September 20, 2015

"Everyone wants to know how the French do it."

Guardian How the French Think seems deliberately titled to take advantage of this franco-envy, with its subtle pun: offering to reveal not only the special characteristics of French thought, but also how the French manage to be so charmingly intellectual. by Steven Poole

'The success of books such as French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Children Don’t Throw Food and French Cats Are Even More Superior to You (I just made that one up but should probably write it) attests to the enduring idea that the French have solved all the mysteries of how to live well.

'The book [How the French Think by Sudhir Hazareesingh] doesn’t quite deliver on that debonair promise. It is in the main a dense intellectual history of French philosophy and politics from Descartes onwards, with thumbnail sketches of the standard waypoints (Encyclopédie, revolution, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus affair, structuralism and so on). In the detail it is often fascinating, and there are excellent essays on the afterlife of Napoleon in the national imagination, the history of the political distinction between left and right, and contesting interpretations of the revolutionary ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity”. I found myself nodding in solemn agreement at the modern French philosopher, Yves Roucaute, who argues that those three national virtues are to be found expressed most tastily in the butter, bread and ham of a good jambon-beurre cafe sandwich.

'But the book’s ambition to provide a grand theory about what is unique to French thought runs into obvious problems from the beginning. The French, Hazareesingh argues, have combined a devotion to logical reasoning with a tendency to magical thinking – but so did the alchemist Isaac Newton. They have shown a preference for abstraction over concreteness – but so did the great German philosophers. They have placed inordinate trust in the power of the imagination – but so did the English romantic poets. They got interested in spiritualism in the late 19th century – but so did everyone else.Their modern bookshops have shelves of “esoteric literature” – but so do the mind, body, spirit sections of anglophone retailers. And the French apparently have a weakness for conspiracy theories – wait, can I just show you this American YouTube video about what really caused 9/11?

'When speaking of cultural differences, the author is on firmer ground. In France they really were more into communism, and they really do to this day have a more powerful cult of the writer (he typed wistfully). The extraordinary preponderance of local and national festivals, too, certainly contributes to the gaiety of the nation. Hazareesingh is especially good on how French patriotism is fused with pride in local traditions, ending the discussion with an uplifting paean to that indomitable hero, Asterix the Gaul.

'As someone who “has lived in Paris for part of the year” since the 1990s, Hazareesingh is well placed to observe French intellectual life. It’s odd, then, that he seems to disapprove of so much of it. He is the kind of writer who will place the word “abstruse” before the word “philosophical” as though they are synonyms. He doesn’t like Descartes’ “rationalism”, a term he uses loosely to mean sometimes anti-empiricism and sometimes just confidence in reason. And he portrays the argumentative style of, for instance, the great Jacques Derrida as outright cowardice: Derrida “characteristically avoided confronting these problems directly, taking refuge in counter-intuitive moves and elliptical propositions”. (I leave the deconstruction of Hazareesingh’s loaded metaphors of “confronting … problems directly” and “taking refuge in …” as a simple exercise for the reader.) He is even shakier on Jean Baudrillard, with whom I once had the pleasure of smoking, and of whose work Hazareesingh simply does not appear to have read much. A late blurt about “mindless word-games in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard” is just embarrassing.

'Curiously, he appears, too, to share the French provincial’s mistrust of Paris, portraying it largely as a decadently navel-gazing city of elite penseurs, as though no one lived there except a million clones of open-collared philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. There is, the author perceives, “a particularly Parisian form of cloistered reasoning, exacerbated by a certain distance from (and contempt for) the actual beliefs of ordinary people”. Can it really be that no “ordinary people” live in Paris? I seem to remember running into quite a few myself, and I wasn’t just stepping over them on my way to the Opéra.'

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