Monday, November 2, 2009

Un Rite Identitaire

So the Goncourt and the Renaudot have been awarded. Marie N'Diaye says she was "surprised," but if so, she was the only one. Meanwhile, the Renaudot also went to the favorite--though Lord only knows why--Beigbeder, the unspeakable, whose chief gift seems to be self-promotion.

So we have here another French identity test. The literary prize season is another rite identitaire, but I wonder how many French can name the winners of this year's Goncourt and Renaudot? Of last year's? Of any year's? Or even the names of the prizes themselves? If Beigbeder and Houellebecq represent the fate of literary production by Français de souche, then M. Besson has some work to do.

To be sure, there is Pierre Michon, who won the Prix du Roman de l'Académie last week, but, having read half of Les Onze (named for the members of the Comité de Salut Public), I find myself wondering if the conceit of describing an imaginary painting isn't all too representative of the state of French culture today: one is enclosed in a rather airless museum, the surface of which is rendered in impeccable detail in a highly polished style. But no heart beats within, even though the ostensible subject of the painting is the Revolution, the Terror, the very inception of the Republic, here encased in shimmering aspic.

The French Identity Debate

Today begins the great national debate on French identity. I am reminded of the World War II film in which an American sentry is confronted with the task of distinguishing between GIs and English-speaking Japanese soldiers who are attempting to infiltrate the American position. How can one identify a true American when language fails? Why, a question about baseball, of course! So the challenge is, "What team did Lou Gehrig play for?" Or, "How many home runs did Babe Ruth hit?"

Of course Lou Gehrig was issu de l'immigration (father Heinrich Gehrig), and Babe Ruth's father signed him over to a Catholic orphanage and reform school when he was 7, not exactly your standard picture of a happy American family.

The problem with the whole concept of national identity is that it is oxymoronic. A nation is by definition a whole that subsumes countless differences under a single name, usually on the basis of a contingent quality, birth (natio), from which no essential identity can be deduced. Nationals may share a history, but what history they share is dependent on the highly contingent and constructed category of memory, as Pierre Nora and his collaborators demonstrated in Les lieux de mémoire.

The coming months of "debate" of French identity are likely to produce answers as intellectually absurd as the American sentry's challenge, but perhaps resulting in a similar rough-and-ready pragmatic rule of thumb.

To be French, then, will be found to mean that one is:

1. Francophone (though not necessarily able to distinguish properly between manger, mangé, mangez, and mangeait when writing)
2. If female, unveiled
3. If male, able to identify Zinédine Zidane and Benjamin Biolay Brigitte Bardot (but not, say, Jean Schlumberger or Hector Berlioz)
4. If a child, familiar with the last words of Guy Môquet (but probably unaware of the existence of Henri Giraud)

Vive la France, vive la République!