Between Facts and Fantasy

My take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (4 Songs & People 2:4) will have to wait a little, as I’d like to follow up on my recent entry 4 Songs & People 1:4 about the Danish song “Der er noget i luften” and the process of translation as nurturing social bonds.

The occasion is the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize 2021 and especially the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s reasons for awarding this year’s prize:

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. Ms Ressa and Mr Muratov are receiving the Peace Prize for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia. At the same time, they are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.

It is especially the phrase “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace” I intend to question. The quote expresses the ideal, the committee tells us. Yes, ideals can be guiding stars, but they can also be fantasies that blind us to facts. We are in a world where several democracies are dysfunctional, where freedom of speech is used without respect for others, except like-minded people. Instead of enriching a population’s common intelligence, the situation lends itself to strife and destruction. It is not enough to have democracy as an ideal if people cannot verify that it in fact works better than authoritarian regimes. Democracy is not just a matter of freedom; it is also a matter of responsibility.

We look at the issue using languages ​​and translations. The process can help clarify priorities and get a better eye on the relationship between facts and fantasy. More specifically, we will harness the differences between ytringsfrihed in Danish (freedom of speech), freedom of expression in English and liberté d’informer in French. The relationship between the last two will be made explicit at the end of the article.

Nobel Peace Prize 2021

A few months ago, I read in the French daily Le Monde a translation (by Galia Ackerman) of large excerpts of the lecture given in Russian by journalist Dmitri A. Muratov in Oslo as co-recipient (with Philippine journalist Maria Ressa) of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Both Muratov and Ressa are dedicated to the idea (and risk their lives for it) that a well-informed public is the best way forward for humanity. So dedicated, they work for honest and independent news media, distinguishing facts from lies, reporting on many aspects of life, including those most dangerous to write about: corruption, abuse of power, and human rights violations. They carry the torch of the Enlightenment at a time when “The world no longer likes democracy. The world is disappointed by the ruling elites. The world longs for dictatorship” (Muratov). But, as Ressa remarks: “Without facts, no truth; without truth, no trust; without trust, no shared reality. … The north star is not profit alone, it is facts, truth, and trust.” And she asks: “What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”

Smack in the middle of all these dangers and difficulties, Maria Ressa, though affected by the loss of so many dedicated colleagues, still expresses indomitable optimism and belief in goodness.

Before I add further challenges to the lot, note that you can hear, see, or read both Muratov and Ressa’s lectures on the Nobel Prize website at:

Dmitry Muratov – Nobel Prize lecture “Antidote against tyranny” (in Russian, Norwegian, and English)

Maria Ressa – Nobel Prize lecture (also in English, Norwegian, and Russian)

You can also read Muratov’s lecture on my website in the original Russian as well as in Norwegian translation, both unabridged, courtesy of The Nobel Foundation. Click on the version in the language you wish to read, here: Russian or Norwegian.

André Calmettes and Mein Kampf

As I write these lines, I do so in thankful memory of an old family friend whose spirit I will now be leaning up against, André Calmettes by name. When I was a child in France and our families socialized, I called him Monsieur Calmettes, le papa d’Ingrid (his daughter). He impressed me as a kind and intelligent man. Later, I found him also modest, as I understood that he was both a graduate of the prestigious French École Polytechnique and a Germanist. Aware of my medical education and psychoanalytic practice, he once sent me a stack of articles exploring the interface between parapsychology and the exact sciences. It took me a little while to understand where all these articles came from. He had removed the cover as well as the table of contents. It turned out to be from La Jaune & la Rouge (The Yellow & the Red), the review of the former students and graduates of the École Polytechnique.

André Calmettes 1932

Why am I referring to this old family friend? Here’s why. In the autumn of 1933, the highly decorated French general Georges Jacques Lachèvre summoned André Calmettes to his office. Adolf Hitler had been elected chancellor of Germany earlier in the year and the two volumes of his Mein Kampf (My Struggle) were on the general’s desk in the original German. Lachèvre asked Calmettes to read them and tell him what parts might be worth translating into French. After reading the two volumes, Calmettes urged that the book be translated in its entirety and offered to do so. Four months later, Calmettes and his team had completed the task and the book appeared in French without Hitler’s permission in the spring of 1934. Hitler was furious. He did not want the French to read what he had written about them. As we’ll soon see, Hitler had no reason to worry.

