Robert Badinter, or the Errors of a Wise Man

The unanimous tributes paid to Robert Badinter leave a large part of his work in the dark, and overlook certain flaws in his thinking, certain deleterious effects of his political decisions, the price of which we are cruelly paying today, and certain ideological inconsistencies. We take a critical look at the career of this great figure of the humanist left, and the consequences of his actions.

By a natural law of things, without any relief of sentence, without the race to the abyss suffering any special consideration, at the end of his old age turned into a prison, following an irrevocable sentence, tortured for a long time, life has just condemned Robert Badinter to death. After the august Jacques Delors, who had the right to a national tribute at Les Invalides under the great European flag, his imaginary true nation, it is now the turn of the venerable Robert Badinter to pass, without a trace of irony, to head off into the sunset. One by one, the French giants of the early 20th century are departing.

A committed man gifted with charisma and a singular art for the phrase, his intellectual positions and biases, however questionable, do not prevent him from being shown a certain respect, like that owed to one’s adversary, and take on an obstinate and courageous air. Badinter, a life-long struggle, as we like to repeat since his death. This intellectual of the law, professor and academic, Minister of Justice, sage among the sages of the Palais Royal, then Senator, was a leading figure—a figure of the progressive left; a humanist figure; a heroic figure in defense of the oppressed. A totem without taboos. A certain section of the Catholic press praised “this force of law” and “this bulwark against populism,” whose aim was to bring the law fully into the Republic, so that, through the Constitutional Council, respect for fundamental principles would triumph.

Once we have said all that, and given Robert Badinter his due, it is time to return to the many pitfalls of his work and thought. Some have said that he was one of the last men of the Enlightenment. He was, for the better, a disciple of Condorcet in finesse and elegance, in his ideas on liberty and tolerance, in his mathematical sense applied to ideals in the form of constitutional equations. And above all, for the worst, born into a class that had succeeded, through social mobility, in replacing the old ruling class and seizing power, while carrying the new ideas of his time, universalist, generous and tolerant, Monsieur de Badinter was one of the great bourgeoisie of the left, capable of great indignation, lavish in humanism, generous in virtue and abundant by decree, sure of his duty: to impose his ideas on the people as a whole, applying them to reality without worrying about their consequences. This liberal, progressive bourgeoisie, who reaped the benefits of the French Revolution, was always at the forefront, on the correct side, marching with the party of order. It is easy to rant about the plight of criminals from below when you are not looking up to those above; it is easy to make humanist judgments about migrants, welcoming people, the Other, when you have spent your life in four arrondissements of Paris. It is easy to be comfortable in your own office, condoning and condemning with relativism, but it is also easy to have class contempt. There are the enlightened know-it-alls, who have understood; and then there are the others, the lowly folk, inhabited by all manner of wrongs, vices and crimes. Robert Badinter, his eyebrow furrowed, had the arrogant facility to declare that if you were in favor of the death penalty, you were a fascist; that if you were in favor of the obvious regulation of immigration, you were a racist; so many cookie-cutter, self-righteous judgments that never suffer debate.

Robert Badinter was passionate about human rights. What a passion that was! It was this passion that drove him for years to defend the oppressed, the persecuted of every stripe. In the name of human rights! Joseph de Maistre’s gentle irony of knowing the rights of Italians, Frenchmen and Russians, but ignoring those of a bodiless, abstract man, pure concept. Karl Marx spoke of the rights of the bourgeois, which made it possible to lecture others while ignoring the misfortunes of those closer at home. And it is at this very moment that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s words in Emile make sense: “Beware those cosmopolitans who search far and wide in their books for duties they disdain to fulfill around them. Such a philosopher loves the Tartars, so as to be exempt from loving his neighbors.”

To Bernard Pivot’s question: “What would you like to be reincarnated as?” the wise man replied: “As a fox, because even if he is trapped, he can cut off his own tail to be free.” Ah, freedom! Cherished freedom! The one that Eluard’s poem haunts school classes about! Here too, it is astonishing that Mr. Badinter, shouting his passion for freedom at the top of his voice, had nothing to say about the vaccination pass and the suspension of unvaccinated hospital staff. No outcry, no humanist, left-wing, indignant reflection for poor people who find themselves with nothing from one day to the next. Similarly, when Edouard Balladur’s government sought in 1991 to work, supposedly, against massive and unregulated immigration, it was the Constitutional Council, of which Badinter was president at the time, that rejected the Pasqua bill in the name of France’s humanist and universalist values. The former Ricard executive himself denounced the “dictatorship of judges,” who, depending on circumstances favorable or not to their ideas, use the law and its values to make politics rain or shine.

When the Yellow Vests demonstrated and brandished the President’s head on a pike, in 2020, it was this same defender of freedom who vituperated these good people, finding it odious, almost fascist, that such an effigy should be brandished. But democracy is not all smooth sailing! It cannot be summed up in a conversation on the set of a TV Parliamentary Channel, nor can it be reduced to parliamentary palaver. Violence is a fact of politics, because it is exercised as a perpetual balance of power, and it can be seen in history as resolutely tragic.

Robert Badinter was not a politician. Like Jacques Delors, of the same generation but operating at a different level, he was never an elected official. His career can be summed up by the fact that, in the 1980s, he was the strongman of the judiciary, accompanying the ideas and interests of a new category of decision-makers known as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (VGE), Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber, under the leadership of Pierre Mendès-France, an anti-Gaullist and Atlanticist whose involvement and influence on political ideas in the early years of the Fifth Republic is still unmeasured. Badinter, a handsome man with slicked-back hair, an elegant suit and modern, close-cut hair, was a figure of change that was to follow the end of Gaullism, which, it should be remembered, was a national rally for a sovereign France against Europeanist yes-manism and American Atlanticism. The much-vaunted liberation of society, applied on those down below, needed to find figures from above to make it palatable in politics. It found Robert Badinter.

His famous battle was for the abolition of the death penalty. He was the driving force behind this project; he was its face. It would be all too easy to believe that a single man can, by his own will, change things in this way, without there being any underlying trend. The abolition of the death penalty was already on the shelves of the cupboard of the Second Republic; it was already supported by Victor Hugo, it was enacted in other countries in the 19th century, in Portugal or in the Netherlands; it was already in the program of VGE in 1974.

The death penalty is a thorny issue to defend point-by-point and peremptorily. Such a problem does not presuppose a dogmatic solution. It is not that either party is wrong to be for or against it. Robert Badinter was not a man of faith or the law. He started from very precise and fixed ideas, the effects of which must be assessed. We refer you only to Father Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger, Yes to the Death Penalty, which summarizes the conceptual history of the death penalty and debunks the very modern idea that it is a denial of civilization, when in fact it has been practiced within civilization. It was the sacredness of life that justified the death penalty, at least from a traditional point of view: “Thou shalt not kill” was, like incest, a prohibition. Its transgression earned the murderer radical exclusion from the human community, following a public ceremony. This same death penalty in 1981 threatened so few people that it should have been the last measure taken by a left-wing government. It was the first under François Mitterrand.

Opposition to the death penalty remained numerous: religious opposition, which questioned whether a human community could substitute itself for God by taking life, turning the “Thou shalt not kill” principle against itself; conservative and Catholic opposition, which was also logically opposed to abortion. In the face of this “right-wing” opposition, progressive “left-wing” abolitionism advocated its humanist logic of the credit due to every human being, first and foremost a victim of his or her environment. This has led to a kind of lax degeneration of justice, allowing a judge to see a custom in the rape of a woman by a Pakistani migrant.

The first flaw in Robert Badinter’s thinking is that it is permeated by that bourgeois instinct for whom, outside profit, nothing is sacred, neither death nor life, and which makes it criminal to take the life of a despicable murderer, but normal to take it from a future innocent baby—to be both, without the slightest problem, against the death penalty and in favor of abortion. This Left, therefore, good in every way, is in fact a simulacrum of the Left to lyrically conceal the abandonment of concrete progressivism, the kind that was not intended to save the heads of a handful of scum, but to improve the lives of ordinary people. It was at this very moment that a vast abolitionist nebula, meditated in universities in the aftermath of 1968 by agents of French Theory, sought to create a tohu-bohu, a notion dear to Michel Foucauld, in society. Our twisted and tainted elites had to dismantle the totems of our society and break down its taboos. A few years ago, a few renowned intellectuals and committed figures had sought to abolish the age of sexual consent and decriminalize relations with minors under the age of fifteen.

Another pitfall is the assumption that man is infinitely good and infinitely lovable, that it is society that perverts him and that he is unintentionally evil. The death penalty had been applied in a Christian society, based on the Gospel itself. Jesus was on the cross, with two thieves at His side. One mocks Jesus, the other rebukes him: “What is happening to us is just, while he is innocent” and adds, “Jesus, remember me when you are in your kingdom.” This prompts the Lord to say, “Truly, I say to you, you will be the first to enter the kingdom of heaven.” In a few lines, everything is there: a man can be condemned for his crime; by the justice of men, he can be led to die, but he can be saved by divine justice. Traditional Christian society played both sides: God’s justice and man’s justice, earthly life and metaphysical life, body on one side and soul on the other. Our post-Christian society, secularized to the extent that it has digested Christian ideas and done away with them, is witnessing the emergence of a form of justice that gives itself the proper role of executioner and priest. This kind of justice condemns while absolving; it punishes while judging a man’s redemption. In his 1981 speech to Parliament, Abbé Badinter, dare we say it, explained that “however terrible, however odious their acts, there are no men on this earth whose guilt is total and which one must always totally despair about.” This secularized mercy, this unshakeable faith in redemption, forgiveness, conversion to virtue and goodness, sometimes contributes to an obscene fascination that made Fourniret, Bodin or Dutroux famous, and sometimes to an unhealthy victimization that makes the executioner as much a victim as his own victim. Forgiving an executioner is a personal process, and that of little Philippe Bertrand’s mother commands respect, but it is not up to justice to show mercy and have feelings. In short, Patrick Henry is a kind of Saint Blandine, a martyr of the arena? Is it not dishonest to equate an innocent with a scoundrel?

Badinter made a major intellectual error: he confused philosophy with justice. They are two different categories. A man is not guilty, yes, as a concept. When we put a man on trial, we do so in the context of his crime, in relation to the law, and not on the basis of a concept. This philosophy is accompanied by a rhetorical art of clichés, peremptory elucidations, evasions and slips, ideas asserted with authority, false truths and true political ideas, adulterated concepts mixed with pathos and lyricism—which has raised almost no criticism.

The death penalty is capital punishment, because it is at the top of the pyramid of punishments. It is the basis for all possible sanctions in response to crimes or misdeeds. The abolition of capital punishment has shaken the pyramid of penalties and sanctions to the point of disordering the whole, and leading to a tohu-bohu in society where, to caricature, as Jean Ferrat sang in “Tout Berzingue” [“Full-Throttle”]: “steal an apple and you’re done for, shoot a man, you get probation.” All these arguments—”the death penalty is not a deterrent,” “it doesn’t make people think,” “it adds blood on top of blood”—have their share of truth, if only the debate did not stop there. If we believe that justice is reparation by equivalence, then it is only natural that when an innocent person is murdered, justice should give itself a monopoly on legitimate vengeance, to prevent all hatred and personal vengeance, to make reparation for a crime and balance the loss of a life against a criminal whose imprisonment would ensure him, at times, certain moments of happiness—when he has taken a life. And besides, is there not a worse failure of justice and Mr. Badinter’s lofty ideals when a rehabilitated criminal relapses into crime, when a murderer takes another life, shatters a family that will never recover, when prison no longer terrifies the bad souls it houses? It is enough to make one despair of the naivety that fails to see that man is on the slippery slope to evil. Mr. Badinter’s justice system has caused suffering and harm to the people; society has been traumatized by cases, victimized by insecurity, demoralized by injustice, disgusted by the failure of justice. This naïve and generous ideal allowed furious, ideological magistrates to give free rein to their whims, and degenerate intellectuals to spend their pity on criminals. The death penalty had its aesthetics in Montherlant, de Maistre and Baudelaire; the scoundrel became an idol of the counter-culture; the underworld theater of those years had its Cid with Roberto Succo.

“The system is simple: we have a justice of freedom.” In his almost five years as minister, Robert Badinter profoundly transformed the justice system: he abolished the State Security Court, put an end to the “Security and Freedom” text, reformed the Napoleonic penal code; he worked to reintegrate criminals, abolished the high-security wings, while conforming to European law. At the end of his life, he came to believe that prison was torture. Man as a concept is not guilty, and if we like to think that freedom defines man, then we cannot lock him up, either. Man’s inseparability is replaced by his “inclosability.” Let’s abolish prisons! What a program!

“Of all the trials a lawyer can go through, we had forty-five minutes to save a man’s life, that’s the most frightening vertigo a human being can have.” Fair enough. But why, then, did he never write a line, never dwell on the fate—just or unjust, that is not the question—about Bastien-Thiry, Degueldre and Claude Piegt? Jean Dutourd, the bête noire of the German-Pratin world, had the beginnings of an answer: the death penalty should never be abolished for political enemies. The same Badinter, when asked if he would have voted for the death of the king, replied that “the king’s head had to fall for the people to be sovereign.” There you have it. If there is one more inconsistency to be found in his body of work, we have found it.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Napoleon’s Gut by Ridley Scott

Directed by an Englishman who has not forgotten that Napoleon was his enemy, and who attacks his posterity through the means of propaganda—cinema—Ridley Scott’s film is heavy-handed to the point of ridiculousness. And it struggles, to say the least, to find its tone. The tragedy of the story eludes him, and some of the great protagonists are conspicuous by their absence. But why do we leave it to Hollywood to paint our great characters? And what is left of France after Napoleon? This article is both an analysis of the film and a more general historical reflection.

Expectations were high, but we were disappointed all the same. One might have imagined that Ridley Scott, a lover of history and blockbuster frescoes, would find the inspiration and form to tell the story of Napoleon, Emperor of the French. His first film, The Duelists, an adaptation of Conrad’s short story, set during the Empire, is as hard, incisive and sharp as steel, not to mention Gladiator, which regales us with sandy virile combat. Alien, Prometheus, Blade Runner; the list goes on and on.

The film’s main flaw is Ridley Scott himself: he is English. His entire film is an indictment of Napoleon. In his endeavor to demythologize and demystify the Emperor, a dazzling victor in the sunshine of Austerlitz, a grandiose force with the will of Destiny, romantic even in the fall of Waterloo, and the dark melancholy of St. Helena, Scott portrays an irascible little, fat man, traumatized by women and complexed by his mother, who to compensate for his weakness gets drunk on the blood of men, taking pleasure in killing. It is the kind of barroom psychology that would make Chateaubriand, the Emperor’s enemy biographer, pale, and Zweig, a portraitist in his own right, a surgeon of consciences and wills, feel sorry for him. The man’s flaws and failings are strung together like a string of bad apples: virile, toxic, macho, violent towards his wife, sexually obsessed, a pedophile, a liar, a narcissistic manipulator, a conspiracy theorist and an exaggerator. What the vulgar press lends to Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin is offered to us throughout. We start with the revolution, celebrated with the death of the Queen—the dark hours of our history—and end with a little moral lesson worthy of a Bertrand Tavernier thesis film: Napoleon is responsible for the death of millions of people, and he is revered as a legend.

The film’s tone is constantly ambiguous. Burlesque and self-mockery combine with the pathology of a killer’s itinerary. We have the worst of Nicolas Sarkozy, a nothingness on two feet. This is L’Histoire d’un mec meets Faites entrer l’accusé. Napoleon is sometimes ridiculous, sometimes as cold as a sociopath, sporting the same hard, constipated face under increasingly pasty features. This in-betweenness between farce and tragedy is uncomfortable throughout.

The film focuses solely on Napoleon and Josephine. Talleyrand is barely sketched in, Fouchet appears in a single shot, and Marshals Ney, Murat, Lannes and Masséna are nowhere to be seen. We can recall Claude Rich, John Malkovich and Guitry as the lame devil and our own Depardieu as Fouchet. The acting leaves much to be desired. Joaquin Phoenix can’t seem to get out of his role as the Joker, drawing mimicry, breathlessness and fragility from it. Both characters share common traits: an infirmity of the soul, a violence within them, a pathological coldness, a strange laugh and the behavior of a mental hospital escapee. It is hard to believe that the actor has remained locked into his role as a buffoon. Vanessa Kirby is unbearable, appearing disheveled all the time, bland and tasteless, laughing uncontrollably at the announcement of her divorce, sad as rain at Malmaison.

The relationship between the emperor and empress takes up a place that spoils the film. The viewer could not care less about this conflicted, friendly relationship; the passions that end up in ashes, the upscale domestic scenes in the Tuileries, to put it politely. No, the viewer could not care less. Scott has no idea how uninteresting the subject is. Napoleon, like all great figures in history, is solitary. To show him held, entrenched, locked in by his wife, is pathetic.

The chronological progression of events in the form of key dates is lazy. The Egyptian expedition is as uninteresting as it gets; and the Italian campaign, with the Pont d’Arcole and Marengo, is skipped. Jena, Wagram, Eylau, all three, are silent. The war in Spain does not exist. The campaigns in Germany and France are forgotten. All these disappointments fail to explain the geopolitical stakes of the moment. Napoleon was a pragmatic and deliberately authoritarian politician. His work as a reformer, too. So be it. What we are left with for over two hours is a distressing portrait of a mad, megalomaniac killer. As a backdrop, we would have preferred to see Napoleon in exile, in his last days, going over in his memory the important events of his life as Emperor, confronting his demons, introspecting his character, in the depths of his solitude and in the face of his intimate weakness.

But there is more to this film than meets the eye. The battle scenes, the ones that remain, are well realized. The assault on Toulon is dynamic, while Austerlitz, without sunshine or triumph, is shown in all its cruelty and violence. The death of those Austrian and Russian soldiers on that icy lake delivered to the cannonballs is implacable. Even Waterloo is not lacking in interest. The film’s cold, gray photography is chiseled; the sets, outfits and palaces are well laid out; the music, from Piaf to Haydn’s Creation, via a Mozarabic Kyrie Eleison played by Marcel Pérès, is welcome. The aesthetic side of this film does do the job, and lives up to its director’s reputation.

Do we really think that the Englishman Scott wanted to deconstruct Napoleon? This verb is often used to denounce a political attempt, driven by a certain ideology, to wipe the slate clean, to cancel, to destroy. I do not believe that the director is so committed to Wokeism as to ideologically undermine the Emperor. He reacts as a subject of perfidious Albion, France’s eternal enemy, and attacks his posterity through the means of propaganda: cinema. Yet to place the Emperor in a harsh light, to be on the other side, opposite, with those who suffered the Corsican ogre, is not entirely without interest if things had only been done well. The problem is, they are not. We did not wait for Scott to shoot Napoleon. Let us sting and provoke a little. Let’s play devil’s advocate.

Napoleon was the strongest armed force of his generation, and came at just the right moment to support the party of order. A leader was needed to avoid chaos and put things right. The bourgeoisie took power, replacing the old nobility, and chose its foal: Bonaparte, a man of action, a military man, a man of the center, neither revolutionary nor backward-looking. Napoleon was a man overtaken by the force of things he had taken on. His talent lay in his ability to synthesize the old and the new: royalism and the republican adventure inherited from Rousseau. Napoleon did not go backwards; he did not make a break; he made a synthesis that worked. If we were to be more provocative, we would dare say that Napoleon was the very product of that social mobility capable of bringing novices, parvenus and boors to the top. The late Ancien Régime was full of these energetic types, moving from chamber pot to chamber valet, from valet to minister, right up to the head of the Directoire.

Action française thinkers such as Bainville were not kind to La Paille au nez. Léon Daudet summed up their ideas on Napoleon in one phrase: “a crusade for nothing.” Yes, Napoleon meant twenty-two years of war (out of the fifty-one years of his existence) to protect France’s borders, respond to the aggression of Europe’s dynasties, impose a continental blockade against the English and a revolutionary ideal on the rest of Europe. While Napoleon’s gesture has greatness, and the sun of Austerlitz still burns every December 2 for over two hundred years, this perpetual war ravaged Europe. Napoleon slashed his map with a saber, closed abbeys and congregations, and abolished feudal systems in southern Germany; he abrogated the Holy Roman Empire; he plundered the whole of Italy, ravaging Venice, which saw its last doge. History forgives the victors and kills the vanquished twice. So much for the great European dream we have heard so much about! Behind the laurels of war, the living blood and the tears, these victorious battles, motivated by a confused maneuver to stifle the English, border on absurd glory. Scott ends his film with this assessment: three million men died in Europe on the battlefields. That is a lot. But as Henri IV’s marshal Montluc would say: “Lords and captains who lead men to death; for war is nothing else.” Napoleon is shown in caricatures pampered by the devil, playing cards and betting men, throwing up troops and cannons. He was a soldier who knew only perpetual war, enlarged an empire that had no geographical sense, and took it upon himself to oust Bourbon from the thrones of Europe.

Some have drawn a comparison, mutatis mutandis, with Adolf Hitler. Of course, the latter’s genocide and biological racism severely limit the comparisons that should be made. Notwithstanding these caveats, both were propelled by a well-defined social class, concerned with its economic interests in the face of the messy revolution, to replace the corrupt Directoire on the one hand, and the limp, dying Weimar Republic on the other. One became consul, the other chancellor; both for life. One became emperor and the other, Führer, took possession of all institutions. Both empires collapsed because they were based on war. For an empire to survive, you need to substitute economic peace for war, as the Romans understood. An empire whose only horizon is war is doomed to disappear quickly. Ten years for the first, twelve for the second. Foreign countries waged war against them. The war waged in Europe was waged against England. It was made possible by the general mobilization of youth, supported by a formidable demographic. The same thirst for power led them to open two fronts, in Western and Eastern Europe. Both went astray in Russia, suffering the invincible General Winter. The Grande Armée was broken, while the death of twenty million Russians broke the Wehrmacht. This Russian failure set in motion the mechanics of defeat and precipitated the collapse of both empires. If France was politically dead in 1815, Germany, which was already a ghost with Hitler, the ghost of a dead 1918, was completely reduced to zero and never really recovered.

Napoleon is partly responsible for our disenchantment. France was grandiose, then ceased to exist after Waterloo. I am one of those people who re-enact the battle a thousand times a year, cannot accept defeat and, in front of Scott’s film, could not watch this drama without bowing their heads in shame and sadness. With Waterloo, France was buried. I cannot deny that the defeat at Waterloo, which signaled our submission to foreign powers and those of money, was followed by a half-hearted Restoration, a bourgeois King of the French, a frilly Second Empire and a republic of bacchantes, rigid and progressive, and allowed for the worst of politics and its choices, but the best of literature and the blossoming of an astonishing painting of the salons. Waterloo, when did we become great? Under de Gaule, some would say, for a while, a little over a decade, and then some. Even now, we are still immersed in this malaise, this melancholy and this hope for greatness. We are waiting as some wait for the man who will save us. Our formidable paradox was revealed when the film was released: we are throwing up the man we are waiting for to emerge from his tomb at Les Invalides.

There was Abel Gance’s great film with the unforgettable Albert Dieudonné; later, by the same director, Austerlitz, with the serious and virile Pierre Mondy. Why on earth is no one in France capable of producing and directing, with substantial resources, a real film about the Emperor, while we leave the matter to those who are hostile to us? I would like to know.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Paul Valéry, A Magnificent Jack-of-all-Trades

Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was a writer, poet and philosopher, elected to the Académie française in 1925. An eminent figure in the world of letters, he left a rich and varied body of work that is always worthy of interest. Here’s a brief overview.

Paul Valéry is unclassifiable. He eludes us all the time: neither quite novelist, nor philosopher, and really at ease in verse, given to ideas, epitomizing that last race of masters we call “men of letters.” When people try to give him credit for the arts or literature, Valéry shirks, dodges and sabotages. He hates history, loathes philosophy, reviles literature and reviles the novel. He excelled everywhere; prodigious, he cavorted with and surpassed everyone else by way of a single idea. Antiquarian, he mingled with the modern, foresaw, gifted with a talent for anticipation, like a soothsayer.

This illustrious writer, sometimes a Faustian scholar, sometimes a dandy, bow tie tied and ringed little finger, nicknamed the “civil servant of literature” by Paul Nizan, for his acts of resistance and his glory as a writer, was entitled to national homage in 1945. He was first and foremost a remarkable orator, whose speech in honor of Goethe, model “among all the Fathers of Thought and Doctors of Poetry, Pater aestheticus in aeternum,” is a perfect illustration of his talent. His eulogy for the “Jewish Bergson” is a measure of his courage under the Occupation, in 1941. This modern Bossuet, under the wings of the eagle of Meaux, paid tribute to his ancestor in Variété II (1930), praising his grandiose prose, the strength of his style, his talent for saying everything, his brilliant orations, monuments of what remains, in language, when the ideas of a time are outdated and men, distant from their tributes, end up unknown.

Valéry had no theorized philosophical system, unlike the dominant German thought. We find him somewhere between Descartes, rigorous in method, and Leonardo da Vinci, edified by the architecture of intelligence. Still inhabited by the Greeks, he used the form of dialogue, Eupalinos (1923) and L’idée fixe (1932), like Plato, and returned to the simple idea that philosophy is a quest: a quest for the absolute, for truth and purity. In his Cahiers (published, 1973-1974—Ed.), he writes: “I read philosophers badly and with boredom, as they are too long and their language is unsympathetic to me.” Sensitive to the sentence, the maxim, that make up the French charm of thought, he went everywhere, said what he wanted, constrained his free thought, meandered through ideas under the strict arches of art, in fragments and leaflets.

First there was that famous night in Genoa. On a night that resembled a crisis, he was converted. Thereafter, he devoted himself to intelligence, to the realm of the spirit, to the quest for precision. In 1896, at the age of twenty-five, this mystic of the Idea wrote La soirée avec Monsieur Teste, a strange novel-essay in which, through the intermediary of his double, Monsieur Teste himself, high priest of the Intellect, Valéry begins to think about the detachment of the soul and sensibility, in the wake of Méditations métaphysiques. And nothing but that.

Austere and Solemn?

Among the innumerable papers, texts and published thoughts, Valéry is, in Tel quel (1943) or in his Cahiers, haunted by the idea of a hidden God: “The search for God would be man’s most beautiful occupation.” The importance and quality of these notes show that a project to write a “Dialogue des choses divines” (“Dialogue of things divine”) preoccupied Valéry all his life. “Everyone keeps his own mysticism, which he jealously guards,” he insisted. Man finds himself only insofar as he finds his God.

All too quickly, Valéry’s austere, solemn character is attributed to his poetry, which is frozen and mumbling. What is taken for gelid is icy other than a classical demand taken to the heights. “Most men have such a vague idea of poetry that the very vagueness of their idea is for them the definition of poetry,” Valéry, obsessed with perfection, wanted this “holy language.” This quest, resolutely, detached him from the world of letters, novelists and journalism: “The writer-whore exists only to surrender himself. To this class belong those who claim to say what they are, think and feel;” and he adds in Tel quel: “There is always something fishy about literature—the consideration of an audience. So, there’s always a reserve of thought in which lies all the charlatanism of which every literary product is an impure product.” Then to finish off literature as if in the arena: “A novel is the height of crudeness. We’ll see one day. Those who look from the deep, rigorous side already see it.” So much for that.

Behind his reputation as a pure wit, Valéry was a great sensualist. His poetry is a perfect demonstration of this. The charm of bodies, the trance of music, long, delicate movements, the sign of the hand, the form of the dance, the praise of water—this is the Valéry universe. In Album des vers anciens (1920), inspired by Mallarmé, we find, under the appearance of a solid poetic arch, lascivious and moving, volatile and light figures and forms taking shape, as in “Baignée” (“Bathing”) which, through a play of periphrases, makes us guess a young woman in the water:

A fruit of flesh bathes in some youthful pool,
(Azure in trembling gardens) but out of water,
Singling curls with strength of the casque,
Gleams the golden head which a tomb slices at the nape.

Above the Fray

Later, Valéry wrote La Jeune Parque (1917). In this song of love and death, where life mingles with mythology, we can admire these lines: “island… summit that a fire fecundates barely intimidated, woods that will hum with beasts and ideas, with hymns of men filled by the just gift of ether.” These rhymes sound like onomatopoeia, making us believe for a moment that Valéry, a musician, is moving from the Académie to a jazz club.

At twilight, in Corona & Coronilla (published in 2008—Ed.), the old man writes a few poems to his young lover, Jeanne Voilier, whom he knows to be far from his arms:

You know it now, if you ever doubted
That I could die by the one I loved,
For you made my soul a leaf that trembles
Like that of the willow, alas, that yesterday together
We watched float before our eyes of love,
In the golden tenderness of the fall of the day.

This poem, written on May 22, 1945, two months before the poet’s death at the age of seventy-four, denotes a tenderness, a touching intimacy, not devoid of flowery lyricism. It’s a far, far cry from the night of Genoa.

Bruised by the horrors of war, Valéry descended from the clouds, returning inter homines, deluded by certain illusions. He no longer believed in history, as he wrote in Regards sur le monde actuel: “History justifies whatever one wants. It teaches rigorously nothing, because it contains everything, and gives examples of everything… The danger of letting ourselves be seduced by History is greater than ever.”

With History out of the way, Valéry seemed to turn to mathematics, as he murmured in his drafts: “Simple solutions, expedients, that’s all-human conduct, in politics, in love, in business, in poetry—expedients, and the rest is mathematics.” He confessed in 1944 in Le Figaro: “Politics is the maneuvering of the more by the less, of the immense number by the small number, of the real by images and words; in other words, it’s a mechanics of relays.”

Paul Valéry was above the fray. Neither stupidly left-wing, nor fatally right-wing. He was a circumspect observer of nations. He was an eminent member of intellectual Europe, like Rilke in Trieste, Zweig in Vienna or Verhaeren in Brussels. Like the others, Valéry saw the great Europe of letters and sovereign nations, shattered by the appalling world war. Did he already see the post-war era? “Europe will be punished for its policies; it aspires to be governed by an American commission”—that’s for sure.

Europe, according to Valéry, is inhabited by tradition. This Europe, saved from technocracy and finance, is a civilization, “Romanized and Christianized, subject to the disciplinary spirit of the Greeks,” starting from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome. The grandiose axis. Yet this remarkable Europe, shaped by a superior spirit, remains no less fragile. This is Valéry’s despairing assessment of a Europe whose ancient parapets have been overcome by technology, the mass of a fin de siècle: “We civilizations now know that we are mortal.”

This tension between the order of civilization went hand-in-hand with a defiant and suspicious view of governments. We owe him this simple, trenchant phrase, mingled with cynicism and raw lucidity: “War, a massacre of people who don’t know each other, for the benefit of people who know each other but don’t massacre each other.” Sounds like Bardamu at the start of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night)! Who’d have thought Valéry an anarchist?

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured: Portrait of Paul Valéry, by Georges d’Espagnat; painted in 1910.

Win or Die: The Whites on the Big Screen

At the beginning of this year, the first film production of Puy du Fou, Vaincre ou mourir (Win or Die), was released. And what have we heard from the critics? An extreme right-wing, fundamentalist, reactionary, anti-republican (horresco referens), hateful and ideological film. Musty France, the bottom of the rotten barrel. The relentless criticism of Libération further adds so much vitriol that it passes for being funny. These hack-writers carry out their vile orders, driven by a hatred of the Catholic religion, along with a progressive left-wing ideology of the narrowest kind. Their frivolous and superficial agitation seems to appear like a devil thrown into the font or a vampire shrinking from garlic. So, it’s a pleasure to see this film, for the entertainment, certainly, but also to give the middle finger to these paragons of good taste and opinion.

If this film disturbs the media and cultural fauna and flora, it is mainly because it contrasts radically with the current production. The long agony of a French cinema, a slot machine for the small screen, subsidized, petty bourgeois, for easy-consumption, never ceases to churn out painful films, using the same ideas and the same ideology. And sure enough—during the trailers, two films, before the screening, were like pulling teeth. The first one, Léo et moi (Leo and Me) by Victoria Bedos, tells how a teenager, in love with the new boy in her class, tries to approach him during a party by dressing up as a boy. Léo becomes friends with the transvestite and much more, as he falls in love with her. Questions of gender, choice of sexuality, confusion of feelings and identities are all part of the story. And then, Un Homme heureux (A Happy Man), where Luchini, learns that his wife, Catherine Frot, has just changed sex to become a man. And that’s it.

There’s also nothing much to say about Têtes givrées (Frost Heads), either, in which Clovis Cornillac plays a teacher who goes to save a glacier with his students, to fight against global warming—the Ministry of Ecological Transition validated this fi;m. Then, there’s the latest Asterix, entertainment for vegetative underdogs, gorged with filthy inculture and lukewarm Coca-Cola, coming in at a bloated budget of 65 million euros.

Between all this, there is Vaincre ou mourir (Win or Die). This film, without a big budget, without massive promotion, is good entertainment and nice propaganda. For a part of the film, however, something seemed to be wrong—there were no hysterical misandrist crazy women, no soy-boys in overalls, no one-legged black transsexuals, and no crazy non-binary interlopers. On the contrary, the women were as elegant and beautiful as they were virile and warlike; the brave and strong men of the Vendée had their orchids well-cultivated.

It is good to see a film about the period 1793-1796 from the other side. We have too often been formatted by the French Revolution of 1989 and fed with the great preconceived ideas about equality, liberty, the people, the poor against the rich, the evil, very evil nobility, the invincible Republic and the triumph of democracy over tyranny, all summed up in a kind of history for average Frenchmen in the Jack Lang sauce. The Villiers’ film has the merit of speaking to a wide audience about things so far removed from today’s France, so intimate to our society but so deep, however, in our common history—the king and the Catholic faith.

In this film, what do we see? Men who do not want to die out or surrender. They have an ideal: a Catholic and royal order. They will go to death, with bravery; they summon the great Roman virtues; they follow Christ; they go from feast to confession, from gallantry to artillery, sometimes with panache, sometimes with obstinacy. A phrase said by Charette is striking: “They are the new world but they are already old. We are the youth and the light of the world.” The glow in the lantern held by one of the king’s followers in the Vendée in the night, while they are being hunted, illustrates the hope of any struggle; the faith in the ideal, following the Lord who died for the truth. Throughout the film, we see white flags, priests and an ad orientem Mass, a close-up of a raised host. “For God and for the King” and other slogans that one could hardly hear except in meetings of the Action Française among young cubs full of testosterone, reach the viewer’s ears.

This well-paced film, which alternates between captivating battle scenes and informative scenes of hardly any length, pits the Whites against the Blues, the royalist Vendeans against the Republicans, in wars turned into butchery, where pitched battles give way to massacres and ravaged villages; where the art of war becomes a project of extermination of the Vendean race and has as its answer the defense of one’s land, the cult of the dead, the gift for one’s family, the loyalty to the King and the love of God, and oscillates between defeat and victory, hope and bitterness, the multitude of men and the solitude of the hero. A heroic breath breathes in the film. Charette, going to death and glory, becomes the romantic hero of lost causes and ruins. There are no concessions; peace is aborted because of the death of King Louis XVII, so one must either win or die. If one does not win, one dies. A beautiful radicality.

If Hugo Becker as Charette seemed, at the beginning, overcome by his role, undoubtedly himself frightened, he ends up before the firing squad as a martyr, rising to the heavens, alone and weary, piercing. Rod Paradot’s performance as a mad-dog resembles the boldness of the guys in my parish and complements Gilles Cohen’s performance as a quiet force. The actresses who play Céleste Bulkeley and Marie-Adélaïde de La Rochefoucauld are pearls among women. The dialogue sometimes lacks confidence; some lines are hollow, some ideas are avoided; the beginnings of the plot fall apart; but the whole, for lack of an extra sixty million euros, remains good, engaging, well directed.

As Alsatian as I am, far from Cholet and the two Sevres, the love of the Vendeans and the horror of the military expeditions of Kleber, a compatriot, touch me as if I were linked to these dead, French, massacred in hatred of religion and the old world replaced by a new one. The more we move away from the Revolution, the more we measure, in France, its terrible and deep effects; the violence of the ideas and the regime established, authoritarian under the guise of neutrality. This Vendéen heart, which has become a memory, summons a whole string of names, the illustrious viri of our France, and always reminds us, whether we are from the North, the South, or the East, of the blood of these Catholics who were led into genocide.

And the term, thrown like a ball and chain in the public debate, packed with all its explosive powder, does not detonate and divide as much the partisans, who see the mechanical will of the Republic to destroy the soul of the French and of France, with Reynald Secher or Le Roy Ladurie and Jean Tulard, as the more measured historians, like Jean-Clément Martin, cautious about the term “genocide” but sure of abominable massacres.

The film, although partisan, has many nuances. On the side of the Republicans, we find as many little gray and hateful men, little corporals, with the psychology of Manuel Valls, formed by a fascist and racist vision of the enemy, as those who, by opportunism or the march of history, took sides with the Republic for business or by chance. There were Kléber or Haxo, terrorists on legs, and Travot, seen as a just man, combining Catholicism and republic, assuming everything; and also Albert Ruelle, that kind of cynical deputy with the smile of a shrewd merchant. Among the Whites, the Count of Artois has it easy and confirms his mental obesity, his cowardice and his smugness. Against the intrepidity of Prudent Hervouët de La Robrie, there are the peace negotiations and the will to stop the fight by some, which stop the Vendeans from being made into total fanatics. The hero himself, Charette, brilliant, charismatic, brave and good, is caught in the trap of his radicalism, ending up isolated, answering an eye for an eye, worn out, on the verge of madness.

The film succeeds in being complex, and detaches itself from a thesis to be defended by posing a major problem: should the leader of men go all the way, even if it means running towards the massacre and his own defeat, in the name of an ideal, romantic in the end, despite the direction of history, and against political data? Or should he care, above all, about the common interest and his own, seek peace and compromise, if not survival, without ending up lukewarm, a centrist, or a coward in the eyes of history?

This is the difficulty of the one who sacrifices himself and puts his skin in the game, while others are complaining about their hemorrhoids in their country house in the Luberon, and in-between two appointments with the psychologist, as we all too often see, still, on screen, in the cinema.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured: Exécution du général Charette place de Viarmes à Nantes, mars 1796 (Execution of General Charette, Place de Viarmes, Nantes, March 1796), by Julien Le Blant; painted in 1883.

Flavigny the Sweet

Flavigny can pass for one of the most beautiful villages of Burgundy. Its houses of ashlar, noble, old places gnawed by lichen and moss, with the windows fashioned in the old way, surround the church at the center of the village, mounted like a crown upon a tooth. The narrow nave of the church of Saint-Genest shows vaulting of a delicate gothic style; a lace tribune connects the two lateral parts of the building. A whole battery of statues attracts the eye: the wooden monks of the stalls, the Angel of the Annunciation and the Virgin breastfeeding, with a little Jesus suckling greedily in her arms.

Downstairs, at the village gate, the seminary of the Society of St. Pius X sends out a number of young abbots who pass through the narrow streets in black cassocks, without buttons or buckles on their belts. The park where these good seminarians stroll opens onto the Alesia valley. A huge Crucifix at the end of the park dominates the view like a victory on a ship that triumphs over the horizon—the sentinel before the barbarians. We then learn that Louis de Funès participated in the renovation of part of the church and that one of the first bishops of Mosul rests in the cemetery among the sisters. At the entrance of the village, not far from the large gate of Saint Joseph, the old abbey of Saint Peter houses the confectionery, remarkable for its aniseed with exquisite perfumes: mandarin, violet, rose. The loving shepherd and the greedy shepherdess, he dowdy, she the pretty pearl, illustrate these very good sweets and never fail to charm.

There are abbeys which look like citadels in the scrubland; others are havens and border a river; the abbey of Flavigny is a castle in the countryside. These Benedictines lived happily first in Clairval, Switzerland, in the early 1970s, stemming from the Olivetan order. Then, following Dom Joly, they made their way through the peasant lands of Burgundy. No, they have not been there for a thousand years. Recently arrived, on the scale of Christianity, as if no accident of history had jostled them, they seem peaceful in their home. The abbey is housed in a former 18th century pleasure castle.

In the main street, in front of a Swiss household, owners of a black tractor, the facade of the abbey. Straight, severe, sober. A statue of Saint Joseph, another of the Holy Queen. The church is a kind of upturned ship’s hold, carved in one piece. On the polished and shiny marble floor is engraved the cross of Saint Benedict. At Compline, one can only see the cuckoo clock, as you let yourself be carried off by the wave of the Psalms in the darkness, borne by the determined voices of the monks. Then the statue of the Virgin lights up for the Salve Regina. Mary dazzled replaces the moon’s luminescence.

After crossing the courtyard of the Ursulines, where a crucifix is planted, bearing the words: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis,” the sun turning around the cross like a dial, the main building, in the heart of the abbey, shows a classical and neat façade. The stone is round and polished, the forms majestic and masterful. From the main staircase, where a magnificent Piéta is enthroned, you arrive at the refectory of the 1950s, tiled as in a hospital. Through a door, you pass from a wooded and classical sacristy to the chapter house, a former ballroom with deep mirrors and precious moldings. From the outside, the courtyard of honor has cachet, the façade has allure; a kind of grace that a classical play of the walls and high windows, as was savored during the Regency period, gives this abbey, set on this Burgundian acropolis, the appearance of a hermitage and a hunting lodge; a place of retreat from the world without austerity or pain.

A statue of the merciful Christ rises above the building. The effigy, dipped in gold, shines. In front of this main courtyard is a terrace; from the terrace, an exquisite walk leads down to the gardens. From the fruit trees, the Mirabelle plums, one passes through an alley of narrow trees to a vegetable garden, where a brood of hens lives among fields of leeks and potatoes. Further down is a bush artfully trimmed according to the laws of topiary at the level of a remarkable belvedere. And further down still, sloping paths descend into the forests. You should see the monks dressed in white, on their monastic 31, processioning on August 15 with Mary crowned. The walls are then covered with a blue sheet printed with fleur-de-lis. Long live Mary, Protector of France, Mother of priests, Guardian of our homes!

October mornings are filled with joy: a sheet of light wool spins over the valley. Out of nowhere a polished amber stone rises, rolls into the sky and spreads its golden rays from west to east. The whole village ends up embellished in yellow gold. The trees rain their leaves in the park. The leaves die with their colors more varied, more sonorous than those of life. The splendor of autumn here results from a degradation of organs from which life has withdrawn. The singing services, the bellowing of the cows below, resounds in the cells and accompanies the awake monk in falsetto.

It was not only the delicate and powdered nobility that sought to flee the city and enjoy the relaxation of the countryside, nor even the great families of the cities to escape boredom, Schifanoia, or the monarchs of Prussia to covet without care. The Benedictines too are happy here; hermits of the pastures, dead to the world and alive in the woods. They themselves in this countryside seem carefree. They are quiet, quiescent, neither hurrying nor running. We see them getting busy and then disappearing, suddenly, going underground, we don’t know; or sitting in a tractor, unloading a lot of manure and a mound of vegetables. Sometimes they wander in nature. On Thursday, day of relaxation, they go around the lakes of the region and rest. Festina lente. Saint Joseph de Clairval is about joy.

Life turns with the flavor of the seasons, without hardness nor fatigue. Matins, rings the hour, when Paris wakes up. The monks in cool, white robes, shine for God, who rejoices their sparkling youth. And the wise bent monk carries his thirty years in white. The church, immersed in a skillful ballet of light and shadow, draws frozen figures of monks for Lauds, one in white on his knees, the other in black prostrate among the massive stalls. They take time for the short offices, and shorten the long ones; they never dine or lunch without abundance, with little wine, little fantasy, and a proportion to contemplative reverie.

The Abbot says a Pater noster in the measure of a military chant, at a walk. You might have known Father Thomas leaning on his cane, explaining masterpieces of Christianity, lucid and gifted with an unimaginable energy under the plenitude and the quietude that his blue eyes illustrate. And Father Alphonse, charismatic like those actors of the 70’s who have disappeared, serious and gentle, deep and slow like the rare old car engines; or Father Vianney, the pivotal tower of this chess game, prior, director of the printing house, father-hotelier, Catholic sphinx, with a face as thin as a mask, mobile gait of changeless time, measured transport of humility. These monks and others have practiced the retreats of St. Ignatius in Flavigny and everywhere in the kingdom of France.

These methodical exercises for the soul, comparable to a gymnastics of the body, are for the spirit the means of washing the soul with bleach. Alternating teachings and meditations, over five days, you passes from the underworld to the glory of the Lord, under the standard of Christ and against the standard of the devil. These exercises, which have made the merit of the saints, known and recognized in history, effervescent in consciences like a pill against stomach aches of passions and troubles, have the hardness about them, the memory of a Catholicism of combat. Everywhere one celebrates, and hell exists. While we had perhaps forgotten it, here are the meditations reminding us of it. We are not laughing. We are faced with our creaturely misery, as if we were fat, grey, bloated, in the mirror, in front of the portrait of our condition. It is with a fear mingled with love for the good God that you make your way to the end of the retreat, falling moved, after the general confession, reassured by the preacher monk as to his own discouragement. And after five days of silence, the world comes back to us, and we come back to ourselves reassured, strengthened, galvanized in the perspective of our salvation and our duty.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

My Friend Paul Veyne

Paul Veyne (1930-2022) passed away on September 29. Honorary professor at the Collège de France, he was one of our most knowledgeable scholars of ancient Rome. A tribute.

“Dear colleague, I have read your letter. You are right, the state of Latin is getting worse and worse.” Ten years ago, when I was entering the first year of my studies, I received, by way of reply, this letter from Paul Veyne, so touching, so personal and so pleasant. Imagine the effect it had on a young greenhorn lad who was destined for literature. Imagine today my emotions at the announcement of the death of this professor, and myself, still as green as ever, now a Latin teacher.

“Am I going to follow in the footsteps of my elders? Yes, but I allow myself to choose my own path,” recalled Seneca in a letter to Lucilius. Veyne shared very different ideas from mine. Some would perhaps regard them bitterly. Veyne was a man of the left; rather relativistic, it is true; neither patriotic nor anti-patriotic; a Communist in his youth; a Gaullist in 1969; then a liberal and progressive. He had very early broken with Catholic practice, which he judged to be ancient folklore, and remained suffused with the memory of the war, the collaboration, and the anti-Semitism that he pinned on the old France of his parents. Paul Veyne did not accept any absolutes. “Nihil amirari“: everything passes away: human rights, ideas, Christianity, the Roman Empire and the American Empire. Everything passes away, yes, but everything makes sense in the course of history where nothing is lost, nothing is created but everything is transformed.

For all that Paul Veyne was an atypical gentleman, who has written a classic on the history of Rome. While I was talking to him with admiration about his work, he raised his arms heavenward, cursing his fate: “What I have written is particularly bad, confused and really only slog-work. I have no work. What I have written will be replaced in fifty years by others and will be unusable.” When you read his books from a long and general view, you realize with interest that they oscillate between a clear lesson and a light and exquisite exposé—unlike at times his unreadable peers, whose books are heavy as elephants, tangled in jargon, twisted like Lacan’s language.

There are so many Marmorean figures of Latin letters in France and yet Veyne easily stands out among them. Men such as Pierre Boyancé, Pierre Grimal or Jérôme Carcopino who was a minister under Vichy and the writer of a life of Julius Caesar which is still a milestone. All this has the odor of good black ink in school notebooks. The tireless music of rosa, rosae always sends us back to the same bed of roses. Grimal touched ancient Rome with white gloves. As for Paul Veyne, he was part of the serious avant-garde.

Belles-lettres shook precisely when historians, at the beginning of the 1950s, coming from the Annales school, wanted to take a complex look at history. They no longer sought to produce books that went date-by-date, event-by-event, and by conventional biographies. They found refuge under the aegis of Fernand Braudel who, in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, expounded his ideas: the layering of temporalities, the longue durée, or even material civilization as prisms through which the historian observes the world and goes far beyond traditional history by opening up to sciences such as geography, economics, ethnology, sociology, or archaeology.

Paul Veyne had his sight on all Latin literature, from Appius Claudius Caecus to Boethius, including also the inscriptions and epitaphs of Romanity, for which he combed the manuals and syllogi of the great libraries. Such certainly was the master’s background and backroom work for half a century. This was also the influence of the archivism of ideas that the obscure and marginal Michel Foucauld defended as intangible proof of the real and the concrete. But before going over to Harald Fuchs, Veyne attended sociology classes at the Collège de France taught by Raymond Aron and applied the theories of the humanities and economics, oriented towards liberalism, from Simmel to Schumpeter, to Roman society, at a time when the class struggle was foolishly plastered onto history by the passive Trostko-Maoist bourgeoisie.

Veyne had a talent for unfolding phenomena, trying methodically, with a strong lucidity close to skepticism, to understand appearances, types, behaviors in Roman society. This rigorous observation went hand-in-hand with a keen sense of historical narrative. In Comment on écrit l’histoire (How We Write History), Veyne did not consider his discipline as a raw and crude science but as “a true novel.” A novel exposes reality, takes refuge in Danton’s phrase in The Red and the Black, “the truth, the bitter truth,” and, at the same time, hits you in the gut, touches you, makes you sensitive, agitates you, fascinates you. In his writing, so many such comparisons and analogies have been carried out with seriousness and accuracy while denoting much originality.

Veyne did not try to tell us that the Romans were superior to us, exotic or grandiose. He did not sigh with ecstasy at the mere name of Rome. He demythologized and even demystified the Romans, placing them in the spotlight. He stopped admiring them, and instead wanted to understand them. Roman society was its own organism, had its own special functioning, its principles, its totems and its taboos. The role of the historian is to deconstruct the strata of society. At the term “deconstruct,” one might gladly take out his magnum 44, ready to do some serious damage. But it is best to put it away, and out this term to use in the same way that Lévi-Strauss did— by understanding that it is not a question of deconstructing our own society but to undertake a disassembling of an ancient society, to disentangle what is complexus-entangled—in order to understand its mechanics; to detach the cogs of the machine, and to observe (as one would take out an organ from a body) the specific purpose of this ancient society.

In Bread and Circuses (1976), Veyne brought out the little-known and crucial role of the euergetes in that complex mechanism present in Roman society. The euergetes was the notable par excellence who, in his city, financed the games, the theater, the baths, with a view to social cohesion—a symbol of Romanity in the face of the barbarians: “imagine a city where the big bourgeois in the corner finances the cinema, the theater, the casino and offers you an aperitif as a bonus, and well, that’s how Roman cities functioned.” One must read the articles in L’empire gréco-romain (The Greco-Roman Empire) [2005] to understand the full complexity of the ancients in relation to their tastes, religion, the idea of faith, entertainment, economics and social class differences. Veyne enlightened us on the status of the gladiator, on the intellectual preoccupations of an intelligent pagan like Plutarch, the splendor of Palmyra, the morality of the couple in the second century even before the advent of Christianity, the existence of a middle class in Rome, between the great families and the plebs sordida. The chapter on Trimalchio in Roman Society (1991) is a true painting of the parvenu, embodied by the degenerate nouveau riche of Petronius’ The Satyricon, who rises by cunning, gets rich by speculating on land, and shows off his flashy wealth.

Veyne was interested in literature. We owe him some splendid pages full of pragmatism on Seneca. We owe him the L’Elégie érotique romaine (Roman Erotic Elegy) [1983], a book in which he explains that ancient poets, such as Tibullus, Catullus, Propertius, are not romantics before the term was invented, or even beatniks, but poets who only seek to play with the codes and conventions of their society, formulating love stories invented from scratch. In the last years of his life, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid crowned a remarkable work in which one can savor the Swan of Mantua as one would listen to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. A freshness of air, a gracefulness, a precious accuracy that buries the unhealthy translation of Jacques Perret of the Belles-lettres.

It will certainly become necessary to write a beautiful book on the life of Paul Veyne. Of all the men I have known, Veyne was the gentlest, the most generous. Not a word against any other. Treat others as equals and call the woman you love with “vouvoie.” Veyne was concerned with the little people until the end of his old age. A local celebrity in Bédoin, at the foot of Mont Ventoux, not far from the friendly monks of Le Barroux, he was among his own people. He was not imperious in any way, always very polite, replying with, “Thank you, master” to anyone who called him by the same title. He did not play the role of the wise old man, scowling and lecturing, and never quick to play the role of the intellectual for women readers on holidays. He always shirked merits and honors without ever refusing them. There was a great humility to the man.

What impressions do I have of him? I see him offering his housekeeper champagne to congratulate her on an ethereal dessert. I still see him offering a glass of whisky to his dog, Clover; making the sign of the cross while talking about General Leclerc; driving a two-wheeler at night while reciting Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the original. I still admire him telling me, at eighty-seven years old, the “Voyage to Cythera” at the dinner table, the living room caught in the sunset like a beetle in amber, with a glass of red wine resting on his cheek: “What is this sad and black island? It is Cythera, we are told, a country famous in songs, a banal Eldorado for all old bachelors. Look at it. It is a miserable land after all…” I always imagine him in his office, a great clutter, manuscripts on the floor; on the shelves, broken-backed books, volumes of poems, and a parade of trinkets that ranged from a postcard of Santa Maria Maggiore to a plastic woman’s leg that lay in front of Augustine and Cyprian of Carthage, a Mongolian knife and a photograph of his late son.

Veyne was a friend of Michel Piccoli, whom he met during a conference in Tunis. The actor knocked on the door of his room, the professor opened: “Mr. Veyne, excuse me. You know, I did not study. I am a little ashamed to appear next to you.” And Veyne replied: “You know, you create; through your performance, you participate in works. I do not create anything. I am unable to. I try to understand what guys more or less like you have done in a distant era. I have no merit.”

The master of Bédoin was a lover. When he received the Femina prize for his memoirs, I congratulated him, saying. “I imagine that you don’t care.” And he replied, “Of course I don’t care, but it pleases my wife, and if it pleases her, then it pleases me too.” That was pure Veyne. There was in this small, cramped, hunchbacked man, a sensual temperament. “Since you write love poems,” he wrote to me, “we can be on familiar terms.” He loved women, he who was ugly as a louse, because of a facial deformity. He loved the arts, the poetry of René Char who sometimes succumbed to an ecstasy on the telephone and sometimes to a tantrum; the paintings of Pignon-Ernst and Paul Jenkins, his contemporaries. He loved Italy, Stendhal and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, which he could recite by heart, and all the art of which Italy is capable—Giotto in Assisi, the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, the Parmigianino Madonna of the Long Neck, Piero della Francesca and his Flagellation, Jupiter and Io by Correggio, the Seven Works of Mercy by Caravaggio in Naples.

Paul Veyne was not like other academics, who are often full of vinegar and proud. He was not prim and proper. He had this crazy side that made him eccentric and unpredictable, always ready to play a prank, a dare, a joke. At the University of Aix, he used to hang out on the tenth floor of the building during breaks, to prepare for his passion—mountaineering. He knew the summits of Europe, felt the vertigo of the crevasse, the shortness of breath of the altitude, the illusion of the snow and the perfume of the ice. He knew also the summits of his institution, the Collège de France, plus all the honors that the Americans, the English, the Italians and even the Turks gave him.

And how Veyne suffered in a stoic silence at seeing the people die around him—his son, who committed suicide, his son-in-law who died of AIDS. His marriages were long agonies, recounted in his memoirs—the abortion by his first wife; the hysteria of a Hellenist, daughter of a specialist in Plutarch; a notable village woman, suffering from dementia and depression, the love of his life; and a last marriage, three years ago, cut short because of the cancer of his wife. Beneath the appearance of a grandfather with a singing accent, kind and gentle, there must have been torments, storms and regrets that in ten years of friendship I was never able to pierce. Perhaps a liver sickened by the libertarian intoxication of post-1968.

My old and faithful friend is now on the other side. One morning, at breakfast, with coffee and foie gras, we talked about eternity. Veyne did not believe in God and was sorry not to believe in Him. He wanted to, but could not. For a long time, he had thought of suicide, as a practical exercise in getting all in a tizzy. But he would end up an old man. Eternity, the passage between the world of the living and a filled nothingness, inhabited or not, titillated his mind. It took courage, then, to cross the great cold without hope, with his eyes on death. May the Lord welcome him into His wide-open arms. Last Thursday, he joined Virgil, Seneca and Damien, his son. He will not be bored.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité and teaches Latin. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Christ Against the Skeptics: The Example of St. Maria Goretti

There are those who take Christ’s commandment “thou shalt not judge” (Mt 7:1-6) as a philosophical sentence that aims at suspending all judgment, at all times and in all places. It would be necessary, therefore, to give in to a kind of suspension, of restraint marked by relativism; everything would have to be without a scale of values or appreciation. To give one’s opinion would be seen as an overstatement, the worst of vanities—the horror—almost nihilism. We would have to think of a life without truth that would lead us to a dead end. We thus read Christ as we read Sextus Empiricus, who urges us, in the face of the complexity of the things of life, to practice epoché, the virtue of the suspension of judgment, as a purgation against blabber, an extinction of bad, diffuse and confused thoughts, golden silence in the face of bronze logorrhea and endless palaver in search of the truth. You will not judge because my life is my life, your life is yours; we do what we want; you do your job and I’ll do mine. In essence, the provisional morality of the moderns is always in this direction.

It is because Jesus Christ died and rose again that His words have a scope that goes beyond the practical remarks of a Stoic philosopher. What Tertullian found absurd while giving him faith, credo quia absurdum; what is a folly born of the cross; what is a grandiose struggle against death, life—ends in eternal glory and gives Jesus’ words a strength that connects us to heaven. None of the great Latin moralists rivals the teaching of Jesus. Seneca teaches us to be happy for a long time, Jesus to be happy forever in His Kingdom.

The commandment of Christ is not of this kind. Modern people are assailed by these nonsense phrases inspired by the Gospel and rephrased in a limp manner: “There’s no accounting for taste;” “to each his own;” “who are you to judge?” When Jesus commands us not to judge, he does not forbid us to give our opinion on a painter, a film, a book; he does not forbid us to say what we feel and think. The judgment that Jesus speaks of is the condemnation of a person in view of eternal life. This judgment is not the same as the one commonly accepted.

Yes, Jesus forbids us to judge others in order not to be judged. To judge the other when one is vitiated oneself, deranged and stained by sin is of the Pharisees, the bourgeois Catholics that Bloy railed against, who in public adorn themselves with beautiful and good virtues while in private they sink. They have a damned mass inside them. Not to judge a person is not to lock him up in his sin but to leave him the possibilities of his grace. God is the only judge capable of judging for eternity a soul fixed at the moment of its death. To judge for eternity one’s neighbor is a matter that is beyond us; we are unworthy, incompetent. In doing so, we fall into the pride of doing without God and replacing Him. Our impotence brings us back to our condition and we shine before the greatness of God by our impotence.

