In the bookshops from 3 September 2015
I was born twice, once in Lyon in 1960 and once in the Sahara in 1989.
One night can change a whole life.
In 1989 when he was twenty-eight, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt went trekking in the Sahara. He left, an atheist; ten days later, he returned, a believer.
In the unfamiliar territory of southern Algeria, he got to know the Tuareg people and discovered a life reduced to simplicity. Then, one day, he got lost for 30 hours in the vast wastes of the Ahaggar Desert. With nothing to eat or drink and no knowledge of where he was or whether anyone would find him, alone under the African sky where the stars appeared so close, he expected to be beside himself with fear; in fact, he found himself filled with a powerful force that comforted, enlightened and advised him.
That “night of fire”, as Pascal called his dramatic encounter with God, changed Schmitt forever. What happened? What did he hear? How do you deal with such an abrupt and unexpected experience when you are a philosopher trained in the agnostic tradition?
In this book, in which a vast inner journey runs parallel to the plot, Eric-Emmanuel reveals his private spiritual and emotional life for the first time and describes how that miraculous moment affected, not just his career as a writer, but his trajectory as a man.
Paris Match - « Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s state of grace. »
In Night of Fire, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has bared his soul in a deeply personal narrative about a life-changing experience.
In 1989, at the age of 28, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt accompanied his friend Gérard on an expedition to the Ahaggar Desert to retrace the steps of Charles de Foucauld, a mystic who lived among the Tuareg. After becoming separated from his companions and unable to re-join the group, the agnostic author thought his final hour had come. Then he experienced a Damascene moment, his “Night of Fire” such as Blaise Pascal described. The revelation was life-changing and gave him the strength at last to fulfil his writing potential. In this autobiographical novel, both funny and profound, the author of The Bible According to Pilate enters the confessional for the first time to express his faith, at a time when to believe in God is to risk being associated with fanatics. Atheists and believers alike should welcome the courage of this deeply personal, joyful and profound meditation on the meaning of our existence.
24 Heures (Suisse) - « Secrets »
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, novelist, playwright, theatre owner and himself an actor, is in Morges tonight to promote the 6th “Livre sur les Quais” event, which takes place from 4 to 6 September. The author smiles his happy-Buddha smile and exudes the force of nature. It took him twenty-five years to own up to his most private conviction, “more private than sex, which is just an accidental foible of the body”. In the Sahara Desert in 1989, the philosopher discovered faith in “a second birth”. Night of Fire, a title taken from Pascal, is the story of that spiritual, turbulent episode. “Since that night, I’ve been in a state of metamorphosis. In an age when faith is deformed by lethal, arrogant terrorists, one man, shaped by faith, wanted to express his belief without being shackled by dogma.” Personal secrets.
Why the twenty-five year wait?
In 1989, I was – and I’m not being disingenuous – the outstanding product of my university. I held a bunch of keys with which to understand my body, my hormones and even my father. And I stuffed that experience in my pocket with the handkerchief of my learning on top! It took a while to reshuffle the cards. Also, I needed courage: my secret changed me without my consent.
But your trajectory was veering off at that point towards the arts. Was it chance?
I was all set to follow the academic route – I set out, an atheist with Jacques Derrida as my guide. But was it really the road for me? Being gifted puts you on a path. The desert harmonised me, it took away my inhibitions. Suddenly, I dared to show my difference, I stopped justifying myself to my family and teachers.
Why the Pascalian title?
Like me, he was a non-believer. Then, Pascal the mathematician saw the light and described it on a page which he sewed into successive shirts for years afterwards. Later, he tried to separate believing and knowing – even if neither the soul nor the mind can prove the existence of God. His “wager” is the only argument that occupies the middle-ground… that’s where you stand to win the most.
You play the devil’s advocate and write that God furnishes our ignorance…
I was talking about reckless rationalists who claim God is dead – like Nietzsche and other thinkers who talk about the death-throes of religion. To my mind, that’s an error of diagnosis. Religion is there for a reason; it’s given meaning to chaos since the dawn of time. There’s no society that doesn’t have a religion: that is an anthropological fact. Beyond that, I’m an activist for the acknowledgment of ignorance.
In Morges, you’re taking on the philosopher André Comte-Sponville.
And I’m delighted to be doing so! He’ll be saying [about whether God exists]: “I don’t think so” and I’ll be saying: “I think so”. As brothers of ignorance, we won’t be at loggerheads.
What are your feelings about death?
I’d call anyone who said they knew what death was an imposter. But people vary in their relationship with death. In the grief of death, it’s a person’s disappearance that’s hard: the emptiness, the absence. Belmondo used to joke: “I’m missing myself already!” The opposite is true for me: I won’t miss me!
Where does your humility come from?
Being born an adult sheltered me from “the artist’s condition”. Just think what I might have become: published at 30, smothered in Molières and worshipped across 50 countries like a rock star …! I’m not embittered like misunderstood artists but my head’s not been turned by being spoiled. I’m a savage, I know how to stand back from adulation and hatred.
Have you ever gone back to the desert?
Never knock twice at God’s door. It would be terribly impolite!
Madame Figaro - « A graceful study of the human condition. »
“I was born twice, once in Lyon in 1960 and once in the Sahara in 1989.” A true story, then, one in which, while lost in the Ahaggar Desert, the author found faith and, after thirty hours, his saviour in the form of his Tuareg guide. A graceful study of the human condition, the power of the universe, but also of chance, and it remains open-ended because we may doubt if we want. Insightful.
A graceful study of the human condition.
La Liberté - « “I’m not afraid of emotion” »
At the age of 28, the French novelist and playwright experienced a spiritual revelation. His new book, “Night of Fire”, is his fascinating account of that experience.