Criminal Horrors of the Past and a People’s Identity

Decades later, back in Europe for my studies in the United States, I spent a few days with the Calmettes at their home in Viroflay, a suburb of Paris. I especially remember an evening of lively conversation, where we compared Europe and America, Denmark and France, we discussed science, politics, literature. As a fan of Russian literature and having recently read Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I made the case for the book. In the book, Solzhenitsyn brings Stalinist terror out of the shadows while also describing simple, selfless, generous, long-suffering Russians, trying to survive the nightmare as they remain true to God. As the centers of gravity of a society under God, Solzhenitsyn’s message is a far cry from what we see around us today, in the way of divisive denials, fabrications, projections of evil unto others, eliminationist rhetoric, amplified by social media designed for polarization to produce profitable data for surveillance capitalism. Leaving aside Solzhenitsyn’s yearning for the Russia of the 16th century and his messianic bent, the point here is that for Solzhenitsyn a people is not a people if unable to face the truth of the criminal horrors of its past.

Looking at the situation today, don’t expect Russians to become fully Russian anytime soon. Russia’s Supreme Court recently outlawed and ordered the breakup of Memorial. Memorial is an NGO founded by none other than the world-renowned Russian nuclear physicist and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov. Memorial keeps tabs on the Russian state’s history of repression. The task includes establishing a list of the names of victims to keep both the victims and the crimes themselves from sinking into oblivion. We may conclude that the official Russia, by outlawing Memorial, signals that it refuses to be reminded of its own murderous past. It prefers to paper over the truth with a narrative in which Russia is persecuted by foreign enemies and successfully defended by the heroic and willingly sacrificing Russian people.

Although heroic narratives are effective from time to time, using them to foreclose one’s history comes at a cost. The foreclosed has a habit of reinvesting reality further down the road. Of the countries we are dealing with here — Germany, Russia, and France — all have paid the price, and will probably have to do so again. In the meantime, decision-makers formulate, implement, and consolidate the narratives meant to serve in place of foreclosed facts and truths. It is important that the narrative be so effective that you can feel it at street level. And so you can…as well as other things that concurrently transpire at street level. Let’s take a couple of examples, on the street, precisely. First, we’ll stick to Russia.

Even Russians who should know better see their country as a besieged victim. After a dinner with Russian colleagues at a restaurant in Saint Petersburg, one of them walked me back to my hotel. I asked how it was that a country as vast and rich as Russia, with a comparatively small population, sometimes had difficulty feeding its people. “Are you implying that we Russians should feed the entire world?” was her immediate counter-question. I had neither said, nor implied any such thing, but the translation in the head of my colleague was a confirmation of the idea that the world was out to cheat Russia. My colleague spoke in keeping with the motto “offence is the best defense.” It could be a way of avoiding being cheated by foreigners, in anticipation of being so. Seen in that light, I should probably not have been surprised at how nonchalant some were in their expectation that I offer my work for free; or that spyware was surreptitiously installed on my laptop. Yes, but on false premises, as I am no enemy of Russians. In other words, historical facts are foreclosed, a narrative about being besieged by enemies is cultivated, leading to more untruths and actions with potentially harmful consequences (you end up turning your friends into enemies). Aside from that, such narratives serve to hide society’s dysfunctions, dysfunctions that nonetheless remain visible on the streets. Another example, also at street level. I was walking in broad daylight along the mythical Nevsky Prospect (think Dostoevsky’s novels) when someone came from behind and managed with both celerity and agility to make off with the camera I had on me. I immediately started running after the thief, yelling at him. When he saw a police car slowly coming our way, he suddenly ducked behind a lamp post, handed me my camera, then fled. That was a little thief, afraid of the police. But the police too are afraid. They are not afraid of the state, but of the ubiquitous mafia that contributes to society’s dysfunction by undermining the credibility and trust in the authority the state has bestowed on the police.  

The tendency for Russia to see itself as a victim, letting strangers and the many Russians who are just getting by pay for a dysfunctional society, all the while accusing its own creative and moral forces of being “agents of foreign powers” (in other words, spies), is bewildering. You’d think Russian authorities had better things to do, like concentrating their energies on creating the best conditions at home for the blossoming of its people. But that is impossible, of course, when you reject the realities of your past and instead establish wishful thinking as history.

Fortunately, there are still enough people in Russia like Dmitri Muratov to at least qualify as Russian in Solzhenitsyn’s sense.

