When France Went Dreadfully Wrong

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Charles Maurras, leader of the Action française movement, at a French Academy ceremony, June 1939

Frederick Brown, the accomplished biographer of Zola, Flaubert, and Cocteau, has given us a kind of collective intellectual biography of France from the outbreak of World War I to the calamitous defeat of 1940. Despite the loss of so many talented young men in World War I, France seethed with intellectual energy in those years. Brown has singled out for particular attention Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, Léon Daudet, André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Lesser lights also get their moment: wartime spy chasers, competing devotees of Joan of Arc on both right and left, admirers of Stalin and Hitler, crooks and gutter journalists. Many of them shared doubts about the Enlightenment’s faith in reason, canonical in the French Third Republic. They were attracted in varying degrees to the irrational, the spontaneous, the organic, or the subconscious. Brown deftly and economically analyzes the characters and opinions of many notable writers in this vein. He succeeds as usual in joining accurate scholarship to elegant and often pithy style.

The novelist, essayist, and later nationalist politician Maurice Barrès (1862–1923) towered over the early years of this period, and he receives an appropriate share of Brown’s attention. Barrès’s eloquence and passion in such works as his trilogy of novels Le Culte du Moi (Cult of the Self), published between 1888 and 1891, established so powerful a sway over young people at the turn of the century that he was called “the prince of youth.” In describing the emotional life and changing perceptions of a young man, Philippe, Barrès showed them how to liberate themselves from stultifying convention by asserting the primacy of individual selfhood.

His concern with individual energy soon turned toward national energy, and to anxiety about its perceived decline. He highlighted this problem in a three-volume “novel of national energy” (Le Roman de l’énergie nationale) whose best-known volume, Les Déracinés (The Uprooted), published in 1897, concerns a group of young men who are detached from their local culture by the abstract and universalist values of their schoolteachers. Torn from their moral moorings, they go up to Paris (following Julien Sorel, Lucien de Rubempré, and so many others) and fall into crime. Barrès found the answer in a cult of the soil and the dead of France (“la terre et les morts”). He supported the army and the church during the tumultuous (and unfounded) prosecution of the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus for espionage (1894–1906).

Some of Barrès’s most exalted prose evinced a mystical attachment to certain historic sites along the German frontier. Another enthusiasm was French rural churches abandoned after the separation of church and state in 1905. Capable of stepping outside France, he wrote with admiration about Italy—he was close to d’Annunzio—and about Arab culture. During World War I he applauded…

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