There is a short book here of thoughtful and carefully researched observations on French literary life – but it is trapped within a long, rambling lecture. Interminable, as the French would say. Who wants to know that René de Réaumur was once famous for his history of insects, or the details of how various illustrious French corpses arrived in the Panthéon? (Actually, for that, there is a short and witty book by Bess Lovejoy – Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses.) Add to which, the idea that there is something called “the French” that thinks in a particular and uniform way is silly, no matter how often the notion is appealed to by nationalist politicians.
Nonetheless, Sudhir Hazareesingh, who hails from Mauritius, and thus almost counts as a neutral observer, kicks off by stating that the French are famous for their love of general notions. The essayist Émile de Montégut sums up the thesis neatly for him: “There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies and where individuals are so oblivious to facts and possessed to such a high degree with a rage for abstractions.”
Of course, this is nonsense, but fine-sounding nonsense. French nonsense. From here, Hazareesingh starts to weave a tapestry (worthy almost of Versailles) that depicts a grand literary and philosophical tradition, out of a decidedly Google-esque selection of French pensées.
One of its threads is the French desire to codify everything, along with an equally strong determination to ignore all such codes – which leads the French into continual arguments and disputations, all of which Hazareesingh sees as a fine part of the tapestry. Thus, Diderot’s entry on “Certainty” in the Encyclopédie disparaged the dull claims of mathematics, just as Rousseau pooh-poohed scientific discoveries. Another French trait is a love of dialectical thinking and “dividing everything into two”. That other races might also have happened on this is blithely passed by. Instead, Hazareesingh insists that the French “laid the foundations of rationalist thought”. The finest Gallic thinking, pace Descartes, is about starting from a few favoured certainties, and then drawing a magnificent series of conclusions.
France, as depicted here, is a land bestrode by “philosophical giants”: Descartes (in pride of place for his “correlation of existence with thought”), Rousseau, Voltaire, Comte bestriding slightly behind, followed by a 20th-century cluster of lesser but still magnifique figures such as Sartre, Derrida, Lévi-Strauss and Foucault. (The only woman permitted to scamper alongside the giants is Simone de Beauvoir.)
Culturally speaking, “La France” is Paris. No, this is an understatement. Hazareesingh recalls that Comte himself said that Paris was the centre of humanity – because the philosophical spirit was more developed there “than anywhere else in the world”.
Is it possible to make “meaningful generalisations” about the “shared intellectual habits” of the French? Yes, because of the “cultural centralisation” of the country’s “intellectual bodies” in Paris. Hazareesingh doesn’t seem concerned that the philosophical giants he talks of are rarely Parisian figures themselves.
At other times, he is more reflective, more Anglo-Saxon. French declarations of intellectual and cultural superiority reflect “a nagging, almost ineffable fragility of spirit”; an “increasing introspection” revealed in a “sentimental attachment to the heroes and glories of the past”.
But then, in the words of Flaubert, “a small dose of science leads away from religion, a large dose brings us right back to it”. Thus too, at the height of Revolutionary fervour, Rousseau was deified and frequently treated as a saint. So, too, the 19th century saw the French in a “state of delirium” about Napoleon. Victor Hugo wrote of him: “We have you as our God.”
After the Second World War, there was a formal agreement by France to open up both its culture and its economy to the US, but Hazareesingh seems not to know of it. Nor that les McDo are today the French people’s favourite restaurants and the Coca-Colanisation of France is complete. When President Jacques Chirac marched out of a ministerial meeting because the presentation was in English, he was only highlighting the contradictory nature of French ideals. The speaker, after all, was a Frenchman, who had freely chosen to use English in preference to his native tongue.
Martin Cohen is editor of The Philosopher. A French translation of one of his books, En 31 jours découvrez comment vous pensez, was L’Essai du jour on France Culture.
How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People
By Sudhir Hazareesingh
Allen Lane, 448pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781846146022 and 9780141974804 (e-book)
Published 25 June 2015