Commentary Magazine

French Culture in Decline

Since I happen to be on the west coast of the United States these days, instead of in Paris where I normally live, I receive Le Monde belatedly. Also, I had not paid too much attention to an article by Raymond Sokolov that appeared in the Wall Street Journal concerning an event that anyway had not seemed so important to me (“Junket of the Year: ‘Les Intellos,’ ” February 15, 1983). So Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture, had convened at the Sorbonne several hundred intellectuals from around the world whose names, if not their work, were in most cases known to me. So what?

But then in the March 1 issue of Le Monde I was confronted with the “Ideas” page and I understood more clearly. In his Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Sokolov had written that the Paris conference, whose title was “Creation and Development,” was notable chiefly for the vagueness of its substance and for the blatant anti-Americanism of its tone, with the television serial Dallas coming in “for the heaviest attacks.” He then proceeded to offer some advice to Jack Lang:

Instead of worrying about Dallas, Jack Lang should spend his time wondering why France is a nullity in contemporary, active world culture. Instead of posing as the savior of planetwide culture, he should ask himself why France has produced no novelists of real importance in twenty years, except Michel Tournier, why France has slipped out of view in the visual arts, why the whole world laughs at the bombast of traditional French rhetoric as it is still taught in archaic French schools and written at France’s Ministry of Culture.

It was this apparently unforgivable cruelty to which the French and others were now responding.

The Turkish writer Yashar Kemal, who had himself attended the conference, was quoted in my copy of Le Monde as saying, “If President Mitterrand and Jack Lang had not been men of culture, such a colloquium would not have taken place.” Then there was Le Monde‘s Michel Deguy: “Let chief editor Solokov [sic] come here and discover in detail the richness, diversity, and significance of French literary, artistic, and scientific works; over the course of a year he could be shown everything and without being brainwashed he could assess it properly.” Finally, another Le Monde staff writer, Dominique Dhombres: “What about Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Romain Gary, J.M.G. Le Clézio, or Marguerite Yourcenar?”

All right then, let us see. One worthwhile way of measuring these matters is to frequent good book-stores. There happens to be a very large one at Stanford. Six extremely long shelves are devoted to the recent output of university presses in America, which is to say the essence of scholarly publishing. If sheer quantity is taken as a standard of comparison—and for some purposes it should be—what is available in this one place out-weighs by several dozen times the cumulative scholarly output of French universities. Assuming the rate of productivity is the same here as in France, the American output should only be about five times greater than the French. So far have the French fallen into academic arrears, indeed, that it makes one think of one of those great historic declines such as occurred in Spain in the 17th century or Italy in the 18th century in comparison with France and England. The effects of such a drop in status are not easily overcome. In the case of Spain and Italy, the reaction to the realization that they had been surpassed by others was not an attempt to catch up but rather the adoption of a siege mentality and a closed, self-defeating nationalism. Such is also the case today in France.

What about quality? I see on the shelves here at Stanford several scholarly editions of Montaigne, a critical edition of Amadis de Gaule, and, in paperback, new editions of Latin works by Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas which have never even been translated into French, not even in the 19th century when France was a more scholarly-minded country than today. I know that before university presses agree to publish such books, the manuscripts are submitted to committees of specialists who always require important revisions, painful to the authors, and which a Frenchman would regard as intolerable, in order to make them conform to the strictest standards of academic scholarship.

There’s a corner devoted to contemporary French literature here (as there is to Spanish, German, and Russian). This is hardly surprising, since the French department of the university is well staffed. Here one finds many French paperbacks, Daudet and Marguerite Duras, Mme. de Sévigné and Simone de Beauvoir, Gide, Camus—everyone, in sum. It’s touching to see how hard American university departments of French work to keep themselves au courant. They are not the ones who have ignored Robbe-Grillet, Duras, or Hélène Cixous. Quite the contrary! And when it comes to critical methodology, they have been sure to pay their respects to semiotics and deconstruction, to Tzvetan Todorov and Julia Kristeva (I cite these names at random and without judging them, since I am not ashamed to say that I have not read their work. After the age of fifty, one has the right to put, alongside one’s actual library, a much larger imaginary library of books one has not read and will not read).



The intellectual health of a country is measured as much by what it is able to receive as by what it is able to give. In other words, as much by translation as by “radiation.” In the 19th century, Paris translated everything, and immediately. Thanks to this activity Frenchmen were able to write classic works about other nations (the United States, England, Russia) which these countries could not write about us. Today it would be interesting to place on one side of a scale the works of general history, art history, political science, and literary criticism written by American authors about France, and on the other side the works of French authors in these same fields about the United States. Even the last-minute pressure of Jack Lang’s thumb could not bring the two sides into balance. (Daniel Boorstin’s marvelous book, The Americans, is, I believe, about to be translated into French. It was first published in 1958.)

While we are still in the same bookstore let us stroll into the aisles devoted to “general” history, philosophy, literary criticism, and see if we can assess, by means of translations, the degree of French “radiation.” Sartre: Being and Nothingness. Foucault: I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother. . . . Derrida: Margins. And here, no less, a Barthes Reader! Not to mention the works of the Annales school of historians. Might you be interested in the “new philosophers”? Not a one is missing. On the dust jackets, the blurbs go on without end: “The most important,” “epoch-making,” “tremendous,” “controversial,” “great,” and so on.

