The French Protect Their Language Like the British Protect Their Currency

This first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 23 May 2013. It was reprised in The Guardian Weekly (31 May-6 June 2013, p. 48):

The French Protect Their Language Like the British Protect Their Currency

A row over using English in universities has blown up in France, where language is at the heart of the national identity

'The nod to Asterix (left, pictured with Obelix) – the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion – is highly significant.' Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/United Artist

‘The nod to Asterix (left, pictured with Obelix) – the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion – is highly significant.’ Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/United Artist

The front page of Libération, one of France’s leading dailies, was printed entirely in English on Tuesday. “Let’s do it,” ran the banner headline. Sounding like a Nike slogan penned by Cole Porter, it in fact referred to a new bill, which, if passed, would allow some university courses to be taught in English.

Inside the paper (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix — the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion — is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed — a kind of Gallic take on the Blitz spirit.

The reason Uderzo and Goscinny’s books resonated at the time of their publication is that they replayed the myth of French resistance in the context of the cold war. This time around the invaders were no longer German or Roman, but American. Asterix’s first outing (in a long-defunct magazine called Pilote) occurred in 1959, the year Charles de Gaulle became president, and grammarian Max Rat coined the word “franglais“. My contention is that this is not purely coincidental.

France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else. This may be due to the fact that French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will. Language, for instance, is at the heart of the Organisation Mondiale de la Francophonie, France’s answer to the Commonwealth. The flipside of a state-sponsored language has been a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline. The official custodian of the French tongue — the Académie française — was partly created, back in 1635, to counter pernicious Italian influences.

French nationalism was largely discredited after the second world war, because of the Vichy regime and collaboration. As a result, it often took refuge in cultural — particularly linguistic — concerns. De Gaulle’s inflammatory 1967 speech in Quebec, when he took the linguistic battle into the very heart of enemy territory, speaks volumes. “Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!” declaimed de Gaulle (en français dans le texte, of course). Quebec was repositioned as a besieged Gaulish village, and French as a symbol of resistance — perhaps even as a surrogate magic potion. For de Gaulle, liberating Quebec meant reversing France’s defeat at the hands of the English in 1763.

My feeling is that France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the US fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Fears over the decline of French vis-à-vis English are exacerbated by the knowledge that the enemy is also within. Although the linguistic watchdogs regularly come up with alternatives to anglicisms — “mercatique” for “marketing”; “papillon” for “Post-it note” — American expressions are often adopted with far more enthusiasm in France than across the Channel. David Brooks’s portmanteau word bobo (bourgeois bohemian) is more ubiquitous here than in Britain. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the French penchant for unwittingly redefining (“hype” for “hip”) or making up new English expressions (brushing, footing, fooding etc.).

The unregulated flexibility of English probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, French is “a language that tends to break when you bend it”. It is significant that many young French speakers today should suddenly switch to English when writing a mél or courriel (if you’ll pardon my French) to a friend.

So what is all the fuss about right now? The higher education minister, Geneviève Fioraso, wants to amend the 1994 Toubon law so that French universities are allowed to teach a limited number of courses in English (which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools). The main aim of this is to attract foreign students, particularly from rapidly expanding economies such as China, India, or Brazil.

Unfortunately, Fioraso committed an unforgivable faux pas — on a par with Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the Princess of Cleves — when the idea was first mooted in March. She warned that if teaching in English were not introduced, French research would eventually mean “five Proust specialists sitting around a table”. This led to accusations of philistinism on the part of those who believe that sitting around a table discussing the works of Proust is precisely what being French is all about.

Not surprisingly, reactions have been far more favourable in the scientific community than in literary circles. The Académie française is up in arms over what it sees as “linguistic treason”. Prominent academic and author Antoine Compagnon fears that the measure may lead to dumbing down, since most of these lectures would be spoken in “Globish” rather than the true language of Shakespeare. Bernard Pivot, who used to host a top literary TV programme (and belongs to the Académie), argues that French will become a dead language if it relies on English borrowings to describe the modern world. Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist, concurs, saying that France’s very identity is at stake.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.

