Why French Intellectual History Should Repeat Itself as Farce

Eric Fassin

In lieu of Sartre and Raymond Aron, future historians of French intellectuals in the Eighties and Nineties may well be condemned to structuring their narratives around the post-Marx brothers of French intellectual life, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut. This is not a case simply of contemporary thinkers being dwarfed by the giants of the past – the familiar lament about the decline of French intellectuals is rather unfair. The problem is that Lévy and Finkielkraut play the venerable role of intellectual to perfection – that they imitate their noble ancestors to a fault.

They have worked hard to define their roles as worthy successors, Finkielkraut perhaps as a Jewish version of the Catholic François Mauriac, while Lévy had dreamed of being Mitterrand’s André Malraux (unfortunately for him, Régis Debray got there first – just as, Lévy notes in Le Lys et la cendre, he had ‘stolen the part’ of the intellectual as adventurer when he was jailed in Bolivia for joining Che Guevara). More fundamentally, they identify not so much with one particular intellectual, but with the Intellectual, a figure first (and last) embodied as an absolute by Sartre, the ‘total intellectual’, in Bourdieu’s memorable words.

Finkielkraut’s The Imaginary Jew, published in 1980, the year of Sartre’s death, was a deliberate update of the latter’s Reflections on the Jewish Question, while Lévy has systematically explored the various genres in which Sartre excelled – from the philosophical essay to the novel, from artistic to literary studies, and even the theatre. Now these have been superseded by film-making, initially in documentaries (Bosna!), now in feature films, with Alain Delon and Lauren Bacall. Each has created his own journal, after the fashion of Les Temps modernes – Le Messager européen for Finkielkraut, and La Règle du jeu for Lévy. Finally, both have taken up the central question raised by Sartre’s What Is an Intellectual?, in theoretical (Lévy’s Éloge des intellectuels, Finkielkraut’s Defeat of the Mind, both published in 1987) as well as historical terms (Finkielkraut’s very personal vindication of Péguy, Le Mécontemporain, and Lévy’s ‘subjective’ history of intellectuals, also published in 1991, Adventures on the Freedom Road – which was both a book and a television film).

This probably explains why these contemporary intellectuals, however obsessed they may be by the course of History, seem frozen in time. As Lévy himself points out, the parts pre-exist the actors in what could best be called an intellectual commedia dell’arte:

What is fascinating in this account of intellectuals is that their role and function seem to have been defined once and for all. There are and always will be the reformed anarchists like Barrès and Malraux. There are and always will be the ‘men of conscience’ like Zola and Sartre. There is and always will be the just man, one against the rest, resisting the forces of history and its alleged diktats, like Camus and Julien Benda. In a word, it’s like a comedy which, instead of Columbine, Harlequin and Pantaloon, would have a set number of stock figures that have been defined and distributed even before specific individuals came along to embody them.

He returns to this theme in his diary of the Bosnian war: for him, history is ‘saturated’; he is to Sarajevo as Malraux was to Spain. There are no new words, no new positions, and Fukuyama, he fears, may be right, at least where intellectuals are concerned.

It all goes back to the founding myth of the Dreyfus Affair, Lévy’s starting point and Finkielkraut’s constant point of reference. In The Defeat of the Mind, it is his key for understanding not only our past – the conflict between dreyfusards and antidreyfusards itself recapitulated the 19th-century opposition between two definitions of the nation, French and German, elective and ethnic, based on a social contract or rooted in an organic past – but also our present: Finkielkraut’s defence of (national) culture against (tribal) cultures, and high culture against mass culture, starts with a denunciation (after Benda) of the ‘treason of the intellectuals’ who abandon universal values, either in the name of cultural difference or in the spirit of Post-Modern indifference, but always in favour of relativism. It is as if French intellectuals have kept replaying the Dreyfus Affair again and again.

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