Poisoned Fruit: Crossing Cultural Boundaries
Talk prepared for the Plenary Session of
the Eleventh Annual International Colloquium on
Twentieth-Century French Studies
March 17-20, 1994
24 Harris Street
Waltham, MA 02154
phone/fax (617) 894-4665
Poisoned Fruit: Crossing Cultural Boundaries
Why do we study foreign cultures? I begin with a parable from Rousseau ("Seventh Reverie," here in Peter France’s translation):
Here is another story … During my stay in Grenoble I often went on short botanical outings near the town with a local lawyer, Monsieur Bovier. Not that he knew or cared about botany, but he had appointed himself my watchdog and made it a rule as far as possible never to let me out of his sight. One day we were walking by the Isère in a place full of buckthorns. I saw some ripe berries on these bushes, tried one or two out of curiosity, and finding that they had a very pleasant, mildly acid taste, I began eating them to quench my thirst. The worthy Monsieur Bovier stood by and watched me without either imitating me or saying a single word. One of his friends came by and seeing me nibbling those berries, said to me: ‘What are you doing, Monsieur? Don’t you know those fruit are poisonous?’ ‘Poisonous!’ I exclaimed in surprise. ‘Of course,’ he answered, ‘and everyone knows it; no one from here ever dreams of eating them.’ I looked at Monsieur Bovier and asked him: ‘Why didn’t you warn me then?’ ‘Oh, Monsieur,’ he replied respectfully, ‘I didn’t dare to take the liberty.’ I burst out laughing at this example of Dauphiné humility, but even so I put an end to my little meal. I was convinced, as I still am, that no natural product which has a pleasant taste can be harmful to us unless we take excessive quantities of it. However, I must admit that I kept a watch on myself for the rest of that day, but I escaped with nothing more than a little anxiety. I ate supper with an excellent appetite, slept better still, and got up the next morning in perfect health after swallowing the previous day fifteen or twenty berries of this terrible hippophae, which is poisonous even in very small doses according to what I was told in Grenoble the next day. This little adventure so amused me that I never remember it without laughing at Lawyer Bovier’s singular discretion.
Readers of Rousseau will recognize in this parable a relatively benign form of the kind of conspiracy of which Rousseau repeatedly believed himself to be the victim. Pure Jean-Jacques innocently enjoys both Nature’s delights and the companionship of his "watchdog," Lawyer Bovier, until a friend of the lawyer’s happens by and introduces the worm of suspicion into the berrypicker’s pristine consciousness. Is his guardian deliberately seeking to poison him? Is he performing a covert experiment on the unwitting Jean-Jacques, perhaps to test scientifically the local theory—or is it perhaps a myth?—that the buckthorn berry is poisonous? Rather than react with anger, however, Rousseau in this case chooses to laugh off the attorney’s unconcern about his health. He attributes his friend’s strange behavior not to malevolence but to an excess of "discretion." In the end, of course, Jean-Jacques is saved by nothing less than his difference from the common run of humankind: a poison known to kill even in small doses leaves him entirely unscathed.
Now, in reading this tale I am struck by certain analogies between Jean-Jacques’s situation and that of a novice in the study of a foreign culture. Outwardly, he is guided, so he says, by native predilection, by an untutored disposition in favor of what seems "pleasant," bolstered by the perhaps unwarranted theory that whatever seems pleasant cannot possibly be harmful unless consumed to excess—a sort of attenuated Aristotelianism or juste-milieu hedonism avant la lettre. Secretly, however, he is fired by the hope that his researches amid the exotic flora of foreign climes will yield sensations different from and perhaps more powerful than those he has known before. He seeks new fields to explore because life at home has in some way proved weary, stale, flat, or unprofitable. And so a brush with things dangerous, or alleged to be dangerous, is, though he cannot quite bring himself to avow it, precisely what he has come for. He therefore cannot blame the observer who refrained from warning him that he was about to partake of dangerous fruit. The ensuing anxiety, the persisting, vivid memory of the mildly acid taste of what may turn out to be death itself, is, in the transmogrifying retrospect of survival, what gives the whole experience, and not just the buckthorn berries, the savor that is worth the detour.
