'I Don't Believe in Progress' : An Interview With Claude Imbert

FAITH Magazine May-June 2002


You're a journalist, immersed in the brouhaha of the news and the petty microcosm of Paris, but now through the device of a singular novel you look at the world through the eyes of a man from the past - a Gallo-Roman from sixteen hundred years ago. Do you regard yourself more as a journalist or an historian?

I love to look at reality through bi-focal lenses. An imaginary dialogue with someone from another time, someone who came before Galileo, Marx and Freud, obliges you to step back from 'the received view' and to cast a different eye on the world. The distance of history offers a richer perspective, and perhaps a clearer one.

But why on earth have you chosen to place your imaginary double in the 4th century?

I believe we are experiencing in the West right now an upheaval comparable to that which the fourth century produced, with the end of the Roman order and the general spread of Christianity: the moment when the ancient world was plunged into another world, another society, another conception of the universe. As Flaubert wrote: "It was a time when either there were no gods or there was no God, only man existed for sure." Today once again we are living with this aloneness. We are losing the Christian God just as the Romans lost their old gods, without yet espousing another system of thought. I sense a sort of echo, a harmonic vibrating between these two epochs, which gives a feeling of terminal decline.

Is our epoch then the end of Christianity?

Be careful! "Endings" can be very drawn out. Experts on antiquity like Peter Brown and Paul Veyne, have demonstrated very convincingly that late antiquity did not end with a full stop. Nonetheless, I believe that today the Christian world is breathing its last. The teaching of the Church has become detached from metaphysics, relying on the Gospel stories, and these have been radically challenged by the theory of evolution, by physics and biology. Likewise there is nothing in modern science that evinces the presence of God, the heavens are empty and grim. The Christians emptied the ancient heavens, our heavens have been cleared by astronauts. The rise of technology in our world challenges and chases away not so much 'God' (most French people admit to believing in "something"), but 'Christ'at least, which is to say the Incarnation - God made man. Without realising it, the Christians of the fourth century took the first step towards the loss of the sense of God: by building a stairway between the God of heaven and his son on Earth, they opened the temptation for men to kill Him. That is what they are in the process of doing right now.

So we are living with a sort of decline and fall, a decadence like the Romans?

Yes, the decline of a world order. I am well aware that the word "decline", like "decadence" is taboo, because of a sort of "sclerotic optimism" as Schopenhauer said. But not to want anything to decompose is absurd. All living things decompose, and rebirth comes precisely from decomposition. Christianity has in effect lost its public relevance in Europe. The Declaration of Human Rights, to which it greatly contributed, has come back to haunt it, because it has liberated individual morality and rendered obsolete the prohibitions of sin. In the past there were many pleasures which people did not experience because they did not want to go against the teaching of the Church, or their own conscience, or just the prevailing morality. We haven't yet finished dismantling this ancient order,although personally I have no regrets about it. Christian morality has always seemed impossible to me. But once it has been dismantled, you can see that the system that takes its place will also decompose. For religions, by definition, from their power of 'binding together' shape the whole of a society.

So it is not just a religion, but a whole world that is passing?

Exactly. It is not that there is a particular anti-religious mobilization (in France) today, on the contrary. But as technology expands it disenchants the world. Machines, whether mechanical or virtual, instill an 'interactive' mindset in men which the spiritualities of today cannot satisfy. The rupture is even more violent than at the end of the ancient world. Technology has swarmed over everything, communication systems have encompassed the planet, and the West cannot protect its exclusivity for much longer.

No more humanism then?

Humanism is founded on a certain Christian conception of man. When we speak of "human dignity" we are referring to a western Judaeo-Christian concept. What gives the individual their dignity is some je ne sais quoi which relies on something transcendent and means that a person cannot be manipulated, treated as an object. So humanism is equally called into question by science and technology.

These are very topical questions, if you follow, for example, the thesis of the German writer Sloterdijk, who also speaks of the "human zoo" and of a "new humanity" seen in the light of genetics.

Just so! Debates such as those between Sloterdijk and Habermas pose crucial new questions, which once again are overturning the whole system of Christian thought. The idea of "humanity" itself is changing. We know for example that from one day to the next we move from 'therapeutic cloning' to 'reproductive cloning'. I am not a prophet nor am I a proper philosopher, but I sense a fundamental struggle. These sorts of possibilities are immediately rebutted, rejected with fear, and forbidden, just as Christian ideas, at their outset, were rejected and forbidden by the Roman world. And we have difficulty in thinking any differently, because our instruments of analysis are still those of an old world order, thus provoking this mixture of censure, outrage and horror.

Will it be necessary to reinvent humanism then?

Or to regenerate it. It is possible that a grand secular morality is coming to birth to meet this necessity. But for the moment this is not in sight. We are in a period of great disorder and nothing is more uncomfortable than disorder.

So you approve of nostalgia for a world that has disappeared, but at the same time you seem to disapprove of such feelings. Surely you are just a conservative with a bad conscience?

That's fair. I take part in the adventure of the age and I would consider it unworthy to say that there is nothing that can be done. Yet I must ask myself what are the traditional values that deserve to be preserved with an effort which is, in effect, reactionary.

Now a progressive, now a conservative …?

I answer that in the words of Borges: "Every man is two men. And the other one is the real one!" The unhappiness many people feel today comes from our loss of control over development. In the past a great part of what people acquired was hand-made; today the proportion of things which we do not really make for ourselves is growing. Globalization is forcing our age to confront two considerations: the finitude of the world and the dominance of technology. Heidegger said: "Man is no longer the solution, he is the problem!" It is clear that man always ends up actually doing what he is capable of doing. What is not done now will happen tomorrow and will then spread very rapidly.

Progress irritates you?!

I don't believe in progress. Happily I believe in the ongoing liberation of man from his primal misery, from physical dependence. But the question which we must ask ourselves is no longer that of the collective, of the nation, nor even of 'the West' - but it is surely that of hope. I believe we are living at the end of the Christian cycle, and equally at the end of the western cycle. It is this that my fictional heroes are talking about: Roman man died for the first time at the end of his Roman world, and he is in the process of dying again today.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2002