Photograph courtesy of Nightboat Books.
She would say that driving a big car on a highway crossing the American desert was like doing calligraphy in her notebooks. She said that if you look at a mountain carefully and faithfully each day, you can become its friend. And this is what happened to her. Each thing that existed in the world provoked her curiosity, and often her wonder. She was never weary and always alert, as if to be alive were in itself such a stroke of luck that nothing must be let go of. She loved wild buttercups and blood-red anemones. She was friends with the flowers too.
Born in 1925 in Beirut, Etel Adnan was a poet and an artist. (A portfolio of her work appeared in the Review in 2018.) She died in Paris in 2021. I met her nine years ago in somewhat worldly circumstances, surrounded by famous artists and important gallerists. Everyone was talking but her. She had planted herself with her back to the crowd, facing an enormous fireplace. And she watched the fire without moving. She watched it with such intensity I didn’t dare approach her. I had read some of her writing: remarkable poems, and an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist that had impressed me with her point of view on the world. Here was an artist, to be sure, but as young people say these days, “not just that.” It was this “not just” that I wanted to understand.
I first came to Etel to ask questions. Very soon I was coming back to see her, to be with her, to be in the delight of being with her.
Do you work every day?
No, I’ve never done anything systematically. Never in my life have I said that I was busy. When something is asked of me, I’m available. It’s a quality of my character, not an effort. It makes it so that if I’m invited to dinner, I can go. I had many odd jobs before becoming a professor. I took things as they came. For example, perhaps an editor tells me, “You know, we need a piece for a magazine,” and I write a three-page text. Then they tell me, “No, it’s too short, you have to write more,” so I set myself to writing every day and I write a book called Paris, When it’s Naked. Chance plays an immense role in our lives. We think we’re directing things, but we’re also directed by what’s happening around us.
Where did the desire to paint come from, for you?
In the room in which I first painted, in the philosophy of art department of an American university at which I was teaching, there were canvases, paper, brushes, knives. When I picked up a sheet of paper—not a canvas—the head of the department gave me tubes of colored paint, little tubes that had been left lying on the ground. Right away I found what’s known as a palette knife—a painter’s knife, not a kitchen knife—and I think the object itself, by its nature, allows you to make only flat shapes. So, I didn’t start painting with a brush. I really began with this knife, and it has remained my instrument. The tool you use directs what you do considerably. There is a collaboration between the objects that you use, and this is true beyond painting. I’m very sensitive to the role of objects in our lives. The fact that I always use a knife explains why I’ve made flat color blocks. At first, I made them very naturally, as they came, instinctually. It’s like with children—you don’t teach them drawing, they paint naturally. We paint naturally, like we speak.
With what element do you begin a painting?
At first, since I had these little ends of pastels, I’d start with a red square. And this red square called for the gestures that followed. That’s how it is. You make a mark, and the mark creates a situation, and this situation calls for other gestures. And it comes along, and you learn as you go.
Do you always start off with a color?
What is color?
I’ve had a somewhat philosophical year, during which I have rediscovered my interest in Nietzsche. Nietzsche gave us interpretive schemas and concepts, and one of these concepts is the will to power. Well, I discovered that color was the manifestation, the expression, of the will to power of matter. This is what great philosophers do—they furnish you with essential tools for thought. So there—color. Color is an affirmation of presence so strong that it’s almost alive, almost human. There’s a power in color. My friend Yvon Lambert came over the other day with a bouquet of peonies, and peonies are deeper than roses. They have a certain color—I’d almost say blacker, more assertive. It’s interesting. What’s beautiful, too, is the mixing of color. Since I had no formal training in art, no one taught me how to marry colors. Painter friends told me, “You’re not supposed to mix these colors, you’re not supposed to juxtapose them. How do you dare do that?” Because no one told me not to do it. I don’t see why I couldn’t. They have preconceived ideas. Mixing colors is very engaging because you witness the birth of a new color. It’s really a birth, like a child arriving. You put in a particular red, you put in a white, and you have a pink that you’ve never seen before and that helps with the following stage. I play by ear, as they say.
You mean that colors speak to you, then?