I cannot speak for everyone whose work involves the transmission of French culture to the English-speaking world, but surely I am not alone in thinking that one of the things that lured me across the cultural divide in the first place was a Rousseauian state of mind: a mismatch with the world in which I found myself, a thirst for new sensations, and a fascination with a relatively constrained set of dangers that I perceived but dimly across the demarcation line. In effecting the required libidinal cathexis to things French certain teachers were, in rather curious ways, helpful. There were those who, like Attorney Bovier’s friend, were only too eager to warn me off what they saw as dangerous modes of thought, styles of writing, or political tendencies. Others were only too eager to urge me on: those who, like Rousseau in his study, hoped vicariously to recapture their youth, to enjoy, as Rousseau put it, old pleasures which can make "me happy even now, amidst the most miserable fate ever endured by mortal man"—and that, I think, is precisely how some of my teachers viewed the assignment of teaching, say, Husserl’s phenomenology to MIT undergraduates. Still others— aware perhaps that the young never take the old seriously anyway or else agreeing with Stephen Dedalus that errors are the portals of discovery—were content to let me blunder my way from the novice’s blindness to the initiate’s insight to the myopia of senescent expertise.
French culture has always seemed a little dangerous in Anglo-Saxon perspective. To Ockhamists and Baconians, French philosophers have repeatedly been guilty of besotting themselves with futile concepts that hard-headed empiricists must repeatedly dash to pieces with good, smart blows from the hammer of common sense—the modernist’s malleus maleficarum. And the mission civilisatrice could always seem menacing to the undercivilized of the moment. The French, though they claimed the vanquished Gauls for ancestors, paradoxically flaunted the conqueror’s banner, romanitas and all its sequellae: Caesar was transformed into the Sun King, la fille aînée de l’Eglise universelle became la patrie de la raison universelle, Charlemagne redivivus crowned himself Emperor, tragedy returned as farce. Meanwhile, along with the debilitating lust for Apollonian imperium, came dichotomous paganism’s Dionysiac legacy in its domesticated modern forms, la volupté et la légèreté. What high-flown dialectic can explain the historical trajectory that led to Napoleon from Ninon de Lenclos or permitted Manet’s Olympia to coexist with Maximilien of Mexico or Piaf to survive Pétain?
So "French culture," hypostasized and personified, whether as the man on the white horse or the demonic youth-corrupting philosopher, has had no shortage of critics. The student of France has always had to listen to warnings against le mal français. Looked at closely, however, the warnings can be seen to come in an astonishing variety. There is little agreement about where the danger lies. What any given Cassandra takes to be the most poisonous of France’s poisoned fruits depends in part upon that Cassandra’s own makeup, her defining resistances and vulnerabilities. For Burke, Carlyle, and generations of Englishmen of whom Simon Schama, one hopes, represents a magnificent fin de race, the great horror was and is the French readiness to apotheosize a Revolution that devoured its own children. For Jacob Talmon, all of totalitarianism is already present in Rousseau; more cautiously, Hannah Arendt would blame not Rousseau but a certain Robespierrist and subsequent Bolshevist misreading of The Social Contract, an anxiety of influence, so to speak—as if History had put itself to school with Harold Bloom. For Henry James, no mean connoisseur, the shocker was the Frenchman’s garrulousness about things that gentlemen did not discuss: money, sex, the turn of a lady’s ankle. Idolators of art have been left aghast, in turn, by Olympia’s splayed fingers, the ferocity of the fauves, the mustache on the Mona Lisa, and the pyramid in front of the Louvre. For anti-Communist liberals of the Cold War era, it was Sartre’s readiness to declare Marxism l’horizon indépassable. For anti-Communist conservatives of the same period, it was de Gaulle’s alliance-threatening insistence on the French différence. To a new generation of historians it is the discovery of that great secret de polichinelle, Vichy’s complicity in Nazi crimes. And since the Sixties there has been the much-denounced miasma of supposedly subversive French thought, one thinker or school often blending indiscriminately into the next, much as the mingling of clouds of noxious vapor may multiply the deadly effect of each constituent gas: structuralists, Foucauldians, deconstructionists. Roger Kimball writing in The Wall Street Journal preaches against "the French virus;" Roger Shattuck writing in The Boston Globe denounces the "transvaluation of the old-fashioned category of sin" by latter-day disciples of Sade. Even in mathematics students are warned against the hubristic pretensions of France’s collective genius Nicolas Bourbaki, who like the builders of Babel promised to reduce chaos to order.
