UNTITLED (detail), 2015, oil on canvas, 36 × 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, Paris/New York. Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg.

Every One of Us is a Radio Transmitter

Etel Adnan

Lebanon France
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Writer, essayist and artist, Etel Adnan (born 1925) is a keen observer of geopolitical unrest and, in particular, of imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism. Her literary practice combines observations—sometimes diagnostic, sometimes critical—of the historical and contemporary world with poetic and transcendental meditations. In her prose, the result of her experimentation sustained across the years, one notes the coexistence, and even interdependence, between history and metaphysics. For example, in The Arab Apocalypse, a major poem of 1980, there is no poetical contradiction between the politicized voice of the writer and the cosmological articulations, her ecstatic and visionary metaphors. The extent of her literary works, her essays, her many artistic collaborations, testify to this characteristic.

Yet one wonders how her artistic practice—better known to a wider audience since her participation in Documenta 13 (2012) with paintings, drawings, films, tapestries, artist books and objects—is, or is not, conceived and thought in those terms. To what degree does her artistic practice contribute to the internal dialectic of Etel Adnan? That question deserves to be discussed as her artistic work, paintings and other things, does not appear, at first glance, to be one of directly political iconography. The conversation that follows is intended precisely to better understand how to interpret the work of Adnan, the apparent differences between the political and the metaphysical, the permeability between these two sides.

It is often noted that the current discourse of contemporary art tends to perpetuate overly simplistic notions and illustrative conceptions of “political” art. In this context, the work of Adnan, who was until recently better known in the literary sphere, deserves special attention. Indeed, her familiarity with the political history of a “polycentric” world and her personal history—marked by her life around the world, full of cross-cultural forms of creativity—open new perspectives on the question of the “political” imagination in art.

The different periods of Etel Adnan’s life are more or less publicly known today, but they offer a limited space to explore her particular conception of cosmopolitanism based on the notion of “defeat.” This conception contains a biographical dimension certainly, but also has the strength of a principle. Adnan recalls her formative years when, as a young woman she attended L’École Supérieure des Lettres [in Beirut]; Gabriel Bounoure (1886–1968), who inculcated in her and others (like Edmond Jabès and Abdellatif Laâbi, to mention only two other major figures), an essential understanding of poetic intuition. Later, the instruction of Etienne Souriau (1892–1979), a professor of aesthetics at the Sorbonne, instigated in her an approach to art as a field of thought, to an expanded awareness of aesthetic meaning.

Adnan discovered a new world when she left for Berkeley, California, where she continued her studies and stayed between 1958–1972 before returning to Beirut, a return shortened because war (the Lebanese Civil Wars, 1975–1991) broke out. Berkeley appears to be the heart of a whirlwind of invaluable influences, a company swept up by political and aesthetic upheavals: the improvisations of jazz, new forms of dance, 1968, the civil-rights movement and even feminism. She later spoke of this time and this environment as having as much influence as “pre-Socratic philosophy and the Russian avant-garde.” 

The separate disciplines or media make it difficult to identify and describe the essential qualities of the practice of Adnan. It reflects instead some rather special relationships to the world. Adnan talks about her “love of the physical world” with a deceptive simplicity. Divorced from any sensualism and any empiricism, her existential position seems to express, by the continual search for new forms of expression and with a kind of generative compulsion, a way of “world-making” that combines at once the ethical and phenomenological aspects. For the artist herself, the root of this drive is situated in “the inner world of the mental sphere or your spirituality,” a space we can imagine as dynamic and plural, tangible and intangible.

It seems to me that not a lot of links have been established yet between your paintings and your writings. I would like to explore with you the forms of contradiction and tension that might exist between these two domains. 

I believe that, superficially, in my mind, there is no connection. But everything we do—and I am not talking only about artists—even when we are cooking, reflects who we are. In that sense, there must be a link between my paintings and my writings. For example many people tell me that often—even in my violent texts—there is a certain kind of poetry or sweetness. It is the same in my paintings. Even when I use very vivid colors, there is a sweetness, a softness as they say in English. There is, perhaps, a “complementarity.”

