The French Intellectual Crackup
By Robert Zaretsky
By Robert Zaretsky
Slightly more than 250 years ago, Jean le Rond d'Alembert, co-editor of that massive monument to the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, opened a letter from a friend and collaborator. Big books, announced the missive, never lead to change, much less revolution: "It's the small, portable books at 30 sous that are dangerous. If the Gospel had cost 1,200 sesterces, the Christian religion would never have been established." Few people were more qualified to speak on this topic than d'Alembert's correspondent, Voltaire. Not only was he the most prestigious contributor to the Encyclopédie, but he was also the author of hundreds of pamphlets in which he railed against the enemies of reason and tolerance.
Historians will always debate the relationship between Voltaire's words—and those of his fellow philosophes—and the revolutionary events that followed soon after his death. But his remark about books large and small raises intriguing questions about intellectual life in France today.
In a recent series of nasty spats, sparked by the rise of the livre à bas prix—small, inexpensive books often piled against the cash register; the modern equivalent of the 30-sou book—opposing intellectuals have invoked the spirit of Voltaire. Everyone wants a piece of the thinker who, even when alive, was skeletal, but Voltaire's modern-day descendants are in fact precipitating the decline of their own vocation. They are no longer in the business of crushing superstition wherever they encounter it. They do not believe, as did Émile Zola, that la vérité est en marche, and that their task is to help pave its way. Instead, today's intellectuals are content to crush only one another's reputations, guaranteeing that the only thing on the march is their growing irrelevance.
The latest dust-up in Paris involves Les Intellectuels Faussaires ("The Counterfeit Intellectuals"), by Pascal Boniface. Though 14 publishers rejected the manuscript, the book is now near the top of the best-seller list in France. This is due in part to Boniface's prominence. A professor at the University of Paris and director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, Boniface has written dozens of books, served as a foreign-policy adviser to the Socialist Party, and, not least in the nation that gave us Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, is secretary general of the Football Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting the values of tolerance and respect on the soccer field.
After the French team's stunning loss at the 2010 World Cup, politicians and pundits across the political spectrum morphed into so many Madame Defarges, clamoring for the (mostly black) heads of the players. Boniface was one of the few voices of calm. Though merciless in his criticism of the team's performance and behavior, he lambasted those who never set foot inside a sports stadium (much less the blighted suburbs from which so many players hail) but nevertheless claimed a sudden expertise in soccer. According to Boniface, everything outside Saint-Germain-des-Prés is foreign to these intellectuals. They are, he writes in Les Intellectuels Faussaires, poseurs who know little about national or geopolitical complexities and even less about soccer. Yet they exercise enormous influence. "Rather than allowing citizens to reflect on complex issues," he avers, they instead "furnish adulterated and toxic intellectual products and manufacture ideological red herrings."
Such phrases lack the stiletto-like elegance of Raymond Aron's observation that intellectuals make a point of not knowing what they are talking about. But Aron was mocking left-wing intellectuals in Paris who, under the sway of Stalinism, "had taken a pyramid builder for its God." The ideological landscape has shifted. Now it is the new Right that is on the ascendant—the French equivalent of American neoconservative thinkers—for whom our era's totalitarian threat issues not from Das Kapital but from the Koran.
Boniface's targets are familiar faces to the French public: Alexandre Adler and Caroline Fourest, for example, and most important, Bernard-Henri Lévy, whom Boniface calls the "lord and master of counterfeiters" (seigneur et maître des faussaires). All of these thinkers have taken strong, often strident positions on issues that involve Islam and the Arab world; all of them claim Israel as the great rampart against what they call "Islamofascism"; all of them, says Boniface, are captive to a Manichaean worldview, incapable of seeing the complex realities of the Middle East and the injustices committed by Israel in the occupied territories. (In 2003, Boniface quit the Socialist Party after he wrote an internal report that was critical of the party's support of Israel.)