That’s right, they speak to me. I deal with them. I answer them. There’s a discourse between the self and the white paper on which you work. It’s thrilling. You strike out into an unknown that renews itself nonstop. You never know what you can do unless you try. You have to try.
I had a purely literary education, very literary. But that helps in doing another kind of art. Whether it be music or poetry, it helps. It trains you. They’re the same problems. They’re problems of composition and of confidence. When you walk down the street, you don’t think about the next step. You just go for it. It’s the same with work. You begin and you continue. You must have confidence. You can’t have criticism intervening during the work. You have to leave criticism for later on. And then you need a certain modesty. This is what I can do. I’m obliged to accept it. It’s me.
When did you understand that you yourself could also write poetry?
Oh, I’ve never thought that! I have never said I was a poet, for instance, except when I wrote my first poem, when I was twenty years old. It was about the marriage of the sun and the sea. And it’s funny, my most recent poems have nearly the same themes as the first ones, which never became books. They have not been published.
Why is it, do you think, that we have a “need for poetry,” to use Yves Bonnefoy’s expression?
You have a need to free things up, to put them in order, to clear away nonessential things to make room in your head, so that an image can take its place. For me, that’s what poetry is. It’s when your attention recovers and rests. We live between veils, it seems to me. Nowadays I need to go out to dinner to find myself—I’m so outside of myself. We live outside ourselves. We rarely have moments where music or poetry provide relief. Even if it requires a lot of attention, it’s a relief, because it empties the mind, in the true sense of the word. We need poetry amid this chaos and chatter.
You speak of “putting in order.”
In the best sense—that is, to empty out. Throwing out. I love throwing out. My girlfriend, Simone, hates it. I love it. We argue. I even take advantage when she’s not around to get rid of things. Because you need mental space. Cleaning the house means throwing things out. We are eaten up by objects and we become babysitters of our houses. So, you’ve got to clear away. That’s what it is to put in order.
Let’s talk about philosophy. You went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy. Notably, you had Gaston Bachelard as a professor. What did that bring to you?
The fact that philosophy is not a break with daily life, and that daily life is poetry. This is very important. We don’t know the originality and freedom of Gaston Bachelard’s thinking well enough. He was widely read. There was even a cult. Students lined up to get into his classroom. In spite of this, up until now we haven’t recognized his importance to French thought.
I find his writing to be as extraordinary as the Surrealist manifestos. Surrealism is true philosophy as well. But it’s a philosophy well ahead of what people considered to be philosophy. For instance, Heidegger said the outcome of philosophy is poetry. Surrealism had said this before, Bachelard had said it before. He had freed up, dusted off, the image we had of philosophy as something detached from the world. People like him rediscovered that in each milieu we are the totality of our life and the totality of the world. We are in each second the result of our lives, of our environment, of the history of the world.
The experience of reverie and dreams was very important to the work of Bachelard …
When you dream, you rarely know it. But when you wake, you carry within yourself almost the temperature of the dream. By “dream” Bachelard almost means a forethought. At times there is a halo around the thought. There’s a surface to the thought.
And to create is to abandon rational thought and abandon yourself to the imagination?
Creation is a form of thinking. It’s abandoning a certain world of preoccupations in order to enter into another. I like the word make; the word create reminds me too much of religion. We’ve separated creators from noncreators. And everyone creates, in that sense. Everyone does things that generate the world of philosophy. There’s no absolute division. There are different intensities.
I’m astonished by the metaphysical questions that children ask. They have a freedom such that they’re able to surprise you with their remarks. We don’t record them, and fortunately we don’t publish them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of higher thought, flashes of illumination. Lately, I have come to the conclusion that, on the level of what we call thinking, everything thinks. We say that animals don’t think, and Descartes says that they are machines … but animals do think, they make decisions. Before it jumps, a cat looks, gauges the distance; it doesn’t fling itself eyes closed into the air. Everything that is alive thinks.
Translated from the French by Ethan Mitchell.
The Beauty of Light: Interviews with Etel Adnan will be published by Nightboat Books in November.
Laure Adler is a writer and journalist who served as a cultural adviser to the Office of the French Presidency from 1989 to 1992. She is the author of numerous books, including a biography of Marguerite Duras.
Ethan Mitchell is is an editor and translator working in Berkeley, California.
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