Clowns To The Left Of Me

Intellelectualism is something France is famous for — but in today's globalised world the French have come to doubt themselve

How the British Think would make a strange title for a book — at least that is what my friends in Britain tell me. But when it comes to investigating the French way of life, an exploration of French thought is more justified. Thinking, it seems, is part of France’s history and one of the characteristics the French are famous for.

In his latest book, How the French Think, Sudhir Hazareesingh, Tutorial Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and a fin connaisseur of French politics, shares his deep knowledge of the French passion for the intellectual quest. In exploring with sharpness and humour the patterns of thought the French have developed over the centuries, he finds some interesting and unexpected relationships between eras and personalities, and explains France’s intellectual evolution. The book is rich in information and anecdotes and easy to read, and it shows a love of France — it is subtitled “An affectionate portrait of an intellectual people” — which is rare today. 

The French are rationalists, and like abstraction; they divide the world into right and wrong, and of course between Left and Right; they are fond of utopianism and believe — or believed — in progress and science. Hazareesingh shows how the main channels of French thought — for example, the revolutionary and the republican — have always coexisted with their opposite creeds — the reactionary and the religious — and share with them the same faults and qualities. Inevitably, a significant part of the book is devoted to the “intellectual”, the famous scholar, preferably living in Paris, who regularly intervenes in public matters because his quasi-spiritual position gives him the right, and even the duty, he thinks, to do so.

But today, according to Hazareesingh, because of the end of Communism, which was deeply rooted among French intellectuals, the fading of structuralism, and anxiety about France’s identity in a globalised world, the French have come to doubt themselves and their intellectual destiny. This can be seen in the decline of France’s intellectual life and in its fading intellectual influence in the world.

I think that the situation is even more depressing than that. Although Hazareesingh recognises that French intellectuals have lost some of their past lustre, he still reckons that “French culture is in many respects more open and transnational than ever” and states that creative fiction is thriving. It is true that there are still great French writers and thinkers, and that newer disciplines like economics offer new kinds of talents. But as a cultural phenomenon, I don’t think that French thought has survived.

France was never such a thing as an entire nation of thinkers; it would be absurd to say that. But there was a deep respect among ordinary people for the cultivated elite, which included politicians and teachers. Now a large part of this elite pays no attention to culture any more, as is shown by the poverty of their language. One cannot help comparing the eloquence of, say, Charles de Gaulle, and the spiritual vacuum that someone like François Hollande represents. De Gaulle said, “Hardship attracts the man of character, as it is in grasping it that he fulfils himself”; and “As for power, I couldn’t leave it before it leaves me.” Hollande says, “There will be a support that will be made” or “Soldiers, they undertake perilous missions”. (Hollande is very fond of repeating the subject of a sentence, as three-year-olds do; I hope my translation conveys its full infantile flavour.) Or open any recent fiction or non-fiction publication in French: the vocabulary range is shrinking, the sentences are three words long and the form is always fashionably deconstructed — but not à la Derrida.

If the present is embarrassing, is the past as glorious as one might suppose? Hazareesingh, describing the French intellectual pantheon, includes all the main strands of French thought — Descartes, positivism, Gaullism, Marxism, structuralism, liberalism — all inevitably placed on the same level. In that situation it is impossible not to compare various periods and people — and then, not to pause and wonder. Why all the praise for Sartre and Marxism? Or for the structuralists? French Marxism, a rather rigid kind of Leninism followed by a Latin Quarter Maoism, was either intellectual nonsense or an insult to real people struggling in the USSR and elsewhere. As for structuralism, apart from the great Lévi-Strauss and the sometimes interesting but strange Foucault, it is difficult to see much sense in, for example, Lacan’s one-minute sessions where he shouted at patients for a large fee.

I am left to wonder: did all countries have such strange intellectual moods? Were the French mad? Were they really thinking? It all depends on what you call thinking. I may be very un-French, but because something is grandiose or unintelligible doesn’t make it worthy of being called thinking. Support for revolution and destruction — of institutions or of the bourgeoisie, for example — doesn’t necessarily justify the description of thinking.

I suspect that Hazareesingh would disagree with me. There is a discreet ambiguity present in the book, which becomes stronger and stronger the further one gets through it. The first part remains very neutral, maybe because it is further away in time; nearer the present, one feels that Hazareesingh is more interested in the intellectuals of Saint-Germain-des-Prés than in, say, Raymond Aron. I don’t mind him having his preferences, but I have mine too. The book ends with a strong critique of Alain Finkielkraut, a writer famous for his passionate defence of French republicanism, laïcité and integration as against multiculturalism. Hazaree-singh sees Finkielkraut as “the ultimate embodiment of the closing of the French mind” and a supporter of “ethnic nationalism”. But Finkielkraut has never said or written such words: he is just a very clever cultural conservative. I find the contrast between Hazareesingh’s harsh treatment of him and his relative indulgence towards those nice gauchistes rather striking.

So we diverge: I think the French mind is closing partly because of the damage done by the gauchistes — they deconstructed so much that there is little left to deconstruct, and they forced all subsequent scholars to think in a very restricted way; Hazareesingh thinks it is because of conservatives like Finkielkraut. Or maybe we are both wrong, and the truth is to be found elsewhere.

How the French Think expresses a kind of fascination for the French way of thinking that I have often noticed among many scholars in France and elsewhere, and which has always surprised me. “French intellectual constructs are speculative in that they are generally the product of a form of thinking which is not necessarily grounded in empirical reality,” writes Hazareesingh. And it is true: Sartre’s theoretical work is unintelligible, his political thought dogmatic; Deleuze’s — see, for example, Mille Plateaux for a good laugh — approaches delirium; Bourdieu’s, even dealing with social “reproduction”, divided reality between right and wrong, the latter being forbidden because it was bourgeois. From a more political perspective, even when The Gulag Archipelago was published in 1973, many intellectuals didn’t want to accept the brutal truth and kept longing for the dictature du prolétariat. But shouldn’t intellectuals care about empirical reality, either as a starting point or as a result? If speculation is necessary, shouldn’t it be always linked to facts, because both challenge each other? Isn’t it possible that the French have gone too far in their worshipping of speculation? I tend to think so.

We too often forget that the name “intellectual” itself is a French invention. There is a tendency, because the French exported the concept very successfully in the past, to try to interpret any thinking phenomenon as an “intellectual” one, and to believe that where there are no proper intellectuals, there is no thinking. However, as Stefan Collini brilliantly demonstrated in Absent Minds, it is France that is the exception rather than the other way around. The way it has promoted the figure of the intellectual is unprecedented in history, and it would be pointless to try to find the same patterns in other countries which have other traditions. British thinkers, in that perspective, have been sceptical of the term “intellectual” for two reasons: they felt superior to what they saw as French immaturity or grandiloquence, but at the same time inferior to them, because they watched the exceptional treatment given to intellectuals in France with great envy.

Just because a country remains reluctant to recognise its intellectual character doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. Conversely, just because a country constantly boasts about its tradition of thought doesn’t mean that the tradition is still alive. Progressive thinkers such as Sartre have always preferred — isn’t it much easier? — to paint large abstract pictures, and then, when reality contradicted them, to turn a blind eye and blame someone else — the bourgeoisie, usually.

British thinkers, from Adam Smith and David Hume to Friedrich Hayek (Britain being his adopted country), from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and John Stuart Mill to John Gray, from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton, have always started from the facts and the patterns of life and tried to make sense of them, without being obsessed by the fact that they were or were not thinkers. British people think because they don’t think they think. I wish the French would do the same.

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