Meeting someone is a possibility; linked to chance, of course, but that you can bring about
In his latest work La Rencontre. Une philosophie (Allary, 2021), the philosopher and writer Charles Pépin gives us the philosophical tools, pop anecdotes and life experiences to help us in our search for a better understanding of ourselves and others. From David Bowie to Levinas, and by way of few late-night trips to Le Palace and Le Rex, he analyzes the mechanism involved in meeting people and underscores its decisive nature. Provided you know how not to miss out.
How did the year 2020 go?
I found this crisis brutal, but I was able to ride it out and bounce back. I had a lot of proposals to give talks, so it was important to reinvent a way of doing it at a distance. I don’t do the wise old man at home alone in front of my computer screen. And I did a series of podcasts that were broadcast on Spotify, which originally were supposed to be recordings of my talks at Mk2. It’s a pretty strenuous weekly pace. And all that with three children. Anyway my experience of this period was rather good, and luckily my loved ones stayed healthy.
You conceptualize meeting others, just at a time when there’s a ban on that. Why now?
The real philosophical framework predates the pandemic. I was already working on a theory: we don’t meet others enough. I was interested in the logic of being “among one’s own kind,” in habits, certainties, preconceived notions, algorithms. And in everything that keeps us from meeting one another. And then the pandemic happened and strangely the current state of things confirmed my thinking. It bolstered the theory: without meeting others, we are cut off from ourselves. It’s a crappy life, narrowed, reduced. We make do, but it’s not really living.
Why must one meet what is not oneself to become oneself?
That is the philosophical question. The first way to approach it is anthropologically. We are incomplete creatures. Premature. If we were determined, complete, with a very solid natural instinct, we would not need to meet others. We would be naturally self-sufficient. But there are other, more interesting ways of analyzing it. In meeting someone – or a culture, a landscape, a piece of music, a book, an animal – there is a kind of shock of otherness, of electricity, and also of confusion. The contact provides an idea of what one could become. It reveals things about oneself. Our natural dwelling place is not “oneself,” closed within our identity and our certainties. That’s what I call a claustrophobic life. In fact we inhabit a big wide world.
What about people’s love life?
The main part of the book deals with love and the couple. There is nothing more false than to say, “I know with what kind of man or woman I will be happy”. This attitude surely lies in opposition to meeting others. In it are all the reasons for being wrong.
Because our desire is obscure. Surprise appears in contact with someone. It’s easy to see on a sexual or sensual level. It’s sometimes very surprising how things turn out really badly, though we were expecting something wonderful. It’s almost an elementary theory to say that you have to go and see: “I go, I see.” We are forced to move and get out of our home: out of ourselves, our beliefs, our preconceived notions.
Our era is marked by oversensitivity about identity, and by all sorts of affirmations of our singular features. All together, your work offers a way to open up, in contrast to every temptation to turn inward. Do you fight against what closes us in?
I am exasperated by the tensions around self-identity from all sides. Everyone wants to be this or that and to talk in terms of being this or that. Obviously I was not born at the right time. Our era is one of fear; turning inward is a legitimate temptation. My idea is clear: from book to book, I fight identity tension, and just plain identity. I think identity is a delusion. There are obviously good sides to the affirmation of self. But the perverse effect is huge. Here’s a caricature: if I am sure of myself, I know what I am. If I am proud of myself, if all is going well, if I have no uncertainties, I can just keep still my whole life, without ever meeting others. I fight the common current credo in psychology by which one must first love oneself and know who one is to be able to go towards others. That’s not real life. Real life is the opposite, even: I don’t know who I am, and I am counting on you to discover it. Or: I know a little who I am but that’s not enough. It’s not satisfying to me. I am not defined by my social attributes, whatever they are. I am more complex than that, and above all more open.
There is something therapeutic in this, from an individual and collective standpoint: establishing or restoring broken connections.
I’m on the line between personal development and philosophy, which some philosophers criticize me for, in fact. No matter. I am for breaking down walls. I am for losing everything, or for taking what is good for the taking. More generally, I am a child of philosophical skepticism. In other words, I don’t know. Skepticism is also an esthetic philosophy. When you don’t know much about what the world is made of, nor about who we are, we can enjoy lights, beautiful things, encounters. On my small scale I try to provide an antidote. In La Rencontre, I invite the reader to seek out the world, living things, animals. For example this year, I observed my cat discovering snow for the first time. It’s a small philosophical experience by which we learn to disappear, to no longer be oneself. It’s the same when one feels a strong emotion watching a film or in a sensual moment, where one forgets oneself; the edges are rubbed out a bit.
Vous évoquez souvent David Bowie. Pourquoi est-il important pour vous ?
Because he says, I’m gonna play, I’m gonna dress up. Bowie was a mime. Like him, I’m going to play with the others in myself, with my multiple identities, not my monolithic, fragmented identity. And Bowie meets all kinds of people. When Lou Reed, an arrogant intellectual introvert meets the flashy glamour of Bowie, it creates something totally wild. He says that this is his strong point, beyond his talent. He shows several faces of himself. From this point of view, he’s a philosopher I like well.
In your opinion, availability comes before meeting others. What does this mean?
