Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: A French philosopher who helped shape Gov. Brown’s mind

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks in December with French Environment Minister Segolene Royal at the United Nations Climate Change Conference near Paris, where Brown met with French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks in December with French Environment Minister Segolene Royal at the United Nations Climate Change Conference near Paris, where Brown met with French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy. The Associated Press

Is California being governed by apocalyptic French philosophy?

Oui. But it’s not the end of the world.

Indeed, apocalyptic French philosophy may provide a resolution to that age-old California mystery: What is the meaning of Jerry Brown?

In recent years, our governor’s statements have taken an end-of-days turn, with Brown warning of nuclear holocaust, apocalyptic wildfires, Silicon Valley’s collapse if we don’t fix our water systems and Armageddon from carbon emissions.

Where is he getting all this angst? Here’s one answer: Brown is a longtime friend of the French techno-philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who practices what is called “enlightened doomsaying.” Recently, their connection has become higher-profile, with Dupuy joining the governor at Paris events in December.

I am neither French nor a philosopher. But I’ve been reading everything Dupuy has published in English. I’m glad I did.

Dupuy’s work not only provides reassurance of a coherent philosophy behind our governor’s ramblings. The writings are irresistibly thought-provoking, brilliantly connecting history, science, religion, economics and art. I’d recommend that all Californians – as citizens of a global hub for apocalyptic and utopian thinking – read his most accessible book, “The Mark of the Sacred.”

Here’s a summary: We are doomed to destroy ourselves because humanity has lost touch with its sacred origins – not just faith, but rituals and traditions that remind us how many things are beyond human control. This hubris means we no longer understand our own limits or consider the impact of our technology. And without a sense of the sacred, we can’t convert our knowledge about threats such as nuclear weapons and climate change into the visceral belief necessary to galvanize humanity to save itself.

Dupuy’s solution is “enlightened doomsaying.” We must imagine ourselves in the unthinkable future, peering into the black hole of nonexistence. “To believe in fate is to prevent it from happening,” he writes.

That may sound awfully French, but he grounds his philosophy in a California classic: Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo,” with its falling humans, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Mission San Juan Bautista.

Dupuy calls the film “the womb from which I am issued,” and sees humanity’s delusions in the fictions within that movie’s fictions, particularly Jimmy Stewart imposing a false reality on Kim Novak. So now at the risk of repeating Stewart’s mistake, I will read Dupuy onto Gov. Brown.

Brown’s famous skepticism of new programs makes sense if you believe, as Dupuy argues, that man is blind to the consequences of his own progress. Brown’s focus on avoiding catastrophes – including his rainy-day fund and his crusade on climate change – reflects Dupuy’s “prophet-of-doom” calls.

Brown’s criticism of “desire” echoes Dupuy, who argues that as we lose our sense of the sacred, we fill the void with individual desires that produce conflict. Here’s Brown in a recent speech: “First we get a desire; and then the desire is transmogrified into a need; and then we get a law; and then we get a right; and then we get a lawsuit.”

Dupuy poses questions you’ll never hear on the stump in Stockton: Has Christianity obliterated the sacred by replacing so many traditional religions? What are the virtues of scapegoating? And which would be worse – the annihilation of the human race, or totalitarianism to prevent annihilation?

There are obvious objections to Brown and Dupuy, given the dubious record of those predicting the apocalypse. But I’m comforted that our governor’s warnings have such deep foundations. There are happier ways to plan for dangers ahead; there may not be a smarter one.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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