The Glory That Is France

Back now today to the cultural survey series of the EU member-states published serially in the Danish newspaper Politiken. As you would expect, by now they’ve started to treat some of the ten new member-states – I see Slovenia and Cyprus on the list already. So we can ultimately expect a total of twenty-five such portraits, as the Politiken editors finish rounding up the cultural figures from each country to give their selections of representative paintings, photographs, persons, etc.

Goodness, which to choose? Luxembourg is available! – a cultural portrait assembled by one Jean Portante, a Luxembourgeois poet. Yes, we’ll definitely cover that one, eventually. There’s also Ireland, which should be interesting; Germany – but that one is sure to be so heavy that I think I’ll cover it around the 6 June D-Day celebrations; and Austria: just how is it different from Germany, anyway? And Italy.

I’ll play it safe this time and go for France and its representative cultural selection chosen by Jean d’Ormesson – or to give a more precise name, Jean Lefévre, comte d’Ormesson. (The Politiken editor notes that his full name is twice as long as that.) He is a director at the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro, and at the same time a prominent fiction-writer, especially of historical fiction – particularly, it seems, of tales of the decline and fall of aristocratic families. We’ll find that his cultural choices range from the predictable to the surprising – and to the surprising chosen so as to avoid the predictable.

  • Painting: Chardin, “Self-Portrait at the Green Lampshade”. These Europa XL cultural portraits by-and-large mostly feature obscure entries, things you’ve never heard of before. That’s what makes going over them such a learning experience. Probably every single one of the entries for Luxembourg and Slovenia, for example, will turn out to be obscure to you – be forewarned! (Well, maybe not – I looked ahead, and there’s at least one “cultural” tidbit for Slovenia that you might have heard about.) But I’m “playing it safe” this time with France, since that country is much better-known, and so more likely to feature cultural things you can already identify with. This turns out to be generally true; this first entry, for “painting,” is merely one of the few exceptions. Annoyingly, they don’t even give anything but the last name of the painter in question, whose self-portrait is the object of discussion, and that’s Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, who lived in the 18th century. D’Ormesson likes the picture because it’s “a quite good presentation of the French disposition” – at the same time common (as in “a commoner”) and bourgeois, marked by critical reflection. (Be aware: D’Ormesson’s commentary also tends to be much shorter than we have been used to in other countries’ treatments so far.)
  • Photograph: The cupola atop the Académie Française building in Paris. Here is where D’Ormesson strains to avoid presenting the obvious, which of course would be a photo of the Eiffel Tower. But the Eiffel Tower is rather the stereotypical vision of France in the eyes of foreigners, and this is supposed to be a true Frenchman’s opinion. So he goes for the Académie Française’s cupola (he himself is a member, by the way), a wonderful example of classical architecture.
  • Person: Charles de Gaulle. Here we finally get to things (people) we already know about, even to the predictable. What is noteworthy here is only how many other eminent candidates D’Ormesson had to choose from. How about Napoléon, or Jeanne d’Arc as “prototypically French” instead?
  • Object: The TGV, or trein à grande vitesse. That’s “high-speed train”; and D’Ormesson cites it as France’s technical example for the entire world, which in fact it was (inspiring the German ICE and the Japanese bullet-trains).
  • Text: Declaration of the Rights of Man. Quite right: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” begins Article 1, and Articles 2 and 3 are also presented here, in Danish of course. Published at the onset of the Revolution, in 1789, the document therefore slightly preceded the US Bill of Rights, and probably has had at least an equal influence through the years as a statement of important political principles and as a source of inspiration. Again, though, another remarkable thing here is how many other eligible texts there were to be chosen as prototypically French, given the richness of the literature. D’Ormesson mentions in passing that he could also have chosen something from Descartes, or Proust, or Chateaubriand.
  • Music: “Dance of the Savages” in the opera L’Indes Galantes by Rameau. Again, D’Ormesson gives here only the artist’s last name; it’s Jean-Phillipe Rameau, who was a composer at the Versailles court of Louis XIV. I also had to provide you that last little detail; in another spare description, D’Ormesson mentions only that, just like Chardin’s painting that led everything off, in his opinion this work of Rameau’s offers “a quite seductive insight into the ironic, light, and deep [sic] enchantment that characterizes France,” as well as an indication of that country’s openness to foreign influences.
  • Poem: “L’affiche rouge,” by Louis Aragon. The title translates as “The Red Poster,” and this poem concerns the Resistance during the German occupation of World War II, in fact an execution of “twenty and three” partisans by the Germans. (It’s presented here in full Danish translation; it’s here in the original French.) For this entry D’Ormesson devotes even more ink to the other French poets he might have chosen instead: Racine and Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine. (So why doesn’t he choose one of them, already?! I really would have gone with Hugo as the prototypically French poet.)
  • Food-dish: Beef with french fries. This is really surprising. I know, they’re “French” fries (but only in the English rendering – and they’re currently “freedom fries” in the US of A, eh?), but everyone knows that they’re really Belgian. And the beef is, if anything, English (or, say, American). Yet again there was much for D’Ormesson to choose from, and yet again he mentions some of the possible alternatives: chicken à la Henri IV, duck, plus a plethora of regional specialties. But it’s beef and french fries that supposedly expresses what the average Frenchman prefers to eat. (The caption reads “beef and french fries”: bøf med pommes-fritter; the picture, however, just shows some sort of fried potatoes accompanying the red strips of beef, not french fries.) I say Essayez encore: Try again – you could have done much better than that!
  • Place: Versailles. That’s more like it; of course! Another key concept of France in the eyes of the world, and the scene of countless important historical events – and not just when Louis XIV was alive. (Think of the settlements that ended the First World War; ask the Hungarians about “Trianon,” for example.)

