julien gracq, “the opposing shore”

Julien Gracq
The Opposing Shore
(trans. Richard Howard)
(Columbia University Press, 1986)


This novel is one I that I return to; this is my third time through. Julien Gracq was one of the writers the Surrealists wanted but they couldn’t get (like Roussel and De Chirico); his work shares something with their aesthetic, but it’s very much his own. This particular novel hasn’t attracted much attention in English; Columbia released it in 1986, Harvill seems to have put out a British edition in the late 1990s, and since then nothing. The Pushkin Press has been reissuing out-of-print editions of Gracq (most recently A Dark Stranger; Turtle Point Press has been very slowly publishing untranslated works by Gracq. This book has so far been left out; it’s a shame, because it’s one of his most accessible works.

When Gracq published the novel in 1951, it was given the name Le rivage des Syrtes; I don’t know whether the change of the English title was Richard Howard’s or not, but it’s an odd one. “Syrtes” in the novel is the southern-most region of Orsenna, a country that seems to be a stand-in for a pre-Risorgimento Italy where there seem to be cars but no electricity, ruled by a city of the same name which seems to be, but isn’t quite, Venice. Almost all the characters in the novel have Italian names. There isn’t an exact correspondence: Venice still exists in the novel, and the Catholic church is present but inwardly directed and apolitical. Orsenna has been at war almost indefinitely with Farghestan, the desert country across the sea to the south; Farghestan, with its two main cities on the coast and endless deserts seems a great deal like Libya. There have been symbolic exchanges in Gracq’s book: Mount Etna moves to Libya and becomes the Tängri; the ruins of Sabratha leave Libya for Italy and become Sagra, where spies from Farghestan enter the country of Orsenna. And of course Sirt goes to Italy and becomes Syrtes.

Which brings us back to the name of the novel: “Sirt” (in French “Syrte,” in Arabic “سرت”) is the name of both a town in Libya (most prominent now as the birthplace of Qaddafi) and a gulf directly north of it, the Gulf of Sidra (the Arabicized version of the Latin Syrtis Major). Gracq’s choice to write about a conflict between Italy and Libya is not as disinterested as it might seem: from 1911 to 1943, Libya had been an Italian colony; Libya become independent in 1951. Mussolini declared Libya to be Italy’s fourth shore (the Quarta Sponda); his bloody history in Libya is by and large forgotten, but he was busy using tanks against civilians, setting up concentration camps, and building a 168-mile-long barbed wire fence to control an insurgency; maybe half the population of Cyrenaica died under Italian occupation. F. T. Marinetti and the Futurists rushed out manifestoes in favor of the war on Libya; Marinetti went to go see the bombardment of Tripoli as a correspondent for the French press.

How then should Gracq’s novel be read? Generally this book is presented as being in the tradition of Kafka, like Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, with which it shares a premise; certainly the French title of Gracq’s book can simply be read as a pun. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that I’m reading too much into this book. Politically, it’s hard to charge Gracq with anything: he split with the Communists on the point of the Stalin-Hitler pact and was thereafter uninvolved. Gracq did, however, teach history and geography: presumably, he knew exactly what he was doing with his allusions to Libya.

Farghestan, in the end, is purposefully unreal: the “secret powers of the city” that Aldo discovers when he leaves Syrtes for Orsenna are using the pretense of a war with Farghestan to whip up nationalist patriotism. Aldo, the protagonist, realizes that he’s been used, both by his lover and by the state; Danielo, one of the masters of Orsenna, explains how Aldo’s actions have proven useful:

When you rule, nothing is worse than losing hold. Once the Thing came to me, it was a strange discovery to realize that this was the only way to hold on to Orsenna. Everything that focused on Syrtes again,everything that led to the renewal of your . . . episode made the old gears turn with almost phantasmagorical ease, everything that failed to concern it met with a wall of inertia and unconcern. The Thing took advantage of every instance – the gestures to accelerate it and the gestures to slow it down – like a man sliding down the slope of a roof. Once the question was raised – how can I put this to you? – everything was mobilized of its own accord. (p. 284)

Orsenna, the final chapter makes clear, is about to descend into fascism: war with Farghestan, however, unlikely, is a convenient excuse. A deep dreaminess pervades this book, maybe the reason I find myself coming back to it; the politics, however, remain as timely as ever.

muammar al gathafi, “the green book”

Muammar Al Gathafi
The Green Book
(revised English edition; translator unknown)
(World Center for the Study and Research of the Green Book, 2009; originally 1975.)


