Jean-Marie Teno and Vladimir Jankélévitch

Yesterday I traveled to the city of Mèze in the Languedoc to meet the Cameroonian documentarian Jean-Marie Teno. To read on the way, I took the book La paradoxe de la morale by Vladimir Jankélévitch, the French philosopher and musicologist whom I believe to have been the most significant moral philosopher since Kant. The films of Jean-Maire Teno, with sorrow and humor that never skirt the sentimental, recount the disastrous effects of French and German colonialism. He mentioned a conversation with the Malian director Souleymane Cissé in which he asked the elder filmmaker why he had chosen to have the protagonist of one of his films die. Cissé responded, if I hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t be here asking me this question right now, and then spoke further about the repudiation of the anodyne that was fundamental to art.

Jankélévitch writes:

The question “how much?” supposes, in effect, that selfish pleasure and [our] infinite debt are comparable and commensurable, or even, in their fundament, homogeneous…* It is necessary to point out that, in the end, the symbiosis of body and soul is also a complex of discordant, even contradictory tendencies, and that such a pairing is, nevertheless, lived as a single thing, that our double life is actually one and the same, that this cacophony is perceived, incomprehensibly, its dissonances notwithstanding, as a single harmony… This tense, rending, dramatic situation recalls that of two married people who can live neither together nor apart, and whose rejection of one another at the same time inaugurates an attraction; they cannot choose between the two forms of unhappiness available to them. Is this not a passional situation? A situation that has never been regulated by any a priori contract and that cannot be said to be settled? It is thus, and more correctly, from the moral point of view, if it is true that morality, by definition, excludes all neutrality… Is not a tepidity that precludes all conflict rather simple indifference, wan adiaphora?


Vladimir Jankélévitch

*The infinite debt Jankélévitch refers to is that of the duty to love. Love, he writes, cannot be considered such if it prescribes limits or “draws boundaries,” in contemporary relationship-therapy cant. The question of “how much” here relates to the notion that quantitative considerations can be brought to bear on the conflict between hedonism and altruism.

The films of Jean-Marie Teno can be watched on Amazon Streaming in the United States and can be purchased on DVD directly from the filmmaker here.