Sunday, December 09, 2012

La Belle France, the US, and Me

Long a dedicated traveler, I have made many trips to France--not just to Paris but to the French provinces where I savor the varied landscape and character. 

This commitment is also enacted long-distance.  I started reading French books--at first classics and novels, now increasingly nonfiction--in high school.  In those days, and still now to a large degree, I was fascinated by literary modernism.  To understand this vast and fundamental phenomenon one must immerse oneself in the works of Balzac, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Huysmans, Proust, and Apollinaire.  Today, in my retirement, I have kept up the practice of poring over these books, a habit which affords countless hours of pleasure and instruction. 

Professionally, there has been another reason for the commitment.  As a medieval art historian, my main focus has been on France, the pivotal country in those distant days.  In terms of scholarship, though, French medieval art historiography has been a bit thin on the ground.  There are, by my estimate, only four leading figures: Emile Mâle, Henri Focillon, André Gabar, and Louis Grodecki (the latter two of Russian and Polish origin, respectively). 

To be candid, Franco-American relations have not always run smooth.  For their part, middle Americans, dwelling in the heartland in a broad arc stretching from Pittsburgh to Fresno, have long been distrustful of the French--an attitude encapsulated in the recent satirical image of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”  In their own fashion, French traditionalists return the complement in their disdain for Americans and “Anglo-Saxons” in general.  They resent the perceived displacement of France from its leading position in the world by a cabal of English speakers. It was a Frenchman, I believe, who once said that America is the only country that has advanced from barbarism to decadence, without the intervening stage of civilization.  (See the thorough account of Philippe Roger, The American Enemy, Chicago, 2005).

The main part of this paper addresses the major phases of the American reception of French thought in recent decades.

I start with the following prologue.  As a kid, on August 25, 1944  I opened a California newspaper which had a full-page ad placed by a local department store celebrating the liberation of Paris.  For this commercial firm, and I suspect for many Americans, France meant luxury products: fashion, cosmetics, and perfumes.  Of course, our major universities harbored specialists in French literature and history, but these professionals caused scarcely a ripple outside.  In fact the last French thinker to have an impact on the English-speaking world was Henri Bergson, now sadly neglected.  Although Bergson lived until 1941, his influence here peaked in the 1920s.  Yet this situation was soon to change.


1.  The existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and his colleagues had a significant impact in North America.  With the war over, observers on these shores were relieved to learn the Hitler’s barbarism had not succeeded in extinguishing intellectual life, for it was springing to life in anew in France.  Even though Sartre was typically and ineradicably French, his idea of self-creation (as advanced in his little book L'Existentialisme est un humanisme) appealed to the American fixation on self-reliance.  At the time we did not know about the French philosopher’s ambivalent role in the Occupation, nor were we acquainted with the fact that his main source of inspiration was the sinister German thinker Martin Heidegger.

Alongside the intellectual interest in Existentialism, the US produced a popular variant, one that was largely media driven.  This subculture was populated by long-haired individuals of indeterminate gender, wearing turtle-neck sweaters and with questionable hygiene.  Typically, they lived in dark, dank basements illuminated with candles.  With their hippie cousins these so-called Existentialists shared a love of jazz (an enthusiasm that was fortunately sanctioned by reputable French authorities).

[1a.  A lesser current, contemporaneous with the former, was the Neo-Catholicism advocated by Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa.  During the war the couple had taken refuge in Princeton University.  This intellectual trend interfaced with the message of a popular television personality, Mgr. Fulton J. Sheen.  Even non-Catholics were sympathetic, responding to a widespread notion that the West needed its own ideology to combat godless Communism.  For those drawn to the intellectual side of the Catholic revival, though, the ponderous works of Thomas Aquinas proved a hard nut to crack.  They were also a hard sell, for Scholasticism was simply not compatible with the modern world.]

2.  The next wave of French influence was that of Structuralism.  At first mainly of interest to anthropologists, the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss began to attract a larger public in the English-speaking world in the early 1960s through translations.  In fact Lévi-Strauss had lived in New York City during the war, and continued to make use of American ethnological reports.  Despite the homophobia he displayed in his memoir Tristes Tropiques, to this day I derive inspiration from some of his works.  Yet his magnum opus, the four-volume blockbuster Mythologiques is clearly a failure.

Michel Foucault came a little later.  I first read Les Mots et les choses not long after it appeared in 1966.  This work, generically structuralist, was followed shortly thereafter by L’archéologie du savoir.  In their turn these tomes preceded his three-volume work on the history of sexuality, which has had such an influence on gay scholarship in this country.

Over time several two key defects came to be recognized in Structuralism.  First was its overreliance on binarisms, including such contrasts as male-female, odd-even and so forth.  This tendency reflected the linguistic model found in the earlier works of Ferdinand de Saussure and others.  Second was the emphasis on static systems (“structures”).  This commitment to analyzing synchronic wholes hobbled any effort to understand change over time.  If the structures identified were coherent and complete in themselves, why should they suffer any alteration?

In fact Structuralism itself was to be subjected to intense pressure for change.

3.  The bombshell came in a paper delivered by Jacques Derrida at a conference held at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.  This intervention and Derrida’s later writings laid the foundation for the Post-Structuralist wave.  The new trend attacked the sovereignty of binaries by focusing on slippage, a process whereby one pole of a contrast can morph into its opposite. The distrust of fixed categories enshrined in Post-Structuralism made it seem intellectually innovative, even revolutionary, satisfying the long-standing appetite among the young for revolt.  Yet the scope of this revolt was limited, for it quickly became evident that Post-Structuralism had no convincing political doctrine or message.  For many adherents that lack was not a problem, for the sublimation of the revolutionary impulse into a supposed revaluation of all values sufficed.  Queer Theory is often regarded as an aspect of Post-Structuralism.

Broadly speaking, the tendency overlaps with Postmodernism.  Postmodernism has seeped into many disciplines, including religious studies, literary criticism, sociology, ethics and morality, linguistics, architecture, the visual arts, historiography, legal studies, politics, international relations, anthropology, and music. Quite a megilla. Despite its protean reach, Postmodernism, and its twin, Post-Structuralism, are now in decline.


In all this variety some enduring qualities of the French intellectual style emerge.  At their best French thinkers and scholars advance bold conjectures. Some of these are plausible, while others amount to little more to rhetoric, hot air in short.  Oftentimes it is hard to tell the difference because little empirical evidence is provided.  Such citations as are found are often faulty, a particular problem with foreign works.  The latter tend to be noted pro forma only, suggesting that the writer has made no real effort to grapple with the content.

This provincialism has been sustained by the centralization of French intellectual life in Paris.  This concentration makes it easy to spread ideas, but hard to dislodge them when they have become settled.

For their part French publishers seem generally to skip fact-checking, so that errors committed by their authors pass into print without challenge.

For a long time French books have been plagued by faulty production standards.  All too common were (and regrettably still are, though to a lesser extent) flimsy paperbacks printed on bad paper and poorly bound so that they come apart unless handled with great care.

Still, once all the reservations have been taken into account, the sustained vigor of the “French invasion” is remarkable.  As a rule Americans are more likely to learn French than either German or Italian. By itself, though, this fact cannot account for French preeminence.  After the war Germany and Italy underwent intense Americanization, so that they left with little distinctive to export.  Matters were different in France. Sometimes truculently, sometimes reasonably, the French sought to retain their cultural independence.  As a result they had a good deal to offer.  To be sure, Italy developed important fashion and film industries, but these endeavors did not generally foster the germination and transmission of ideas.  The French culture industry did.

I must not close this discussion without noting a major exception to the strictures noted above.  That is the work of French historians.

In 1984-92  Pierre Nora edited a monumental work of seven volumes addressing the loci memoriae of France, entitled Les lieux de mémoire.  What are such sites, or realms, of memory?

"A lieu de mémoire is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community (in this case, the French community)" (Nora 1996: xvii)

In other words, sites of memory are "where [cultural] memory crystallizes and secretes itself" (Nora 1989: 7). These include:

    •    places such as archives, museums, cathedrals, palaces, cemeteries, and memorials;
    •    concepts and practices such as commemorations, generations, mottoes, and all rituals;
    •    objects such as inherited property, commemorative monuments (see image right), manuals, emblems, basic texts, and symbols.

Nora believes, however, that sites of memory are not common in all cultures. In fact they are pretty much exclusively a phenomenon of our modern age. Sites of memory replace a “real”  living memory
which survived for millennia by oral tradition, but now has disappeared. In Nora's view, a constructed history replaces memory as such.  In this view, sites of memory are artificial, and deliberately fabricated. They exist to help us recall the past – which is perhaps necessary in order to make living in the modern world meaningful.

The purpose of sites of memory is "to stop time, to block the work of forgetting", and they all share "a will to remember" (Nora 1989: 19). Nora maintains that his definition of sites of memory excludes prehistoric and archaeological sites, since what makes them "important as sites is often precisely what ought to exclude them from being lieux de mémoire: the absolute absence of a will to remember and, by way of compensation, the crushing weight imposed on them by time, science, and the dreams of men" (1989: 20f.).


Blogger Stephen said...

I'm happy to hear that postmodernism is in decline, pending revelation of what is in ascent.

1:46 PM  

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