Clément Rosset & Raphaël Enthoven

The Philosophy of the Double. 

Parallel universes, globalization, and the awkwardness of Derrida.

Interview by Raphaël Enthoven.  Artwork by Clarina Bezzola

Born in the 1930’s and a graduate of the prestigious l’École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Clément Rosset received his doctorate in Philosophy before his 20th birthday (the same day, incidentally, that his first book was also reviewed by Le Monde). In the years that followed, Rosset spent the majority of his career at the University of Nice, retiring early to explore the theme of “the double” in a series of books, each one shorter, wittier, and more incisive than the last.

Although Rosset is less-read today than he deserves, he still maintains the unique position of being both a cult philosopher and a trusted figure in French society. In his most recent book entitled “Phantasmagories”, Rosset, who is also known as ‘the happy sage’, summed up his reflections on a subject he began exploring 30 years ago in The Real and The Double.  In a dozen different works, all peppered with amusing stories, Rosset has painted the picture of a bewildered humanity incapable of accepting the tragic indifference of the world, and the joyful simplicity of all things.

ENTHOVEN: Is your philosophy the philosophy of a single idea?

ROSSET: I’d have to take that as a compliment, as not everyone can claim such a thing. But remember that “single idea” is not the same thing as a “single thought” in the way most people today would understand it. Rather, it is one idea which encompasses everything; an open, hospitable idea, so to speak. It concerns a flaw of human nature: to escape the fear of death, human beings flee from reality and worship something that is not there. In place of the world as it is, we invent a “duplicate“ or a “double”, a parallel universe which functions as a phantom rival to the world that exists, a desperate compensation for the suffering that is associated with an acceptance of reality.
This “duplicate” takes on all kinds of forms, from the cuckolded husband who, because he cannot bear the truth, persuades himself that his wife is faithful, to the critic of globalization who thinks “another world” is possible, and finally including the metaphysical philosopher who proves that reality, as in “real life”, is always “somewhere else”.

Are Plato and opponents of globalization on the same side?

Up to the point that Plato is a genius – which, as far as I know, José Bové cannot claim for himself – it is obvious that Platonic metaphysics, dictated by the rejection of the only world that we have (this world as incomplete, as a place which exposes us to death, uncertainty and the loss of all desires) presents itself as the desperate, defeated love of that which the world is not.

Plato spends his time wondering how he can step out of time in order to enter into eternity. He spends his life denying that there is life before death.  This notion becomes so persuasive that Socrates, in his last hour, makes life into a disease that only death can cure in the end. For its own part, radical criticism of globalization proves nothing other than the refusal to truly act upon the world. Because, after all, you don’t create a new world by mowing down fields of genetically modified corn (at best you might give your career a boost), and you don’t make your everyday routine any more palatable by verbally conjuring up a brighter future. Therefore there is only a gradual distinction between the Platonic will which subordinates our unclean world to a diaphanous universe and the insane fantasy that “another world” (without injustice or exploitation of humans by humans) is “possible”.  So the greatest thinker of the West and those activists destroying GM cornfields share the same denial of reality in favor of a fateful imaginary ideal.

Why fateful?

Cioran said: “Give me a different world, or I will suffocate!” But critics of globalization would still suffocate in that other world they conjure up in their wishful thinking. If that ideal (“other world”) were ever to become reality, its advocates would immediately claim it had lost its way and it would become a caricature of itself. The reason that the “other world” always remains just a “possibility” which is forever deferred is because its realization or creation would be enough to discredit it. The failure of Communism, for example, was due less to a faulty interpretation of Karl Marx’s writings than to the unavoidable corruption of any utopia that happens as soon as that utopia tries to become manifest. It can be attempted again, and it may well be attempted again, but it won‘t work any better for the effort. An ideal must, by definition, remain apart from the world, as otherwise it would be nothing more than reality. And it is for this reason that a revolutionary mindset is necessarily irresponsible. It also explains why any doctrine of redemption, any doctrine which is consistent from the first shot of the starting pistol, has a paradoxical condition in order to be effective: namely, that that starting pistol never actually be fired – as is demonstrated by the non-arrival of the Messiah in the Jewish religion, for example.

