The Non-Expressible Part of Thinking: Talking to Etel Adnan

By Andy Fitch

This conversation focuses on Etel Adnan’s two-volume selected works To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader and her more recent diptych SEA and FOG (winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and the California Book Award for Poetry). Just as Adnan’s work has spread widely across a range of artistic and intellectual practices (most consistently, perhaps, painting, poetry, journalism, philosophy), an adventurous and indefatigable disposition has taken her across the world many times over. Born in Beirut in 1925, Adnan studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, at UC-Berkeley, and at Harvard, and taught at Dominican College in San Rafael from 1958 to 1972. In solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence, Adnan began to resist the political implications of writing in French and became a painter. Through her participation in the movement against the Vietnam War, Adnan then began to write poetry and became, in her words, “an American poet.”

Meticulous attention to detail remains a constant across these diffusive trajectories. Few accounts of the California landscape can compare, for instance, to her simultaneously intimate and abstract, deftly sketched and lyrically sounded Journey to Mount Tamalpais. Adnan is the author of more than a dozen books in English, including: Journey to Mount Tamalpais (Post-Apollo, 1986); The Arab Apocalypse (Post-Apollo, 1989); In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (City Lights, 2005); and Night (Nightboat, 2016). Her novel Sitt Marie-Rose (Editions des femmes, 1978) won the France-Pays Arabes award, and has been translated into more than 10 languages. Her paintings have been widely exhibited, including at Documenta 13, the 2014 Whitney Biennial, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, The New Museum, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, and the Serpentine Galleries. In 2014, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of her work. I considered it an honor and a pleasure that Etel Adnan would take the time to talk to me about her first 91 years of innovative interdisciplinary production.

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 ANDY FITCH: Across your career, but perhaps especially in SEA, I admire your efforts to trace how “The sea’s instincts collaborate with ours to create thinking,” how thinking can “capture the sounds,” and “throws them into the storm.” Could you say more about thinking before it reaches words — what this experience is like for you, what role it plays, or could/should play in poetry, in philosophy, in aesthetics?

ETEL ADNAN: Thinking before words can be a familiar experience: often we “hear” an inner voice stirring, an inner movement, sometimes a meaning that didn’t yet take shape, a virtual thought. At these moments thinking appears like a translation of itself.

In terms of such subterranean stirrings (how they manifest, how they translate us and we translate them), and perhaps because “SEA” reminds me of your Journey to Mount Tamalpais text (in which that mountain plays a role analogous to the sea), could you discuss the environmental thinking that often takes place in your prose? Roland Barthes often quotes Bertolt Brecht’s statement that to think in other people’s heads, and to have other people think in your head, this is genius. Do you both think in an ecosystem’s head, and let it think in your head? And how does this ongoing form of ventriloquy relate to the parallel motif of forgetfulness (particularly in “SEA”, with lines such as “The entering fog is eager for human presence”)?

It seems to me that we are a porous material: there is a double trajectory of the world to us and from us to the world, because ultimately we are part of each other. But this belonging comes in ways that make us feel both autonomous and linked. At privileged moments, all this happens clearly. We feel that the fog needs us, and that it anticipates us, and I will go as far as to say that it can even need us in order to be. These are evidences, perceptions, perceptions of thoughts and feelings — experiences even. And of course, it’s needless to say, we need the world to be, in every possible way.

Still considering different types of mirroring and identification that the natural world provides, you do offer lines such as “Stripped speech patterns float in the soul’s canyons where things are perennial.” But more often, the sea seems an object of perception/reflection, or a being that deserves our emulation, but not so much a site of immersion. The sea calls forth gazing, not swimming, not diving — with you focusing less on life “under” the sea. SEA and FOG tells us that “The ocean is near, the sea, far.” So can you say more about what it means here to “See the sea” (I at least hear echoes of Emily Dickinson’s “and then / I could not see to see”)?

The sea is immense, to say the least. As an entity, a constituent of the physical world, it is infinite, because it is “there” (from every angle), and always there. That sea hypnotizes me. Needless to say. And the sea is an element of our inner life, a tool by which we exist, and we think. It’s sometimes an image, sometimes an energy, sometimes an inner direction back to energy, to an immaterial line that crosses the mind (the brain?). There’s also something very simple to our addiction to the sea: its beauty.

