Wednesday, December 20, 2006

by Doug Ireland, from Doug Ireland's Blog

Michel Onfray, the brightest star among the younger French philosophers, is a brilliant prodigy, a gifted and prolific author who, at the age of only 46, has already written 30 books.

I first encountered Onfray on the page when I read his 1989 book, Le ventre des philosophes: Critique de la raison diététique (The Philosphers' Stomach), and was completely captivated by his wit, his talented pen and the prodigious cultural knowledge he displayed. Would Diogenes, Onfray asked, have been an adversary of civilization and its uses absent his obsessive taste for raw octopus? Would the Rousseau of the Social Contract have been such an advocate of frugality if his daily menu had included something more than dairy products? Had not Sartre, whose nightmares were peopled with crabs, suffered his whole life long in his theoretical architecture from his aversion to shellfish? Onfray hooked me with his inventive, amusing and thought-provoking meditations, and since then, every time he publishes a new book, I pounce. Reading Onfray is a tonic.

The son of a manual agricultural laborer and a cleaning woman, Michel Onfray was a professor of philosophy for two decades, until he resigned from the national education system in 2002 to establish a tuition-free Université Populaire (People's University) at Caen, at which he and a handful of dedicated colleagues teach philosophy and other weighty subjects to working-class and ghetto youth who are not supposed to be interested in such intellectual refinements. Onfray has never forgotten his underclass origins, and his dedication to helping the young of the left-out classes is admirable and inspiring. The Université Populaire, which is open to all who cannot get access to the state university system, and on principle does not accept any money from the State (Onfray uses the profits from his books to help finance it), has had enormous success. Based on Onfray's book La communauté philosophique: Manifeste pour l'Université populaire (2004), the original UP now has imitators in Picardie, Arras, Lyon, Narbonne, and at Mans in Belgium, with five more in preparation.

A radically libertarian socialist, a self-described 'Nietzschian of the Left', Onfray's philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain's and the body's capacities to their fullest extent - while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics and everyday life and decisions. All this presupposes, in Onfray's philosophy, a militant atheism and the demasking of false gods.

Onfray is a well-known figure in France, not just through his many books, which avoid academic cant and are rendered in an elegant and accessible, sparkling prose, admired even by critics who abhor his ideas, but also as a frequent guest on French TV's numerous literary and intellectual chat shows. The national public radio network 'France Culture' annually broadcasts his course of lectures to the Université Populaire on philosophical themes. But Onfray has deliberately rejected the incestuous and corrupt Parisian mediatic-politico-academic microcosm and its seductive but ephemeral blandishments, and insists on living in the small Normandy town of Argentan where he was born, just 57 km from Caen. Free from the distractions of urban mondanities, he devotes his time exclusively to his intellectual work, which helps explain his astonishing output.

In his books, Onfray asks (and answers) the most unexpected questions. In one of my favorites, Le désir d'être un volcan: Journal hédoniste, he poses such questions as: What do prostitutes have to say to philosophers? What would a philosophy of panache look like? How does one sculpt energy? Can an erection be ancillary to knowledge?

His wide-ranging works have explored the philosophical resonances and components of (and challenges to) science, painting, gastronomy, sex and sensuality, bio-ethics, wine and writing. His most ambitious project is his projected 6-volume Counter-history of Philosophy, of which two tomes have already been published, with two more due to appear next year.

Onfray's latest book, Traité d'athéologie (Paris, Editions Grasset), was the number one best-selling non-fiction book in France for months when it was published in the Spring of 2005 (the word 'athéologie' Onfray borrowed from Georges Bataille). This book has just repeated its popular French success in Italy, where it was published last month and quickly soared to number one on Italy's best-seller lists. An acerbic, stylish and erudite polemic against received religions in general and Christianity in particular, it is a powerful antidote to religious fanaticism. On the occasion of its publication, Onfray debated on French national TV a panel of Catholic theologians that included the new Cardinal of Paris, Monseigneur Vingt-Trois (and swatted them all down like flies).

Onfray's influence is growing, especially among younger readers, all over Europe (where many of his most important works have been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Greek and Portugese), as well as in South America (particularly Brazil); and it is even beginning to make its way in China, Japan and South Korea. But I've long considered it a scandal that not a single one of Onfray's 30 books has as yet appeared in English. Happily, that incomprehensible slight to a superb writer and a world-class intellectual will be remedied next year, with the publication, on both sides of the Atlantic, of an English translation of the Traité d'athéologie. I hope this will be but the first of many of Onfray's delicious and substantive writings to appear in English.

Until then, if you can read French and would like to learn more about Michel Onfray, his many books, and his Université Populaire, visit his website. You'll be glad you did.

(NOTE FROM MICHEL U.: You can preorder Onfray's Atheist Manifesto here.)


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