Letter to D
A Love Story
(Polity)He had been entrusted
with her little wonder and
had brought back a toad.--- The Words,
André Gorz is one of those dreadfully important French Existential philosophers that you and I never got around to reading. For most of us it was Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus or Simone de Beauvoir and Romain Rolland. But Kazimierz Brandys? Charles Apothéloz? Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber? André Gorz?
This book tells us that Gorz had a long and loving relationship with his wife Dorine. He never could figure out what she saw in him, but they were working partners for fifty-eight years. Late in life, she began to suffer from arachnoiditia --- a complication of earlier medical tests --- and in 2007, when she was dying, the two of them, both in their eighties, chose to commit suicide, and were found "lying peacefully side-by-side."
An examination of Gorz's philosophy on the internet reveals him to be one of those exhaustingly intelligent unintelligible philosophers from Paris --- a "social theorist," an expert on "social formations." His philosophy was based on "existentialism and phenomenology." He was a "revolutionary-reformist" and "autonomist," and, at the end, he veered off into the Parisian dumps, into something called "political ecology."
In contrast to the guaranteed social minimum granted by the state to those unable to find regular paid work [he wrote], our regular monthly income will be the normal remuneration we have earned by performing the normal amount of labour the economy requires each individual to supply.
"The fact that the amount of labour required is so low that work can become intermittent and constitute an activity amongst a number of others, should not be an obstacle to its being remunerated by a full monthly income throughout one's life." ¡Oy, vey!
§ § §
The Sunday Magazine exclaims that Letter to D is "One of the most poignant missives you'll ever read. A meditation on a love supreme." Am I missing something?
No. Because this is not a "meditation" at all; nor is it a love letter for wife Dorine. It is a hate letter addressed to ... André Gorz.
Throughout, as he ennobles her, he constantly belittles himself. He writes of his earliest desire to be Nothing, nobody, wholly buried within myself, not objectifiable and identifiable. This is another way to say, as one critic wrote, that Gorz was attached to "the psychological comforts of grand intellectual theory."
"You'd blossomed and grown in every dimension," he writes of his wife, "...whereas I'd always been in a hurry to move on to the next task, as though our life would only really begin later."
It's fairly safe to say I probably haven't lived up to the resolution I made 30 years ago to live completely at one with the present.
The Letter to D becomes an extended Zolanesque "J'accuse" ... but instead of being aimed at the corrupt political and judicial culture of France, it is --- sic pilum est --- an arrow aimed at the author's own heart. "I am writing to you now to understand what my life has been, what our life together has meant," he reports:
Why was there so little of you in what I've written when our union has been the most important thing in my life?
He answers his own question, quoting from Kafka: "My love for you doesn't like itself."
This is a man who cannot abide himself. If he can't stand himself, he is saying, what kind of a woman would be so foolish as to love him? All of which reminds us of Groucho Marx: I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.
Just because one is a card-carrying existentialist, however, doesn't mean that one cannot write about love and care and passion and feeling. See the Notebooks of Camus, or Sartre's astonishing, beautiful, funny autobiography, The Words: "In 1904, at Cherbourg, the young naval officer [his father], who was already wasting away with the fevers of Cochin-China, made the acquaintance of Anne Marie Schweitzer, took possession of the big, forlorn girl, married her, begot a child in quick time, me, and sought refuge in death."
I did not even have to forget; in slipping away, Jean Baptiste had refused me the pleasure of making his acquaintance. I know him by hearsay, like the Man in the Iron Mask, and the Chevalier d'Eon, and what I do know about him never has anything to do with me. Nobody remembered whether he loved me, whether he took me in his arms, whether he looked at his son with his limpid eyes, now eaten by worms.
"At the age of nine, an operation took from me the means of feeling a certain pathos which is said to be peculiar to our condition. Ten years later, at the École Normale, this pathos would suddenly seize some of my best friends; they would wake with a start, in a state of fear and anger; I snored like a log."
§ § §
As this "love letter" to Dorina makes clear, Gorz is a philosopher/king with his head in the clouds of "existentialism and phenomenology" and "political ecology" --- a man who seems to be incapable of feeling that Sartrean "pathos." And after wandering through this extended hate-letter to himself, the reader is left to wonder what poor Dorine saw in him.
It was enough, obviously, to sustain them both, for fifty-eight years; and --- ultimately --- to kill them both.--- Jean-Louis Parmentier