To sum up then: an ideal, as its name suggests, is not something of this world, but rather a nothing which allows reality to be conveniently denigrated…

Yes. But the fact that the ideal is not of this world doesn’t mean that it exists somewhere else. Appearances may deceive, but they don’t necessarily conceal reality. Yet what does not exist can still take on a form which agrees with both our regrets and our expectations, in the same way that a prostitute allows herself to be called by a name that excites her customer…

Not everyone has the insight to be able to admit the world is the way it is. As Parmenides says: “One must say and think what is there, since what exists, exists, and what does not exist, does not.”  And yet strangely there is nothing more difficult to accept than this obvious fact, this tautology. The disadvantage of the real is that it exists and that one has to live with it, whereas the advantage of the “double” lies not only in the fact that it does not exist, but even more in the fact that it doesn’t have to exist in order for us to believe in it. Believing himself to be bold, the critic of globalization is intoxicated by his own daring and doesn’t notice that he is not thinking (or that he thinks like everyone else). The human imagination exhausts itself in a certain way in this inability — in which most people are stuck — to not think about the fact that they don’t have any real thoughts at all. As Pascal says: “Why is it that a limping person does not irritate us but a limping mind does, very much? A person who limps sees that the rest of us walk straight. A limping mind, on the other hand, believes it is we who limp.”

In other words, this desire for another world is not so much a desire for something different as it is a rejection of this world…

Exactly right. The desire for another world is the desire for nothing, and it is as futile as it is persistent. Another world, but which one? This kind of obsession is always very imprecise. Among its advocates, the objective itself pales in comparison to the desire to have an objective, like the Romantics who confuse us – privileged to suffer – with their hysterical prohibition of any means of fulfilling our desire. In the case of the critics of globalization the issue becomes more pressing since their other world – in my opinion – belongs to the category of the “murderous double” which reflects an artificial reality in order to make reality disappear. This category extends from the “better world” of anti-globalization rhetoric to Tom Ripley, the eponymous character from “The Talented Mr. Ripley“ who, after murdering Philip Greenleaf and assuming his identity, tries to make the original disappear by dumping the corpse in the sea. At least that’s what Ripley thinks. In reality, the corpse of his victim gets stuck on the outside of the yacht where he was killed and turns up again at the end of the film when the boat is heaved into the dock. The moral is: however deeply a “double” can bury reality, it will come to light in the end no matter what. Just as dreams belong to life, reality encompasses even those moving and pitiable attempts we make to go beyond it. But no-one escapes a prison without walls. It is pointless to bemoan the passing of a golden age or to hope for the return of a classless society. Reality will not return because it is already there.

The fact that the object of belief is not the desire for another world but rather a loathing of this world – isn’t this exactly what was behind the majority “no” vote in the referendum on the European Constitution last year?

Of course. In the lopsided battle between reason and demagoguery, a “no” had the decided advantage over a “yes” in that it refused one thing without offering any alternative. In other words, it’s easy to get a majority of votes if the goal is just to contradict. A contradiction cannot be challenged: its entire reason for being is simply to question what is there. On the other hand, it’s much more difficult — and more courageous — to try to improve the world than to just flush the whole thing down the toilet. During the EU constitutional campaign, Daniel Cohn-Bendit came out with an astoundingly perfect slogan: “It is better to have half of something than a whole nothing.“ I can’t add anything to that, but one has to admit that the advocates of a „yes“ vote, with their concrete and sadly realistic suggestions, rather paled in comparison to the enthusiastic “no” voters. If that “no” were anything other than the expression of a radical and inconsistent rejection of reality itself, then today the “no” voters would be feeling a bit confused about the fact that their victory did nothing to either help the situation of suffering people or expand French sovereignty.  But no… If the vote were to be taken again, most probably the “no” would win once more, since that was not the problem; the “no” voters were too preoccupied in saying “no” to see anything beyond it. Their objective was not so much to change any one thing than everything or nothing all at once, which comes to the same thing. Truly, the irresolvable problem which reality presents to human beings lies in its extreme simplicity.

This acceptance of simplicity that so few are capable of, is also expressed in your writing. There is no jargon at all…

Well, I try. Probably that is the reason why Derrida showed me such open antipathy.

What do you mean?

If good philosophy can be defined as expressing complicated things in a simple way, then Derrida did the exact opposite: He wrote in hieroglyphs and used smoking neologisms to break down open doors. By the way, it was a misunderstanding at the very beginning which earned me his hatred: Every time that I would sit having a coffee with Louis Althusser in the bar across from the École Normale, we would see Derrida coming, obviously keen to join our conversation. For a long time I thought he was one of the cleaners in charge of the halls at the school who happened to be interested in philosophy. And because there’s nothing harder to set aside than a first impression, I admit that I never changed my opinion about him. I remember one day a colleague at the university showed me a book by Derrida and asked me: “As a philosopher yourself, can you tell me whether this is a joke or whether he really means it?” To this day I don’t know the answer to that question. Schopenhauer said, in order to conceal a lack of real thought, some philosophers surround themselves “with an imposing apparatus of long, compound words, interlocking sentences, unending snippets and unheard-of expressions. Taken together, it results in a highly complex type of jargon which suggests being well-read.“

In other words: why be simple, when awkwardness works too?

Yes, or even: Why see simply, when you can see “double”?

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