Patrick Boucheron , “To lay down the heavy burden of the world somewhere” published in “the Atlas in motion” edited by Textuel, 2022.

We sometimes have too cavalier an idea of atlases. As companions to our schoolbooks, they promised easy journeys to countries with magnificent names, they let you glide over a few alliterations in unknown languages just as one skims along a coastline. “It was the world caught in a mirror,” marvelled the young Jean-Paul Sartre in The Words; he navigated the family library so he could dream of being an explorer of uncharted lands: “I would be La Pérouse, Magellan, Vasco de Gama.” Taking to the sea, braving death, fleeing burning cities – a hundred times, a thousand times a day, migrants are re-enacting The Aeneid, but anonymously, and thousands of miles from the bookish havens where the maritime adventures and land journeys of their more illustrious predecessors are recounted. Who will tell their story? Themselves, of course, and in so many ways, with strange alphabets and trembling videos.
Mathieu Pernot opens our eyes to those who ventured into these open spaces. Follow the long trail of the school notebooks. They bear the classic French brands of Carthage, Lutèce and Marco Polo and they are echoes of their namesakes, inscribed with accounts of faraway galleys, sea merchants and navigators; other notebooks have charred edges reminiscent of biblical relics and were used to practice a litany of days or body parts; and then, the last ones tell the stories of fragile lives in Kurdi, in Arabic, or in Tigrinya. It is because the heavy burden of the world must be laid down somewhere, lading down the very notion of an atlas with the weight of suffering.
How could we forget? The atlas, that glorious book of the westernisation of the world, carries the name of a punishment – precisely, that of the titan named Atlas. He was the brother of Prometheus, who was punished by the gods for having stolen the fire that gave life to clay statues that became man and woman. Atlas, on the other hand, is the bearer of it all, the one who holds up and endures. For his pride, he was condemned to keep Earth and Heaven – Gaia and Uranus – apart. This is the terrible burden that weighs on his shoulders, and this is what our contemporary existence, that of the Anthropocene, makes even heavier. To what extent can an inhabited Earth truly be separated from its atmospheric envelope?
And so it begins: with an eclipse. The dark night of ancient stories of navigation and cosmogony, which are told in Arabic, because Muhammad Ali Sammuneh is the one who added, and the word must be noted, the legends. The Chinese claim that all humanity lives “under the same sky”, but this Confucian principle of Tianxia, as manipulated by the present powers, reinforces domination rather than exalting universality. Geographically, we belong to the world, but politically, it is the states that take possession of us. This is why it is worth remembering that although we live under the same sky, the changing landscape of the celestial vault means that we do not live under the same stars.
These days, how can we not think of the last sentences of Mikhail Bulgakov’s
The White Guard, describing the siege of Kyiv in 1918: “Everything passes away – suffering, pain, blood, hunger, and pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will still remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars? Why?”
Everything passes away, no doubt, but some of our fellow human beings are struggling to make the passage. Aleppo, Istanbul, Çorum, Paris. With each step, the position of the stars draws dark omens, echoes of astronomy and astrology – in Italian, when the stars align in such an obviously fatal way, it is called a disastro. The Syrian astronomer Muhammad Ali Sammuneh arrived in Paris at the end of 2015, terrible year. This is what comprises this moving atlas. And how could I, who discovers it and admires it, have the heart to support it in any other way than frater-nally, by letting myself be won over by its cross-dissolving effects?
It is impossible and futile, of course, to comment on each and every tremor. There are atlases that invite you to travel, others that recount their share of misfortunes. But here, notice how eerily they match the wonders of the world. We discover that it is not only people who move under the stars, but also plants, those that are said to be rooted yet never stop sowing; by interpreting Marwan Sheikh Albassatneh’s phylogenetic trees as herbariums that attest to their movements, we better understand what a natural history of migrations might be. In 1950 the historians François Crouzet and Lucien Febvre suggested that French schoolchildren who wanted to understand world trade and discover the otherness of others simply needed to go down to the garden. There, wise children would understand that the familiar plants were actually “naturalised French aliens”. But there is no irenicism here, because we soon discover the wounded and tortured olive trees in the Mória camp in Lesbos, then the trees in the Calais Jungle, which are not wounded, but whose exposed roots are strewn with multicoloured plastic.
A cross-dissolve, I tell you. It takes dead wood to make a fire, and it is from this blaze that stories are born. This is something that is as old as time, and it is the source of abundant commentary within Jewish mysticism: fire and story are heated by the same wood. But, here, while we see the fireside where the frozen words of those who have walked such distances are rekindled, we can also conclude that fire can be murderous when in Lesbos, the capital of pain, criminals burn tents. It is at this point that the archaeologists of disaster enter the stage, confident in Walter Benjamin’s promise, certain that nothing is ever lost to history, finding a few scattered, charred words amid the ashes. There lies what Aby Warburg called Leidschätze, “treasures of suffering”. Inevitably, one thinks of Emanuel Ringelblum and his comrades from the Oyneg Shabbes group who, from 1939 to 1943, gathered traces to be hidden away, to wait and to hope. Fabrics, rags and texts – these are the sources of such ancient, archaic stories.
Of course, everything here is only recognisable by the traces. Only the surroundings of the disaster can be documented. Thus the truly terrifying photographs of the buoys and the life jackets that are so cruelly misnamed. It is a story of bodies and footprints, some tortured like olive trees, others opening like a hand. It is a story of passages and journeys, of destroyed cities as points of departure, and it is then necessary to keep one’s gaze steady in the face of annihilation, to understand what gives people the strength to overcome the fear of the sea. It is a story of borders, solid and liquid, armed and uncertain, a story of reefs, passes and sunken boats. There is no point in believing oneself to be sheltered on the shore, a mere spectator to peril, contemplating the misfortunes of a capsizing humanity from dry land: we are all aboard.
