Faced with war and its horrors, how can we remain optimistic? And in this adrift society, is it still possible to find happiness? The writer Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, who is currently writing the rest of his monumental saga and benefits, as such, from a particular distance from history, gives us his view.
An interview with Philippe Fiévet
Playwright, novelist, director and actor, Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt was born in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, but has lived in Brussels since 2002. He is also a naturalized Belgian. On June 9, 2012, he was elected to the Royal Academy of French Language and Literature of Belgium in chair 33, which Colette and Cocteau had occupied before him.
Author of more than forty novels, plays and short stories including, in particular, « Oscar and the Lady in Pink » and « La Part de l’autre », he is now immersed in the writing of a saga in eight volumes, “La Traversée des temps”, devoted to the history of humanity.
Paris Match. While « Paradis Perdu » and « La Porte du Ciel » have already been published, the first two volumes of your saga « La – Traversée des Temps », inspired by the tumultuous news of these last two years rich in upheavals, between climate catastrophe, degradation of the biosphere, pandemic and insistent rumors about a possible third world war?
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. I look back from our current situation. How else? We always look at history from the open window in the wall of the present. It is with the concerns of a contemporary man that I examine previous centuries. How did we get there ? How have we become more and more numerous and interdependent? More and more linked and, at the same time, divided? What’s new ? What’s perpetual? Thus, climatic disasters have always existed, but the originality of the moment is that men are the origin. Pandemics have continuously affected people, but today they go fast, within days from Wuhan to the world, as viruses take flight. The planet has only shrunk under the impact of human civilization. As for the fear of a war, consubstantial with each society whatever the time, it has a different coloring: by the atomic weapon, we can totally annihilate ourselves. Basically, progress for 8,000 years has also been the progress of evil: it has never been so well equipped.
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The pandemic, the war, price increases, accidents, feminicides: how can we still believe in happiness in 2022?
To be happy is not to escape misfortune, but to integrate it. Remember the story of Prince Siddhartha, the legend behind Buddhism. His father made him live in the cocoon of the palace, sparing him from encountering evil, illness, misery, death. When, as an adult, Siddhartha discovers the violence of the world and the fragility of the human condition, he is traumatized. There begins his path towards learning about reality, towards wisdom. Happiness does not consist above all in living apart from evil, in avoiding it, in protecting oneself from it in advance: that is luck, or illusion, or selfishness. True happiness only begins after pain. It is not ignorance of misfortune, but its lucid love. One can have spontaneous dispositions to happiness, but it is learned. Against all odds.
Is this deep spleen specific to our time, or have we known worse?
Our disarray comes first from the over-information. The world having been reduced to a village, what happens 20 km or 5,000 km from my home touches me and concerns me. Then, the media like to dramatize the real – just like us, the novelists and playwrights – and show rather the tree which falls than the forest which grows. But, unlike us, novelists and playwrights, they do not offer a path, a reflection, a web of solutions, a resolution of conflicts. All of this is anxiety-provoking for people. While if we take a step back from history, we realize that our time offers us a much better existence than before: we live better, longer, well cared for, we travel easily, we have access to thousands of leisure activities, we does not see his children die in their first days, one tries to remove ancestral injustices, etc.
You are a teacher of happiness. What would you teach your students to rediscover the joy of living and be happy?
I do not consider my readers or viewers as students, but I do share some thoughts with them. Everyone should be their own teacher of happiness. First of all, I believe that you have to build your life on your dazzles: everyone has felt fundamental emotions – the beauty of nature, an art, a sport, the smile of a child… – and must take them as a pillar , build on it, come back to it as if to replenish. Otherwise, you’re living someone else’s life, not your own. Then, we must cultivate joy, not sadness. Sadness is the relationship to emptiness. Joy is the relationship to the full. If I press the “sadness” key, I will only consider what I miss, and I miss a lot: beings, time, money, power, distractions, pleasures. Then I will esteem my life poor and frustrated. On the other hand, if I press the “joy” button, I will rejoice to exist, rejoice to have what I have, to frequent who I frequent, and I will consider my life rich and complete. There it is, our power: not necessarily changing the world, but our perception of the world.
Are young people less pessimistic than adults?