The great surprise, of course, when one first takes the momentous step across the divide between one’s own culture and that of the Other, is that the warnings, however loudly proclaimed and however deeply internalized, are overwhelmed by the sheer vitality of the new world—or should I say old world?—in which one arrives an insignificant cipher. The Rome-Babylon-Alexandria against which one has been warned turns out to be but another monumentally useless abstraction: there is no there there. Indeed, the whole notion of a culture, which in the academic context takes on a deceptively coherent, almost palpable concreteness, suddenly seems quite inadequate to the reality that one confronts. A culture is not a monument that can be visited, a sort of Eiffel Tower of the mind. It is not a canon of great books or a museum full of officially honored works of art. Nor is it, for the novice at any rate, a code of manners, a set of taboos, a codification of kinship exchanges, a social structure, or the immaterial emanation of its economic base.
A culture is, on the other hand, rather like Rousseau’s berry patch, an at first bewildering variety of new sensations, an exhilarating disorientation of the senses. Abroad, one feels, as the French say, dépaysé, which means, quite precisely, out of one’s familiar surroundings, not at home. Indeed, a foreign culture is most of all a place in which, however impassioned an amateur may feel, he is never at home. Now, the philosopher Heidegger once made a great to-do over the importance to human beings of feeling at home. Thrown into a modern world not of our own making, we are, he said, divided in our very hearts and souls, plunged into uncanniness and beset by anxiety. This uncanny feeling of not being at home in the world is what philosophy as he conceived it was meant to struggle against. This is not the place to embark on a critique of Heidegger. But I want to suggest this thought: What if we accept, indeed embrace with all our hearts, the notion that the human condition is essentially homeless? There is no repose from which we sprang, there is no repose to which we can aspire or return. We, the human race, are a race without a homeland, Jews without an Israel, apatrides: nous sommes, as the ‘68 wall slogan had it, tous des juifs allemands. No system of thought, myth, poem, political leader, movement, or work of art can alter this fundamental fact.
If we are fundamentally homeless, then nothing is ours by birthright, not even what seems most immediately within our grasp, namely, language, our mother tongue, and its diachronic embodiment, culture. A culture is most often thought of as the shared property of a community. But that is not the kind of culture I have in mind. Call that common culture, if you will, culture degree zero. The culture I have in mind, the culture that is not ours by birthright, the culture we must work to acquire, the culture that we shape to respond to our innermost desires and fears and wishes, is like the language of the great writer as Walter Benjamin imagined it, a mosaic composed of shards of a divine Ursprache that is not the property of any individual or community but the inscrutably bestowed blessing of whatever it is that transcends our divided condition, the supplement or grace that alone gives life meaning and each of us, as we strive to intuit that meaning, individual existence. That is why le style, c’est l’homme même.
Think of culture, then, not as a natural condition or given but as a magical sort of clay, which shapes us even as we shape it. Properly, therefore, our myth of origin ought to be some appropriate blending of the stories of Narcissus and Pygmalion. It has been said that le moi est haïssable, and if so then of course Pascal is doubly correct: we may as well bet all our chips on the other world and give up on this one. But hateful does not necessarily imply immutable, and if by painting ourselves again and again we can come closer to an image that we can admire, then perhaps Montaigne’s project was not so foolish after all. What is chilling about Pygmalion is that he can love only what he can dominate; what is dispiriting about Narcissus is that, in loving himself, he forgets the world. To be human, I think, is to try to propel into the world a self that is a little less hateful, a little more lovable, than the one we happen to be born with: Pygmalion plus Narcissus—plus, as in Rousseau’s case, a dash of temperate hedonism and a pinch of liberal incrementalism. And the means to creating such a self is to acquire a culture in my special sense.
Nothing comes to us gratis; nothing, not even language, is ours by birthright, by the mere fact of belonging to a chosen people, nation, or race. Faust says, "What you have acquired from your father, earn it if you would possess it," meaning that one’s cultural heritage cannot be passively received but must be actively worked through if it is truly to shape the self. My formulation of this idea is still more radical, a bitter reflection perhaps on the harshness of the immigrant experience under late-capitalist conditions of rapid social change: "Since we acquire nothing from our fathers, what we earn is all that we possess." Hence the most fully human of us may be just those who venture across cultural boundaries, who deliberately seek to heighten our defining condition of homelessness, who sample strange fruits, who take nothing for granted or on faith, who do not succumb to the dangerous illusion that we possess a home in which we are safe, comfortable, and beyond the reach or hearing or influence of others.
