Monday, May 3, 2010

Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown

In March 1871, Versailles, once the seat of the Sun King, became the capital of a defeated nation. France had declared war against Prussia on July 19, 1870. Six weeks later, Napoleon III had abdicated the imperial throne after surrendering his battered army to General von Moltke at Sedan. A treaty signed on February 26 in the grandly baroque Hall of Mirrors forced France to cede Alsace, the border province Louis XIV had annexed in 1697, and Lorraine, formerly known as Lothringen.

It was there at Versailles that France's provisional government established itself. A newly elected legislature, dominated by conservative gentry and provincial nobles, had no sooner convened that the Parisian populace, led by two hundred armed National Guard battalions, rose up against it, disputing its legitimacy and creating a rival government, in the Paris Commune. Civil war followed. Troops who had recently fought against Germany were now mustered against their countrymen, and ordered to besiege Paris only two months after the Germans had withdrawn their own batteries. They would reconquer the city for Versailles during a week of slaughter - May 21 through 28, 1871 - commemorated as la semaine sanglante.

Had France's defeat been a fortunate fall? Men prominent in the ranks of Napoleon III's left-wing opposition felt that the country had indeed been brought to its senses when brought to its knees. The beheld the future as an opportunity for France, freed from the shackles of Bonapartism, to leap forward, secularize civic institutions, and confer upon science the prestige in enjoyed across the Rhine. Germany's military success, according to Ernest Renan, an eminence at the College de France, was the product of "Germanic science, Germanic virtue, protestantism, philosophy, Luther, Kant." Higher educational institutions in France, he wrote, "have been too influenced by the Jesuits, their latin verse, and stale orations." Renan's Moral and Intellectual Reform validated the agenda of politicians who went on to found the Third Republic and, at eleven- year intervals - in 1887, 1889, 1900 - organized universal expositions that presented France as the champion of liberty, the impresario of science and technology, the genial host clasping nations in a spirit of exuberant cosmopolitanism. Those republicans known as "opportunists" who made policy in the late nineteenth century set their sights beyond Alsace-Lorraine. Their aim was to regain French stature on a world stage.

In other quarters, cosmopolitanism, far from reflecting well upon the State, was seen as profanity or treason. The many for whom military defeat followed by civil war had opened an abyss found safe purchase in the ideas of transcendence or innateness; in fervent celebration of Christ's bleeding heart, miracles, and saints relics (which multiplied), or in race. Pilgrims who assembled at sites sanctified by visitations from Mary heard bishop after bishop insist that France wanted salvation, not enlightenment. She had lost the war for having strayed from godliness and would find her way home again only as a penitent determined to right wrongs that descended from the original sin of eighteenth-century regicides. Salvation was also the cry and promise of nationalists, whose eloquent voices argued the sacredness of the soil, the virtue of roots, the infallibility of instinct, and the subversiveness of intellect. To them "fin - de - siecle" in most of its cultural manifestations signified decadence.

Although nativist gospel and a religion proclaiming its universality did not always occupy common ground, both the politics of bereavement embraced by the Church and the reverence for ancestral Frenchness exemplified by the witers Maurice Barres and Charles Maurras orientated believers of one kind or another toward the past. The past was, above all, a refuge from the dangerous mobility of the people and things.. It was stillness, order, containment. "The qualities I love in the past are its sadness, its silence, and most especially its fixity. Everything that moves disconcerts me, " wrote Barres (who must have reconciled his aversion to movement with his cut of " national energy").

The ideal of a guarded, self-referential nation schooled in the imperative of war flourished outside the pale of universal expositions. Among the subscribers to that ideal, revanchism* was synonymous with patriotism and Germany was an indispensable threat. But no less indispensable than the ogre next door was the alien within. Like Catholicism, nationalism had its ritual Judas. And these two forces converged as never before during the tumultuous nineties, in the Dreyfus Affair.


1 comment:

  1. For the Soul of France; Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown; Alfred A. Knopf, 2010