By a happy coincidence (of sorts), the name Muratov appears explicitly in Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward, in the famous chapter XXXI, “Idols of Commerce.” The Muratov in question is one among the millions of victims of Stalin’s purges. “Idols of Commerce” is a moving chapter in which Solzhenitsyn shows us two cancer patients, Oleg Kostoglotov and Aleksei Shulubin, coming to terms with the reality of their people’s (and personal) history. “Idol” from the chapter’s title has the same meaning in Russian and English, but Solzhenitsyn tells us that he also has another meaning in mind, taken from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620). By idols, Bacon meant delusional images of truth, leading men away from the exact knowledge of science. That Bacon’s modern understanding of idols resonates in spirit with the Jewish and Christian commandments against worshipping idols/false gods no doubt pleased Solzhenitsyn. Through the mouth of Shulubin, Solzhenitsyn builds on Bacon: “[Bacon] said that men were little inclined to live their lives based on their own experience, that they prefer to soil these with prejudices. Idols are precisely that, prejudices … The idols of commerce are the mental aberrations that follow from the interdependence of men and their lives in common. They are errors that put men in chains as they have gotten into the habit of using expressions that do violence to reason. For example: Enemy of the people! Stranger! Traitor! It’s enough to force everybody to step back in horror.” These are the people who end up enthusiastically participating in the purge of millions of proper citizens. Shulubin had shrugged off the shroud of silence Kostoglotov had found him in and finally given his thoughts free rein, concluding: “Through my martyrdom, and my treason too, have I not won a little the right to think?”

Facing a Criminal Future Foretold

Where Solzhenitsyn sees facing the crimes of our ancestors in the past as essential to affirming our identities, Calmettes translates to sharpen our awareness of the signs of an impending criminal future. Calmettes wished for the readers of his translation to draw their own conclusions about Hitler’s book; hence, a translation and not a review or an analysis. That said, he was not going to leave it to the critics to define his intentions and therefore wrote and published “Why I translated Mein Kampf” in X information, the review of the École Polytechnique, on February 25, 1934, page 223. You can read his text in the original French on my website by clicking here.

Calmettes sat the bar high in that he encouraged readers to read the book in its entirety and not just short passages here and there. He called Mein Kampf the dogma of the German people and compared it to the Quran: “…one cannot speak of Islamism on the basis of fifteen or one hundred verses of the Quran, nor speak of Hitlerism on the basis of ten pages of Mein Kampf; reading secondary passages will be as fruitful as reading the passages deemed essential.” He also encouraged readers not to read the book simply as a catastrophe foretold. That message had already been given five years earlier by the future Pope Pius XII after reading Mein Kampf: “All this will not end well.” Calmettes knew people would be asking him about the danger of another war, but his aim lay elsewhere. He found his countrymen’s lack of interest for the study of other cultures — here, specifically, the Anglo-Saxon, of which Germany is a part — to be both narrow-minded and dangerous. “We cannot avoid being subjected to their manifestations.” I’ll say.

During the lively conversation with the Calmettes mentioned earlier, André Calmettes did evoke his translation. For him personally and for France, the worst was how little effect his efforts had had. Highlighted on the cover of the translation was even a quote from Marshal Hubert Lyautey, another decorated military man, member of the French Academy: “Every Frenchman must read this book.” The book was distributed to numerous institutions of government, libraries, and bookstores. To little avail. There wasn’t much debate, and the French government and the country’s armed forces didn’t do much until years later. When De Gaulle established the French Resistance, the war was well underway and France overrun by German panzer divisions. Clearly, Calmettes had set the bar much higher than the French were interested or willing to live up to. Hitler did not have to worry about the French reading in Mein Kampf the violence of his intentions against them. He would instead be afforded years of leisure to beef up his armies.

Left, Adolf Hitler Square in Dresden ca. 1935, festive lighting. Right, Dresden in 1945.
Keep calm, Visit Dresden.

Crimes that Concern You

In both cases, Russian and French, the difficulty lies in facing crimes that concern you, whether in your past or brewing next door. Facing is not the same as fantasizing. Fantasizing is something you do based on your prejudices (idols). Human beings often prefer wallowing in their prejudices rather than bind their history of destructive criminality, past and future, to a truth-seeking process of translation. Practicing prejudices is easier and more enjoyable, darkly amplified by the subterranean giddiness of sensing destruction on the march. What I call the process of translation is more demanding. It takes effort, love of the truth, also when truth rubs you the wrong way, the ability to see yourself in strangers and recognize when you are a stranger to yourself; it takes time.

