Jean Lacouture; Champollion, a Hero of the Enlightenment

UNESCO Courier, October 1989 | Go to article overview

Jean Lacouture; Champollion, a Hero of the Enlightenment


The French writer and journalist jean Lacouture has travelled the world, notably covering major events in the emergence of the former colonized peoples. He is also the author of major biographies:-'- in which historical intuition and psychological analysis are combined with outstanding reportorial talent. In this Unesco Courier interview he describes the intellectual odyssey of jean. Frangois Champollion, a man in whom the ideals of Unesco seem to have found expression two centuries before their time. Your portrait of Jean-Franvois Champollion might have been specially designed to illustrate Unesco's mission of bringing the world's cultures into closer contact. Your hero's short life was dominated by his determination to enable Europeans to decipher the secrets of Egypt. - Champollion was born in 1790, towards the end of the Enlightenment, of which he was one of the most worthy heirs. He was born a few months before the first performance of Mozart's Magic Flute, that crowning glory of the civilization of the Enlightenment.

Yet he came from Figeac, a small town in the Quercy region of France, which had scarcely been touched by the Enlightenment and was still shrouded in darkness.

I feel that it is quite staggering, almost Promethean, that Champoillon should have been born in such circumstances, with a father who was a bookseller but had had little education and a mother who may well have been illiterate, and yet he should have torn himself away, little by little, from the ties of the land to step out into the world of communication and knowledge. Admittedly, he embarked on his career with the help of his elder brother, who was something of a pathfinder. No pun intended, but it was his brother who oriented" him. They were a fascinating pair. The close rapport that grew up between them was one of the main factors that prompted me to write the story of Champollion.

The first ray of light in the life of jean-Franvois was his schooling in Grenoble, first at the lycee and then at the university. This was the standard route by which it was possible to climb the cultural ladder in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Champollion was to negotiate it at prodigious speed. He arrived in Grenoble at the age of ten, went to the lycee at thirteen and became a university professor at nineteen, after having studied at the College de France and the Ecole Pratique des Langues Orientales in Paris. He shot out of the darkness into the light like an arrow.

The same kind of lightning career can be seen in the Third World in our time, with such outstanding people as Taha Hussein, the son of an illiterate peasant and blind into the bargain. Yet he became a university lecturer and then a minister, and his literary output was of the highest order. A career like his, which went straight from almost total ignorance to a masterly command of ideas and language, is very striking and indeed moving. To come back to Champollion, he must surely have had quite exceptional ability and talent? - There were three sides to his genius. In the first place, he was a highly gifted linguist. In the field of Oriental languages, his abilities were quite extraordinary. Before he was fifteen, he had learnt Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Geez, Syriac and Aramaic. In order to have something to do on Sundays, he asked his brother to send him a Chinese grammar. He had already made up his mind to decipher hieroglyphic script and he felt that Chinese might prove useful in his research. When he was fifteen he started to learn Coptic, but we'll come back to that.

He was also a dedicated historian. The lectures he gave at the University of Grenoble have been found and they show that he was already taking a critical approach to history, a discipline which was starting to equip itself with the tools of scientific thinking.

Thirdly, he was an artist, a man with a very keen aesthetic sense, and that was to be a very important factor in his attempts to decipher hieroglyphs. …

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