24 October 2008

Èmilie Carles, Humanist

Recently I had the occasion to read A Life of Her Own, the memoirs of a French woman born into a nearly medieval world -- an agricultural village in the southern French Alps called Val-des-Prés. She was born as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, but her world had not changed its social structure since the days of Charlemagne. For most in her village, the village itself is all they know. The world outside is distant, far removed the affairs of the villagers' lives. Their lives are not their own -- subject to the fickleness of the weather and the actions of their governing mayor, who is "elected" again and again because there is no one to run against him. The people of Val-des-Prés distrust education and look on book-reading as something foreign as suspicious.

Èmilie Carles is different, however. From an early age she realizes a love for books that is unmatched by anyone else in her village. She reads anything she can acess, and develops a sharp mind that does not escape the attention of her teachers -- who reccommend to her father that Èmilie be allowed to continue her education and fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. Her father, while strictly medieval himself, is reluctant until she is offered a scholarship. While Èmilie continues to learn from schoolbooks, she also learns from the affairs of life. The Great War comes to France in 1914, and she witnesses its horrors. Conversations with her soldiering brothers and anarchist cousin force her to think about the inhumanity of the war, and she begins to develop her own worldview. Her worldview develops apart from religion, for she explains that her faith in God is lost in the aftermath of the Great War. She freely describes herself as an atheist later in the book -- hard to imagine for a young woman born in a mountain village without electricity or library access!

Her worldview develops throughout the book, and becomes one I can safely describe as humanist. Èmilie values arriving at the truth for herself, by reasoning things out. So committed to this is she that she encourages her own students to do this, even allowing them to question her. She also instructs them to love life, and to deal with one another more kindly. She sees her job as a teacher as a duty to mold young minds that can be happy and live freely -- free from being told what to think, free to enjoy their lives their own way.


Teaching youngsters to read and write is one thing, it is important but not sufficient. I have always had a loftier notion of school -- the role of the school and teacher. In my view, children take stock of the world and society in the communal school: Later on, whatever their trade, whatever direction their lives take, it is too late, the mold is already set. If it is good, so much the better. If not, nothing further can be done.

In a backward region like ours, considering the life I had led, what seemed indispensable to me was opening their minds to life, shattering the barriers that shut them in, making them understand that the earth is round, finite, and varied, and that each individual, white, black, yellow, has the right -- and the duty -- to think and decide for himself. I myself had learned as much through life as through study. That is why I could not judge my pupils solely on the basis of their schoolwork, and why I also took into account they way they behaved in their daily lives. For example, I never hid the fact that every last one of them would have to face social reality, and that when all was said and done, they would have to work for a living. But at the same time, I put them on their guard against abuses. I told them that a man must defend himself against exploitation and the stultifying effect of work. I also told them:

'The most important thing for a young person is to choose a trade he likes and enjoys, otherwise he will be a slave, unhappy and consumed with rage."

To conclude this line of argument, I always spoke to them about liberty, repeating that our famous Liberty should not simply be a word inscribed on pediments along with Equality and Fraternity -- those basic Rights of Man, an abstract and illusory liberty -- but rather that it should be a reality for each one of them.

'Beware of politicians, beware of silver-tongued orators, do your utmost to judge for yourself, and above all, take advantage of the beauty life offers."



Èmilie eventually marries another free-thinking individual, and they are careful not to become hypocrites. Èmilie describes her husband Jean Carles as an idealist who doesn't tolerate any gap between what he says and what he does -- and so they are careful as parents not to become hypocrites. They allow their children to think and decide for themselves. As the book wears on, her worldview continues to develop. She is a pacifist, certainly, and by our standards a humanist. She also has socialist 'leanings' by which I mean she is an internationalist, a sharp critic of consumerism, and someone who believes in equality. The beauty of her ideas, especially her humanist ones, is that she developed them without much input from outside. She had no humanist teachers, read no books on the subject. So natural are the ideas of humanism -- love for humanity, recognition of the importance of reason and compassion -- that she came into them largely on her own. Her story was superbly written and I enjoyed every moment of it. Here are a selection of quotations from the book -- do enjoy.
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I believe it is splendid to leave life with the thought that you have done the maximum possible to defend the ideas you believe just and human, and to help those who need to be helped without discrimination. For me, that is a wonderful feeling.

With a work day of five or four hours, unemployment would be eliminated and everyone could have a job. Let us learn to live simply; [...] Let us learn to make use of our leisure time, get as close to nature as possible. Let us learn to read, because reading means strengthening our minds through the minds of others, steeping our hearts with feelings that please, and struggling with an author according to whether our ideas and feelings agree with his or diverge. Learn to live by knowing how to live and let live. Never take anything in life but flowers, and from flowers, only the perfume: drop the religion that has the largest numbers of followers; I am talking about the religion of money. A Belgian writer has said: Power of goodness and gentleness, it is you who should rule the Earth. Alas, that currency is altogether too ideal to circulate on our planet..." That is not true: fortunately, there are people for whom it is real. I know couples and families where it is the only currency in circulation, and it is beautiful, it is splendid, and we must all reach toward it for so long as we shall live.

I know perfectly well I'll be called a Utopian. It's true! And I say: why not? We must have utopias so that one day they may become realities. Less than a century ago, social security, unemployment benefits, and paid vacations were utopias: today we have them and everyone takes it for granted. The same is true for everything: what for the moment seems unattainable will be tomorrow's reality. With less selfishness, less indifference, we are bound to achieve greater justice, greater equality among people. But we must fall two work immediately, expecting nothing from our elite bureaucrats."

No to violence. no to injustice. Yes to pacifism and all that is Human. Too bad if that sounds like a slogan: for me is is a slogan of love. I have believed in it, and believe in it still and always, until the last breath of my life.

2 comments:

Clare said...

She sounds fantastic! I shall have to find out more about her.

smellincoffee said...

I heartily recommend the read. :)