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Josef Schovanec

Philosopher and writer Josef Schovanec tells of his passion for travel in a weekly radio broadcast on Europe 1. Through books such as Je suis à l’est and Voyages en Autistan, published by Plon, he approaches autism through his personal experience.

Isn’t being oneself the best means of being original?

Being oneself is a noble task, but nonetheless very conformist within the current cultural context. The “me and I”, the ego and “how I feel” are the verbal tags of our narcissistic era, just about the only benchmarks of meaning in our age. It is far more interesting to seek to understand the world or to become different.

What is your definition of originality?

Its stems from a permanent struggle between that to which human beings aspire and that which society forbids them.

Which are your own “originality factors”?

Each person has reasons to be original; therein lies their humanity and their worth. As far as I’m concerned, I’m the son of migrants, with a crazy brain and a singular body. That’s quite a bit in itself, but there are always those who are even more original. The other day, after an evening in Cayenne, a lady told me she had three disabilities: she was Canadian, autistic and a psychiatrist. That must be pretty tough to handle.

What do you like about traveling?

Going away means abandoning one’s comfort, learning to face the unknown and being dispossessed. It is a fantastic means of developing humility and wisdom, particularly in an era focused on possession, a narcissistic vision of self and the belief that the rest of the world is dangerous.

How many languages to you speak?

I can’t answer that question, because it is variable, depending on my cycles of learning and forgetting, on what one calls a language and on how one defines it in relation to others.

Is your desire to learn languages linked to your wish to meet other cultures and peoples?

Undoubtedly so, but far more fundamentally to the wish to become different and multi-faceted, without necessarily adhering to the cosmopolitan ideal. Look at the current Prince Consort of the United Kingdom, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh: is he Greek, Danish, German, English or French? A bit of each of these nationalities or all at the same time. That was the ideal of the Age of Enlightenment and we can go a lot further still.


Diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult, you grew up without knowing what made you so singular in other people’s eyes, nor why others were singular from your standpoint. Were you relieved to find out what was different about you?

The diagnosis mostly put an end to the heavy psychiatric treatment to which I was subjected, an outcome that was already wonderful in itself. The flip side of the coin was the start of substantial personal involvement in a militant-type activity, which was not really exactly what I wanted to do.

Are you aware of effecting a positive change in the public view of people with autism?

There have been shifts in attitude over recent years in Europe, albeit imperfect, but I don’t really bother to try and ascertain what has caused them.

Humor is the most direct and powerful path towards mutual social understanding. You have a great deal of
it for someone who considers they are lacking certain interpersonal skills. How have you developed this talent?

I think that everyone has had to learn the jokes they tell, or to acquire the social mechanisms enabling them to tell these jokes in a satisfactory or acceptable manner. As far as I’m concerned, it was far slower and more laborious. Nonetheless, when you are yourself a little ridiculous, you naturally find it easier, so there’s no need to force yourself in that direction!

What do you love above all else?

Reflection and discovery.

What do you most dislike?

“Hominem unius libri timeo”: I fear the man of a single book.

What do you do in New Zealand?

I eat, I sleep and I listen to time going by.

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