[Speaking of Jenniey, her excellent story, “Truths about Suicidal Women,” was published yesterday in Alice Blue.]
The interview was fun, more of a conversation than the kind of Pull up your sleeves and let’s talk about literature! talk I expected—and I always find it flattering when someone asks my opinion about anything.
At a certain point, I brought up the new Stéphane Hessel booklet, Indignez-Vous!, which has sold over a million copies in France since its October release. When I heard of it through this Christian Science Monitor article, I was amazed. Hessel is a former Nazi prisoner, leader of the French Resistance, and the last surviving author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I didn’t think heroes like Hessel still existed in this world—to put this in an American perspective, it’s like discovering Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine are still alive and rabblerousing just down the road.
By all accounts, Hessel remains remarkably spry, yet he begins Indignez-Vous! as if he were on his deathbed:
“After 93 years, it is almost the final act. The end for me is not very far off any more. But it still leaves me a chance to be able to remind others of what acted as the basis of my political engagement.”
After helping to liberate France, he is now indignant. The French spirit of Liberté, égalité, fraternité has eroded. Corporate interests now outweigh civil interests. Income gaps are widening. Like in this country, social safety nets are unraveling.
“Some dare to say to us that the State cannot afford the expenses of these measures for citizens any more. But how can there be today a lack of money to support and extend these conquests while the production of wealth has been considerably augmented since the Liberation period when Europe was in ruins? On the contrary, the problem is the power of money, so much opposed by the Resistance, and of the big, boldfaced, selfish man, with his own servants in the highest spheres of the State.”
His prescription is indignation, which he pegs as “[t]he basic motive of the Resistance.”
Yet indignation, he says is hampered by “the consumption of mass trivia, contempt of the weakest and the culture, a generalized amnesia, and the hard competition of all against all.”
To this, I’d add that celebrity culture is now the opiate of the masses.
“Look around you, you will find topics that justify your indignation… You will find concrete situations that lead you to strong citizen action. Search and you shall find!”
However, it is scarily hard to get people to look, to search, to question—and when questions are posed, the default response often seems to be tautological defeatism: the world is how it is because that’s how the world is.
As Hessel wryly says, “Search little, and that is what you are going to find.”
Despite the difficulties that in the path towards mass indignation, I am buoyed by Hessel’s conclusion:
“To those who will make the 21st century, we say with our affection:
“TO CREATE IS TO RESIST; TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”
Of course, I’ve heard such sentiments expressed elsewhere before, but this time it really spoke to me. And it also made me think again about the “purpose” of writers and artists.
When I first began writing, I liked to say that I wrote to understand—but back then, what I mostly wrote were taut little exercises to display to the world what a wonderful person I was. I wanted people to note my appropriately evolved socioeconomic political beliefs. Really. I wasn’t looking or exploring or even understanding—I was just saying sweet nothings to myself.
Sad to say, but it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve finally allowed myself, both as a writer and as a citizen, to exhibit the kind of indignation that Hessel demands. I guess we all have to crawl before we can walk, right?
I’ll add more about Hessel and his “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST” ethic, which I’ll do tomorrow. Friends have already chided me for my overly-verbose blog posts. If you’ve gotten this far, I thank you for your attention :)
[An English version of Indignez-Vous! was released earlier this month as A Time For Outrage by Quartet Books. According to Amazon, the first printing may have already sold out.]