Haï was commissioned in 1971 by Gaétan Picon for his series “The Paths of Creation” published by Skira. Jean-Xavier Ridon recalls how a year earlier, in 1970, Roland Barthes published L’Empire des signes in the same series. Barthes’ text presents Japan as “a system of signs” based on his own experience of the country (Ridon, 2010, 80). Haï is not a non-fictional work: the text displays photos of various objects belonging to the author, such as statuettes, calabashes and baskets, as well as prints of Indian art in contrast with advertisements of a consumerist society.


Haï recounts Le Clézio’s experience at the beginning of the seventies among the Emberas and Waunanas Native Peoples of the Darién, a remote area in the tropical Amazon forest. For the Native Peoples the world is comprised of two forces : the first is the “Haï” as the title of the book - meaning “activity, energy”; and the second “Wandra”, which means ‘”submission, domination, possession” (H, 143). However, Le Clézio “does not seek to test his anthropological approach” (Cavallero, 2005, 19). The reader gets the impression of being in the presence of a semiological treatise on the Amerindians of Panama, one that is written, however, from the personal perspective of a sympathetic writer. Marina Salles notes that Native Peoples’ traditions are not directly the inspirational source for Le Clézio’s literary texts (Salles, 2006, 292), and that they allow the author to “depart from history” (Salles, 2006, 305). Indeed, the world of the Native Peoples is already so remote from our own reality that there would be no point in inventing a story, a fictional narrative. Thus, we find ourselves in a space that is not only beyond history, but also beyond time. The author makes it clear that, independently of his intention, the structure of the book mirrors that of the “ceremony of magic healing” (H, 7). The three stages of the festival that Le Clézio names in capital letters are: Initiation “Tahu sa, the eye which sees all” (H, 9), Song “Beka, the festival of song” (H, 47), and Exorcism “Kakwahaï, exorcized body” (H, 92). Consequently, it is a book about initiation.


The most disconcerting sentence of the book, which sets the tone of what is to follow is “One day, we’ll maybe discover that there was no such thing as art, only medicine” (H, 7). The italics suggest that the word in English denotes the shamanism just as, for the Native Peoples of America, the expression “medicine man” signifies “healer”, “shaman” or “sorcerer”. The practices described in Haï, that Le Clézio presents as both scientific and natural in contrast to those of consumerist societies, include mindfulness rituals, songs and art as a mode of treatment of the body and the mind. Le Clézio goes back to these rituals and to his own experience of initiation with the shamans in La Fête chantée.

Gérard de Cortanze, in his book/anthology, entitled J.-M.G. Le Clézio, quotes two pages of Haï (p. 29-31) that speak of silence and of the magic of silence (Cortanze, 2009, 91-92). De Cortanze underlines the heavy, “dense silence” (H, 31) of the forest and of the river which contrasts with the smog of cities and with vain human chatter. At her turn, Marina Salles draws attention to the respect for freedom and to the absence of censorship that characterizes the Amerindians. She shows how Le Clézio compares the freedom of the latter with the moral rules of Western societies, particularly in regard to women (Salles, 2006, 85). Indeed, Amerindian women “possess the freedom to leave the man they no longer love, to look for a man they like, to drink the decoctions of abortifacient plants or to poison an unwanted child at birth” (H, 25).


“I do not know how it is possible, but it’s true, I am an Indian” (H, 5), writes Le Clézio.

