Since his travels in the Americas in the 1970s, where he met Amerindian societies, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has been fascinated by a “golden age” where man lived “in harmony” with nature. This way of life respectful of the natural world, which he also discovered among the populations of black Africa, Mauritius, the Moroccan desert and Oceania, and which could be described as “primitive” in the sense that their existence and their cults rest on the internal organization and rhythm of the natural world, constitutes a striking contrast with the activities of the West determined by technical overabundance and consumerism:
At that time, I didn't care about ecology, and I knew almost nothing about America’s Native American past […]. It was the encounter with the Emberas, on the río Tuquesa, which gave me this liberation. […] Little by little [….] I arrived at the edge of a world completely opposite to everything I had known until then. […] I learned a new way of seeing, feeling, speaking. (FC, 10-11; my translation)
Following this overwhelming encounter and the discovery of “alternative” lifestyles, the author devotes numerous novels, stories and essays to the ecological attitude of Amerindian societies, for example in Haï (1971), whose title means “activity” or “energy”, and in La Fête chantée (1997). Interested in how the daily life and cults of these communities are based on a balanced and respectful management of the environment, Le Clézio is fascinated by their resolute rejection of any form of human superiority characteristic of Western religions and systems of thought, and their rejection of any distinction between men, animals, and even plants – an attitude that we today qualify as “anti-speciesist”.
At the same time, Le Clézio continues to explicitly criticize the urbanization and mechanization characteristic of the consumer society. If the condemnation of consumerism and urban development had already been expressed very early in Le Clézio's work, in Le Procès-verbal (1963), Le Déluge (1966), Terra amata (1967) and Le Livre des fuites (1969), where the author shows that he is sensitive to ecological issues through occasional references to the nuclear threat, it is in novels such as La Guerre (1970) and Les Géants (1973) that the concern for the future of humanity and the environment asserts itself in the most explicit way. The protagonists’ movements have as a backdrop an apocalyptic urban space, where men are parked in cells, between artificial brick and steel barriers, where the labyrinth of concrete streets, crossroads, housing estates, blockhouses and hypermarkets surrounds the inhabitants with a jungle of cables and pylons. In a conversation with Pierre Lhoste, Le Clézio affirms that the aggressive advance of cities “brings about a kind of permanent combat struggle between men themselves […] and nature” (Lhoste, Le Clézio, 1971, 63). Forests, beaches, rivers, lakes and plains have given way to constructions that are part of the ever-increasing technical mastery of the natural environment. The human being who walks in the city encounters only artificial landscapes, made up of non-natural materials: “forests of pylons”, “nickel beaches”, “plains of corrugated iron” (G, 166); the natural elements seem to have been produced in a factory: the earth is “a sheet of tar”, the water has become “cellophane”, the air “is made of nylon” and the sun has become a 1,600 watts lamp (G, 31). However, the author underlines that it is the very man who wanted this “mineral hardness” (Ge, 114), as if “one day someone had hated the world – everyone, the trees, the plants, grass, animals, air, sun, rain, sea, rivers, lakes, stones, clouds” (Ge, 279).
