The thin mirror of the four elements of life

The dialogue with Noureddine Mhakkak, Morrocan writer and poet, is a cultural journey into the worlds of Letters and the Arts. That is to say in the world of poetry, prose, cinema, painting, and photography on the one hand and in the world of current affairs too.

Noureddine Mhakkak (NM): In this interview, you will tell us about the four elements of life mentioned by philosophers, writers, poets, and artists. What do you think?

Julie Guégan (JG): Just as the hero does not exist in real life, none of these four elements can flourish without the presence of another. This holistic vision, which comes from the Greek word, holè, which means totality, I adopted it thanks to my collaboration with the Anglo-Saxons, who are more advanced than the Latins on the subject. With them, I was able to assimilate these principles that we also find exposed in the philosophy of Hegel, Plato, or Rousseau and which lead to the rapprochement with nature, which I claim. In particular, through its imitation rather than its domination. This approach has become so important for me, that I am currently participating in a work of reflection within the European institutions, which aims to bring the holistic vision in the way in which policies are carried out.

I think it would be fun for your readers if I used the four elements to illustrate how this change would be beneficial. For this purpose, we can take any element. Let’s start with the fire. If we want to enjoy the benefits of fire, we must accompany it with air, water, or earth. The presence of at least one element allows its creation in the first place. It also serves as a safeguard, to ensure a form of control. As we could see recently in Greece, the blossoming of fire can have catastrophic repercussions. In our rather liberal world, to put it mildly, I think it is essential to put in place safeguards from the start. We must fabricate the means to maximize profits while avoiding harmful consequences as much as possible, for example, when a policy will do good for some but wreak havoc on a particular population. With a holistic vision, the objective is to ensure that all the conditions are met so that the maximum number of scenarios are considered from the start, thus reducing the risk on all populations (human or not).

So of course, it will never be perfect, and we can never avoid mistakes. There will always be a risk of the fire going to a place we would not have anticipated. But what I mean is that the approach that more and more of us are now promoting remains the only way to respond to the complex problems of our time.

I will use the water, to give you a concrete example. The illustrious poet Rumi reminds us that our human species comes from water and in this sense, he invites us to consider the ocean as our home. Unfortunately, this vision is not shared by all, and it is sad to see that the majority of us seem to have forgotten our origins. Today, our ocean looks more like a full trash can … And each time we think we are finding solutions, it seems that the problem is getting worse. There is this feeling, as with a lot of policies elsewhere, that it would be better to do nothing, as the effects seem contradictory. I like to evoke the history of Belgium at the time when it had no government for more than a year, after the economic crisis of 2008 as a concrete illustration of why it’s often better not to try to control the outcomes from the top. In this particular case, in the absence of proper authority to take measures in favour of austerity like its neighbours, Belgium had simply let go… The unexpected consequence was a much quicker recovery. Like in nature, when there is no resistance, systems are more resilient. Another illustration is the way Sweden dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. But no confusion, it’s not anarchy that we recommend. Things always happen, change is constant, like in nature. In the case of Sweden, it seems that the culture was a major factor that increased resilience, as well as the regular top-down messages on trust, thus making people adapt their behaviours responsibly. The same approach would not necessarily have worked in Latin countries. And if we come back to the case of Belgium, some say that it benefited from the measures taken by its partner countries.

In any case, when you believe like me, that no single element exists on its own, you refuse to simplify it, control it (a bit as if you wanted to make everything a straight line) or fall into the trap of judgment. It would be way too easy. But these lessons are very important and they invite us to really change our ways of doing things that lead us right into the wall as we can see with the climate crisis.

If you are now among our loyal readers, you should know that I consider some authors to be guides. Their influence on me is important and Hanna Arendt is one of them (I should point out that reading so much over all these years has given me access to a useful critical sense, and I also encourage everyone not to give their trust too easily). What she recommends is that we no longer play politics for the sake of glory, but for the good. And when we find that we are not doing enough good, then we have an obligation to start thinking differently. It is now a question of putting around the table all the elements that will allow us to design a better future for all. For me, it starts with a desire to get everyone to contribute to essential discussions about how we live together and how to improve it. As Cicero told us, “no one in nature is totally lacking in expertise.”

