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 Now these have been superseded by film-making, initially in documentaries (Bosna!), now in feature films, with Alain Delon and Lauren Bacall.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.

The trouble with this ahistorical vision of intellectual history is not only that it overlooks, for the most part, the developing historiography of intellectuals, from Pascal Ory and Jean-François Sirinelli to Christophe Charle and Christophe Prochasson, but that Lévy and Finkielkraut have insufficient interest in sociology. They are aware of the profound ideological transformations that have taken place in the intellectual world since the collapse of revolutionary dreams, but they ignore the ways in which it has changed sociologically.

What is Lévy’s definition of an intellectual? There is, he suggests, a simple way to formulate it: ‘in a single phrase, which is how Gide put it when he expressed amazement that someone should value “something” more highly than literature’. Indeed, from Barrès and Péguy to Gide and Malraux, from Breton and Bataille to Camus and Mauriac, the history of French intellectuals is largely a history of literature: the intellectuel is first and foremost a writer, whose status as an intellectual is defined in reference to literature. However, as Lévy’s interview here with Claude Simon makes clear, in French cultural life today these are no longer competing, but simply different worlds: ‘the demise of the prophets’ after the Sixties also marks the end of a privileged connection between intellectuals and literature.

This first became apparent with the arrival of the Nouveau Roman and the emergence of Structuralism, which respectively redefined the figures of the écrivain and the intellectuel through a contrast best reflected in the ambiguous status of Roland Barthes. The redefinition goes beyond the advent of the sciences humaines within academe: among intellectuals, even the philosopher became less of an écrivain – Althusser entered literature only posthumously, with his autobiography. Foucault, and especially Derrida, though they philosophise about writing, do not write literature; neither showed any sign of wanting to be a novelist, playwright or poet. This is a major shift in the location of the French intellectual: whereas Sartre barely taught, and never within a university, the intellectual is now first and foremost an academic. The recent rehabilitation of Raymond Aron as a professor of ‘wisdom’ is a case in point, but the same can be said of the anthropologist (Claude Lévi-Strauss), the historian (Georges Duby), the sociologist (Pierre Bourdieu), not to mention the scientist (Jean-Pierre Changeux) or even the poet (Yves Bonnefoy). Today, the Collège de France is the stuff intellectual dreams are made of. Academia has displaced literature as the home of intellectual legitimacy.

Lévy does not even acknowledge this revolution. He seems aware of the last decade mostly through the neo-humanists and the attack they launched on the pensée ’68 (Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Bourdieu); the Lévi-Strauss who matters to him is not the Parisian structuralist, but the friend of the Surrealists in New York during World War Two. Among his own contemporaries (aside from two pieces, dropped from the English edition, on his friends Philippe Sollers and Jean-Paul Enthoven), Lévy only engages in discussions of the political philosopher Luc Ferry and with Régis Debray, and perhaps because he suspects that this is too lowkey, he ends the book with a nostalgic touch – a flashback to Althusser’s mysticism. Since the start of the Eighties, when the giants of thought all disappeared, the stage has emptied, and we are left only with Lévy himself, as a witness to this glorious past. With his erasure of academia, it is as if, today, the life of the intellectual had nothing to do with intellectual life.

Finkielkraut is not so oblivious of the changed décor. In The Defeat of the Mind he retraces the rise of the sciences humaines through a critique of the notion of ‘culture’ as it was developed under the aegis of Unesco by Lévi-Strauss, and later taken up by historians of the Annales school, and the sociologists around Pierre Bourdieu. As he decribes it, the new paradigm claims to reconcile ‘the unity of science and the plurality of cultures’, and ‘to integrate the universalism inherent in scientific thought with the relativism of the social sciences’, when, in fact (as he sees it), because the ‘University reduces the novel to archival material’, which is a way of ‘converting literature into folklore’, the end result is simply a new relativism.

Rather than ‘subsuming the cultured under the cultural’, Finkielkraut advocates a form of transcendence, passed down ‘from religion to culture’. His cultured reaction against cultural relativism, supported by such influential followers as Danièlc Sallenave, in particular in Le Don des morts (1991), has found considerable support in France – partly under the illusion (entertained by Finkielkraut himself) that this new humanism is simply a continuation of an Enlightenment tradition. In fact, his defence of the French mind, originally published at the same time as Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, is a plea for Culture, not Reason – explicitly, it defines literature in opposition to science, and implicitly, the intellectual in opposition to the academic.

Lévy and Finkielkraut’s insistence on the traditional literary definition of the intellectual is both underscored and undermined by their own lack of literary recognition. They write well, Lévy with the glamour of a dandy, Finkielkraut with the brilliance of a polemicist, but only as journalists or essayists: neither (Lévy’s derivative attempts notwithstanding) is taken seriously as an écrivain. They can thus only confirm the historical trend they are attempting to deny or even resist. They cannot take refuge in literary legitimacy, like Philippe Sollers, or, like Régis Debray with his médiologie, try to regain legitimacy on an academic level. Consecration can only come to them from the media, the sole alternative source of legitimation. No wonder that non-academic intellectuals should be so obsessed with the media, and so ambivalent towards them, whether scorning them, while at the same time depending on them for their very existence (Finkielkraut), or praising them even as they play games with them (which is how Lévy became known as BHL after the hyping of the Nouveaux philosophes). Such is the price to be paid for leading the life of an intellectual in contempt of History, as if we were still living in the age of Sartre – the world may be subject to change, but not l’intellectuel.

That these books should appeal to audiences outside France is hardly surprising: especially in translation, they embody the essence of French intellectual life, of novelty without change. But there is more to this than the temptations of armchair cultural tourism. It is not only the Frenchness of these two intellectuals that attracts translators and publishers: they also reflect more broadly on cultures and nations in the post-Communist world. From L’Idéologie française (1981) to La Pureté dangereuse (1994), Lévy has consistently proclaimed his Jewishness as a badge of cosmopolitanism. In open opposition to this position, Finkielkraut has, throughout the same period, from The Imaginary Jew (1980) to Comment peut-on être croate? (1992) developed a more complex and contradictory position that is equally faithful to his conception of the Jewish legacy: in his meditations on high culture and on national cultures, he oscillates between universalism and particularism.

This is why he can be called as a witness in the contemporary American quarrel concerning multiculturalism by both David Suchoff and Judith Friedlander, the translators of (respectively) The Imaginary Jew and The Defeat of the Mind, and be ascribed a different position by each. (Interestingly, the 1988 English translation of The Defeat of the Mind, entitled The Undoing of Thought, has not stood in the way of an American version.) According to Suchoff, Finkielkraut is no Allan Bloom or Arthur Schlesinger: ‘far from a neoconservative’, he is, rather, a pluralist in the vein of Henry Louis Gates, and his reflections on the differences between the terms ‘Israelite’ and ‘Jew’ find an echo in the American opposition between ‘Black’ and ‘African-American’. Suchoff praises Finkielkraut’s ‘paradoxical commitment to ethnicity’, while Friedlander acclaims his shift from ‘minority nationalism’ to ‘the assimilationist ideals long associated with the French nation-state’. His defence of ‘the abstract individual’ makes him a ‘real democrat’ – and therefore (at this point, her analysis begins, surprisingly, to converge with Suchoff’s) ‘the minority person’s best friend’.

The Imaginary Jew provides a good starting-point for unravelling these claims: a provocative but thoughtful essay, it is certainly Finkielkraut’s best book. In more ways than one, the story of the intellectual in France has been, at least since Dreyfus, a Jewish story: it was, after all, the assimilated Jews of the Third Republic who, better than anyone else, identified with the message of abstract universalism conveyed by the new dreyfusard intellectuals. By the same token, anti-semitism became a crucial issue in intellectual life, and is analysed in Lévy’s polemic against ‘French ideology’ both of the Right and of the Left, and in Finkielkraut’s denunciation of post-’68 left-wing anti-Zionism, which was fashionable even among Jews. It is significant that both authors should include in their intellectual genealogy the late Emmanuel Lévinas, who first introduced Judaism into French philosophical discourse.

What does it mean to be Jewish in France today? It cannot simply involve going back to the old model of the ‘Israelite’ who conscientiously subscribed to Napoleon’s ‘Let the Jews find their Jerusalem in France.’ Assimilation, carried to the point of Judeophobia, was made obsolete by the Holocaust: now, ‘neither guilty nor innocent’, ‘French Jews are no longer ashamed of their name.’ However, they cannot relish their ‘identity’ nor indulge in their ‘difference’ for fear of becoming ‘imaginary Jews’. For not only has the culture of Yiddishkeit been destroyed but the French nation has forsaken its identity, so that Jews are ‘assimilated in spite of themselves’: both the ‘community’s Jewishness, and France as one nation indivisible, have disappeared from the map’. What, then, is left, beyond ‘the ostentation of nothingness’, if Jewishness is to be no more than ‘ornamental’ or ‘folkloric’? Not nostalgia, religious or otherwise, but simply the memory of a past irretrievably lost.

