By Jean-Marie Gustave LeClezio
New York: Atheneum, 1975
Translated from the French by Simon Watson Taylor Originally published in France in 1973
ISBN # 0-689-10661-0
312 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2008

Just a few weeks ago Jean-Marie Gustave LeClezio was named the Nobel prize winner in literature for 2008. I must admit I had never heard of LeClezio until a radio broadcast at 6 AM that morning. I rushed to the internet and found three of his books for sale at very reasonable prices and ordered them. Two, it turned out the next day, could not be found any longer on the dealers’ shelves, but miraculously they turned up about 10 days later at much higher prices! However, one came to me, and according to what I heard on the radio, that one, The Giants, is to be considered his signature piece to date.

The novel is a challenging and interesting read, but I wasn’t terribly overwhelmed by LeClezio. As I will indicate in my notes below I was impressed with the theme of his novel, freeing oneself from the dictates of society, and I even found much in common in THEME with LeClezio and Jose Saramago, another Nobel Prize winner, and one of my favorite authors, but I was far from convinced that LeClezio is quite the author or thinker than Saramago is.

In The Giants the unnamed narrator urges us to free ourselves. This is a theme that has attracted me all my life from the time I was very young. My working career as a philosopher brought me to the Existentialists and I adopted Heidegger, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, DeBeavoir among others as models of human thinking. It was the key Existentialist themes of freedom and personal responsibility which I’ve been most attracted to.

But what is it that the narrator of The Giants wants us to free ourselves from and for what reason? That’s where LeClezio’s vision troubles me a great deal.

The extremely interesting twist of LeClezio’s view is that it is words, vocabulary itself, which is the key ingredient in misleading the mass of us, and that there is a special class of folks who create and control vocabulary who are those who have stolen our freedom.

I am not at all put off by these claims generally speaking. It was a central thesis in many ways to the thinking of Martin Heidegger in his land-mark 1927 volume Being and Time. Heidegger argues that a certain vision of the world gets deeply rooted in our very language, and unless we simply discontinue the use of certain words we can never really get to the essence of reality, and thus will never be able to free ourselves from someone else’s (mistaken) views of language and reality. Rather, we will learn the meaning of things and values from the common unexamined language and be misled into subjection to their worlds and not to the freedom which our minds are capable of.

It is in the famous section of Being and Time about “das Man” (the one) that Heidegger seems most clear about this subjection into which we fall and lose our freedom.

LeClezio echoes much of this. It is actually words which capture us and lead us astray. Words get created (the WHO of this creation is what will trouble me, but stay that question for the moment), and those words then dictate our vision of reality. That’s where LeClezio is closest to Heidegger. But there seems to be some confusion on LeClezio’s view of who really does this creation of language, and who is the culprit stealing our freedom.

Most of the time it is the large commercial establishment of the world. This world of business, and it’s naming of the world and value in terms of its products seems to be the key to our enslavement. In those large parts of the novel where this theme is being developed LeClezio is at his best and most creative from a literary standpoint. There are many pages of the novel with just NAMES and BRANDS and ads printed without comment. These tell us about every aspect of life and how it needs to be lived. Take this product, use that device we sell, you must have this comfort or that protection. And LeClezio makes a strong case that we get caught up in those creations, often defining our world by these products and ideas.

In Heidegger’s 1927 work he argues that human being’s life is not its own but “their” world [the term for human that Heidegger uses, “Dasein,” is normally not translated since it isn’t even a normal German word as he uses it, it is a technical term for human being in Heidegger’s Existentialist sense].

