Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Spirituality and Action in the Novels of J-M. G. le Clezio

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Spirituality and Action in the Novels of J-M. G. le Clezio

Article excerpt

Abstract: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio's critics have analyzed his spirituality in frameworks drawn from Mircea Eliade and Rudolph Otto. Karl Jaspers' idea of "the Comprehensive" is a better fit. Le Clezio grounds an ethic of compassion in his spirituality. Contrary to the views of some critics, this ethic can be lived by people from nations that have controlled colonial empires. Etoile errante shows how such an ethic of compassion might even bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. These characterizations apply to many of the novels, though not to all, as demonstrated by Ritournelle de la Faim.

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Many readers have sensed a warm and pervasive spirituality in the novels of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008. Critics disagree, however, as to the best way to describe that spirituality and to locate it within well-known frameworks of religious experience. In addition, there is debate as to whether this spirituality is the foundation of an ethic that can lead to social or political action. Finally, critics disagree as to whether citizens of nations that have violently colonized others are capable of experiencing this spiritual state or taking moral action grounded in this form of spirituality.

Le Clezio has made conscious efforts not to be a political novelist, though his novels contain political implications. It can be argued, however, that Etoile errante, his book about the parallel lives of a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a Palestinian refugee, suggests a spiritual and moral path out of the ongoing crisis between Palestine and Israel. A study of four of Le Clezio's novels, Ourania, the diptych Onitsha and Etoile errante, as well as Desert, the novel that marked his transition from experimentalist to spiritual and environmental writer, suggests the following answers to the questions implicit in the criticism.

Le Clezio's spirituality can be understood more effectively if it is framed in terms of Karl Jasper's idea of "the Comprehensive" rather than in frameworks derived from Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, William James, or others who suggest taxonomies of mysticism similar to the one James articulated in The Varieties of Religious Experience. So far as religious history is concerned, Le Clezio explores a Sufi-like religious mysticism that is rooted in a pre-Abrahamic and African formulation of spirituality and ritual, though it is also consistent with Native American spirituality, insofar as that spirituality is grounded in nature and in an attempt to understand a numinous reality that informs nature.

Nothing in Le Clezio's work demonstrates that people in the West are incapable of experiencing this spirituality or taking social or political action so grounded. The conflict in his work is not necessarily between colonizers and colonized, or between the sacred and the profane. Rather, the key conflict is between people who are connected to "the Comprehensive" and those who allow human political and social institutions to dominate their thinking and their moral action. To be a defender of institutions that use violence to impose their will makes it difficult for anyone to claim membership in that spiritual sense of community that is born of recognizing that one is part of a larger and living whole. The dangers of institutionalized power are present for everyone, whether Western or a citizen of the Third World. At the same time, the healing promise of peace--through recognizing that all peoples are part of the same "Comprehensive"--offers a road toward the resolution of the deepest conflicts, even those between members of the different faiths that spring from the Abrahamic root.

This exploration focuses on the development of these ideas chiefly in three of Le Clezio's novels: Onitsha, Etoile errante, and Ourania, though reference will be made to other novels, including Quarantine, the novella Pawana, Ritournelle de la faim, and Desert. …

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