The Influence

The philosopher Michel Serres showed publisher, writer and humanitarian worker Xavier Hennekinne that life can take you along several coinciding paths. By Kate Holden.

Xavier Hennekinne

The philosopher Michel Serres, and Xavier Hennekinne (below).
The philosopher Michel Serres, and Xavier Hennekinne (below).
Credit: Mohamed Lounes / Gamma-Rapho (above), Niña Mandariaga (below)

Xavier Hennekinne is a French-raised, Sydney-based writer, independent publisher and worker in international humanitarian aid and development. He co-founded Gazebo Books in 2018, publishing European–Australian and local writers, and is also the author of three novels, including the illustrated novel Lost Words (2019), as well as short stories and essays published in Griffith Review and international journals such as Courant d’Ombres.

Gazebo has just released a translation of the French philosophical writer Michel Serres’ (1930-2019) Around the World with Writers, Scientists and Philosophers (first published in 2009). Hennekinne’s chosen influence is Éclaircissements (Conversations on Science, Culture and Time) (1995) by Serres, in conversation with the late Bruno Latour.

Tell me how you first encountered Serres’ work.

I was 18 and preparing for the exams of a business course. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life so my parents directed me to business. We had English classes, some algebra, probability classes and summarising classes. Then we had philosophy. In France we start philosophy in grade 12, but it was very dry. In my last year of school I was bored, but that first year, the only thing that interested me was the philosophy classes. We had a very engaging lecturer: engaging because he was quite rude. He’d play tricks on us.

Every week or so we had to write an essay. I was doing quite well and getting pretty good marks. I was happy about that. If there was anything I wanted to do well, it was to write well. One week he handed back my essay and it was an appalling mark. I was quite shocked and disappointed. I thought: What happened there? He said, “Have a look at this new book by Michel Serres. It’s called Éclaircissements; it might help you rewrite the essay.” I read it first as an answer to why I failed so badly, then quickly I got interested in the conversations. I didn’t think about my essay. With that book it felt like I was reading a personal book. I read it easily and quickly.

I did go back to my lecturer and he said, “Mr Hennekinne, the first will be the last.” I said, “What do you mean?” He quoted Jesus, thank you very much! He said, “Well you’ve been doing so well, I felt you needed to not do so well. To keep you on your toes. Your essay was perfectly good.” I was outraged. But this is how I got to know Michel Serres, and I was curious about his work. I was also curious about Bruno Latour then, though his role is small in the book.

I’ve loved Serres ever since. I love his style, his unusual way of doing philosophy. One of the things with Serres is that he never followed any sort of school of thought, what he called autoroutes. He stayed on his own little road, which was science and ethics, which drew him to philosophy.

I remember that rush, as a first-year arts student, like the top of my head was lifting off from those intoxicating ideas.

Hah, yes. Then I went to business school: no philosophy there. But for two or three years all I read was philosophy. I looked down on people reading fiction on the bus. So I remember discovering some of the classics, including Candide, Rousseau... I didn’t read Sartre too much. I was reading all these people   – Serres, Alain Badiou, Michel Onfray – who stay on global issues, until I did an internship in a village in the south-west of France. I went to the library and there was nothing new there. I thought, what am I going to do? But I found a copy of Georges Perec, A Man Asleep, and Albert Cohen. I thought, this is a big book, very serious, I’ll get into it. Very silly; I was 19 or 20. I was very pedantic. But that’s when I started to read fiction.

Such youthful solemnity... Were you looking, in philosophy, for moral guidance?

My life experiences were very much in the real, intimate world: broken heart, family events. And then when I read Serres, first, Éclaircissements had a section about his education, and he explained that from the time he was about six to when he was an adult, there was war, world war. He grew up with the Spanish War, and then World War II, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took him from science to philosophy. He wanted to question the ethics of science, he wanted to think about that, to understand why science – which for a lot of us had been a mark of progress, something good – had suddenly become a violence. When I read that I had a bit of a shock. And I realised that there was a time when things were very bad for everyone, including us in France, and it wasn’t hard to think of my grandparents, great-uncles caught up in camps. It wasn’t that remote.

When I read Serres I thought, there are people who are living today who have had that experience, and that became more acute for me over the years. It’s why I got involved in humanitarian work. You watch the news and you know you’re preserved from that, to some extent. But it doesn’t mean you should sit there and be happy about it. So, first, the realisation that not all of us are where we are; and then, it could be very easy for us, where we are, to go back into a very apocalyptic situation. So that’s always been on my mind. I was 18 and very insouciant, but reading this I really understood what he meant, but also that the world I’m in when I’m 18 might not always be like that.

Serres talks about the idea of translation and voyage and exploration, of “noise” and linkage. Did those concepts appeal to you as a way forward?

In French schools you learn thesis, antithesis, synthesis. There is a problem, then you look at the why and context, then you do a “yes, no, maybe”. In the French–American business school we were asked to write an opinion, even if we didn’t believe it. We were shocked.

With Serres, he jumps a lot. You can be reading about an idea, then you’ve got Leibniz, then you’ve got La Fontaine, whom you’d never dream of having in the same paragraph. He jumps freely, unexpectedly and unlike any other philosopher, because he jumps across disciplines, from literature to science. He does it a lot in Around the World, the book we just translated; he does it in Éclaircissements. And my mind is like that. Because I’m interested in so many things that don’t connect directly. Even in my career: I’m doing work in Geneva this month with a United Nations agency; I have a publishing business; I write. It’s sometimes incomprehensible to people, but I like to be useful and I like to read.

Serres made me feel more comfortable with my writing as well. Also, he was always interested in people who had several lives or unexpected lives or had made their own lives for themselves. For me that resonates. That understanding that there is a freedom to try things, to do things – that’s something I got early on from Serres’ writing. I needed that. I didn’t easily find my path but I realised, there may not be just one path, there might be several paths. When I think back, Serres was someone who helped me understand: you don’t have to be just an international civil servant or humanitarian, or publisher; you can do both.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2023 as "Xavier Hennekinne".

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