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How postwar Paris became the intellectual capital of the world

The soundtrack was jazz and the clothes were black. When Paris spoke, the world listened.

The years between 1940 and 1950 make up the strangest and most extreme decade in the Parisian 20th century. They began with the shock and humiliation of the Fall of France in 1940. Then came the miseries and trauma of the Nazi occupation. The German surrender in 1945 was followed by a wave of violent purges called “l’épuration sauvage” (“wild purification”) – when Parisians turned on each other in an orgy of self-hate and vengeance, targeting anybody suspected of collusion with the Germans. The scenes from this period include the terrible sight of hundreds of women having their heads shaved for so-called “horizontal collaboration” – having slept with a German. It was a common sport in the newly liberated Paris to join in with the crowds that attacked such women, tarred and feathered them, and daubed them in swastikas.

And yet, against this dark background of recrimination and murder, by the end of the decade Paris had retaken its rightful place as the cultural light of the world. It had also reasserted its traditional historical role as the planet’s intellectual capital; once again when Paris spoke, the world listened.

Agnès Poirier’s book is the story of this rebirth and how the unusual confluence of politics, philosophy, art and literature, all concentrated in the relatively small space of the Left Bank of Paris, briefly seemed to announce a new world emerging from the wreckage of the Second World War. This is in many ways a very familiar story with a well-known cast of characters, but she tells it in vivid and highly enjoyable detail, even if there are no new real insights.

The most famous names were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose every thought on art, morality, literature and politics commanded international attention. As Poirier points out, in the early part of the 1940s, with French culture defeated and in retreat, it was almost impossible to imagine that by the end of the decade these obscure writers would be talked about in the same breath as Voltaire or Diderot. It was not just their ideas that made them so famous, however, but also their charisma. More to the point, in the cafés and the nightclubs of the Left Bank they gathered around themselves a new generation of artists, writers, musicians and actors who seemed to be reinventing what it meant to be human.

Their philosophy of existentialism was serious, even if Camus was wary of giving it this name. The key precept was that “existence precedes essence”, which implies that human existence in itself is essentially meaningless and morality a material fiction. Sartre distinguished himself by trying to marry this fundamentally nihilistic position with strands of traditional French thought. The great debates of the day were about how to create a new world out of the moral wasteland that was the legacy of the war.

But existentialism was a style as well as a philosophy. Attracted by the cheap hotels of the Left Bank, the free living and plentiful sex and drink, young people arrived from all over France. The soundtrack was jazz and the clothes were black, unisex and casual – girls sported fringes and ballet shoes, both sexes wore polo-necks. This cultural explosion was one of the first manifestations of postwar pop culture.

Poirier’s is an extremely busy book, recounted at a dizzying pace and packed with gossipy tales of sex, drugs, high art and low life. Its kaleidoscopic cast of characters includes Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, Miles Davis, Picasso, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, and Arthur Koestler, to name but a few.

Most importantly, perhaps, Poirier brings into the light the important role that women played in Left Bank life. These include such disparate personalities as Sylvia Beach, the owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company who also first published Ulysses, the writers Marguerite Duras and Édith Thomas, the singer Juliette Gréco, the actresses Arletty and Maria Casarès, and the journalist Janet Flanner, reporting from France for the New Yorker. None of these women is merely a mistress or a muse, but rather active participants in the arguments and dramas of the era.

The central heroine of her book is Simone de Beauvoir, whose writings went on to change the world – and continue to do so – in a far more definitive way than Camus, Sartre or any other of the leading male intellectuals of the period. This is not a new point of view, but Poirier makes her case with wit, sympathy and elegance. Poirier is, however, less convincing when she tries to argue that the idealism of the Left Bank in the 1940s is still somehow alive in the 21st century. She ends the book on an optimistic note in 1949, with an admiring portrait of Jean Monnet, the politician and economist who went on to found the Common Market, ultimately paving the way for the European Union. The dream was of a unified Europe where war would be impossible. This, Poirier suggests, was the third way between capitalism and communism, the route out of the conflicts of the postwar world, imagined by the Left Bank generation.

It was, of course, no more than wishful thinking. This much is demonstrated by the crises that were just about to engulf France in the 1950s – most notably, the terrible slaughter and divided loyalties of the Algerian War of Independence, which was the trigger for the collapse of the Fourth Republic in 1958. By now the great intellectuals of the 1940s had already lost their way. Camus, for example, was lost in the Algerian labyrinth, desperately trying to reconcile anti-colonial violence and his humanist philosophy. Sartre famously broke with Camus over these same issues and was soon on the road that would lead him towards defending Maoism and the Baader-Meinhof gang, effectively making propaganda for murderers.

This form of moral compromise is the theme of The End of The French Intellectual, From Zola to Houellebecq, by Shlomo Sand. In some ways he is following in the footsteps of the historian Tony Judt, whose 1992 book Past Imperfect covers much of the same territory, damning the likes of Sartre and those who came after him for hypocrisy and deliberate amnesia when faced by the ethical crimes of countries and regimes they professed to admire, specifically the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Sand begins with a description of how the 20th-century French intellectual was invented. This came at the height of the so-called Dreyfus Affair, which began to unravel in 1894, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French army, was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was innocent; his only mistake was to be Jewish when suspicion of Jews was at one of its regular peaks in France. When the truth emerged in 1896, the French War Office suppressed the information. As the cover-up became widely known, France was divided between “patriots” who believed in the infallibility of the French authorities, and those, mainly on the left, who saw how rotten it all was.

