Rimbaud v Rambo

The American Enemy
December 23, 2005

Samuel Beckett commented: "This is somehow not the right country for me," on his one and only footfall in the United States. "The people are too strange." Beckett was by way of being adoptive French, or adaptive Irish; definitely not Anglo-Saxon - au contraire , he retorted, when such a suggestion was put to him. Au contraire is somehow the theme of this sparkling disquisition. The American Enemy is couched as a genealogy, and French anti-Americanism as a tradition of objection - a sedimentation, in the author's word - "a whole past of repugnance and repulsions", rolling on like the Mississippi, over two centuries. Philippe Roger is professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris: the nomenclature wonderfully apt to the purpose. His synoptic work is an inquiry into the settled conviction that Americans are not like us. As he puts it neatly: "They represent the greatest imaginable distance short of desirable difference."

How they fell short, and how far they fell short, in the eyes of French intellectuals makes a feast of a book, cooked à point and served with considerable panache. "So the new American was here. Brutal, dim-witted, uncultivated and devoid of disinterested curiosity. A cool gaze, a quick hand, carnivorous teeth. Undisguised greed, unscrupulous rapacity - besides, scruples were against his religion. This was the disturbing individual the French were so frightened of in 1900. Not even an individual, but rather - a type". Thus the Yankee in crude formulation.

The Yankee was as obnoxious as he was prognathous. The wilful American jaws, the only ones capable of tackling the baleful American steaks, received a surprising amount of attention. In Voyage de Jérôme aux États-Unis d'Amérique (1953), by Maurice Bedel, the innocent Jerome admires a magnificent porcelain white skyscraper in Chicago, the Chicklett Building, "dedicated to the kind of scented gum the Americans chew to toughen their willpower by fortifying their maxillaries". Jaws, his guide tells him, are where powerful decisions are made: "When you clench your teeth, you want the strongest. Gum played a very important part in our gaining superiority over the other nations." Theorists of the new imperialism have missed a trick. America is not unilateralist but orthodontist. Samuel Huntington et al have been barking up the wrong tree. The issue is not a clash of civilisation but a dash of dentition.

Repugnance and repulsion - and resentment - found luxuriant expression. "France," opined La Nouvelle Critique in 1951, "the land of Rabelais, Montaigne, Voltaire, Diderot, Hugo, Rimbaud, Anatole France and the bards of Resistance to the invaders, is being submerged by an imported literature that glorifies what is most vile in man, and by certain American magazines whose stupidity is an affront to the human intellect." That same year, Marcel Ayme imagined a nuclear war breaking out on French territory, "which our government long ago sold the free use of to the USA in exchange for a few ministerial comforts". The US offensive lasts for eight days, destroying Paris and nine tenths of the French population. In the US, there is general rejoicing. A peace treaty is signed. A reconstituted government executes 100,000, imprisons 200,000 and gets mixed up in a new wine scandal. "Disgusted, the UN decrees that France will be crossed off the map of the world. The female element will be directed to the USA, where maids are hard to come by, and as for the men, their balls will be cut off, since they were only hanging by a thread anyway." Contamination and castration were the order of the day. "In the 20th century," Roger writes succinctly, "France was invaded by the United States."

The defence against this philistine and Pharisaical enemy was dissociation. The French dug in to Frenchness: not the territory but the terroir , as Roger says, "a quintessentialised idea of itself". This was a Maginot of the mind. It pitted "French living" against "the American way of life", mœurs against morals, quality against quantity, inner flame against moronic inferno, authenticity against dentistry, Rimbaud against Rambo, refinement against "Rah! Rah! Sis boom bah!" In other words, French intellectuals wagered a certain idea of civilisation against an imperious, rampageous nullity. Stendhal himself put into the mouth of one of his characters the ur-text: "American morality seems to me horribly vulgar, and when I read the works of their famous men I feel only one desire, never to come across them in the world. That model country seems to me the triumph of stupid, egotistic mediocrity - and, on pain of death, one has to pay court to it."

That howl from the 19th century can still be heard in the 21st. It carries with it a whiff of existential fear. However much Americans may seem like aliens, "'America' is us, or rather it is a part of us, everything that threatens the past, its values, its spirit," as Tony Judt put it in an earlier study of the same phenomenon. Dissociation is self- deception, founded on ignorance. Many of the most virulent anti-Americans had little or no direct knowledge of the place or the people: knowledge was not necessary for their project. Yet the Stendhalian view of American culture is a radically impoverished one, as John Gray has pointed out. "After all, how do H.L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce or Dorothy Parker fit the stereotype of a culture without irony? How does the American genre of film noir tally with an inability to perceive tragedy? Isn't Moby-Dick an encounter with nihilism and the limits of intelligibility that's superior to anything produced in Europe? In fact - it's in American writing that one finds the most intrepid exploration of the extremes of human experience. If there is a comparable European literature, it can only be Russian." Regardless of precedence, the American genre of film noir is a fine example of "America is us" - the very miscegenation that anti-Americanism refuses to acknowledge.

The American Enemy is at once the most learned and the most playful study of a subject that cries out for both qualities. It will surely remain current for some time. And yet already one wishes for a new edition. This manuscript was completed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; it was first published in French in 2002. The detailed treatment ends with Sartre and his cohorts in the depths of the Cold War. It is not a work of instant history. Roger glances at the outcry caused by Le Monde 's gesture of solidarity, "We are all Americans"; but the rich relations of the Iraq War are denied him. The translation is fluent enough. Sometimes it seems too insistently (and anachronistically) idiomatic - "next up were the blacks", "an ironic take", "a wake-up call for the French". On the other hand, I wonder whether the nuance of un type is captured by the rather plonking English equivalent.

The American Enemy is a French book in American clothing. Roger's sardonic voice is irresistible. "I am not so bold as to think these pages might hasten its demise; but if it should last, this genealogy will not have been useless: after all, even anti-Americanism should be enlightened."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism

Author - Philippe Roger
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 509
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 0 226 72368 2

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