The wisdom of Michel Serres

Michel Serres being interviewed by Radio FranceI have to admit that I’d never heard of Michel Serres until a couple of weeks ago, when I read this interview in Le Monde Magazine (6 November). Serres is a philosopher, which is a profession in France and a term of abuse in Britain. He is also a prolific writer and novelist when he’s not teaching the history of science at Stanford University in California. At 80, he’s a relatively young member of the Académie Française, and he’s had a seat on that august but sepulchral body for almost 20 years.

Thrown twenty-six words (one for each letter of the alphabet) by the interviewers at Le Monde, Serres came up with a series of vignettes almost all of which contain a nugget of wisdom, a startlingly original insight or at least an arresting idea. Serres is one of those people – a bit like the late, great Michael Foot – who is able to say in reply to almost any question, ‘Ah, yes, I wrote a book about that…”. A bit off the wall sometimes, and very French, here’s a selection of the pensées of Michele Serres (the dodgy translation is mine alone):

Storyteller
Deleuze said that a philosopher is someone who invents concepts; he was only half right. A true philosopher is someone who invents characters: Nietzsche invented Zarathousa, Diderot, Jacques le Fataliste…in my part of the world, we don’t say ‘the River Garonne’, we say ‘Garonne’, as if it existed as a person. It’s a good approach: Garonne exists.

Democracy
New technologies are giving a new status to individuals. Avery important new form of democracy is appearing: the birth of the individual. But how do we make communities out of individuals? In this regard, the failure of the French football team is a splendidly modern example. What happened in South Africa shows that with eleven individuals, one doesn’t necessarily make a team. The birth of the individual creates claims on democracy that no institution can meet. All political institutions are dinosaurs.

Weakness
If I believed in God and I had a definition to give, I would say: God is infinitely weak…we think great transformations are the doings of great men; but no, they come from weakness…Fragility, weakness, that is where we find metamorphosis and transformation.

Hiroshima
I became a philosopher because of Hiroshima…I had always learnt that science was all good and only good: it had brought progress, comfort and healing. Then, all of a sudden, science was capable of bringing results like this…It was for me an absolute tragedy.

Ideology
An ideology is always illusory, always false. When there is less illusion, things are better, one is more lucid. I prefer to be lucid.

The average Frenchman spends three hours and 15 minutes in front of the telly everyday. That makes between fourteen and twenty murders witnessed every day. It’s an ideology that in the past we would have called paganism, that’s to say a religion founded on human sacrifice.

Youth
The old moaner says: ‘It was better then’, ‘we had values’, ‘morality is collapsing’. I always reply, ‘Yes, in the age of values, it was great, there were 100 million dead in the war.’ Fortunately, morality has made great progress.

Golden Wedding (which Serres and his wife have just celebrated)
Even a hundred years ago, when two young people were marrying, they were promising fidelity for five years; today it’s for sixty-five years.

When it comes to love, I make it as often as possible and I talk about it as little as possible!

When?
My teachers had a time horizon of ten thousand years. An educated man among my successors will have a time horizon of fifteen billion years.

Wikipedia
I am an enthusiast for Wikipedia. It’s a free encyclopaedia that contains practically as many errors as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Free, even libertarian, because it is on the side of the creativity of each one of us.

Zola
When we say that art imitates nature, it means this: the true artist, the true scientist, the true creator, feels within him the imtimate workings of the forces of the nature. That’s what Zola does.

Some of Serres’s thinking has been brought together in a new monograph, Cahiers de L’Herne, available from 10 November. At a hefty 39 euros though, it’s incredibly expensive for a French book.

  • ‘L’Abécédaire de Michel Serres’, Le Monde Magazine, No. 60, 6 November 2010