This morning I made the mistake of clicking on a Spiegel interview with the French public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut. I come from a country known for its nativism, its jingoism, and its exceptionalist Sonderweg mentality. But I became a philosopher in large part because I imagined that doing so would enable me to rise above that murky swamp of local attachment and to embrace the world as a whole.
Things are different in France. The real disgrace of French philosophy is not that it sends people like Derrida to US universities to beguile American innocents with their koans, but that it sends people like Finkielkraut to the French public, via the mass media, to say, in their capacity as 'philosophers', things that are perfectly comprehensible but completely irresponsible and awful. It is particularly shameful for someone who talks about the 'duty of memory' to be striving to ingratiate himself with the self-identified français de souche at the expense of recent immigrants.
The Spiegel interviewer does a commendable job. The highlight of the exchange for me was this part:
Spiegel: How do you define this French civilization that you speak of?
Finkielkraut: I recently reread a book by the admirable Russian writer Isaac Babel. The story takes place in Paris. The narrator is in a hotel and at night he hears the lovemaking sounds of the couples next door. Babel writes: This has nothing to do with what one hears in Russia -- it's much more fiery. Then his French friend responds: We French created women, literature and cuisine. No one can take that from us.
Spiegel: Those are idealized clichés that nations create for themselves.
To this, the public intellectual can only respond, "but it's true." There is no interest in a truly comparative perspective on the culture he values, no apparent awareness that wherever you go the locals will insist that it is there that one eats the best, and fucks the best. The French twist is to elevate these conceits by adding 'reads the best' to the list.
Over and over again you hear the same thing, from Finkielkraut, from Richard Millet, from the defenders of DSK, from the '343 salauds' who signed a petition defending prostitution to which they gave the title 'Don't Touch My Whore': the idea that French food, literature, and sex are all singularly great, and that somehow the survival of each of these is intertwined with the other; that if you ban prostitution, 'literature' will collapse, if you let courses be taught in English in French universities, McDonalds will proliferate, &c. &c.
What Finkielkraut has to say about his reasons for avoiding the Front National are telling: he still sees this chauvinistic civilizational bullshit as the true mission of the French Left, and is hoping that the Left will come to its senses and start defending what's important again. One sees a similar distortion in the pseudo-populist defense of the French language from the philosopher Michel Serres. He notes that "now the dominant class speaks English and French has become the language of the poor; and I defend the language of the poor." In a Godwinian reductio as strained as the American Right's recent invention of the secret history of 'liberal fascism', Serres notes that "there are more English words on the walls of Toulouse than there were German words under the occupation." Thus is the contemporary world's lingua franca portrayed as akin to Nazism, and the solution, implicitly, is a cultural politics of French exceptionalism that inflicts its own idea of justice not on the Anglophones of the world, but on the speakers of Arabic next door.
Almost all of the people who think and speak like this are French men between 60 and 80, and so I suppose we might just have to wait it out. But I'm still trying to figure out whether they are succeeding in reproducing themselves. After all, the conceit of being bearers of civilization in a world of barbarians goes back to the Enlightenment, and so it's hard to imagine that when Finkielkraut and Millet finally retire, this way of thinking will go extinct.
I understand that this is all a species of the same genus of cultural pride that gives us the love of terroir and commensality and so on, and that those things are good (though sometimes I do like to insist: we internationalists, we eat while we're walking). I understand, also, that there is something worth defending in French libertinism; but DSK getting pumped up on Viagra for secret sex parties with (or at least alongside) his elite copains is not the only hope for the survival of erotic freedom. (I note also in passing that there is a direct line back from Sade through the Mediterranean romances of the late middle ages and, ultimately, to the Arabs.) I have heard taxi drivers, real français de souche, carrying on with the same ecstatic pride about the food they get to eat at home thanks to their Frenchness that Michel Serres expresses about the singular richness of the French language. The problem comes when these good things are transformed into a rallying cry for persecution of minorities, and for irrational belief in one's own society's objective superiority.
France is nice. The food is pretty good. There have been many noteworthy artistic and philosophical achievements in this country, and these are worth studying and celebrating. I am happy to be here.