There are not a great many interesting souvenirs available in Libya, which is not, perhaps, surprising. But you can buy copies of Qaddafi’s The Green Book in many places, in many different languages, for very little money (5 Libyan dinars, around $4), which is how I came to have this. This edition is a hardback published in 2009 by the imposing-sounding “World Center for the Study and Research of the Green Book”; it’s a short book, 96 pages long, and the back explains that it’s been “republished in a new translation,” but I don’t know if this means that the text has been changed since the original. I am not, of course, any sort of expert on Libya or political systems; I was in Libya largely because I wanted to see the Roman ruins on the coast. My opinion is of course that of an amateur; but Libya is an interesting country, bearing little resemblances to most American preconceptions of it, and a good part of that is due to the idiosyncrasy of Qaddafi’s ideas.

Qaddafi came to power in 1969 in an officer’s coup; a week later, he seems to have emerged as the leader, improbably, as he was only a colonel. (The idea floats around Libya that the coup, and Qaddafi’s rise, was American-sponsored.) but by 1975, Qaddafi had codified his ideas about how the state should be run in this book, which announces his “Third Universal Theory”. The first and second theories were democracy and socialism; the third builds on these to create an elaborate systems of people’s committees which report back and forth and thus govern the country. The first third of this book announces “the solution to the problem of Democracy”; the second, “the solution to the Economic problem”; the third, “the Social Basis of the third Universal Theory”. Green marginal notes (often in the form of slogans, some incomprehensible (“No representation of the people representation is a falsehood”) appear to the left of the text; some of these also appear on billboards in the country.

Qaddafi begins with a discussion of political systems; he sees flaws in democracy, as popularly practiced, and socialism. While his criticisms often make sense (representational democracy isn’t as particularly representational as you might hope), he jumps to conclusions:

Political struggle which culminates in the victory of a candidate obtaining 51 per cent of the total votes of electorate, establishes a dictatorship in the seat of power garbed in the guide of democracy. It is in fact, a dictatorship because 49 per cent of the electorate would then be governed by an instrument of government they did not vote for, and which has been imposed upon them. This is the essence of dictatorship. (pp. 7–8)

One wonders if something has been lost in translation: he doesn’t seem to be using the word “dictatorship” as it’s usually received. There’s something that’s right here, of course; he does astutely note that what works for campaigns isn’t necessarily what’s right for government. Or his thoughts on referendums:

Referendums make a mockery of democracy. The people who respond with “yes” or “no” are not actually expressing their will, but rather are constrained to respond as such because the concept of modern democracy so dictates. They are only allowed to select one of two words: either “yes” or “no”. Referendums represent the most extreme repressive dictatorships. Individuals who respond with a “no” should be able to state their reasons for this response and why they refrained from responding with a “yes”. Similarly, individuals who respond with a “yes” should be given the opportunity to justify their consent and explain why they did not choose to give “no” as an answer. Each should be able to speak out and give the reason for agreement or disagreement. (pp. 19–20)

(This is glossed as “Referendums make a mockery of democracy” and “Individuals must have the opportunity to justify opinions”.) He’s right to point out that there are problems with referendums (cf. California’s governments); however, his response is puzzling. The problem is with democracy; he solves this by redefining democracy to mean People’s Congresses and People’s Committees. Here’s how:

