Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Taking Stock

Sarkozy was elected a year ago, and this blog began two weeks later. In that time I've posted 1,262 times (give or take a dozen or so guest posts). The hyperpresident elicited a hypercommentary. Readership has grown steadily from about 30 a day at the beginning to about 700 now, with a few days over 1,000. It's been interesting to be forced to attend even more closely than usual to the daily press, to the scholarly literature on contemporary France, and to my own evolving judgments, which, somewhat to my surprise, have been rather volatile, sometimes running counter to the prevailing wind, sometimes being driven before it.

Like Sarkozy, I feel a need to pull back a little from the daily press cycle. A regime that was constantly surprising at first has now settled down to a predictable pattern. Its direction, though not altogether fixed, has at least settled on a quadrant of the compass. I find myself with less to say daily and a greater need to gain some distance on events before judging them. So my intention at the moment is to write somewhat less, though of course the unforeseen may yet get the better of me. Perhaps there will be more weight in what I write, but then again perhaps the value of a blog lies more in its weightlessness and evanescence, its ability to hew closer to l'événementiel than academic writing ordinarily allows. In any case, I need a rest.

I hope you'll let me know what you'd like to see more of and what less. It's the knowledge that there are readers out there that makes the exercise worthwhile. Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll keep coming back even if the pace slows.

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)?