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Philosopher Edgar Morin, at the age of 101: ‘Whenever I’m possessed by the force of life, the specter of death recedes’

In a conversation with EL PAÍS, the great French thinker reflects on existence and invites us to cultivate the poetic side of living. He has just published a ‘dissident’ book on the war in Ukraine and has two more works forthcoming in the summer

Edgar Morin
Edgar Morin on the grounds of a hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco, the city where he lives with his wife.Jaime Villanueva

Edgar Morin is a man with a mission. An unfinished, unpostponable, unavoidable mission: transmitting his ideas and sharing knowledge. Intellectual production keeps the French philosopher lucid and vibrant at 101 years of age. It feeds him and preserves him: he sees himself as being “possessed” every time he confronts a book or an article on his computer. In his recent book Lessons from a Century of Life, he confesses that he was a bad son and a bad father. Not a bad husband, he clarifies. And not a bad thinker.

Morin is part of an endangered species: the great intellectuals of the 20th century. He has written more than 20 books — in addition to other short works and collections of interviews — and, in France, he has just published De guerre en guerre: de 1940 à l’Ukraine [From war to war: from 1940 to Ukraine]. In this “dissident” essay, he goes against the current that is dominant in Western media, making a clear plea for peace in a war that has shaken the world since February of 2022.

In June, Morin plans to publish another work, Encore un peu [Once again, a little more]. And in September, another, co-written with the woman who sustains him: Sabah Abouessalam, a Moroccan sociologist. He met his wife at a conference in 2009.

A reference for the French left and an inspiration for Spain’s 2015 anti-austerity protests, this descendant of Spanish Sephardic Jews — who was born with the name Edgar Nahoum — is a humanist who has always liked to intervene in public debates. Meanwhile, in the intellectual world, he is recognized for the publication of six volumes of multidisciplinary reflections between 1977 and 2004, where he develops the keys to complex thought.

Morin divides his time between Morrocco, Paris, and Montpellier, in the south of France. He receives EL PAÍS in one of his favorite corners of Marrakesh: the Es Saadi palace, which has been converted into a hotel. It has an orchard filled with birds and palm trees. He’s spending time here because the air conditioning is broken in his house, making the conditions unbearable.

The weight of 101 years lived is suddenly lifted as soon as the recorder is turned on. Morin starts speaking and begins to glow. The momentum breaks through his voice — his hands begin to accompany the inflections in his words.

Question. You begin your new book by evoking the first Luftwaffe bombardments that annihilated Rotterdam in May of 1940. You were assigned to the General Staff of the First Army, commanded by Lattre de Tassigny. Did the horrors of war that you experienced push you to write a book advocating for peace?

Answer. The images of the war in Ukraine… the destroyed buildings, the corpses of civilians... all of this reminded me of the wars I lived through, especially World War II. Back then, I saw cities like Hamburg and Mannheim completely destroyed.

Q. In your book, you write that any war in the name of good actually involves evil. Does this occur in Ukraine?

A. Yes, but not at such a massive level. Although Putin’s Russia is guilty of having attacked and even of [having tried] to annex Ukraine, there are war crimes that have been committed on both sides; there is war propaganda on both sides. War favors lies, false information, hiding what is negative for your side... I want our contemporaries to be aware of this. Especially since, in France, for example, there has been a kind of beatification of Ukraine, at the same time that devilish intentions have been attributed to Putin.

Q. Aren’t Putin’s intentions diabolical?

A. What is diabolical about Putin, above all, is his internal repression of his opponents and the dictatorship he maintains in Russia. We’re in the middle of a war, which evidently has criminal aspects. But we’re informed of the actions of the Russians by the Ukrainians. There’s a fog of information.

Q. In the book, you make a clear plea for peace. But peace means making concessions to an invader, to Putin.

A. When the forces of the two adversaries are equal, compromise can be reached. Crimea, in 2014, had 1,400,000 Russians, 500,000 Ukrainians and 400,000 Tatars in the census. Given history and demographics, an agreement could be sought in this area. [But now], it’s not clear why Ukraine is asking for a monopoly on Crimea — a compromise can be sought. Donbas is an extremely mineral-rich region that began to be industrialized by Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century. And it was Stalin’s USSR that hyper-industrialized it — a large part of the engineers and workers there are of Russian origin. The question could be raised that perhaps the wealth of Donbas [could be jointly] exploited.

Q. Should these kinds of concessions be made?

A. This could be a compromise solution to obtain the sovereignty of Ukraine, its accession to the European Union and its military neutrality. We mustn’t forget that the Americans played a key role in the entire chronology that led to the war, with the expansion of NATO. There’s a new Russian imperialism of a pan-Slavic character… But there’s also a U.S. imperialism that is present in a political, economic and military way.

Ukraine — in its search for independence and sovereignty — is the scene of a conflict between two imperialisms. With this book, I knew that [this notion] was not in the mainstream — I know very well that it’s dissident in the current circumstances. I was even in danger of being attacked. You know, in France, anyone who disagrees [with the current policy] is immediately branded to be pro-Putin.

Q. Are you concerned about the reaction?

A. I don’t like it. But my duty is to say what I think is useful. We’re in an age where Manichean thinking and simplistic alternatives masquerade as knowledge or thought. And in the current conditions, it’s increasingly difficult to defend a complex vision of things.