Admittedly my notion may be as peculiarly American as Heidegger’s was intrinsically German. Of America it has been said, with not entirely undue disrespect, that no other society has passed from barbarism to decadence without encountering civilization in between. I’m not so humorless that I refuse to smile at this slur, yet I dissent from its assumptions, as any patriot must. America has, I think, achieved a distinctive form of civilization whose greatness lies precisely in having severed the connection between culture and blood. In America we discovered, intuitively, long before it became academically fashionable to say so, that all tradition is invented. Which is not to say that tradition is dispensable. Tradition is both the instructor of the individual talent and the megaphone that magnifies its expressive powers. On that point T. S. Eliot was correct. But biology is not destiny, Blut und Boden are not the conditions of culture, and the glory of the human condition is that generation is linked to generation through creation as well as procreation. In this connection the multiculturalists are as misguided as their monoculturalist opponents, for both would reinforce the contingent communities determined by accidents of birth or political boundaries while weakening the only true communities, those built on elective affinity and the kinship of the spirit.
Recently I visited my parents’ graves. They lie in a tiny Jewish cemetery that serves the smallish New Jersey city in which I was born. The burial ground is a rather forlorn place, surrounded by a wall of crumbling brick and wrought iron, and somewhat neglected now that most of the Jewish community has moved away. Within it are perhaps a hundred and fifty family plots, and of course I knew most of the names and many of the stories behind the names, how this one made his fortune and that one squandered his, how this man’s wife went insane and that one’s daughter left home and never spoke to him again. To my wife and sons I pointed out where the rabbi lay and where the gangster and the shopping-mall developer, where the parents who could boast of "my son the doctor" and where the unfortunates whose child went bankrupt in the bonfire of the vanities. All of this was as familiar to me as if I had grown up in a small village, for that is precisely what the Jewish community of Plainfield, New Jersey, was: a village within a city. I recognized, once again, the force of Philip Roth’s marvelous phrase for the culture from which he and I both sprang: a culture of "urban peasants." But what I now appreciated for the first time, after twenty years as a student and translator of French history, was how similar my village was to the countless villages I had visited in Burgundy and Champagne and the Limousin and Dordogne and Languedoc and Roussillon as I wandered through France. I had gone a long way to escape the oppressive confines of my native village, and because of that detour I was now able to see that oppressiveness in a new and liberating light, as if lampooned by a latter-day La Bruyère.
It’s an old and trite story, of course: young man leaves home to become a man of the world. But that way of putting it assumes that the man of the world was somehow already present, in embryo, in the youth, which was by no means the case. For if the youth had not left, his native village had designs on him. All its efforts, all its rules, all its disciplines were bent on producing a certain kind of man, and leaving home was therefore a way of asserting, passionately if still inarticulately, that this was not the kind of man I wished to be. Leaving was therefore an experience akin to being born again. Eventually France made a new man, another man, of me. Or, rather, through my efforts to insert myself into the culture of the French, I made a new man of myself: a rootless cosmpolitan.
Paradoxically, then, France made me what I already was, for as every student of France knows, cosmopolite déraciné is not, in the French lexicon, a neutral descriptive phrase. It was a term of opprobrium current particularly in the vituperative 1930s as a codeword for "Jew." In the fear-wracked imagination of the anti-Semite, the Jew, that creature of Finanzkapital, insidiously slithers across borders as easily as money itself. Under the pen of certain French writers the "rootless cosmopolitan" thus symbolized the very opposite of the "Frenchman," that curiously vegetal fiction whose roots in his native soil, cultivated by his own forebears, were imagined to be as deep as the roots of the oaks in the forest of Fontainebleau and whose blood miraculously mingled that of Vercingetorix with that of Cicero. Only this echt Frenchman, it was alleged, was truly "at home" in France; the cosmopolitan, even if outwardly assimilated, was at best tolerated and certainly less likely to flourish in French soil than the "native" species.
One knows the end of that story. But it was not a story I thought much about as I began my career in cosmopolitanism. After all, I had come to France not to make my fortune but to remake my self. A bookish youth, I saw myself rather as the typical hero of a French novel, a provincial and outsider rather than an alien foreigner or métèque, lacking only the self-confidence, polish, and sophistication to become a cosmopolitan in an older and nobler sense, whose tradition can be traced back to Castiglione’s courtier. All I thought I needed was a little ease, a little sprezzatura, in talking about Poussin and Vasarély, Proust and Robbe-Grillet, Baudelaire and Char, and—O tempora! O mores!—Barthes and Althusser and Foucault, and doors would open as for Julien and Lucien and Marcel, adventures would begin. Or, more precisely, since I was of course less callow than Julien or Lucien or Marcel, I would learn to write the kinds of novels in which an appealingly literary unworldliness could be used to unmask the falseness of the adult and established world, a falseness of which, without ever having actually confronted an unequivocal instance of it, I considered myself already something of a connoisseur.
My mistake, of course, was to have confused cultivation with true culture. If culture is a magic clay, if we are what we become by fashioning, Pygmalion-like, out of that clay a narcissistically riveting image of ourselves, our self-fashioning is never done. To grow is to return to the well for a new self-image. We must change because we are in the world, and the world must change because we are in it. Hence acquiring an external polish, in the manner of Castiglione’s courtier, is not enough for anyone not content merely to glitter at court or in the classroom. Our self-portraits must change as Rembrandt’s did. And as in Rembrandt, one hopes, the complexity, depth, and multiplicity of age compensate in some measure for the lost ardor, quickness, and energy of youth. In fact, for the late arrival like me, one of the strangest things about growing old in a foreign culture is precisely the absence of youth, that is, of all those formative experiences that so condition our later responses to things. I did not grow up in a French family, serve in the French military, take communion in a French church, attend a French school, pine for a French girl, march in a French manif, or compete in a French oral examination. Yet I have experienced all of those things, in a way, through reading and conversation and observation. Indeed, from the time I first became interested in France in my late teens, I have worked hard to make up for the absence of unrepeatable experience, an effort in which, since I was my own man and not the student of any discipline, I was free to wander as I wished.
Of course the very haphazardness of my informal education was often the source of priceless instruction. I vividly remember the shock expressed by a friend of mine who happened upon me one day as I sat on a park bench in Paris reading Mauriac. "What? You? Reading Mauriac? A writer of the right?" Well, by this time I was no longer quite an innocent abroad, so this reaction did not entirely surprise me. I knew full well that Mauriac had been denounced by no less an authority than Sartre for being rather too quick to seat himself at God’s right hand. As if that were not presumption enough, he also wrote for Le Figaro. But I had a lot to learn from the master of Malagar nevertheless, about Catholic piety in the mid-twentieth century, about the pine barrens of southwestern France, and even about a bourgeoisie that other writers presented only in abstraction or caricature or in prey to the furies of rebellion. Anyway, I was and am less certain than many of my French friends that there is such a thing as an écriture de droite, as distinct from des écrivains de droite. Mauriac, I thought, could write his Bloc-Notes du Figaro and still, when it came to metaphoric invention, have a thing or two to teach the editor-in-chief of Les Temps Modernes. Had not Mauriac, describing the first encounter of the partners to an arranged marriage, written that "the somber room was empty now, as for an entomological experiment, except for the small, dark male facing the resplendent female"? A female who had been taught that "marriage produces love as surely as a peach tree produces peaches." What a strange bastion of the bourgeois order, I thought, who could write of bourgeois mores with such clinical contempt. How indeed could I have understood what Sartre’s sometimes petulant and childish rage was directed against without a portrait as vivid as Mauriac’s to fill in the gap in my experience?
In any case, experiences such as this one disclosed in particularly striking ways the existence of boundaries not around but within French culture. It is one thing to locate a boundary line on a map, another to stroll through poppy fields only to find oneself suddenly face-to-face with a line of barbed wire and watch towers. It is probably fair to say that many French people like to think of their culture as distinctively unified, seamless, organic, and homogeneous, as if Descartes and Racine, Pascal and Rabelais, Proust and Jaurès all sprang from the same seed. But what often seems most distinctive about France to me, as to Charles and Louise Tilly, is precisely the contentiousness of the place. It may well be that the misguided belief in cultural homogeneity is itself the chief impediment to a tolerant pluralism, to the "rational conversation" that Jürgen Habermas proposes as the foundation of a more humane politics.
