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Much Ado About Nothing

April 3, 2011 19 comments

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.

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