La Croix: You have frequented the texts of Greek mythology for many years. What figures of courage inspired you during the health crisis?
Murielle Szac: If we think that great mythological heroes are courageous because they are great fighters and fearless heroes, we have it all wrong. In mythology, brave men are first of all those who are able to cry. In this sense, these heroes are oh so useful for the period we are going through.
Take Achilles: he is not a great hero because he slaughtered many Trojans, but because he cries when his friend Patroclus is killed. He also cries when Briseis, his companion, is taken from him, and he still cries in front of the pain of Hector’s father, whom he killed in battle. Let us also remember that Achilles initially did not want to go to war. He even disguised himself as a woman so as not to go …
→ CONJUGATE THE RE-WORK (1/5).“We will have succeeded in our deconfinements when we will be able to smile at each other without forcing ourselves”
The courage of the Greek hero is to have empathy for those opposite. Moreover, at the Champs Élysées, the heroes’ stay after their death, only those who have shown courage, kindness and hospitality are welcomed.
The pandemic has confronted us more visibly than usual with death. What is the courage of the Greek hero in the face of death?
M. S. : Courage in the face of death reminds me of the myth of Orpheus. Orpheus goes to Hell to look for Eurydice, his wife who has just died. In myths, very few humans go to the Underworld. He therefore shows immense courage. But he lacks confidence. Hades asked him not to turn around when returning from the Underworld, but Orpheus breaks this order to verify that Eurydice is following him.
→ READ. Orpheus, love and death
He does not believe the word of Hades and he loses everything. Orpheus had the courage to descend to Hell, but not the courage to trust. In this story, having the courage to trust appears more difficult than the courage to face death… It is interesting, and it is perhaps this courage that is useful to us in this time of epidemic.
Courage sometimes means saying “no”, sometimes saying “yes”. What is the negative and the positive part of courage in your eyes?
M. S. : For twelve years, I have been directing a collection of children’s novels entitled “Those who said no”, which presents figures of courage and resistance. (read above). I have always firmly believed that behind every “no” there must be a “yes”. If you say “no” to injustice, you are saying “yes” to justice.
If you say “no” to violence, you are saying “yes” to non-violence. If you say “no” to racism, you are saying “yes” to fraternity. And there it takes courage! There is no courage in being in a rebellion that does not build anything. The “no” which is only negative destroys everything. What is courageous is to oppose and to propose.
In the verb “to encourage oneself”, are you first of all sensitive to the reflective dimension – to encourage oneself – or to reciprocity – to encourage each other?
M. S. : Far beyond mythology, I believe in the virtue of encouragement. I believe in encouragement in schools – rather than in the use of sanction – encouragement from parents… Encouragement is when people believe in you strong enough for courage to come to you . I am convinced that courage and confidence go together. These two words join hands.
→ CONJUGATE THE RE-WORK (2/5). “The Covid invites us to put trust back at the center”
I do not encourage myself very much. And I believe that faced with any situation that requires courage, we can only get out collectively. There is no courage in individualism. Alone we are nothing. Contrary to what is often believed, this is also valid for the Greek heroes. Ulysses is nothing without Penelope. And Theseus would still be in the labyrinth if Ariadne weren’t there …
Does courage go through the recognition of our difficulties, of our powerlessness?
M. S. : It doesn’t help to say that the difficulties are nothing. We saw it with the pandemic. Some have sought courage in minimizing or denying danger. But a pandemic, no it’s not nothing, yes it’s serious!
Courage is looking at the threat in the face, taking it into account and being in empathy. All these old people who self-confine, it was really brave! We haven’t said it enough. We haven’t celebrated it enough. We can also congratulate the children for having had the courage to protect grandpa or grandma by not kissing them. It is important to recognize that this has been difficult and may still be.
You run a lot of workshops in schools. How does courage circulate from texts to children?
M. S. : Mythological texts allow us to share what we cannot always say to each other directly. Of course, we can do philosophy workshops with children, but myths allow them to go much further. They offer us to project ourselves into situations, without telling us what to do, without teaching us a lesson.
→ INVESTIGATION. Myths within the reach of children
We don’t need a role model to follow, but gods and heroes to be sufficiently imperfect figures that we can project ourselves into them. This imperfection, this complexity, do us good. Flaubert wrote: “You must not touch the idols: the gilding remains on the hands. “ I am very careful not to come up with idols.
Fortunately in mythology, one is saved from the temptation of perfection. The gods of Olympus are full of faults, and they are ours. Children are not mistaken. Finally, mum and dad are necessarily better than Zeus and Hera!
Courage implies welcoming the imperfection in the other, in oneself …
M. S. : Yes, and it is a test. You know, when you write 100 episodes about a character like I do for each soap opera, it’s also difficult for me to show it in its bad light. When Theseus kidnaps little teenage Hélène, it’s not brilliant… I really wondered how my little readers were going to look at him. Artemis can also be insanely unfair, get carried away by anger …
→ TO (RE) READ. Children’s book: listen to Artémis
It’s important not to sidestep these moments, but I try to write these passages being careful not to lose empathy for the character. The complexity of these characters relieves us of ourselves. We too, there are days when we feel very courageous and others when we are not at all. We felt it during the pandemic. There were times when we were ashamed of our own reactions: ashamed to be afraid or to attack our neighbor because he had not put on his mask. We could have been on the verge of denouncing this abominable thing, because it was unbearable to see some people not respecting barrier gestures. We have sometimes lost the desire to go see others …
Myths, like poetry, offer nuance and complexity. Everything is not given by words. There is a quiver of meaning that allows us to question ourselves. Why is the hero acting like this? Could he have done otherwise? As soon as we are in this movement, we are saved …
As the start of the school year approaches, while the epidemic situation remains uncertain, how can we encourage ourselves?
M. S. : For a return to school like the one that awaits us, children need to be given the courage not to have an answer. It feels like it’s simple, but it’s not at all, because the world they grow up in is a world of answers. This is the world of quizzes and search engines… Today, at school, children mainly suffer from wanting to know the correct answer before having learned it. Not knowing, accepting to be wrong, today requires a lot of courage from the youngest.
One of the most useful figures, and perhaps it should be brought out again for the start of the school year, is the labyrinth: this place from which you only come out by retracing your steps, recognizing your mistake, accepting it. Faced with the pandemic, some parents give false guarantees. They say to the children: “It’s not going to start again” Where “Don’t worry, it’s over”. Instead, let’s have the courage to tell the children that we don’t know what lies ahead, but that we will move on. That if we are facing a wall, we will retrace our steps to find the exit of the labyrinth. And if we’re together and an Ariadne gave us a thread, we’ll do better …
Born in 1964, Murielle Szac is a children’s author and editor. She was a journalist for a long time, notably as editor-in-chief of Bayard Jeunesse children’s magazines.
In 2006, she published Hermès’ feuilleton, followed by the soap operas of Thésée (2011), d’Ulysse (2015) and Artémis (2019) at Bayard Jeunesse, works which have met with great success in schools and families.
She is also director of the collections “Those who said non” (Actes Sud Junior) – where she has signed books on Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Jacques Prévert – and “Poés’idéal” (Éditions Bruno Doucey). His next work, the collection of poems Huge are their wings, on the children of Syria, appears in September by Bruno Doucey.