***

Here is a longer, unedited version of the same piece:

On Tuesday, the front page of Libération, one of France’s leading dailies, was printed entirely in English. “Let’s do it,” ran the banner headline. Despite sounding like a Nike slogan penned by Cole Porter, it referred to a new bill, which, if passed, would allow some university courses to be taught in English. Inside (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix — the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion — is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed — a kind of Gallic take on the Dunkirk/Blitz spirit. Part of the resonance of Uderzo and Goscinny’s books is that they replayed the myth of the French resistance in the context of the Cold War. Now, of course, the invaders were no longer German or Roman, but American imperialists who spoke the tongue of perfidious Albion (or at least a variant thereof). Asterix’s first outing (in a long-defunct magazine called Pilote) occurred in 1959, the year de Gaulle became president, and grammarian Max Rat coined the word “franglais”. My contention is that this is not purely coincidental.

France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else. This may be due to the fact that French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will. Language, for instance, is at the heart of the Organisation Mondiale de la Francophonie, France’s answer to the Commonwealth. The flipside of a state-sponsored language has been a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline. The official custodian of the French tongue — the Académie française — was partly created, back in 1635, in order to counter pernicious Italian influences. The title of Joachim du Bellay’s Defence and Illustration of the French Language (1549) — one of the first concerted efforts to raise French to the level of Latin and Greek — is eloquent: defence takes precedence over illustration.

French nationalism was largely discredited after the Second World War, due to the Vichy regime and collaboration. As a result, it often took refuge in cultural — particularly linguistic — concerns. The defence of the French language would be instrumental in de Gaulle’s attempt to counter Anglo-Saxon domination by embodying a third way between the United States and Soviet Union. The President’s inflammatory 1967 speech in Quebec, when he took the linguistic battle into the very heart of enemy territory, speaks volumes. “Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!” declaimed de Gaulle (en français dans le texte, of course). Quebec was repositioned as a besieged Gaulish village, and French as a symbol of resistance — perhaps even as a surrogate magic potion. The Canadian PM countered that “Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France and other European countries”. The two leaders were talking at cross purposes. For de Gaulle, liberating Quebec meant reversing France’s defeat at the hands of the English in 1763.

My feeling is that France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the United States fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Fears over the decline of French vis-à-vis English are exacerbated by the knowledge that the enemy is also within. Although the linguistic watchdogs regularly come up with alternatives to anglicisms – “mercatique” for “marketing”; “papillon” for “Post-it note” — American expressions are often adopted with far more enthusiasm in France than across the Channel. David Brooks’s portmanteau word “bobo” (bourgeois bohemian) is ubiquitous over here, but has failed so far to take off in Britain. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the French penchant for unwittingly redefining (“hype” for “hip”) or making up new English expressions (brushing, footing, fooding etc.). None of this is new, of course. Dropping English phrases in conversation was already the last word in chic for the crème de la crème in the days of Proust, and René Etiemble’s famous Parlez-vous franglais ? was published as far back as 1964. The unregulated flexibility of English probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, French is “a language that tends to break when you bend it”. It is significant that many young French speakers today should suddenly switch to English when writing a “mél” or “courriel” (if you’ll pardon my French) to a friend.

So what is all the fuss about right now? Higher Education Minister Geneviève Fioraso wants to amend the 1994 Toubon law (or “loi all good” as it is sometimes called) so that French universities are allowed to teach a limited number of courses in English (which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools). The main aim of this reform is to attract foreign students, particularly from rapidly-expanding economies such as China, India, or Brazil. Unfortunately, Ms Fioraso committed an unforgivable faux pas — on a par with Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the Princess of Cleves — when the idea was first mooted in March. She warned that if teaching in English were not introduced, French research would eventually mean “five Proust specialists sitting around a table”. This led to accusations of philistinism on the part of those who believe that sitting around a table discussing the works of Proust is precisely what being French is all about.