For me, colors are raw and innocent. We see how much children love vivid colors and they paint very well even when they are two-years old. When we see red, we do not necessarily see blood. For me colors are therefore innocent, especially when they directly come from the tube. I work with oil paint. It is a very beautiful material; to such a degree that I love mixing colors in order to discover a new one. I also love, from time to time, not to touch them when they come out of the tube and to use them as they are. 

When it comes to words, I believe we cannot detach them from social and political reality. Words and texts belong to the social world. There is also contemporary history. I come from a place constantly at war. Even if during my life I mostly lived in California, surrounded by a superb natural environment, I was never able to cut my links to Lebanon because it was always troubled. I believe that if there had not been wars there, I would have been much less interested in that part of the world. However that part of the world has been sad and tragic since I was born. 

089, 2010, oil on canvas, 24 × 30 cm. 

MOTION / MOTIFS, 2012, digitized Super-8 films. 

Do you then believe that terms like “beauty” or “poetry” take on a different meaning depending upon the person who uses them, their history or cultural inheritance? 

Even when somebody lives in a beautiful place, he or she does not think every day of its beauty. Ultimately, after so many years, I’ve noticed that my inner happiness was expressed in my painting. Maybe because colors do not have a precise or singular signification. I am touched by the world. I love the physical world. Ever since my childhood a little stream enchants me. As I was an only daughter, I lived more with things than with people. When I was small, before we relocated, we had a garden and I was talking to the flowers. The external world has always been my life companion. I love the external world. And this is expressed in my paintings.

Very early on I also loved literature and poetry. My love for poetry came first. My preferred poetry was written by tragic poets: Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, who committed suicide, Verlaine, who was alcoholic and died young, and Rimbaud, who stopped writing. Before I reached the age of 32, I would never have thought to become a painter. “Art,” that was Picasso—it was not me. 

To come back to history: I became very conscious of the tragedy of the Middle East from 1955 when I became a student at Berkeley. I was 30. At that time I was living only for today and did not have an acute political consciousness. Some Arab students came to speak to me. There was an association of Arab students from all countries. One of them was Palestinian. It was at that moment I discovered the issue of Palestine. An Iraqi also introduced me to the Arab world. As a child I knew Damascus and its surroundings, Beirut and a little bit of the Lebanese mountains, as we spent a few summers there but we did not have any property there. Neither my father nor my mother was really from Lebanon. 

Were you politicized at that moment?

I was already politicized, as my father and his sister often expressed their sadness to have seen the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. My father went to school with Atatürk. He was an Ottoman officer and although he was from Damascus, he did not support Arab nationalism. The French kicked him out, in the same way as they sidelined all the former Lebanese and Syrian elites to put in their place a new group more beholden to them. 

I had a consciousness of history more than of politics—and above all a feeling of loss in history. I was in a house with two refugees: for my mother, Smyrna (İzmir) had disappeared, for my father it was the Ottoman Empire. I therefore absorbed that nostalgia; this sense of loss for our countries. For me this sense of loss has continued ever since. So I could not detach myself from this history even when living in America where I enjoyed the 1960s and ’70s. For me, the voice, the language and literature are all part of history, of tragedy. At that time I suffered from the Algerian War (1954–64), because there was still that dream of independence in the Arab world.

ISSAM MAHFOUZ (detail), 2013, ink, watercolor and crayon on paper, leporello closed: 21.5 × 9.3 cm; maximum extension: 540 cm. 

You were distressed to such a point that you stopped expressing yourself in French for a long period.

I could not speak or write in French at that time. Back then there was a dichotomy between the world of language and history on one side, and the material world on the other side—whose beauty always touched me. I was not divided—because we weren’t suffering from being in the world—but I kept a certain balance thanks to the beauty of the world and my response to this beauty, this complementarity. In fact in one of my most recent poems To Be in a Time of War, I lived through this dichotomy one hundred percent. I saw that America was not destroying Saddam Hussein but Iraq in its totality. It was, however, among all the Arab countries, the one that was working the best. It was a place of exceptional beauty. It was incredible!

