Paris Was Yesterday

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 …

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Letters

Cheers for the École Normale April 29, 2010