Not surprisingly, reactions have been far more favourable in the scientific community than in literary circles. The Académie française is up in arms over what it sees as “linguistic treason”. Prominent academic and author Antoine Compagnon fears that the measure may lead to dumbing down, since most of these lectures would be spoken in “Globish” rather than the true language of Shakespeare. Bernard Pivot, who used to host a top literary TV programme (and belongs to the Académie), argues that French will become a dead language if it relies on English borrowings to describe the modern world. Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist, concurs, saying that France’s very identity is at stake.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.

[* In The Guardian Weekly, this article appeared under the following heading: “The French Are Right to Protect their Language: It Runs to the Heart of their Identity and Offers a Different Worldview to English”.]

The Man Who Stopped Writing

This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 11 July 2011:

marc-edouardnabe

L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, Marc-Edouard Nabe, 2010

Marc-Edouard Nabe has always relished playing with fire, but never more so than when he burned what would have been the fifth volume of his journal. His main motivation was to avoid being trapped in a Shandyesque race with time, ending up pigeonholed as a diarist. Nevertheless, he went on to describe this event in Alain Zannini (2002), a novel so blatantly autobiographical that it even bore his real name as its title (Nabe, short for “nabot” — midget — is a nom de plume). The implication was clear: having lived his life in order to narrate it, Zannini had gradually become Nabe’s creation. What, then, would happen if the writer were to stop writing?

This ontological question is raised in L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire (“The Man Who Stopped Writing”), which begins with the author-narrator’s paradoxical assertion — given the length of the book, let alone its very existence — that he has forsaken literature after being dropped by his publisher. “A publisher paying me to write books nobody reads,” he deadpans, “I thought this would go on for ever.”

For the best part of two decades, the real-life Nabe had received a monthly wage from Les Editions du Rocher, but this stipend was suddenly withdrawn when they were bought out in 2005. The novelist responded by taking legal action. Throughout the lengthy lawsuit, he expressed himself by means of posters, which his hardcore supporters pasted all over the walls of France’s major cities. He also maintained the fiction that his authorial days were over, so as to remain in character while secretly writing his novel about writing no more.

The appearance of L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire thus came as quite a surprise, not least because Nabe chose to go down the self-publishing, or rather “anti-publishing”, route. The minimalist jet-black cover has a whiff of piracy about it: no barcode, no ISBN, no publisher’s name or logo; the spine remains bare. On the front, the author’s name is reduced to “Nabe” as if it had become a brand, and on the back you only find a number, indicating that it is the author’s twenty-eighth published work (and seventh novel). The book is only available through an official website and a handful of highly unlikely retailers (a butcher’s, a florist’s, a hairdresser’s and three restaurants at the last count). By cutting out the middleman, Nabe claims to be able to make a 70% profit, instead of the usual 10%, on each copy sold. The initial print run — funded by the sale of paintings (Nabe is also an artist and jazz guitarist) — sold out within a month; there have been three more since. Last year, the novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Renaudot prize — a first for a self-published volume in France — and last month, the online platform morphed into a full-blown company.

This declaration of war on the publishing industry is in keeping with Nabe’s image as an écrivain maudit. “Great artists,” says the protagonist, as Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil manuscript is auctioned off at Sotheby’s, “have but one purpose: to become moral alibis for the bastards of posterity”. Initially accused of being a crypto-fascist (partly because of his predilection for Céline and Lucien Rebatet), Nabe is now frequently depicted as a pro-Palestinian leftist (whose anti-Americanism, it must be said, borders on the pathological). His first television appearance, in 1985, proved so incendiary that he was beaten up by a leading anti-racist campaigner. Every day, he declared — looking every inch the provocative young fogey, complete with centre parting, bow tie and retro spectacles — I shoot up with a Montblanc pen full of “utter hatred of humanity”. A great admirer of Jacques Mesrine, Nabe famously befriended the flamboyant bankrobber Albert Spaggiari as well as the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Following 9/11, he produced a pamphlet entitled Une Lueur d’espoir (“A Glimmer of Hope”) and argued repeatedly that bin Laden was only acting in self-defence. In 2003, he even travelled to Baghdad, where he protested against the invasion of Iraq in typically Gallic fashion: by writing a novel. These antics may have earned him a large cult following, but Mazarine Pingeot summed up the views of many when she declared that Nabe was “unfortunately” a great writer.

