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The Mess of Things

France 1848-1945 Volume I: Ambition, Love and Politics Volume II: Intellect, Taste and Anxiety

by Theodore Zeldin
Oxford University Press, Vol. II, 1,200 pp., $29.95

The End of French Predominance in Europe: The Financial Crisis of 1924 and the Adoption of the Dawes Plan

by Stephen A. Schuker
University of North Carolina Press, 459 pp., $19.00

In the two volumes of France 1848-1945, Theodore Zeldin thumbs his nose at just about every convention of historical writing on contemporary France. It is hard to think of another important general account of this period that speaks with so original and robustly personal a voice.

Mr. Zeldin dismisses the familiar periods, groups, movements, and trends as artifacts of French history. The old landscape has disappeared in these books, and, with it, the familiar map of revolutions, constitutional regimes, wars, depressions, and “isms.” Instead, his subtitle announces six themes: ambition, love, and politics in Volume I (1973), and intellect, taste, and anxiety in Volume II (1977).

There seems to be no adequate way to suggest the extraordinary range of the doings and preoccupations of ordinary French men and women discussed here except to describe the organization of the work. Part 1 of Volume I (on ambition—the parts are unlabeled but correspond clearly to the subtitle’s themes) examines bourgeois values and a series of bourgeois professions, and evokes “the ambitions of ordinary men” by an ingenious juxtaposition of nineteenth-century career manuals and social statistics. Part 2, on love, has chapters on marriage and morals, women, and children. Part 3, on politics, deals not only with monarchism, bonapartism, radicalism, socialism, and the like, but gives us a most original appreciation of “the place of politics in life.”

Volume II opens with intellect: education at all levels, national identity, attitudes toward regions and foreigners, and “logic and verbalism.” Part 2 pairs such matters of “taste” as conformity and superstition, fashion and beauty, science and comfort, happiness and humor, eating and drinking. With Part 3—on anxiety—the material clearly bursts its organizing scheme. This section opens with the development of psychiatry and the evidence from medical records about tensions and nervous disorders, and proceeds through a discussion of violence, both sanctioned (army, police, and colonial administration) and unsanctioned (criminality), to the role of religion and the clergy. The interwar years and Vichy follow under the rather unhelpful titles of “Technocracy” and “Gerontocracy,” and the work concludes, in a chapter entitled “Hypocrisy,” with a return to the influence of the intellectuals.

The sheer accumulation of information is dazzling. The historian Robert Forster has already called Volume II Rabelaisian, not so much for its occasional earthiness, one presumes, as for its exuberance of detail. Mr. Zeldin delights in numbering things: furniture prices, alcohol consumption per adult, the increase in studies of Proust, and the years it would take to read all the works published in or on France during this period (and Zeldin appears to have made fair headway at that). There are pages of exceptional sensitivity and novelty on children’s literature, the impact of photography upon painting, publisher’s promotions of best-sellers, the growth of organized sports, the economics of the newspaper business, and changing styles in legal oratory. The list could go on and on.

It would be wrong, though, to treat this work as only a well-stocked cabinet of curiosities, the prize exhibit of a learned collector of oddments. Mr. Zeldin is troubled by the drift and decline of historical writing. He means to make a strong personal statement about what historians ought to do, and about the range and limits of their form of knowledge.

Zeldin is a radical empiricist. He stands at the opposite pole from those who take aesthetic delight in a daring hypothesis elegantly demonstrated. Simplification is his enemy. The historian, he says, “questions the generalizations that have become current about the past and its relations with the present.” Causation is presumed much too freely, he says; the best one can do is to show juxtapositions, “so that the reader can make what links he sees fit.” It is not the business of history to explain, though it ought to do more than amuse. A historian’s most useful contribution, one concludes, is to reveal the past in such complexity that it resembles the confusion of the present.

