Coralie Camilli, professor of philosophy at Paris-Est Créteil University and French boxing champion, published, in 2020, The art of combat (Puf), Days of grace and violence (Vérone éditions) and, in 2023, Islanders (Puf).
How to differentiate between “ileness” and “insularity”?
Coralie Camilli: Ileness designates the fact, for a subject, of living according to an insular way of life, according to its specificities. While insularity responds to the fact, for an islander, of living according to a continental way of life, or even, for the same subject, of ignoring its particularities and specificities linked to the more traditional way of life such as it can be found on the islands, still partly preserved from post-modernity. Lévinas associates the phonemes “île” and “il”: we should say “îleité”. In other words, an absolute “IL” which means separation, transcendence. But this is of course going a little beyond Levinas’ words… Therefore, being an island is immediately different from being continental. But in a very limited sense in my opinion: the islands still retain a little of past traditions, whereas the continents are much more porous to post-modernity. Forgetful of the past and careless of the future, the continental way of life differs slightly from the island world: by the simple fact that the islands are small mountains surrounded by water, cut off and isolated geographically, they still retain within themselves a part of the past which disappears, of traditions which are swallowed up, of languages which die. But, probably not for long of course.
Does isolating yourself mean making yourself an island? To be an island of one’s own? And, is insularity the place of the tension between necessarily closed tone, and that of the infinite which refers to an opening?
Coralie Camilli: Insularity can be taken up as a metaphor for subjectivity (again in Levinas in particular) – at the same time tense on itself, closed, isolated, beaten by the waves – and open to the infinite, taken itself (the island) in the finished.
In this sense, we must emphasize the beautiful meaning of the infinite in Lévinas: dans-le-fini, “in-finite”.
But in this book, I mainly talk about insularity certainly from a subjective point of view, but also from an external point of view: I am on these islands like a photographer trying to capture images doomed to disappear, to show them to the world once again , before being able to say: “that was there, that was life, at such a time and in such a place on earth, and then now it is no more”: ephemeral beauty of the earth which becomes dust, of the life that passes, the daily life that disappears, the men who live and die, at the same time as their world.
We should also mention the fragmentary nature of the writing that I chose to adopt to tell the story of these islands: it is the fact that I wanted to show fragments of life.
I have made several trips to Japan, most of them for periods of several months each time. I was a teacher there in Tokyo, a sword student in the province of Saitama, I took a degree in Aikido at the Hombu Dojo in Shinjuku, I also experienced the prison system there, and practiced boxing in the south from the peninsula, towards Kumamoto. I saw beauty and fury, honor and stupidity, I experienced solitude, hope and disappointment: my vision is not idealistic.
It reminded me of Corsica from a certain point of view: an island with rocky paths, dangerous precipices, and which are at the same time of astonishing beauty, with traditions made of silences and unsaid things, with tenacious resentments : the solar and Mediterranean tragedy.
This work is a sort of small catalog of real-life anecdotes and real people. There are a few literary passages, but many more small “historical” chapters in the real sense of the term. For example, on the shepherd and poet Pampasgiolu, or on this or that Japanese teacher with whom I shared training. The chapters, quite short, focus on Corsica and Japan, two forms of Insularity that I frequented: one by birth, the other by choice. Each little chapter is like a photograph: an instant capture of a fleeting moment, as if to etch it into memory as it fades away. It’s a sort of last testimony, about worlds that are disappearing.
Finally, it was about expressing not anything that belongs to me (insularity or other), but on the contrary to show what escapes me, and what escapes: wonders that evaporate, harshness of a way of life which is disappearing, the appearance of new norms in a world which until then was still preserved: it was a question of showing the changes and the passages.
Is insularity the place of tension between a necessarily closed tone, and that of the infinite which refers to an opening?
Coralie Camilli: Absolutely. The islands are both closed on themselves, by their geography (cut off from the continents) as well as by their closure to changes, but they are also places of openness: their ports are places of departure. The island, with its fenced contours, is surrounded by infinity and infinite possibilities. (I will not play on the famous title The possibility of an island (Houellebecq), but it is very telling).
Perhaps we should also return to the term “continental” philosophy to designate the tradition which goes from German idealism to phenomenology, against so-called Anglo-Saxon and analytical philosophy, for a more strictly philosophical point of view.
For this, we can refer to Derrida’s seminar, The Beast and the Sovereign 2, where he constantly refers to the island of Robinson Crusoe, in connection (imaginary) with Heidegger’s texts on the animal, the kingdom, and, of course, Ithaca.
It is the Odyssean return to Ithaca, to the birthplace of the native island, to the starting point, but a starting point also becoming a point of return, it is this de-immediatization of man which makes him man and tears it from its insular destiny where the ensoi would not even be in itself: without the odyssey, consciousness would be “poor in the world”.
Long cycle of adventures and travels, of the native man, the instinctive native, the inhabitant of the island – so that he can return to his native country purged by his adventures, his encounters each time abolished, raised , through the crossing of countless speculative mediations. Man only has a place through his becoming-place – the animal (on the contrary) is poor in place because it does not travel, even if it does move.
Dialectic if ever there was one: this is the very meaning of the odyssey, the return home, home, home, and this one to an island, Ithaca, but also Robinson’s island if finely worked by Derrida: “I wonder if this so-called statement of essence (the animal is poor in the world) does not belong…only to the world, to the limits of the world,…to this world that Dasein is is formed or configured. But are the limits of this world thus configured not the very thing that we must try to cross in order to think?…To think not only about animality in general…but about the differentiated animality of animals, in the infinite plural… this limit to be crossed in order to think that, these living beings, this limit… it resembles the shores, the outline of an island” (1).
We would thus have Robinson, Weltbildend like Ulysses, the animals of the island Weltarm, irremediably poor in the world, between the two terms of this island dialectic.
It’s difficult not to address the question of Ridley Scott’s film about Napoleon. Is there a Bonapartist thought, as there is a Pauline thought, and is it an insular thought?
Coralie Camilli: I haven’t had the chance to watch the film yet, but I can’t wait! Napoleon is a divisive character, full of tensions and contradictions, greatness and errors, it’s fascinating.
Of course, we find the island openness in his approach to conquest (just like with Christopher Columbus, also an islander, who set off to discover unknown continents with three caravels…).
But to underline the two sides of insularity that we have mentioned, the opening and the closing, the closure and the infinite, the fragmentary and the total, let us also underline another work which relates to insular thought: The oath on the fall of Rome, by Jérôme Ferrari (Prix Goncourt 2012). The story of the novel concerns two young Corsican people who decide to abandon their philosophy studies on the continent to return to live in their childhood village. What follows is a clear and scathing closure of their world, which shrinks little by little, as do their thoughts.
Through these two works, one cinematographic, the other literary, we have to deal with these two poles which put insularity in tension: openness (which extends to the need for conquest), and closure ( which goes as far as withdrawing into oneself).
The islands: places of conquest and withdrawal, where grandeur and misery must be taken together, where life and death are served in the same glass, to be drunk in one gulp and without hesitation.
(1) J. Derrida, La bête et le souverain 2, p. 279, cité par G. Bensussan dans le séminaire « Les équivoques de l’Ethique », portugal, 2016
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