Heidegger, like LeClezio, wants to understand human being in the sense of our normal, typical, everyday way to be in the world. He argues that any understanding of the world has been taken over by others, just as LeClezio argues. Heidegger adds:

“… the more inconspicuous this kind of Being is to everyday Dasein itself, all the more stubbornly and primordially does it work itself out.”
Heidegger worries that this distance, this overtaking of our world distorts our sense of reality such that:
“… Dasein, as everyday Being-with-one-another, stands in subjection [Botmdssigkeit] to Others. It itself is not: its Being has been taken away by the Others. Dasein’s everyday possibilities of Being are for the Others to dispose of as they please. These Others, moreover, are not definite Others. On the contrary, any Other can represent them. What is decisive is just that inconspicuous domination by Others which has already been taken over unawares from Dasein as Being-with. One belongs to the Others oneself and enhances their power. ‘The Others’ whom one thus designates in order to cover up the fact of one’s belonging to them essentially oneself, are those who proximally and for the most part ‘are there’ in everyday Being-with-one-another. The “who” is not this one, not that one, not oneself [man selbst], not some people [einige], and not the sum of them all. The ‘who’ is the neuter, the “they” [das man”].

“We have shown earlier how in the environment which lies closest to us, the public ‘environment’ already is ready-to-hand and is also a matter of concern [mitbesorgt]. In utilizing public means of transport and in making use of information services such as the newspaper, every Other is like the next. This Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of ‘the Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the “they” is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man] take pleasure: we read. see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge: likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The “they”, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness.”

While Heidegger and LeClezio agree that we are in desperate need to free ourselves from the clutches of those who have taken over our freedom from us (unawares!). The questions are “who” did the taking over and what do we do about it now.

For Heidegger, “no one” has done it. Rather, we have all sort of unconsciously co-operated with this process, thus creating the “they self” which we need to take over by thought, contemplation of our selves and freedom, and by concerted action, courageously reclaiming our lives from the “them” becoming free and authentic people.

LeClezio seems much more pessimistic or much more individualistic, or both, I’m not fully sure.

First of all, who has taken over this freedom from us (unawares)? LeClezio seems a bit contradictory. The main line of argument is that the economic class, large corporations, the advertising media have done this. They have controlled our language, which controls our needs, desires and wants, and they do this to subject us to their wishes – profits and powers.

Yet at the same time the enemy seems to be the scientific and intellectual class which has redefined the world as we know it from the simple world of common sense and ancient contact with nature, to a fully mechanized, electrified, citified world of the “Hyperpolis,” the giant and modern city.

The story line isn’t fully clear on this who. We have an unnamed narrator who I am presuming is LeClezio. Then there are really only three other “characters” in any normal sense of the term.

We have the fascinating little boy, about 11 or so, Dumb Bogo. He has taken hold of his freedom in the way that LeClezio seems to advocate, and separates himself from the life of Hyperpolis completely. In order to do that he becomes “dumb.” A non-speaker. However, we learn he actually can speak if he wishes, but he doesn’t. He lives on the fringes of Hyperpolis, especially in the beach areas, and lives much closer to nature than virtually anyone we can imagine in our time.

Dumb Bogo seems to be a symbol of the native savage and LeClezio pins lots of hopes and values on him. He seems to be close to LeClezio’s ideal person, one who has heeded his mandate: Free yourself.

Another character is more conflicted. This is a young woman, in her thirties, Tranquility. She has moved a good deal from the sort of standard person enslaved in Hyperpolis, yet she has not fully freed herself and neither knows quite how to analyze or think about her situation, but has made the moves toward a LeClezio notion of freedom with her gut, not her head. He definitely seems to approve of that.

Then there is Machines (a person, not some things). He is a sort of janitor and keeper of shopping carts in Hyperpolis, and rather unaware of this issue of freedom, but seemly deeply troubled by some nagging disgust with living as he knows it and seems to assume this must be what life is all about. He has the desire to destroy Hyperpolis, but not the understanding or power.

There is little by way of story. We have the ranting and raving of the narrator, who makes some of his positions clear. He demands we free ourselves, and since the powers that be have taken over our freedom by creating and defining the “words” of our world, we seem to have only one real option for freedom – cease using words, cease living in community with other people, return to nature and just live, but don’t talk. It does seem that LeClezio approves of Machines and Tranquility making love (whether in Hyperpolis or in nature), but talking is not something they can do without sacrificing their move toward freedom. It actually seems one must live alone and in silence, or with only a private language, like Dumb Bogo.