This was the scandal that, in 1898, so angered the novelist Émile Zola that he wrote the famous pamphlet J’Accuse!, calling for a retrial and launching a polemic against a country that was so broken and corrupt that it was unable to withstand the truth about itself. This is widely acknowledged to be the moment when the modern French intellectual enters history, as a public figure whose duty is to hold his or her society to account. Until this point the French word “intellectuel” was rarely used; now all of a sudden it denoted philosophy translated into political action, which was how it came to be used much later in the 20th century. 

This is, of course, ground already well covered by historians. Sand, however, revisits the Dreyfus Affair from a personal view. He describes how as a young student in Tel Aviv, he first encountered the Dreyfus Affair as an argument for Zionism; that the Jews could only ever be safe from persecution when they gathered in their homeland. Later, he believes that the Dreyfus Affair is actually a series of narratives, before deciding finally that it created the “intellectual” as kind of hidden power base in French society, unelected and unaccountable to, and actually very separate from, the “people” they profess to serve.

Sand returns to this point in a later chapter in which he discusses the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 7 January 2015 and the novelist Michel Houellebecq. In particular, Sand is angered by the publicity given the day before the shooting to Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, which imagines France in 2022 as a Muslim state, and to the novel’s subsequent favourable critical reception. Sand is especially angry at Houellebecq’s casual nihilism and the way he uses this to attract media attention. This, says Sand, is the worst kind of irresponsibility, an abdication of the duty of the intellectuel as defined in its original terms. In some ways this is a category error; Houellebecq does indeed like to mouth off in the media, but nobody, not even Houellebecq, would describe himself as an intellectuel in the vein of Zola or Sartre. Houellebecq is instead a dark comedian, whose stock-in-trade is drunkenness, sarcasm and provocation.

Sand also points the finger at the essayist Éric Zemmour and the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, two other well-known media commentators, accusing them of cheapening and degrading France’s intellectual tradition by reducing it to “fast-food thinking”. Again, Sand misfires: Zemmour is basically a troublemaking journalist who has more in common with Richard Littlejohn than Sartre or Camus, whilst Finkielkraut is a serious thinker whose work is often misrepresented as racist by many of the French left, who simply dislike his ideas.

This is where anger overtakes Sand’s argument and he descends into contradiction and incoherence. His big idea is that in the 21st century “Islamophobia”, as promoted (so he says) by Houellebecq, Zemmour and Finkielkraut, is the new anti-Semitism. But this simply isn’t true. Both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism actually live alongside each other in France, mostly locked together in mutual antagonism. The comedian Dieudonné – who actively promotes Holocaust denial to his fans, many of whom are Muslims – is only one example of this permanent tension in French life. From this point on, Sand’s book becomes not much more than a contrarian rant. This is a pity, because he knows the terrain so well, and can be a careful and a nuanced historian.

The mood of Éric Hazan’s A Walk Though Paris is quite the opposite. In it, he ambles through the city, along roughly the meridian that divides it into east and west, seeking out remnants of the radical past and of his own history as a medical student, then a surgeon and now a leftist activist. The book is rich, dense and allusive and Hazan is remarkably good company, endlessly digressive and serious about his politics, but always good humoured and, most importantly, still in love with the city.

He has much in common with the historian Louis Chevalier, whom he quotes throughout the book. Chevalier was a grumpy outsider figure who loved Paris for the same reasons that Hazan does; because of its close relation between its architecture, its history and its people. Chevalier is best known as the historian of the “dangerous classes” of 19th-century Paris – the vagabonds, immigrants, sexual outlaws and alcoholics, as well as the “labouring classes” – and he argues that these marginal figures have shaped the real history of the city. Chevalier also wrote a book  called L’Assassinat de Paris (“The Killing of Paris”) in which he lamented the changes taking place in the late 1960s that were driving these vital energies out of the city, making Paris “a place only Americans could love”.

Among Chevalier’s admirers was the situationist Guy Debord, who also feared that Paris in the late 20th century was about to become a muséé-ville or “museum city”, a dead place like Florence or Venice. As Hazan trudges through the present-day Left Bank, from the Luxembourg Gardens and across the Right Bank to Les Halles, he finds mainly gentrification and globalisation. The landscape, he concludes, agreeing with Debord and Chevalier, is “no more than a vast museum”.

But there is another Paris, which is still thriving, and teeming with life. This is to be found in the eastern edges, in the mainly working-class areas that fringe the city – Belleville, Ménilmontant and the outlying suburb of Saint-Denis. This is where a new population – from North and sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe – now sits alongside the traditional white working classes of the city, creating a new hybrid version of Paris. Hazan sees in these parts of Paris and this “new proletariat” an echo of the city’s oldest revolutionary traditions, even if its historical memory is shaky or incomplete. Hazan says that he feels sorry for the well-heeled bourgeois of the wealthy parts of the city, who are missing out on all this excitement.

The golden age of the French intellectual has, however, long since passed, and for this reason Hazan’s folksy Marxism can ultimately seem as nostalgic as Agnès Poirier’s panegyric for the lost Left Bank. Shlomo Sand suffers from a different kind of nostalgia; the Paris of ideas and arguments that he idealised as a young would-be intellectual no longer exists so, bitter and disappointed at this loss, he lashes out at targets that don’t really exist. This is not to say, however, that 21st-century Paris has become a political backwater. Quite the contrary is true; indeed, as recent political events in Paris have shown – tragic and appalling as they were – history is still happening here.

Andrew Hussey is professor of cultural history in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of “The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs” (Granta)

Left Bank, Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950
Agnès Poirier
Bloomsbury, 376pp, £25

The End of the French Intellectual, From Zola to Houellebecq
Shlomo Sand, transl. David Fernbach
Verso, 304pp, £20

A Walk Through Paris: A Radical Exploration
Éric Hazan, translated by David Fernbach
Verso, 208pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead