Vive la France! Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Gallic symbols: How the French Think

Trying to explain the French mindset to the Anglo-Saxon world is a literary sub­genre.

How the French Think: an Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
Sudhir Hazareesingh
Allen Lane, 427pp, £20

Oscar Wilde once noted that when good Americans die, they go to Paris. This American can confirm this, as I have indicated in my will that, when my time comes, I want to spend the rest of eternity (space permitting) in Père Lachaise. Wilde was on to something when it came to a certain educated Anglo-Saxon fantasy about France. After all, he exiled himself and then died there after his monstrous public moral drawing and quartering for the crime “that dare not speak its name”. Indeed, anglophones with a permissive bias have always regarded Paris as an antidote to the puritanical impulse so embedded in our far more judgemental cultures.

One of the great misconceptions about France is that it has a profoundly romantic culture. Rather, the French psyche often has a highly rationalist, Cartesian bent – achieving a fascinating marriage between the dialectical and the elliptical, and an intelligent, reasoned flexibility when it comes to moral prescripts. When I once cited (at a literary event in Boston) a quotation on this subject from Alexandre Dumas, fils (“The chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes two to bear them, and sometimes three”), a highly educated, anxious woman came up to me afterwards and said: “That’s why they collaborated during the war!”

Trying to explain the French mindset to the Anglo-Saxon world is a literary sub­genre. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was an English adman’s reverie on baguettes and Brie, while Adam Gopnik’s far more intelligent but equally romanticised essays in Paris to the Moon (which included a long disquisition on making the perfect cassoulet) chimed perfectly with an upscale New Yorker subscriber’s take on France as a place where un goût raffiné is a cornerstone of civilisation. Then there is Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde . . .

As both a French speaker and a believer in French exceptionalism, especially in the context of our hyper-materialistic, monocultural times, I am always intrigued by the bristling Anglo-Saxon criticism (masking envy) of the stand-it-alone perspective that still characterises la vie française. At a time when the American culture wars have ushered in another era of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism and when the end of the Net Book Agreement (which set prices) in the UK has hobbled so much in British literary life, France remains a society in which rarefied thought and the written word still
have important cultural credence.

How the French Think is a dumbed-down title for a first-rate book. Its author, Sudhir Hazareesingh, brings an engaging personal angle to his ambitious cavalcade through four centuries of French intellectual thought. He is Mauritian by birth, a high-end academic who is a fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, and a francophone raised in an intensely Francophile family in which subscriptions to Le Nouvel Observateur and L’Express were prized totems of cerebral ­upward mobility.

As such, Hazareesingh is a true believer in the argument that Paris (and, latterly, France) “is captivating because of its intellectual ebullience”. He thus aligns himself with Auguste Comte’s contention that Paris (and, latterly, France) was the centre of humanity because “the ‘philosophical spirit’ was more developed there than anyone else in the world”.

In a hefty book in which a serious epigram is unloaded every third paragraph, one magisterial aside stands out when it comes to highlighting the subtext that unites all of French thought, from Descartes to Derrida. It is from Montaigne, the father of modern existentialism, who is among the most pithily quotable of philosophers:

There is no conversation more boring than one where everybody agrees.

The 90-year-old academician and ­novelist Jean d’Ormesson also hit the proverbial bullseye when he noted:

France is not only a matter of contradiction and diversity. She also constantly looks over her shoulder, towards others, and towards the world which surrounds her. More than any other nation France is haunted by a yearning towards universality.

This need to be endlessly, splenetically argumentative – to rejoice in the essential contradictions at the heart of all intellectual argument (and within the human condition) and also to have, in Hazareesingh’s words, a charmingly portentous belief that “they have a duty to think not just for themselves but for the rest of the world” – is on display throughout this commendably accessible book.

As with any work of this scope, what compelled me most was the author’s ambition and erudition. Like Charles Dantzig’s superb Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française (2005), Hazareesingh’s book prompts readers to reconsider French achievements. Take Charles de Gaulle’s ­genius at creating, in the era of postwar reconstruction, what the historian Henry Rousso described as “the myth of resistentialism”; at the end of his life, de Gaulle celebrated the viewpoint (adopted by the entire nation) that, as the Vichy regime had no legal basis, la France was a nation of resisters. And, comparing himself to Tintin (a Belgian), he noted: “We are the small folk who do not let ourselves be bullied by the big guys.”

Discoursing on how the history of the French left – from the revolution through les soixante-huitards and beyond – has been one of endless division, Hazareesingh cites Alexis de Tocqueville, noting that it all comes down to “the over-representation of intellectual classes among its elites”.Examining the complexities of the Enlightenment’s scientific outlook, he finds resonance in the physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s L’Homme machine (1747) and the way it underscored the limitations of human knowledge. Taking to task the endlessly self-aggrandising Bernard-Henri Lévy (the embodiment of the mondaine public intellectual), Hazaree­singh exposes the philosopher’s attempts to play Albert Camus with this devastating (and thoroughly apt) pronouncement:

. . . in his supremely narcissistic account of the 2011 Libyan war, Lévy portrayed himself as being at the spearhead of the French intervention to bring democracy to the hapless Arabs and, in a scene suffused with Camusian orientalism, the intellectual architect of Libyan tribal unity.

Hazareesingh takes no prisoners when it comes to sniffing out cant and absurdity in the French intellectual agenda. He also comprehends that France – at a time when it is grappling with its modern identity amid manifold crises – should not lose sight of its status as one of the few contemporary societies in which intellectual propulsion still counts for so much.

We live in an era when, within the Anglo-Saxon world, the devaluation of intelligence and anything that doesn’t turn a profit is an accepted lingua franca. This vast, opinionated and wholly original book reminds us that ideas still count and that intellectual endeavour still has resonance in the face of the mercantile plutocracy that so much defines the way we live now. In three words: vive la France!

Douglas Kennedy’s latest novel is “The Heat of Betrayal” (Hutchinson). He was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2007

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

Show Hide image

Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.