Despite running to almost 700 pages, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire has no chapters or even paragraphs, as though it were shot in real time, like 24, the American TV series the narrator watches. If the dialogue is a little didactic — even Socratic — at times, there are far fewer purple passages than usual. This is the affectless, almost pedestrian, prose of someone who will not even allow himself to sign an autograph or compose a letter any more. The novel is meant to read as if it were unwritten. This tonal blankness (often reminiscent of Houellebecq’s) is marred on occasion by poor punning, but it can also be shot through with flashes of sheer poetry: a vintage sewing machine is likened to a “giant bee in mourning”; a brunette’s hair looks like it has been “soaked in liquid night”.

Structurally, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire is a 21st-century reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy, taking us all the way from Inferno to Paradiso via Purgatorio. The picaresque plot begins when the protagonist abandons his calling, and spans seven days during which events that really took place over several years are skilfully conflated. At a loose end, the “post-writer” wanders around town and meets Jean-Phi, a young celebrity blogger who acts as his Virgil, guiding him through his post-literary vita nuova. Nabe’s mouthpiece dreams of a “literary lobotomy” that would rid him of all the bookish references preventing him from living fully in the here and now. Try as he may, Jean-Phi is unable to wean him off his old ways, and each new stroll through the streets of Paris gives rise to a digression about Raymond Roussel‘s birthplace or Proust‘s childhood haunts. However, as the days go by, and his life becomes increasingly bound up with Jean-Phi’s youthful entourage, the narrator rediscovers the pleasure of living gratuitously, without having to worry about transmuting his experiences into words. In the final pages, Mallarmé‘s famous dictum that “The world was made in order to result in a beautiful book” appears on a poster but, crucially, it has been misquoted, so that it is now the book which results in a beautiful world.

The protagonist inhabits this inverted world. Early on, he wonders if his new condition does not necessarily imply that he has himself become a character, as if a writer and his creation were but two sides of the same coin. The names of all the famous living people who appear in the novel have been slightly doctored (Depardieu, for instance, becomes Depardieux). This is no doubt to avoid lawsuits, but it also seems to indicate that they too have stepped through the looking-glass, on the other side of which they are exposed as grotesque parodies of themselves. As one of Jean-Phi’s friends remarks, a mere typo can suddenly plunge you into another universe.

One of the key scenes is a chance meeting with Alain Delons (Delon), on the seventh day. The narrator explains that he is his favourite actor because in all his major films Delon/s goes on a quest for a doppelgänger he could replace or who could replace him. The same, of course, can be said about the novelist’s entire oeuvre, which is haunted by the figure of the double. Narrator and author are as indistinguishable as ever, here, although the former is clearly an anti-Nabe, inhabiting a parallel universe where he has been defeated by his detractors. L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, proof of the real-life author’s triumph, is an affirmation of the truth of fiction, as well as of the virtues of unmediated life: after all, he wrote his novel by pretending not to. Give Nabe a mask, and he will tell you the truth. Just don’t ask him — or me, for that matter — who the doppelgänger is.

Zannini/Nabe once quipped that Alain Zannini — in which Zannini meets Nabe — was told in the “double person singular”. Sometimes, however, I really is another, rather than just the other half of a divided self. Although no oil painting, Michel Houellebecq is Dorian Gray to Nabe’s picture — the acceptable face of controversy. Or at least this is Nabe’s spin on events. In the early 90s, both men lived at the same address (103 Rue de la Convention in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris) facing each other, like bookends, across a cobbled courtyard. Both belong to the same generation, come from similar lower middle-class backgrounds, had domineering Corsican mothers they rebelled against, established their reputations by courting controversy and chronicled the demise of French joie de vivre. Nabe was, in fact, the senior partner in this relationship, up until the success of Atomised in 1998.

