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Appartenance and Belonging: The Meaning of Words

Jacques Dufresne


The translation of the word “belonging” by the word appartenance is not automatic. The word appartenance does not have the same emotional resonance to a Francophone that the word belonging has for an Anglophone.

 According to the Trésor de la langue française, an extensive dictionary of the French language, the word appartenance signifies the fact of belonging to a group. The English word “belonging,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, means close relationship or affinity. According to trustworthy sources, the root of the word belong is not “to belong” but “be longing for.” The participial form, “longing,” expresses profound desire. We must therefore translate belonging by speaking of le sentiment de l’appartenance, the feeling of belonging. Use of the word appartenance in the sense of close relationship or affinity, is however becoming more and more common.

It is a good thing that the word belonging is not derived from the verb to belong, and that consequently it isn’t a synonym of “belongings,” a word that can be translated as effets personnels, that is, personal effects or things that belong to us. We can only belong to those things which do not belong to us. The more that money determines (in the strict sense of the word) our relationships with living beings and with things, the more our feeling of belonging, our sentiment d’appartenance, to these beings and things diminishes, weakens. We reach zero degree of belonging when, for example, we acquire goods or products intending to quickly re-sell them for profit, or when we cultivate the acquaintance of an individual or a group in the hope that this acquaintance may serve to further our career. Everything that reinforces for us the importance of property rights, or individual rights in general, weakens the feeling of belonging which, on the contrary, is strengthened by our sense of obligation. This is not an attempt to argue against property, but it is a reminder of a truth of experience: the feeling of belonging to a country is linked to the feeling of our obligations to one’s place more than to the right we have to do there what we will. Who would dare say that the landscape “belongs” to him or her, even if it is situated on land he or she owns? It is rather we who belong to the land.

We have an obligation toward everything that helps to meet our essential needs – from the need for the most elementary security to the need for the highest truth. To thus protect and nourish us, these realities must themselves be living. I have no feeling of belonging with respect to my car, nor to trains or airplanes, which transport but don’t uplift me.

My reason and my desire for power lead me to appreciate the speed of these machines, but this speed hinders my feeling of belonging which, on the contrary, demands slowness, which in turn encourages an essential element of belonging: mutuality. When I travel somewhere on foot or on a bicycle, I have time to give myself to the landscape; it has time to give itself to me.

When we make incursions into a wilderness, we have, during the initial hours, the feeling that there is no life there. But if our presence is discreet, silent, and slow, life will slowly return: the animals, at first frightened, will resume their normal habits. The environment thus tamed will give to us in return. Our relationships with human communities work the same way.

Mutuality is not an inverted causality. The swing that returns because a force pushed it in the opposite direction is not practicing mutuality or reciprocity, which can only be the response of life to life.

This response of life may come from the past, through the memory of a poem or a painting, for example, but it cannot come from the future. It is certainly important to maintain a certain awareness of the future; this is a fundamental need, but when we transfer our need for belonging to the future, as the Communist and Nazi empires forced entire peoples to do, we risk destroying the most precious forms of belonging.



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Jacques Dufresne's

The editor of L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora and well known newspaper chronicler and philosopher, analyses actuality through the looking glass of Belonging.
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