Among the ecological problems that hold the attention of the author, the huge piles of waste polluting the urban environment occupy a central place. It’s trash lying around the streets, mostly plastic wrappers of the disposable, consumer age, like “rectangles of black cast iron, where trash has clung for years” (G, 65), “cigarettes, [papers, and] Pepsi-Cola capsules” (G, 79). Le Clézio does not hesitate to express his deep aversion for cigarettes whose synthetic material filter takes forever to disappear from the landscape: “the butts have multiplied. For centuries we have been throwing this waste on the ground” (G, 68). For the author, the city dweller’s lack of respect for nature reaches its height when “[even] people sometimes stump their cigarettes into the ground” (Zhang, Le Clézio, 2017, 162). All this waste ends up being piled up in landfills often relegated to the edges of the city and therefore remains “invisible” for its inhabitants. The picture he draws includes all the typical elements of a pile of rubbish, with particular attention to the smell, the toxicity of the exhalations and the irreversible destructive force of such a pile of rubbish:
She travels to the other end of the city, to the big wasteland where a strange absence reigns, a strange black smoke. […] In the center of the vacant lot, there is a kind of cement factory, with two chimneys that throw up columns of smoke. The acrid odor falls back to earth, spreading its suffocating cloud. In front of the factory, there is a big pile of garbage, like a mountain, waiting to be burned. […] She feels the bland, dull odor that enters her, she also listens to the sounds of decomposition that ignites in the center of the mountain. (G, 271; my translation)
While the examples cited here are descriptive, evoking a state of affairs without adopting an explicitly threatening tone, the insertion in La Fête chantée of the discourse of the Indian Chief of Seattle to the Assembly of tribes in 1855, calling for the rejection of the he U.S. government’s offer to purchase Native American land, allows Le Clézio to warn the reader in a more prophetic style: “Keep soiling your bed, and one fine night you will suffocate in your own waste” (FC, 235). Le Clézio adopts the same catastrophic tone in an interview with Stéphanie Janicot, when he announces our debts to future generations, emphasizing the unpredictable nature of current human actions: “all children […] will have to face our mistakes, our horrors: just think of the waste - nuclear, chemical, bacteriological - that industrial countries have been burying or dumping for fifty years already, and some of which will continue to poison the air, the sea, the earth for tens of thousands of years” (Janicot, Le Clézio, 2006, 11).
Another ecological problem characteristic of the crowded urban space and its many technical inventions turn out to be exhaust gases. Despite their often colorless nature, Le Clézio visualizes their functioning by analyzing the interactions between the gases and the organs that make up the human body, explaining that “carbon monoxide spreads in the lungs and in the arteries” (G, 8) and that in particular the blood absorbs toxic substances (G, 145; EM, 63). Thus, Le Clézio’s narratives already testify at the beginning of the 1970s to a conviction that “posthuman ecocriticism” attributes to recent discoveries, that is to say the idea that synthetic material affects “bios-zoe -techno-eco-cultures”, hybrid worlds where the human body suffers more and more attacks caused by the substances generated by the postmodern society.
In a similar fashion, Le Clézio strives to show the invisible destructive forces of international trade by detailing the packaging, unnatural processing and global transport of food in supermarkets. Without ever letting a moral lesson shine through, Le Clézio affirms the need for sustainable development which requires a profound reorganization of production and consumption methods: “[on] the stalls, the fruits of the whole world were ripe. The cellophane-wrapped meats waited in the refrigerated bins” (G, 56) and “[in] the baskets, the fruit cannot rot” (G, 31). Note that Le Clézio included these findings in a novel published in 1970, while the first lines of “ecological” products packaged in recyclable packaging, offered by supermarkets such as Monoprix, were not launched until the end of the 1980s.
Writing in a period dominated by the nuclear deterrent of the Cold War, Le Clézio reveals in snippets the threat of an atomic catastrophe and the ecological crises that would result from it. While the narrator of Voyage à Rodrigues observes that “we are already preparing for nuclear war” (VAR, 128) and that Monsieur X prophesies in La Guerre an environmental deluge with, among other things, the appearance of “clouds in the shape of mushroom” (G, 233), Le Clézio shows in La Fête chantée that the concern is old, given that the ancient predictions of Amerindian civilizations, warning the people of a “scorched world” (FC, 39), turn out to be quite highly relevant in “our modern world, under threat of nuclear destruction and the devastation of natural resources” (FC, 39).
