French Intellectuals: Telling Stories
by Jacques Delacroix | Posted May 29, 2011
There is a French intellectual class. It's better defined — around the figure of the public intellectual — than it is in other countries that I know. French men and women from a handful (that's one handful) of schools dominate public discourse in France to an extent difficult to imagine in this country.
Here is an illustration: One evening, I found my septuagenarian mother transfixed before her television with the pious look on her face she reserved for moments when she thought she was listening to elevating material. She was following an exposition about Claude Lévi-Strauss' “Structuralism.” My mother only had a high-school education (but she did read quite a bit). Of course, no one understands Lévi-Strauss' scholarly work. I am not referring to his young man's slim travelogue, Tristes tropiques. That is a charming and intelligent book. I refer to the impenetrable Le cru et le cuit, for example. And no, dear former colleagues, the translation is not to blame; the original French is rather worse! In fact, Professor Lévi-Strauss himself once famously confessed that there was little chance that anyone who had not taken his seminar would understand any of his writings. It's difficult to imagine an American author combining so much opacity with so much public favor, the latter entirely on the basis of trust. I mean, the trust the general public places in other intellectuals who declared Lévi-Strauss great and essential.
I am not arguing that American scholars and American journalists don't try to become public intellectuals in the French model but that they meet with little success. Different historical conditions, different outcomes. Nevertheless, the French intellectual class is well worth studying because it seems to offer a ready, constant, and tempting model to many in this country, mostly on the liberal end of the spectrum.
In my experience, Americans with higher degrees who are also politically of the Left are almost to a man and woman ardent Francophiles. Of course, I am well aware that my personal encounters may not add up to a representative sample. Or maybe they do, or maybe they are representative enough to allow for a fair degree of generalization. (We worry about samples only because we want to be able to generalize, from “pismire to parliament,” so to speak.) In any case, I suspect that American liberals' Francophilia does not spring from admiration for French cuisine, an admiration that would be amply justified, or from aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful, civilized French countryside, or from their thorough assessment of French culture in general.
The latter explanation is especially unlikely to be correct because American Francophiles — except some language teachers — seldom know the French language well enough to listen to it or to read it with ease. A small remark about the last assertion: American journalists, scholarly authors, and novelists often spice up their narrative with a few words of French, or with a single word. Their batting average in getting both the usage and the spelling right at the same time hovers just above zero, in my experience. In this case, I operate from a reasonably good quantitative basis: I read in English one newspaper a day, one newsweekly, three magazines a month, around fifty books of all kinds a year. About half the books are fiction. I have been doing this for 40 years. Until six years ago, I read a little less fiction, but I perused a medley of scholarly journals every month. And yes, I also know that a large sample is not always representative. See the disclaimer above about samples in general.
Lévi-Strauss himself once famously confessed that there was little chance that anyone who had not taken his seminar would understand any of his writings.
So, by a process of reasonable elimination strengthened by numerous concrete examples, I speculate that many left-leaning American intellectuals admire France because that countryseems to give pride of place to its intellectuals, and recognition, and honor, and often, considerable financial rewards. They wish America would become more like France, in part so they will have a better crack at becoming public intellectuals themselves, with all the attendant material advantages, or even for the glory alone.
I think the French model is poisonous but ultimately not fatal. More credentials are needed here, since I present a strong opinion unsupported by systematic data: I lived in France until I was 21. French is my native language. I read in French all the time. I have published a couple of things in that language. My proficiency in the language, I am confident, is superior to that of most well-educated people living in France. That is true, although I flunked out of French high-school. (This is a confession, not bragging. It's needed because the issue of sour grapes is sure to surface below.) I follow the French media on the internet and through cable television. (I subscribe to TV 5, the French language international television channel. I watch it nearly every day.) I go to France and to other French-speaking countries often enough to make me confident that I have not lost touch with my culture of origin. More importantly, I spy daily on my French nieces and nephews through Facebook. I have a doctorate in sociology from a good American university. I believe it helps me gaze detachedly at the society in which I grew up. I taught — in disciplines other than French — in American universities for about 30 years. Below, I use several tiny anecdotes and three more substantial true stories to try to show why the French model of the public intellectual is poisonous. Those are just anecdotes and stories, of course; they don't prove anything, of course. I just think they might give pause and feed faculty-club conversations, even if only on a modest scale.
