Now a French ‘intellectual monument’ still actively involved in contemporary social and political debate, for Edgar Morin, an essay like the one on Ava Gardner was no mere diversion, an instance of a great male thinker coming down to earth briefly to glance at a popular phenomenon, stardom, in this instance embodied by a woman—a voluptuous one at that. In fact, the term intellectual ‘monument’ is probably misleading for Morin, ill fitting someone who has practised a sociological analysis ‘à chaud’—on the spot, or while things are happening, for more than half a century. The adjective, ‘chaud’ here, meaning ‘warm’, is pertinent in relation to the rest of his work as well, since it has never been about conquering the objects of analysis, pinning them down to (imaginatively, and in a deluded fashion) render them lifeless. Nor are the words ‘demystification’ or ‘demythologisation’ completely appropriate in relation to Morin’s approach. He has long argued that we must try to understand our myths, to be able to work with myths and mysteries, to have dialogue with them, acknowledging their power, while not being at their mercy. Morin’s intellectual curiosity has been and continues to be omnivorous. Indeed, since his time in the French Resistance, where Edgar Nahoum took on the name, Morin, he has been an engaged intellectual in the fullest sense, the person and the work inseparable.
In a dossier on Morin put out by Le Monde earlier this year, Régis Debray suggested that there were many Edgars in one, giving us an embarrassment of choices for a description: he is an epistemologist, sociologist, prophet, autobiographer, journalist, philosopher, diarist, militant, and historian—just to limit himself to the public individual. (1) In Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s homage to Morin, he credits him as the main force behind the anti-Stalinist left-wing journal, Arguments, which ran from 1953 to 1960. The sober historian and author of Montaillou,(2) has no problem suggesting that in however small a way, along with other anti-Stalinist militants of his generation, Morin contributed to the fall of the Eastern bloc in 1989.
Sociologist, Alain Touraine, describes the way that (particularly during the period of a determinist structuralist hegemony in theory) he and Morin lived a large part of their intellectual life during the time of the death of the Subject. But they had both noted that this announcement of death hadn’t prevented subjects from ‘living, thinking and laughing’. (3) Touraine also aptly noted that a major part of Morin’s life had been as a traveller, particularly to places like Italy, Spain, and Latin America, where he has taken part in multidisciplinary forums, incorporating modes of analysis that have transformed physics, chemistry, and contemporary biology in the attempt to understand the many dimensions of social and cultural actors. Morin being a Mediterranean, like Camus before him, Touraine suggests that it hasn’t been by chance that he has been sooner and better understood in the Latin world than the Anglophone one. He came from a family of Jews expelled from Spain centuries ago, who ended up in Salonica, his parents finally meeting each other in France. In Paris, however, Morin’s mother died when he was nine years old. (In that same year, there was a pogrom in Salonica.) There was a level at which Morin knew early that Reason didn’t guide our lives or bring any guarantees; that our lives are touched by drama and the stakes are high, since we love, lose and die—and if we are fortunate, there’s camaraderie, contentment, happiness and joy in between. Not banishing love from learned discourse, Morin never neglected the human being of flesh, blood and emotion, and one of the premises of his theory, like that of his friend and colleague, Cornelius Castoriadis, is that folly is an integral part of being human. (4)
Breaking with the French Communist Party in the 1950s was like being orphaned again for Morin, but he was fortunate enough as a scholar and man to be welcomed into the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), where he was able to pursue his research in the human and natural sciences, always preoccupied by the ways that mythology and magic live on in our so-called rational modern societies, and the fact that our reality itself is semi-imaginary. These facts have purchase in our thinking about contemporary ethnic nationalisms and religio-political movements, no less than our thinking about the star phenomenon, which Morin placed at the crossroads of what we call the ‘aesthetic’, the ‘magical’, and the ‘religious’.
Touraine noted the importance of the CNRS in sustaining Morin’s research, and rhetorically asked if there now exist institutions in France or elsewhere which would place such confidence in their most creative researchers. We don’t need to struggle to find the answer to this at a time when institutions of higher learning prioritise academic production (preferably quantifiable) over open-ended intellectual endeavour; and with Nicola Sarkozy at the helm, with his ‘modernising reforms’, France is at present a site of contestation in relation to education, employment, and other basic quality of life issues. Interestingly, in 2008, Sarkozy himself, or at least his speechwriter, used Morin’s formulation of a ‘politics of civilisation’ in a televised address to the nation. When Morin had spoken of a politics of civilisation, his starting point was the acknowledgement that if our Western civilisation had produced benefits, it had also generated evils which assume increasing importance. (5) Could we remedy these evils without losing the benefits of civilisation, he asked. Contrary to the ‘superiority complex’ of France in the past, and the ‘civilising role’ French colonisers believed they were fulfilling, might the country, and Europe generally, engage in a politics in which humans are an end, not only a means. And with a political ecology that was environmental, social, economic and political, that included our terrestrial, biological and imaginary dimensions. (He didn’t want to exclude the possibility that Sarkozy was reorienting himself in this sense, but hadn’t seen any signs that he was!)
