“In California, I Became Immersed in the Joys of Everyday Life”

Ethnologist and professor emeritus at the Université Paris Diderot, Pascal Dibie traveled frequently to the United States between 1980 and 1990. While there, he lived with indigenous tribes in South Dakota and met with activists of the American Indian Movement. In California Dream : Voyage chez les rêveurs d’avenir, recently published in French, he draws on his field notes to recount his time in a hippie commune in Big Sur on the California coast when he was 30.
Pascal Dibie. © Philippe Matsas

France-Amérique: What inspired you to read through your notebooks from 1980, more than 40 years after your trip to California?

Pascal Dibie: I had put my field notebooks away in a closet and had been eyeing them up for a while. I would watch them age and go back to them from time to time to refresh my memory. After my 2020 book Ethnologie du bureau (“Ethnology of the office”), I felt like putting an end to this sort of scholarly work and instead tell the story of my travels. I have enough material to write ten or fifteen books! So I started at the beginning, with a trip to the United States that I found myself on. I realized that I used to write down a lot of things willy-nilly, because everything seemed to mean something to me. What interests me most about the notebook technique is that you have to write things down even if you don’t believe your own eyes.

What was the context surrounding this trip?

I’m not interested in travel for travel’s sake. I prefer going somewhere with a plan. I was close with science historian Serge Moscovici, one of the leading theorists of political ecology. He asked me to go to the University of California at Berkeley to study human ecology and write a book about it. In the end, the thirty-something I was at the time became immersed in the joys of everyday life. After living with roommates in Santa Cruz, I went to Big Sur, which was like a physical manifestation of this happiness.

Did you notice any differences between France and America’s approach to environmental issues?

We had just set up the French branch of Friends of the Earth in 1970. Ecology was connected to feminism through people like Françoise d’Eaubonne [who led the Ecology and Feminism group within the Women’s Liberation Movement in France]. On the other hand, Marxists thought that ecology didn’t pay enough attention to the question of the proletariat and transforming the world. I was already thinking along the same lines as the California commune I was about to join. I had also done a lot of yoga, which brought me closer to their way of life. I felt very comfortable in the United States.

“This leap backwards felt good, magically rooting us in an incredibly intense present.” © Pascal Dibie, courtesy of Editions Métailié
“My environmental awakening began with a lifestyle more attuned to the concept of ‘too much trash’ and the rejection of needless excesses.” © Pascal Dibie, courtesy of Editions Métailié

What sort of people lived in this community?

There was the idea of escaping from the capitalist, industrial world. My generation was not affected by the Vietnam War, and most of the young people there weren’t bourgeois, whereas I was from the French bourgeoisie. Above all, they were marijuana farmers growing sinsemilla, even though it was illegal. It was a form of delinquency that wasn’t at all aggressive, and almost permitted by society as a whole. In Santa Cruz, no one was scared of hippies in jeans with long hair.

What was the difference between these California communities and those that emerged in France in the wake of May 1968, which you also experienced?

In California, we each had our own cabin, with no obligation to the community. Everyone had their own way of life while respecting others. In the French community I was part of, near Fontainebleau, we were organized; we had assigned tasks, such as washing dishes. The community had an ideological meaning behind it. People moved to the countryside and we liberated the banks of the Seine by creating open vegetable gardens, but these were revolutionary acts from our French perspective. In the United States, these questions weren’t even asked. Perhaps because we were outlaws in a way. But since everything worked so naturally, no one encroached on anyone else’s territory. I never saw a police officer, for example. These were gentle lives, led by families. Above all, what I really liked was that there was never any judgment. The community was more bound by affection than by example. What struck me was the incredible openness, the constant attempt to build something harmonious. This is essentially the path that Henry David Thoreau put forward in Walden.

“A wigwam [...] obeys its own logic, its own order even. It is a powerful symbol first, and a shelter second.” © Pascal Dibie, courtesy of Editions Métailié
“The goats walked ahead of us on the path, prancing about as if in a fairy tale. Glaïeul had brought her recorder and we slowly made our way towards the giant sequoias.” © Pascal Dibie, courtesy of Editions Métailié

You took many pictures and had some rather comical experiences in Big Sur. What were some of the most memorable or amusing things that happened?

We used to bathe together in swimming holes and we lived as naturists. But at the same time, it was very puritanical. Naked Americans behave as if they were at a cocktail party. They express themselves in the same way, with loud exclamations. We talked a lot about food. We were very interested in our intestines. It makes me laugh because, in my family, we never wondered what we were going to eat! When rereading my notes, I realize that everyone was talking about what they were going to eat, what would drive their digestion. In the book, I talk about how my body slowly became wild. I gradually began to walk barefoot, which was something I had never done before. Even though the ground was very soft, it wasn’t easy at all. I also started raising goats. I grew up in a rural environment, so I knew what goats and cows were. I wasn’t particularly afraid of them, but I had to relearn certain things, like how to handle chickens. In the end, chickens are very nice; they’re cuddly and fun.

Why did these theories fail to make it to France over the last 40 years?

I don’t think French society likes to evolve much or change how it works. The patriarchy has been shaken up, but it’s just the beginning. #MeToo is a direct import from the United States. In America at the time, bodies were beginning to change, and how we thought about bodies contrasted with how we thought about our bearing in Europe. All my childhood, I was taught to sit for hours behind a school desk. For a French person in the 1980s, America offered a sense of modernity through freedom. In France, you could easily divide society into categories. You knew if someone was on the left or the right, or if they were Catholic or not. Villages were split between communists and Catholics. There was an instantly legible social system. In America, things are very different because everyone becomes an individual. Although today, I would say that people in France also view themselves as individuals.

What has been your connection to the United States since this experience?

I plan to write five books on the United States. The next one will be called On a jugé Reagan (“Judging Reagan”). It’s going to be about Native Americans and how indigenous politics was put on trial in the United States. I was friends with Dennis Banks, whom I used to visit in prison, as well as Russell Means and all the members of the American Indian Movement. I went to South Dakota a lot. I even shared a motel in Rapid City for two weeks with Floyd Westerman, who plays Chief Ten Bears in Kevin Costner’s film Dances with Wolves. After that, I retraced Claude Lévi-Strauss’s entire journey through America for a biography that I never wrote. I stayed in New York City for a while, where he was once a consul, and then I went to South America to visit the Bororo and Kadiwéu peoples. After that, I took an extraordinary trip through wealthy America at the invitation of the U.S. Tourism Office in Paris. I spent every night in an enormous hotel, which was absurd but great fun. In the end, I went to the United States a lot, almost without realizing it. I have also brought Native Americans to France, to the university and to my home in Burgundy. I see these as exchanges. I feel no fascination for America, but a kind of tender closeness.

California Dream : Voyage chez les rêveurs d’avenir
by Pascal Dibie, Editions Métailié, 2023.

Interview published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.