Incidentally, and in spite of the acidic tone of this introduction, I do not despise all French intellectual workers who are also public intellectuals, or who aim to be. I have nothing but admiration for the social philosopher Raymond Aron (1905–1983), for political commentator Jean-François Revel (1924–2006), and for my high-school buddy, the sociologist Jean-Loup Amselle. Those are individuals who have escaped the general curse, for reasons I don't quite grasp. It might just be character. And of course, if Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850) did not exist, one would have to invent him. The French may just be reinventing him right now incidentally, because they have to, after ignoring or reviling him for more than 160 years.
First, what I am not talking about: I do not refer here to the general pokeyness of much contemporary French culture that manages to come through small, haphaphazardly selected cultural imports into the US. I mean some movies and a very few singers. (Translator's note: “Pokey” would be a 55-year-old divorced accountant who has his ear pierced for a big gold ring although he does not even own a motorcycle.) Pokeyness and the poisonous nature of the French intellectual model are probably related, but the discussion of such a relationship would take me too far onto thin ice.
Many left-leaning American intellectuals wish America would become more like France, in part so they will have a better crack at becoming public intellectuals themselves.
The general idea I am promoting is that to switch to French is to enter a world of uninformation, of disinformation, and of involuntary poetry. I recall fondly an hour and half I spent driving through the admirable Loire Valley, intrigued by an animated discussion of the damage being inflicted on Cuban society by the “American blockade” (le blocus). No, the year was not 1962 when the US imposed a partial blockade for a couple of weeks. I was listening to that discussion nearly 40 years later. The correct descriptive term, “embargo,” is the same in French as in English. So, here again, don't blame translation. The discussion took place on a specialized radio channel called France-Culture. Would anyone make this up?
That was the aperitif. By way of appetizers, here are three pearls I collected from TV5’s Le Journal (“The News”) in a span of two weeks (February-March 2011). I admit, they were all gleaned from the same news anchor:
“The Rosenbergs, a couple who were executed because they were Communists. . . .” The speaker was announcing that the soldier accused of leaking military secrets to Wikileaks theoretically risks the death penalty. He added, gratuitously and of his own accord, that Wikileaks’ Julian Assange “knows what to expect if he is extradited to the US.”
To switch to French is to enter a world of uninformation, of disinformation, and of involuntary poetry.
Reminder: at the time of this report, no authority, civilian or military, had called for the soldier to face capital punishment. Assange was facing extradition from the UK to Sweden to respond there to accusations of sex crimes. The US has not asked for his extradition here, something that would be easy to expedite with the UK. Whatever penalty, if any, Assange would face in the US, the editor of the New York Times would face the same. There is solid legal opinion that the dissemination of illegally obtained information breaks no federal law.
Only a few days later, the announcement comes on the same Le Journal that the “North American cougar is officially extinct.” (Translator's note: “cougar” is another name for “mountain lion” and “puma.”) The same perverse announcer makes his melancholy comment while standing before an old Western poster.
This time, I am stunned instead of merely annoyed. Mountain lions, cougars, are stealing pets and carrying goats across eight-foot fences five miles from my house. Oversize alley cats are not committing the misdeeds, I am sure. I’ve even written a story in French about the animal's ubiquity in California. (“Les pumas de Bécons-les-Bruyères.” It's on my blog at factsmatter.wordpress.com.) I am so astonished that I take the trouble to follow through online, where I find a big title in an environmentalist magazine (Planète, March 4, 2011):
“Les cougars ont officiellement disparu.”
But the text beneath the title does not say that at all. The real news, three paragraphs down, is about as newsworthy as “Madagascar dodo officially extinct.” The announcement is of the official extinction of the eastern “sub-species” of the cougar that no one had seen for a century anyway. It matters not; there are dozens of readers' comments about how the demise of the mountain lion is just another horrible case of humans raping the earth.
I know, it's just one zealous announcer blindly following one misleading title. But the news anchor is not a nobody, and he is not a kid. He has an important job, one much prized. I was unable track him down, but I would bet good money that he is a graduate from one of the elite Paris schools. You don't get his kind of position of influence and power without the right credentials.
