Josse De Pauw: "But I can’t swim."

Imagine this: you are walking along a canal when you see someone in the water, floundering, drowning. What do you do? Jump in?

Josse De Pauw dares to hesitate and hopes he will never have to experience it. This is a monologue with music by Dominique Pauwels, who tries to capture that single moment. Six questions put to Josse De Pauw about The Heroes.

What do we actually mean by a hero?
De Pauw: ‘For this production we are starting from the notion of ‘the sacrifice’. Someone risks or gives their life for the common good. So he or she is not a victim, but sacrifices the self, sacrifices him or herself. But what about when someone is not capable of heroism? A child falls in the canal and the passer-by does not dare jump in… he can’t swim.’

So doesn’t a hero have to possess any specific qualities?
De Pauw: ‘I really don’t know. Schopenhauer once described the hero as someone who, in dramatic circumstances, suddenly understands that everything is one and the same life. He thought that our separateness was only a consequence of the way we perceive forms in the universe of time and space. The reality would then be that we are one with all life.’

Who are our contemporary heroes?
De Pauw: ‘The world has become considerably more complicated. We realise now that a hero in one community is not necessarily a hero in another.’

‘It’s possible that heroes are something from another age. A time when communities marked off their terrain and celebrated their standards and values within those boundaries. The boundaries have blurred, and the standards and values are now questioned. These are uncertain times.’

Does our era lack heroes, or do we actually label someone a hero too easily?
De Pauw: ‘Yes, we’re very extravagant. Youth heroes, rock heroes, sports heroes. If you’ll excuse the expression, it’s all promotional talk. That may also explain our confusion. One way or another I have the feeling we would be better off if we no longer needed them.’

You have asked the historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver to assist you.
De Pauw: ‘She specialises in the Great War, where the last real hand-to-hand fighting took place. She has taught me about heroism.’

‘When I create a performance, I like to have a sounding board. This time I’ve asked Sophie De Schaepdrijver to accompany me on my journey. I’m glad she agreed to do it. It’s a way of being freer to think and write. Sophie is my anchor when it comes to history: however far I may drift away, I can always get back.’

Is there a sentence that’s already on paper that covers the content of the production?
De Pauw: ‘Yes: But I can’t swim. No one ever taught me.’


Interview by Kris Kuppens