This is why I will not shirk from the only task that is demanded of me, why I will try not to expose myself as too unworthy of the job of living. You must know how to express the moments when you were ashamed, and to express them simply, I mean without dithering or dwelling on it. For my part, it was when I saw the photographs, the terrible photographs, impeccable in their justice and accuracy, that Mathieu Pernot took of bodies stuffed into sleeping bags, blankets, sheets, cardboard boxes and garbage bags. I recognised them; I have seen them over and over again, I have walked past them many times, alone or with my children, I have looked away, I have continued a conversation. So much so that, looking at these photographs today, I can identify everything – the joints between the cobblestones, the grey or speckled slabs of pavement, the grilled ledge, the dirty garden, the bench – everything but the essential: the person’s name. I recognise the place since I live there, but I am unable to name any of those who slept under those shrouds. We have embarked on this journey, but we are also safely bundled. Trapped in the shame of not being able to utter the names.
Whereas the name of the man whose statue is covered by tarpaulin at the Collège de France, that’s a name I know very well. Mohamed Abakar’s performance inverses the burden of the patronymic. For once, it is the statues that are anonymised. Veils are used to make the forms more visible, and using a beautiful sheet to make them stand out: one might say this act is as venerable as ancient statuary. Yes, no doubt, but here it takes on a pathos and a spectral form that confuses the very idea of genealogy. To understand this, it is necessary to read Passer, quoi qu’il en coûte [Passing, whatever it costs], the potent book that Georges Didi-Huberman devoted to Niki Giannari’s poem, the off-screen narration to the film Spectres Are Haunting Europe. Why is this image of the spectre necessary? To reveal this blinding truth: refugees “do not come from nothing or nowhere”: they return. They “just come back. […] When we consider them as crowds of invaders from hostile countries, when we confuse them with the enemy and the foreign, it means, above all, that we are trying to ward off something that has already happened. Something that one represses from one’s own genealogy. This something is that we are all children of migrants and that migrants are merely our returning parents”.
Our returning parents: that is the key. At this point, the disturbing strangeness becomes an uncanny familiarity, Freud’s Unheimliche. This is what we could call, in the full sense of the word, the past: not just our history, but that hinterland where we actually recognise that those who are passing through are returning. How will we be able to call them by their names? An atlas, especially when it remains in motion, is a liturgy of proper names: it evinces the route, peppering out the list of place names along the way. One thinks of the portolans created by ancient navigators, which enhanced the precision of the names along the edges of the coastlines because that was the domain of their expertise. But this is also true of the extraordinary journey of Mustaddin Jewar, who turned his school notebook into a diary along the voyage from Ethiopia, or the itinerary of Imdad Hussain, whose point of departure was Pakistan – an incisive line that traces the journey, that runs like an endless scar, and that ultimately dictates the disorder of the books.
Yes, the issue of proper names is indeed the most relentless and cruel question found in this story. Enter the astronomer’s or the botanist’s name in a search engine – you know, those pilots that guarantee safe navigation on the oily seas of the internet – and you’ll come across their research studies without fail. Follow the links on the extraordinary Syrian artist Najah Albukaï and it will inevitably lead you to others who captured such horror, from Francisco de Goya to Zoran Mušič. But the rest of them? The anonymous ones in the screenshots? The ones whose undefined shapes we can only guess at from beneath the shrouds of our indifference. Those who have already disappeared in the heap of life jackets? Did they even have time to set down their bags?
There are, here and there, a few tents, shacks huts, and makeshift shelters – habitats, in spite of everything, where fragile bodies curl up, and which are as if secret-ed by their very word. I don’t know why, but when I see them, I think of the poet Francis Ponge, whose work The Nature of Things rages against inattention. The monuments of men resemble “great emaciated bones”, “the most enormous cathedrals merely spew out a shapeless throng of ants”, he wrote in “Notes for a Sea Shell”. These skeletons would only find favour in the eyes of the poet if he saw an enormous colossus “in flesh and blood” emerge from the Colosseum like a mollusc from its shell. But in the meantime, he would prefer the oversized impression this little thing in the shell makes once it is placed “on a spread of sand”. “Instead of those gigantic monuments which testify only to the grotesque disparity between his imagination and his person … I wish that man carved out a sort of niche or shell to his own measure, an object very different from the mollusc form yet similarly proportioned.”
I t seems to me, this is exactly the situation we have here. Mathieu Pernot’s images welcome these adventurous and precarious lives, those that have a relationship with mystery and vulnerability. Here, precarious comes from praex, which designates prayer, or more precisely, a humble request that assails weakness, as opposed to quaestio, which uses all means necessary, including the most violent, to wrest free the truth. But this prayer is adventurous because it projects us into an odyssey of knowledge – and in this sense, The Atlas in Motion promises us the same Sartreesque impetus as the atlases of our childhood. This is why it was so beautiful to see, exhibited at the Collège de France, the Afghan notebooks in which Mansour practised his hand-writing to express fears, emergencies and perils – “I’m lost”, “waiting room”, “identity card”, “I’m afraid”, “you mustn’t lie” – and then, little by little, and by copying them several times as if to convince himself the words are real, “14th of July”, “national holiday”, and “liberty, equality, fraternity” lined up as if on parade. Drawing the place where you are, writing, finally telling your story. This is the end of the journey, the entry into another language, one that promises a new adventure of knowledge. The atlas ends, but not its punishment. The heavy burden of the world has been laid down somewhere.