Saturday, May 15, 2010

Other Voices, Other Implications


            J. L. Speranza challenged my claim that I admire the French for admiring intellectuals but not necessarily the intellectuals they admire.   This person implied that it must be inconsistent of me to admire the French for admiring their intellectuals while at the same time not admiring the intellectuals they admire.  Speranza is  a subtle thinker; so I am not willing to dismiss his challenge without first examining it.  He has his own reasons for questioning my admiration, but since it is my admiration and not his that is in question, I intend to explore my own history, a tiny bit, with this in mind.

             While not directly implied, I assumed that National myths are important to a nation's well being.  The Japanese, for example, have the myth of the Samurai which is very like the American myth of the gunfighter or "cowboy" of the Old (American) West.  They were able to make use of this myth after World War II by applying the Samurai code to capitalistic competition.  They have become a modern economic success to at least some extent because of their Samurai myth.

            I've been especially interested in myths relating to a Nation's willingness to fight in its own defense.  The French used to be a great warrior nation, well able to defend itself.  They loved to fight so much that they readily encroached  on the territories of neighboring nations.  We tend to forget, in view of the France we know as the epitome of a victim nation, that one of the main reasons Germany sought the war of conquest that we call World War II, is because of their fear of a warlike France.  Not being admirers of French men of letters, they were not aware, or did not believe, that France was no longer a nation to be feared, that their warrior myth had been severely degraded if not utterly obliterated during the Banquet Years that Roger Shattuck wrote about, and further degraded during World War I; which Erich Maria Remarque wrote about  -- it is interesting that though German, the anti-war All Quiet on the Western Front had more of an effect on the French willingness to fight than it did on the German (in 1933 the Nazis burned it) -- and into then the embarrassing and extremely chaotic and largely pacifistic period the French endured ("embraced" might be a better word) prior to World War II. 

            Perhaps it is an American myth that the French are admirable for admiring their intellectuals.  I read some place, perhaps it was Mark Lilla, or someone else from New French Thought that Americans tend to buy books by French philosophers ten years or so after they have been superseded in France.  The French "philosophers" I have admired have been the ones (lower case) who have criticized the upper case philosophers such as Sartre and Derrida.  Or, perhaps, Marcel Gauchet has moved into the upper-case philosopher-category with his The Disenchantment of the World, a Political History of Religion.  But would that make him one of the "men of letters" the French admire?  He is part of the group (the Princeton Series on New French Thought has publicized) that rejects the wrong turn I mention above; so he might not be admired in the way that French icons like Sartre and Derrida were.

            Perhaps the person who criticized the Americans for being taken in by French philosophers past their "use by" date was British.  A. J. Ayer, for example concluded about Being and Nothingness that "Existentialism, on this evidence, was principally an exercise in misusing the verb 'to be'."

            In looking through the list I quoted from Paris After the Liberation the only French man of letters I admire is Camus.  While I didn't admire his novels, I at least admired his The Myth of Sisyphus -- or at least I did when I first read it years ago.  Of course I can't say that I admire the American men of letters (being admired by the French) in the same paragraph: "such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Damon Runyan, Thornton Wilder and Thomas Wolfe.  There was a time when I tried to make my mind accept the idea that Thomas Wolfe was the "great American novelist," but I failed.  His novels were great long disjointed things. 

            Gauchet and Renaut chide the French for being enamored of German "men of letters" -- implying that the French copies were inferior to the German originals. 

            Perhaps more than praising the French for admiring their "men of letters" I was criticizing my own countrymen for admiring "rock stars."  Though Walter Russell Mead is concerned about Foreign Policy in his Special Providence, his classification of Americans goes beyond foreign affairs:  There are the Jacksonians (the fighters), the Hamiltonians (the capitalists), the Jeffersonians (the legalists) and the Wilsonians (the political evangelists).  The Jacksonian, Mead tells us in an interesting oversimplification, joins the National Rifle Association (NRA); while the Jeffersonian joins the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).   None of Mead's classifications include "men of letters." 

            Someone might say that America has first to produce quality "men of letters" then there will follow Americans willing to admire them.  But that is not what the French did and so doesn't comprise a valid parallel.  While the American "men of letters" in the list that Shattuck provides were second rate; so were the French men of letters.  They seem first rate because of the adulation they received from French citizens.  But, someone may quickly challenge me by asking, who is?  And I don't have a good answer.  Neither do Luc Ferry, Alain Renaut, Philippe Raynaud, Pierre Manent, Blandine Kriegel, Stephane Rials, Bernard Manin, Anne Godignon, Jean-Louis Thiriet, and Gilles Lipovetsky, who without clear direction hanker after the good old days before the men of the Banquet Years and their successors degraded French Thought.

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