Since your books frequently refer to Nietzsche, I think of Nietzsche’s tone poems addressed to the sea (and, of course, to mountains). Nietzsche may not be able to match the chiming musicality of your lovely descriptions (“And what is this surge of the stupendous and quasi un-nameable entity, where unnumbered amounts of bubbles unbreakably bound to each other make a eulogy for smallness while creating the most maddening form of an elusive infinity?”). But when you characterize life as a scintillation, when “the universe thinks itself without being outside itself,” when you posit the world’s or the sea’s or our own “love for an illusion…what else is there,” when you progress towards a future (and a past) that is “Only waves on waves,” I definitely recall Nietzsche’s conceptions of existence as an aesthetic phenomenon, of a world suffering from its own plenitude — dependent upon human articulation both as release and further catalyst.

Addiction to the sea, addiction to Nietzsche: we come back to them for the same reasons, I am sure. They are “infinite,” not a narration to be understood once and for all, but a recurring source of amazement. The sea was for me, in Beirut, when I was maybe not yet four, the greatest “happening,” the moment I plunged in one of those tiny holes, puddles, spaces among rocks that the short tide of the Mediterranean was regularly filling, on the shore of the city, half a mile from home (by the way, all this disappeared long long ago).

Ever since the days my mother was taking me there for “swimming,” or then when going to the baths by the sea at large, I never have experienced the sense of total bliss that swimming in the sea or the ocean would give me. The same with reading Nietzsche, Heraclitus, often Shakespeare, a handful of poets…and Schubert. If I can manage to suggest a fleeting presence of that phenomenon we call the sea, I should be happy.

Well one sentence stood out, seemed to stand in its own silence, most of all in this book: “We’re spending a life loving it exclusively because we couldn’t change the world.” Does that line contain despair, becalmed resignation, or even resolution, affirmation? If we want to speak more broadly, with the global sea today seeming so close to suffocation, eclipse, death itself in some ways, and with your lifelong explorations of love never precluding the political: how can or could or should we love the sea right now? Or in terms of your childhood bliss, what place in politics do you find right now (“right now” as the ever-renewed momentary present, perhaps, and/or as this particular span following recent attacks in your home countries of Lebanon and France, following a subsequent reactionary turn in Europe, following a year in which the sea served as site for such precarious migrations) for “the everyday physical body…Its inherent pleasure to be”?

Oh yes, there is “sea” and “sea.” When I write about (or just think of) the sea, I mean that primordial sea, the innocent one, the planetary one, with its temperatures, colors, sunsets and nocturnal shine — the one you look at innocently, or plunge into or remember. Then there is the polluted one, the political one, a place for conflicts, or for migrants to drop in, the one we neglect since we take airplanes, the one reserved not for voyages but for merchandise. This latter sea is part of the havoc, the mess we made of the world. Maybe, unhappily so, I do not refer to that tragic aspect of the sea, because I find myself in a kind of poetic/philosophical search for that “being” that haunted me all my life, and with which I don’t think I will ever come to terms. I am probably attracted to finding out how a “real” thing, material and objective, can be the support…more than the support, the visible, sensual object of a common experience that becomes the best path to essential thinking.

Women soon get introduced into SEA and FOG’s paean to the sea (after the line “Thus waves come in pairs”). Later in this book, even within the “SEA” section itself, the sea seems largely to disappear for long stretches. And then for “FOG,” when I read of the “immense reality” of the unknown, the “total illumination” of total fog, of your wish for thinking to get “as impenetrable as darkness,” to “wash off what it pretends to know,” to “die to itself and land somewhere with no space nor time, as pure presence,” I feel more cautious, discreet, as if I shouldn’t pry too much, or ask too many questions.

Of course fog is another sea, and I encountered it much later. It’s true that, as a child, I used to take the train, with my father, on the line Beirut-Damascus (and back), and that ride took 12 hours, no kidding, for less than 70 miles, and it went as high as 4500 feet high, and in the winter we rode though fog, and we touched that fog with our fingers! Then once in Paris in the early ‘60s I got lost in the fog a few yards away from my residence. I also have to mention the fog in London mentioned in Apollinaire’s poem “La Chanson du Mal-aimé,” a mythical poem for so many of his readers. In fact, when I’m in London in the winter I look for that fog and never find it. But the fog of my poem, the one in my life for some five decades, is the one that regularly visits the San Francisco Bay in the summers: this sea lighter, more evanescent than any sea, which hugs the sea or the oceans, so often, is infinite.

Similarly, your wide-ranging writing practice often prompts questions about how these manifold texts come about and commingle. Do “SEA” and “FOG,” for instance, derive from separate, distinct phases of your life? Or did working on one immediately open to working on the other?