The imaginary Jew offers a paradoxical vision of culture, not as essence, but as absence. But this neither/nor way of resolving the tension between assimilation and difference cannot really serve as a model for other cultures. In the last few years, Finkielkraut has undertaken to distinguish between national and tribal cultures, between legitimate and illusory identities. In 1989 he was in the forefront of the battle against the wearing of ‘Islamic scarves’ by pupils in French state schools: if France is to avoid American ‘ghettoisation’, minorities must be assimilated within the nation. Here Finkielkraut sounds like the father of Jewish assimilation, Clermont-Tonnerre, who proclaimed in 1789 that ‘Jews should be denied everything as a nation, and nothing as individuals.’ On the other hand, since the collapse of Communism, he has been a strong supporter of the New Europe’s ‘little nations’, in particular Croatia: the political entities of the former Yugoslavia should not be mistaken for tribes or minorities, he says, because they are real, historical nations.

The passion Finkielkraut puts into both arguments is admirable, although one cannot help but notice that he grows all the more strident as the sharp contrast he wants to draw between the plurality of national cultures and the American tribal mosaic, i.e. between Good and Evil, becomes less and less obvious. With good reason, he virulently attacks interpretations of the Balkan crisis that overlook political in favour of cultural factors, and then falls into the same trap himself when denouncing minority cultures in the US or France without investigating the politics of multiculturalism: it is a pity that he should forget his commitment to intellectual complexity once west of Zagreb.

Why is this contrast so vital to Finkielkraut? Why the need to separate the nation from the tribe, and identities from minorities? The key may be found at the end of The Defeat of the Mind, when an attack on Post-Modernity takes over from the critique of multiculturalism. In a Post-Modern world, ‘a pair of boots is worth a play by Shakespeare,’ as ‘the boundary between culture and entertainment has been blurred’: indifference prevails in our technological age. This leads to a final confrontation between ‘the zombie and the fanatic’, the Scylla and Charybdis of our times. Beyond the perils of difference lurk the evils of indifference, and the source of Finkielkraut’s passion is to be found in his Heideggerian condemnation of moderm culture: there is nothing worse than the ‘era of the void’, a world of indifferentiation in which no values outweigh others: as Finkielkraut once acerbically explained in Le Monde, ‘Long live rap! Down with Slovenia! The two go hand in hand.’

This is why, in contrast to Lévy’s horrified dismissal of nationalism, Finkielkraut makes a plea, no longer for the ‘indeterminable’, as he did in The Imaginary Jew, but against a monotonous uniformity, for a nation of flesh and blood (une patrie charnelle), in the tradition of Péguy. ‘While it is true that nations, beyond their differences in climate, culture and history, must all obey the same democratic rules,’ he wrote in 1991, ‘conversely, democracy needs a body, a soil, a specific city, in order to be more than the power to switch channels or choose between different brands of deodorant.’ Lévy’s arch-enemy is the fanatic; Finkielkraut ultimately fears the zombie more. To paraphrase the title of a recent book by Benjamin Barber: on the one hand, Lévy v. Jihad, on the other, Finkielkraut v. McWorld.

The final paradox of this ill-matched couple is that they should have met on the same terrain: in the name of cosmopolitanism or for the sake of the nation (but against the conventional intellectual wisdom), they have both fought for Bosnia, with a common faith, though for opposite reasons. With a few years’ hindsight, we have to admit that the Cassandras were right: on the Bosnian crisis, it was better to be right with Lévy and Finkielkraut than to remain silent with so many intellectuals of high repute, whose wish to distance themselves from the pose of the intellectual may have been fulfilled at the expense of the role of the intellectual – they mistook genuine political analysis for mere hollow verbiage or moralising. It is precisely because Lévy and Finkielkraut remain committed to an archaic representation of the intellectual that they have not blinded themselves to the contemporary revival of Fascism: the old anti-Fascist reflexes were the good ones. Sartre’s imitators look diminutive by comparison with their model and the history of intellectuals may be repeated as farce. However, as this century should have taught us, with the experience of Fascism, History may also repeat itself as tragedy – and those who live among its echoes may be the first to recognise it.