Paris, 17 February 2023

Lukas Bärfuss: Jean-Christophe Bailly, let me begin with a personal question. You were born in 1949, shortly after the war. Since then, you’ve experienced two parallel and contradictory developments. On the one hand, an improvement in living conditions greater than any other generation has known: life expectancy, medical condition, the welfare state. And on the other, an unprecedent destruction of nature. How have you incorporated this contradiction into your thinking?

Jean-Christophe Bailly: It’s difficult to answer because one experiences different things as a child. I was delighted by what they call nature—animals, forests, everything that I could see and understand, star-filled skies, I found it all amazing. Only later did we realize that with industry, and even in our post-industrial world, we were destroying everything, absolutely everything. And it was mainly through animals that I became conscious of this destruction. It had always frightened me: the scale of the human population. When I was born, there were around three and a half billion people in the world. Now there are more than eight billion. In contrast, if we look at the tiger population, at the time there were tens of thousands. Now we count them by the hundreds, sometimes as individual creatures. And when you see those two divergent lines, the constantly rising line of human population and the steadily falling line of numbers of animals, it’s terrible.

In your essay, La forme animale [1] you quote Georges Canguilhem. »The rapport between the living and its milieu develops as a debate.«[2] Are we humans part of this »living«? What is our milieu? After all, we were banished from paradise, that enclosed park in which wild animals live. And can we still speak of a debate? A debate requires two subjects, two equal subjects, that meet on the same level—hasn’t this relationship become a war in the meantime? Where are we in this debate?

Canguilhem refers to living things in general. A particular animal or a particular plant, cannot survive without entering into some kind of exchange with its surroundings, its life depends on this. Every living being evaluates the world in this way, calculates its possibilities. It is forced to take into account what is in front of it, under it, all around it and above it. Humans must also function like this. Even the hunter-gatherers had to live this way, their lives depended on it. As soon as men established a certain number of things as private property, began to store goods and wares, and created history, wars, and forms of power, they distanced themselves more and more from the constant connection, from direct contact with the world around them.
When I was a child, I would fetch milk from a farm during school holidays. Today, that has practically disappeared. The environment in which a child is born today is no longer the city as it was known when it arose during the period of the rising bourgeoisie or later in industrial society. Today it’s a kind of non-city, a relatively formless metropolis with a universality of media, of mediatization of goods, and so on. It is frightening to realize how weak the debate with the environment has become.

You taught for many years at the École nationale supérieure de la nature et du paysage in Blois.

I was very happy working there and as a writer as well. I couldn’t teach literature, it’s too close to me. I would be constantly annoyed. If a student tells me he doesn’t like Gérard de Nerval, I go crazy. But at that university, there was a foundation of objective knowledge and the problems of the time. What do we do with industrial wasteland? How can we prevent a river from flooding? In this way we accompany the students, even I, who taught an obviously more theoretical course.

Today we see that younger generations are enraged and outraged. The sense of an impending apocalypse is widespread.

I haven’t completely given in to despair, but sometimes I wonder why not.

What gives you hope?

What gives me hope are zones, interludes of forgetfulness. When I’m walking in the countryside and see a donkey, it comes up to me and I stroke its ears. This makes me happy. As does night. And sometimes even people do. There are a few interesting things you can do with them. I was just in Munich at rehearsals of Georges Aperghis’ composition, watching the musicians at work. It was pure passion, hours and hours spent perfecting minute sounds. Everything that demands a kind of attention—with your ears, your hands, your sense of touch—pleases me. Even a butcher cutting meat! In this sense, I’m an utter Rousseauian.  Everyone should be obligated to perform ten hours of manual labor a week. Everyone!

It’s astonishing to hear an intellectual say this.

Yes and no. When I see someone like the French president Macron—for me he is a caricature of what one should not be as a human. I want to put a screwdriver in his hand; I’m sure he barely knows how to use it. These are the people who are ruling the world. It’s terrifying. They are of an almost incomprehensible incompetence and arrogance.

As a teenager, I worked for a tobacco grower. He also had cattle. It was a horrifying life. Once we had to saw apart a calf because it was stuck in the birth canal. One of his neighbors killed every cat that strayed onto his farm. I would find them on the dung heap. It was bloody. There was a certain truthfulness to it or it was never idyllic. You wrote a short book about another vanished world, that of coal mines.

When you visit a coalmine in Essen, in the Ruhr district, where the biggest machines were, you now find a four-star restaurant. What gives anyone the right to do that? That doesn’t mean the restaurant should be closed and the mine reopened. What I don’t like is the speed with which people can erase their past.

I don’t like the speed with which people can erase their past. Jean-Christophe Bailly

You often speak of such lost archives, such erased memories. Why should we preserve them?