In 1960, with Jean Rouch, Morin had turned ethnography on its head and done anthropology on Parisians—on film. And three years before, with another inversion, he had written in relation to stardom:
Nonsense, no doubt! Nonsense from which the serious sociologist turns away in disgust, which is why no one has yet dared to study the stars. But our scholars betray their frivolity in their refusal to take nonsense seriously. Nonsense is also what is most profound in man. Behind the star system there is not only the ‘stupidity’ of fanatics, the lack of invention of screen writers, the commercial chicanery of producers. There is the world’s heart and there is love, another kind of nonsense, another profound humanity…
There is also that magic which we regard as the characteristic of ‘primitives’ and which is at the very heart of our civilised lives…
Rationalist Europe and rationalising America, religious and amorous, brandish their colossal carnival dolls, their stars. Let us look for new scholars who will know how to describe the ethnography of non-primitive societies. Your turn, Africans, Oceanians, Amerindians, objects and victims of ethnography! And do not be merely disdainful collectors as we have been in regard to you. (6)
The essay on Ava Gardner first appeared in La Nef, in February 1958. Morin’s Le Cinéma, ou l’homme imaginaire (The Cinema, or the Imaginary Man) had been published in 1956, and Les Stars (The Stars), in 1957. Fortunately, an English translation of the latter, still the best book on the star phenomenon, appeared in 1960. (7) We had to wait for almost fifty years for The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man: An Essay in Sociological Anthropology, to appear. (8) The University of Minnesota Press published a new edition of The Stars at the same time, but it didn’t, however, include Morin’s update to the French version of the book in 1972, which included this essay on Ava Gardner in an appendix, along with a new preface. (9) In this preface, he repudiates the tone of ‘superior irony’ that he occasionally used in the original book, more and more persuaded as time goes on that we must never be insolent in regard to a phenomenon we are trying to understand—and that before all else, critique must be exercised upon oneself. While I can allow this essay on Ava Gardner to speak for itself, let me suggest that it typifies the way that Morin has consistently shown that writing which is engaged, full-hearted, even baroque, can be no less valid than that coming from a posture of distanciation. Having written several volumes on questions of method, something basic to Morin’s work is Heisenberg’s principle that a method of enquiry cannot be separated from its object. There is no rigid distinction between Subject and Object, which interact, and Reality is in flux, our experience drawn together by our consciousness. Comforting but blinding disjunctions between culture and nature, philosophy and science, thought and life, are untenable. Reality is rich, mysterious, and multidimensional, and we can gain partial, but not total understandings of it—and of ourselves. Indeed, Morin’s proposition that ‘the universe is more Shakespearean than Newtonian’, is, I think, a fitting note on which to bring his Ava Gardner to centre-stage. (10)
- See Nicolas Truong (Ed.), ‘Edgar Morin, Le philosophe indiscipliné: Itinéraire d’un penseur sans frontières’, Le Monde Hors-Série, Paris, 2010. (‘Indiscipliné’ can simply mean ‘undisciplined’, or ‘refusing to be confined’ [to a discipline], ‘unmanageable’, or ‘unruly’, or some combination of these.) Régis Debray was a young student radical who participated in Morin’s and Jean Rouch’s landmark documentary, Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1960).
- Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s, Montaillou, village occitan (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), was a landmark work of the Annales school of history, presenting history from below.
- Alain Touraine, ‘Rien de ce qui est humain ne t’est étranger’, in ‘Edgar Morin, Le philosophe indiscipliné, p. 105.
- One of the places Castoriadis writes of man as a ‘mad animal’ is in ‘Radical Imagination and the Social Instituting Imaginary’, in The Castoriadis Reader, Trans. and Ed. David Ames Curtis (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p. 331. On the very same page, among his ‘tentative, embryonic thoughts’, he says: ‘Kant’s soul could not inhabit Ava Gardner’s body, nor the reverse’. I wonder.
- See Edgar Morin and Sami Naïr, Une Politique de Civilisation (Paris: Arléa, 1997).
- Edgar Morin, The Stars, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1960). p. 106.
- While there is a great deal of work on celebrity, I regard this as a more sociological phenomenon, not so much one which also has a deep anthropological basis.
- Edgar Morin, The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man: An Essay in Sociological Anthropology, trans. Lorraine Mortimer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
- Edgar Morin, The Stars, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
- Edgar Morin, La Nature de la Nature, the first volume of method, published in 1977. Here I have used J.L. Roland Bélanger’s Translator’s Introduction to Method: Towards a Study of Humankind.Vol. 1, The Nature of Nature (1991), p. xxx.