Much Ado About Nothing

Indignez-vous by Stéphane Hessel (13 pages)

 For once, this is a post about the book everybody is reading in France. Indignez-vous was the best-selling book of 2010. I read that 1 million of copies were sold…in two months. I bought my copy in January and it is the 12th edition. According to Wikipedia, this essay was translated into English (Time for Outrage!) and published in March 2011 in the US magazine The Nation. I wondered why it was such a success and decided to read it.

What is it exactly, who is Stéphane Hessel and what is it about?

Indignez-vous is published by a small publishing house named Indigène Editions. It is settled in Montpellier, in the South of France, far from Paris and the literary world. Here is their blurb about their editing policy:  

Indigène Editions is a publishing house dedicated to the knowledge and arts of non industrial cultures of First Nations – Aborigines from Australia, Native Americans, Inuits, Tibetans, Maoris…. It is also dedicated to the “Natives” of our own societies, these pioneers who, here and now, want to break free from mercantile, protectionist and standardized logics and intend to create new hubs of intellectual authority and economical viability.

Indignez-vous is published in their collection entitled Ceux qui marchent contre le vent (Those who walk against the wind), baptized after the phrase used to name the Ohamas, Native Americans from the Great Plains. John Berger initiated this collection in 2009 with his essay “Dans l’entre-temps, Réflexions sur le fascisme économique” (Meanwhile, Thoughts on Economical Fascism). Now British readers fidget on their chair and start to be interested. 

That was the publisher. Now who is Stéphane Hessel, whom I had never heard of before this book? I’m not proud of my ignorance, and you’ll understand why after reading the following paragraphs.

Stéphane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917 and became French in 1939. Incidentally, and for cinema lovers, his mother Helen is the model for Catherine from Jules and Jim and his father Franz was Jules. Jim was their friend Henri-Pierre Roché, author of the eponymous book. Mythical.

He studied economy, philosophy and was interested in the Sartrian vision of life based on responsibility. In 1939, as the war began, he was mobilized into the French army. After the French capitulation, he was made prisoner. He evaded and joined his family who had found shelter in Sanary (French Riviera) at Aldous Huxley’s house. He reached London through Algeria and joined the Général de Gaulle in 1941. Sent in mission in France in 1944, he was caught by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. He escaped death twice, was sent to Dora in 1945. He evaded again and joined the American army in Germany.

He was a diplomat from 1945 to 1985, and took part in the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He worked for different liberal government as a counsellor. He’s a human rights activist.

An incredible life, somehow similar to that of Joseph Kessel or Romain Gary. Foreigner, nationalized French citizen, Resistant, diplomat, sent in the UNO in New York. 

Now, the essay.

The main ideas are that we should recall the principles put forward by the Conseil National de la Résistance, just after WWII : social benefits, free press, good education and nationalized companies in strategic areas, such as rail and electricity. Then he urges French citizens to think about the things that outrage them and react, be activists for the cause they choose. He talks about what outrages him such as the situation in Palestine. He advocates non-violence as the only way to solve difficulties. Rather thin, even for only 13 pages.

Then I thought, “So what?” What’s new in this? I found his arguments honourable but well-known. I expected something new, a fresh angle to look at things. I expected something more revolutionary than this, considering the aims of the publisher. I was disappointed.

And I still wonder “Why such a success”? The “book” has been N°1 of L’Express best-selling list for 22 weeks now. There are 50 articles related to him on the website of Le Monde. I know Stéphane Hessel won’t make money of it as he gives what he earns from this book to charities. At least, if it isn’t a breakthrough in essays, I’m happy to think a small publishing house will improve their financial statements.

  1. April 4, 2011 at 1:06 am

    A lucky man indeed. Perhaps non-violence has taken a back seat in the last decade or so.

    Like

    • April 4, 2011 at 7:56 am

      Apart from the concentration camps part of his life, I guess so. He’s still visiting school to share his experiences.
      Non-violence was always on a back seat, even when Gandhi or Martin Luther King were alive.

      Like

  2. April 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    This little book starts to haunt me. I read about it last year, ordered it, got it, put it somewhere and forgot abaout it. All of a sudden it turned up again on my stairs under a load of newspapers that will never be read. I was wondering why the hell have I bought this and that’s when one of the cats got it and flicked it down the stairs to later chew on it (he loves chewing books). In any case the little book disappeared under a cupboard (unchewed, he forgot about it too) . Three weeks ago I saw the German translation and thought it sounds familiar. All this just to tell you that everything around this publication is more gripping than the book itself. I’m not even sure I want to read it now. It’s a publication oddity. I think he should write his memoirs.