They don’t call for each other, nor do they conflict. At some points, the fog was something that I waited for, then lived with, in a way, like with nothing else. Let’s say there is a time for sea and there is a time for fog.

Part of what I so love in reading through your kaleidoscopic corpus is coming across aphoristic proclamations, such as what you just said about the time for sea and the time for fog, or, from the book itself: “We spend a life-time running after our life, running into that soft wall, looking for the energy to die,” or “I am immortal not because I have been, but because I am.” Sometimes I feel that these assertions belong to nobody, or that these gems derive from a “you” writing this particular project (always both you, Etel, and not you), and that “I” the reader am invited to join that event — to encounter an immaculate eloquence, but also to let go of it at the same time. Could you discuss your own past or present relation to aphorisms? Or if you want to consider something more specific, we could just look at the concluding page’s question “O my soul, am / I you”? Could you explain what it has meant for you to ask, perhaps never to answer, this question?

For “O my soul, am / I you?”: how can I answer that question? If I could, it wouldn’t be a question. What are we? Who are we? Who sometimes are we? We are often pursued by these questions, and we let them go. They come on their own, and there’s something almost tragic about them, as we know there are no answers — we’re even lucky when they just make sense. Sea, ocean, beaches have been though my daily bread, so to speak, having been born and raised in Beirut, having spent more than half a century in the Bay Area. And now that health problems prevent me from taking airplanes, and as I live in Paris, I got a small apartment in Erquy, Brittany, facing the ocean, and spend as much time as I can watching the tides: here they come, and here they go…

Following our discussion of SEA and FOG, could we again approach Journey to Mount Tamalpais, here starting from my (perhaps overly personal, or completely imaginary) association of this latter book to a contemporaneous, geographically proximate, text? Both for Journey to Mount Tamalpais (with its particular Marin County locale; with its primary motivation, which seems to be, most of all, love for the world; with its multisensorial renderings of that love through descriptive sketches and impromptu drawings) and for In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (with its canny captions, its prose miniatures), I couldn’t stop recalling Joe Brainard’s Bolinas Journal and related journal projects. We can skip Brainard if that makes the most sense. But could I ask you to discuss what literary precedents do stand out for you for Journey to Mount Tamalpais’ mode of extended autobiographical/topographical vignette?

I have realized that, funnily enough, the books that impressed us have not much to do with what we have written. Journey to Mount Tamalpais was not started with a book in mind. I was involved with art, and an ongoing seminar, and I took notes once in a while (very few considering the span of 20 years and more that this book covers), and at one point I said “Now I will put all these notes, as they came, together,” and it made a book. But In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country is another book, and it contradicts what I just said. It was massively, should I say, influenced by William H. Gass, and his book In the Heart of the Heart of the Country impressed me immensely.

It was at the beginning of 1972 that I read his book. I was startled by the way the narration unfolded — syncopated, distributed though paragraphs whose titles were regularly recurring. I had read already Finnegan’s Wake (to give an extreme example of an “explosive” work), but Gass’s book touched me most profoundly, so much so that I took it with me to Beirut, where I was going for the summer. Arriving in late June, the city overwhelmed me. All kinds of emotions were tearing me apart, and I thought, addressing Gass mentally: You think you have problems on your side of the world. Come and see what we’re going through here! And I clearly answered him. I wrote a piece the length of a chapter, where I meticulously took the headings of his paragraphs, in their same order, but filled with my own writings. 25 years later, I took back the same format, exactly the same headings, and wrote another piece, then a few others over the years, and eventually that series became the book In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country. The question of influences is an open-ended one. We can always say that everything that touched us in one way or the other is behind everything we are/do. But that’s another way to say nothing.

Well even when early pieces like “Jebu” address God, they characterize God as ambivalent, with no remorse and no antennae — just a fellow creature, it almost seems. And then Journey to Mount Tamalpais offers many attempts to catch the ordinary, almost invisible world, to see what the world “could be when no one watches.” That same intimate, creaturely familiarity comes about in your relation to the mountain, which you characterize as the most important person you have met, and which you know inch by inch (both real and imagined: “For years I am going, coming back, turning around the mountain, getting up in the middle of the night to make sure it is still there, staring at it, walking all over it, and dreaming, dreaming”). Standing on this mountain places you “in the rhythms of the world,” from where you say “I know. I know. I know.” Could we discuss the types of knowledge arrived at here? Does it make sense to place them closer to connaître than to savoir? You also offer, in this book and elsewhere, that great scene when the mountain comes into view: “there surges an event, there happens a double movement: the lateral movement of the car, to my right, and the vertical movement of the mountain which seems to be rising from the ground.” The mountain, as embodied being, comes into view just as you, as embodied viewer, come into being. Could you discuss this reciprocal knowledge that you and Mount Tamalpais possess of each other (this familiarity attained through active modes of perception, perhaps not unlike looking at a Cézanne painting)?

