Gallic symbols: How the French Think

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

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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 appears in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn