Here is a short section from the open letter of love and despair written by renowned French philosopher André Gorz to his British-born wife, Doreen. (later published as Letter to D. A Love Story). Among other things, Gorz happens to be the founding father of green politics in France. But few had ever before heard of the self-effacing, beautiful woman Gorz met by chance at a card game in Switzerland some 60 years ago and who became his wife and professional partner – without whom, wrote the anti-capitalist thinker, his lifetime’s work would ‘lose its sense and importance’. But it was her tragic illness that led both of them to their deaths. Their bodies were discovered on 24 September side by side in the bedroom of their 19th-century house in the village of Vosnon, near Troyes. They had committed suicide together two days earlier by lethal injection. On the table beside them were piles of letters they had written explaining their act to officials and friends. There were detailed instructions for their cremation. Their ashes were scattered in the gardens of their home.
Gorz concludes his letter with these haunting words:
“You’ve just turned 82. You’re still beautiful, graceful and desirable. We’ve lived together now for 58 years and l love you more than ever. Lately. I’ve fallen in love with you all over again and I once more feel a gnawing emptiness inside that can only be filled when your body is pressed against mine.
At night I sometimes see the figure of a man, on an empty road in a deserted landscape, walking behind a hearse. I am that man. It’s you the hearse is taking away. I don’t want to be there for your cremation; I don’t want to be given an urn with your ashes in it. I hear the voice of Kathleen Ferrier singing, ‘Die Welt ist leer, Ich will nicht leben mehr’* and I wake up. I check your breathing, my hand brushes over you. Neither of us wants to outlive the other. We’ve often said to ourselves that if, by some miracle, we were to have a second life, we’d like’ to spend it together. 21 March – 6 June 2006.”
An earlier section, here:
After two or three years living in exile like this, life took a turn for the better. I was hired by L’Express. The research material you’d compiled had been a real asset in landing the job. I remember exactly how it happened. L’Express had become a daily designed to support Pierre Mendes France’s electoral campaign of 1955-56. When the paper went back to being a weekly again, the journalists on the daily, of which I was one, were told they’d be sacked unless they could prove themselves in the first issues of the new format. I remember writing a feature on peaceful coexistence, quoting a speech of Eisenhower’s from three years earlier outlining all that brought the American and Soviet peoples together.
At the time no one had bylines at L’Express. JJSS, as we called Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, cited mine as a perfect example of the kind of thing he was looking for and ended on this note: ‘Here’s a person who knows the value of solid source material’. We acquired, you and I, a reputation for being inseparable, ‘obsessionally concerned for each other’, Jean Daniel would later write. I managed to finish the Essay in the course of those same weeks and a few days later we found a small rundown apartment in the rue du Bac at an amazingly low price. All we’d hoped for was about to happen. I’ve described elsewhere the reception Sartre gave the staggering mass of pages I foisted on him. I realized then what I’d known from the start: that manuscript was never going to find a publisher, even if Sartre recommended it (‘You over-estimate my power,’ he said). You saw how badly I took it, then the way I blindly refused to come to terms with the problem: I began writing a devastating attack on myself that was to become the start of a new book. I wondered how you could bear the fact that work I’d subordinated everything else to for as long as you’d known me had ended in failure.
And here I was, trying to get over it by launching myself head first into a new venture that was going to monopolise me for God knows how long. But you didn’t seem worried or even annoyed. ‘Your life is writing. So, write,’ you said again. As though your vocation was to comfort me in mine. Our life changed. People flocked to our little apartment. You had your regular friends who’d drop in at the end of the day for a whisky. You organised dinners or lunches several times a week. We lived at the centre of the universe. For us, the distinction between contacts, information-gatherers and friends became blurred. Branko, a Yugoslav diplomat, was all those things at once. He started out as the head of the Yugoslav Information Centre in the avenue de l’Opera and ended up as first secretary at the embassy. Thanks to Branko, we met certain French and foreign intellectuals who were dominant figures in the postwar period. You had your own circle, your own life, even while you were completely involved in mine. At our first New Year’s Eve with ‘Castor’, Sartre and the Temps modernes ‘family’, Sartre set about seducing you with earnest intensity and the jubilation shone on his face when you responded with the breezy irreverence you reserved for the great of this world. I don’t know whether it was on that occasion or later that one of Sartre’s friends put me seriously on my guard: ‘My dear G., watch out. Your wife’s more beautiful than ever. If I decide to go after her, I’ll be ir-re-sis-tible.’