In a life that used to be mine, I liked life at night. I went to bed when the sun rose. I even liked falling asleep at nightclubs, which afforded me a few unpleasant awakenings, notably by a cleaning woman at the Rex! I liked going to the Folie’s Pigalle, to Le Palace… I wasn’t necessarily seeking amorous or sexual encounters, and even less being “where you had to be.” I wasn’t a society person who had an automatic pass everywhere I went. I was even bothered by a certain sense of “being among one’s own kind.” For a long time I wondered what attracted me. In fact I wanted to have the time. Lose my time. With no restraints. To be available as to what might arise. This late-night life says that meeting someone is a possibility; linked to chance, of course, but that you can bring about, a little. To meet someone, you mustn’t be in a hurry. You have to have time to waste with someone. This time makes it possible to really meet the person.
What about expectations, in all that?
The method I defend in the book is that of a dialectical back-and-forth. I go out because I have an expectation. Then I go into observation mode, a loosening up; I make myself available for the unexpected. In the alternation of the two a rather more precise philosophical theory starts to sketch itself out: it’s either a mystical utilitarianism or a utilitarian mysticism. It’s the synthesis between voluntary action and the letting go that is necessary for the observer to be available to the unforeseeable. This is my philosophical line. It’s very western to contrast, on the one hand, the proactive self-willed person who follows a goal or target and on the other, the renouncer, the Zen person, the Buddhist, the esthete, the dandy who contemplates. I am neither into Western philosophy of the will, nor into the letting go of the Buddhist. It’s a synthesis of the two.
You evoke the need for delving into connections and things. Further on, you develop the idea of the moral responsibility brought on by meeting another person. Do you think the current period promotes a kind of frenzy or irresponsibility?
We shouldn’t place too much weight on the times we are in. I think it’s an invariable in the human species: one has a possibility, a moral fiber, in oneself. One can be a good person and be responsible for others. But egoism and individualism are stronger. Christian morality, Kantian morality, enjoins us to be responsible for others and take care of them. But it’s too abstract, too general an instruction. It doesn’t work. We are too self-centered. In concrete terms, it’s difficult for me to establish a moral connection with someone I don’t know. But a person I have met, with whom I have exchanged a look and a few words, someone whose solitude I have understood… Can we sincerely claim that we feel responsible for the Inuit living on the ice floes? It’s hard. In fact we consume things that directly threaten his life. Yet it’s enough if you’ve once met an Inuit, and to understand that his survival is endangered by our own consumption, to feel responsible. So we come to an ultra-simple theory: one of the objective signs of the meeting is moral responsibility. When we feel responsible for the other person, we can maintain that the encounter won’t evaporate from one day to the next. It’s also a sign that enables us to know if we can live as a couple with someone over the long term.
You can’t have responsibility that’s abstract, disembodied?
Of course there are great activist, more generous people, who feel universal responsibility. But perhaps it is that before, there were encounters than revealed the moral facet to them, and they no longer needed to meet others to make it last. In my opinion it is always brought forth by encounters. The discussion we are dealing with puts Kant and Levinas in conflict. Kant says we have abstract responsibility. We have that freedom. We must all be aware of it and grasp it intellectually. Doing so will lead to our conducting ourselves well, as a consequence. Levinas replies a century and a half later in the negative. For him it’s only when he sees the face that he grasps his responsibility. Man is vulnerable. It’s this vulnerability that the term “face” designates. When another person stands face to face with us, we understand that his life depends on us. It’s the same logic as when you stand face to face with a homeless person. We understand that he can die of the cold overnight. It’s possible. In contrast, I don’t feel responsible before the encounter. In any case, that’s my theory, taking up Levinas again.
You delve into philosophy to extract a means of living better. Where does your idea of helping out come from? Is it the “Good Life”?
I don’t know. Doubtless it comes from a desire for reparations. Like many people I think that as a child I experienced difficult moments of timidity or solitude. I was also very tuned in to certain figures of young people who were isolated or rejected because they were different. But I didn’t see myself that way. At first glance I had another culture of philosophy, which was more intellectual and geared to research, less psychological. I started out as a novelist. Then I started writing books on philosophy and to turn more and more towards practical, existential philosophy. Then I taught philosophy for 20 years; helping students was part of my daily life. This “helper” relation to philosophy, which I also found in my own philosophy teacher at the lycée, was something I hadn’t been aware of. I didn’t feel I had the soul of a therapist.
I’ve changed. I accept the feedback and I’m even very touched by it. As a Hegelian, I think that what people send back to us is partly true. I was in fact very tempted, after years in analysis, by the idea of becoming a psychologist. In fact I always saw myself in relation to my friends and my children. I’ve even written lyrics for songs about this, as someone who likes to do good for those around him. And finally I found myself doing this with my books. So I am more and more comfortable with writing books that “do good”, even though in the beginning I found the expression ridiculous. And then I also like the idea of not lying much. It helps people to tell them they have the right to have wounds, to make mistakes. I don’t really know how to answer this question, in fact.
Do you think we’ll come out intact, in terms of relating to others, from this health crisis?
I don’t know. I hesitate. I see two forces. The first is “damn, we want to live, enough is enough,” which would usher in a kind of Roaring Twenties. We would be hungry for encounters, for a life full of daring… It’s the force I hope for. But opposite this is a counter-force: that of inwardness, of fear. Many people have developed a taste for this crappy life. They don’t like to go out. They don’t like to meet people. They like being comfortable, being isolated, living in a small, closed world. And suddenly all humanity has to live like they do. The restricted life is suddenly legitimized. I don’t know what will carry the day. Maybe there will be two antagonistic worlds. But being optimistic by nature – and today we’re having really great weather – I want to believe that most of the country will be overcome with the desire for real living, and for others.
Interview: Marie Cheynel
Photos: Jean Picon