NM: According to Gaston Bachelard: “Love becomes family; fire becomes home”. Tell us about the symbol of fire in your cultural journey, and why not, also personal?

JG: Before answering your question, let me tell you that I was very inspired by Gaston Bachelard when I was planning a career in science. I also think that my passion for observation and my rather obstinate quest for understanding show that I have not completely come out of it. That being said, I only read “The New Scientific Spirit”, but it really impressed me. Your question is fascinating, as usual, and how beautiful this quote is, thank you Noureddine for sharing it with us! When I think of fire, the first thing that comes to mind is Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who was most talked about in the 1970s in the United States, when he opposed the use of all psychedelic drugs and instead advocated discipline and fasting. I think you now know that I believe in the virtues of a healthy life for the mind and the body, as well as the need to be in harmony with oneself and the world… In short, Meher Baba tells us that we should not end our life in imbalance. To simplify, it is necessary to have done as much harm as good. And basically, it relieves us of guilt at a time when men and women tend to put too much pressure on themselves to achieve a form of perfection.

But where is the connection with the fire, you will tell me? Well, I am one of those who thinks that it is essential to avoid the duality between good and evil, and any form of polarisation. It’s not white or black, there is a whole palette of colors that makes life so much more interesting and richer. So evil for me is represented by the flames of hell, fire. Speaking of hell, the link is obvious with Orpheus, and your songs, Noureddine, which I had the joy of reading recently in French and then translated and read in English on my YouTube channel. Perhaps our readers remember this myth, in which Orpheus gets one last chance to see his beautiful Eurydice again, provided he does not turn to look at her before he leaves Hell? There are lots of interpretations as to why he finally turned around and will lose her forever. From my point of view, it is the relationship with Love that is the most interesting. And Love is also the flame of passion, which we must master if we do not want to get lost and lose it.

One day, a very wise man told me that passion was the easiest fire to put out and that once mastered, all that was left was to let new Love emerge in the form of a peaceful relationship. My interpretation of Orpheus’s story is that there is a passion for two people, but if only one of the parties is ready to make the necessary concessions, then the fire, which blazes everything in its path, will one day end the relationship. Everyone must therefore take part in the dance and the extinction ceremony of the fire. I see it as a primitive ritual, as well thought out, enriched by the wealth of knowledge of our ancestors, as it is intuitive.

Is it the role of marriage to allow this passage? I ask myself the question, I who have never taken the plunge. Orpheus would have liked to manage his passion, I’m sure, but it’s not that easy, especially without preparation and without some form of coordination. Basically, thinking that dealing with passion is easy is a bit like saying that we should feel like responsible adults. However, we know very well that a lot of what we are comes from our cultural or genetic heritage and that the ordeal is difficult towards full acceptance. This is why I believe in a caring society, which would encourage us to take responsibility for ourselves and manage our flames as well as possible, knowing that it is far from easy, that we all fall regularly, and that it is acts to help us get up, a bit like blowing carefully on embers.  

NM: According to Jay Lee: “Through the thin mirror of water, the spirits of air and water merge”. Could you tell us about the symbol of water in cultural life and in your own life through your daily stories?

JG: How can we talk about water without talking about ourselves, whose body is about 60% made up of it, and how important this element is to us? Several thoughts come to mind. First of all, it is futile to put a brake or blockades to the water flowing in us. I have tried the disconnection that prevents us from giving in to letting go. But like many who have observed the havoc on body and mind, I have come to realize that what we need to look for instead is non-resistance. It is even one of the essential lessons of Paul Gilbert, in his work entitled The Spirit of Compassion. The principle, he tells us, is to realize that we are part of the flow of life and that our goal is to let go.

Some will tell you, for example, that we will all realize our destiny one day or another. The essential question is rather in how long, 10, 20, or 30 years? Everything is written, and above all everything is inscribed in the water. Our water. When we resist it, the risk is to cause in us a form of disharmony which is worse than disharmony with others. When we resist our destiny, we cause chain reactions, including fears, anxieties that would otherwise have no basis in our reality. One of the negative reactions that I have seen is especially with the water that we find outside of ourselves. When we start to be afraid of it, to fear it, then we have to see it as a sign that something is not fluid enough in us. However, we know how much water is a source of life, of well-being, but also of joy!

Another surprising lesson about water comes from the research of Dr. Masaru Emoto. In the 1990s, he developed a method of observing frozen water crystals by photography. Through the various experiments, during which he subjected the crystals of wastewater, stagnant or without impurities, to various information (photographs of landscapes or personalities for example, but also prayers, music, pollution, words), he was able to observe the effects of thought and emotions on water. I encourage you to search the internet for “the hidden messages of water”, which I hope will give our dear readers the desire to take care of mental and spiritual energies, the latter being the most important, according to the book by Jim Loehr and Tony Shwartz, “The Power of Total Engagement”.

I will conclude by evoking a facet of my intimate life, namely my great passion for bridges. Whenever I can, I travel to discover new ones. One of the greatest joys of my life is enjoying the extraordinary technological feats that allow us to pass just above water.

NM: Now let’s move on to the other element of life, which is the earth. Tell us about your relationship with the land in the broadest sense.

JG: Since I started to share my passion for bridges, I propose to continue by returning to their main objective which is of course to allow the junction between two lands. For a person passionate about collaboration, it is obvious that the symbol of the bridge (or the viaduct, no jealousy!) Is evocative for me. One of my favorite series is “Bron” (“The Bridge”), an exciting Swedish-Danish crime series. As a good follower, of course, I went to visit the famous Oresund bridge, commissioned in 2000 and which links the cities of Malmö in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark over a distance of almost 8 kilometers. It has one of the longest cable-stayed aprons in the world and I assure you that its crossing is memorable, even if it will cost you the indecent price of 120 euros for the return trip (the cost of the work is entirely financed by user tolls). I could tell you about other bridges, such as the Normandy Bridge or the 25 April Bridges, and Vasco de Gama in Lisbon, or the Gois Passage allowing access to Noirmoutier Island, which I find quite incredible.

But, I invite you to move on to another subject, by evoking my attachment to the land of my ancestors, Brittany, and a legend that comes to me from my grandfather, the most whimsical, and which will undoubtedly amuse you! My name Guégan comes from the Celtic word meaning “fighter”, it is also one of the most common names in Brittany. According to my grandfather, our family is originally from the town of Guingamp, located in the Côtes-d´Armor department, and according to him, we are the proud descendants of one of the knights of the round table.  If you don’t know this Arthurian legend, let me share it with you. In the 5th century, King Arthur was a Breton lord who allegedly organized the defense of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles and Armorican Brittany against Germanic invaders. To assist him, he would have surrounded himself with the best knights of the kingdom (whose most probable number would be around 200), whom he had seated near him around a round table when they were not on board. in their many adventures, each more magical than the next. It is also said that the Knights of the Round Table were tasked with bringing to the kingdom the Grail, a sacred vessel believed to have contained the blood of Christ and a symbol of immortality. Among the most famous knights and who all demonstrate moral and physical capacities, we will mention Lancelot and Perceval.

I will not hide from you that we have no way of verifying his claims. But the legend will continue to exist through me, and my children, it is obvious. It is too pretty!

NM: According to Joseph Joubert: “There is no music more pleasant than the variations of known tunes”, what does this inspire you?

JG: After such a quote, how could I fail to mention the magnificent Copenhagen Symphony Hall built by the famous French architect and 2008 Nobel laureate for architecture, Jean Nouvel? Opened in 2009, I was lucky enough to attend a concert a few years ago. All in wood and concrete, atypical by its pronounced asymmetry, it is an extraordinary place to listen to the most beautiful tunes, I recommend it!

I will conclude our interview by recalling the importance of air, which we breathe, not from an ecological angle, but rather from the angle of mastery, as I had already suggested with the element of fire. One thing is obvious, we are a people, who for the most part suffered from the absence of the father. In our patriarchal society, men have often been away from home to work and bring back enough money for the care and education of children. This absence has meant that some of us have a hard time setting our limits as many agree that they come mainly from the father, while the care comes more from the mother. What I’m trying to emphasize in connection with your question about air is how much we can regain our control just by learning to focus our attention on our breathing. A few minutes a day and you’re done. We count to help ourselves focus, and learning just gets easier. With this simple practice, our life seems to gain balance, and it becomes much easier to set limits on ourselves.

rThe original article was published in French and in a shorter version on Al Bayane

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