Mr. Zeldin’s astringent intelligence punctures every cliché, “shakes loose” every simple pattern, and refutes every grand design ever advanced to give shape to the recent history of France. Tocqueville goes out the window as well as Marx. Bourgeois values did not triumph, for “internal conflicts and contradictory interests” are the “major characteristics of the French middle class.” The classification of political movements into left and right confuses more than it clarifies. Class identification was far from complete, and movements for change or preservation did not correspond neatly with class.

None of the major institutions or groups that are supposed to have shaped the French nation actually had much effect. Other historians have assumed that the predominant school culture shaped the minds of young people. Zeldin finds that children shut it out with a youth culture of their own; the army, under an apparent uniformity, reflected the variety of the larger society; bureaucracy both promoted and inhibited change, defended and encroached upon liberty. Intellectuals influenced only the handful who read, and even they understood things their own way. “No one way of thought was ever supreme at any one time,” and those who cram artists into “schools” related to social changes, such as Arnold Hauser in his Social History of Art, are denounced by name. Things didn’t really turn at alleged “turning points.” The eighteenth century was no more pious than the nineteenth; the Third Republic retained many features of the old regime. Mr. Zeldin wants historians to show us life in all its irreducible, stubborn individuality. To do anything else is to “falsely diminish that confusion.”

In place of facile classification and causality, Mr. Zeldin wants to create a history of individual feelings and perceptions. His six themes—ambition, love, politics, intellect, taste, and anxiety—are “ways of looking at the individual…. Rather than begin with preconceived views about the groupings one should use to study men, I have used as my point of departure the individual and the attitudes with which he faces the world.” At times Mr. Zeldin seems tempted by the notion of history as infinitely multiplied biography—not prosopography, which abstracts and codifies, but an uninhibited flowering of individuality. Only “a whole string of biographies—and there would need to be a very large number of them,” he suggests, might do justice to the full range of French artists’ conception of beauty. He calls his technique pointillisme, and, in another painterly metaphor, he aims at “a portrait of the individual simultaneously from several different sides, as though I were painting not just the obvious face, but the back of the head also, and the features rearranged so that they may all be seen at once.”

Mr. Zeldin recognizes that “the more individual people are studied in detail, the more complex they reveal themselves to be.” Urging us to new tasks, such as a history of anger, or an analysis of “all the histories of loss of faith,” he struggles at or beyond the edge of the knowable, the side of life that people “preferred to keep quiet about.” No wonder he verges on a Tolstoyan pessimism about the possibility of knowing the significant factors in history. “The different affiliations of Frenchmen cut across each other in an infinite variety of permutations.” Such warnings become almost a litany. “There were an almost infinite number of permutations. If enough aspects of their lives are taken into account, Frenchmen cannot be classified or categorized.” “The generalizations about romanticism need to be modified every time one particular individual’s experiences are analyzed.” The history of criminality “shows that the variety of human nature is beyond analysis and beyond reform.”

No historian really acts upon so radical a historical skepticism. The exception doesn’t disprove a rule. His fastidious aversion to selection and generalizations cannot save Mr. Zeldin from making them, as all historians do. The problem is that we are left with only his emphases and omissions as a key to what his criteria for selection and generalization have been.

It would be unfair to make too much of his omissions. He makes no claim to provide a conventional survey, and one will turn elsewhere for that. Diplomacy has been dealt with in the same Oxford series by A.J.P. Taylor, anyway, and Zeldin’s total silence on Locarno and Munich is perhaps compensated for by interesting and appropriate chapters on French attitudes toward their own and other nations. The single reference to Marshal Foch (in connection with the influence of Descartes!) and the total absence of names like Bazaine, Joffre, Gamelin, and Weygand are perhaps made up for by discussions of military society and the effects of military service. Lone references to Berlioz and Debussy are perhaps compensated for by a perceptive essay on the transition of musical performance from church and court to public concerts and amateur musical societies.