Boniface takes aim, in particular, at Lévy. To mock BHL—he has long been known by his initials, which raises the question of why the author of Being and Nothingness was never called JPS—has long been a great sport in Paris. A rubbery effigy resembling him appears regularly on Les Guignols de l'Info, a popular daily puppet show that satirizes the follies of French politicians and celebrities. His white shirt opened from the neck to the sternum and great wings of graying hair are as readily identifiable as, say, Camus's trench jacket and pomaded hair. But in Boniface's eyes, BHL is no Camus: "To present BHL as an untiring defender of freedom is dishonest. Instead, like Joseph McCarthy, he seeks by all possible means to silence or exclude from public debate those who do not agree with him."
Boniface details the ways in which this occurs. Just as politicians "accumulate mandates"—in other words, serve simultaneously as a minister, mayor, and parliamentary deputy—so, too, do intellectuals gather many titles and posts. In the case of BHL, he serves on the board of Le Monde, is an important shareholder in Libération, is director of the monthly magazine La Règle du Jeu, and is president of the television channel Arte. Moreover, Boniface observes, BHL is close to powerful media magnates like Serge Dassault and Arnaud Lagardère, just as he is with prominent politicians, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nicolas Sarkozy.
So, too, with the other objects of Boniface's ire. They all belong to a select and influential club. But this is precisely one of the problems with Boniface's book: The same intellectuals have been rounded up as often as Claude Rains's usual suspects in Casablanca. From the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné to the somber monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, BHL and the others face a steady barrage of criticism. Fifteen years ago, the late Pierre Bourdieu published Sur la Télévision, followed a year later by Serge Halimi's Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (The New Guard Dogs), both of which took aim at the relatively small group of intellectuals whose influence was due less to the contents of their thoughts than to the gloss of their public personae. Boniface mentions Bourdieu only in passing, ignores Halimi, and, according to the fact-checking Web site Acrimed, borrowed passages from the work of journalists without adequate attribution.
Moreover, not a few commentators have rapped Boniface for being as self-aggrandizing as BHL. Yes, 14 publishers rejected his manuscript, some of them citing fear of BHL's wrath. And, yes, the mainstream media have, with few exceptions, ignored the book since its publication. But honestly, what writer would not love to be as scorned and ignored as Boniface? His book is a best seller, and he has spent more time in television studios than the French soccer team spent at the World Cup in South Africa. Is Boniface's posing as a maverick taking on the Paris establishment any more convincing than BHL's posturing as a liberation fighter in Libya?
Or are we, like the antagonists in this affair, more concerned with personalities than ideas? BHL and Boniface reflect a deeper and wider change in French culture. They are symptomatic of the decline of the intellectual.
Parisian intellectuals used to do what they do best: think for the rest of us, typically from a seat in a cafe. From the 18th century, when Café Procope served coffee to Voltaire, d'Alembert, and Diderot, to the 20th century, when Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir turned Café de Flore into the headquarters of existentialism, cafes were urban oases for intellectuals. From stained and chipped tabletops, through a haze of cigarette smoke, they cast, in the words of the historian Theodore Zeldin, "a magic spell on the way the French are perceived by themselves and by foreigners."
That era is no longer, of course. Places like Café Flore long ago became the Parisian equivalent of drive-through safari parks, where tourists go to see the endangered local fauna. The intellectual began his disappearing act, paradoxically, just as he became a fixture on French television. By the late 1970s, with the ascendancy of Apostrophes, Bernard Pivot's remarkable talk show devoted exclusively to books, the literary cafe was eclipsed by the television studio. At the time, critics decried Pivot's influence. Régis Debray, for one, declared mass media to be the enemy of intellectual life. That Debray appeared on Apostrophes shortly after denouncing it seemed yet another sign of Pivot's influence.