Firstly, the people are divided into Basic People’s Congresses. Each of these selects its own secretariat. The secretariats of all the People’s Congresses together from (sic) Congresses other than the Basic People’s Congresses. The masses of the Basic People’s Congresses will then select administrative People’s Committees to replace governmental administration. From then on, all public institutions will be run by People’s Committees which act answerable to Basic People’s Congresses whcih dictate policies and oversee their implementation. Thus, both the administration and supervision become the people’s responsibility and the outdated definition of democracy – democracy is the supervision of the government by the people – is finally done away with. It is replaced by the true definition: democracy is the supervision of the people by the people. (p. 23)

This is glossed “Committees everywhere”. A rather complicated chart attempts to explain the interrelations of the various committees and congresses but leaves me entirely confused, as does how this theory actually relates to practice, if at all. Qaddafi’s word for this is the neologism jamahiriya (جماهيرية), a derivation from the the words “republic” and “masses”; maybe in English you could call it a “repeoplic.”

The second section of the book attempts to explain economic theory. To summarize by its glosses:

  • Wage earners are a kind of slaves, even if their wages improve.
  • The ultimate solution is to abolish the wage system.
  • In need no freedom indeed.
  • Masters in their own homes.
  • Land is no one’s private property.
  • The legitimate objective of the individual’s economic activity is solely the fulfilment of their material needs.
  • A house should be serviced by its occupants.

Qaddafi’s reasonable progressive here; he explains that it’s very important that everyone should have their own home, but everyone should only have one home, because that’s where trouble starts. One should also have a vehicle. Domestic servants lead quickly to slavery.

The third section of the book explains his social thought; here, the book becomes itself. The family and religion are at the center of Qaddafi’s world; everyone should have both. The family is extended to the tribe, which perhaps makes sense in Libya, but which makes one a bit wary. From the tribe springs the nation (“a large extended family that has passed through the tribal stage – the tribe, then a plurality of tribes, that have branched out from one common source”). Next there’s a section on women; Qaddafi is paternalistic (“Women, like men, are human beings”) and almost buffoonish (“According to gynaecologists women, unlike men, menstruate each month”), but he comes to the conclusion that although women and men are separate they should be equal. Nurseries are tyrannical; motherhood should be respected as work. Some questionable science comes into play (“The male in the plant and animal kingdoms is born naturally strong and striving, while the female in both kingdoms is naturally born beautiful and gentle”), echoed in the Lamarckianism in the section on music and art:

If a community of people wears white on a mournful occasion and another dresses in black, then each community develops particular attitudes towards these colours: one community would like white and dislike black and the other like black and dislike white. Moreover, this attitude leaves a physical effect on the cells as well as on the genes in the body. This adaptation will be transmitted by inheritance, and the heir would come to dislike the colour disliked by his parents, as a result of inheriting their feelings. Consequently people only relate to their own arts and heritage. Due to the factor of heredity, this feeling of harmony eludes them when they come into contact with the arts of others who differ in heritage and yet speak a single common language. (pp. 88–89)

This is, of course, ridiculous; the book is finished with a section on sports and horsemanship, where Qaddafi comes out against public spectacles (unbecoming in a democracy) and for private practice. There are now, however, soccer teams in Libya, as well as increasingly visible private corporations; it’s hard to tell how seriously the Green Book is taken now.

Qaddafi seems to have followed Duchamp’s lead in following up his Green Book with a White Book in 2002, but the White Book seems mostly inaccessible (save for a pile of Spanish translations I found in the gift shop of the Libyan airport). One can, however, read the White Book in the Green/White Book Room in the new hi-tech Museum of Libya in Tripoli; the White Book is smaller than the already small Green Book, and seems to contain Qaddafi’s proposed solution to the Israel/Palestine problem (one state, to be called “Israstine,” based on the model of Lebanon. See his op-ed from 2009 in the NYTimes.

Qaddafi’s hope with the Green Book seems to have been to export the jamahiriya elsewhere. This doesn’t seem to have gone very well; it seems possible that the reason he’s done as well as he has in Libya is that it’s a small country, population-wise: around 9 million people, the majority of them clustered around Tripoli; there’s also a huge amount of revenue from oil. How well this works in the future is a good question.