Finally, here are the main stories, the several main dishes, if you will.
It's 2005. I am living in Morocco for a little while, pretending to gather material for a scholarly book on ethnic identities I never wrote. I go to the central railroad station news kiosk to pick up several Moroccan weeklies in French, because it's convenient. A delivery man dumps a pack of newspapers practically on my feet. I look at them, of course. It's a bundle of Le Monde, fresh from Paris. Le Monde is the French sociological equivalent of the New York Times, except more so. It's resolutely highbrow and unashamedly elitist. Working for Le Monde in any capacity elevates one's social standing. Often, being employed by Le Monde is the only thing that stands between a person and precipitous downward mobility. Le Monde is not exactly the informational equivalent of the NYT, however. It's thin in content, although it's an evening paper. Maybe it's because it defines itself strictly as a political periodical. (No entertaining “Life Style” pages.) For years, it has been run as a kind of “collective” with the unavoidable consequence that its journalists are co-opted from the same small circle. Invited guests play a minimal role, in part because they also come from the same small circle.
The host enjoys a good rapport with the general French television audience because of his fluency in the childish, empty, mindless slang that is the ordinary French language of the mainstream today.
By that day, in Morocco, I have already forsworn reading Le Monde for several years. It annoys me without enlightening me so, why bother, I say? But the unexpected appearance of the French paper in my field of vision induces an involuntary reflex to glance at the front page. A big title catches my eye. It's on the revival of the Baghdad theater. The subject is right down my alley. It's about Iraq and it’s about a performance art. I like Arab culture and I am endlessly curious about it. My guard is also down because the French often do that kind of reporting well. My fugitive favorable prejudice is multiplied in an instant by the realization that a French reporter in an Arab country is about five times more likely to be accompanied by an actual Arabic speaker than is an American reporter. (Hundreds of thousands of French people speak Arabic as their native tongue.)
Favor for Le Monde suddenly returns to my addled heart. I pay for the paper and read the first few lines of the article, standing in the train station.
The story is by a woman who seems young. (Don't ask me how I know; I know, and that's another story.) Here is her opening sentence, remembered, I think, word for word, except possibly for the relevant month (it's not important):
“It's early April 2003; Iraqis are dragging armchairs from the National Theater into the street outside, encouraged by an American G.I.”
Stop right there!, I think. I was not in Baghdad, but I would bet thousands (again) that there was no such encouragement. The US military was under orders not to interfere with looters. That's what it did, not because it's perfect but because Americans under military discipline don't encourage looting by others. They don't, period. (Some members of the American military may engage in looting themselves when the occasion arises. That's another story entirely; greed differs from vandalism by proxy.) And there was no motivation for any single one of them to proffer such encouragement. There was no “encouragement,” I am sure.
With her opening sentence, the French reporter was accomplishing two things. First, she was setting the scene, as any good narrator does: we are in Baghdad. It's shortly after the US invasion. Disorder reigns. It looks like the Iraqi theater is irreversibly damaged. Second, she was establishing her credentials with her crowd at Le Monde and with the general Le Monde readership: I am one of you. That Americans are barbaric, uncouth bullies is a given. Whatever I am about to tell you about my visit to the Baghdad theater circles under American occupation; please remember that I am as anti-American as the next guy or gal. Nothing can change this basic fact. I am me. “Me” is sophisticated and therefore expects nothing but stupidity and gross behavior from Americans.
You must be thinking what I was thinking at the time, because the generous American habit of fairness is difficult to break: this is just one reporter, probably a young, inexperienced one. She has not had time to think things through. Besides, her anti-Americanism at this point, in Iraq, is no greater than that felt by many Americans, including leftists and quite a few libertarians. Hers is primitive anti-Americanism.
Reel forward 9 years.
I am watching something wonderful on TV5 that has no equivalent in the US media. It's the show “On n'est pas couché” (“We Are Not Asleep”). It's the kind of show I mark on my calendar to make sure I don't miss it, although it lasts for two or even three hours. It's frankly an intellectual show but not uniformly highbrow. And it's not mincing, if you know what I mean. I like its format and I like its content. The format is original: there is a general host who acts as an MC and also as a referee or a judge in an American court. He is an affable man, a comedian of no great intellectual weight but endowed with an excellent sense of à propos. (This expression is spelled right and used right here; take note!) He enjoys a good rapport with the general French television audience because of his fluency in the childish, empty, mindless slang that is the ordinary French language of the mainstream today.