The citizenry André Calmettes had in mind was one that would have wished to be informed, receptive to his offer, seeing the point of doing the work. Instead, his translation met a French public loath to deal with crimes being concocted on the opposite bank of the Rhine. When evil is taking place elsewhere, you don’t have (or want) to think about it (the French); when it’s your own people, you deny it (the Russians). In fact, Calmettes’ translation of Hitler was not just about crimes being planned in Germany, or about the negative attitude of the French toward the Anglo-Saxons. In the background lay a more specific matter the French had actively participated in, i.e., the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles which came with the end of World War I. Though not strictly speaking criminal, the treaty accomplished the feat of putting an asphyxiating economic burden on Germany without effectively stripping it of its future military capabilities. The treaty satisfied no-one and lay the ground for Hitler’s ascent. Few in France seem to have understood how unwise the treaty had been. In other words, not only were the French blind to what was brewing in Germany, they were nowhere near ready to question the part they had played in initiating what was going on there. Hence, the lack of response to Calmettes’ nudge.

The situation in the world today is not much better than it was at the time of Calmettes’ translation. We have a large swath of humanity under authoritarian rule and another swath living in dysfunctional democracies. In authoritarian systems, truth is manufactured to fit whatever those in power say it is, at the exclusion of all else. In dysfunctional democracies, armies of insecure narcissists fabricate partisan truths, mutually disqualifying each other. Together, both systems make up a world in which egos try to keep afloat by the force of their fantasy-powered will, impervious to the independent facts and truths that bind them. We’ll quote a second time the future Pope Pius XII’s reaction to reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf in 1929: “This will not end well.”

Why will it not end well? Let’s listen to what more Pius XII had to say: “[Hitler] is totally imbued with his own person: everything he says bears the mark of his egotism. He is a man who will step over corpses and trample everything in his way. I do not understand how so many people in Germany, even among the best, cannot see this, or at least draw no conclusions from what he writes and says. Who, among all these people, has even read Mein Kampf, the content of which is hair-raising?”

The Germans, shaken by World War I defeat and the feeling of having been unfairly treated in the Treaty of Versailles, were not given to accept any perceived signs of weakness in their leaders. With Hitler, they put their fate in the hands of a man who radiated strength and determination, a gifted orator, a charismatic, megalomaniacal, and brutal ego. The man had no need to take an interest in the truth, for he was the truth. While the approach works for a while, the truth beyond ego control catches up, from inside and outside.

So, What to Do?

Letting time do its work is not a good option, as millions of lives are to be lived in the meantime. So, let’s go back to our Nobel Prize winners for a fresh look. The Norwegian Nobel Committee writes in English that Maria Ressa and Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov were jointly awarded the Peace Prize 2021 “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” Note the committee’s choice of words in English. The Norwegian ytringsfrihet translates into English as both freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Yet freedom of speech and freedom of expression do not mean exactly the same; it is possible to express yourself by means other than the use of speech. The committee chose freedom of expression. We will get back to that.

My background and profession being what they are, I cannot but have sympathy for efforts to safeguard freedom of expression. Free association is a central part of the psychoanalytic process. Analysands are encouraged to speak as “freely,” i.e., with as little self-censorship as possible. “Say anything that crosses your mind,” with the understanding that it will not be used against you. It is a way of exploring and discovering parts of us we are unaware of. More specifically, it is bringing to light ramifications of desire otherwise hidden from the ego, shedding a sometimes surprising and often fruitful light on the way we relate to ourselves and to others. Incidentally, it is also taking the time to explore what in the life of the analysand may be a lie embedded in truth or truth embedded in a lie. That said, free association in psychoanalysis is freedom with responsibility. At each session, the setting reminds you of the difference between the space of the session and the space outside the session. Beyond clarifying how we enjoy practicing our prejudices, the question becomes to what extent and how our prejudices are entwined with our difficulties.

In societies where the concept of freedom is deemed paramount, freedom of expression is the power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty. The conditions for that freedom tend to be secondary when they are even mentioned. Freedom of expression is a precious right that allows society broader use of its collective intelligence. The hitch is that this only works well if the individual and society have trustworthy arbiters they can refer to. Such arbiters may be the sciences, the laws of the land, separation of as well as checks and balances of power. They are institutions where no one person or groups of persons alone decide what is fact and what is not, what is true and what is not. Needless to add (though it must be repeated), if such institutions are corrupt or in disarray, they will not be able to play their role. Today, in dysfunctional democracies, large multinational corporations fan divisiveness for profit and as a result (but not as the only cause) numerous citizens are unhinged in the expression of their freedoms. Words are not enough; the incitation is to “just do it.” In other words, the guardrails ensuring the proper functioning of freedom of expression that I described above with psychoanalysis as an example are in many of our societies today badly battered.