It seems to me that your idea of beauty is deeply marked by “defeat.” I think of your essay on Tintoretto and Heiner Müller, in which you talk at the end of a possible “resurrection.” To what extent is the resurrection in the background of your work?

I don’t know what I would have done if I were not a painter. The fact that I am able to express the beauty of the world certainly helped me to overcome my family’s perpetual tragedy. I grew up surrounded by two defeated human beings. Sometimes people ask, “What is art when there is so much unhappiness? How can somebody be painting when the world is burning?” I believe everything has its place. It is not because one is unhappy that happiness does not exist and should not continue. And art includes literature, poetry, tragic art . . . When Picasso painted Guernica, he was happy because his contribution to the Resistance and the war was to tell people “Look how awful it is!” Already to say that to yourself is consoling. Why not find within a great catastrophe a scrap of personal happiness? I don’t think we should feel guilty about that. 

No. Maybe even the reverse.

I knew a French guy when I was a student—a friend of a girlfriend—who was a resistance fighter during the occupation of France and who happened to be locked in a dark place, maybe since the beginning, but I don’t know for how long. He told me the importance of the first light that he saw when the door was opened. This man met my friend, a young American who had come to France. He fell crazily in love with her when he saw her for the first time. Her car broke down and he stopped to help her. He told her: “The moment I saw you was a moment of resurrection in my life.” He also said he had the same feeling the day somebody opened that door. 

That’s beautiful.

The beauty that appeared to him, like the beauty of this young woman, the beauty of that light, the beauty of the world that he was regaining, is a form of resurrection. What is resurrection? It is the nobility of the soul. It’s the opening. Resurrection actually exists under this shape. Moreover, that aspect is what I like about Christianity. Resurrection in the Gospel is about forgiveness, interior peace; it is not “going to heaven.” It is what the New Testament is all about. It is to forgive, to forsake vengeance. Resurrection is all about what can take the soul out of darkness, out of hopelessness and to show it a different path. That can be a Tintoretto painting, a piece of music, or it can be to fall in love—most of the time in fact . . .

LE DEPART, 2013, wool, woven by Ateliers Pinton, Aubusson, 150 × 200 cm. 

UNTITLED (192), 2013, oil on canvas, 35 × 45 cm. 

You say that the resurrection is immanent and existential. You evoked the darkness. I would like to ask you a metaphorical question about how the darkness and the places that open to the light are part of your work.

The feeling of resurrection happened to me even at school. At that time, there were only religious schools. I was at the French school, and I was bored when we were being taught the catechism but that was not the case when we were being told of the resurrection and angels . . . I’ve always loved angels. I don’t know what it is to believe in God, to be honest, but there is certainly something other than ourselves. I don’t believe in hell but when I wish to believe, I believe in resurrection.

When I was 12, I did not know what I meant by the resurrection. I believe that comes from my Greek side. The Greek don’t emphasize Christmas but Easter. It is the true Christianity for me. Christianity has opened hope, resurrection, another world of forgiveness. Christ was resurrected, that is life. I am therefore very fond of this idea of resurrection, which is reflected even in the more common idea of “reconstruction.”

Museums are places where people come to find something else. It is like a library, one goes there to read something. It is not a book depository or a painting depository. We search for a privileged moment in a museum, when something stops us, brings us to the spirituality of art or to some forms of spirituality. A painting is a visual poem; it is a spirituality that does not necessarily translate into words. It is in fact better not to translate. Art is made to be experienced, it shouldn’t be explained too much. It is another language. A language not made to be linked by words, just as music is in fact. There is body language, conscious or unconscious. Even the way we sleep is a way to say something. Art is therefore a spirituality, and by spirituality I mean the spiritual transformation of being, even for a few seconds, that I call resurrection. 

What status can notions like “openness,” “transcendence” or “spirituality” have in the context of contemporary art? Do you feel the public is receptive to it? 