LeClezio says of the powerful:

“Slowly, for centuries, they have replaced the forces of nature, their aim was to destroy the language of trees, the language of water and of fire, the language of storm. They have created a substitute nature, in which each element would be invented by them.”

Often times the rants were so long and so bitter and so self-absorbed I was reminded of the writing of Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard whose sole character in his many novels is himself (as I suspect the narrator of The Giants is LeClezio himself). They seem very similar in many parts of this novel. Bernhard tells us he is bi-polar and struggles with it all the time. It seems the narrator of this novel is as well.

Another author whom I was often thinking of while reading The Giants was Jose Saramago, especially in his novel The Cave, which is also the story of people learning to be in revolt to modern mega-city life. However, Saramago writes with much more humanness, wit and power than LeClezio does. Further, Saramago has the people solve their discontent by working out an alternative to the mass society which so disappoints them. It’s a different version of recapturing freedom, and for me a much more attractive one.

As much as I resisted believing this could be the case, it does seem that LeClezio’s narrator actually believes the only real possibility for freedom is to quit using common words with other people; cease living in community and like Dumb Bogo, live totally alone and in a world without anything but a private one-person language.

Surely I’m wrong! I can’t imagine any sane person making such a recommendation in seriousness.

“The Masters of Language do not really live upon the earth. They exist on the other side of things, in darkness, in the darkness that is within light itself. They hide carefully behind their opaque screens, safe from bullets and prying eyes. They are on the side of science and knowledge, but in order to destroy and command and anathematize!”

But what of the author of the novel? The Giants (masters of words) control language. Speak without hesitation.

“The language of the Masters has no desire to communicate. It is not designed to be spoken or heard. It is a language that devours information and gives orders.”

Wheeled machines scare the narrator (as they do Machines). What frightens him? It seems the uncontrollability, danger, human origin. But, storms, floods, volcanoes, fires, even heavy winds, snow, ice can all harm one. These non-human things seem not to scare him in anything like the same sense. Why would only dangers from humans frighten him?

“Who had the temerity to give language to mankind? It was an error to present to man something so big and terrible and weighty. They were not capable of sustaining the burden…

The mysterious “Masters of thought” control language (and thus thought) and keep control.

“The Masters’ thinking flashes orders. One though says ‘Philosophize!’ and the lapdogs philosophize. Another thought says: ‘Pontificate about science!’ and the lapdogs pontificate scientifically….”

On freedom we read:

“One would need one’s own personal words, not those sounds that human beings produce with their mouths, nor the sounds made by typewriters as they deposit their own rows of larvae on sheets of paper.”

The Masters’ thinking takes advantage of the lowest impulses of humans. Their leader is Varioom whose diabolical work is wildly successful and the narrator tells us:

“Space is not free: networks of cobwebs…smoke screens… Varioom is expert at digging wells into whose sparkling depths the greedy hordes will hurl themselves. Varioom knows how to project such beautiful gentle films on to the clouds that the glands immediately start secreting their juices and milks. Varioom is very fond of mankind’s excretions, and nourishes himself exclusively on these, on the odour of sweat, and on the frissons produced by pleasures. Pain and pleasures are all the same to him, just nourishment… When Varioom turns the button to the right, the men and women groan and quiver and their eyes become glazed. Then Varioom turns the button to the left, and shrieks of terror, cries of pain, and hatred rise from all the closed rooms as mouths start foaming.”

In the end I think I am simply confused. I think I just didn’t get it. Surely we cannot take my version of LeClezio’s thesis seriously. If what I came away with were LeClezio’s thesis, who could take HIM seriously?

I guess what has always attracted me to Heidegger is that he does believe that the organization of our Western view of the world, our metaphysics, our epistemologies, from the Greek period until 1927 have led us astray, and those thoughts and that language which house the thoughts must be taken back. We can and must, on Heidegger’s view, become ourselves. His German word “Eigenlichkeit” (the state of being one’s self, and not “them” – “das man) is a process of freeing oneself from these mistaken views, but not at the price of radical solipsism of both word and life form.

I’m prepared to believe I just did not understand LeClezio. In the meantime I’ll continue my own quest for freedom and authenticity within my understanding o

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett