Gauche and Sinister; Review of Olivier Bernier, Firework at Dusk: Paris in the Thirties...

Gauche and Sinister; Review of Olivier Bernier, Firework at Dusk: Paris in the Thirties...

Mini Teaser: This consciousness of cultural mission affected French writers, giving them a comforting idea of their own importance. For their message was not restricted to purely aesthetic impressions.

by Author(s): Anthony Hartley

Review of Olivier Bernier, Firework at Dusk: Paris in the Thirties (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1993); and Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944-56 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

France and Frenchmen, it may be said with some confidence, are incomprehensible for anyone insufficiently aware of their intellectual traditions. Those traditions, embodied in the works of great writers, are one of the glories of European civilization. From Montaigne onwards runs the line of brilliant moralists, whose concentration on the behavior of individuals in society enlarged the knowledge of human nature, laid the foundation for the achievements of a Balzac or a Stendhal, but also provided rather inadequate generalizations concerning the character of those who dined only intermittently at the top table of French culture. The importance for France of the development, during three centuries, of a classically clear and analytically subtle use of language to communicate ideas both within and outside the country cannot be overestimated. For more than two centuries French writers, painters, and architects made European culture, and the consciousness of this rayonnement de la culture franaise has remained to this day and explains the exaggerated and sometimes ludicrous importance attached to the spread of francophonie.

This consciousness of cultural mission affected French writers, giving them a comforting idea of their own importance. For their message was not restricted to purely aesthetic impressions. From the philosophes of the eighteenth century emerged an intellectual caste, which saw its role as that of a kind of lay clergy, censoring or applauding the behavior of the world at large, defending the persecuted and denouncing the powerful. From 1789 onwards, they were carried into passionate partisanship by the Revolution and the myths and ideologies it spawned. It follows that the "intellectual" and his significance for society are understood differently in France from what is the case in other countries, though there is some relationship to the "intelligentsia" that developed in Russia. French intellectuals, however, were neither nihilists nor "superfluous men," but part of a cultivated and prosperous bourgeoisie, supplying their fellow citizens with ideas and striving to provide those elements of idealism that would elevate them above the mere pursuit of material wealth. It was no accident that the historian Ernest Renan, considering the disaster of the Franco-Prussian war, should have entitled his great essay "The Intellectual and Moral Reform of France."

But their contribution had its limits. After 1918 the intellectuals were as exhausted as the failing Third Republic, about whose ills they had little to say that was relevant. Old ideological quarrels--soon to be renewed by the foreign examples of communism and fascism--were pursued with diminishing vigor and increasingly stale phrases. Some intellectuals departed into a dream world, which they valued for its power to entrance or to shock. Few drew attention to the real problems of France: its economic condition, the changes wrought by new technology or the modernization of what still remained a Napoleonic state administration. Throughout the Thirties, French industry was crucified on PoincarŽ's "strong franc." From 1930 onwards production sank and only regained growth in the Fifties under the influence of industrial modernization advocated and carried out by Jean Monnet. After 1955, France's economic success was to be carried forward by technocrats and the new academic race of "Žnarques" (graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration). The traditional intellectual class had little to do with it.

Olivier Bernier's book is hardly an adequate account of the decline of the Third Republic. It is, in fact, something of an "Oh! lˆ, lˆ" view of these years. First nights, vernissages, dress shows, and incessant parties form the background. Political intrigue and scandal go on to the soft, delicious sound of society hostesses hitting the mattress with this week's lover. Against this glittering background scurried the dark and doomed figures of the politicians, occupied with the incessant formation of governments, whose shifting majorities ensured that they achieved little. Paris and Parisian fashion were still a huge success, a "caravan-serai for the noble foreigner," as PŽguy, a Catholic poet and a French nationalist, put it, but what of France?

The men of the Third Republic were hardly capable of dealing with the problems history had left them. They thought much about the "blue line" of the Vosges, but they could not match either Germany's birthrate or its industrial strength, and the Russian revolution had destroyed the European balance of power. Attempts to redress it through diplomatic expedients such as the Little Entente were to prove useless. The tragedy was that many of France's political leaders were intelligent and honorable men. LŽon Blum and Paul Reynaud were both patriotic and, to some extent, clear-sighted politicians. They did their best with France--Reynaud was the one finance minister who, just before 1939, managed to reverse the stagnation of industrial production--but they could not make it into a modern country (37 percent of the work force were still engaged in agriculture in 1938). The "popular front" government, headed by Blum, was undermined by its own economic ignorance, as the introduction of the forty-hour week increased the decline of French industry. (Keynes was only translated during the war and it took some years after that for his theories to become familiar to French officials). In the late Thirties even the right-wing extremists of the day looked backwards to old controversies. There were individuals who might be called fascist, but there was no mass totalitarian movement. As RenŽ RŽmond has pointed out, French society was too traditional, unemployment too modest, to provide material for the kind of explosion that brought the Nazis to power in Germany. The nearest the "Leagues"--the small right-wing groups that proliferated in the 1930s--came to a genuinely totalitarian party was Jacques Doriot's Parti Populaire Franais (PPF).

The Paris of fashion shows and first nights continued on after 1940 under the German occupation, as a sort of gruesome parody of itself, as anyone can see who cares to read Ernst JŸnger's diaries of the time. Blum and Reynaud were in prison awaiting their trial at Riom. Meanwhile the world of the intellectuals had changed. The ideological disputes became fiercer and the stakes higher. By the end of the war the small band of writers committed to a German victory were disillusioned and dispersed. The literary critic Brasillach was executed; Drieu La Rochelle, the novelist, committed suicide; the greater writer CŽline fled to Denmark. Those who had joined the Resistance or simply opposed Vichy and the occupier, on the other hand, were pushed further to the Left, living under the shadow of what seemed the most uncompromising left-wing force available: France's Communist Party. The years after 1945 were dominated by a well-worn political recipe: no enemies on the Left.

Tony Judt's book Past Imperfect is a subtle and well-written account of the intellectual dŽbacle which resulted from this situation. During the ten years or so when intellectual fashion was dominated by Sartre and his allies, many a French writer ended up in the dead end of Marxist dialectic with all that this implied in the way of sophistry and polemical brutality--but also of tedium and loss of spontaneity. As it became clear that the post-war world would be divided into two camps, France's left-wing intellectuals tried to perceive some "third way"--the most notable attempt being that of the Catholic philosopher ƒtienne Gilson. Meanwhile, however, the balance was held unequally between the two superpowers. Excuses were made for the Soviet Union, as disturbing stories percolated back from Eastern Europe--were not the Moscow trials, after all, simply an instance of the revolutionary justice France had known under the Jacobins?---but no such indulgence was displayed towards the United States. Not only was it unashamedly capitalist, but it was also engaged in the cultural ruin of France--"Cocacolonisation" in a brilliantly polemical phrase. In 1952 an editorialist in the left-wing Catholic review Esprit wrote:
"From the outset we have denounced in these pages the risk posed to our country by an American culture that attacks at their roots the originality, the mental and moral cohesion of Europe."

Some curious facts were adduced to support this conclusion, American consumption of aspirin being cited to show how unfit the United States was for world leadership! Oddly enough, left-wing Catholic intellectuals were, if anything, rather more viscerally hostile to America than the communists themselves--presumably because they entertained that residual longing for a hierarchical rural society which had made them for a short period support PŽtain and the Vichy government.

To exculpate Soviet communism, to justify ignoring the best-selling Kravchenko (I Chose Freedom) and David Rousset's revelations about what was not yet called "the Gulag," every kind of excuse was made. The French working class must not be disillusioned; "Billancourt must not be driven to despair," as Sartre wrote of the famous working class suburb of Paris. In any case, nothing could be done about Eastern Europe, so why not direct one's protests to injustices nearer to home? Moreover, to "betray" Soviet communism would give comfort to "reactionaries," "ex-collaborators," and "men of Vichy," who were even now raising their heads again. Also, after the searing events of the war, there was a taste among French intellectuals for violence and the short shrift meted out by revolutionary tribunals. Emmanuel Mounier, the editor of Esprit and the acknowledged guru of this left-wing Catholic movement, wrote about communist show trials, quoting Andrei Vyshinski with approval: "The psychology of the accused, his personal destiny pale before the collective destiny, because at the moment the latter is facing life or death."

This is a return to Saint-Just--"Those who attach any importance to the just death of a King will never found a Republic"--but it is nonetheless deeply shocking. Mounier and his disciples, after all, proclaimed themselves Christians for whom individual lives and souls should matter. Judt's account of disbelief in, and indifference to, what was going on in Russia and Eastern Europe is especially damaging for the Esprit movement. No wonder that publication of the book's French edition has excited anguished protests.

But the damage done to the judgment and reputation of those non-Communist French intellectuals, who were fascinated by the Party and thrilled to feel that Marxist history was on their side (or that they were on its!), went further than the practice of moral double-dealing. As the Fifties progressed, the most constant topic of intellectual debate appeared to be the minute nuances of the attitude to be adopted by writers or artists towards events in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. A pattern was established which repeated itself with monotonous regularity. As the debate grumbled on, some event would stand out--rebellion in Budapest, a trial in Prague--which could be used as the occasion for "taking a stand" or "clarifying one's position." Then intellectuals, with a shudder of pleasure, could don the garment of penitence or the armor of dialectical apology. Mouths that had remained closed could be opened to make the grand gesture of admitting some measure of the truth. Others could confess/assert their lasting fidelity to the Party and the Soviet Union.

What a bore these constant posturings and apologias were! In their narrow, but not uncomfortable, world, French intellectuals indulged themselves in days and nights of discussion, whose phrases became increasingly divorced from what was going on in the world outside. If Marxism, as Raymond Aron suggested, was the "opium" of the intellectuals, then it is not surprising that the doings of its addicts failed to grip those outside the den. Drug addicts are notoriously boring to the world outside their obsession. The penalty for such self-indulgence was to become less and less relevant to a France, where economic prosperity was growing and bringing about social changes unforeseen by Marxist theory. The left-wing intellectuals discussed by Judt ended the Fifties out of date; even the Algerian war, where many of them played a courageous part, gave them only a brief extension of their lease on life. Finally there was the great spasm of historical memory in 1968 when barricades were planted in the Latin Quarter in the positions they occupied under the 1871 Commune, and the decorous corridors of the Sorbonne were encumbered by wild-eyed girls giving themselves to their tousled lovers under banners proclaiming the New Age: "We fear nothing; we have the pill!" All in all, a modernized eroticism was probably the most durable effect of the "events of May."

It is hardly surprising that the intellectual Left should have become what Sartre described as "the great carcass on its back, riddled with worms." Its demise was quite largely of Sartre's own doing, but he showed little sign of realizing this. Moreover, a pervasive intellectual dishonesty and a diet of Byzantine disputation and denunciation had a disastrous effect on the creativity of French literature itself. It is symbolic that Sartre himself should have been unable to complete his three volume novel Les Chemins de la LibertŽ. During the Fifties the most striking work of fiction was a distinctly "uncommitted" novel Le Rivage des Syrtes by Julien Gracq, a surrealist and an admirer of Stendhal. Without embarking on a discussion of the decline of French literature over the last two decades, it is possible to wonder whether this did not have something to do with the sterility of much of French intellectual life between 1945 and 1960. The talents of these "committed" writers were unquestionably planted in a dry place, and something of their aridity seems to have been passed on to the practitioners of the "new novel."

However this may be, there is little doubt that the standing and international reputation of the French intellectual world suffered from the sophistry and ideological brutality that were common in the Paris of the Fifties. Professor Judt describes--and it is one of his most interesting points--the disillusionment felt by East Europeans on finding their plight ignored and their sufferings explained away in a country which they had been accustomed to regard as the source of intellectual freedom. In 1968 the reformers of the Prague Spring were described by members of the Parti Socialiste UnifiŽ (PSU)--a group led by the young Michel Rocard, later to become Mitterrand's prime minister--as "consenting victims of petit-bourgeois ideologies." More recently Milan Kundera wrote:

"Having for a long time been the nerve-centre of Europe, Paris is still today the capital of something more than France. Unfortunately, I think it is the disappearing capital of a disappearing world."

We do not yet know if there will be lasting effects from President Mitterrand's apparent eagerness to recognize the old Communist conspirators after the August 1991 putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev, or from the boorish behavior towards Boris Yeltsin of Jean-Pierre Cot, the leader of the Socialist group in the European parliament. But neither incident will have done much for the universal mission of French culture in countries east of the Elbe. It seems that something of the old spirit of rejection of East European dissidence still lingers, and France has lost a cultural clientele which once looked towards Paris with admiration.

Political gestures apart, the narrow sectarianism displayed by France's post-war intellectuals has left damaging traces, harming the reputation of French writing and lessening its attraction for readers living outside France. At a time when successive French governments have been making great efforts to maintain the status of French as an international language and resist the anglophone invasion of traditionally francophone areas, much of the contribution made by French intellectuals to the great debates of the second half of the twentieth century has appeared provincial and rebarbative to foreigners. This seems a gratuitous piece of self-injury. French culture has an immense amount to give to any reader who steeps himself in it--not least a clarity of language which makes a new subject more easily understood in French than, say, in English or German. Yet this asset was squandered when recent writers, sinning against the genius of their medium, achieved the considerable feat of making French prose opaque. Those intellectuals who were willing to abandon the great traditions of the French moralists to indulge in nagging dispute and pernicious casuistry have helped to restrict the role in the world of their own culture and language.

So why did these writers waste their talents and compromise their integrity in this way? The answer is complex. Old habits of thought, ideological battles, and bitterness engendered by the war years, the changed position of France in the world--all these played a part. Professor Judt has analyzed the problem acutely, but everyone interested in French history will have their own reflections on what is a more important matter than may appear in the age of Disneyland and fast food.

The French language has long been known to adapt itself particularly well to the use of abstract concepts. The classical revolution in the seventeenth century carried written French away from the multiplication of concrete terms and grammatical confusion, which marked it--like other European languages--during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. What it lost in richness, it gained in cogency. It developed a tendency towards generalization and categorization which made it an ideal vehicle for exposition and the communication of diplomatic exchanges. International affairs lost in comprehensibility when the precise definition of meaning possible in French was replaced by the confusedly rhetorical evocation of undefined concepts that has become the stock in trade of English-speaking diplomacy.

However, for all the advantages of an aptitude for generalization, this habit of mind succumbs easily to one danger. Abstraction leads away from the harsh reality of the individual case. It is one thing to talk of "breaking eggs to make an omelet" or "revolutionary justice." It is quite another to see a head fall--even if it is that of a "fascist" or an "agent-provocateur." The nature of Stalinism is more vividly illustrated by an anecdote like that of the dictator's bodyguard amusing him with an imitation of Zinoviev being dragged to execution than by the horrifying, but less immediate, impact of the statistics of those murders. In the decade after 1945, French intellectuals fell into this trap of a generalization which sanitized raw fact and placed an anaesthetizing distance between them and the fate of victims, whom they might otherwise have had the weakness to pity. Events took place, not in the real world, but in a universe of make-believe where to lose an argument was the most serious misfortune possible. It was a looking-glass world. Why worry about those dim and distant shapes subsiding into their mass graves in the name of historical inevitability?

In addition, ever since 1789, French intellectuals had been accustomed to use a type of rhetoric formed by Revolution or Counter-Revolution. It was, of course, not entirely serious. When PŽguy announced that "the policy of the Convention is Jaurs in a tumbril, and the roll of a drum to cover that great voice," he was not proposing to execute the great Socialist leader--though he may have been read by Raoul Villain, who went on to assassinate Jaurs--but using revolutionary imagery, and, incidentally, exposing the tenuous reality behind it. Phrases like "public safety" or "enemies of the Republic" were commonplace in speeches by mildly left-wing deputies. Why should they not be? The most authoritative historians of the day, Aulard and Mathiez, were ready to take a lenient view of massacres committed in defense of the Republic. Similarly, on the Right, Charles Maurras wrote for years as if he was a public prosecutor demanding the heads of his opponents, and, during the Vichy period, what began as rhetoric ended as reality. The unreality of the ideological battle among French intellectuals was never better illustrated than by Maurras's exclamations at his trial for treason in 1945: "It is Dreyfus's revenge!"