We can tell that Mr. Zeldin enjoys the recondite more than the familiar, and concerns of the masses more than those of the few. Ravel and Céline go unmentioned, while Joseph Pujol, the vaudeville virtuoso of flatulence, who earned more than Sarah Bernhardt, gets two pages. All legitimate enough, and diverting. It is hard, though, to find any excuse for ignoring the World War II Resistance, which would seem tailor-made for Mr. Zeldin’s penchant for the ambiguities of group adherence, the deflation of myths, and the incomparable uniqueness of personal experience.

Other matters of which Mr. Zeldin’s curiosity could have made much are comic strips, architecture, public iconography such as Marianne and the ubiquitous monuments aux morts (all his sources are verbal), and the institutions of grass-roots politics: mayors, local councils, and the parallel organizations by which ordinary Frenchmen took politics away from the notables. Zeldin examines Freemasonry more thoroughly as anticlericalism than as politics. Patronage in French life, the tobacco shop concessions and other political favors, would also have been a natural subject for Mr. Zeldin’s talents. But perhaps it is churlish to ask for more after two thousand dense pages.

More serious are the kinds of issues to which Mr. Zeldin’s individualist focus blinds him. It is hard to deal effectively with movements and groups from a perspective bent on magnifying the diversity concealed beneath labels of all sorts (as if a group must exhaust its members’ lives or exact full conformity in order to have historical significance). Annie Kriegel’s anthropological exploration of the different kinds of commitment to the French Communist Party,1 for example, carries us much further than Mr. Zeldin’s sample sketches of French communists, confiningly placed within a chapter on intellectuals in politics. Some of the most interesting work done recently in France has to do with sociability: the intimate groups formed for social purposes, for example, which served simultaneously to solidify movements and transmit ideas. One thinks of Maurice Agulhon’s work on the young men’s social clubs of Provençal towns which helped republicanize the south before 1848,2 and on the role of cafés. Mr. Zeldin tells us how many cafés there were, and even how much was consumed in them, but not what kinds of social relations they encouraged.

That is why these volumes are weakest on economic matters. Though Mr. Zeldin tells us a lot about farming, railroads and automobiles, commerce, and consumption patterns, it tends to be scattered about. His six themes inhibit us from seeing connections between how people earned their livings (ambition?) and how they understood economic forces (intellect?), how they sought economic security (anxiety?), and how they dealt with each other at the workplace (politics?). More damagingly, his perspective provides little help in understanding how individual economic interests might organize themselves into groups and whether such groups increased in power and enlarged in size during this period, though these matters receive passing mention. Under which of Mr. Zeldin’s rubrics might power over conditions of employment be exhaustively rather than fragmentarily analyzed? Discussions of taste give us many pages on the kinds of furniture people bought, but, as for its production, there is far more on how antiques were faked than on what it was like to try to earn a living in furniture making, either as an artisan, unskilled laborer, or factory owner.

Stephen Schuker’s The End of French Predominance in Europe, which was probably unavailable while Mr. Zeldin was writing, furnishes a good example of the kind of issue about which he tells us too little. Mr. Schuker was able to consult the papers of American bankers as well as of French treasury officials for a period (1924-1928) when international bankers probably exerted more influence than before or since. Made dependent upon foreign loans by timid and ignorant tax and budget policies, the French government had to accede to the bankers’ preconditions of a “businesslike climate,” or deflationary fiscal measures. To the Morgan partners, Dwight Morrow, Thomas Lamont, and Russell Leffingwell, men of personal probity and sincerely devoted to France, laying down these conditions was a matter of unexamined orthodoxy. Their actual effects on French social life were simply the bad taste of a salutary medicine. While Mr. Zeldin dismisses the slogan calling the bankers a “mur d’argent” as a rhetorical flourish by publicists for the French left, Mr. Schuker shows clearly and concretely some of the ways in which some financiers and industrialists possessed inordinate economic power over others.