Finally, it is important to note that the author does not hesitate to address in the public space the ecological concerns expressed in his works of fiction. Thus, he mobilizes in a fight against the development of nuclear power: in the article entitled “To end with nuclear colonialism” (Le Monde, October 4, 1995), he denounced the resumption of nuclear tests by France in the Pacific, which “is both an ecological disaster and a moral indignity”. The question of the slaughter of whales in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, is successively addressed in Pawana (1992) and in the article “Saving the gray whales of California” (Le Monde, April 8, 1995). Another article, “A monstrous project” (Le Monde, May 12, 1987), denounces the “raid” of the Thierry Sabine Organization through the Guyanese forest, where the passage of fifty motorized and overpowered machines on the Maroni and Oyapock rivers would cause irreparable damage to the fauna and flora of the site. In “What future for the Romaine? (Le Monde, July 1, 2009), the author attacks the company Hydro-Québec: their plan to build four dams would endanger many animals and plants as well as the way of life of the Innu, residents of the Romaine river in Quebec, Canada. He also wrote about the Madeira River in Brazil, where the GDF-Suez group has installed a large hydroelectric complex: an ecological disaster for “several hundred species of fish and birds, as well as many species of mammals threatened” and for the Indian tribes living in the river basin (“A GDF-Suez project endangers the last isolated tribes of the Amazon”, Le Monde, April 7, 2010). An article denounces the activities of a Canadian mining company, which constitute a danger for the mountain of the Huichol Indians and for the survival of the surrounding ecosystems: “deep research, disembowelment with dynamite, use of pollutants (mercury and cyanide) , discharges of contaminated mud that endanger the aquifer” (“We must save the Huichol Indians”, Le Point, January 20, 2012). Le Clézio’s journalistic activity therefore not only constitutes the “praxis” of his literary ecological warning, as Claude Cavallero asserts, it “confers in a certain way to the duty implicitly imposed on him by his moral authority as a novelist” (Cavallero, 2009, 340).
Even if he renounces the title of “ecological activist” (Zhang, Le Clézio, 2017, 166), the author affirms to Lu Zhang his commitment within the group called “Survival”, which reports all attacks against minority populations by the great capitalist powers, and he has already joined the “Group of a Hundred”, which fights against the alteration of the environment. Le Clézio not only wrote tributes to defenders of the natural world, such as Petra Kelly (“In memory of Petra Kelly and Gert Bastian", Le Monde, November 3, 1992), he also gave himself the mission to familiarize the French reader with American Nature writing, among other things, through his laudatory prefaces to Almanach of a Sand County by Aldo Léopold (2000 ) and to A Year in the Countryside by Sue Hubbell (1991 ).
Sara Buekens (2022)
Translated by Adina Balint (2023)
CAVALLERO, Claude, Le Clézio, témoin du monde, Clamart, Éditions Callipoées, 2009 ; HUBBELL, Sue, Une année à la campagne, traduction par Janine Hérisson, préface de Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Paris, Gallimard, 1991  ; LE CLÉZIO, Jean-Marie Gustave, L’Extase matérielle, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Folio », 1992  ; La Guerre, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « L’imaginaire », 1992  ; Les Géants, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « L’imaginaire », 1997  ; Voyage à Rodrigues, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Le Chemin », 1986 ; « Un projet monstrueux », Le Monde, 12 mai 1987 ; « À la mémoire de Petra Kelly et Gert Bastian », Le Monde, 3 novembre 1992, p. 17 ; « Sauver les baleines grises de Californie », Le Monde, 8 avril 1995 ; « Pour en finir avec le colonialisme nucléaire », Le Monde, 4 octobre 1995 ; La Fête chantée, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Le Promeneur », 1997 ; « Quel avenir pour la Romaine ? », Le Monde, 1 juillet 2009 ; « Il faut sauver les Indiens Huichols », Le Point, 20 janvier 2012 ; LE CLÉZIO, Jean-Marie Gustave, RAZON, Jean-Patrick, « Un projet de GDF-Suez met en danger les dernières tribus isolées d’Amazonie », Le Monde, 7 avril 2010 ; LEOPOLD, Aldo, Almanach d’un comté des sables, suivi de Quelques croquis, traduction par Anna Gibson, préface de Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Paris, Flammarion, 2000  ; LHOSTE, Pierre, LE CLÉZIO, Jean-Marie Gustave, Conversations avec J.M.G. Le Clézio, Paris, Mercure de France, coll. « Littérature générale », 1971 ; JANICOT, Stéphanie, Le CLÉZIO, Jean-Marie Gustave, « L’entretien » Muze, 22, juin 2006, p. 8-12 ; ZHANG, Lu, LE CLÉZIO, Jean-Marie Gustave, « Je pense que la littérature doit beaucoup à la terre », Les Cahiers J.-M.G. Le Clézio, 10, mai 2017, p. 159-176.