He arrives a bit late and apologises. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt had a long evening treading the boards of the Théâtre de Beausobre in Morges (Switzerland) where he was acting on Wednesday in his play The Elixir of Love. Judging by the French novelist and playwright’s broad smile over morning coffee, it was a success. He feigns surprise and astonished humility in the soft voice that emanates from his Buddha-like frame, imposing and elegant in equal measure. But Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is fully aware the adulation he enjoys. The story-teller deploys his imagination in novels, non-fiction, films and plays, and his audiences and readers follow him indefatigably, in thrall to the debonair charisma of this happy intellectual (and who wants us to know about it). His happiness goes back to that formative experience recounted in Night of Fire, an autobiographical work, which he was presenting last week at the event “Literature on the Banks of Morges” [“Livre sur les quais de Morges”]. At the age of 28, this doctor of philosophy was hiking in the Algerian desert when he lost his way and came face-to-face with God. The spiritual experience prompted him to cast off his academic trappings and gave him “the power to begin [his] writing journey”. That journey has been crowned with renown and success, which now cannot fail to grace his latest, sensitive and highly personal work. Interview.
Why did you wait 25 years before writing about that experience?
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Because, for ages, I saw the revelation as a private and personal event, a gift that was bestowed on me. Then, I realised that, in a world where inner life was being deformed by fanatics, I needed to bear witness. The world is noisy with people using faith to justify barbarism and sully religions. I wanted to bring silence to the contemporary cacophony, to show my resistance through silence.
Why did you choose autobiography rather than fiction to do it?
I’ve always tried not to talk about “me”; so, this is something new and faintly awkward for me. The mask of characters sets us free to say all kinds of things, and when one’s lucky enough to have imagination as the prism of creation, you don’t need to talk about yourself to describe the world. But, in Night of Fire, I had to say “I” to give the account the weight of truth.
Are you trying to convince people by sharing this intimate experience?
This was a spiritual experience not a religious none. I’m not trying to convince anyone. All I’m doing is humbly testifying, searching for the words to do it. But there are moral consequences: believing is not the same as knowing, and I never take what I believe for what I know.
So, you affirm that you believe God exists but admit that you don’t actually know …
Yes. I think it important for everyone to say they are brothers in ignorance. Consequently, I see myself as an agnostic, and if you ask me whether God exists, my answer is that I don’t know but that I think so. You know, honest people divide into three types: the agnostic who believes, the atheist agnostic and the indifferent agnostic. It’s the confusion of believing with knowing that opens the way to fundamentalism. Faith is a means of living with ignorance, and the believer does that confidently.
It’s rare to find intellectuals with as much faith as you…
As the philosopher Alain said, optimism is the admixture of intelligence and courage. We’re living in an age that’s prone to cynicism, and which declares that it’s modern to be a non-believer. That’s ridiculous. God isn’t dead, he’s present in the very question and in every individual. Today’s intellectual, especially in the Parisian village, has to be iconoclastic, contemptuous, distanced from everything… a contagious depressive, basically. You get intellectual Brownie points for being a pessimist and we’re in an age that nurtures their despair. It’s complete nonsense! From the moral perspective, I consider it to be more interesting to nurture joy than sorrow.
A joy that finds a significant echo in your readers and audiences. Do you feel flattered by that attention?
It surprises me and justifies me, more than it flatters me. I’m the author of my books, not of my success: that’s for the public to decide. It justifies me because it helps me believe that what I write interests people and resonates with them. I’ve discovered from meeting my readers that one of the specific qualities they look to me for, is being an intellectual who’s unafraid of emotion. Beyond thought, only emotion can create sufficient empathy to push back a person’s inner boundaries.
L'Est Républicain - « Eric-Emmanual Schmitt: do we have to lose ourselves in order to discover who we are? »
When the search for a film location becomes dramatic self-discovery... In Night of Fire, acclaimed author, Eric-Emmanual Schmitt, describes a personal experience that changed his life forever.
As a man of the theatre, Eric-Emmanual Schmitt knows how to set the stage for an autobiographical novel that tells how he set off in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld only to accomplish an inner journey which he describes as a “second birth”.
In February 1989, Eric-Emmanual Schmitt went trekking in the Algerian desert with a group of tourists and Gérard, the maker of the film for which he was to write the screenplay. Far from being on holiday, the former student of the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, a doctor of philosophy and holder of France’s top teaching certificate, was there to research Charles de Foucauld, a French army officer-turned-priest. The desert had such an intense effect on the doubting philosopher that he returned a different person.
“Everything is justified.” That dramatic enlightenment unlocked in the author, not least, his potential as a writer. The moment when he felt a burning force take hold of him remained a formative influence.
In his latest novel, he describes the days leading up to that night and how the desert was, not so much a set, as an actor in the transformation that took place in him, how people from different cultures can interact and how they can understand one another without speaking the same language. This is a book about encounters, both with other people and with oneself.
La Croix - « The book we were all waiting for from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt »
This is the book we were all waiting for from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Schmitt first described the “night of fire” he experienced during an expedition in southern Algeria many years ago. Now, he takes readers on that life-changing journey. What began simply as the search for a location for a film about the life of Charles de Foucauld became a road to conversion. In the course of the excursion, he became separated from his companions and spent a night alone. He neither panicked nor felt afraid but was filled instead by a burning force. In the morning “I had a radiant certainty: He exists.” On his return, he met up with and talked to a number of people, notably a young Catholic, and a swathe of the philosopher’s existence crumbled. “You would not be looking for me if you had not already found me.” That sentence would be for him the start of his inner journey. Charles de Foucauld’s prayer of abandonment makes a magnificent end to this splendid book.