Dreams Deferred: France’s Cultural Identity Delusion

James Baldwin, looking impeccably elegant

Obviously, this blog is mostly about music, sometimes about movies, and a little bit about general (arts-related) culture. But today, my fancy has been struck by an article examining French grapplings with cultural identity.

The New York Times ran a cultural piece about French language, identity, and writing in an era of globalization. For anyone who has spent two seconds thinking about French people, this article contains no surprises: the right-wing in France feel and have felt that their culture is being threatened by American cultural dominance, by the English language in general, and most notably, by the new cultures brought to French cities by Arab and African immigrants.

The French are indeed protective of their hugely built-up mythic culture and especially their language. The article should have mentioned that the French have a unique, centuries-old cultural preservation institute, l’Académie Francaise. The Académie protects the French language behind a barrier of fleur-de-lys adorned steel; they officially purge the language of anglicisms and other linguistic impurities. They suggest “courriel” instead of “email.” Or “ordinateur” in lieu of “computeur.”  Then they release an official dictionary, and the French continue on in their idyllic Frenchness, relieved that all the meddling and sneaky foreign words have been quarantined and then eliminated.

If you find my historical allusion offensive, I apologize, but honestly, the slope between nationalism and ultranationalism seems pretty fucking slippery to me. I have every confidence that France will not turn into a National Socialist regime overnight, but I am troubled that Sarkozy courts the openly fascist National Front supporters by pandering to their ultranationalism. And of course, the Académie is not all bad, and they have made some gestures to the 21st century by inviting women and excellent Francophone writers of non-French descent, such as Assia Djebar, to join its ranks. But in general, the Académie  represents France’s unwillingness to embrace cultural evolution and diversity in a globalized time. It is just a symbol for larger French problems, such as their “colorblind” legal system and bullshit immigration laws. But those topics are beyond the scope of this blog post.

The NYT article then takes a gander down the road of French letters, chronicling the struggles of foreign-born, Francophone writers. Apparently, Andrei Makine had to pretend he had translated his novel Le Testament Francais from Russian in order to get it published, because French publishers initially dismissed him based on his foreign name, assuming he could not write well enough in French. It took the admission of his foreignness (“srsly guys, this is a translation”) to get publishers to comply!

Finally, we come to my point. Given the hostility France shows towards incoming populations, their languages and their cultures, why the hell does anyone move to France to write? Makine is just one of many recent emigres who have moved to France and written in French. Kundera writes in French these days. Ionesco (Romania) and Beckett (Ireland) and Adamov (Russia) moved from elsewhere to write in French in the 40s and 50s. Americans James Baldwin and Richard Wright were in Paris in the 40s, though they wrote in English. Of course, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot (boooooring) were writing in Paris too earlier than that, and tons of the Surrealists and Dadaists and whoeverists were from elsewhere and ended up in Paris… You get the point. France and Paris especially has been, for hundreds of years, this wonderful imaginary land of cafes, intellectuals, and artistic revelations, a place on which struggling or persecuted artists graft their dreams. You will note that not few of those expat artists were exiles for social reasons (Baldwin, Wright) or political reasons (many Slavs).

Upon arriving to the geographical incarnation of Arts and Culture, many-a-writer has been disillusioned, finding, as Baldwin found, that their expectations had little to do with the actual place and a lot more to do with what they were running from.

But this incongruity between fictional and real France is that spark for writerly creation. For people like both Baldwin and Kundera, Paris allowed them space enough from their former lives to contemplate political/social persecution and its relationship to a person’s cultural and existential status. Paris was a dream, then disillusionment, then ultimately, still the place that fostered creation, albeit a more conflicted creation than the writers may have originally conceived.

As many writers relationship with France followed that Hegelian model of thesis (dream), antithesis (disillusionment), and synthesis (conflicted creation), France too needs to regard its evolving identity in such a fashion. They should all be experts in this, because university students have to write their fucking papers according to the ‘dialectique.’

Yet for too many, French culture is some static thing that needs to be salvaged and restored. Immigrant populations–many of whom already speak French as a first language–are seen as threats, instead of, you know, an equally glorious, if more ethnically and culturally ambiguous future. To lament the loss of old France is to pretty much straight up extol whiteness and colonialism. To resist the forces unleashed by globalization (forces caused by, you know, colonialism!) is to continue with the same fucking historical mistakes. So figure it out France. Look at your emigre writers!

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