On the Stagnant State of French Society
We have come to France “a l’improviste” on a sad mission. We are on our way to a funeral. A 20-year-old neighbor was undergoing treatment for leukemia, and making progress following a bone-marrow transplant. And then, in his vulnerable state, an infection carried him away.
Here in France, we see things much as we left them…
But that is the problem with France. Nothing much ever changes. At least, not for the better. It is as if it hit its peak under the Third Republic and has been in decline ever since.
“France is almost a zombie country,” we told a friend in the US. “Walking dead.
“Name a single French filmmaker of international status,” we challenged her. “Or a composer? Or a musical group of any sort? Or a writer?
“Try to describe the latest ‘french style’ in furniture…or architecture…or anything else…
“French cuisine was developed long ago. When was the baguette invented? Or the croissant? Or soup a l’oignon? A long time ago. I don’t know either, but it was probably before 1914. And French architecture? Paris was designed and built mostly in the second half of the 19th century. Most of what you see dates from that period. And the last notable developments in architecture were in the ’20s – with art deco. In interior furnishings, there has been even less innovation. People decorate with Louis 15th or Louis 16th furniture…or California modern. Everything nowadays is imitation or derivative.
“And theatre? Entertainment? Paris had popular dance halls…Le Moulin Rouge…and the Follies Bergeres…a century ago. There were the bedroom farces of the ’20s…but what after that? I don’t know… Waiting for Godot – that was by an Irishman. Then, there are those ’60s plays like The Flies and Deadend. But seem almost silly today. There may be good theatre in France, but it must not travel very well. It’s not known outside of the country
“I already mentioned film…but what about philosophy? That’s where the decline is perhaps most remarkable. In philosophy, the French started from a low point and worked their way down.
“At least French philosophy was popular in the ’60s. People elsewhere tried to figure out what it was all about. Today, who cares?
“Now, few people can name anything at which the French are even close to leading the world – except public debt, where they’re roughly tied with the US.”
But what’s this? France’s leading TV philosopher – BHL, Bernard-Henri Levy – is back in the news. What, exactly, is his philosophy? Beats us. We actually met BHL 30 years ago. We tried to decipher what he was talking about then. We never did make sense of it.
In the three decades since, BHL went on to be a star. He’s on TV. He writes book. He’s married to a famous actress. And he still has his hair. We can forgive him many things; but not that. If we can’t have hair, no man should be allowed to have it.
But he’s one of the beautiful people – rich, talented, handsome and smart. More importantly, he’s an activist!
Yes, dear reader, that is the depth to which French philosophy has fallen. Activism! Meddling! World improving! But BHL didn’t get there on his own. Generations of French philosophers had to dig to get down that low.
We blame Descartes for putting in the first spade. “I think, therefore I am,” may have solved an important problem for philosophers, but it led the whole trade in the wrong direction. Suppose he had thought he was an onion? Could you have made soup out of him? No, the whole enterprise of French philosophy was doomed from the get-go.
And it didn’t get better. In modern times, Jean Paul Sartre gave out the word that a person had to meddle in order to exist. It was the difference between “being and nothingness.” You had to be “engaged” in politics, he said. Naturally, he married himself to the marxists…and never recovered.
And now we have BHL on the front lines. According to the news reports, he hitched a ride on a vegetable truck to sneak across the Libyan border. Then, he arranged for a clandestine meeting with the rebels. His mission? Well, we don’t know what his mission was. But if you believe the article in Le Point, he was serving the French government as a kind of minister sans papiers. Sarkozy invited him to meet the rebels. BHL met with them and concluded that they were freedom fighters – in need of the West’s support. Soon, the French air force was dropping bombs on Libya…bringing the Americans into the war with them.
But why Libya? Why not go to war in some other country with a leader BHL doesn’t like. BHL answers:
“It was an accident of history. I happened to be in Egypt when Gaddafi sent his planes to shoot at the pacifist demonstrations in Tripoli. It seemed to me such an enormous, unprecedented thing, and I felt the Egyptian democrats around me were so horrified by it that I decided on instinct to go to Libya straight away.”