So what are we French grumbling about? Yet even I, an indefatigable patriot, am not happy. First of all, there isn’t really all that much here. Among these tens of thousands of books, the translations from French are a little lost, and even my practiced nationalist eye has trouble spotting them. Then too, I can’t help thinking: those books that I haven’t bothered to read, why the devil should the Americans be reading them? There is so much real talent to be found on those shelves, so many fields of genuine interest, why should Americans have the slightest curiosity about our amusing Parisian specialties—especially since they are so often in bad taste?

Indeed, those circles in American intellectual life that remain serious understand perfectly well what is going on here, remember what France once stood for, and long for it. Yet America is a country that embraces many contrary tendencies: avant-gardes of various kinds, para-Marxist subcultures, sundry fake sciences, all of which are distinguished by a hatred for mainstream America and by a desire to affiliate elsewhere. It is in these circles that contemporary French culture “radiates” and finds its fans.

There’s a danger here to which I should like to draw attention. Is it really in France’s interest to replace the Frankfurt School as a supplier of marked-down ideological goods, intellectual gadgets for the American demi-intelligentsia? It may be the case that the overall position of French culture is no more important (or less important) than that of Italian or German culture. We cannot do anything about this; history has made it so. But at least we could insure that Americans of taste, knowledge, and discrimination honor and appreciate that position for what it really is. Such is not the case today.

Let us leave the campus and go into Palo Alto. On California Avenue there is a peculiarly Californian institution, a bookstore-cum-cafeteria which also serves as a kind of central cultural clearing-house. It is here that I find Le Monde, the reading of which leaves me depressed for a couple of hours. But perhaps I am overly sensitive. The whole international press can be found here—Italian, German, English, as well as French—and this allows comparisons to be made fairly easily. They do not work to France’s disadvantage. Compared with others, our fashion magazines, our journals of interior decoration and of photography are not at all bad. The culinary magazines are very good indeed, and this is no small thing since in American bookstores the cookbook section takes up more room than all the humanities combined. If there has truly been any genuine “radiation,” it is there.

In the very important realm of material life and the arrangement of daily affairs, then, we still maintain our position. True, we don’t dominate: I came across a profoundly knowledgeable and expert article on Beaujolais Nouveau—its history, geography, varieties, intrinsic qualities—in an English magazine. But at least we are not inferior, and in any case since we’re different we’re also interesting.

But in more elevated genres? Cixous, Barthes, etc.? About these in particular I am not an expert, but it seems to me that “we” (if I may use the term) are not, in fact, “nullities.” We have a point of view, an angle of vision, a manner of apprehending things, all of which have value and should be taken into consideration. If we make such a bad impression on Americans like Raymond Sokolov, is that because of American arrogance, or imperialism, as some Frenchmen would have it? It is true that our habits of thought and intellectual customs are different, and offer natural resistance. But above all, it is cultural politics that come into play here.



An American friend asked me what the true status of French culture is these days. I responded that one should not expect a new Flaubert or Baudelaire to make his appearance, but that every year quite a few solid, original, talented, and thought-provoking books come out—not, to be sure, in quantities commensurate with the American output—which deserve to be read and which would benefit those Americans who read them. But if they remain unread, it is our own fault; it is because of our senseless cultural politics.

Instead of trying to acquaint others with what is good in French culture, the French prefer to represent themselves as a single entity, an alternative culture. Having created a nonexistent monster which we call American culture, we set against it an equally fabulous monster we call French culture—and to its banners we claim to have rallied all the disadvantaged “cultures” of the earth, the Senegalese, the Albanian, the Nicaraguan, what have you. We make pinups of writers and artists by endowing them with fixed, global qualities—and we then appoint them as ambassadors plenipotentiary of that same universal entity, “French culture.” Do we have some merely good philosophers or historians among us? It little matters; they are only sentinels, or stars.



Thus have the French abandoned the notion of a civilization, at once singular and open to all, in favor of the notion of a unique, uncommunicable culture. We have abandoned a position in these matters which was always ours and taken a position once adopted by those opposed to the classic French conception of culture—by German Romantics, Russian Slavophiles, etc. We have made ourselves at home in the pathological world of cultural ressentiment, once upon a time the property of the underdeveloped. This we call progress.

In so doing, we have also given a false and distorted view of our true situation. In the United States we have run the risk of associating ourselves with one or another cultural ghetto, one of those avant-gardes that are always being born and always on the point of dying out and of which nothing remains when they depart from fashion. Of course real talent will always out—as, for example, J.P. Ponelle’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo on American public television, or the Chéreau production of Wagner’s Ring. I found both of these quite remarkable, each in its own way, and Americans were of the same opinion. But there are many estimable examples of French culture that are less dazzling and that will not gain an audience because they come wrapped in the artificial glare of pasteboard goods which we energetically try to sell but which over the long run do us no credit. If the object is prestige and influence, qualities to which our political-cultural elites are so sensitive, such misrepresentations of ourselves can only have a contrary effect. The cultural products of Italy, England, and Scandinavia have already gained readier acceptance than those of France.

This attitude, finally, is ruinous to our own cultural life. Moral philosophers taught us long ago that cultural pride brings its own punishment, which is cultural sterility. When France sparkled, it also learned from the culture of the Italians, the Spanish, the English, the Germans. Today, many Americans are still convinced that their literature is second-rate, their painting mediocre, their music deficient. This is not true, and anyway the attitude is changing. But what one does feel strongly is the diffidence of American culture, the polite welcome it gives to everything that appears exciting and that comes from elsewhere. Is it so difficult for the French to display a comparable humility, especially when its effects would be so obviously beneficial? Can we French go on allowing our national feeling to do so badly by our nation?

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