Polemical exchanges between ideological contenders in France, with their showy rhetoric and the clichŽs drawn from a violent history, were to a large extent shadow-boxing, though anti-clericalism and "integral" Catholicism could inject venom into the argument. French intellectuals had become used to judging, not real situations, but the myths that they themselves had constructed. Only this can explain how it was possible for them to talk, say, of refusing to drive the working-class to despair by criticism of the Communist Party without bursting into laughter. That "working-class" was as much a construct of their own myth-making as anything else. Something too must be attributed to self-satisfaction. To lay down the law from an attic flat in the Latin Quarter was a tempting mission in life. How satisfying to feel oneself the defender of the march of history. No wonder that a certain complacency crept into the writings of Sartre and his followers--the complacency of the members of a small sect who knew that they were right and whose erratic crises de conscience only made their election surer. For their constant discussion of their own motives and their casuistical dismissal of inconvenient facts bore witness in their own eyes to their moral concern. For men like Sartre or Mounier the game was fascinating. In any case, it was played out to the end of their lives.
Finally, it has to be said that if between 1945 and 1955 French intellectuals were constantly unwilling to look facts in the face when the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe were concerned, this was due in part to mere ignorance of foreign countries. Just as, during the Thirties, many British politicians could not imagine what Nazi Germany or its leader were like, so French intellectuals had no imaginative understanding either of Russia or of the nature of an oriental despot like Stalin. (Of course, neither had they much idea of other countries; one of the more laughable sections of Simone de Beauvoir's novel Les Mandarins deals with a left-wing writer's life in Chicago). This isolation, physical and intellectual, reinforced by the war, made it easy for them to take their "facts" from official Communist documents or from the admiring chorus of French communist publicists. Personal experience was confined to France, the France of a highly educated, narrowly based elite. Sartre and his friends had not the least idea of Eastern Europe--one doubts if those who went, say, to the Wroclaw Cultural Conference for Peace in 1948 ever took a stroll in the town. They had never seen Stalin's secret police at work, nor would they listen to anyone who had.

Professor Judt's story is a melancholy one. It deals with men, often endowed with great talents, who condemned themselves to impotence through the indulgence of their own fantasies. By abandoning intellectual standards and moral decency, they did great damage to France's reputation and its position as a center of European culture. Paris, of all cities, should not have been the place where indifference was shown to the fate of European writers who had admired its cultural life and who, in their struggle for freedom of expression, felt they were entitled to a word of support from its famous names. Sartre is often described as the "last" French intellectual, and perhaps this is true enough if we understand the word in the social sense traditionally attributed to it in French culture. Certainly he and his friends cast enough discredit on this particular vocation to discourage others from wishing to follow in their footsteps.

Fortunately this is not the last word that can be said about intellectual life in France during the Fifties. There were individuals who did not succumb to ideological orthodoxies and showed courage and common sense in the repudiation of contemporary fashion. Franois Mauriac and Raymond Aron were two writers who looked at facts as they were and impartially denounced inhumanity wherever it occurred. History will assign to Aron a particularly important place in that modernization of French intellectual habits which has taken place over the last decades and has included a far-reaching revision of the way France's history is perceived and taught. Not since the "OrlŽanists" of the mid-nineteenth century, to whom PŽguy refused a place in the true tradition of France, have so many facts, as distinct from opinions, been brought to light about the present and past of the country.

In the Fifties, Aron and other intellectuals stood for honesty and a refusal to excuse oppression. That they also stood for modernity and a renewal of French thought became apparent later. As so often in French history, a few just men saved the reputation of France and the future of its cultural influence. That is a story that deserves to be set beside Professor Judt's depressing dissection of self-deception and evasion.

Essay Types: Book Review