Yes of course people are receptive. I believe that even a hardened criminal can live through moments full of questionings, feelings, mysteries. Perhaps even more intensely than for the rest of us. Spirituality is not necessarily religious. Spirituality is the feeling that the world is inhabited, that there is something else than just the absolutely concrete and that even a sheet of paper could suddenly begin to talk to us. It is a dialogue with the unknown, the invisible. It is not a rational dialogue. There are no answers and no questions, but there is experience. For example I cannot explain to you what it is to feel cold, but nonetheless we feel cold. Spirituality is the thought that goes towards the mystery, towards the non-rational. It is a thought that wants to overtake itself, that wants to connect itself to other languages, to other realities, without having necessarily to tell you exactly to what. If you ask me what spirituality is, I don’t know how to respond! It is a desire, a surpassing. 

I would like to take some time to discuss the role of poetry and philosophy. You wrote in Écrire Dans Une Langue Étrangère (“To Write in a Foreign Language”) (2015) that philosophy, after Hölderlin and Heidegger, find its greatest expression in poetry. Did that concept of philosophy influence your painting practice?

Things do not get influenced directly in such a way. If you think poetry is spiritual— precisely because it is an experience—it is something else entirely. Even when you look at a tree, there is something beyond the gaze; that is to say you do not only see the lines, the color or the object, but also a mystery and another life different from yours. You can even see something talking to you. You are aware of the tree’s age and of the force that makes it grow. Everything becomes a question without answers. Poetry tells you all that. You are familiar with this kind of thinking. Just as when you look at reality from this angle, you similarly see a painting from this angle. Everything you learn ultimately influences what you do. One day, my English literature students asked me which program they should choose. (In the American system, there are compulsory programs and elective ones.) Instead of choosing literature, philosophy or foreign literature, I told them, “Do something non-literary, like chemistry or biology,” to increase their perception, to maintain a dialogue. Things influence each other. Painting maybe allowed for more freedom in my poetry, thanks to abstraction, cubism, and juxtaposition of colors. This maybe helped me to loosen my poetry. 

Installation view of the exhibition “The Weight of the World” at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, 2016. Photo by Jerry Hardman-Jones. Courtesy Serpentine Sackler Gallery.


Maybe to make poetry also more physical?

Precisely, because painting is very physical, but it also has something deconstructed and freed from the tenuous juxtapositions of the logic of a sentence. It is like talking about a cloud and saying in the next sentence, “I have a headache.” Contemporary painting works like that, and I believe that it has influenced poetry more than the other way around. Of course poetry had a strong influence because it is certainly spiritual, metaphysical and open, but I am talking here about form. I believe form broke out in painting before it did in poetry. In Russia, the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovski and Velimir Khlebnikov splintered at the same time as painting. 

I was just thinking of the Russian avant-garde . . .

I believe that, in Europe, the burst of poetry came well after the burst of Cubism, of Impressionism, of forms . . . Paintings set free all forms of thought.

Even if your thoughts and your work are marked by geography and by history, you were never tempted by the forms of activist expression or politics or social matters directly. 

I am not interested in theories. They make me tired. I don’t say they don’t exist, but they are not for me. My work would lose something in terms of impact.

Could we say then that your work is motivated by “experimentation”? How to experiment with “being in language” or “being in color”? 

When I begin a work, I am curious. I ask myself what am I going to do. I had a very strong relationship with the presence of a mountain. I believe, in fact, that it helped me to not feel like an exile. This attracted me, and from the moment that I am attracted to something, it keeps me engaged. This can be bridged by the fact that we are never sure that what we have made conforms to reality. The mountain I paint is Mount Tamalpais. We will never know if I love Mount Tamalpais and nevertheless I am getting closer to it when I work. This opened for me a world within world: this private relation, experienced like a passion, in the same way that one who is in love with a person without that person’s knowing it. It is invisible, it is personal.

Painting, writing and even living is all about experimenting. Art should not be something too different from life. It is not fair to other people who are not artists and it is not fair in itself. When you see in animal films, baby cats or little calves coming to life, we realize that they are moving, that they are leaving their mother and they are curious. To experiment is really to follow up on curiosity, to go forward. When a little child experiences walking for the first time, he is trying out many things for the first time; his own body, the concept of balance, the small holes and hidden places in the house. An artist is not so different. She is a human being like many others but she finds a more specific way to express herself. Even a ski champion experiences some incredible aesthetic moments. He is an artist in his own way.

