Tuesday, May 6, 2008

In the Name of the Father

A critique of Sarkozy from an unexpected quarter: the literary critic of Le Figaro, Sébastien Lapaque, who has written a book eloquently entitled Il faut qu'il parte. Lapaque describes himself as "literarily close to writers who were on the side of the General: Mauriac, Bernanos, Malraux." What he cannot abide is the indiscreet religiosity of le Sarkozysme and the disdain for literary and philosophical culture in favor of "the culture of management," most succinctly expressed by Christine Lagarde in her famous statement of last July 10:

Nous possédons dans nos bibliothèques de quoi discuter pour les siècles à venir. C’est pourquoi j’aimerais vous dire: assez pensé maintenant. Retroussons nos manches!

I will read M. Lapaque's book, but I detect in his self-description a troubling philistinism of a kind that sometimes afflicts the supremely cultivated, among whom I assume M. Lapaque counts himself, not without justice I'm sure.

But since his cultivation has a slightly musty fragrance, I'm sure he won't mind if I cite Matthew Arnold, whose definition of cultivation was to pursue "the best that has been thought and known." It has never been clear to me why people wholly ignorant of one of C. P. Snow's famous "two cultures" should pride themselves on their ignorance, as though it were a derogation from the nobility of letters to partake of the knowledge of numbers, counting presumably being for counting houses and therefore for roturiers.

Of course Snow's cultural bifurcation is somewhat out of date. We now have a third culture, of the social sciences, which also have a claim to be counted among the "best that is thought and known." When I first heard Lagarde's statement, I took it in part as a corrective to a certain snobbish exclusiveness that sometimes attaches to the word pensée. It was also, of course, a call to action, but it wasn't that part of her statement that ruffled the feathers of so many literati.

Yet it would be a good thing, I think, if certain readers of Mauriac, Bernanos, and Malraux, whose merits are undeniable, were to recognize that there is much to be learned about the world and about humanity that cannot be found in their books. A little désenclavement would probably admit some fresh air into each of our three cultures. Indeed, Mauriac's appreciation of the complexities of the human heart led him to embrace forgiveness for collaborators, a refinement of charity that even the General could not follow. Perhaps M. Lapaque, if he accepts my advice, will find it in his heart to forgive even economists. If the "culture of management" does not build cathedrals, it does keep chip foundries, oil refineries, and aircraft factories humming, and to these we owe not only our daily bread but also, I would suggest, a certain aesthetic pleasure in the contemplation of cooperative effort on a scale that neither Plato nor Montesquieu nor even Tocqueville could have imagined. And without the culture of management we would suffer, I think, the chaos of misrule: isn't that the lesson of Lorenzetti's pair of frescoes in Siena's town hall (The Effects of Good and Bad Government, the latter depicted above)?


Anonymous said...

I do agree with a general critique of intellectual snobism, but what (I guess) Lapaque addresses is the fundamental contempt in which Sarkozy holds anything near intellectual. This would be fine if he had read the books he is so eager to make fun of. But Sarkozy demonstrates in every speech his total ignorance of the outside world, and a view of the "real world" that is nothing but a mix of stereotypes and errors. It is not really about cultivation, but about knowledge, "finesse" and, to some extent, intelligence (in the original meaning of the word: a capacity to understand).

Anonymous said...

A statement which glorifies activism and not action. Activism being action without thought.

Anonymous said...

This controversy is typical of a country where, unlike any other, and notably the USA, a national politician is not recognized as such until he has written , or at least published, a few books and demonstrated his interest in litterature.

In France, De Gaulle is remembered for his writing style almost as much as for his political record.
Pompidou wrote an anthology of French poetry and answered questions at a press conference by citing Eluard.
Giscard went on TV to speak of Maupassant.
Mitterand was a well known amateur of ancient books and the flamboyant Jack Lang made sure he was surrounded by a ring of admirers and young actresses..
J.Chirac was supposed to be a specialist in Japanese poetry etc..

So it is no wonder that many of these people who have made their living by milking public money from the cultural cow now feel threatened and denounce "la culture en danger".

Question: where is the literay, theater, music, painting scene most active and brilliant ?
In the USA or in France with its inflated Ministère de la Culture ?