An interview with Thierry Fabre
(by Katrin Thomaneck & Emmanuel Gros)
In July 2013, we were lucky to be able to meet Thierry Fabre in the brand-new Musée des civilisation de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) situated at the entrance to the Vieux-Port in Marseille, France. This was a fascinating interview, over an hour long, during which Thierry Fabre told us about the sea that is “a thousand things at a time”, to cite historian Fernand Braudel.
Thierry Fabre, you are a man who wears many hats: you were the editor of the Bleu series at Actes Sud and the editor-in-chief of the journal “La pensée de midi”; you are also an essayist and now you are in charge of the culture department and international relations at the MuCEM. What’s more, you are the chief curator for the opening exhibit at the museum, “Le Noir et le Bleu. Un rêve méditerranéen.” All of your activities and research are concentrated on the Mediterranean – could you tell us a bit more about how this came to be? How did you get where you are now?
It is not by chance, rather by a kind of evidence. In 2000 I wrote a book called Traversées, the story of a journey that begins and ends on the Lérins Islands. These islands are located near Cannes, where I was born, on the shores of the Mediterranean, and I went there as a child. On one of them there’s a monastery, founded by Saint Honoratus in the 5th century. From this spot there is a view, a look out onto the Mediterranean that I would describe as corporeal. My link to the sea clearly comes from the Lérins Islands, both in this meditative perspective and in the sensitive landscape, as well in the question of the horizon. At once I asked myself: what is there behind the horizon line? And after that moment, I wanted to go and see what there was on the other side.
Then I met Jacques Berque, a specialist on the Arab world and a professor at the Collège de France. His final lecture, called Andalousies, said, “I call upon Andalusias already begun again and whose accumulated ruins and inexhaustible hope we carry within us.” My meeting with Jacques Berque led me further. I started to study Arabic, I lived for a year in Egypt, and then I worked for seven years at the Institut du Monde Arabe and I created the magazine Qantara. For me, literature, stories, and the Mediterranean are connected. The Mediterranean exists only insofar as its stories. It is made of stories, a palimpsest of stories.
My tie with the Mediterranean is first and foremost linked to the senses, it is a feeling from childhood, a feeling of wonderment, and in this sense I feel very close to what Erri de Luca wrote about Naples. Then, the relation took a more spiritual dimension and became a political reflection on an international level as well. But I quickly moved away from that dimension in order to pursue the literary and philosophical perspective: the pensée de midi.
Albert Camus is another figure who has been extremely important for me. I read him and reread him; Camus is someone you never stop reading. When I lived in Egypt, I often spent my afternoons in a café reading Camus’s works. I discovered a text of his called “L’Exil d’Hélène” that starts off with “The Mediterranean has its tragic solar element, but it does not come from the mists.” (“La Méditerranée a son tragique solaire qui n’est pas celui des brumes”). It’s a text that Camus dedicated to René Char, and in it he speaks for the first time of the pensée de midi. The text fascinated me.
Lérins, and Camus in a café in Cairo… there you go, if I had to sum up in a few examples my many inspirations and meetings. And yet, another dimension is very important: the separation between the North and the South, the ignorance of what is happening on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, the fear of Arabs and Islam. I always wanted to know what was happening beyond the horizon, so I went to see, and I very quickly understood that it was necessary to surmount that political construction, that colonial heritage.
Going beyond the horizon or reversing one’s perspective, in a way. Being interested in the other side, getting away from the Mediterranean insistence on the past, that is, doing away with the idea of the Mediterranean as nostalgic, like old stones that weigh us down with their heritage and leave us with a certain fatigue. But going to the other side, I saw the younger generations, I saw a creative Mediterranean searching for new forms of expression. And that’s what you observe today in the Mediterranean world. It’s a creative, very fertile stage for new musical, aesthetic, pictorial and cinematographic forms. And that’s what’s important to me, a creative Mediterranean that’s able to surmount separation and the attachment to the past. “Thinking the Mediterranean of both shores”, which is the subtitle of the “Rencontres d’Averroès”, is at once a quest and a heritage.
Let us return to this question of representing the Mediterranean, this “narrative identity”, to borrow a formulation from Paul Ricoeur. You said in a past interview: “there is neither entity nor identity for the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is a story”, an “ensemble of representations.”
During the first decade of this century, I edited a series of books called Les représentations de la Méditerranée (with Robert Ilbert). On the first volume there is a map by the Andalusian geographer al-Idrîsî. And on this map, Africa is on top and Europe on the bottom. I discovered it while working on one of the issues of Qantara magazine and I was stunned. This representation reverses the map we know today and, in a way, it reverses the relationship between the North and the South. In the end, we all have certain maps in mind. For an Andalusian geographer of the twelfth century, the representation of the Arab world was totally different. And so what we wanted to do was show different ways to see and represent this world. In a sense, we needed to offset our point of view. And so we went looking in Turkey, Germany, Tunisia, Spain, Lebanon, without, unfortunately, being able to go everywhere. It seems to me the relationship with the Mediterranean cannot be thought without asking the question of how to tell it. The “narrative identity” was for me a way of leaving this Mediterranean essentialism and not freezing the Mediterranean, not constantly asking the question of “what is Mediterranean identity?” Because there is no point in doing so. And what about European identity, briefly put? The Mediterranean was born in a particular context, and then it moved about, it interacted with others, and it was appropriated. Writers like the Egyptian Taha Hussein have shown the opening and the plurality of sources of this imaginaire. It’s a life-giving source that makes it possible to escape a certain nationalist discourse. And it’s also not a space that’s geographically limited: the interaction of stories is important: the imaginaire of the Mediterranean on the German side is, for example, remarkable. In the exhibit on “Le Noir et le Bleu” (“The Black and the Blue”) there is one of the great German thinkers of Mediterranean cultures – Friedrich Nietzsche and his The Gay Science. The book celebrates life. In his pensée de midi, Camus is clearly inspired among others by his reading of Nietzsche. The Mediterranean dream is born again out of the ruins of colonialism and the Second World War.
