A letter written to the bishop of Rome in 381 explains why human beings speak different languages. In the beginning, says the letter, all human beings spoke Hebrew and this was the language of creation, the language that Adam and Eve spoke and the original tongue in which things were named. Through this common language, the letter says, human beings were able to organise themselves so that they could build the tower at Babel. In so doing, they caused offence to God who scattered human beings across the earth and rent the fabric of human language.
“Torture is senseless violence, born in fear. The purpose of it is to force from one tongue … the secret of everything.” Jean-Paul Sartre, “Victory, a Preface” in Henri Alleg. The Question. Translated by John Calder. 2006 ed. Lincoln, Nebraska and London: Universiy of Nebraska Press, 1958.
La Question is Henri Alleg’s account of his experiences under torture during the Algerian War. Published in 1958, it offers a detailed witness to the principles of interrogation and torture employed by the French army during the war. The book was easily available for five weeks before it was banned and was particularly important because many other accounts of the use of torture in Algeria were published in left-leaning periodicals that would not have been read by the greater portion of the French public. The use of torture was a central issue in critiques of the Algerian war and is something that I’ll return to later. Since the war, Alleg’s book has been reprinted often and has played a key role (alongside the testimony of Louisette Ighilahriz) in shaping France’s memory of the conflict in the twenty-first century.