Interview with French politician, academic and novelist, Erik Orsenna

On 8 October 2020, the French Institute of India and the Oxford Bookstores co-hosted a digital book launch. It was for the Tamil edition of noted French politician, academic and award-winning novelist, Erik Orsenna’s biography of Louis Pasteur — Pasteur, Life, Death and Beyond. Erik Orsenna is an award-winning #novelist, member of the very prestigious Académie Française and a French politician. His real name is Eric Arnoult. He has been advisor to many French presidents including President Mitterrand. Erik Orsenna has won the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. He is now an advisor to President Macron. It has been published by Amutharasan Paulraj, Thadagam Publishers. The book was translated from French into Tamil by Dr. S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar. The digital book launch was conducted in three languages — English, French and Tamil.

The panel included Erik Orsenna, Dr Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Amutharasan Paulraj, Dr. S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar, and Dr Srinivas V. Kaveri, Director, CNRS Office, New Delhi. I moderated the conversation. It was such a fantastically enriching discussion that carried on for nearly one and a half hours!

We covered a lot of bases. The conversation moved seamlessly from topic to topic, of which a wide range were covered. From Louis Pasteur, science, looking at disciplines holistically rather than only as areas of specialisation, the Victorian Age, print and ebooks, waterways, sustainable development etc. It was truly an interesting conversation. At one point, Erik Orsenna, extended an invitation to visit Brittany!

Dr Srinivas V. Kaveri and I conducted a Q&A via email. It is a very brief encapsulation of what we discussed during the live conversation. Erik Orsenna replied in French and the document was translated by Akriti Ahluwalia, French Institute in India.

  1. Jaya: How do you define yourself — Scholar, politician, environmentalist, thinker, businessman or writer?  Why Pasteur?

I have not changed since childhood. I am a curious person, always obsessed with understanding “how it works”. I am first a professor, happy to learn and happy to pass it on. And for this, I am always looking for new perspectives to cross with the old ones. To be a “specialist” in the field is the least I can do. But this least thing is not enough. The world and life are connected, “religious” in the etymological sense, without relation to a God.

2. Srini: my question is about the intriguing title of your book. Although death ends life, yet it is part of life, let’s say the last part of life.  Pasteur points out at the importance of life and death of “living creatures” in several scientific ways, but you say “le domaine de la vie est bien plus large qu’on ne croyait”. if I may translate it as: “the field or subject of life is much vaster than we thought”. You have your own views on the intricate relation between life and death. Could you please tell us the significance of Life, Death, Life (again) in your title?

It is Montaigne who answers: “But you do not die because you are sick, you die because you are alive.” Our civilisation, which refuses death, which would like to prolong existence indefinitely, does not love life. For Pasteur, this title also has another, more intimate meaning: he, the researcher giving all his strength to pierce through the mysteries of Life, saw two of his little daughters, tenderly loved, die at his side.

3. Jaya: What is it that fascinates you about the Victorian period?   Do you think that we are now living in a modern version of the Victorian Age where inter-disciplinary studies are again in vogue?

The Victorian Age is that of the explosion of Knowledge. It seems that tens and hundreds of Newtons hatched at the same time because their perspectives crossed. It is the same for the arts. A radical difference with today: TRUST. The future will be better. And then in the future, this suicide of Europe, broke out in 1914.

4. Srini: your book reads like ……if I may say…a “thriller”! You are a great story-teller. Curiously – the research work of a scientist is often referred to as an ‘investigation’ and the scientists are themselves are called “investigators” – and you call Pasteur as ‘Commissaire Maigret’! A hidden passion for thrillers?

I am also a novelist. I like turning the pages. For every disease, you have to find the one responsible, the serial killer. Each time, Pasteur goes out into the field. He investigates. A real investigator!

5. Jaya: Do you think that in the 21C there is a greater need to understand the importance/ relationship of history, language, natural resources/geography, humans & animals? (his last book is Cochons, voyage au pays du vivant/Pigs, journey to the land of the living)(Fayard, September 2020)

Yes! The key notion is that of Unity. Unity of life. There is only ONE HEALTH. If the environment degrades, plants will suffer, then animals, then those members of the animal kingdom who are, let’s not forget, human beings. 95% of our genes are common with the pig (40% with plants, 70% with corals and genetically speaking, we are closer to the gorilla than the gorilla is to the chimpanzee).

