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…

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