Because they have formed our society and beyond that, it’s clear that we humans should produce our raw materials locally.

We often hear these demands in debates at the moment, particularly in relation to Russia or China. Maybe globalization is ending and a re-localization of production has become necessary.

I’m firmly convinced of that. A former student of mine, whom I like to visit, is a cattle breeder, which he does under new conditions: no chemical products; separating his fields with crops or strips of trees and in conformity with the landscape to avoid runoff and erosion; limiting the quantities of things that must be transported; removing stalls and stables. The cows sleep in the forest in winter and they are doing very well.

But this farmer produces high priced goods for people who can afford them. The growth and economic success of our agriculture are due to intensive cultivation and, above all, chemical fertilizers. We have them to thank for rising birth rates and life expectancy. At the same time, chemical fertilizer is a petrochemical product and a main driver of climate change. How do we solve this dilemma?

I don’t know. But it’s interesting to see that there are now many young people in France and in Europe who are branching off from the usual track and trying to do something different. They’re not exactly the masses and are at a great remove from the halls of decision making and power, but they are starting to create small islands of a different approach.

In your work, you often refer to the biologist Jakob Johann von Uexhuell and his concept of Umwelt (environment). And I was surprised to see that you use this term correctly in the plural, as Uexhuell intends. In German, however, Umwelten is very uncommon. Currently it designates a unity, whereas Uexhuell was describing a diversity, so exactly its opposite.

The world around us is a web of many environments. Jean-Christophe Bailly

He says that the world around us is a web of many environments, a tangle of environments that rarely meet.

First, you’d have to know all these Umwelten.

It’s not possible to know them, but it is possible to recognize them or recognize that they exist.

That contradicts the idea that there is an »Umwelt«, a unity that must be protected.

I find the idea of unity a rather frightening one. A long time ago I read about ancient Egyptian ontology. There is an absolutely marvelous origin story. In the beginning there was the one, but the one is like chaos. The one can’t see itself because it’s one. There is no outside gaze on it. For there to be a world, there must be two. When there are two, there are millions. And when a creature dies, whether a man or a mouse, because this life form was receptive to all existence, there is the danger that it will be subsumed into the one. The one is a constant threat to existence because it is, in a sense, its origin. But existence could only be, if you will, by freeing itself from this adherent, this glue of the one. That’s how I see it, as something systematic. In a system of simultaneous entanglements.

In a multitude.

We call it rain, but each drop is interesting.

At the same time, the natural sciences or positivism have benefited from the fact that we categorize things. I had an experience with my orthopedist because of a problem with my knee, then I went from one specialist to another. I ended up in the office of a great specialist and he said to me, »Mr. Bärfuss, you have no knee, there’s no such thing! It is merely a function between your calves and your thighs. You are, ultimately, bound to the universe.« I was a little worried, well attended spiritually, but medically I was uneasy because I wanted treatment for my knee, not my spiritual life.

We’re a little like that. As soon as we’re unwell, we become positivists. In reality, we rely on positivists.

We must find a language that connects multiplicity with the individual. If we only see the universal, humanism becomes superfluous, since it’s reasonably certain that there will be life on the planet for a long time yet, but it won’t necessarily be human life.

It will survive in forms we don’t know. All apocalyptic perspectives are possible. The human capacity for destruction and devastation are amazing. Of course, the example that comes to mind is what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s impossible to understand how such stupidity is possible.

Is this destruction inherent in human nature?

Humans are capable of the absolute worst, as if they were before an examination board and had to show what we are capable of. We can always do worse. I worked in Russian theaters several times. I have marvelous memories of working with people there, wonderful people. Even my memories are under attack by what is happening there.

War taints even memory.

It’s awful.

Jean-Christophe, should we stop here or simply take a break?

No, no, let’s end here. I’m afraid that if we were to continue, we’d have so many more things to say.

Translated by Tess Lewis

[1] In Jean-Christoph Bailly, Le parti pris des animaux, 2013
[2] »Entre le vivant et le milieu, le rapport s’établit comme un débat«, Georges Canguilhem, La Connaissance de la vie, 1965

LUKAS BÄRFUSS, born in Thun (Switzerland), damatist, novelist, essayist, winner of numerous prizes, including the Georg Büchner Prize 2019, has curated the literature and dialogue series The Nature of Man at the Ruhrtriennale since 2021. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BAILLY, born in Paris in 1949, has written plays, short stories and travelogues and has also published numerous poems and essays. Bailly's work, which is highly regarded in France, moves at the interface of history, art history, philosophy and poetry. He was awarded the Prix Décembre, among others. He wrote the libretto for Georges Aperghis' commission for the Ruhrtriennale 2023.