It was in the rue du Bac that you really came into your own. You traded that sweet little English voice of yours (the voice that Jane Birkin, among others, has never ceased cultivating) for a good steady deep voice. You lopped off some of that magnificent hair of yours that I used to love burying my face in. You kept only a hint of an English accent. You read Beckett, Sarraute, Butor, Calvino, Pavese. You followed Claude Levi- Strauss’ lectures at the College de France. You wanted to learn German and bought yourself the requisite books. I stopped you. ‘I don’t want you to learn a single word of that language,’ I told you. ‘I’ll never speak German again.’ You could understand that attitude on the part of an ‘Austrian Jew’. We did nearly all my assignments m France and abroad together. You made me see my limits. I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned those three days we spent in Grenoble with Mendes France. It was one of our very first assignments. We ate our meals with Mendes, visited his friends with him, sat in on his interviews with the town worthies. You knew that, parallel to these interviews, I was going to hold talks with trade union militants from the CFDT, Confederation francaise democratique due travail, for whom the big bosses of Grenoble did not exactly embody ‘the lifeblood of the nation’, in Mendes’ phrase. You absolutely insisted that Mendes read my ‘report’ before I sent it of[ He was grateful you did. ‘If you publish that,’ he told me, ‘I’ll never be able to set foot in this town again.’ He seemed more amused than annoyed; as though he thought it was only normal that at my age and in my position I should prefer radicalism to any sense of political reality. I realized that day that you had more of a feel for politics than I did. You picked up realities that escaped me if they failed to correspond with my view of the real world. I became a bit more humble. I got into the habit of getting you to read my articles and manuscripts before filing them. I took your criticisms into account, though I always grumbled: ‘Why do you always have to be right!’ The foundation on which our marriage was based changed over those years.
Our relationship became the filter that my connection to reality passed through. A shift occurred in our relationship. For a long time you would let yourself be intimidated by my intellectual arrogance; you felt that was my way of showing a grasp of theory that you couldn’t match. Little by little, you refused to let yourself be swayed. Better yet: you rebelled against theoretical constructs and especially against statistics. Statistics as a discipline was even less convincing, you said, than theory, as figures only made sense when they were interpreted. You argued that such interpretation can’t lay claim to the mathematical rigour statistics bases its authority on. I needed theory to structure my thinking and I used to object that unstructured thought always runs the risk of degenerating into insignificant, empirical anecdote. You replied that theory always runs the risk of blinding us to the shifting complexities of the real world.
We had these discussions dozens of times and knew in advance what the other was going to come back with. In the end it was all just a game. But even if it was just a game, you were right and I was wrong. You didn’t need the cognitive sciences to know that without intuition or emotion, there can be no intelligence or meaning. You based the certainty of your opinions, imperturbably, on lived experience, which can be communicated but not demonstrated. The authority – let’s call it ethical – of such opinions does not require debate to hold sway. Whereas the authority of a theoretical opinion collapses if it can’t convince through debate. That was precisely the point of my ‘Why do you always have to be right!’.
I think I needed your judgment more than you needed mine. Our rue du Bac days lasted ten years. I don’t want to retrace those years here but to get a clear sense of where we were headed. We were doing more and more together and, at the same time, seeing ourselves more and more as distinct people, separate from each other. This trend would continue. You would always been more grown up than I was and became even more so. You liked to say you saw a child’s ‘innocence’ in my eyes; you could well have said ‘naivete’. You were flourishing without doctrines, theories and systems of thought. I needed those psychological crutches to position myself in the intellectual world, – even if it meant kicking them out from under me, so to speak. It was in the rue du Bac that I wrote three quarters of The Traitor and the three essays that followed.
The Traitor came out in 1958, eighteen months after I handed in the manuscript. Barely 24 hours after I’d dropped it off at du Seuil, you got a phone call from Francis Jeanson. He asked you: ‘What’s he doing now?’ ‘He hasn’t stopped writing,’ you told him. You realized that Jeanson had decided to publish the manuscript. You’ve often said that that book transformed me as I wrote it. ‘When you finished it, you weren’t the same’. I think you were wrong about that. It wasn’t writing it that allowed me to change; it was producing a text that was publishable and then seeing it published.
Its publication changed my situation. It gave me a place in the world, it gave what I thought reality, a reality that exceeded my intentions, that forced me to redefine myself and to constantly surpass myself so that I wouldn’t become trapped either by the image other people had of me or by a product that had turned into something other than me through its objective reality. That’s the magic of literature: it gave me access to existence. By writing about my refusal to exist, I described, wrote, myself into existence.
That book was the product of my refusal, was this refusal and yet, by being published, prevented me from persisting ill this refusal. That’s precisely what I’d hoped for and nothing other than being published would allow me to achieve: to be forced to commit myself in a way I couldn’t do on my own and to ask myself questions, to pursue ends that I hadn’t defined on my own either. So, the book had an impact, but not through the work I did writing it. It gradually had an impact just by confronting me with possibilities and relationships with other people I hadn’t initially anticipated. It had an impact, it seems to me, in 1959, when JJSS discovered I had skills in political economics: I no longer had to stick to matters foreign.
The act of writing can become bogged down by the way others see you as well as by the weight of material realities. Le Vieillissement, Aging, was to be my farewell to adolescence, my renunciation of what Deleuze and Guattari were to call ‘the limitlessness of desire’ and what Georges Bataille called ‘the ornnitude of possibility’ that you only approach by indefinite refusal of all determination: the desire to be Nothing blurs into the desire to be Everything. At the end of Aging, this exhortation occurs, directed at myself ‘You have to accept being finite: being here and nowhere else, doing this and not something else, now and not always or never … having only this life.’