Categories Thought


“Know thyself”

per Albert Reverendo
"Trees must resign themselves; they need roots. Humans do not. We breathe light, we long for the sky, and when we sink into the earth, it is to rot. The sap of the native land does not rise from our feet to our heads; we only want feet for walking. For us, the only thing that matters is the paths. They make us promises, they lead us, they push us, and they abandon us. Then we die, just as we were born, on the edge of a path we did not choose."
Amin Maalouf, Origins


It is said that in the Temple of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi, on the lintel of the door, the ancient aphorism "Know thyself" was engraved, which Plato later recorded in his dialogues through the voice of Socrates. From there, it was translated into Latin and Arabic and has come down to us as a profound saying of the ancients. Who knows what is the origin of this maxim? Some attribute it to one of the Seven Sages, heirs of the mythical tradition of poets, from which they deviated to seek truth and justice in logos and calculation; others attribute it to Apollo himself, who supposedly uttered as a response when precisely one of the Seven Sages asked him, through the Oracle, what is the most important thing a person should know. This aphorism has accompanied us ever since and could also be inscribed, as a prologue or a forewarning, on the first page of Wajdi Mouawad's texts.

Mouawad's characters traverse the labyrinth contained within this aphorism. This leads them to total disappearance or the strongest explosion of life. Loss or reconciliation. Always immersed in the dialogue of self-knowledge, the characters enter the Minotaur's labyrinth and seek to find its centre. And we listen to them, following the same red thread they walk, and as they speak, we lend them our own thread so they can find their way. "Since always, the word is the thread that connects those who venture into the heart of their narrative," Mouawad wrote this down while we were confined four years ago.

"Know thyself," the oracle's pronouncement, the labyrinth, the aphorism that is only fulfilled in the form of dialogue, is like a sounding board where the elements composing the phrase reverberate, and we must break it down into syntagms: "know" – "thy" – "self". Each portion resonates against the other, and what might seem like a complete phrase turns out to be an endless structure. What does it mean to know oneself? Who knows themselves? What gets to know, in any case, someone who knows themselves?



"There are truths that can only be revealed on the condition of being discovered," writes Nawal Marwan in the letter to Simon in Scorched. One must discover something to know thyself. Other times the truth arrives as an impossible-to-bear impact, as Norah says in All Birds:

It is not the truth that pierces Oedipus' eyes; it is the speed with which he receives it

"It is not the truth that pierces Oedipus' eyes; it is the speed with which he receives it, it is not the wall that kills the driver, it is the speed with which he crashes into it." Discovered or found, progressive or sudden, it seems there is a truth to be known, to be identified. What is this truth like?



The preposition "thy" grammatically links the two parts of the phrase. The aphorism portrays a subject who knows and at the same time is the object of knowledge: "know thyself." This is the issue. It involves an "I" that knows and an "I" that is known. At the same time, the oracle's sentence aims to unite them, to make them identify. However, in doing so, it separates them. This obviously seems like a paradox since, precisely to be able to say I=I, we must distinguish them, we must place one beside the other; we must, so to speak, split from ourselves. Identity, in this sense, has an internal separation.



Language, on the other hand, aware of its own mysteries and limitations, offers us the expression "self" to emphasise that we are talking about a single thing, but that by speaking of it, we divide it in half. Perhaps identity has more to do with this double movement of uniting and separating than with a fixed and immovable entity. This problem has marked much of modern and contemporary philosophy. Through this open space within identity, which once seemed solid and closed, historical conditions in which we live and in which this "I" appears will filter in, we will find the question about the being of things, language and its games, the body and flesh, human action, the gaze of the Other, education and the formation of subjects, fiction and autofiction...

In any case, we experience this in our daily lives when we ask about ourselves, even if only for a moment. In fact, we often say we are having an internal dialogue. Language once more gives us good clues; who has never “spoken” to themselves? How would this be possible if it were not because there is a separation within identity, an unfinished space, an always active and endless relationship? Maybe that is why the ancient Delphic aphorism resonates with us as a precept of life, a practical path, a way of relating to ourselves and the world.


Identity is a relationship

Self-knowledge, therefore, is more a constant relationship with ourselves than access to a closed and definitive truth. Notice that if it is not an essential and immutable truth, but rather an action we carry out while we live and dedicate ourselves to it, then it means it is immersed in temporal and spatial changes. Indeed, it does not occur in abstract; this personal relationship is crossed by the world where it takes place, by historical and social contexts, by the vicissitudes of life, by language that belongs to no one in particular, though we all speak it (whatever the language), crossed by all others through and thanks to whom this dialogue takes place... Identity, as a relationship of self-distancing and self-approaching, is marked by many contextual facts that determine it while allowing it to unfold freely.

Today we easily recognise that the context in which we live and whatever happens to us has a determining impact on who we are. Nowadays it is very difficult, before the ancient Delphic maxim, not to think about the events and aspirations that have marked the path of our identity so far. But there are other types of facts that are much more problematic for the current world and are harder to explain.

These are origins. They are problematic because they do not depend on the all-powerful contemporary will or the freedom of choice in which we believe we live. Our cultural, genetic, familial origins... What role do they play in self-knowledge and how do they link with our identity?

Our cultural, genetic, familial origins... What role do they play in self-knowledge and how do they link with our identity?

Wajdi Mouawad's characters represent different attempts to solve this enigma, hypotheses of paths and experiences regarding identity and origins, regarding revealed origins, lost origins, distant or too close origins...


The girl and the kite

Mouawad invites us to imagine a girl flying a kite. Her feet are planted in the ground, and the kite moves with the wind. From time to time, she reels in the string, then lets it out more; now she moves it to one side with a small wrist twist, now the kite sets the direction when a gust of wind comes. Well, Mouawad tells us that our origin is like this girl, and our identity is like the kite.

The origin has its feet fixed on the ground, perhaps not with roots like trees, but immobile in a place; and it holds a very long string that rises to the kite. Our identity, on the other hand, moves with the wind; we can decide where we want it to go, it is surprised by gusts or by lack of air... And like the kite, that if it stopped moving would stop flying, we can never consider our identity finished.


Mouawad says: "the origin is fixed, identity is built."

Mouawad says: "the origin is fixed, identity is built." They are intertwined with each other similarly to the girl and the kite. Who leads whom? Our identity drinks from our origins and goes beyond them. Origins determine the flight of our identity but do not fully define it.

One of the questions about our identity is precisely: what do we do with our origins? And, in any case, what do we understand by origin? Blood and genetics? Family inheritances? A piece of land on this planet? The sounds and voice of the mother tongue? The family necessarily? As we mentioned, many of Mouawad's works are attempts to answer these questions. They are stagings of characters who need to know who they are and seek it in different places and different ways.

Theatre is a privileged space to reflect on the question of identity. The dialogues we have with ourselves are like dramaturgies, like plots and arguments between characters, displays of intimacy like a stage, representations of the bonds we have with each other.

Oedipus believes he knows who he is until he discovers the truth of his identity and tears out his eyes, Prospero hides his identity to plot revenge and ends up discovering forgiveness, Hamlet gets lost on the fine line between madness and full self-awareness… Behind all these stories there is a recognition, a rediscovery that goes through characters. And the audience witnesses these representations where actors and actresses, in turn, usurp other identities - the characters - in which we recognise ourselves and sometimes perhaps we can reconcile. These characters become part of the stage of our own identity, returning the audience the first question they ask to them: "Who are you?"

Oedipus believes he knows who he is until he discovers the truth of his identity and tears out his eyes, Prospero hides his identity to plot revenge and ends up discovering forgiveness, Hamlet gets lost on the fine line between madness and full self-awareness…

For some, the origin is no mystery, but simply a source from which flow all the changes that their identity undergoes. For others, it is a question to be solved, a matter to be clarified, a void of meaning that they need to mend. There are those who have lost their origins because they have not had access to family memory; and there are those who need to forget them to exist. In any case, there is a question that everyone shares: what do we do with our origins? What role do they play in knowing ourselves?


"Know thyself"

Not as a closed and definitive area, not as a one-way road, like a manual or a fixed criterion guide, not as a fully interpreted experience of the world, not as a conclusion.

Rather, as the scene of a dialectic, as a choice before diverging paths, as a way to narrate yourself, as dramaturgy, as possible futures of a story, like a boat in the open sea, rather than like a train travelling at high speed from a certain origin.

Know thyself as a meeting place, like a table and after-dinner conversation, like the hostility or hospitality of the other, like a porous skin, like the desire of the other, like a neighbourhood more than an urbanisation.


"Find your father, shed light on his story, whatever that story is, die if necessary, break the entire plot of your life, devastate your reason, and Wahida will still be able to love you: not because you dare to disobey your blood and your father, but because you and her will have believed in the same dream. Nothing else makes sense, Eitan, perhaps only the birds of chance that come and go, invisible, throwing us into each other's arms without us being able to understand anything."

All Birds, Act II – Bird of chance


Albert Reverendo
Artistic coordination & Contents

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