    Like

    • April 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm

      What a story! It’s a sign, it wants to be read. It won’t take long and I’d like to have your opinion about it.

      YES he should write his memoirs.

      The unexpected about this is that now, I’m tempted to read Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché.

      Like

  3. leroyhunter
    April 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    I wonder how many of the million or so readers will generate the desired state of outrage?

    It sounds worthy but you could question whether his suggestions are appropriate to meeting some of the challenges people face around the world. Would non-violence have been a good response to Nazism, for example?

    Like

    • April 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm

      Good question. There’s a web site http://www.indignez-vous.fr/ to gather ideas and volunteers. True, he has a point on several matters but there’s nothing new in his arguments. He has no idea of the “how” : how to make selfish generations (I include myself in this) react ? When I read The Confessions of a Child of the Century, I saw me in what Musset describes as I come after a generation of commitment (communism, workers organizations, women’s rights, movements against racism) and in a time where money, entertainment and material goods in general are what matters most.

      I don’t know if non-violence would have been a good response to Nazism. I think that after 1933 it was too late for non-violence to be efficient. But maybe a watchful civilian society more committed in democratic causes (which is what he advocates) could have prevented Nazism to access to power. One can dream. And that’s what he says too: keep on hoping things can improve and do something in the area you’re attracted to.

      Like

  4. leroyhunter
    April 5, 2011 at 9:26 am

    “maybe a watchful civilian society more committed in democratic causes (which is what he advocates) could have prevented Nazism” – very true, but now you’re into the previous 60 years (at least) of German history and all the complexities that entails. Once Hitler assumed power at some stage – whether domestically or internationally – someone was going to have to forcibly oppose him. He dictated that with his actions and outlook.

    It’s very true what you say about current generations enjoying the fruits of previous struggles, all the while totally taking them for granted.

    Like

  5. April 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    I just realized that I actually managed to get the first edition which means the little book has been hiding in my apartment since last October.

    Like

    • April 5, 2011 at 3:41 pm

      Well done, I think there are only 6000 of these. Plus you were already aware of it. I’m impressed.

      Like

  6. April 5, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    I was a bit puzzled when I saw it’s the first edition. I remember it was an impulse thing, I saw it on amazon.fr and I wanted to read it right away but had no clue what it was, no one wrote or spoke about it. And then it got lost in the stacks and almost ripped to shreds. I’m going to read it!

    Like

  7. April 7, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Sometimes the unlikeliest books become hits. There’s a point where they just gain a momentum – everyone seems to have a copy so everyone buys a copy.

    In the UK Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is an example. I’ve read it, it’s ok, but it’s heavy going in places and ultimately not that great a book. Still, a bestseller and one far more bought than read I suspect.

    Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is another. It has its fans but for a while everyone seemed to have a copy. I doubt any of his other books have sold nearly so well.

    At least being 13 pages this one will probably get read. Who knows what causes these popular movements though? Chance I suspect. A random combination of factors which suddenly propel a book, song, whatever, into the stratosphere even though there’s no particular reason for it.

    Like

    • April 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm

      I guess the personality of Stéphane Hessel has something to do with this success.
      There’s another book now entitled “Engagez-vous!” (“Commit!”) and I see that publishers have started to release several texts by him.
      Someone wrote an answer
      The cover looks like Indignez-vous.
      That man is against the brutality of capitalism and he’s becoming a marketing phenomenon. Sad.
      As Boris Vian wrote :
      “Ils cassent le monde
      En petits morceaux”

      (They break the world in small pieces)

      Like

  8. April 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Bookaroundthecorner :Great slogan.

    We should put it on a t-shirt and sell it then…

    Like

    • April 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      OK, you write the contract, I’ll do the accounting. Who’s going to be the salesperson ? Any volunteer?

      Like

  9. April 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Caroline’s review is really worth reading (and more positive than mine)
    You can find it here:
    http://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/stephane-hessel-indignez-vous-time-for-outrageemport-euch/

    Like

  1. April 9, 2011 at 8:02 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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