In The Map and the Territory, which finally earned him the Goncourt prize last year, Houellebecq depicted his own murder. Nabe immediately outed himself as the culprit in the course of an interview. What he really meant is that Houellebecq had committed literary suicide, by selling out and writing a Goncourt novel. Losing the Renaudot prize, on the other hand, reaffirmed Nabe’s outsider status. Like his master, Céline, he remains untainted by recognition, alone against the world; beyond the pale. With an eye on posterity, Marc-Edouard Nabe is biding his time.

Barthes’s Fantasy-of-the-Novel

Mairéad Hanrahan, “The Amazing About-Face of Roland Barthes,” Times Literary Supplement 19 January 2011

Kate Briggs’s wonderful translation finally makes available in English a most unusual book by one of the most significant literary figures of the twentieth century. The Preparation of the Novel comprises the notes of the third and last lecture course Roland Barthes delivered at the Collège de France, cut short in 1980 by his untimely death. …

The uncertainty begins with the title. Is The Preparation of the Novel merely a course/class/series of lecture notes about the preparation of the novel, or is it also part of that preparation? From the outset, both interpretations are carefully invited: although Barthes denies, contrary to rumours circulating at the time, that he is writing a novel (and states that, if he were, he would not propose a course on its preparation), at the same time he acknowledges the deeply personal nature of the course’s origin and stresses that the “fantasy” it mobilizes is his own “Fantasy-of-the-Novel”. The ambiguity this creates about the book’s genre never disappears, reinforced by the contradictory positions adopted at different moments. For example, at the beginning of Part II (the 1979–80 classes), Barthes invites us to think of the Course as a “film or book”, whereas elsewhere he distinguishes it explicitly from “real writing, that of the book”. One of the text’s most enjoyable features is that the reader can never determine whether or not Barthes himself is practising what he teaches. This uncertainty is echoed in the strong parallels suggested between Barthes’s own situation and that of the writers he considers. This is particularly the case with his discussion of the decisive moment when Proust’s masterpiece, À la Recherche du temps perdu, suddenly “took” or fell into place. Proust’s passing from essay to novel in 1909, a few years after the death of his mother, corresponds closely to the turning point in Barthes’s own life evoked at the opening of The Preparation of the Novel: he recalls an afternoon not long after his own mother’s death when he found himself gripped by the necessity of a dramatic change, a vita nova. But for “someone who writes”, this new life could only involve a new writing practice. The choice of “The Preparation of the Novel” as the topic of Barthes’s course thus reflects a shift analogous to the one which resulted in Proust’s novel.

In a significant editorial departure from the French original, this translation appends a transcription of an eight-page sketch of a novel found in Barthes’s papers after his death. The translator’s nuanced discussion in her preface of the decision to include the pages wards against the danger that the relation would be read only in teleological terms, and justifies the decision simply but persuasively on the grounds that the project, although available in French, had not hitherto been available in English. …

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 January 2011:

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’


Special case: Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Every year, the French government publishes a list of cultural events and personalities to be commemorated over the next 12 months. Compiling it is a lengthy and carefully-considered process. A High Committee of National Celebrations draws up a provisional list, which is then submitted to the Culture Ministry and, once approved, published in book form. Some 10,000 copies of the Recueil des Célébrations nationales 2011 were printed last autumn ahead of last week’s launch. Frédéric Mitterrand — the culture minister lui-même — had even penned a foreword, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the project had received his imprimatur. However, when word got out that Louis-Ferdinand Céline was to feature alongside the likes of Blaise Cendrars, Théophile Gautier, Franz Liszt and Georges Pompidou, all hell broke loose.

Serge Klarsfeld, the country’s most famous Nazi hunter and Holocaust memorialist, expressed his indignation in the name of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France. The Republic, he argued, shouldn’t celebrate “the most antisemitic” Frenchman of his day — a time, lest we forget, when antisemitism was so rife that it led to state-sanctioned Jewish persecution under the Vichy regime. Mitterrand’s decision, two days later, to remove the novelist from the list was logical in light of this backlash, but also somewhat surprising since he must have known that his inclusion would prove controversial in the first place (was he protecting Sarkozy, whose favourite author happens to be Céline?)

Far more surprising, however, was the reaction of the French intelligentsia, who were almost unanimous in their defence of the author of Journey to the End of the Night. Literary heavyweight Philippe Sollers accused the Culture Ministry of “censorship”. Frédéric Vitoux, a member of the prestigious Académie française who wrote a biography of Céline, likened this decision to the airbrushing of history under Stalin. Pop philosopher Alain Finkielkraut feared that some people would draw the conclusion that a “Jewish lobby” was dictating policy to the French government. Bernard-Henri Lévy, another celebrity philosopher, claimed that the commemoration of Céline’s death should have been an opportunity to try to understand how a “truly great author” can also be an “absolute bastard”. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the fact that Serge Klarsfeld himself felt the need to declare that he rated Céline as a “great writer” before going on to describe him as a “despicable human being”.

France is a place where authors and artists are granted a special status — a kind of poetic licence or artistic immunity. In fact, the country continues to view itself, and sometimes to be regarded as, the natural second home of all artists. It is this very liberal attitude which attracted many members of the Lost and Beat generations after the second world war, and that still attracts outsider writers such as Dennis Cooper. Some of the greatest works of contemporary fiction in English — Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov’s Lolita or Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — were available in France when they were banned or considered unpublishable in Britain or the US. A telling culture shock occurred on live television, in 1990, when a journalist from Quebec told Gabriel Matzneff that only in Paris would he be feted for writing — however exquisitely — about his liaisons with underage partners (of both genders). Anywhere else, she stated, he would probably end up in prison. The journalist was subsequently depicted as a philistine, unable to appreciate the subtlety of Matzneff’s feelings or the beauty of his style. Baudelaire once wrote that “literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality” and, for better or worse, this has clearly become France’s official artistic credo.

Trying to account for this “exception française” is no mean task, but I suspect it has something to do with the elevation of art to the status of surrogate religion during the second half of the 19th century. A similar phenomenon was taking place all over Europe, of course, but it probably had more resonance against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle between Republicanism and Catholicism. Both Flaubert and Baudelaire were prosecuted for public obscenity, but when French MPs called for the banning of Jean Genet‘s The Screens in 1966 (for political reasons, this time), the culture minister (and novelist) André Malraux immediately stepped in to defend the inviolability of artistic freedom. By then, artistic creation was largely considered as a value in itself, beyond morals and politics; even beyond good and evil.

The dominant French view on literature was probably best expressed by Oscar Wilde, who ended his life in exile in Paris: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Not quite, though, in this case. No one is denying Céline’s talent as one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century — probably the greatest, with Proust. Is it possible, however, to distinguish the author of antisemitic tracts from the genius novelist; the man from the artist?

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

This appeared in Guardian Books on 8 February 2010:

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world


Mediated desire … Amanda Drew as Emma and Simon Thorp as Rodolphe in Oxford Playhouse’s 2003 production of Madame Bovary. Photograph: PR

Many thanks for your insightful comments on “The Death of the Author” and interesting suggestions concerning future discussion topics — please keep them coming. All this feedback confirms the utility of a debate on the purpose of literary theory at a time when critics have all too often retreated into academia or become appendages of publishers’ marketing departments. Talented critics can do so much more than just test-drive the latest products for consumers. They can shape the zeitgeist, renew our perception of great literary works and even help authors make sense of their own worlds — a hat-trick René Girard pulled off with Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

Discovering Deceit, Desire and the Novel is like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before. Girard’s premise is the Romantic myth of “divine autonomy”, according to which our desires are freely chosen expressions of our individuality. Don Quixote, for instance, aspires to a chivalric lifestyle. Nothing seems more straightforward but, besides the subject (Don Quixote) and object (chivalry), Girard highlights the vital presence of a model he calls the mediator (Amadis of Gaul in this instance). Don Quixote wants to lead the life of a knight errant because he has read the romances of Amadis of Gaul: far from being spontaneous, his desire stems from, and is mediated through, a third party. Metaphysical desire — as opposed to simple needs or appetites — is triangular, not linear. You can always trust a Frenchman to view the world as a ménage à trois.

Mediation is said to be external when the distance between subject and mediator is so great that never the twain shall meet. This is the case of Don Quixote and Amadis, or Emma Bovary and the fashionable Parisian circles she dreams of. Here, the derivative nature of desire is clearly acknowledged. The hero of external mediation “worships his model openly and declares himself his disciple”. When mediation is internal, however, the distance between subject and mediator is small enough to give rise to rivalry between the two. The mediator, who aroused desire for the object in the first place, comes to be seen as an obstacle to the fulfilment of this very desire: “the model shows his disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture”. Although now ostensibly a figure of hatred, the mediator continues to be idolised subterraneously or even subconsciously. In Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time, for instance, the Guermantes remain Mme Verdurin’s sworn enemies until the day when she marries into this family she had in fact secretly admired and envied all along.

Girard’s contention is that the need for transcendence has survived the decline of Christianity, resulting in the ersatz “inverted transcendence” of mimetic desire. The spread of this highly-contagious “ontological disease” gathers momentum in the works of Stendhal before reaching pandemic proportions in Proust and Dostoyevsky. Whereas Don Quixote is an “upside-down hero in a right-side-up world,” Julien Sorel (The Red and the Black) is a “right-side-up hero” in a topsy-turvy world. By the time we reach Dostoyevsky (Notes From the Underground, The Possessed), everything has gone awry. All these novels illustrate how internal mediation “triumphs in a universe where the differences between men are gradually erased”. The more egalitarian a society, the closer the mediator and the greater the rivalry.

In Stendhal’s worldview, there once was a golden age when the nobility’s social status was correlated with its nobility of spirit. Passion and spontaneity, which used to be the hallmarks of the true nobleman, have all but disappeared from The Red and the Black, giving way to abject vanity. After the French Revolution, it is no longer possible for the nobility to simply be: it must now justify its privileges in the eyes of “the Other”. In so doing, it becomes ignoble. The aristocrat mimics the bourgeois who mimics the aristocrat. At the level of individuals, this double mediation is a delicate balancing act in which the loser is the one who can no longer conceal his desire for the other, from the other. This revelation acts as an instant passion killer, since it shatters the illusion of “divine autonomy” that had proved so compelling. Open rejection, in turn, makes the heart of the spurned lover grow ever fonder.

Masochism — which features so prominently in both Proust and Dostoyevsky — is a by-product of the increasing proximity of the mediator; a means of enhancing his supposed divinity. The greater the obstacle he represents, the greater his divinity. Girard explains that we become masochists as soon as “we no longer choose our mediator because of the admiration which he inspires in us but because of the disgust we seem to inspire in him”. As the “ontological sickness” progresses, the desired object is increasingly forgotten — it virtually disappears in Dostoyevsky — to be replaced by the mediator. The masochist desires the obstacle which signals the divine presence of the mediator. In the same way, the Proustian snob puts up purely abstract barriers between himself and an object that is so ineffable it barely exists at all. This disappearance of the object is of no real consequence since it “loses its value in the very act of being possessed” anyway.

Writers themselves are not immune to mimetic desire. The release of a book is an “appeal to the public” which is frequently experienced as an affront to authorial pride. Aristocratic writers used to keep up appearances by claiming that they never intended their works to be printed. La Rochefoucauld even went as far as to claim that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. The modern writer has no servants, so he makes “an anti-appeal to the public in the shape of anti-poetry, anti-novel, or anti-play. The main thing is to make the Other taste the rare, ineffable, and fresh quality of one’s scorn for him”. Sound familiar?

With Deceit, Desire and the Novel, René Girard wanted to demonstrate that the truly “great novelists reveal the imitative nature of desire” in their works. In the process, he reinterpreted some of the most important novels ever written, launched a devastating broadside against the inheritors of Romantic individualism and spawned a whole new sub-genre — mimetic theory — which has been applied to almost everything, from psychology to economics. Were it not for this brilliant debut, published in France back in 1961, incidentally, Facebook may have remained the plaything of a handful of Harvard geeks.

Peter Thiel — a venture capitalist whose mentor at Stanford was none other than Girard lui-même — soon spotted the commercial potential of a social networking site based on mimetic desire. In fact, the whole concept of viral, word-of-mouth marketing follows Girard’s principle according to which the strongest desires are those influenced by an admired third party. The gods haven’t withdrawn: they have gone online and their name is Legion. What the venerable Académicien makes of this exploitation of an “ontological disease” he has been denouncing for half a century is anyone’s guess.

Nothing At All

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This review of Jean-Yves Jouannais’s Artistes sans oeuvres: I Would Prefer Not To appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 25 September 2009 (No 5556, p. 30):

Nothing At All

With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.

Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’s exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.

Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or iinflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

Jouannais never makes the absurd claim that creating nothing is better than creating something: like Emil Cioran, he has little time for what he calls the “failure fundamentalists”. He does not dwell on the Keatsian notion (also found in Rousseau and Goethe) that unheard melodies are sweeter, or wonder why the attempts at a merger between life and art have so often resulted in death. Jouannais’s “Artists without works” are essentially of a sunny disposition. They are dilettantes, driven solely by their own enjoyment; cultural skivers who never feel that they owe it to posterity, let alone their public, to be productive. They let time do its work and are often militantly lazy — like Albert Cossery, the francophone writer of Egyptian origin who, on a good day, would fashion a single carefully crafted sentence, or the American artist Albert M. Fine who is quoted as saying: “If I did anything less it would cease to be art”. It is this divine indolence which differentiates Artistes sans oeuvres from darker essays on the subject.

Some of the most interesting passages in the book concern those larger-than-life figures (Félix Fénéon, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Jacques Rigaut, Roberto Bazlen) who entered the literary pantheon as characters in other writers’ novels rather than through their own. Cravan, Vaché and Cassady — who embodied respectively the spirits of Dada, Surrealism and Beat — published virtually nothing during their lifetimes. Naturally, phantom works abound here, from Stendhal’s numerous unfinished novels to the unpublished manuscripts of the Brautigan Library (modelled on the library in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion) through to Roland Barthes’s criticism, which provided him with the perfect excuse not to write the novel he dreamed of. Jouannais also considers summarizers such as Fénéon, whose “elliptical novels” were no longer than haiku, or Borges, who compiled synopses of fictitious novels so that no one would have to waste time writing or reading them. In fact, the Argentinian’s entire oeuvre — haunted as it is by the possibility of its own silence — is reinterpreted as a paradoxical “pre-emptive production” designed to spare the already overcrowded bookshelves of the Library of Babel. Borges’s Pierre Ménard (along with Bouvard, Pécuchet and Bartleby) is, of course, one of the patron saints of the copiers, another category surveyed in these pages. The destroyers (Virgil, Kafka, Bruno Schulz et al.) who seek to cover their aesthetic tracks only get a brief look-in, Jouannais being more interested in the long line of erasers starting with Man Ray’s 1924 “Lautgedicht” (an obliterated poem) and including such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Yves Klein’s infamous empty exhibition or Walter Ruttmann’s “blind” film. The author argues convincingly — in a style both eloquent and elegant — that Cravan’s proto-Dadaist provocations, Rigaut’s suicide or Brautigan’s notorious kitchen shoot-outs should be construed as poetic gestures in their own right. Deliberately misquoting Flaubert, he concludes that the works of these so-called “Artists without works” are “present everywhere and visible nowhere”, which may explain why they are so often misunderstood.