Q. You say you’re the heir of the philosophers Montaigne and Spinoza.

A. Yes, because Montaigne advised [that we should] practice doubt and self-knowledge. He had a very human spirit. He said: “Every man is my countryman.” He is the first anti-colonialist. And Spinoza made the great revolution in modern thought by ending the idea of a superior and external God who is the creator and owner of the world. He gave creative sovereignty to nature.

Q. Mr. Morin, may I ask: how do you maintain your intellectual faculties so well, at 101 years of age?

A. I persevere in my being, as Spinoza would say. Age affects me — I walk worse than before, I have various physical problems. But fortunately, mentally, I’m still the same. I’ve kept all my curiosity, my interest in the future of humanity.

Q. And how do you see that future?

A. I don’t think we’re heading towards a brighter tomorrow. The future is dark. I know that, often, the unexpected happens in history. I’m attentive and vigilant, but I’m also very anxious about the future of humanity.

Edgar Morin on the grounds of a hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco, the city where he lives with his wife.
Edgar Morin, French philosopher and sociologist.Jaime Villanueva

Q. In Lessons from a Century of Life, you write that it’s essential for a person to have a poetic life.

A. You cannot live poetically all the time. Life is a struggle between prose and poetry. Prose is the boring stuff — the stuff you have to put up with. Poetry is that state of enchantment, of communion, of enjoyment… It gives you love for another, collective friendship, a work of art... Each of us must try to cultivate the poetic part of life, because that’s living. The other part is just survival.

Q. What surprises you the most about contemporary life?

A. In big cities, above all, the anonymity. I lived my youth at a time when neighbors not only spoke to each other, but helped each other. You chatted with the store clerk. Today, we’re witnessing the destruction of coexistence. Some of it remains, with friends, with family. In addition to anonymity, there’s the robotization of life; the increasingly strict, timed obligations at work. All of this leads to a degradation of civilization, civility and human relations.

Q. You often say that, in our societies, a metastasis of the ego is taking place.

A. Modern individualism has developed positive aspects, such as autonomy. But there are also negative aspects, such as the predominance of oneself over others. The human being is, on one hand, egocentric: he must defend himself, feed himself and think about himself. But a human being is also communal, open to others, loving. Egocentrism must be reduced to the vital minimum… Fraternity is essential.

Q. In an interview with the Italian philosopher Nuccio Ordine, you said that “capitalist economic development has unleashed the great problems on our planet.” How so?

A. The hegemony of profit is manifesting itself throughout the world — it’s leading to the ecological degradation of the planet. We have to resist [by] trying to live in an oasis of brotherhood and coexistence, because, at the moment, there’s no political force capable of creating a new path forward.

Q. At this point in your life, how do you define yourself politically?

A. I define myself as a man of the left. But since my break with communism in 1951, I’m independent of any party and I want to remain so. Being on the left means taking elements from three main sources, as well as from a fourth: from anarchism, [regarding] the free individual; from socialism, for a better society; from communism, [to create] human brotherhood. These three notions have been separated and opposed, but for me, these three notions must be associated. The fourth is the relationship with nature that ecology teaches us.

Q. And how should the left position itself in the face of current capitalist economic development?

A. We must reverse the hegemony of profit in all areas where possible. In agriculture, [this means] progressively leaving behind industrialized [farming] to move towards an ecological kind. We must recover a sense of solidarity. Economic neoliberalism tends to destroy public services; we must infuse them with vitality. Reforms are needed to gradually transform society because, in my opinion, revolution is not possible; at least, as it has existed, it has been more destructive than constructive. I’m thinking of the Soviet Union or China. This is a progressive collective mission and, for the moment, there is no political force capable of promoting it.

Q. But is there a leftist force in any country that is particularly interesting to you?

A. There were attempts… But they didn’t last for very long and they ultimately failed. Such as with the [former] president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. In Chile, there was a spark, but it didn’t last. In Brazil, there were positive developments, but they didn’t work out. The planet is undergoing a process of generalized political regression: a crisis of democracy, regimes with democratic façades and neo-authoritarians that are multiplying. This isn’t just the case of Russia, Turkey, or Hungary. In Europe, there are other threatened countries, such as France.

Q. Do you feel that France is at risk?

A. Economic regression, growing inequalities, the power of the super-rich, a very small elite while the rest of the world is impoverished... We’re on a dangerous slope.

Q. And how do you think that the fight against Macron in the streets and the increase in the retirement age in France have influenced this?

A. I think that the movement that will benefit from all of this will be Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. With the disintegration of the classical right, the crisis within Macronism — which is a kind of centrism — and the crisis of the left, there’s a danger that, in the next elections (2027), the National Rally will come to power and establish a neo-authoritarian regime.

Q. In an interview you gave during the pandemic, you said: “At my age, death is always on the horizon. Therefore, it’s better to think about life and what is happening.” Death is taboo in our society, but is it also taboo at 101?

A. I think that the taboo has weakened a bit. When I wrote Man and Death, in 1951, it was a subject that seemed obscene. But it’s true that, when one exceeds 100 years of age, you arrive in a land that is little known and inhabited. There aren’t many centenarians. It’s evident that the proximity of death is permanent. It’s something that can happen to me any night; it’s unknown. But while I am possessed by the forces of life, participation, curiosity and action, the specter of death recedes.

I must say that there are moments of emptiness in which, abruptly, death appears to me. And I say to myself: is this it? It’s the fate, not only of all living beings, but of everything in the world: even the stars die. Sometimes, of course, the idea of my disappearing self gives me a feeling of emptiness; I feel the presence of nothing. But I’m not obsessed — these are merely moments. I am much more focused on the forces of life.

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