A couple of years ago, in any case, I witnessed a curious example of this distinctively French alacrity to defend or promote or extol unity by invoking division. This was at Harvard, in a lecture by Alain Juppé, now foreign minister but then secretary general of Jacques Chirac’s RPR. Juppé was questioned about certain anti-immigrant measures sponsored by another prominent party leader, Charles Pasqua, now minister of the interior. Juppé, a politician with a rapier tongue and very fast on his feet, replied that the questioner appeared to be imputing racist intentions to his party. "I am not a racist," the secretary said, "because I am a Gaullist, and a Gaullist is a humanist, and a humanist cannot be a racist." In other words, Juppé solved the problem of division by exclusion. He proposed other, more fundamental divisions than the one implicit in the question and asserted that he and his confederates stood on the uniquely virtuous side of those dividing lines, hence of every other dividing line as well. Anyone who did not accept this reading must, by definition, stand outside the monad France. This, as those familiar with Patrice Higonnet’s sensitive readings of revolutionary texts will recognize, is the Jacobin solution to hydra-headed faction, and I can almost see M. Juppé, with his crisp and trenchant declamatory style, as an orator on a Revolutionary podium.
And so I return to the Rousseau parable and the poisonous fruits in the Gallic berry patch. To my mind, the great danger awaiting the foreign student is that of becoming caught up in Franco-French quarrels. Their intensity can be beguiling. Great principles may seem to be at stake. Audacity, always audacity, ever more audacity is an excellent formula for spreading alarm, but it doesn’t seem to me to do much for uncoarsening perception. Great causes do, of course, arise now and then, but perhaps the most infallible way of recognizing them is by their ability to dissolve the solidity of seemingly permanent battle lines, for if French history teaches us anything, it is that trench warfare is a mug’s game. What was the Resistance if not a melting pot in which old animosities were melted down (and—to be perfectly frank—new ones boiled up), amalgamating the republican-Maurrassian Catholic general, the Third Republican prefect (who some now say was a Comintern agent), the débrouillard peasant, and the schoolteacher or railway worker or flic or STO conscript too ornery or cunning or deluded or patriotic to swallow the handshake at Montoire? What was decolonization if not a grudging acceptance of the fact that differences other than those decreed in France have force in the world?
The problem, for the foreigner, of simply insinuating him- or herself into France’s ready-made battle trenches, her pre-established disharmonies, is that such a move short-circuits the real purpose of acquiring a culture, which, I have said, is to shape the self. The passion invested by the foreign student of la chose française in left or right, ancien or moderne, revisionism or traditionalism, nouveau roman or nouvelle critique, epistemocriticism or antiphallogocentrism, is inevitably in part learned or borrowed emotion. When Roland Barthes wrote that "Racine is boring," he tapped into feelings that no American-born student not familiar with les bancs durs d’une classe de sixième or the concours oral or the décernement de prix d’excellence could fully comprehend. When François Furet wrote that la Révolution est terminée, he turned his back not only on a long tradition in revolutionary historiography but also on that peau de chagrin, the shadow of his youth. When Michel Foucault announced that "man is dead," he was of course making a statement that can be explicated in terms of texts, but at the same time he was adding his distinctive baritone to that strange opera, the French philosophical education: call it Infidelio, with its libretto by Kant to music by Hegel with an orchestra under the joint direction of Victor Cousin and Léon Brunschvicg; often seen in recent Teutonic stagings by visiting directors Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, as well as a mise en scène légère et envahissante by forties phenom Jean-Paul Sartre. Of course opera buffs still speak of memorable historical performances, such as the one by that remarkable tenor, the Kantian schoolteacher Bouteiller in Maurice Barrès’s Les Déracinés, who ended his career in disgrace as one among many corrupt politicians in Leurs Figures, and who enjoyed a brief, pseudonymous postwar revival as the bloody-minded Communist educator in Marcel Aymé’s Uranus and a rather puzzling reprise in Claude Berri’s recent film of the same name. To make out all the inner voices in as complex a contrapuntal composition as Foucault’s "death of man" aria requires a lengthy training of the ear, and that is best accomplished, perhaps, not in trenches pummeled by shot and shell but in that somber room where, as for an entomological experiement, a small, dark, timid male stands facing that resplendent female, Marianne.
That is why I advocate an "excess of discretion," like Attorney Bovier’s, rather than a rush to the tocsin (or toxine). Entering a culture is not at all like Heidegger’s description of entering a room: "My encounter with the room [Heidegger writes] is not such that I first take in one thing after another and put together a manifold of things in order to see a room. Rather, I primarily see a referential whole … from which the individual pieces of furniture and what is in the room stand out. Such … a closed referential whole is at the same time distinguished by a specific familiarity. … [It] is grounded precisely in familiarity, and this familiarity implies that the referential relations are well-known" (HCT 187, quoted in Dreyfus, 103). What is distinctive about a culture is that we cannot approach it as a referential whole—not honestly, at any rate. The "referential whole" approach is that of junior years abroad and one-semester courses in "French civilization." It is a sham. The only honest approach to a culture is through its works, taken one at a time and integrated, as best we can, with our own project of self-fashioning.
What we take in in this way is not at all familiar, to use Heidegger’s word, which the commentator glosses as follows: familiarity "is being ready in particular circumstances to respond appropriately to whatever might normally come along. … ‘Familiarity is what allows Dasein to know its way about.’" Well, our way about is just what we don’t know when we begin to learn about a culture. We don’t know to nod to m’sieur-dame when we enter the bakery, we don’t know a petit pain from a ficelle or a flan from a tête-de-nègre. Things have the bright, distinctive, unrelatedness of the beckoning commodities in the glittering shop windows that are one of France’s glories. The cashmere sweater and the argyle socks in the vitrine, the cathedral and the railway station au centre ville, the volume of Descartes and the volume of Proust on the student’s bookshelf are at first mute. When we begin to hear the conversations among them, when we understand how the medieval fuller and wool carder are related to the cheminot and the chevalier to the prêtre and the femme, when we recall how Proust wrote of cathedrals from the moving vantage of railway cars, when we can hear Descartes writing of the pulse of a bustling Dutch port in antiphon to Proust’s dissolution of time in the watery uchronia of Venice, then we begin to think French.
People sometimes ask me if I think in French, as if thought really had a language and as if a switch in that language marked the moment when a foreign tongue really became one’s own. The answer is rather that I sometimes think French, that is, with French implements that have become part of my outillage mental by dint of long use. I was rather surprised, as I showed an American Catholic teenager the basilica at Vézelay last summer, to discover how unfamiliar and therefore uninteresting to him his own faith was. My narrative gamboled among epochs and genres: a little art history, a little haut moyen âge, a dollop of martyrology, an excursus on the mentalité of Purgatory courtesy of Jacques Le Goff; this was territory in which, cosmopolite déraciné that I have become, I now knew my way about. But my young friend was simply bewildered, for I hadn’t bothered to find the right hooks to link the splendid artifacts before our eyes to the project of self-transformation on which he had just embarked.
Some day, though, he too may find that France speaks to him. Its rich past betrays itself in many ways. In Proust, for example, Marcel hears echoes of Mme de Sévigné’s French in the speech of the servant Françoise. I’ve learned to hear those echoes too, and my world is richer for it. And even the stones speak. There is an old saying having to do with Parisian complaints about a customs barrier thrown up around the city: le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant. I often think of that when I’m in Paris, because the city does murmur to me, of both its past and mine. And the marvelous thing is that once one has learned to hear the language that the past speaks, it doesn’t matter where or how one learned it. The language of the past is not French or English or German or Russian, but once again, a mosaic of those shards of the human Ursprache. So I can make out not only the voice of Léon Blum at Maubert-Mutualité or the cascading syllables of Sartre aloft on his barrelhead at the gates of the now defunct Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt but also the murmuring of the stones in that suburban New Jersey graveyard where my parents lie. When I left there, years ago, I could not hear history’s voice in that forlorn place. But the detour via France trained my ear, and there is, in that new acuity, a steadying closure. It was in many ways an astonishing decision, or, more accurately, concatenation of non-decisions, that led me to give up an earlier career in mathematics to go to Paris to translate and write. But then one of the lovely things about life is that sometimes the most flabbergasting choices prove to be absolutely right.