The nearest thing to a pattern which Zeldin allows during this period is a kind of tug-of-war between growing pressures for uniformity and growing possibilities for individual choice and diversity. He doubts that schools, military service, the press, or any other force actually made the French much more uniform during 1848-1945 (he does not discuss the subsequent effects of television, which had made its inconspicuous debut). He argues that literacy, professional specialization, social and geographic mobility, the differentiation of work and leisure, all presented wider ranges of choice to French people. The result is what Mr. Zeldin calls a “cellular society,” a congeries of groups not so much stratified by wealth or culture as isolated by mutual incomprehension: men and women, young and old, religious and secular, intellectuals and the rest. The “cells” of this society were not founded upon common interests but upon temperaments, further separated by the “fog of principles,” “coloured spectacles,” the baggage of ideas about class, left and right, clericalism and the like, which made them misunderstand themselves and their history. Mr. Zeldin is pessimistic here, too, for he feels that with greater choice has come greater anxiety and tension.

These conclusions would be more persuasive if France had been compared by the same standards with other “advanced” nations. Did the French become more riven by divisions, more beset by tensions and anxieties during this period than the British, the Germans, or the Americans? It is hard to tell whether Mr. Zeldin considers these characteristics part of “Frenchness” or something common to contemporary life. He has not been able to test the assumptions of national uniqueness—assumptions common to the traditional genre of one-country histories—except with respect to a few easily measured patterns such as the consumption of alcohol and the purchase of books.

If a firm sense of period is missing here, too, it is intentional. Chronology, Mr. Zeldin writes, is “the most primitive causal pattern imposed on events: I have sought to avoid its tyranny too, and to show time moving at different speeds in different compartments of life.” Fair enough, and the book is full of interesting transitions such as the replacement of the peasant cauldron by more varied grilling and broiling techniques, which began in 1850-1870 in some provinces and ended in Normandy only after World War II. But neat turning points are avoided so scrupulously that we finish without any clear impression of the rationale behind the choice of the years 1848-1945. It may have been an editor’s convenience for all we know, for Mr. Zeldin ranges with admirable freedom to the eighteenth century and the Fifth Republic. In the final pages, in a stimulating comparison between intellectuals in the 1840s and 1930s, he leaves the impression that the most important things, the “quality of human behavior” and the illusions with which people understood themselves and their history, did not change during this period.

Notwithstanding a common reaction against diplomatic and political narrative, what Mr. Zeldin has done is not part of the recent vogue of history “from below.” It is rather history “from within.” Nor does that make it resemble recent French work on mentalités, which retains a strong interest in group and institutional affiliation. Inevitably, and despite two very good chapters on peasants and workers in Volume I, the individual tastes and anxieties which increasingly dominate Volume II belong to the articulate and to those who could afford to consult doctors and analysts. More modest people’s anxieties might be inferred from mass movements or even, to some extent, from strikes, as Michelle Perrot has recently shown, if Mr. Zeldin did not doubt that their leaders’ demands reflected the “wide variety of attitudes among the rank and file.”

Let no one take Mr. Zeldin’s accomplishments lightly. Few people in France or outside could match the range of his learning or sustain his independence of ready-made formulas on so many subjects. Looking at individual participants produces some very fresh views of politics, education, and religion, to mention some of the most successful sections. His suggestion that religion helped to reinforce the male and female preserves of French life and exacerbated tensions between the sexes is one of the most striking of a host of inventive perceptions. This is a work of remarkable range, fertile with suggestions, but hobbled by a view that recalls Carl Becker’s epitome of the contemporary empiricist: “Whirl is king, having deposed Zeus…. Whirl being king, we must begin with the whirl, the mess of things as presented by experience.”3 Mr. Zeldin begins with the whirl, and ends with it as well.

  1. 1

    Annie Kriegel, Les communistes: essai d’ethnographie politique (Seuil, 1968).

  2. 2

    Maurice Agulhon, La République au village (Plon, 1970).

  3. 3

    Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (Yale University Press, 1932), pages 15, 16.

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