The first time I wrote about Michel Onfray was in December 2006, and the story was published by The Toronto Star – because the newspaper where I worked did not have either the courage, the savvy or the understanding to publish the story about one of France’s most popular, but controversial writers. Ultimately, I was overjoyed that the story made the lead, front-page, Insight section of the Star in its Sunday edition, which reached more than a million subscribers.
Even better, I had been worried – and told – that it was too long a story. But when finally after several rejections elsewhere, the Star accepted it, they asked me to expand it even more, and it ended up well over 2,000 words. I was then delighted when another editor at my own newspaper wrote me an email and said he had just read the article on a famous literary web site – I think it was based in Britain – that he subscribed to, which had picked up the story after the Star publication. He said he was a fan of Onfray, and he asked me why had I not offered it to our newspaper?!
Anyway, my own newspaper did, the following year, accept another, less deep article, from me about Onfray’s Université Populaire, and I ended up feeling a bit better about the original multiple rejections – from multiple editors – at that newspaper.
The other day, I went to a projection of a film about Michel Onfray’s upbringing and home town, in a cinema not far from where I live. It not only brought me back to that period more than a decade ago, but it allowed me to meet Onfray again, as it was a special soirée with the film, a Q&A with Onfray, and then a party afterwards with wine and canapés. There must have been between 600 and 1,000 people present in the 7 Batignolles cinema, on the edge of Paris across from the new prefecture de Police, right next to Clichy.
The documentary, “Sur les chemins de mon enfance,” (“On the Paths of my Childhood”) went way beyond my expectations. It was made by a couple of Onfray’s friends – also accomplished filmmakers – and filmed in his home town of Chambois, in Normandy – where he still lives. I assumed in advance that it was a small-budget, maybe no-budget, production. But the simplicity with which it was done combined with the depth of the material made it a fabulously genuine document that shows a lot to us of the connection between the writer and his environment. How Onfray became Onfray.
Upon returning home from the screening, I discovered in my computer archives that after my own visit to Chambois, and Onfray’s personal home itself (which, interestingly, does not feature in the film), in 2006, I had written a nearly 10,000-word diary item of my impressions, which I wanted to use as a basis for the eventual article I would write. Re-reading that account after seeing the film, made me realize how valuable the film is in showing how his childhood environment made Onfray who he is – which, of course, is true of us all. I am very thankful to have seen the film as my own written account – and the memory of my visit – painted a picture of his world without seeing how that world was the stimulus of his existence.
The structure of the film is simple: Onfray takes a walk on a circuit around his town and the neighbouring couple of towns, starting at Point A and returning at the end of the film at Point A, but after walking a large circuitous route, the “chemin de la Garenne.”
Onfray draws our attention to how this microcosmic walk is actually representative of our whole existence, and how his garden is the center of the universe in that way. Of course he does not see his little world as the center of the world … except in how it IS the center of his own world and how it is representative of how the center of ALL of our worlds is also the center of the world. (Ornella, who attended with me, was struck by how similar were so many things in her own childhood upbringing in Sicily. When I pointed that out to Onfray, he said it had to do with the similarity of a rural upbringing everywhere, which we agreed was true.)
Like one of the other philosopher writers whose works have influenced me in my life, Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British letters, Onfray is both massively loathed and massive loved by the public in his country. As I said in the beginning, he was France’s best-selling philosopher in 2005-2006 or so. Now, I have no idea what his position is in terms of sales, but like Wilson as well, he is mighty prolific.
And his works and words and persona continue in France to elicit massive amounts of public attention – love him or hate him.
What is fabulous about this documentary is how we see the simple, normal, but at the same time exceptional man behind the public persona. And we see the people who were important in his life: His mother and his most influential elementary school teacher are not only both interviewed in the film, but they were both present at the screening last night, and present until after midnight at the party. Both are pushing 90 years old or beyond!
And this in itself is one of the most convincing aspects of Onfray that most people who dislike him probably have no idea about: What famous public persona philosopher would make his mom and school teacher of his childhood as welcome a part of his literary world?
When I first met him in 2006 and attended a dinner with him and some of the teachers of his Université Populaire at a meal at his home in Chamois, I remember at one point in the evening his parents coming in to say hello.
But, as it turns out, this aspect of Onfray’s life – connecting the real with the philosophical – is central to this thinking, and it was not entirely new to me – even if the film strengthens my understanding through the power of the images. One of the first books I read of his, was “La Puissance d’Exister,” or “The Strength to Exist,” in which he recounts how his life led to his philosophy. I find in my notes from 2006 this paragraph:
“I told him I had finished reading the Atheist Manifesto, and then had started reading the Strength to Exist. I told him that I was very surprised by the account of his youth, but said that I thought it worked very, very well to show where his philosophy came from, what inspired it. He said that he had done this in many of his books, in fact, starting from a personal point and moving to the philosophy. I then recalled the same had indeed been the case with “The Stomach of the Philosophers,” (his book “Le Ventre des Philosophes”). But no sooner had we said these few words than his parents entered the house, almost on cue to put an end to the discussion about his unhappy childhood.”
The documentary shows a man who is so deeply in touch with the natural world – the plants, gardens, streams and fields – of Chambois, that there is a sense coming through the film of this attachement to the earth that seems to feed his writing. Colin Wilson was often accused of existing ONLY in the world of books. But Onfray in this film makes it clear how in his life and world, nature came first, and the books came second. And the best writing is one that brings us back to the real world in which we live.
We meet also his childhood friend, Ghislain Gondouin, who we learn introduced him to many minor poets, and also to politics. In fact, this is one of the shocking, interesting parts of the documentary: We learn where so many of Onfray’s seminal influences came from, and they were not coming from institutions or café culture, but from humble, simple, local people like the barber, butcher, school teacher, farmer or every place and person imaginable.
There will be nothing in the film for critics of Onfray to like, or even for many professional journalists, as there is not a bad word said about him. But why should there be? As Onfray said in the Q&A after the film, “This was a film done amongst friends. I knew I could trust them.” And what’s wrong with that, when the result is such an important understanding of one of France’s most important modern writers and philosophers?
The film, by Alexandre Jonette et Stéphane Simon, had appeared on local Normandy television once, and it is also now accessible on Onfray’s web site MichelOnfray.com.