The 19th century greatly isolated artists from other people, and this is a bad thing as it instilled fear in the public. Some very sensitive beings lost the opportunity to be an artist that way. If I had never traveled to America or studied in a university of fine arts where I met people, I would have never touched colors. I thought only poetry suited me and even now I am not sure . . . We must depart from life to go toward art and not the inverse. 

In discovering your poetry and reflecting on your painting practice, I am reminded of Gertrude Stein, William James and experimental psychology of the time.

William James created American Pragmatism and in his way he is a great poet. A beauty flows from his writings. He is sensitive to beauty and vitality. He talks about life and makes you want to live. He explains psychology from experience without always referring to theories. He also loved cubism, at the origin of which was the shattering of ordinary perspective. In this sense, he is cubist in his writing.  

Before reading the writings of Gertrude Stein, I had started with those of John Dewey and William James. It was not only a question of reading. I came to the United States in 1955 and bit by bit I began to discover American painting to the point of knowing it better that European painting. I also adored jazz, with its wild and improvised lyricism. The sheer idea that this music was improvised, transported and surprised me at the same time. At that time the best jazz came from San Francisco. We used to pay one dollar, order a drink and listen to Miles Davis in a half empty room. It was not expensive at all. Jazz enchanted me. I don’t know if I was directly influenced by it but it maintained my happiness for life. I loved it so much that one day I proclaimed with some exaggeration that Louis Armstrong was much superior to Beethoven. Not all Americans loved jazz, which was considered as music for cabaret, music for entertainment. 

MOUNTAIN (detail), 2012, ink on paper, leporello closed: 18 × 12 cm; maximum extension: 280 cm. 

So you didn’t have in mind the “condemnation” of Adorno (who thought it to be a “perennial fashion”), it seems.

I did not read a lot from Adorno, not that I am proud of that.

His reflections on jazz would not have pleased you.

These philosophers are sometime too dogmatic. I love Mozart and Beethoven but without a great performer they can become like noise. I prefer in this case listening to oriental music. Of course when Shostakovich is well performed, it can be like a dream. In fact, I like all of them when they are well interpreted. But badly performed classical music can become boring and terrible! Here I refer to a kind of “regimented” mind, everything opposed to chaos, the supposed “chaos” of the Orient, which is in fact not chaos but a constant modulation. Bach is the only one who understood that. He is, in a way, an oriental. 

In what sense? 

He improvised with notes! He is the most oriental of all composers because he creates modulations. I’m thinking in particular of the Goldberg Variations. When I begin again to paint or I think of the mountain, the whole of my work becomes a bit like a fugue and its variations. There are no two paintings that are the same. The mountain is never exactly the same but there is a continuity in the person who is painting, her personality that cannot flee and a mountain who does not move but changes all the time. Cézanne spent the last part of his life painting the same mountain and it is always a different one! If it has not been different every time he would have stopped. Since we are in this room, the light has changed and we do not see things the same way. 

I was struck to read in your writings that a landscape is never innocent. I was particularly intrigued by your understanding of love in Le Prix Que Nous Voulons Payer Pour l’Amour (“The Price We Are Willing to Pay for Love”) (2015). You describe love in a societal context as something that transforms the individual, and this reminded me of your passion for Mount Tamalpaïs. You establish here a certain form of continuity between the social and the artistic, a passage between two fields, which at first look are quite different.

Love can be energy, even an explosion of energy. We are like a volcano. We are packs of electromagnetic energy. We uncover some more or less dormant energy. This is perhaps that “animal being.” As this does not mean so much, I suggest that an animal has a much more explosive energy than objects, even though they are made of the same materials, the same atoms, it is a question of energy. Love is a liberation, you leave your self. What is an impulse? It is a concentrated, focused energy. For example, if you see an apple and you walk in its direction, your energy is directed. It is not explosive or unfocused. Love is perhaps the most concentrated of all our energies directed on something else than ourselves. Why is it so difficult for two people to love each other? Because when you love an object, you don’t think that it could refuse your love. Since you believe that object is yours, it seems to belong to you completely. A mountain cannot belong to you, it’s an illusion. It responds to you and you don’t know it. You may believe that the mountain is very happy to receive your impulse. When two people love each other, two freedoms are at stake. You have your rights, and reasons to go forward but the other has his reasons to retreat. This is the reason we talk about rape as when a man traps a woman against her will. There is a beautiful word in English to describe love between two people: “timing,” and it is rare when two “timings” coincide. There are also other aspects to take into account: marriages, children, economic interests, but I am talking about pure love. And it is rare when it works between two persons. 

