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Coutel, Charles [Ed.]
Témoigner, entre acte et parole. Une herméneutique du témoignage est-elle possible?
Paris: Parole et Silence 2017. 239 S. Kart. EUR 19,00. ISBN 978-2-88918-697-6.
This book gathers the contributions presented in October 2016 at a conference organized by the Institut d’étude des faits religieux and its founder Charles Coutel (Université d’Artois, Northern France). The theme of témoignage (witness, testimony) is a perfect occasion for interdisciplinary reflection. Among the signal philosophical contributions to this theme in recent times, there is Paul Ricœur’s 1972 article »L’herméneutique du témoignage« (Lectures 3, Seuil, 1994; »The Hermeneutics of Testimony«, in Essays on Biblical Interpretation, Fortress, 1980). The present book’s subtitle signals the extent of our debt to Ricœur.
The book is divided into four sections, 1. on testimony as a »testing of the self« (»mise à l’épreuve de soi«), 2. on cases of instrumentalization, 3. on testimony in the face of extreme violence (the longest part, with five articles), and 4. on what it means to witness to a religious »absolute«. In what follows I selectively underline some of the contributions.
In the first part, Guy Coq, a philosopher, reflects on the writing of a personal memoir in which he retraced the events which led him to the Christian faith. After publishing his book, he became acutely aware of the discrepancy or écart (a key word in any reflection on testimony) between the one who witnesses and the »spiritual message« one seeks to convey (21). The »test« (épreuve) of the act of witnessing resides in the fact that, in the very act of testifying, one may be betraying that to which one seeks to testify. The witness must be aware of his »indignity« (28). And so the problems of faithfulness, truthfulness and sincerity come up, as well as the question of what is aimed at in the act of witnessing – which leads to the theme of the second part of the book, on the instrumentalization of testimony.
Audrey Louckx surveys several testimonies delivered in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 with the aim of raising awareness about the stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs. Here the »witness«, in reciting a poem of protest on television, aims at freeing society of certain prejudices and at fostering dialogue (83). Cyril Michaud analyzes the role of personal testimonies in the 1950s and 1960s »film propaganda« of the movement known as Moral Re-Armament. The purpose of the films was to present the movement as better equipped than atheist Communism to foster reconciliation between nations, races and social classes (104).
The third part of the book examines extreme cases of violence and the possibility of hope, with a focus on the Holocaust, two other wars (the war of 1870 and the Algerian war of independence), and the Action catholique ouvrière. Here philosophy and theology recede; reflection on history takes center stage. Cathy Leblanc raises the question of the relation between one’s personal story and what historians produce, namely history (117). Chiara Nannicini Streitberger ponders the destiny of Teresio Olivelli, an inmate in the camp of Flossenbürg who left a deep mark on fellow prisoners. He was beaten to death, on January 17, 1945, by a kapo after coming, as he commonly did, to another inmate’s defense. The testimony becomes double: there is Olivelli’s own selflessness, which struck those who saw him, and there is the testimony which survivors gave, after the war, of his courage.
The fourth part of the book, on testifying to (religious) abso-lutes, opens with a remarkable contribution by Claire Charrier on Rembrandt’s engravings, which she partly interprets using Jean Nabert’s book Le désir de Dieu (1966; Nabert, like Gabriel Marcel, was an important figure for Ricœur; all three wrote on the notion of testimony; several of the authors of the book are indebted to them). Rembrandt’s work performs a kind of witness. How and why? For three main reasons: because of the accuracy and depth of what he perceived – namely humility and kenosis present at the very heart of God’s action – and because of the endless quest his art manifests (199). But also because of Rembrandt’s way of soliciting the spectator’s judgment: the artist risks everything, he accepts that his work may not be understood. Genuine witnessing implies a frailty (200). And yet, in the end, Rembrandt’s testimony is so powerful it acquires the status of a »proof« (preuve, 203; here the author might be going a step too far). A final article, by Catherine Vialle, on the notion of témoignage in certain books of the Old Testament, closes the fourth part of the book.
In his conclusion, Charles Coutel comments on the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus (Lk 24): Jesus himself is presented as testifying to himself in interpreting the Scriptures for them (Lk 24,27). He does that without imposing himself: he begins by asking questions. The risen Christ establishes the two disciples as his witnesses: they will not merely carry an information on the basis of something they have duly noted. They will, rather, testify, and commit others to this testimony (226). This does not happen in an instant: for a time the two disciples do not recognize Jesus, who frees them so that they may become his witnesses. The act of testifying is a »freeing act which makes us more free, more fraternal, more alive and more desirous for the truth« (233).
This is an interesting, stimulating collection of texts on (at times) vastly differing topics. Those looking for a sustained reflection on the notion of testimony might be a little be disappointed: particular insights found in Nabert, Marcel and Ricœur are explic-itly mentioned here and there, for instance, but one will not find any systematic exploration of their thought on testimony. What should we make, for instance, of Ricœur’s claim that the testimony comes from an »absolute initiative, with regard to its origin and its content« (Lecture 3, 117)?