Connaître et savoir. I guess connaître would mean, in the end, to become the other, (be it a person or object or, why not, an idea), something along the lines of what Baudelaire thought should be the poet’s purpose. Savoir presents no problem: it’s what we call knowledge, in the ordinary sense. Connaître means to reach the stage where the interior world and its subject-matter fuse, appearing of equal importance, interchangeable. There are moments when, for example, the mountain becomes you, the consciousness of it becomes the consciousness of yourself. And amazingly, the mountain becomes autonomous, takes the whole inner field, and because of that seems to have surged, to have come out of nothing. We call these experiences illuminations. A painting can do that: I mean, present not only its subject-matter, but itself qua painting. Cézanne paints Sainte-Victoire not only to show (or reach) the mountain per se. He maybe has reached the mountain (its spirit, its being), but also, in the meantime, has reached the accomplishment of his painting as the accomplishment of the art of painting, of the mystery of what painting is about.

You’re right, by the way. Journey to Mount Tamalpais is an elegy, a love poem. The intimacy with a mountain, the long frequentation, the obsession with it, the joys it provided, either by walking on it, going to it, or painting it, is of the same kind as being in love with a person. Of course some behaviors are different, but the emotional charge and the spiritual charge are the same. I suppose a mystic is the one who has these same experiences with what she or he calls God.

In case it hasn’t already come across in everything you’ve said, why that particular title Journey to Mount Tamalpais? Why “Journey to”? Did you, do we, never fully get there?

Why “Journey to”? I wouldn’t think because we never got there, but rather trying to track what form that journey took, or takes — in this case not all we have seen, but all we have done, all we have thought about, related to that journal, or that journey. Because we didn’t take a road that was made, but we made the road and called that road the journey.

So far I have focused primarily on your most recent new book-length release, SEA and FOG, and on Journey to Mount Tamalpais, which seems to offer many overlapping lines of inquiry. But, needless to say, I happily could have asked dozens of questions about other, equally engaging projects of yours. On the question of Mount Tamalpais’ sturdy, steady presence (and/or our illusion of such sturdiness), for example, could we bring in Sitt Marie-Rose — one of your most kaleidoscopic texts? Here, amid the ever-shifting perspectives, the symphonic orchestration of discrete units, the sections’ quite different temporalities, one center of the book (perhaps there are many centers) seems to reside in this sentence: “If then one added every second lived by each of these people, lived by each of us, by all the people of the world, at this precise moment, it would make all the eternity of Time.” Again Nietzsche, his perspectivism, even his eternal recurrence, comes to mind. But does your novel’s form offer this same sense of simultaneity as eternity? Do your paintings, when many get hung side by side? Can a single painting of yours, perhaps of Paul Klee’s, offer that same eternal glimpse? Can your books, condensed into this Nightboat diptych, offer their own emphatically plural sense of Time?

What’s amazing about an amazingly intelligent reader is that she or he discovers a richness to a text that the author wasn’t imagining — that’s why, in this case, it’s rather difficult to answer your questions (I mean to be worthy of them). Referring to Sitt Marie- Rose, and more generally, I can say that our awareness of time leads to many views, or questions, about this concept that we use incessantly, to such a point that a philosopher like Kant thought time to be constitutive of our mind. Often we feel time to be linear, inexorable, suffocating. At other moments we find it oceanic. We kind of swim in it. We expect physicists to come up with an explanation, but we don’t find one, and come back to our intuitive use of the concept. But there are also moments when time appears to be, to say it in one way, both vertical and horizontal, both “single-minded,” monotonous, inalterable, and multi-dimensional, infinite. When a few people come together, I often have wondered if each person’s amount of years was not being added to the amount of years of all the others, so that we were representing together much more than our single self. And if you add up the simultaneous ages of people, animals, plants, objects, the age of celestial bodies and so on, you realize that we are living in the unfolding of the infinite. But why bother? I think because we need to keep in mind the immensity of being, in spite of our fragility and mortality. Does my painting do that, at least sometimes? I will say frankly that I never thought about it, and that right now I can’t see that it does. Of course, if somebody may see that it does, I will be very happy. But now that you state the question as you do, and mention Paul Klee, I would say that I felt what you mean when in front of his paintings. If you speak of influence, meaning that I have been “inhabited” by a painter, Paul Klee will come in first and foremost. I can’t describe now (or ever) what I feel/think in front of his paintings, but there is a sense of total fulfillment of whatever the human spirit can do that his paintings achieve.