It is surprising you never got tired of your passion for Mount Tamalpaïs.

I am perhaps a bit less obsessed by it than I used to be. It is like an old marriage. I got used to this passion. There is an alchemy with this mountain. I would still feel the same desire if I were to return there tomorrow. It is perhaps that “love which never gets older.” Once it gets old, it dies. When I was there, there was certainly astonishment at a new world. There was an immense feeling of loneliness, which I never scrutinized in detail. The idea of loneliness is barely present in my work, although I must have felt it when I lost my connection with my mother. I did not have any other family. My father had passed away and I did not have any brothers or sisters. I was really in a form of absolute loneliness, coming from a country that was considered to be third world in the United States. I could not identify with the dominant world. I was not part of the European people there. I was in fact a marginal character and was consumed with living for just today. I did not do any introspection. I never said “I am lonely” but I certainly was. I therefore concentrated on my environment, which was very nice indeed. It was a beautiful place. I like nature and I happened to land in one of the most beautiful places in the world. This must have given me some balance. I cannot say that I suffered. One can be lonely and not suffer from it. This mountain was probably far enough not to suffocate me, and close enough to accompany me wherever I went. Foucault would say “to sublimate.” I never liked that word but it was perhaps very accurate . . .

Talking about Foucault, you mentioned in your writing the metaphor “Boat-Space” and in the text “Des Espaces Autres” (“Of Other Spaces”), Foucault uses the boat as one of the main examples to describe the concept of “heterotopia.” 

It is one of Foucault’s most beautiful writings, as he does not use scientific jargon. 

It is personal too . . .

Personal and happy! Because Foucault is usually pessimistic. And this text is, I was going to say, “normal.” A poet could have written it. It makes things converge  toward to one and the same center: “to focus on!” It is beautiful! That gives us an identity. By picking up things, he picks you up and gives you the feeling of having a center. Mount Tamalpais became my center. I was not lost, because I had a point of attachment. In fact, the word “to attach” is not the right one, we should use “together.” By gathering up the landscape, by setting this mountain as the “focus” of the landscape, I was running towards myself. I was able to find an identity. So it is extraordinary if the mountain played that role. This surpasses its external shape. 

Was it the starting point for constructing your own identity? 

Identity is for me a mental construction. They tell it to you and you repeat it all your life. If they tell a child born in France that she is French, then she is French! Newspapers also tell her that she is French. She believes that this is as solid as a rock. But for people like me, who have parents from two different religions, with a family speaking different languages, a newly constructed country which tore itself apart, etc . . . it’s different. All this is not necessarily conscious. We were too busy to take the time to think about it. We live on one level, and not on several. This is perhaps a continuing crisis. Happily I did not know anything about psychiatry, as it would not have helped me! I wasn’t familiar with the word “crisis.” If somebody talked about anguish, I thought it must be someone like Sade who is anguished. It is only when I began to study him that I said myself I was perhaps anguished as well . . .


There are very clear references in your writings to the mythological or cosmological thoughts as well as to creation myths. When did you become aware of the wisdom of mythological systems? “Voyage au Tamalpaisbegins by evoking Native Americans and the myths of the Hopis. 

My professor of aesthetics Etienne Souriau fascinated me, much more than all the others. He made me discover the world of painting, with which I did not identify myself at that time. I did not think I was going to become a painter. What struck me with Souriau is what André Malraux discovered at the same time: painting is philosophical. I don’t know how people learn but in my case, my concern has always been the source of knowledge. Reflection came later. I did not become a philosopher while listening to Bachelard even though I took one of his classes at the time. I did not understand the concepts. I came from a much more “raw” country. There were no books, nor radios nor telephones in my home, what an enormous change!

