Friday, May 14, 2010

Men of Letters in Paris, after the liberation

            From pages 172-3 of Paris, After the Liberation, 1944-1949, by Beevor and Cooper:
            "Students seemed to live off nervous energy and ideas.  The greatest hunger was for reading material, yet there was so little time and so much to read -- Aragon, Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, as well as Apollinaire, Lautreamont, Gide, and now all the American novels which proliferated in translation, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Damon Runyan, Thornton Wilder and Thomas Wolfe.  Everything formerly banned must be seen -- whether the plays of Garcia Lorca or the films of Bunuel.  Philosophy student or not, you needed to be able to discuss Hegel's master-slave paradigm, the collected works of Karl Marx, and existentialism's less than apostolic succession from Soren Kierkegaard and the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, via Martin Heidegger, then Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
            "Emannuel Le Roy Ladurie's professor of philosophy, Beaufret, had an immense prestige among students: he had actually met Heidegger. . . ."
            "Antoine de Saint-Exupery had written of 1940 in Pilote de guerre, 'La defaite divise.'  The Liberation managed at first to unite the majority of the country under the banner of progressisme, as the opinion polls demonstrated in the massive support for the nationalization of banks and heavy industry.  Simone de Beauvoir wrote of 'Paris in the year zero'.  And indeed for Communists and their fellow-travelers there was a sense of marching with history.  Another sign of the times, as Galtier-Boissiere pointed out, was Vogue -- of all magazines -- publishing a poem of Eluard and a portrait of Marcel Cachin, the veteran Communist.
            "The death of the great poet Paul Valery at the age of seventy-four seemed to underline the end of an era.  Valery, who had delivered the address of welcome to Petain when he was elected to the academie Francaise, died on 20 July 1945 -- three days before the Marshal's trial.  He was given a state funeral: the coffin was carried through the streets of Paris, accompanied by a detachment of the Garde Republicaine marching to muffled drums.  The coffin was placed just below the Trocadero on a golden catafalque, lit by torches.  Duff Cooper, who thoroughly approved of the French Republic's respect for men of letters, reflected ruefully on the difference in his own country.  'We have only to imagine how would be greeted the suggestion that the Brigade of Guards would march past the coffin of T. S. Eliot.'"
            COMMENT:  As critical as I often am of the French, I do admire that about them, that they have respect for men of letters.  At the same time it is difficult to sift through what was going on at the time and judge, even from this later perspective, what was good and what was bad about what they thought and desired.  Elsewhere I criticized Apollinaire, and would to some extent anyone who admired his anarchistic attack against "the establishment."   
            I was amused that the Communists sought to describe themselves as Progressives after the Liberation.  American Leftists of the present time prefer being called "Progressives" to Leftists.  But what is it they fancy they are progressing toward?  The ones I've questioned don't seem to know.  Beevor and Cooper mention nationalized banks and heavy industry.  European nations did have a fondness for that sort of "progress" for a while, but inasmuch as Nationalized anything can't compete very well in a free market, I suspect very little of that sort of "progress" remains anyplace in the West.  So what did the French calls this "progress" when it fell short of expectations?  It can take a long time before a bit of progress of that sort actually fails, and very easy, I suspect, to conceal the fact that one supported failed ideas -- especially when one lives in a nation willing to rescue such failures from a natural death.  We in America still subsidize our Postal Service for example.   Then of course there was that nation, most admired by the French after the liberation, the Soviet Union; which subsidized everything and took a very long time to fail.  Modern Progressives don't like to read about their Progressive predecessors.  It is very human of them to skip over all the failures and concentrate upon warm, comforting, hope.
            I was inclined to sympathize with Duff Cooper until I sought to draw up a list of American "men of letters" I thought would deserve the American equivalent of the Brigade of Guards marching past.  I had to give it up.  We are too diverse, too spread out in cities that are not-Paris, too disparaging of that sort of attention -- at least for men of letters.  And there would, of course, be the inescapable comparison with rock stars, singers, actors, and sports figures.  And while large numbers, whom some might be tempted to refer to as subnormal, aren't interested in a Brigade of Guards, they do howl in anguish when one of their rock stars dies, often though it might be of a drug overdose.

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