The sea is a connecting agent and thanks to it, exchanges occur. We must never forget Europe’s Judeo-Arabic heritage (and particularly in terms of works transmitted through translation), as, indeed, certain politicians and thinkers tend today to do. The central question of the 21st century is in my eyes the following: can the Mediterranean be a common world?
This question is a perfect transition for our next remark: the Mediterranean as a space of exchange and circulation, of cultural diversity in cities like Alexandria, Beirut and Smyrna. Today, cosmopolitanism seems rather representative of cities on the Northern banks, though numerous politicians in Europe seem to deny this reality and good fortune.
It is certain that with the arrival of independence and the birth of Nation states, a certain kind of cosmopolitanism came to an end on the Southern banks. Today, there is more cosmopolitanism in a city like Marseille, but also in Brussels or Berlin. And if you look at the demographic pyramids of the two Mediterranean banks, you see that they’re completely inversed. The question is then: are they going to come together or is there going to be a confrontation? The Mediterranean world as an intermediary space is a lucky thing, and it’s impossible to cut the two sides from one another and build a wall in the middle of the sea.
I’d like to return to Camus, who wrote in his Permanence de la Grèce that “In a way, the meaning of tomorrow’s history is not the one we think it is. Rather its meaning lies in the fight between creation and inquisition. Despite the price that artists will have to pay for their empty hands, we can hope that they will win in the end.” (“D’une certaine manière, le sens de l’histoire de demain n’est pas celui qu’on croit. Il est dans la lutte entre la création et l’inquisition. Malgré le prix que coûteront aux artistes leurs mains vides, on peut espérer leur victoire”.) And so here we are again with the idea of a creative Mediterranean…
Yes, this is the heart of the matter, this confrontation between creation and inquisition. It’s fascinating to see the realty and vivacity of the fight. The creative Mediterranean defends the crossing of boundaries and opposes fascism in all of its forms. That’s what the “Noir et le Bleu” exhibit tries to show. In a way, our hands are full as well: giving meaning and form to life, creating works – this is what Camus calls creation. Let us thus side with creation.
Here at the MucEM, we’re trying to give shape to a “politics of the mind that aims not just to command the rest of the world for European purposes,” to cite Paul Valéry, in that we want to follow a non-Eurocentric vision, to reveal a world-history through the organization of debates, conferences, exhibits, events, and even beyond the Marseille 2013 program. We want to show the effervescence of the artistic scene in the Mediterranean.
The public is responding favorably; this work is revealing a demand. I think when we place our bets on intelligence, we end up winning.
In an interview, you mentioned your dream of witnessing the creation of a “Mediterranean Bauhaus.” Could you say more about this?
That’s my grand dream of the future. What I find fascinating in the Bauhaus movements is how its artists changed our way of life. Theirs was a true transformative project working through architecture, design, and other forms of art. At the same time, one of the strengths of the Mediterranean world is what I call a Mediterranean style of life, not something retrospective or nostalgic but rather turned toward the 21st century. In this lifestyle, one can mention eating habits. I think this is fertile ground for our future. Replacing fast food with slow food is crucial for public health. The acceleration and commoditization of our world, the devastation of the planet – it seems to me that that in the Mediterranean heritage there’s something very fertile that can respond to these challenges. I attempt to give shape to what I call a “Mediterranean craft”, or the fact of thinking about a way to inhabit the world. I think we can create a proper (but not a pure) Mediterranean in this mix, in this energy and in this vitality, which will give the Mediterranean of the 21st century one or several faces, a kind of symbolic power that will allow it to be recognized and will create for it a style. Let us, then, invent the shapes of our era. It seems to me that in the Mediterranean there is – and Nietzsche and Camus both perceived this very well – this solar element, this luminosity, this gay science that can render desirable the transformation of our way of life. Yes to a Mediterranean way of life for the 21st century! For better or for worse, I do believe that the future of Europe lies in the Mediterranean.
And then, we must live with our utopias. In the epigraph to the Noir et le Bleu exhibit, there is a magnificent quote by writer Wajdi Mouawad:
« Il semble que ce soit là
Dans cette obstination à rêver ;
Que réside leur part d’intouchable ;
Dans cette obstination à rêver
Que chaque civilisation trouve sens et direction ».
“It seems it is there
In this insistence on dreaming;
That lies what is untouchable in them;
In this insistence on dreaming
That each civilization finds meaning and direction.”