J.M.G LE CLÉZIO AND ISSA ASGARALLY : ‘The Intercultural and the Arts’

‘The Intercultural and the Arts’ is a small book published this year by the Open University of Mauritius; it contains two articles by J.M.G Le Clézio and one by Issa Asgarally, that were presented at the University of North Carolina and Duke University in April 2013.
In his article « Some Ingenuous Thoughts on the Intercultural », read at the University of North Carolina, USA, J.M.G Le Clézio embarks us on a ride across different times and nations to elicit the notion of “Culture’.  The term seems quite elusive as it has, throughout epochs, changed meanings quite radically.  Ranging from ‘race’ and ‘traditions’ to ethnocentric beliefs, down to meaning no more than ‘well-groomed’, the word Culture has been all too often used to impose one’s own ways, while debasing others who do not claim to share them.  J.M.G. Le Clézio also mentions Malraux’s mocked definition of culture: “like the marmalade, the least you have it, the more you spread” !  
The segregating connotations of culture have at all times brewed trouble for humanity at large, especially when fanatics, once settled in powerful positions in the government, have took upon themselves to annihilate the perceived ‘corrupt heritage’ and embarked on ‘ethnic purification’; some examples that J.M.G. Le Clézio cites are the Nazi ideology, Imperial Japan, the ‘Cultural Chinese revolution’, Cambodia, Africa.  When brutal forces have been held in check, the superiority ideology has still lurked setting the stage for a ‘clash of civilizations’.  The somber incidents of Charlottesville few weeks back are a sad reminder of this.
J.M.G. Le Clézio says he prefers literature, since words and language link individuals, and “literature is the perfect place for exchange”.  The truth literature seeks has nothing to do with politics and propaganda.  Literature allows one to step into an alien mind and link. Literature bridges the gaps as it is creation.  Talking about his own experience, J.M.G. Le Clézio shares another pearl of wisdom, “reality is always challenged by creation”. Indeed, whereas static notions of culture isolate and differentiate, literature and the process of creation link and enrich reality.  Moreover, while striving to depict the specific, the local, literature still unveils the universal, that which is common to humanity.  That is why literature, irrespective of the language, or the nationality of the writer, talks to the person, to the essence of human nature.  Be it the Mauritian Malcolm de Chazal, or Cervantes, or indeed the Korean novelist I Seung U, or Colette, or Steinbeck, or Henry Roth, all speak to the heart or to the mind of the person.
Literature, says J.M.G. Le Clézio, could have been the uplifting force, if it had not been for the problem of illiteracy.  He say in France itself, few people read and in Mauritius, about 30% of the population is illiterate.  Access to books is difficult, as public libraries are few. Almost a thousand years after the invention of the printing machine ‘access to books is still an inaccessible luxury’, worse, a social class privilege, akin to the inaccessible stars in the sky.
In his article entitled “A Certain Universality”, presented at Duke University, USA, J.M.G Le Clézio explores the universality of literature.  Works of literature are certainly ‘bound to a language, to a culture, to a political milieu’, and express ‘regionalism’; ‘Literature is the product of a place and an era’, yet, says J.M.G Le Clézio, “in its narrowness, literature realizes…universality”.
Writers write about a definite culture, however, “what they write escapes totally the idea of nationalism”.  Giving the examples of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Proust, J.M.G Le Clézio emphasizes the fact that these writers did not only write for their fellow citizens.  Even if they became the glory and honour of the countries they were born to, and the language in which they wrote, and often it was not of their choice, still the works of such writers like Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tou Fou had a universal appeal, in that “what was circulating between the words, between the images, is nothing else than the blood of existence”.
Delving deeper into the mind of the writer, J.M.G. Le Clézio asks ‘So who is a writer?’ He or she is born and educated in a particular country, inherits a language and a literary corpus, and this “heritage is an important part of the vocation of a writer”.  The writer is very much part of a historical context. Writers live in their societies, read the papers, so their writings are certainly influenced by their professions and their ‘milieu’, and in fact, says Le Clézio, writers are ‘very far from the issues of universality.’  J.M.G. Le Clézio mentions the example of Kafka who considered himself a comic writer, yet for today’s readers, nothing could be farthest from the truth.  So, the secret lies in “what separates the writer from his writing, what escapes him.  May be it is that part which could be called universal.”
What attracts him, says J.M.G Le Clézio, is that ‘under the frivolous disguise, are almost all the passions and the sufferings that compose the enervated derma of the human flesh.  The obsession with time, the suffering combined with pleasure…”.  What makes a particular piece of literature accessible to all is the ‘identification process’ and the human ‘intelligence’ which is the key to understanding the ‘human values in a completely closed and hostile environment’.