The show is shot before a live audience; in France, it's also broadcast live. It presents authors of newly published books, small and big, low and high, film directors and stage directors, and often, film and stage actors, singers, dancers, some athletes, and pantomime artists. There was even a clown once, though one with a famous circus family name. Sometimes, the show bags a national-level politician for a no-holds barred interview.
Two reasonably well-groomed professional intellectuals who know how to act on television are at the heart of the show. They preview the films and the stage shows, and above all, they really read the books whose authors will sit on their hot seat. They actually give the books, deserving or not, a thorough reading. The authors, directors, and actors are grilled about their work and their lives, but all in a non-scandalous way. There is no attempt to find out who bedded whom, except 20 years or more in the past, where the answer may have historical interest. The interviewing is cordial for young actresses, but it is fierce grilling for famous people. The jury of two suspects many of them of using their celebrity to palm off mediocre works (memoirs in particular) on a busy and possibly naïve public. The jurors show no indulgence toward the powerful. One recently told a popular television personality that his autobiography was “nulle” (“hopelessly void”). Then he asked the author why he had written the book at all. The author did not cry but I would have, in his place.
I am guessing, only guessing, that one could even make Zemmour admit that American might is the last rampart against the violent jihadism he openly fears.
It's to the great honor of the show that the same juror was himself called “nul” a week later by a popular soap-opera director whose work he had criticized, perhaps on the wrong grounds. The lady director, a beautiful Muslim woman with striking black hair, and her two main actresses, also attractive Muslim women originating in North Africa, came close to lynching the critic right in the studio. (I know the tension was not staged because I have watched the Jerry Springer trash-show dozens of times, which makes me an expert on rigged fights.) In the end, the argument over a television soap generated so much heat that the irate director called the critic out. What I heard sounded ambiguous precisely because there was so much heat. It was not completely clear in the end whether she was offering to beat him to a pulp outside the studio or if she was threatening to have her way with his body.
This juror who was thus placed under bodily threat is called Eric Zemmour. He is a man I would have for dinner any day, and I would also be glad to drink either coffee or beer with him any time. I might even share my oldest Calvados with him, because I like him so much. He is a journalist and also the author of ten books. He is refined, immensely cultured yet humble, and devastatingly witty. Zemmour often demonstrates a solidly conservative temperament in his comments about others people's work. One of his own best books is about the feminization of society, which he deplores, of course. Another book was the initial public signal in France that multiculturalism had taken stupid and self-destructive forms. Zemmour's is one of the few public voices in the country to undermine the ambient misérabilisme by pointing out that the French welfare net is quite adequate. (“Misérabilisme” is a word that does not exist in English but should, in my estimation. It refers to the emotional and intellectual propensity to feast on the misery, real or imagined, of others in one's society or, often, in the world. It's one of the emotional foundations of leftism.)
Zemmour is quite able to say good things about American movies and about the American cinema in general. It's obvious he has read American authors. No primitive anti-Americanism for him. Yet, very often, and most often when confronted with any manifestation of American power at all, he displays reactions of intense dislike and dismissal. In such circumstances, he seems to become a little stupid. He sounds as if his IQ had dropped 30 points. Maybe “stupid” is too strong a word. He is still an intelligent man at those times, but just intelligent in an ordinary way, not brilliant. I mean by this that his comments do not differ in such moments from what you might hear in any caféclose enough to the Sorbonne.
Zemmour is Jewish. He and his parents are from Algeria. Had it not been for the massive exercise of American power in North Africa in November 1942, there is a fair chance the Vichy regime would have completed the job already started of turning over its Jews to the Nazis for disposal. Later, his family moved to France. This man is also old enough to know that, absent American power, the Soviet Union would have eaten Western Europe alive, as it did Eastern Europe. It's impossible to believe that he does not know that the US threatened the Soviet Union into staying put and that the threat was credible thanks to America's obvious and abundantly displayed power. And there is no doubt that he knows and recognizes that there was no critical show like his under any Communist regime. And he knows full well that to the extent that there were public intellectuals in Communist-ruled countries, their place was most often in prison or in the gulag. I am sure he has signed several letters in support of jailed Cuban intellectuals. I am guessing, only guessing, that one could even make Zemmour admit that American might is the last rampart against the violent jihadism he openly fears.
