and declared “outlawed.” Anyone had the right to kill him with impunity. Why was that? Because he had dared to tell the Pope in Worms in 1521 that he wouldn’t change his mind: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise!” Resistance is always a matter of conscience, isn’t it? But here again, the usual French translation of the German word Gewissen with conscience (consciousness) is not satisfactory. Gewissen is a very specific form of consciousness. Conscience, as understood in English, is our ethically based awareness of good and evil, an inner voice that admonishes us to be just and that reminds us again and again that we bear responsibility. This meaning of conscience is unfortunately not contained in the French word.
JEA: Is there a person who is a role model for you in our troubled times?
JEB: Without hesitation, I would name Stéphane Hessel. He was the mediator par excellence. I will never forget my very fleeting encounter with him at a reception of the German embassy. At some point, as I turned around with my glass in my hand, I happened to come face to face with him while he was talking to Simone Veil. Very quickly, they both moved away, leaving me alone and speechless. It was a gift for me as a passive witness to feel, in their brief exchange, all the complicity and friendship that marked their relationship.
Stéphane Hessel was also the initiator of the Sections internationales de Sèvres in 1962, for which I worked as a teacher between 1992 and 2004. Through the ethical coherence of his life, Hessel shows us where we should try to go. He was of German origin, became a Frenchman, a resistance fighter, suffered deportation, became an ambassador after 1945 and remained a tireless defender of all kinds of “sans papiers” until the end of his life. With his manifesto, Indignez-vous! (translated into English as “Time for Outrage!”), he sent an impressive signal. What an exemplary life!
Yes, let’s get indignant! In the words of Jean Malaurie, who can also encourage us with his exemplary life as a resistance fighter against the Nazi order and, later, with his commitment to the Inuit of Thulezu: “Let us not become a nation of ants manipulated by word, image, and computer. Let us dare, resist, and adventure.” I don’t think there could be a better conclusion to our little chat, do you?
JEF: Indeed! Thank you both for this candid exchange among ourselves.
JEA: Your questions have certainly helped me to be elastic with, and to better understand, myself and ourselves.
JEB: Thank you very much for including me in this chat among friends! I wish you all the best! May our indignation about the circumstances of our time and our mutual curiosity lead to many other little chats among friends!