Moreover, writing in one particular language, writers do participate in the competition of languages, but what exacerbates the whole issue is the attitude of those who hold the power to decide for the nation: these often impose the use of a single language and a single culture; the textbooks for their youths mark out Latin and Greek philosophers as the only references; streams of thoughts from other parts of the world are treated as little more than moral codes, or mere superstition.  This precisely is what instills the ‘pernicious idea that all cultures are not equal and there exists a hierarchy in languages, in arts and in ways of life”.
To promote peace and harmony across the world, ‘apprenticeship in culture’ is important especially when, “universality does not exist by itself”.  Sharing and learning about other cultures is important.  The great poets, playwrights and novelists speak to the human heart and that is why their works can be translated.  J.M.G Le Clézio says they were probably the ‘first discoverers of the intercultural’.  This is how they gained universality, and ‘something of eternity’.
J.M.G Le Clézio acknowledges the contribution of translators and publishers and motivated individuals who strive to promote peace through the Intercultural, and this is precisely what will bridge the gap between cultures and what will “keep the dream going”.
‘Why the Intercultural ?’ is the title of an article presented by Dr Issa Asgarally at the University of North Carolina, USA.  In the first part, the writer talks of the need for the Intercultural in a world and at a time when, in less than a hundred years, conflicts have claimed more than a hundred million lives, as we can gather from Gil Eliott’s book, “Twentieth Century Book of the Dead”.  The writer Russell Jacoby has charted the technology of killing, and it turns out that “the technology of death progresses, but not the art of living together”.  
The root causes of violence remain the same: greed, injustice and arrogance, but there is also the concept of the ‘superior race’.  This justifies the violence of the so-called ‘superior’ race to ‘civilize’ the so-called inferior one.
To stop the death toll, ‘We urgently need a new way of seeing and acting’, says Dr I. Asgarally.  Denying the thesis of the ‘clash of civilizations’ and the ‘war of languages’, we need to build bridges between world literatures, we need to train students in critical thinking; schools should be the “meeting space for a shared common life”. The intercultural will allow a sharing of cultures, especially their aesthetic dimensions; different cultures will benefit from the exchange of forms of art like “painting, sculpture, music, dance, theatre, literature and history”.  This sharing is certainly not a new thing: history shows that moments of sharing and exchange between peoples have been the greatest periods of prosperity and peace: under the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which turns out to be the most prestigious period in Chinese history, China traded with 70 countries; Andalusia (Spain) from the VIIth to the XVth century was the hotbed of cultural exchange between Christians and Arabs, even “ Jews, deeply Arabized, rediscover(ed) Hebrew’.  Universities had become ‘a paradise of libraries, gardens and palaces, haunted by poets and men of science”.
If the intercultural is the answer to growing imperialism, racism, ethnocentrism and deadly fundamentalism, it however faces many challenges, but actually this is the “challenge for civilization”.  We have to “unlearn the spontaneous spirit of domination”.  We need to give new definitions to the word ‘culture’, and indeed Dr I. Asgarally, asks “What are cultures?” if not “multi-polar configurations with shifting boundaries”?
The question of ‘identity’ is another killing machine when ‘identity’ becomes ‘deadly identities’. Amin Maalouf has shown in his book how one single affiliation, at the expense of all others, can become dangerous. Another challenge for the intercultural is the notion of multiculturalism.  If multiculturalism is an asset for Mauritius, in so far as communities have been able to preserve the cultures of their countries of origin, we should aim to go beyond multiculturalism. The dangers of multiculturalism lie in their fragile fabric, and in their vocation of ‘compartmentalization’, which easily becomes the breeding ground for ethnic conflict.  The riots of 1968 and February 1999 in Mauritius attest to that.
For the intercultural to succeed, we need to deconstruct: language should be a meeting place for establishing communication.  Seeking purity in language is as dangerous as the concept of purity of race.  Literature and philosophy should promote understanding of the other.  ‘Philosophy’ says Dr. Issa Asgarally, “should have been the field par excellence of the intercultural”.  But, “it is not”.  Philosophy should cease to be partisan.  It should regain its true value and aim at “the development of critical thinking, the cornerstone of the intercultural.”
History as well should be revisited, the view of the vanquished should be valued in the process of deconstructing colonial narratives.  Moreover, paying lip-service to the intercultural will not suffice; the intercultural is a process; it has the capacity to revolutionize our mindset; it is the only acceptable alternative, because it either is ‘the intercultural’ or ‘war’.
‘The Intercultural and the Arts” is a little book of 45 pages, yet the thoughts and reflections it contains are invaluable.