Being and Neonness

– an English translation –

If you’d been walking up Kentish Town Road in London last evening, you might have noticed a party going on inside the Owl Bookshop. We were celebrating a book by Luis de Miranda, which I translated from the French original –L’être et le néon – and which has now been published in English by MIT Press as Being and Neonness. It is a cultural, historical and philosophical exploration of neon lights as a metonymy for twentieth century identity. It has already been positively reviewed in The Atlantic and also caught the attention of Matthew Sweet at BBC Radio Three’s Free Thinking who talked to Luis about it last week. To explain the background to the translation, here is an interview I did with Luis and here is how we began the launch party.

Being and Neonness, what is it all about?

When I was studying French literature and philosophy at Bristol University, it was a somewhat schizophrenic experience, because the philosophy department, true to the analytical tradition in the English-speaking world, only considered two French thinkers, 17th century Rene Descartes and 20th century Jean-Paul Sartre, to be philosophers in the strict sense. My beloved “philosophes”, 16th century Montaigne and 18th century Voltaire and Diderot, were rather sniffily dismissed. That taught me a lesson about translation and les faux amis, false friends: a “philosophe” in French is not necessarily a “philosopher” in English.

So, in English philosophy we did read René Descartes who said essence precedes existence, “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think therefore I am”, that is “to do is to be”. We also read Jean-Paul Sartre who said “existence precedes essence”, that is “to be is to do”. So, to do is to be or to be is to do and, of course, the great American philosopher, Frank Sinatra said “Doobey Doobey Doo.”

I think you will find that this little book brings together key moments in Western 20th century culture, and mixes humour, music, poetry and philosophy in a very readable way.

A few words about the title. I expect most of you have heard of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 “L’être et le néant”, “Being and Nothingness”, which has recently been translated for a second time by Sarah Richmond, a philosopher here at UCL in London.

But what about the neon? Our book is “L’être et le néon “Being and Neonness”. Luis had an illuminating moment in Paris with a neon shop sign which prompted this whole enterprise. His title riffs on a passage from “Boris Vian’s 1947 novel. Let me read you a short extract in which Luis recounts this.

in “L’Écume des jours — literally, “the foam of days”— we discover that a fictional Jean-Sol Partre gave an imaginary lecture entitled “The Letter and the Neon,” a famous critical study on luminous signs.” What sort of light will we produce if we mix Vian’s poetic music and the real-life Sartre’s insights in a slim glass tube? In the months that followed my encounter with the neon trigger on the Quai du Louvre, the disingenuously anodyne character of neonness haunted me to such an extent that it pushed apparently more “serious” ideas to the back of my mind. I started reading Being and Nothingness, the seven-hundred-page slab that contains an entire historical era. A simplified version of existentialism has become the implicit popular philosophy of our times, encapsulated in the ideal of self-realization.

From its first sentence, […], this wordy but touching doorstop of a book brings out the twentieth century’s concern with phenomena and appearance: “Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.” To exist for Sartre refers to the fact of emerging out of a background, getting out of what there is, to stand out. To exist is like an enforceable attempt to escape the flowing materiality or immanence of things, and it requires a twofold effort, like squaring the real, or a “decompression of being,” as Sartre put it. Moreover, to exist is to remove oneself from an undifferentiated being and bring out the unheard of, perhaps the incredible—to dare the fostering of a subtler Logos, to articulate a dialectic of sense and nonsense. To exist is to bring to life, in a certain manner, invisible flows of pre-existence. Elsewhere, in Situations, Sartre wrote that “it is impossible to correctly appreciate light without knowing the darkness,” echoing what Victor Hugo wrote in 1867 about the International Exposition and the idea of the City of Light: “Paris is a sower. Where does he sow? In the darkness. What does he sow? Sparks.”

End of quote.

I will leave it up to Luis to extrapolate further on the book’s content, but I would like to say something about the translation process. As you will see on the cover, it reads “Being & Neonness, Luis de Miranda, translated by Michael Wells, revised, augmented and updated for this edition by Luis de Miranda. This acknowledges the back and forth exchanges between Luis and myself, as I translated chapter by chapter, which I would send to him and we would discuss by email. This initiated a multi-layered conversation between us about the book and the ideas in it. When MIT Press got involved, Roger Conover, the editor, suggested we read one of their recent titles “Sympathy for the Traitor” by Mark Polizzotti, which is a follow-on from one of the bibles of translation studies, David Bellos’s Is that a fish in your ear, translation and the meaning of everything.” Polizzotti considers the translator as a reader and as a new voice or writer in his or her own right.

As most of you know, I like talking and conversation, so I would like to add another label; the Translator as Conversationalist. The translator as a facilitator of the conversation between the author and the reader.

To conclude, I hope that you will read this book, which has some stimulating ideas in it about identity, creativity and it also has a political dimension. Above all, I hope you will find it enjoyable and illuminating.

Thank you.

Aura neon by Eric Michel.