Alain Finkielkraut
In The Name of Humanity

The Oumenes of Bonnada live next to the Nippos of Pommede, who are difficult neighbors and not very friendly. To threaten the Oumenes of Bonnada, the Nibbonis of Bonnaris join forces with the Nippos of Pommede or the Rijabons of Carabule, allying themselves with the Bitules of Rotrarque, or, by secret agreement after temporarily pacifying them, with the Rijobettes of Biliguette, who are themselves located on one side of the Kolvites of Beulet that surround the region belonging to the Oumenes of Bonnada, on the northwest side of the turitaire, beyond the Prochus of Osteboule, which belongs to the Nippos of Pommede.

The situation, of course, does not always look so simple, for the Oumenes of Bonnada are themselves a cross of four different groups: the Dohommedes of Bonnada, the Odobommedes of Bonnada, the Orodomedes of Bonnada, and, finally, the Dovoboddemonedes of Bonnada.

So begins 'Le Secret de la situation politique,' a satirical poem by Henri Michaux, who introduces his piece with the epigram 'Let us be clear.' Michaux attributes the injunction to Arouet, in other words, to Voltaire, whose irony comes through the contrast between the crisp command and the description that follows. Clarity disappears under the weight of all those names, the accumulation without end, the ever more exotic distinctions and divisions, which grow smaller and more refined. It gets lost in the inextricable choreography of war and alliances, in the beat of tom-toms in the bush (the Oumenes of Bonnada) and the hints of headdresses (bigoudens) in Brittany (the Rijobetes of Biliguete). The spirit of the Enlightenment grows dark in this great festival of echoing inanities, in which names in capital letters march before us in a never ending procession.

According to Michaux, the secret of our political situation is that it is not political but onomastic. Obtuse identities replace doctrines, principles, and programs. The universal disappears in the singular, the conceptual in the contingent; the beautiful intelligibility of meaning into a totally random muddle. These wars have no stakes to defend, he continues, only labels. Names take the place of divergent opinions and value systems; echoes replace ideology. Whereas some people take these conflicts very seriously, choosing sides between battling signifieds, Michaux finds these situations funny, nothing more than a jumble of indiscernible signifiers. No philosophy arrives in time to give meaning to these arbitrary beings, who are killing themselves in battle, or to offer metaphysical redemption to the shambles made of the idea of history. For Michaux, people who keep looking for reasons to quarrel with one another are worthless, locked up in their stupidities, their collective absurdities. They only exist because they exist, independent of any purpose or reason for being.

In 1991, public opinion in the West saw the world according to Michaux, rising out of the rubble of Communism. Some people used deception in speaking about it, others made jokes, and still others expressed fear, but they all agreed that this soulless new world had become nothing more than groups of people arguing stupidly about borders.

Exhausted by merciless wars, this century is finally coming to an end. After claiming universal solutions with many different ideas, we now celebrate, as we should, the triumph of liberal democracy and its last competitor. But no sooner do we open the first bottles of champagne than squawking nations arise to beat history back. With unpronounceable names, they each take off in their own direction, with their own memories and bizarre chests filled with the past, with flags of long ago, now all fresh and new, exuding a sense of impenetrable artificialiiy. Tribalism: that is the explanation we spontaneously give to this frenetic activity of naming, this unexpected outpouring of heraldry that does not fit the agenda: Slovenia, Slavonia, Slovakia, Croatia, Krajina, Izetbegovic, Milosevic, Karadzic, Silaidzic, Granic, Ganic. We are still falling into the phonetic pit that opened up without warning in this unfortunate region that we once called eastern Europe and conveniently believed was homogenous. 'Bosnia-Herzegovina, until very recently, was merely a joke phrase in our language,' wrote a columnist for Newsweek in 1993, without the slightest trace of embarrassment.

We have seen this before. Fearing more than anything else the possibility of having a gloomy future, we swear not to make the same mistakes again and get taken in by the arguments of one side or the other. But fear alone does not explain why we now prefer bodies to causes. There is another reason as well: today no cause can be universalized. And so after the sickness of history, another disease, more comic but in no way less poisonous, infects men and threatens to turn the world upside down: the sickness of geography. With the end of the cold war, the great confrontation of world systems has been reduced to bitter little wars, to disagreements over borders, to a ridiculous and bloody hotchpotch of squabbles, to the tautology of identity politics. Unable to embrace one side or the other, it makes little sense to defend the identity of either.

This hotchpotch explains, at least in part, why the West remained neutral for so long in our century's last European war. But in addition to its cautious and humanitarian refusal to do anything beyond saving lives, there are positive reasons for not taking a stand: the metaphysical and ethical commitment of Europeans to cosmopolitanism over particularism, to the mixing of races over the absolutism of purity. We thus had to wait for shells to fall on Sarajevo and see its citizens systematically killed, arbitrarily picked off while performing the simple tasks of everyday life, before those who think like Henri Michaux expressed indignation and stopped laughing.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.