  • Event: The settlement at Verdun of the year 843, in which Charlemagne’s empire was divided into three among his grandsons: Charles the Bald (who got what we recognize as France), Louis (Ludwig) the German (who obviously got Germany), and Lothaire (who got the area in-between; what is now the French “in-between” province of Lorraine was the German province of Lothringen from 1870 to 1918, and both names are clearly derived from “Lothaire”). This long-ago event seemingly set the stage for so much of the trouble happening since, as the French heirs of Charles and German descendants of Ludwig fought over that “in-between” area through history seemingly without end, from the incursions of the armies of Louis XIV and Napoléon to the even bigger trouble during the 20th century – until the establishment of the European Union, ten years after the end of the biggest Franco-German conflagration of them all, finally put an end to all that nonsense (we hope).

    At one level it would seem very “deep” to list as the prototypical French event such a (flawed) inheritance settlement whose baleful influence allegedly has extended through the centuries up until at least 1945. But, in this same vein, why not just list instead the tale of Adam and Eve, which made mankind into sinners and thus set the stage for much more trouble down through the ages generally?

    Look, what I’m saying is that this “settlement at Verdun” is much too dry and abstract an event to bring up as prototypically French. And what might that be instead? The French Revolution, of course! It’s that which determines French political life (and much of French culture, mores, and attitudes) to this day, not to mention the incalculable influence it has had on so many other peoples: the very idea of overturning the “divine right of kings,” the idea of the right of revolution (which still, for example, occasionally brings out French farmers onto the streets to spill some milk and eggs there, all in the cause of their divinely-ordained struggle to preserve their luxurious EU farm subsidies), nationalism, etc. Remember what Zhou En Lai once said when asked what the historical effect was of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.”

    Of course, M. le comte D’Ormesson has an aristocratic name, and, if that itself weren’t enough to tell us, his association with Le Figaro indicates he is definitely a man of the Right, a conservative. Perhaps he is even of that line of conservative thought that dismisses the Revolution as an merely unfortunate incident way back in time in which the servants were allowed to get way, way out of hand?

    Update: A recent review of my past Europa XL entries reminded me that Paul Claes also chose Verdun, 843 as Belgium’s defining event. This repetition certainly does not finally convince me that that must be the important historical happening that everyone seems to say it is; rather, it simply makes me exclaim “Come on, people!” For France, I say again that surely the correct answer is the Revolution; for Belgium, how about the 1830 revolution against Dutch rule that created Belgium in the first place? That event established Belgium within a border (specifically, the Belgian-Dutch border part) that had never existed before; sure, the clearly-defined geographical concept of the “Low Countries” had existed for centuries, but that had always been the territories that now constitute the Netherlands and Belgium together. There was no precedent for further separation of these two. Yes, more-or-less Belgium was where people were Catholic, the Netherlands was where people were Protestant (specifically: Dutch Reformed); Belgium was more-or-less where the Spanish armies had stood when the Eighty Years War (actually, a rebellion in the Low Countries against those territories’ Spanish/Hapsburg rulers) came to an end in 1648, while the Netherlands was where those Spanish armies had been driven out – indeed, those two facts have much to do with each other, of course. But the Belgian-Dutch border hardly delineates that Catholic/Protest divide in any precise way; the difficulty in even being able to do so at all is comparable to the difficulty in determining the exact language boundary between Flemish and French within Belgium.

    My point? How about this: that Paul Claes really should have chosen for his definitive Belgian historical event the climactic happening that resulted in Belgium coming into being in the first place (doh?), when there had never been any idea of “Belgium” before, but he didn’t do that for the very good reason that that would have exposed his country as the essentially artificial political construction that it is – and that sort of thing it’s just not polite to discuss in a piece that is otherwise supposed to celebrate the various aspects of your country’s culture.

    Or “the essentially artificial political construction that it was” – time often tends to erode the BS, and the current Belgian political construction – namely three federal states, of Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels – corresponds much better to the way the people living there relate to each other. Anyway, luckily we’re discussing all this in the article about France, a country which itself really never has needed ti have any worries about the legitimacy of its own political construction. Belgian readers for whom my “artificial political construction” charge might sting will hopefully have contented themselves with the weblog entry elsewhere on these pages reviewing Paul Claes’ contribution about Belgium – and I won’t provide any link to here.

In sum then, once again I find myself at odds with several of the choices made by the distinguished literary figure invited by Politiken to give a sketch of his/her country’s culture via the ten cultural choices. But then, who am I, other than some sort of self-styled “EuroSavant”? Still: beef and french fries? Passing over the Revolution as the ur-event in French history? All respect to M. D’Ormesson, and thanks for his contribution, but those two choices I just can’t reconcile myself with.

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