Souriau projected images that I found beautiful and he offered his reflections based on these images. I was so struck at the point that I did not understand everything immediately. I knew that these images were projected so that we could reflect on them and not only so we could discuss that they were beautiful or not. I never learned much visiting the Louvre, as I was always going to see the same three or four works. However they penetrated my soul. I understood them later, while reading texts written by the painters. Even philosophy has an awareness of things before being a true thought. I have not budged from that view. I was perhaps incapable of that. Was it because I was coming from “nothing” or was it linked to my personality? It is obviously not possible to be who we are and another person at the same time. The world came to me through perception, the awareness of things. So I have never had any interest in theories. I am not saying that they are not interesting but they don’t appeal to me. Actually I discovered that I only like the philosophers who happen also to be poets. What is a poet? A very sensitive person who talks about what he or she is sensitive to. 

So we come back once again to what you said, that poetry, after Hölderlin and Heidegger, is the “true” philosophy. 

Yes, absolutely! I used to believe there was only Nietzsche. Then I read extracts from Hegel and Schopenhauer. I began to really appreciate them when I understood that it was poetry. They were talking about the world with a way of thinking that was far from being cold. And even when they conceptualized the world, there was wonder there. 

When did you discover the Hopis’s philosophy?

When I was in America. But here too, I was first affected by their tragedy, by the fact that they were eliminated by the colonial power for nothing. In a way they were much more civilized than the colonizers. They welcomed them and taught them how to survive on the East Coast. The Indians were not dangerous at all, however they were attacked and eliminated. This is a holocaust, an absolute genocide! They had the right to resist but they did not even do it. 

Some Americans dismembered one or two Indians after dinner like they dismembered rabbits. Spaniards were worse because they tried to convert them. There was no gold with the Indians of North America. They took their land when they did not have houses. They had tents! The Spaniards, they went into established countries where they could plunder. They plundered much more than the Americans. Colonizers are monsters! For me the colonial issue cannot be resolved as long as people have not admitted the existence of colonialism. Indians are still badly treated nowadays, even if it is with more subtlety than in the past. It was by taking a personal and political interest in them that I discovered the beauty of their art (jewelry, carpets) and, little by little, their relation to the world. I believe I am an animist, like the Indians and perhaps like certain black tribes. To them, the world is composed of energies and forces—everything is alive. I love their thoughts; I feel very close to them. 

In “Voyage au Mont Tamalpais,” you say, on the question of your relationship to the landscape, that “geographical places transform into spiritual concepts.” In Écrire Dans Une Langue Étrangère, you speak in an almost similar manner, describing the 1960s and this time of discovering an internal world. I quote you: “My mind was open, I understood that it was possible to move in different directions, that the spirit, unlike the body, is able to move at the same time in multiple dimensions, that I could travel not only on multiple planes but also within a spherical mental world.”

I came to the conclusion that relative identities don’t exist. I can very well say that I am Lebanese. I have a Lebanese passport. My parents were not Lebanese, but this was not important as they were very close to Lebanon. If identities were strong, there would not be any civilization. There would be only some small local cultures. What is civilization? These are things that come from everywhere, which become like tapestries or constructions. When I think of the American Indians, it does not come to my mind that I am not Indian. To the contrary, I feel closer to them than to my neighbors in Beirut. This is why I say that we are “spherical.” We are multi-dimensional. That’s the spirit. This is the power which comes perhaps from our body, this power to be something else, to constantly move, mentally. We produce even more ideas and feelings that cannot physically travel.

UNTITLED (174), 2012, oil on canvas, 27 × 35 cm. 

How is your work related to, or originating from, this conception of spherical space? 

My way of working is opposite of the Proust’s approach. I go in every direction. No book resembles the previous one. I never knew in advance if after having written a book, I would go on to write another one or what it was going to be. We can keep for ourselves a guiding principle, while traveling. For me the guiding principle lies in the fact that the mind exists. The world comes and I “go.” And I do the same with my painting as well. Everything influences us! 

