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Il est temps de proclamer vaine toute oeuvre qui laisse son auteur intact, et le lecteur à son confort. Vaine et mauvaise toute oeuvre qui ne te saisit pas comme avec une main, qui ne te pousse pas hors de toi-même, dans le scandale ou dans la joie de ta vocation créatrice.

Trop de penseurs inoffensifs secrètent des philosophies correctes, trop de drame inoffensifs se nouent par jeu dans nos romans, trop de scribes inoffensifs nous singent la fureur, ou la révolte, l’indulgence sceptique ou la paix distinguée. Inoffensifs, tous ceux dont l’oeuvre n’est pas le lieu de combat sans merci où quelque chose qu’il ne peut plus fuir attaque l’auteur et tout ce qu’il reflète d’une ambiance domestiquée.

Il est grand temps que la pensée redevienne ce qu’elle est en réalité: dangereuse pour le penseur, et transformatrice du réel. «Là où je crée, là je suis vrai», écrivait Rilke. Et c’est pourquoi nous prendrons au sérieux cette distinction: il y a des hommes qui sont l’orgueil de notre esprit, ― et d’autres qui s’enorgueillissent de notre esprit. Il y a des hommes qui créent, d’autres qui enregistrent: il ne faudra plus les confondre. Il y a Pascal et Goethe, Dostoïevsky et Kierkegaard, ― il y a aussi les fins lettrés, les bons esprits , les professeurs, pour lesquels la pensée est un art d’agrément, un héritage, une carrière libérale, ou un capital bien placé. Cerveaux sans main! et qui jugent de haut, mais de loin, et toujours après coup, la multitude des mains sans cerveau qui travaillent sans fin par le monde, peinant peut-être en pure perte, si ce n’est pour notre perte à tous. Or, ces gens forment l’opinion, sans aucun doute, et ils le savent. Toute l’opinion du monde en est à peu près là, que la pensée ne peut venir qu’à la remorque d’événements fatals et qui n’ont cure de ses arrêts. C’est que l’on confond la pensée avec l’usage inoffensif de ce que des créateurs ont pensé, au prix de leur vie souvent, et toujours par un acte initiateur et révolutionnaire.

Les uns pensent, dit-on, les autres agissent! Mais la vraie condition de l’homme, c’est de penser avec ses mains.

Penser avec les mains by Denis de Rougemont, Paris: Albin Michel, 1936, pp. 146-147. Scan (324KB).

Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985) was a Swiss writer and philosopher. He’s mostly remembered today for his work on the idea of an European federation and his book L’Amour et l’Occident (1939, revised 1972), one of the very few of his books to have been translated (Love in the Western World: see Google Books for a preview). His Journal d’Allemagne (1938) is credited by Eugene Ionesco as the main source of inspiration for the play Rhinocéros (1959) (for Ionesco’s account, see “Une tentative de démystification”, 1960).

In their book on the history of the Popular Front (Front Populaire) in the 1930s, authors Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar wrote about Rougemont:

De Rougemont labored behind the scenes, going to the Ile de Ré (off France’s Atlantic coast) on a year-long retreat during the Popular Front’s gestation. There he wrote Penser avec les mains (Thinking with Your Hands), a text that appeared in early 1936 just in time to encourage intellectuals to get out on the street and bring about a populist politics. Yet because he stayed off the front lines (he was out of the country when Blum took over the reins of government), de Rougemont’s role has receded in accounts of the decade, focused as they are precisely on the Front. (Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture by Dudley Andrew and Steven Ungar, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 111).

De Rougemont is credited for having coined the important political term engagé (“committed”) in his book Pensée avec les mains which he once described as “a description of the conditions by which the intellectual is committed” (“une description des conditions de la pensée engagée”). As we will see below, his book is a powerful essay trying ―against an old and stubborn tradition― to reunite action and thought in an act of creation toward which the creator is truly committed (accepting both the risks and responsibilities it entails). In their book, Andrew and Ungar provide more details about the coinage of the concept of engagement through an account by Jean Starobinski:

According to Pierre Verdaguer, de Rougemont would later bristle when the term engagé was credited to Sartre, especially because the latter, who had no affection for de Rougemont, never set the record straight (Pierre Verdaguer, Interview with Dudley Andrew, College Park, Maryland, 2002). A main source cited by Verdaguer is Jean Starobinski, “Remédier à la défaillance,” Ecriture (Lausanne), 29 (Autumn 1987): 19-28. Starobinski begins his essay:

“It bears repeating: commitment [engagement], starting with the beginning of the 1930s, was the central theme of de Rougemont’s thought, a theme that was obviously impossible for him to reserve for his personal use. The notion had meaning only on the condition that it proved to be contagious. It spread so rapidly that it became the password of the postwar existentialism inspired by Sartre. De Rougemont might have been somewhat bitter about it, not because he did not receive credit for inventing it (he never claimed to have coined the word engagement, available in every dictionary) but because commitment became the official badge sported by people who had nothing more urgent to do than to abdicate their freedom.”

(Popular Front Paris and the Poetics of Culture, p. 395)

It should be no surprise, then, that his book Penser avec les mains was extensively read and quoted by Jean-Luc Godard in a number of the films he directed. The most intense appropriation of de Rougemont’s text is probably to be found in various chapters of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma. Specifically, a short selection of the quote shown a the beginning of this post appears in the first part of the fourth chapter of Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998). It is often ―although mistakenly― attributed to the Jean-Luc Godard himself:

Il est grand temps que la pensée redevienne ce qu’elle est en réalité: dangereuse pour le penseur, et transformatrice du réel. «Là où je crée, là je suis vrai», écrivait Rilke. […] Les uns pensent, dit-on, les autres agissent! Mais la vraie condition de l’homme, c’est de penser avec ses mains.

Here’s the English translation, as it appears in the film’s subtitles:

It is time that thought becomes what it truly is: dangerous for the thinker and able to transform reality. “Where I create is where I am true” Rilke. […] Some think, other acts. But man’s true condition is to think with his hands.”

Screenshots from Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du cinéma’ Chapter 4A, 7'00" @ 7'20"
Screenshots from Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du cinéma’ Chapter 4A, 7’00” @ 7’20”

Many more quotes by de Rougemont are used in this chapter as well as in the previous one, but they are edited, fragmented and remixed: words are taken out, sentences are simplified or compacted. Godard sampled the book and took what he thought best suited his project; he used Rougemont’s text as an artistic medium, just like soundtracks and images.

In his essay “European Culture and Artistic Resistance in Histoire(s) du cinéma Chapter 3A, La Monnaie de l’absolu”, James S. Williams offers an interesting comments of what he calls the “chiastic structure” of Godard’s film: the connection or articulation of elements that are separated. This observation is particularly relevant in light of Denis de Rougemont’s ideas. The Swiss author spent a great deal of his life trying to think a unified Europe. Furthermore, is book Penser avec les mains can be read as virulent attack against the traditional belief that thought and action are disjointed. From William’s essay (all translation of Rougemont are by Williams):

FInally, Godard’s joint emphasis on the physical aspect of montage and the spiritual act of incarnation accounts perhaps for his resurrection of de Rougemont’s essay Penser avec les mains which, at a key historical juncture, preached the decisive and liberating violence of creative thought as an integral part of a universal ‘dialectics of incarnation’ to which even the divine thought yielded with the agony of God’s son on the cross. For this reason, in addition to the phrases extracted by Godard in Le Contrôle de l’univers which conclude with the statement that an act is the judge of time and justifies Man’s hope for salvation, we might just as appropriately select others from Penser avec les mains such as the following: ‘incarnation is an act reducible neither to conformity nor an escape, and what is more ―and this is crucial― will arise out of a surge of thought towards an end it invents or has seen. It’s the thought that acts, which knows where it’s going’ (pp. 223-224; original emphasis); ‘the act reincarnate us. The primacy of the spiritual is the primacy of the person creating, of the “thought that thinks” over “the thought that is thought”’ (p. 247); and ‘man in his capacity as man is truly a creator, but a creator created […] and his limits are those of personal incarnation. That is his order and reality, and the place of his redemption’ (p. 248). The transformative power of individual creative thought is what, both for Godard and Rougemont, allows for and demands a personal moral judgment. In his own account during an interview of the complex train episode in Chapter 3A, Godard remarks: ‘That is where the connection is. You can show the past and the present. A thought is there. A wish also to judge. There is a story.’ (Compare de Rougemont in a passage cited almost word for word in Chapter 4A: ‘I believe in the appeal of facts. Let us consider the times and the places in which we live, our given particular situation, and the concrete appeal that thus emerges; and after that LET US JUDGE’ (Penser avec les mains, p. 125).) (The Cinema Alone: Essays on the Work of Jean-Luc Godard, 1985-2000, edited by Michael Temple and James S. Williams, Amsterdam University Press, 2000, pp. 130-131).

Finally, another excerpt from chapter 4A which is a collage of fragments found in various sections of Rougemont’s book. Under it are most of the original sections from Pensée avec les mains. First Godard:

True violence is the work of the spirit. Every creative act contains a real threat for the person who dares it. This is how art moves the viewer or reader. If thought refuses to do violence, it exposes itself in vain to all the brutalities which its absence released. We sometimes hope that thinking in France becomes punishable by prison. Free thinkers would be taken seriously again. The place of all creative thinking is the person. The world’s agitation is no more than a question which is put to me and which takes form only when it forces me to act. Partisans of the “we” have mistaken the person. (8’49” @ 9’46”; French version can be found at the Centre de Recherche sur l’Image)

And now from Rougemont:

Pédagogie du risque: tout ce qui n’est pas dangereux est inutile; tout ce qui est inutile se décompose et empoisonne! Quant tu écris, il faut que ce soit à chaque instant comme si tu allais mourir, comme si tu allais vivre: une agonie! Il faut poser cette limite, il faut y tendre sans relâche. […]

Seule, détient le pouvoir de s’incarner, l’idée qui crée un risque dans ma vie. Ce risque atteste l’existence d’un conflit, c’est-à-dire la présence du réel. Il rend à ma pensée sa gravité, son poids, sa raison d’être. Il me rappelle que la pensée en tant que telle n’est jamais séparable de la création, qui la sanctionne au double sens du mot. Les clercs défendent et définissent une liberté de la pensée qui n’est au vrai qu’une assurance contre toute espèce de sanction. Il est clair que cette liberté-là, garantie par les lois de l’État, ne sera jamais que servitude pour le penseur, s’il sait que la violence de sa pensée fonde la seule autorité valable. La liberté de penser n’est réelle que chez un homme qui a reconnu et qui accepte le danger de penser. On serait parfois tenté de souhaiter qu’en France l’activité de l’esprit redevienne passible de prison: cela rendrait un peu de sérieux aux esprits libres. […]

Le lieu de toute décision qui crée, c’est la personne. D’où il suit que toute l’agitation du monde n’est rien de plus qu’une certaine question qui m’est adressée, et qui ne se précise en moi qu’à l’instant où elle me contraint à l’acte. […]

Les partisans du nous ont fait erreur sur la personne. (Penser avec les mains, pp. 213, 214, 234, 240)

Denis de Rougemont, photographed by Constantin Joffe, 1947. © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis
Denis de Rougemont, photographed by Constantin Joffe, 1947. © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis

• • •

Additional resources available online:

  • One can watched and browse an annotated version of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma online at 0xDB (an experimental movie database). Quality is low, but the annotations provide references for (some of) the material used by Godard (movie title, photo identity, etc.).
  • Centre de Recherche sur l’Image: “La « partition » des Histoire(s) du cinéma de Jean-Luc Godard” by Celine Scemama. This is an invaluable tool allowing anyone to search for the numerous visual and auditory quotes of which Godard’s film is made. Flash is required.

  • “Denis de Rougemont and the Literary Construction of Europe” by Edward Ousselin, in Dalhousie French Studies, Vol. 76, (Fall 2006), pp. 73-84. Subscription may be required.

  • From the website Pro Europa: “Europe Unites” by Denis de Rougemont, A Lecture on “The History of the Ideal for a United Europe”, The Meaning of Europe, translated by Alan Braley,F.I.L.; published by Sidgwick & Jackson, London 1965. PDF.

  • Argument: “Penser avec les mains?” by Gilles Labelle, vol. 2 no. 1 Automne 1999/Hiver 2000. A good introduction, in French, to the writings of Denis de Rougemont.

  • Finaly, below is a 67 minutes interview with Denis de Rougemont filmed by the Radio Television Suisse Romande in November 1971. Six more (shorter) video clips with de Rougemont can be watched online at the RTSR official website.

Cover for the first edition of Denis de Rougemont’s book ‘Penser avec les mains’ (Albin Michel, 1936)
Cover for the first edition of Denis de Rougemont’s book ‘Penser avec les mains’ (Albin Michel, 1936)
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