On the contrary ! I meet more and more intelligent, sensitive, cultured young people who affirm: “I won’t have children, because I don’t want to add people to this agonizing world to come. They are perfectly sincere. Their altruism pushes them paradoxically towards the side of non-being rather than being. They would rather take from life than create it. There, I feel that we, the previous generations, are responsible. Not only have we not given them a world they like, but we have not taught them how to live in it. At work, let’s roll up our sleeves! For them, not for us! Let’s stop cultivating pessimism, cynicism, indifference. Let’s love life. Let’s transmit the belief in the future.
You wrote in “The Gospel according to Pilate”: “Happiness supposes that we refuse to see the world as it is. » But today, we take everything face to face. It’s hard not to see what you see.
Attention, I do not take on my account a reflection of one of my characters in a difficult moment of his journey! Today, you are right, information reaches us wherever we are, even if, for example in present-day Russia or China, information disappears, so much there is censorship, ideological filters, brakes on freedom to know and to think. It is this incessant flow of information, often tragic, that our brain must process. It is doubtful that he is capable of this, given the consumption of antidepressants in the Western world. Which solution ? Do not give in to the reign of overinformation, balance it with intimate life, spirituality, presence in nature, the experience of sports, the practice of the arts, reading that decenters you and invites you to explore the joyful human complexity.
In the same work, you advance this reflection: “Instead of worrying about what will happen tomorrow, men would do better to wonder about what they are doing today. So, ask yourself and give us your verdict on this disconcerting human nature…
We are an unstable mixture of selfishness and altruism. Selfish because our instincts are, because we have to prioritize our survival. Altruistic because we bring children into the world, because we feel compassion, because our spirit wants a harmonious, peaceful, livable, engaging world. Our problem comes from the difficulty to adjust the slider. In this, he is particularly hampered by ideologies. At this moment, for example, Russian soldiers have horribly massacred Ukrainian civilians. Why ? Putin had convinced them that they were Nazis, in short, despicable, condemnable, unsaveable beings. His ideological discourse had excluded the Ukrainians from humanity – according to the system of all racism – as Hitler had done for the Jews. What to do against this? Of philosophy. No, I’m not kidding: only philosophy allows us to analyze and criticize the thoughts we are fed, the doctrines that we pass off as reality. Only philosophy heals us or liberates ideologies. Dictators, moreover, are often more aware than democrats of the importance of intellectuals and philosophers; since they drive them away, kill them and burn their books.
On July 18, 2015, on Facebook, you wrote about happiness: “You can’t be happy without working hard at it, because happiness requires lucidity and reflection. Happiness is not about staying safe from harm – that is being spared – it begins after the first blows. To undergo a bombardment of sorrows, bereavements, disappointments, betrayals, and nevertheless smile, savor… We must insert pain into the fabric of our days, draw a positive juice from misfortune, relativize, seek, far from the conditioning of society, its prototype of satisfaction. No matter how hard we look, we don’t see a prototype of satisfaction, and the bombardment we are subjected to is the one in Ukraine. So help us hang on…
Honestly, what does Ukraine teach you that you don’t already know? Or else you fell asleep. As many. During the last decades, in Europe, after the fall of the Berlin wall, some wanted to believe that the previous tensions had definitively ceased. According to them, the world was settled in peace, democracy, free trade. They deluded themselves about the end of the story. But tragedy never disappears, neither does violence; intelligence never succeeds in killing stupidity. In short, peace remains a fight, harmony remains a struggle. If we have to cling to something, it’s not a hole in the wall to hide in, but our ideals. And we have to fight for them. This is what I propose to you: to be happy, to fight for what is worth it.
Should we consider you a die-hard optimist?
My optimism is just the juice of the drama. I am optimistic because it is the only solution my despair has found. What are optimism and pessimism? Two reactions to the misfortunes of the world. They make the same diagnosis, but do not draw the same prescription. The pessimist says, « It’s not going well and tomorrow it will be worse. » The optimist says, « It’s not okay, what can I do? » The pessimist consents to evil and, cowardly, withdraws. The optimist resists and intervenes: he combines intelligence with courage, he commits himself. Do you believe, at the moment, that Ukrainians practice pessimism? Fortunately not! Because they have decided not to abdicate in the face of evil, to serve their values, they are optimistic and defend themselves. Let’s imitate them.
What provisional conclusion would you like to give to this interview?
Frequenting our past allows us to live better in our present, without illusions, with energy, going and an acute conscience. That’s why I appreciate history and philosophy, that’s why I write « La Traversée des Temps ».
And God in all this?
God cries while watching the television news… and he wonders if he was right to make men free. Free for good, free for evil. Perhaps he should have made automatons? It is up to man to prove himself worthy of man.