Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE by Frederick Brown (Knopf, 2010)

Americans are by now familiar with the so-called "culture wars" pitting the "red states" against the "blue states." In late 19th century France, the divide was between the tricolore and the fleur de lis, between those determined to firmly establish a secular French Republic and those who wished France to remain true to its heritage of "throne and altar." The most notorious flare-up on this front was the Dreyfus Affair, but even works of literature, natural disasters, great feats of engineering, and expositions celebrating French progress became "cultural footballs" during this time period, as Frederick Brown relates in this engrossing work.

The book's narrative "spine," so to speak, is formed from descriptions of three famous fairs held in Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900. The longest-lasting by-product of these events was the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 exposition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. We think of the Tower today as the veritable symbol of Paris, if not France itself, but, for those who had never fully accepted the radical surgery that the Revolution had performed on French society, this thousand-foot spire was an unwelcome interloper in an ancient city that had already lost a good deal of its medieval character, thanks to the damage from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the suppression of the Paris Commune. Insults hurled at the Tower included "a disgraceful giant skeleton" and "an odious column of bolted metal" than even uncouth Americans wouldn't stoop to create. More bizarrely, the Tower was held up as the product of a conspiracy of "cosmopolites," i.e. Jews. Just as anti-Semitism had a long history in Germany before Hitler, so, too, did French anti-Semitism predate Dreyfus. Indeed, the feelings were arguably more bitter in France, because of the longstanding alliance between French government and the Catholic Church. With powerful republicans pushing to separate Church and State in France -- and finally succeeding in doing so in the early 1900s -- traditionalists felt besieged on political, religious, and cultural fronts. The Dreyfus Affair combined all three elements, which helps explain what, to a non-Frenchman, must seem its mystifyingly lengthy half-life.

Brown does a fine job of summarizing the main points of L'affaire, but it is only one of the many featured elements here. Renan's LIFE OF JESUS is seen as an important turning point in the accelerating secularization of French culture, in addition to being a landmark in Biblical criticism. The early struggles of the ill-fated Third Republic, plagued from within by instability and corruption and from without by threats from Left and Right, not to mention the occasional would-be Bonapartist figure (cf. the dilatory General Georges Boulanger), are discussed in considerable detail, as are the financial disasters of the Union Generale and the Panama Canal Company, which at once left the door wide open for political and social corruption and stoked the fiery fantasies of those convinced that Jewish financial intrigue was to blame for the companies' downfall. The most chilling tale of all, from a modern perspective, may be the treatment of a disastrous 1897 fire that destroyed a Parisian charity bazaar sponsored by wealthy Catholic ladies. Hardly were the corpses identified and laid to rest when populists and Catholics alike were busily using them as political pawns, with the former describing the proletarians who rushed to help fight the fire as the "true heroes" of the disaster and the latter eulogizing the victims as martyrs who had died to atone for a sinful nation that had turned away from the true faith. The rapid politicization of Hurricane Katrina is uncomfortably close to this and, furthermore, suggests that, with secularists increasingly identifying themselves as members of one American political party and religious believers as members of the other, America may be headed for the same unholy combination of combined religious, political, and cultural disagreement coming to be seen as the natural order of things. If anyone believes that this is a good thing, Brown's book -- and a bit of reflection on the subsequent history of France in the 20th century -- will quickly convince him or her otherwise.

No comments: