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Culture in the Mitterrand Years
by Arthur Goldhammer, for French Politics & Society
Culture, let us be clear, is not le fait du Prince. The Zeitgeist does not progress at the rhythm of the septennat. Still, the end of the Mitterrand era is a convenient place to take stock. Over the past fourteen years the French cultural landscape has changed more rapidly and dramatically perhaps than the countryside itself. It is a quieter place, for one thing: the “silence of the intellectuals” was noted soon after the new president took office. In retrospect that silence was ominous: it signaled hollowness at the very core of victory. What seemed a triumph of the Left in 1981 turned out to be the ultimate triumph of de Gaulle: the coup d’État had proved permanent indeed. And with that discovery French political culture returned to earth: no longer was the battle between Right and Left a struggle over the future of civilization. For all of Mitterrand’s efforts to inflate or conflate policy with poetry, politics had taken a fatally prosaic turn. The intellectual class turned its attention elsewhere.
The consequent dedramatization of political life was anticipated and abetted by the demise of Marxism. This was of course a phenomenon of longue durée, certainly well under way even as Marxism was being declared l’horizon indépassable of modern times. Indeed, it was perhaps because Marxism was for a time not only indépassable but stiflingly ubiquitous that its demise became inevitable: there had always been an essential element of provocation in the French intellectual’s embrace of the communist idea, at least since Aragon’s riposte to Drieu la Rochelle that “je braillerai [vive Lénine] demain, puisqu’on m’interdit ce cri.” What was no longer interdit but commonplace was no longer worth braying about. By the time Mitterrand took office, Marxism had ceased to be of interest to philosophers: Foucault in 1965 had declared it a strange fish at home nowhere but in nineteenth-century waters. By 1981 it had become Breton’s poisson soluble: because it explained too much in retrospect and too little in prospect it was of no epistemological interest, and epistemology was all the rage in the time of the Programme Commun, which not even Marxism but only the prospect of presidential elections could explain and which in retrospect has to be seen as one of the more vacuous manifestations of a moribund political culture. A more serious, if paradoxical, index of Marxism’s fatal weakness was its apparent strength among social historians. Class had become a routine analytical tool for Annalistes trained under Labrousse, but its exclusively descriptive use in structuralist social history, which saw its goal as correlating social structures with cultural, political, and ideological differences, sapped the locomotive of history of its steam. Marxism, which was supposed to tell those who had only thought about the world how to change it, had been reduced to a social portrait painter, and the portraits it so prolifically turned out bore the distinctive stamp of a school: they no longer had the power to surprise.
As it happens, one of Labrousse’s students, François Furet, identified certain defects in the portrait of the very revolutionary society that was supposed to have been the prototype of the genre. Furet’s rise to intellectual preeminence is surely one of the central—and symptomatic—themes of French cultural life in the Mitterrand years. One would have had to have been a prescient reader of Furet and Richet’s La Révolution française (1965) to have predicted it: the heresy was then still framed in a recognizable (Lefebvrian) orthodoxy, though it certainly did not go unnoticed by Furet’s former comrades in the Party. By the time Penser la Révolution française was published in 1978, however, heresy had blossomed into full-blown apostasy: the social history of the Revolution was now inspired by Cobban rather than Lefebvre, the ideological glue was Tocqueville rather than Marx, and the reading of the Terror, though hinged on Cochin’s sociology, probably owed as much to Arendt’s philosophical telescoping of Bolsheviks and Jacobins as to Furet’s experience of French Communism in operation.
Furet’s revision of revolutionary historiography thus distinguished itself in several ways. It moved revolutionary political culture to center stage, relegating economic history and class conflict to the wings. It stood the republican myth on its head: the Revolution, far from making French history a universal model of liberation, had left France idiosyncratically vulnerable to what Furet could only see as the pathology of the revolutionary mentality. And finally, it was eclectic: French philosophers had been pillaging foreign treasures for years, but few historians were as shrewd in their syncretism as Furet. His novel brew captured the imagination of younger historians tired of the repetitive and fragmentary results of marxisant social history. He offered a new reading of the central event of French history that responded to the belated antitotalitarian concerns of the nascent French human rights movement (the Nouveaux Philosophes had discovered Solzhenitsyn in 1977; Glucksmann, moved by the plight of the boat people, brought Sartre and Aron together to shake hands in 1979, symbolizing the shift in perspective).
Furet’s success had an institutional as well as an intellectual dimension. He became president of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and later chairman of the Institut Saint-Simon. His articles appeared regularly in the glossy magazines. With the death of Raymond Aron he became the incarnation of French liberalism—a liberalism now defined more by its antithesis, the temptation of the revolutionary tabula rasa, than by any positive tradition of pluralist tolerance. Indeed, Furet naturalized the liberal tradition in a way that Aron, whose central concern in the Cold War was foreign policy and whose Atlanticist proclivities left him in an odd and at times antagonistic relation to Gaullism, had never succeeded in doing. Mieux vaut avoir tort avec Sartre que raison avec Aron, the saying went: Sartre was more fun, and that was where the action was. But by the time of Mitterrand’s election, the gauchistes who had cheered Sartre on his barrelhead at Billancourt had sobered up. Mieux vaut avoir raison avec Furet quand même, they all seemed to say in chorus, and in any case there simply was no longer any Sartre to err with. Even Foucault, the last heir apparent to the Sartrean magisterium, had noted, without evident regret, the demise of le grand intellectuel in an article published in L’Arc. His case was structural, but soon the “great intellectuals” were gone not only structurally but physically: Foucault, Barthes, and Lacan all passed from the scene early in Mitterrand’s term; Althusser lingered on until 1990 but had long since been hors de combat. Young Turks attempted to liquidate la pensée ‘68 anyway, but that dead horse had already decamped for America, where it led a fitful afterlife in institutions of higher learning and still figures in our domestic culture wars as Rosinante to a few deathless Quixotes.
The vanishing of the “great intellectual” and the perceived “silence of the intellectuals” were of course related. The silence was in fact figurative: there was no dearth of intellectual production after 1981, rather an overabundance of it. What was lacking was a great voice to articulate, as in the past, the public angst in that distinctively French polyphony of imagination, wit, and intelligence. Furet, for all his skill, was only a historian. Thus one witnessed a curious division, for example, at the time of the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989. The moment was seen by many observers as that of Furet’s consecration as the reigning intellectual of the hour. “He is everywhere,” a friend of mine reported from the scene. A team of scholars that he and Mona Ozouf assembled produced the definitive revisionist history of the event, Le Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française. Yet at the level of l’imaginaire, as the French would say, the nation seemed untouched. The public celebration took little or no account of the theoried class’s loss of confidence in what was being celebrated. A new historiography was apotheosized, but unlike the historiography of the Annales it had existential and imaginative resonance only for those who, like Furet or his disciples of the ‘68 generation, had experienced the revolutionary temptation at first hand and found it at first no doubt exhilarating but ultimately (and perhaps in consequence of that very exhilaration, that intoxication of the will) frightening.
This intellectualized containment of the revolutionary or antisocial drive (Dionysus, become Apollo, recollected green thoughts in a green shade) is doubly curious when contrasted with another tendency discernible in the historiography of the Mitterrand years, namely, the accent on historical memory. The history of memory is a complex subject, but one thing that all approaches to it seem to share is a sense that as history and literature have diverged over the past century, a gap has opened up between the way in which historians understand the past and the way in which “laymen” do. In this dichotomy there is a danger for the clerisy, that of isolating itself, losing its flock, and ultimately undermining its raison d’être, as well as a danger for the laity, that of becoming vulnerable to the poisonous mythification of the past against which the only antidote is some minimal consensus about what kinds of disagreement, inevitable in historical as opposed to physical or mathematical science, are reasonable. The history of memory thus aims, at least in part, to close the gap between clerisy and laity by restoring a lived inward dimension to the past: the historian asks not, as Ranke did, what actually happened but instead what people think happened and how those beliefs shaped their present and ours. In France, of course, memory was also a particularly live issue because of Vichy and because the Fifth Republic was based on a certain memory of a certain idea of France. Henry Rousso therefore performed a civic service with his exploration of Le Syndrome de Vichy (1990) and at the same time bestowed a new respectability on the “history of the present,” over which he now exercises official responsibility as the director of the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent. Meanwhile, the rump of Les Annales also pursued the theme of memory in part as a palliative, in part as an Ariadne’s thread through the maze left by what Pierre Nora once trumpeted as l’éclatement de l’Histoire only to be chided by a young critic who saw only l’émiettement. The Ecole des Annales itself became a kind of memory, to which numerous shrines were erected in the form of multivolume, multiauthor works on themes such as rural France, urban France, private life, women, and youth.
Revisionism, liberalism, the demise of the “great intellectual,” and the rise of memory: how do these themes of the Mitterrand era fit together? Let me throw caution to the winds—the genre of “instant cultural analysis” fairly demands it—and suggest an answer. The great intellectual was a seer, an oracle. Like the Pythia at Delphi, he gathered up the emanations of the age and issued pronouncements, often in the form of riddles, in which others presumed to read the future and shaped their lives according to what they read. What kept the readers reading and interpreting was a belief, some would say a misplaced faith, that the future would be, should be, dramatically different from the past. That faith is gone. Furet’s revisionism is a symptom, not a cause, of its disappearance. The revolutionary tabula rasa, we are told, was always an illusion—at first sublime, noble, and uplifting, later bloody-minded, coercive, and tyrannical. But what, then, is to be done? The best that can be done, the antirevolutionary liberal gradualist argues, is what Popper so infelicitously called “piecemeal social engineering.” Mendès, to whom Mitterrand paid homage on taking office, put it better: Gouverner, c’est choisir. But is that enough? The problem is that it leaves liberal societies, shorn of any avenir radieux, with only memories in lieu of a projet. Nostalgia is mature, wise, ironic, disillusioned, balanced. Hence it appeals to us, middle-aged, middle-class gens d’étude. Others will not be satisfied. That is cause for concern, indeed for alarm, as the substantial anti-establishment protest vote in the recent presidential election makes crystal clear. I do not know how the challenge can be met, but if my reading of the cultural tea leaves is correct, then the centrist intellectual consensus exits the Mitterrand era in much the same condition as the President himself: still erect, still defiant, but moribund.
I regret that I have said nothing in this rapid survey about the novel, poetry, art, architecture, film, theater, dance, or music. Perhaps the fact that history, and history of a singularly sober, polemical, and moralistic stripe, is, of all the disciplines and genres, the one that seems to me to capture most fully the mentalité of the Mitterrand era is itself a feature of the period worth remarking on; certainly one would not characterize any comparable expanse of this century by looking at its historians.
Perhaps, in conclusion, I should say a word about le fait du Prince proprement dit: les Grands Travaux. The first point to be made about them is that they are intended, quite consciously I think, to expand the “cultural capital” beyond the traditional invisible enceinte that coincides roughly with the boundaries of sixteenth-century Paris. From La Grande Arche in that wholly artificial excrescence of the city that goes by the name of La Défense, to the Science Park on the edge of what remains the colorful and redolent butchers’ district of La Villette, to the Très Grande Bibliothèque that now dominates the gritty quays of the east end, a vast new triangular Paris of the future has been staked out, with Science, Letters, and Business at the vertices. The gargantuan and bizarre new library may have been meant to restore a certain artificial balance to this triangle: the President often proclaimed his love of literature even if his practice frequently sacrificed more to technology and cash. At the center of les Grands Travaux one finds other triangles: the faces of I. M. Pei’s pyramid, to my mind the most successful of all the works, perhaps because it is the most modest and the most embedded in the great tradition of grandiose state architecture. Indeed, it sits on le grand axe connecting the Cour Carrée to the Arc de Triomphe by way of the Petit Arc with its copy of the purloined Quadrige: the esprit de géométrie is moved by the counterpoint the pyramid’s triangles make with the squares and rectangles and semicircles of the Grand Louvre and the arches, and the esprit de finesse by the ingenious way in which Pei has inserted the twentieth century into the continuous conversation of previous centuries that the architecture of the Louvre embodies.
What one thinks, ultimately, about the Opéra de la Bastille will depend on how well it serves not architecture but music. From the outside, however, the building rather too successfully evokes its namesake: though set in a working-class quartier, presumably symbolizing the hoped-for democratization of culture that was the Mitterrand regime’s professed aim, the great white fortress with its steep escarpments seems defensive and rather forlorn—but then the old Opera, the Palais Garnier, is only too at home in its nineteenth-century bourgeois nexus of idleness (the Café de la Paix on one side) and frenetic commodity fetishism (the Galeries Lafayette on the other). Even Mitterrand dislikes the new Finance Ministry. And as for the Très Grande Bibliothèque, only time will tell: if the building can be made to function without consuming the entire budget of the Ministry of Culture, it may yet redeem its alleged architectural blunders.
I think I first fell in love with Paris because of its very grandiloquence. Now, however, as a true paysan de Paris, I search instinctively for those corners of intimacy where one can feel not, as Tocqueville said, like a particle of dust before the colossus of the state but a whole human being. Yet I know that these private refuges from la grandeur would not have quite so magical a glow were it not for the public text, which they serve as a kind of illumination: we may forget, for we can no longer even read, the scripture of Les Très Riches Heures, yet without it the sublime interstitial art would not exist. The Mitterrand addendum to the public text is true enough to its essential spirit: it is not a spirit one can feel entirely comfortable with, but without it, surely, la France ne serait plus la France.