The era of Apostrophes, which went off the air in 1990, now seems golden. Learned and chatty, reading glasses balanced precariously on the tip of his nose, Pivot engaged his guests in long, artful conversations about their work and its implications. In contrast, today's French talk shows are silly affairs. Even their names—Ce Soir ou Jamais (Tonight or Never) and On N'est Pas Couché (We Didn't Go to Bed), both carrying obvious double entendres—reflect their indifference to serious subjects.
Oddly, the publishing culture of 21st-century France most closely resembles that of the Old Regime in the 18th century. Along with a relatively small number of traditional media overseen by state and corporate interests, there is a growing market in nontraditional media. Here is where the small book enters. Under the Old Regime, the great medium for outsiders was the libelle. As Robert Darnton has brilliantly demonstrated, pamphlets were at the heart of the genre. These short works were often published anonymously—for good reason, since they contained violently personal attacks.
French bookstores today are awash in a new form of libelle, the so-called livres à bas prix, or inexpensive books or pamphlets. They share more than a few traits with their precursors: They move easily between the political and the personal; they subvert (or pretend to subvert) the established order of things; they are cheap and easily passed from one reader to the next; and, perhaps most important, they tap into deep reserves of popular anxiety and hostility toward traditional political and cultural institutions.
This last trait goes far in explaining the current rage for pamphlets in France. Indeed, rage is the operative word, as exemplified by the unprecedented success of the pamphlet "Indignez-Vous!," by Stéphane Hessel. Since last November, "Indignez-Vous!" has sold almost 1.5 million copies in France. (In April, Quartet Books published the English translation, "Time for Outrage!")
Hessel has been a national figure in France for more than half a century. In 1941 he joined the Free French forces in London; in March 1944, he was sent to France to prepare the Resistance for the imminent Allied invasion. Caught by the Gestapo, Hessel was tortured and imprisoned at Buchenwald. After the war, upon his return to France, he continued the struggle for the values enunciated in the "Resistance Charter," which called for the "respect for the human person" and "absolute equality for all citizens before the law," along with the creation of full social security and the establishment of fair wages.
The pamphlet's success has less to do with the text itself—it runs scarcely 14 pages, with a number of addenda—than with the bleak context in which it appears. France today confronts several crises. Foremost, of course, is the economic crisis that has mobilized labor and student unions against a government determined to pare down the social advances heralded by the charter. The purchase of "Indignez-Vous!," as the critic Éric Aeschimann observes, becomes a "militant act, a communal gesture, a way of participating in a collective emotion." So too with other modern-day libelles on the best-seller list. Predictably, their titles usually end in exclamation marks. Arnaud Montebourg's "Votez Pour la Démondialisation!" ("Vote for Deglobalization!") is a cri de coeur written by a socialist politician. "Qu'ils s'en Aillent! Tout" ("Throw the Bums Out!") is yet another cri de coeur from yet another socialist politician, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is fed up with the political elite. "Engagez-Vous!" ("Get Involved!"), Hessel's sequel to the first pamphlet, offers suggestions for how readers can channel their indignation toward productive ends. Montebourg and Mélenchon are running for president; though still stunningly active at the age of 94, Hessel has no plans to toss his chapeau into the ring.
Boniface's book, Les Intellectuels Faussaires, properly speaking, lies on the margins of the livre à bas prix phenomenon: it is longer and more expensive than those other offerings. Nevertheless, Les Intellectuels Faussaires, like recent pamphlets, privileges passion over analysis, personality over substance, and profits from the public's distrust of ruling elites by extending it to the intellectual class. Of course, as Tony Judt amply showed in Past Imperfect, French intellectuals have worked hard over the last 100 years to earn this distrust. Far too often they have chosen to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron. As a result, the exclamators carry the day in a world where there are no longer figures like Aron or Camus. Or, indeed, like Bernard Pivot. His memoir, Les Mots de Ma Vie (The Words of My Life), was recently published. It is a leisurely and rich account of writers and books written by a lifelong reader who is famously reluctant to talk about himself. There is, by the way, no exclamation mark in the title.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston. He is the author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell University Press, 2010).