Sunday, December 30, 2007

Cultural Realities

A certain amount of ink has been spilled in the tiresome and predictable debate sparked by Time magazine's screed on "the death of French culture." Writing well before the fact (in Le Débat of Nov.-Dec. 2006, pp. 153-157), Maryvonne de Saint-Pulgent, a maître des requêtes at the Conseil d'État, notes rather a remarkable stability in the relation of a large part of the French population to certain types of cultural production. For instance, 55 pct. of French adults have never been to the theater, and only 16 pct. go as often as once a year; 71 pct. never attend a concert (including rock and jazz concerts), and only 1 in 10 go as often as once a year; 76 pct. have never seen a ballet, and only 3 pct. attend the opera regularly. 38 pct. of adults never read a book (not even an "illustrated novel"), while 36 pct. never read the newspaper. These figures have remained more or less constant over the past quarter century.


Anonymous said...

Does it make sense at all to ask the question,'Has there been a marked decline of French culture,' or of any national culture? The question might simply be dismissed because no such generalization is possible. Yet there may be some merit in a debate, as John Brenkman says. But the issue of the 'differences between French and American cultural policy' is not very relevant, if only because America has no "cultural policy."

Brenkman cites Levinas, Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva and Badiou as French philosophers. But these are niche intellectuals whose work, however interesting, affects small parts of academia.

Brenkman thinks that the most penetrating analysis of the Time magazine article is BHL's in The Guardian, asserting that Time's criticism of French culture is really a displacement of an American cultural anxiety, with France as "a metaphor for America itself."

Now BHL is admirable in many ways but his interpretation here is absurd. BHL misunderstood or misappredended much of American life in his American Vertigo, and the reviews (Garry Wills in the NYRB was superb) were devastating even if the book was a best-seller for a few weeks. It would make more sense to say that American Vertigo really was about BHL himself, a classic, crusading, swashbuckling journalist's personal (he hoped Tocquevillian and Malrauxian) view of another culture, a view which almost no American review that I saw thought was much on target. His odd book on the killing of Danny Pearl is another exercise of the same type.

The Brenkman article in fact tries many angles except the obvious: Is there in fact evidence of a decline in the quality of French cultural and intellectual life and influence?

For example, is there not a domestic concern that France today lacks the "maitre penseurs" of years ago? (Aron, Foucault, Derrida, Furet and others). Is there not a worry about the disappearance of the genuine poets of French popular song and language (I have in mind Barbara, Brassens, Montand, Greco - even Julien Clerc)? A debate about the decline in the French novel's capacity to compel attention and discussion, nationally let alone internationally, has been too much a part of French intellectual and cultural discussion itself to be thought irrelevant.

But let me be clear: in my view, a decline in the quality, and sophistication, of American culture is patent as well. Gore Vidal, for example, has alleged for years, correctly in my judgement, that the American novel-as-novel is moribund. (We used to wait avidly for the new Mailer, or Updike, Bellow or Vidal.)
The overall decline in the quality of American film--today we have for the most part only movies--seems indisputable. (Pity the poor, serious film reviewers who are obliged to critique third-rate special effects films). Jazz--alas, I knew it well-- has become for the most part an exercise in nostalgia.

It goes without saying that there is still some vibrancy in serious American cultural production(of course the same is true in France).

But, altogether, in my view it is far from convincing analysis simply to avoid the question by contextualizing it, even if it is only the banal Time magazine that posed it. I think also of the vigorous Italian debate a month ago in response to a single NYT article about the Italian malaise, decline in energy and ambition.

Last of all, it's worth remembering that discussion of all aspects of American life is daily fare in France and elsewhere. It's useful for Americans to know what others think of us. International attention to the culture of others is vital. No country, especially France and the U.S., likes to be ignored.

Anonymous said...

p.s. to my previous post: The devastating review of American Vertigo I had in mind was Garrison Keillor in the NYT Book Review, not Garry Wills in the NYRB.