In dysfunctional democracies, unhinged manifestations of freedom of expression will contribute to make these societies even more dysfunctional. Therefore, putting too much emphasis on safeguarding freedom of expression can be misleading. Democracy is not necessarily the best system with which to organize human societies, contrary to what the Nobel Committee implies. Freedom of expression is a prerequisite for democracy, but democracy is not necessarily a prerequisite for freedom of expression. Already over two thousand years ago, Plato showed us how giving authority to a wise philosopher-ruler could sometimes be a better solution. The problem is that the chances of finding and inaugurating such a ruler are slim. Most rulers are too narcissistic and not wise enough to understand that in the face of psychology and history, they stand naked.

How then to give collective intelligence its best chances with truth, freedom, and responsibility, if today safeguarding freedom of expression is not enough? Anna Ressa named the preliminaries in her lecture in Oslo: “Without facts, no truth; without truth, no trust; without trust, no shared reality. … The north star is not profit alone, it is facts, truth, and trust.”

Let’s finish with a little more translating, to better pinpoint a preliminary to the trio truth, freedom, and responsibility.

When referring to the 2021 Peace Prize, Anglo-American news outlets tend to use the Nobel Committee’s own “freedom of expression.” Though understandable, it is also unsurprising, given the enthusiasm of both the Americans and the British for “freedom of speech.” In French news outlets, on the other hand, you will find the phrase « un Nobel pour défendre la liberté d’informer ». Now, that’s a very interesting difference. Défendre la liberté d’informer is not simply freedom of the press and not synonymous with safeguarding freedom of expression. Défendre la liberté d’informer means “defend freedom to inform.” The French are here closer to the mark, less idealizing. Freedom to inform with independent fact-checking mechanisms being a prerequisite to freedom of expression, a guardrail with which to at least slow the latter’s descent into irresponsibility, with the added advantage of helping to sort out fact and fantasy. Freedom to inform is a prerequisite to responsible freedom of expression. It is one reason why true journalists are so vital.

Hence, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov represent all those who exercise freedom to inform (sometimes in very difficult conditions), contributing preciously to our collective intelligence or, more precisely, to the collective intelligence of an informed citizenry.


A couple more remarks to not finish with translations:

As I was writing the text you have just read, I thought it would probably be wise to check the translations I use of quotes from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward against the original in Russian. Much could be said and written about this. Here, I’ll just stick to the title of the novel.

I always thought that Cancer Ward was the literal translation of the title Solzhenitsyn had given his novel in Russian. After all, the translations I’m aware of all translate like in English: Le pavillon des cancéreux in French, Kræftafdelingen in Danish; both tiles mean “cancer ward.” This is probably also true of many other translations. So, what a surprise it was to discover that Solzhenitsyn had given his novel an otherwise more equivocal title in Russian!

When speaking in Russian of hospital wards, hospital treatments, medical help, the following expressions and words are often used: больничное обслуживание (hospital care), больничная палата (hospital ward), павильон (pavilion). A psychiatric ward is called психиатрическое отделение and a cancer ward онкологическое отделение (oncology ward or department).

Solzhenitsyn uses none of these Russian terms for the book’s title. Here’s the title in Russian:

РАКОВЫЙ КОРПУС is not as straightforward as cancer ward, but in its multiplicity of meaning connects well with several of the book’s themes. Раковый корпус means “cancer-ridden body” or “body affected by cancer.” The key word here is not so much раковый (cancer) — the word recurring in most translations of the title — but корпус. Корпус, from the Latin “corpus,” means “body.” Albeit the physical body plays an important role in the novel, Solzhenitsyn treats other kinds of bodies as well: social bodies (as in, a student body), military corps (as in Marine Corps; Solzhenitsyn had been a military officer in combat), not to speak of plain corpses, as we commonly think of them, all riddled with cancer, physically and metaphorically.

Note added 2022-04-05:

Speaking of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. A couple of weeks ago, I was in the city of Crest in the Drôme Valley of France. Crest is situated just a few miles from where the Drôme Valley meets the Rhône Valley, about halfway between the cities of Lyon and Marseille. A number of wealthy Russians own property around Crest and the city’s mayor is an expert on Russia. It turned out that while I was there, Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia Dmitrievna Svetlova, bestowed one of her husband’s original manuscripts to the city. In receiving the gift, the mayor mentioned that Solzhenitsyn had long ago predicted the coming of a serious conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Should war break out, he had forbidden his children to take any part in it.