My love, I cannot live without you
French philosopher Andre Gorz wrote his terminally ill wife a moving letter before their joint suicide last month. Here we publish it in Britain for the first time
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The joint suicide of André Gorz, the French philosopher and founder of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, and his British-born wife Dorine, who was suffering from a fatal disease, has turned the love letter that he wrote to her into a surprise bestseller.
Gorz, 84, a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, and Dorine, 83, committed suicide by lethal injection at their home in the village of Vosnon, east of Paris, on September 22. Two days later a friend found them lying side-by-side in their bedroom.
Gorz’s 75-page Lettre à D. Histoire d’un Amour (Letter to D. Story of a Love), published a year earlier, was a tribute to his wife. One French critic described the work, which won him a wider audience than his essays on ecology and anti-capitalism, as his “intellectual and emotional testament”.
The couple met by chance at a card game in 1947 and married in 1949. “You will soon be 82. You have shrunk six centimetres and you weigh just 45 kilos and you are still beautiful, gracious and desirable,” the book starts. “It is now 58 years that we have lived together and I love you more than ever.”
Gorz goes on to describe finding out in 1973 that Dorine, who managed foreign rights for the publisher Galilée, suffered from an incurable condition caused by the contrast agent lipiodol that was used for x-rays before a back operation that she underwent in 1965. Traces of the agent reached her skull and led to cysts in her cervix, painfully pressuring her nerves.
Two years later the couple learnt that she also suffered from another illness:
‘I took a photo of you, from behind: you are walking with your feet in the water on the beach of La Jolla. You are 52. You are amazing. It’s one of the images of you that I like best.
I looked at that photo for a long while after we got back home, when you told me you wondered if you didn’t have some sort of cancer. You’d already wondered that before we left for the United States but hadn’t wanted to say anything to me. Why not? ‘If I have to die, I wanted to see California beforehand,’ you told me calmly.
Your endometrial cancer hadn’t been picked up in your annual checkup. Once the diagnosis was made and the date of the operation set, we went to spend a week in the house you’d designed. I carved your name in the stone with a chisel. That house was magic. All the spaces had a trapezoidal shape. The bedroom windows looked out over the treetops.
The first night, we didn’t sleep. We were both listening to each other breathing. Then a nightingale started singing and a second one, further away, started answering. We said very little to each other. I spent the day digging and looked up from time to time at the bedroom window. You were standing there, motionless, staring into the distance. I am sure you were practising taming death in order to fight it without fear. You were so beautiful and so determined in your silence that I couldn’t imagine you giving up living.
I took time off from Le Nouvel Observateur and shared your room at the clinic. The first night, through the open window, I heard all of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. It is etched in me, every note. I remember every moment spent at the clinic. Pierre, our doctor friend from the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), who came to hear your latest news every morning, said to me: ‘You are going through moments of exceptional intensity. You’ll remember this always.’ I wanted to know what chances the oncol-ogist gave you of surviving five years. Pierre brought me the answer: ‘50-50.’
When you came out of the clinic we went back to our house. Your spirit thrilled me and reassured me. You’d escaped death and life took on a new meaning and a new value. A friend immediately understood this when you saw him at a party. He stared into your eyes for a long time and he said to you: ‘You’ve seen the other side.’ I don’t know how you responded or what else you said. But these are the words he said to me, straight afterwards: ‘Those eyes! Now I understand what she means to you.’
You had seen ‘the other side’; you’d come back from the land no one comes back from. This changed your perspective. We made the same resolution without consulting each other. An English Romantic once summed it up in a sentence: ‘There is no wealth but life.’
During the months you were convalescing, I decided to take my retirement at 60. I started counting the weeks till I could pack up. I took pleasure in cooking, in tracking down organic produce that would help you get your strength back, in ordering the specially tailored medications that a homeopath had recommended you take.
Ecology became a way of life and a daily practice without ceasing to imply the requirement of a completely different civilisation. I’d reached the age where you ask yourself what you’ve done with your life, what you would like to have done with it. I had the impression of not having lived my life, of having always observed it at a distance, of having developed only one side of myself and being poor as a person. You were, and always had been, richer than I was. You’d blossomed and grown in every dimension. You were at home in your life; whereas I’d always been in a hurry to move on to the next task, as though our life would only really begin later.
I asked myself what was the inessential that I needed to give up in order to concentrate on the essential. I told myself that, to grasp the reach of the upheavals that were looming in every domain, there had to be more space and time for reflection than the full-time exercise of my profession as a journalist allowed.
I was amazed that my leaving the journal, after 20 years of collaboration, was neither painful to myself nor to others. I remember having written that, at the end of the day, only one thing was essential to me: to be with you. I can’t imagine continuing to write, if you no longer are. You are the essential without which all the rest, no matter how important it seems to me when you are there, loses its meaning and its importance. I told you that in the dedication of my last work.
Twenty-three years have gone by since we went off to live in the country, first in ‘your’ house, which radiated a sense of meditative harmony. A harmony we enjoyed for only three years. They started building a nuclear power station nearby and that drove us away. We found another house, very old, cool in summer, warm in winter, with huge grounds. It was a place where you could be happy.
Where there was only a meadow you created a garden of hedges and shrubs. I planted 200 trees there. For a few years we still did a bit of travelling; but all the vibrating and jolting around involved in any means of transport, no matter what, triggers headaches and pain through your whole body. Arach-noiditis has forced you, little by little, to abandon most of your favourite activities. You hide your suffering. Our friends think you’re ‘in great shape’. You’ve never stopped encouraging me to write. Over the 23 years we’ve spent in our house, I’ve published six books and hundreds of articles and interviews.
We’ve had dozens of visitors from every corner of the globe and I’ve given dozens of interviews. I surely have not lived up to the resolution made 30 years ago: to live completely at home in the present, mindful above all of the richness that is our shared life. I’m now reliving the instants when I made that resolution with a sense of urgency. I don’t have any major work in the pipeline. I don’t want ‘to put off living till later’ – in Georges Bataille’s phrase – any longer.
I am as mindful of your presence now as in the early days and would like to make you feel that. You’ve given me all of your life and all of you; I’d like to be able to give you all of me in the time we have left.
You’ve just turned 82. You are still beautiful, graceful and desirable. We’ve lived together now for 58 years and I love you more than ever. Lately I’ve fallen in love with you all over again and I once more carry inside me a gnawing emptiness that can only be filled by your body snuggled up against mine.
At night I sometimes see the figure of a man, on an empty road in a deserted landscape, walking behind a hearse. I am that man. It’s you the hearse is carrying away. I don’t want to be there for your cremation; I don’t want to be given an urn with your ashes in it. I hear the voice of Kathleen Ferrier singing, ‘Die Welt ist leer, Ich will nicht leben mehr’ and I wake up. I check your breathing, my hand brushes over you.
Each of us would like not to survive the other’s death. We’ve often said to ourselves that if, by some miracle, we were to have a second life, we’d like to spend it together. ’
Extracted from Lettre à D. Histoire d’un Amour by André Gorz. Translated by Julie Rose