My paintings are not “Arab” in an Islamic sense. In fact, we are not longer in the Islamic world. They themselves were contemporary to their world, and today nobody is protected from other cultures. In our days, there are no closed countries anymore. Even the Bedouins have tapes, radios, TVs. They are not “purely” Bedouins, as they were in the 19th century. In fact, they were not even at that time, as they traveled, even in Arabia. It is therefore a false myth to say that they were isolated and all alone in the desert. 

We all live in a spherical world where things come to us. Everyone of us is a radio transmitter which broadcasts and receives. We receive energies and we produce them. We are synthesizers. Things do not remain the way they came, they transform themselves. Two people, even in Lebanon, who discover something “unknown” will not react in the same way. Thus it is not the object, but the combination of “me” and the “other” which creates identity and knowledge. 

If we talk now about politics and culture, would you say that it is necessary to strengthen, while updating, an idea of “cosmopolitism”? 

Yes, but it depends, because “cosmopolitism” means to link, to create together and accept that a foreigner is as important as you, that he is a potential friend. Jihadists are these days in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq. Some are French and English converts, others are Arab, Turkish or Pakistani. They saw a lot of things in each of these countries and they have traveled to get there. This was a mental move as much as a physical one. They are not very good translators of the modern world. They have been influenced by the West, China, Russia. What happens in these western video games produced by the west is reproduced by these feverish youths.

When I lived in Greece, I had a neighbor who owned a bar. She was German. We used to go to her place because we did not have a computer. She was sad to see all the young to come to her bar with video games where the target was invariably an Arab. It was at the time of the Iraq War. Oh, these games! We have been talking about influences since the beginning of our conversation. These things influence young people. Cinema influenced me a lot when I was 15. It was not very “naughty” at that time: a young man playing guitar under a window. If the young men were trying to flirt with me, several years after, and didn’t behave like the young actors, it wouldn’t work. I was expecting a young man looking like Clark Gable or Gary Cooper to come to see me. Cinema influences us and in the same way video games do. Is there any movie without violence these days? The various characters targeted by the shootings are always able to recover whereas only one shot is usually enough to kill somebody in real life. You understand? Jihadists reproduce this virtual world and if we don’t reproduce it, it is because culture has conditioned, formatted us. I am not giving a justification for the jihadists; we must stop that bestiality. They behead, they kill—it’s terrifying! It is important to say where this is coming from. It comes from Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism, which has existed for around two centuries. [Muhammad ibn] Abdel-Wahab was an incredible person. He died before the First World War. Since that war, much has been made of these people, and they were protected by Roosevelt and the Americans. Two months ago the West sold them Rafales [French fighter planes]. This teaching, which I find diabolical, has nothing to do with other interpretations within Islam. The video games and movies are marked by such violence! Kill, kill, kill! How do you expect the poor generations to escape from that? Rich kids are more easily occupied by doing other things. They are sent to school, they are given homework. They go on a boat with mum and dad and they go on vacation. This is also true for the moderately well-off. The real poor have only video games to enjoy. 

It seems that there are some particular links between your observations and geopolitical analyses and your painting practice. Despite the immediate impression, your essay “Voyage au Mont Tamalpais departs quite quickly from a purely phenomenological frame to deal with an often-tragic reality—the word “prison” appears several times and atrocities are sometimes suggested. 

Precisely, the landscape is the “counter-prison.” It’s liberty, escape, the discovery of a world. Habits and daily life close our world, transform it into a prison. The love of landscape is closely linked to the love of liberty, in an existential, non-political way. This is the mental territory. Animals like lions, tigers and elephants need more space than where they live. Even if they cannot see the space, their antennae reveal its existence. A human being may be living in a 15-square-meter room, but psychologically he needs more space. 

On this subject I would like to quote you again: “I feel like I am a prisoner of the universe to which we belong and I think there could be a ‘counter-universe’ but it would be still a universe and so on. There is no way out of that question.” 

According to our definition of the universe, it is impossible to leave the universe. If the universe is “everything” we must be always inside “everything.”

Translated by Patrick Gillot.

The first edition of this interview was published in French in Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, Éditions du Centre Pompidou no. 136 (July/Aug 2016).