Monday, 9 February 2009

Descartes, Nietzche and the Philosopher at Le Cailar

Alain Guiard and the café philo at La Maison du Peuple in Le Cailar last night. Le Cailar is a lovely village near Vauvert, with tree lined avenues and narrow streets, yellow-plastered old buildings and pale green shutters. The square is crowded with thick-boled plane trees whose roots make the pavements full of little bumps and ridges and in the summer the leaves rustle and the shade from their branches leans out over the street cobbles.

Last night the audience had spilled out into the square when we arrived. Dominique had to ask someone for more seats. Food and drink was being sold and the noise level was high. We took our chairs up to the front and set our drinks down on a table behind. I bet Alain is that older man over there, with the white hair said Dominique. That's what you'd expect a philospher to look like I suppose. But Alain was young, with close-cropped hair and he wore tight jeans, dark jacket and shirt and a blue tie. He also had a tattoo on the fingers of his left hand, a letter on each finger, spelling tout (everything). His only stage prop was a tiny blackboard with a duster draped over it. His mis-en-scène.

He launched into the most amazing performance, full of energy, gesturing and laughing, talking very quickly, cracking jokes. He pretended to spit out Nietzche's name, because he was trying to refute Descartes, and so it was a question of national pride for the French after all. He wrote his name, Nietzche, on the blackboard, and it took up the whole space, so there was no more room to write anything else. He used no notes at all but he handed out a piece of paper to everyone. The first line, the beginning of Nietzche's refutation, went: Il est pensé: donc il y a un sujet pensant (something is thought, therefore there must be a subject who does the thinking - from Descartes' cogito ergo sum). He then expounded on the ideas of thinking, what is thought - ideas, impressions, feelings, this stream of thoughts and perceptions - mais ou est le 'soi' qui pense? Where is the self who does the thinking? We say il pleut, it rains - but where is the subject, who is it who is raining? We think because language works this way, with a subject who is the doer of the verb, the world works in the same way - but it does not. He talks about the philosophers' attempts to posit worlds beyond this one to account for such anomalies.

He talked so quickly that I missed a lot of what he said but his performance was mesmerizing. The room was packed, there were perhaps 80 people there and the audience hung on his every word. There was nothing dry about this, he used humourous examples of two people falling in love and showing how if asked what it was they loved about the other person and they said his sensitivity or bits of his body, then it was those things they loved and not the person. And if she decided to be faithful to Roberto it was not him she was being faithful to but her decision, her vow, that she would be.

The delicious paradox of him saying there is no perceiver, there is no soi, no self that feels, thinks, gets angry, and here is this lean and energetic being, a consummate performer, witty humourous and agile, and the whole attention of the audience is focussed on him, listening to him, their eyes following his every movement. Philosophy, comedy and performance. His website is at

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