So, here we have it: this intelligent, cultured man, endowed with a superior critical sense, this man who daily demonstrates his independence of mind in his newspaper columns, often in his books, and weekly on television, cannot put two and two together: American power created and continues to create a sphere of freedom where the likes of him can perform their good work. There might be an alternative to American power, but there is not. There has not been one ever since he was born.
Zemmour appears to suffer from self-inflicted blindness, a kind of hysterical reaction to his macro-environment. The French intellectual context is so mindlessly leftist and anti-US that there are few people with enough resources of mind and character to confront it head on. We are social beings. When enveloped in a warm blanket of homogeneity, most of us will succumb, unless we are trained not to. We all need rocky seas, every so often, just to calibrate our compasses.
Some French people are well enough aware of the political dimension of intellectual homogeneity that there is a French expression for it: “la pensée unique.” There are exceptions to the rule of French intellectuals yielding to the attraction of homogeneity but they don't last. The philosopher Bernard Henry-Lévy, originally a little prince of the French Left, broke publicly with leftism and with the anti-Americanism of his milieu in the 80s. Then he became a publicity hound and a bad writer. I recommend warmly that you don't buy his 2005 tour of the US, In the Footsteps of De Tocqueville, where he grandiosely claimed to follow in De Tocqueville's intellectual footsteps, but definitely did not. French intellectuals who throw off the warm blanket of homogeneity just seem to get lost.
But here is my third and last story. It's so outlandish that I wouldn’t dare tell it if I were not reasonably sure there were archives that could back it up if necessary.
I am guilty of many sins but failing to make myself comfortable is not one of them. Everywhere I am, I nearly always manage to begin the day in the same way — a cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other. This comforting habit sometimes has to be reduced all the way down to instant coffee and reading up on the exploits of a local high-school basketball team in a language I can barely decipher, but the form, the ritual, at least, is respected.
The French intellectual context is so mindlessly leftist and anti-US that there are few people with enough resources of mind and character to confront it head on.
So, it's late June 1998. I am in Brittany to write something on the largely phony origins of Breton Celticism. (No merit there; I am just following in the footsteps of the English historian Trevor-Roper in his iconoclastic The Invention of Scotland.) I am beginning the day sitting outside a good caféin a pleasant coastal town. There is a cool breeze from the sea. A grand crème warms my hand. (There is no such thing as café-au-lait in French cafés. It's another case of phony Frenchism, among many others.) This is before I rejected Le Monde as a morning sacrament. So, I am unfolding yesterday night's issue.
A front page item immediately claims my attention. It's a long report on India's nuclear policy by Le Monde's “envoyé spécial” in New Delhi.
It's been a little over a month since India detonated nuclear devices with obvious weaponization potential. I start reading with unwavering attention. After about two or three minutes, a small warning bell starts tinkling in my brain. Something is wrong in what I am reading. Now, I don't know about other people's warning bells, but mine is not sophisticated. It does not have special timbres for “lies,” “inaccuracies,” or “involuntary misinformation.” It just says, “Something is wrong here.” So, I go back to the head of the article and I realize with stupor that I have been reading all along that India's national policy regarding nuclear weapons had been until then one of “nuclear disappointment."
The words did not describe a collective feeling among Indians or anything close to such an emotion, as you might be tempted to guess. The envoyé spécial clearlycoupled the word “déception” to the word for “nuclear” in connection with an official policy, a series of connected statements designed to guide state action. The juxtaposition of those two words makes absolutely no sense, of course. A brief explanation is in order (and, by the way, this was one of those times when it is useful to know English in order to understand French).
The French word déception means “disappointment.” The distinguished French journalist sent especially to India at significant expense to investigate momentous events went on and on for thousands of words developing the thesis that India's policy regarding the touchy topic of nuclear weapons was guided by disappointment! There was no trace in the article of the fact that the French correspondent had almost certainly been briefed by Indian colleagues. I can guess what they had told him, in English — for years, India's informational strategy regarding nuclear weapons was one of “deception”: “We have them; we don't have them; we may have more than you think; keep wondering.” Finally, with its public explosions, India had come out of the era of nuclear deception.
I bought Le Monde faithfully for three weeks afterwards and examined it carefully, expecting an author's self-correction or a Letter to the Editor denouncing the non-sense. Nothing, absolutely nothing!
The least interesting observation about this informational debacle is that the correspondent did not know English, although he was judged competent enough by his editors to be put in charge of an important investigation that would have to take place in English. Periodically, I find the same kind of impairment of perceptiveness about language proficiency in American newspapers. In fact, I could name names if I were as mean as I sometimes hope I am. There is a permanent Paris correspondent for several respected American periodicals who, I am certain, does not know much more than high-school French. I mean, enough to shop and to travel by the Metro but definitely not enough to read Le Monde, to take an example at random. I think she often sounds credible merely because she has developed good French sources. Occasionally, not often, her analyses appear both larded with clichés and way off the mark, as if she had tried to go it alone for once.
The main implication of the Indian story is that a highbrow French intellectual from Le Monde spouted utter nonsense for two long pages and never caught on to the evidence that he was spouting non-sense. Worse, in the vast, distinguished readership of Le Monde, there was no one to notice, or to be motivated enough to ask for a correction — or else the management of the paper received corrective communications and decided to bury them, because they knew could get away with it.
Here is the inescapable conclusion, it seems to me: the French intellectual class, and those who follow it, have been listening to abstruse, absurd logic for so long that they assume there are parallel philosophical universes. In those parallel universes, words can be linked together any which way, logic is variable, upside may be downside, and black is as likely to be green, or even white, as black. And above all, clarity of expression is vulgar.
This can only happen when a group prizes collective peace above all, when dissent about ideas is so severely punished that otherwise intelligent people practice unconscious self-censorship. I refer to unconscious self-censorship because France is undeniably a democratic country with no government censorship of any kind. In fact, French intellectuals sometimes point with glee to government censorship in this country. (They refer to local censorship in matters of sexual display, guided by the vague-sounding doctrine of “community standards.”)
The French example proves that intellectuals don't matter much as far as quality of life, or much of anything else, is concerned.
The unavoidable logical consequence of the French state of affairs for envious American intellectuals seems to me inescapable. France is a fairly well-run society where people don't normally die in the street. It maintains high standards of civility most of the time, in spite of the fact that a normal weekend sees several hundred cars burned by vandals. The French quality of life is high. In many respects it compares favorably to the American quality of life. And the demonstrated superior longevity of Frenchmen may just be due to their ancestral habit of drinking a little wine with each meal. The French system is fine but it's not sustainable, as we, I, used to say. After the 2008 US-originated financial, then economic, meltdown, it's more difficult to maintain the same view without grimacing, at least inwardly.
Similarly, there is much to object to in French foreign policy, but it's no more hypocritical, mendacious, supine, or irrational than the policies of its neighbors. Terrorists never won French elections and they never redirected national foreign policy as al Qaeda did in Spain in 2004. The French army is alongside US forces in Afghanistan, where it's more likely to be doing actual fighting than its German counterparts, for example. France is not as reliable an ally as the United Kingdom or Australia, but it acquits itself better than many others.
So, we see in France a reasonably good society, and a society that does not act especially erratically or shamefully on the international stage but whose cherished intellectuals are often blind and sometimes collectively insane, as my stories show. The inescapable conclusion: The French example proves that intellectuals don't matter much as far as quality of life, or much of anything else, is concerned.
Of course, there are some downsides to this blindness and insanity although they don't add up to poison. One is the propensity to invent madcap intellectual adventures under a serious mien, such as “déconstructionisme." Another is to produce with huge government support movies that no one understands and in which the action is too slow to be worth following. Yet another consequence is awarding the highest decoration in the land to Jerry Lewis. But it all amounts to nothing tragic.
P.S. There is little in this essay to disincline anyone, even intellectuals, from spending enjoyable time in France. You just need to be aware that if you are a rational person, the more French you know, the less restful, the less enjoyable your stay will be. My travel advice: See the sights; read guidebooks in English; don't listen to the radio; don't watch television; and, for Pete's sake, don't talk to anyone who is not working in a restaurant.
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