What happened to French intellectuals? Once we had Camus, “the contemporary heir to that long line of moralists whose work perhaps constitutes whatever is most distinctive in French letters” (Sartre). We had Sartre himself. We had François Mauriac, Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the ” inénarrable Mme De Beauvoir” (Aron). Then came Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and—more controversially—Pierre Bourdieu. All could claim significant standing in their own right as novelists, philosophers, or simply “men of letters.” But they were also, and above all, French intellectuals.
To be sure, there are still men of very considerable standing outside of France: Jürgen Habermas, for example, or Amartya Sen. But when we think of Habermas, the first thing that comes to mind is his work as a sociologist. Amartya Sen is India’s leading intellectual export of the past half-century, but the world knows him as an economist. Otherwise—tumbling a few registers—we have Slavoj i ek, whose rhetorical incontinence suggests an unintentional peripheral parody of the metropolitan original. With i ek—or Antonio Negri, perhaps—we are among intellectuals best known for being…intellectual, in the sense that Paris Hilton is famous for being…famous.
But for the real thing most people still look to France—or, more precisely, to Paris. Alain Finkielkraut, Julia Kristeva, Pascal Bruckner, André Glucksmann, Régis Debray, and Bernard-Henri Lévy—today’s most visible instances—have made their name through serial contributions to controversial or fashionable debates. One and all, they share with each other and their distinctly more illustrious predecessors a capacity to expatiate with confidence across a remarkable spectrum of public and cultural affairs.
Why does this sort of thing get so much more respect in Paris? It would be hard to imagine an American or English director making a film like Éric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), in which Jean-Louis Trintignant agonizes for nearly two hours over whether or not to sleep with Françoise Fabian, in the process invoking everything from Pascal’s bet on the existence of God to the dialectics of Leninist revolution. Here, as in so many French films of that era, indecision rather than action drives forward the plot. An Italian director would have added sex. A German director would have added politics. For the French, ideas sufficed.
The seductive appeal of French intellectuality is undeniable. During the middle third of the twentieth century, every aspiring thinker from Buenos Aires to Bucharest lived in a Paris of the mind. Because French thinkers wore black, smoked Gitanes, talked theory, and spoke French, the rest of us followed suit. I well remember meeting fellow English students in the streets of the Left Bank and switching self-consciously into French. Précieux, to be sure, but de rigueur.
The very word “intellectual,” thus flatteringly deployed, would surely have amused the nationalist writer Maurice Barrès, who first invoked it derisively to describe Émile Zola, Léon Blum, and other defenders of the “Jewish traitor” Dreyfus. Ever since, intellectuals have “intervened” on sensitive public matters, invoking the special authority of their scholarly or artistic standing (today, Barrès himself would be an “intellectual”). It is no accident that nearly all of them attended just one small, prestigious institution: the École Normale Supérieure.
To understand the mystery of French intellectuality, one must begin with the École Normale. Founded in 1794 to train secondary school teachers, it became the forcing house of the republican elite. Between 1850 and 1970, virtually every Frenchman of intellectual distinction (women were not admitted until recently) graduated from it: from Pasteur to Sartre, from Émile Durkheim to Georges Pompidou, from Charles Péguy to Jacques Derrida (who managed to flunk the exam not once but twice before getting in), from Léon Blum to Henri Bergson, Romain Rolland, Marc Bloch, Louis Althusser, Régis Debray, Michel Foucault, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and all eight French winners of the Fields Medal for mathematics.
When I arrived there in 1970, as a pensionnaire étranger, the École Normale still reigned supreme. Unusually for France, it is a residential campus, occupying a quiet block in the midst of the 5th arrondissement. Every student gets his own little bedroom off a quadrangle set around a park-like square. In addition to the dormitories, there are lounges, seminar and lecture rooms, a refectory, a social science library, and the Bibliothèque des Lettres: a magnificent open-shelf library unmatched in its convenience and holdings.
American readers, accustomed to well-stocked research libraries in every land grant university from Connecticut to California, will have trouble grasping what this means: most French universities resemble a badly underfunded community college. But the privileges of normaliens extend far beyond their library and bedrooms. Getting into ENS was (and is) quite extraordinarily taxing. Any high school graduate aspiring to admission must sacrifice two additional years being force-fed (the image of geese comes to mind) an intense dose of classical French culture or modern science. He then sits the entrance exam and his performance is ranked against all other candidates, with the results made public. The top hundred or so are offered places in the École—along with a guaranteed lifetime income on the understanding that they pursue careers in the state employ.
Thus, in a population of 60 million, this elite humanist academy trains just three hundred young people at any one time. It is as though all the graduates of all the high schools in the US were pumped through a filter, with less than a thousand of them securing a place at a single college distilling the status and distinction of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, and Berkeley. Unsurprisingly, normaliens have a high opinion of themselves.
The young men I met at the École seemed to me far less mature than my Cambridge contemporaries. Gaining admission to Cambridge was no easy matter, but it did not preclude the normal life of a busy youth. However, no one got into the École Normale without sacrificing his teenage years to that goal, and it showed. I was unfailingly astonished by the sheer volume of rote learning on which my French contemporaries could call, suggesting an impacted richness that was at times almost indigestible. Pâté de foie gras indeed.
But what these budding French intellectuals gained in culture, they often lacked in imagination. My first breakfast at the École was instructive in this regard. Seated opposite a group of unshaven, pajama-clad freshmen, I buried myself in my coffee bowl. Suddenly an earnest young man resembling the young Trotsky leaned across and asked me (in French): “Where did you do khâgne ?”—the high-intensity post-lycée preparatory classes. I explained that I had not done khâgne: I came from Cambridge. “Ah, so you did khâgne in England.” “No,” I tried again: “We don’t do khâgne—I came here directly from an English university.”
The young man looked at me with withering scorn. It is not possible, he explained, to enter the École Normale without first undergoing preparation in khâgne. Since you are here, you must have done khâgne. And with that conclusive Cartesian flourish he turned away, directing his conversation at worthier targets. This radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of your own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.
Back in 1970 the École boasted quite a few self-styled “Maoists.” One of them, a talented mathematician, took pains to explain to me why the great Bibliothèque des Lettres should be razed to the ground: ” Du passé faisons table rase ” (“let’s make a clean slate of the past”). His logic was impeccable: the past is indeed an impediment to unrestricted innovation. I found myself at a loss to explain just why it would be a mistake all the same. In the end I simply told him that he would see things differently in years to come. “A very English conclusion,” he admonished me.
My Maoist friend and his colleagues never did burn down the library (though a halfhearted attempt was made one night to storm it). Unlike their German and Italian counterparts, the radical fringe of the French student movement never passed from revolutionary theorizing to violent practice. It would be interesting to speculate why this was: the rhetorical violence certainly attained a considerable pitch in the year I was there, with Maoist normaliens periodically “occupying” the dining hall and covering it with slogans: les murs ont la parole. Yet they failed to make common cause with similarly “angry” students down the road in the Sorbonne.
This should not surprise us. To be a normalien in Paris in those days conferred upon you considerable cultural capital, as Pierre Bourdieu (another normalien ) would have put it. Normaliens had more to lose than most European students by turning the world upside down, and they knew it. The image (imported from Central Europe) of the intellectual as rootless cosmopolitan—a class of superfluous men at odds with an unsympathetic society and repressive state—never applied in France. Nowhere were intellectuals more chez eux.
Raymond Aron, who arrived at the École in 1924, wrote in his Mémoires that “I have never met so many intelligent men gathered in such a small space.” I would second that sentiment. Most of the normaliens I knew have gone on to glorious academic or public careers (the outstanding exception being Bernard-Henri Lévy, of whom I suppose it might all the same be said that he too fulfilled his promise). But with certain notable exceptions they remain strikingly homogeneous as a cohort: gifted, brittle, and curiously provincial.
In my day, Paris was the intellectual center of the world. Today it feels marginal to the international conversation. French intellectuals still generate occasional heat, but such light as they emit comes to us from a distant sun—perhaps already extinct. Symptomatically, ambitious young Frenchmen and women today attend the École Nationale d’Administration: a forcing house for budding bureaucrats. Or else they go to business school. Young normaliens are as brilliant as ever, but they play little part in public life (neither Finkielkraut nor Glucksmann, Bruckner nor Kristeva attended the École). This seems a pity. Intellectual sheen was not France’s only trump card but—like the language itself, another waning asset—it was distinctive. Are the French well served by becoming just like us, only a little less so?
Thinking back on my time at Normale Sup’ I am reminded of the engineer (a graduate of the École Polytechnique, Normale’s counterpart in the applied sciences) who was sent by his king in 1830 to observe the trials of George Stephenson’s “Rocket” on the newly opened Manchester–Liverpool railway line. The Frenchman sat by the track taking copious notes as the sturdy little engine faultlessly pulled the world’s first railway train back and forth between the two cities. After conscientiously calculating what he had just observed, he reported his findings back to Paris: “The thing is impossible,” he wrote. “It cannot work.” Now there was a French intellectual.
—This piece is part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.
Cheers for the École Normale April 29, 2010