6. Srini : “L’arbre n’est pas séparable des fruits qu’il porte” This is such a powerful statement and extremely pertinent – particularly in India. Basic research versus applied research is a never-ending debate. While there is an elitist attitude of scientists working on purely fundamental research, Louis Pasteur showed that it is possible to do basic research which has application and commercialization. How do you yourself see this principle?

Jaya: “I miss scientists who could have explained the phenomenon to me” and “All that week that single word ‘why’ haunted me.” — Is this at the heart of what you believe? The Indies Enterprise

Pasteur is COMPLETE. The whole chain is necessary: from the lab where we discover to the factory that manufactures medicines. Pasteur’s fame allows him to gather funds which help him create the Institute. First in Paris, then in 25 other countries. A scientist has to open up and constantly explain. Especially in a world where suspicion and conspiracy theories are growing.

7. Srini: India is not new to you. Two intriguing Indian concepts: first, reincarnation and Visha Kanya. Looking at the title of your book: La Vie, La Mort and again La Vie… as an Indian, the thought of reincarnation comes to mind. Also the question « Dieu existe-t-il? »  Does God exist? A never-ending debate…becomes even more challenging when a scientist is a “croyant – a believer”

I am a “horizontal” believer. For me, everything is connected. But no need for transcendence. Deus sive Natura. God or Nature. I am a religious atheist. I see gods everywhere. I am not very western.

8. Jaya: What is it that you seek in a biography? Do you think a biography should be about the life of a person from birth to death or also beyond — their impact on society/ humanity? (Much of what the Victorians achieved had a long-term impact!) Btw, why isn’t your book on Louis Pasteur translated into English? 

I am passionate about the “profession of living”. How do others live? For example, Pasteur: how did he “find” it? Or Beethoven, on whom I am currently working: did he have to wait until he was deaf to create his greatest works?

9. Srini: Self – Non-Self discrimination. As a debutant or a beginner student of immunology, I understand that one of the main pillars on which stands “immunology” is: self versus non-self! The immune system is indeed most potent and aggressive against “non-self” or microbes, but if it exerts a similar violent reaction against self – it can lead to disastrous consequences leading to autoimmunity. Thus, distinction between self and non-self is absolutely crucial. Curiously both in Greek and Hindu mythology, we hear this interesting concept. “Gnothi Seauton” in Greek and “Atma” concept in Hinduism! both c oncepts point at “know thyself” or “know yourself. You have discussed extensively with Patrice Debré – my teacher and colleague in immunology. How and where do you place this idea of Self – Non-Self?

A fundamental question, and the most mysterious! Self / Non self. I am fascinated by the question of grafts. But here, it is me who awaits answers.

10. Jaya: As a writer, researcher and reader, which format do you prefer to access — print or digital or a mix of both? Why did you choose to launch an ebook reader called Cybook in France? 

For a simple reason: I hate having to choose between reading (books are heavy) and travelling (always light, almost without luggage). Long live the digital! Why deprive yourself of this modernity.

11. Srini: You say that Pasteur was haunted by the idea that he was not the ‘inventor’ of Stereochemistry, it was Arago and Biot; he was not the initiator of the concept of Fermentation, it was Latour and Cagniard; he was not the ‘pioneer’ of vaccination, it was Jenner. However, you rightly position Pasteur’s greatness that a capacity “to gather all the knowledge and investigating systematically and precisely – leading to a step forward” indeed is a unique and rare quality! Please tell us about the mockery and humiliation that EVEN Pasteur had to endure!

Pasteur invented less than he discovered because he did THE SYNTHESIS of all the knowledge available at his time. And because he was able to gather a very diverse crew of explorers. Truth does not exist. Only Knowledge exists, which is a permanent movement. Pasteur’s enemies were immobile, arrested, rentiers of their status, lazy of certainty.

16 Oct 2020

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