Once more, I would have enjoyed asking an infinitude of questions concerning The Arab Apocalypse. But, just on the drawn designs throughout: from the first moment that one image extended to the size of two poetic lines, thereby blurring/collapsing print’s familiar typographical demarcations, I pictured hieroglyphs, and writing’s origins, and then later I thought of Chinese/Japanese calligraphy, or of Sufi design, as perhaps the ever-present future of writing, its ultimate destiny, towards which your book and its apocalypse always will point. And amid those archaic hieroglyphs, those calligraphies present and still to come, I thought of the handwritten signature (often seeming almost to emerge here) as standing someplace in between. On what sort of historical span would you or could you place this book and its gestures with the line?

The Arab Apocalypse is hard to face, for me, since I wrote in the thick of the civil war in Lebanon, and since I started it because that war seemed then to be a dreadful turning point, an ominous one — the beginning of unending disasters not only for Lebanon, but for the whole Arab world, and a vortex that would touch the world at large, and that has been true. It is also true (I don’t know why) that I was particularly aware of the act of writing, I would say the civilizational presence, or nature, of the fact of writing, during the actual writing of the poem. The signs, drawings or hieroglyphs mingling with the words, or sometimes making lines by themselves, were the overflow of meaning, of what couldn’t be said, the non-expressible part of thinking, the continuation in a way I myself couldn’t know.

And The Arab Apocalypse also combines searing, historically grounded lines (“the sun is vainly suspicious of armies…resounding bell / metal disc cutting the sky’s membrane for a rain of blood / war in Beirut war in Marrakech war in Dubai war in Mosul”) with miraculous non-sequiturs (“Who prevents us from kissing?”) and with amazing plasticities (“Baudelaire mercenary Gerard de Nerval’s assassin…STOP / sun Avicenna the hangman of Al Hallaj who was thrown to the gutters of Andalusia / the sun divested itself from its words in Dhofar for an intergalactic journey”). How did those disparate elements all come together in this particular text, and/or what do you still find generative in such teeming combinations?

I have been asked why my writing is so often political, and I have had to answer that it’s probably the history we are living in that is writing it. I do not separate past from present, and what we call history is not only the past, but rather includes our present times and our lives. So in our psyche everything can mix itself with everything else. It is true for example that Tolstoï lived “in the past,” but when he’s present to my mind he can be immediately followed by my eating a piece of bread or my reading a piece of news or my sudden memory of Venice. Linear narration is most artificial, but everything else is too (by that I mean that there’s no “pure” apprehension of reality, but things are filtered, and in that sense made by the mind). There’s maybe some place which is immaterial which stores and has stores of God knows what. We call it our memory — memory as a place and a function of the mind (of the brain?). So any order is “artificial,” an artifact, something we should take at face value. The fun is in that “given,” of “things as they come.” When one writes in a state of great intensity one is also, and equally, in a state of innocence. She or he writes as if the writing is writing itself. And anything can happen: anything can be said and make sense, even if we think that it isn’t making any sense at all. What is generative in such teeming combinations (to use your words) to me at least is an urgency, a poignancy, which is part of a new logic, a new necessity, the whole thing appearing as the unfolding of one of the facets of what the Greeks called destiny. We have to destroy orders so to excavate realities and/or create new ones which, strangely enough, in their novelty, can reach the level of what seems to be beyond reality, and, as just said, can belong to the realm of destiny.

Many interchangeable motifs likewise circulate throughout your books, such as the environmental (not just economic) presence of petroleum/oil/gasoline; insomnia; cancer; education as castration. Should we touch on any of these or other ongoing motifs?  

Many motifs, as you say, recur throughout my work. I can say that they surge. I do not plan to bring them again and again to the surface, but they must remain on my mind, or in the news, and anyway some things keep being important, and that must be indispensable to us for building an ongoing sense of identity: we need to keep some things which are familiar to make room for the new. That’s the way we function, it seems.

For Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawwaz), and still on education, and given your eloquent formulations of an investigative method in which theory must never let go of experience, it intrigued me throughout that this apparent treatise on gender, and/or on place, stays so attached to examinations of light. The light, you claim, offers what remains eternal about/within a cityscape. That comes across clearly enough. But your investigations of women also seem more impressionistic here than empirical or theoretical. Women get localized, less universalized, less abstracted, as they get sketched: “Generalities make no sense in these streets, sidewalks, workplaces, or cafés. When you see or listen to them, you get the feeling that each one seems to pursue her own destiny. They are living with a kind of independence which is reflected in their bodies and in their ideas, in their attitudes towards life. It is as though things have been worked out in private, in the delight of existence.” Could you discuss this compelling method of social analysis via the spontaneous-seeming sketch, and why that seemed the right approach here? If, as you say “I have lots of ideas about women, but reality obscures them more than it enlightens them,” how did writing about or through surfaces allow you to convey such incisive depths?

Of Cities and Women happened as if by chance. Around 1990 I received a request from a friend, Fawwaz Trabulsi, who said he was planning to launch a magazine (in French) concerning the Arab world, and that he would like to have a paper from me on Arab feminism. I was embarrassed, as I never liked to dwell on theories on that subject (not that I don’t respect those who do). I’ve always felt that it’s hard to reduce some billions of women to some general ideas. Anyway, I was on my way to Barcelona to attend a bookfair, and once there I spontaneously decided to write a letter to Fawwaz that would focus on women. By the time he received my letter the magazine project had lost its sponsors, and was doomed. In the meantime, I was hooked. So for a while whenever I was traveling to some city (mostly European) I wrote to him, as a friend, but also continuing my observations along the same line. After a year (or more), having returned to Beirut at the end of the 15-year-long civil war, I wrote a new letter. And the year after, returning again, I found out that one of my closest friends there was dying. That painful event made the subject of the last letter of that series. I believed that those letters could contribute to the desire of paying attention to some women’s lives. And as I was discovering new places, I could not avoid speaking of them, since they were also the environments of the women I was mentioning. It was fun writing to Fawwaz, and I didn’t think about it much more.

Since, as we’ve said, too much analytic light might obscure things, what else does this book imply about women — say in its exemplary itinerancy, nomadism, sense of liberation and self-sustenance (qualities often coded male)? What kind of experiential range or continuum emerges when we place the lament “My life’s pattern seems to demand that I spend little time with individuals I love, and never live in the cities that matter most to me” alongside “In the meantime, I feel that I haven’t settled anywhere, really, that rather I am living in the world, all over, in newspapers, in railway stations, cafés, airports…The books that I am writing are houses that I build for myself”? What haven’t you yet said about this life that takes place between such poles of socially determined destiny and eloquent self-direction?

Now you’re speaking of nomadism. That’s a wonderful term, a rather nostalgic one, as the populations who lead exclusively nomadic lives are unfortunately dwindling. Nomads were, at any rate, not just romantic people, but the communicators of ancient days. They were the buses and airplanes we have today, communication lines, carriers of goods as well as of ideas. They were crossing continents under extremely difficult conditions. They were not “outside” civilizations” but rather the mediators of them. Today, we are part of crowds of travelers. We are mobile. Some of us are uprooted. In my case, in a generation in Beirut where family clans constitute the population to a very great degree, I grew up largely as an outsider: with a father who was an Ottoman officer (having spent his most important years in Turkey), a mother who was a Greek from Smyrna; with both having lost (he an empire, she the city which burned entirely in 1922); with both lacking previous ties to Beirut; with my schools which taught exclusively in French and punished the kids speaking Arabic. I will call all that an alienation. Then I went to Paris with a scholarship, then to UC Berkeley (knowing at the start just some 20 words of English and still, thoughtlessly, enrolling for a PhD in philosophy)! So I moved between different worlds, and acquired different interests. Was I an Arab (barely knowing Arabic), a French person, then an American, as I became so immersed in America? I seldom worried about these questions — that was my own answer. I discovered so many things, got involved with so many matters. I can’t say that it was hard to go through that kind of a life. It was rather a blessing. Today we are in this new century aware of massive migrations, massive displacements. Airports keep being extended. Tourism is a major industry. Job-seekers easily change the country of their residence. These are all great upheavals. All this creates a new phenomenon for which I will not use the name of nomadism. If we could go to the moon and look back at Earth, we would see it as a planet crisscrossed by billions of dots made of objects, people, animals, plants, boats, lights, all mixed together and all moving uninterruptedly, as if trapped aimlessly on a given surface turning in a void.

You also wonder: what haven’t I yet said that I would like to say? I really don’t know, as things seem to happen on their own: some unfinished meditation, or a phone call and, why not, a passing cloud, the weather, even…

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