on patriotism, distortion and the field

Pictured (left): Détail de la Gare des Brotteaux. Lyon, France. (C. Lardy 2017)

For as long as I can remember, and increasingly over the past five years, I’ve been conscious of the different ways I have of being French while in France, and of being French away from France. Coming back to France as an anthropologist, and moreover as a fieldworker, creates yet another mode of positioning, first vis-à-vis other French persons, but also in my inner acknowledgment of my own French-ness. It is [when is it not?] a question of belonging and and being free to belong; and while I can easily conceive that a diversity of life experiences is, for some, a source of personal integrity, my own back-and-forths seem only to result in some sort of intrinsic fragmentation. It brings to mind a quote from my favourite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Rein sind alle Gefühle, die Sie zusammenfassen und aufheben; unrein ist das Gefühl, das nur eine Seite Ihres Wesens erfaßt und Sie so verzerrt.” (Rilke, 4.XI.1904)

This is an excerpt from Rilke’s response to a young poet who had asked for advice, as you do, about life and writing and such. Roughly translated – don’t trust my German, I certainly don’t – it argues that emotions which ‘gather you’ [center you, ground you? zusammenfassen can be translated directly into ‘make together’, so perhaps emotions that get your shit together] are pure, while any emotion which ‘seizes only one side of your being’ distorts you, and is impure. At the moment, attempts to think through ‘being French’, and  the emotions such a fact should elicit – pride? – only distort me.

I was reading Levinas today (I deliberately brought no other book in order to be certain that I’d end up reading Levinas). He writes about liberty and about being Jewish in France after the Liberation, and one chapter dwells on the specific ontology of being a French Jew, or a Jew in France; a Jew in a ‘great modern nation’ which is a fatherland for some, but only a homeland for others. After the events of 1967, Levinas wonders whether Jews are developing a new and somewhat contradictory way of being French, by attempting a ‘two-dimensional’ loyalty to France and to the State of Israel, despite the conflict with the government of the former that an allegiance to the latter creates.

“L’attachement à une grande nation moderne, l’amour d’une patrie, ne peut se réduire à l’obéissance aux lois et à la conscience professionnelle.” (Levinas 1968)

‘Professional conscience’ – in my case, as a fieldworker – cannot be the sole reason for one’s attachment to any place, let alone a fatherland. The paragraph continues: the Jewish people consider themselves to be concerned by all the ‘fundamental’ affairs of the world, therefore, citizenship is inexorably tied to one’s inner life and religion.

“Quelle qu’ait été l’ancienneté de leur présence dans le pays, leur accession à la citoyenneté fut un acte solennel retentissant sur leur vie intérieure, d’une façon ou d’une autre touchant à la religion. Ce qui est peu surprenant pour une collectivité dont la cohésion à travers les siècles s’affirmait, par-delà l’organisation ecclésiastique quelconque, dans un sentiment, avoué ou non, d’être de la partie dans toutes les affaires fondamentales du monde […].” (Levinas 1968)

Don’t anthropologists also feel themselves to be concerned by all the fundamental affairs of the world? It would be interesting to tease at the thought that our integration to a place could also be a ‘solemn act reverberating through our inner life, one way or another encountering religion’. But for this to be the case, both for 1967 Jews and for myself, the place or country generating such a ‘metaphysical’ joining has to be France:

“Adhésion à la France comme acte métaphysique, certes; il fallait que ce soit aussi la France, pays qui exprime son existence politique par une devise trinitaire, morale et philosophique, inscrite sur les frontons des édifices publics.” (Levinas 1968)

Three part joining into one – patriotism, philosophy, and the liberty to engage. And, the extent of this liberty is also left to your own wish to be two-, three-, or many-dimensional at all.


  • Levinas, E. 1968. ‘L’espace n’est pas à une dimension’. In Difficile liberté: Essais sur le judaïsme. Editions Albin Michel, pp. 385-393.
  • Rilke, R.M. 1929. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter.




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