Could this statement, written in the enthusiasm of the encounter with the Amerindian civilization, be considered excessive? Let’s remember that the child who goes to Africa in Onitsha becomes an African and that Le Clézio calls his father “the African” in the eponymous book. For Le Clézio living in a particular place and culture must necessarily have an impact on a writer who is open-minded and empathetic. He immerses himself in the place and is present to the people. Thus, he becomes an African or an Amerindian. Le Clézio adapts remarkably well to a particular lifestyle, embracing all the customs, without falling for a facile exoticism. Practices, which generally fascinate readers in love with the exotic do not particularly interest the author: as he tells us, taking mescaline, peyotl or chicha have little effect on him (H, 5). You cannot expect to gain access to a magical world by taking hallucinatory plants. What he learns from the Amerindians goes much further than a physical vision of the world and is more in tune with nature. This clearly certifies that there are some other philosophies of life, other ways of perception and of feeling and other way of being in the world. Thus, he states that “when I met these Indian peoples, it was as if I, who did not think I really had any family, had suddenly acquired millions of fathers, brothers and wives”. By this, he means that he felt included, welcomed openly and with tolerance into the large family. This rarely happens in the Western world, a world that is individualized and discriminatory. The message that Le Clézio got from the Amerindians is a message of tolerance and respect for the alterity. Later, in La Fête chantée and L’Obs (Le Nouvel Observateur), the writer will reconsider his statement of the Amerindian identity, whose limits he recognizes: “naturally, after having achieved a certain level of understanding, it became clear to me that I could not go any further” (FC, 22). Nevertheless, he insists that his encounter with three sorcerers, shamans and soothsayers together with the ritual of the festival of song “has completely changed me, altered all my views on religion, on medicine, and on that other concept of time and reality that we call art” (F, 22).


In keeping with the spirit of ‘The Paths of Creation’, Haï addresses the question of the nature of art and shows that the Amerindian perception and understanding of the world of art differs from that of the West: “Clearly there is no need for books or picture: every person is a book, is a picture” (H, 50), or “Indian music does not seek to be beautiful. It is only a sound in the concert of other voices: the call of birds, the howling of monkeys, the barking of dogs” (H, 136). Amerindians believe that everyone can express themselves artistically and that there is no elitism in art, nor any requirement for technical skills. Indeed, the function of art in Indian society is quite different from the Western one. Amerindian art has a religious goal, that of transcending the individual and of the communion: “through song Indians are perhaps the only people to have achieved the zen ideal” (H, 79). The song can be linked to magic, it bewitches, it communicates with occult forces (H, 79). The song then dies away, just as Tibetan mandalas made of sand are created to be later effaced. Amerindians accept the ephemeral nature of art. The ego does not come into play, neither does the ambition, nor the desire to be remembered, which is in contrast with the Western conception of art where. Le Clézio writes that “obligatory competition turns artists into scoundrels and swindlers who only live for glory in the hope that their name will be remembered” (H, 105). The comparison between the Amerindian and modern worlds sheds light on our societies. For Le Clézio making this kind of comparisons becomes a true obligation: “The encounter with the Indian world is not a luxury today. It has become a necessity for all those who seek to understand the modern world” (H,11). Le Clézio contrasts the mysterious, the cosmogony, the living reality, nature and the universe with the so-called progress of modernity. Amerindians are part of the universe unlike the Westerners who are detached and separate because of their languages and different productions. Amerindians sometimes regard Western languages as suspect. Le Clézio describes the gestures, the act of looking and silence, three elements that have great quality for the Emberas. The same gestures are repeated unhurriedly, and they create beauty. People look without seeking to judge, to understand or to interpret; it is the silence of the jungle that prevails. Le Clézio dislikes the sound pollution of our cities, the aggressive advertising and the superfluous words: “Once you have learnt to speak, what else is there? Learning to be silent, that’s all” (H, 34). He suggests that Western cultures are awash with so many attractions, so many enticements, so many inducements that it is impossible to escape their power. Unlike the Amerindian who “cannot be coerced, who is not subservient” (H, 34).


With Haï, Le Clézio hoped to bring to light a particular way of conceiving art that is foreign to Western civilization. Haï includes many different artistic expressions that Amerindians do not view as art but simply as life itself, and which they do not shut away in a museum. In the same way, in response to an invitation from the Louvre Museum in 2011-2012, Le Clézio assembled numerous works from all over the world for the exhibition The Museum World. His collection included ephemeral art, live art, artifacts and local crafts. Films, dance, music and shows were scheduled to take place over a period of three months. Artists coming from distant horizons and cultures, from Haïti, the Vanuatu, Mexico or Chicago were brought together as a symbol of border crossing, of transgressing hierarchies, of going beyond chronology so as to rethink the power of magic.


Isabelle Constant

Translation : Bronwen Martin


ARMANET, François, ‘Entretien : Les Amérindiens et nous, par J.-M.G. Le Clézio,’ Bibliobs, 9-10-2008, https://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/essais/20081009.BIB2169/les-amerindiens-et-nous-par-le-clezio.html

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