So, an alcoholic husband who beats his wife should not scandalize me? And I should keep quiet for fear of judging, of ending up as a Pharisee. This is where we have to distinguish between judging the person and the actions. To judge the actions of a violent husband seems obvious. In the West, beating one’s wife does not require any explanation. However, this man, let’s admit that he is my father, that I love him, and wish him well, know his distress and pain, I would have every right and duty to condemn his behavior but I would also have the duty and right to put him back on the right path, to offer him the possibility of being redeemed and to make him find grace.

It is easy among us, among those who are called “traditionalists,” to take the greatest efforts, the most beautiful piety, the most beautiful set plate, and to make sure of one’s state of grace before the host at communion. It is easy then to condemn the one who out of despair, out of lack of hope, threw himself from the bridge into the Garonne. But the holy Curé d’Ars reminds us: between the bridge and the water, in his fall, the suicide may have had time to convert. What science do we have to know this and to judge in eternity a man converted in extremities? In the same way, before the woman who has had an abortion, anger and fury, like an alchemy, must change into mercy. Misericordes sicut pater.

And worse still, what about when you have a murderer before you? Such serious crimes, even if they are served in prison, cannot help but be branded on a man’s skin. In the perspective of eternity, however, this is the power of Christianity, a power that shakes the guts, disarms and upsets and can change a man and convert him. A society that lives by God understands that there are two kinds of justice, that of the body and that of the soul. One can condemn harshly and still forgive, one can acquit broadly and still fall into perpetual damnation. If the body of the condemned man has been punished, imprisoned, even executed, his soul belongs to no tribunal, no law, no judgment of men; it is left to God, supreme judge of a supreme court. A society that lives without God does not understand the need to save and judge souls. Modern society indulges in a real confusion between condemning, condoning and forgiving. The whole thing forms an indistinguishable fruit salad. Forgiveness has lost its metaphysical power and condemnation is often clothed in every excuse. It takes a powerful, almost supernatural fortitude to condemn a man’s heinous crimes and, at the same time, to hope for his conversion, the redemption of his crimes through confession and contrition in view of salvation. Christianity is gifted with this kind of story. Maria Goretti’s story is the proof.

The Example of St. Maria Goretti

Two families lived in a hamlet, lost in the scrub of Lazio. Assunta Goretti was a peasant farmer, widow, mother of two daughters. Mary, the elder, was a young girl of eleven, pretty, devout and pious. In the house next door lived the Serenellis, whose son, fat, vulgar, deranged, a masturbator, a fan of pinup girls, had his heart set on the young girl.

Only known photograph of St. Maria Goretti (1902).

One day when Assunta was in the fields, the young man found Maria in the courtyard that separated the two houses. “Come with me!” The pretty girl, understanding well what was being played out, refused. Alessandro insisted again and the girl refused again. Then, he took her arm, pulled her into the kitchen; thinking of raping, took off her clothes to satisfy his fatal desire. “Stop, stop, Alessandro, if you do that you will go to hell.” Furious because of this refusal, the big beast, taken by the demon, seized his knife and struck the young girl. He did not spare her. Five blows fell her to the ground. He then attacked again with nine more: perforated lungs, pierced heart, intestines, spleen. She is found in her blood. Agonizing, after the confession, in front of all, she exclaims, “Let him be forgiven, for I forgive him, in the name of God’s love.” Alessandro spent thirty years in prison.

One evening, in prison, he received a dream visit from Mary. He was overwhelmed. Behind bars, in irons, in the damp darkness of a cell, he was converted, spent years loving Christ. He was converted. When he got out of prison, he returned to Nettuno, fell on his knees in front of Assunta and asked for her forgiveness, who, in the name of Christ, forgave him. The next day both went to Mass and took communion together. Serenelli ended his life in the Capuchin Order, worshipping the blessed woman he had killed, in poverty and love of Christ.

Nothing seems to be right in this story. How can a young girl forgive her attacker so quickly and allow the help of grace? How can a mother agree to forgive her daughter’s murderer when the simplest thing would have been to curse him for life? How could this man, so heavy, feel the urgency of such a conversion to the point of being, in the end, the worshipper of his own victim and believing in the eternal life offered to God in remission of sins? Something is beyond us and beyond good sense and common sense.

Everything should have been simpler: once a killer, always a killer. Irrecoverable, irredeemable, irremissible. Through deep, unsuspected and inexplicable ways, the Lord offered him the possibility, whatever the opinion, whatever the doxa thinks, the possibility of conversion despite the horror, despite the crime. While this does not excuse anything and does not remove the weight of condemnation in the eyes of men, even the worst of us has the possibilities of his grace offered to us, and our judgment will not be able to do anything about it; our opinion, our preconceived notions, our suspicions, our suspicions can do nothing. The truth comes from God. Alessandro Serenelli is in the line of executioners who became mad in Christ, St. Paul being the first.

We do not know everything. Only God knows the nature of our heart, what is inside, with which black or red blood it is filled. Are these not the edifying and surprising examples that can change our view of judgment? There are suspicious men who, in good faith, can only converted by seeing it with their own eyes.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

The Left has Won: A Review of Julien Rochedy

For almost three years now, Julien Rochedy has been writing books. His latest book Philosophie de droite confirms his talent.

The left has won. The right has lost. Vae victis. In this accessible and cultured book, the author presents a critical genealogy of the 18th century, from which all our problems emanate: progressism, wokism, deconstruction, nihilism, soft and Europeanist liberalism, self-hatred, universalism. Blue, green, colored hair, interlopers and grotesque drag queens are the corrupted fruits of this difficulty century. And likewise, in a conversational tone, our friend Rochedy explains to us how and why the right lost and why the left won: “The counter-revolutionary restoration regularly failed, not because of any weakness in the counter-revolutionary philosophy, but because the counter-revolutionaries were largely incapable of using political methods and the press.” And to continue: “It is useless to congratulate oneself, as the right still does, by noting that the major part of the people shares a good part of conservative ideas. Also, the inability of the right to become an aggressive minority is without question one of the great causes of its perpetual failures.”

Julien Rochedy does not seek to distinguish the left from the right as political parties on an increasingly fragmented chessboard, but as a course of life, a line of thought and conduct. In short, to be left or right is to be bilious or sanguine. The right is dour, a kill-joy, declaiming ill omens, while confusing bourgeois domination by money with the conservative or reactionary base. In short, the right has become autistic, crazy by dint of being right, without ever having known how to sell a dream.

The core of the book is a critical and impressive synthesis of the Left Enlightenment. We are, at our time, in the degenerate phase of the Enlightenment. The old regime is characterized, as Charles Maurras said, by that tradition “which reigns in the past by its silent power and the solid bond of habit;” it is from this point of view that Hubert Métivier defines the Old Regime as custom. The Enlightenment is the opposite. Jacobinism established it; the use of the Reason devoured faith and mystery; the will to deconstruct prevailed upon tradition; and the conceptual and universal man prevailed on real men. “The enlightenment invented the idea of possible happiness. If happiness was possible, it had to be for all: whoever emancipates himself, by Reason, from the past and its traditions, was its natural candidate; the mathematical laws which apply to nature are invariable and universal; it can thus only be thus for the whole human race. ” Happiness itself is built against Christian joy, the foretaste of the heavenly table, and turns away from original sin that Lent reminds us of every year. If happiness, a new idea in Europe, the happiness of this earth, is attainable, let’s go for it, even if it means massacring, destroying, burning. All means are good to gain it.

The elite of this century are more and more gnawed at by an established bourgeoisie and convinced of progress. This elite, motivated by “likes,” flirt in the salons like on Tinder; they are depicted with exquisite cruelty by Crébillon fils, notably in Les Égarements du cœur et de l’esprit (The Wanderings of the Heart and the Spirit), the most beautiful piece of writing of the Regency. Autistic, the nobility hid in their lands, refusing to go to war. The bourgeoisie, harried yet ambitious, formed into clubs, into circles, entrepreneurial, patrons of new ideas, and awaited their turn. Chateaubriand says it in his Memoirs: the aristocracy had reached the age of vanities. In a century when the Old Regime was slowly rotting, two thinkers imposed the foundations of the left: Voltaire and Rousseau.

Robert Darnton in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime explains the difference between the two men: the one thinks of what has been polished by the use of society, relationships and world codes; while the other thinks that society is bad; that it rots men and corrupts hearts, who are infinitely good however when they are naked, in the natural. Julien Rochedy sums up very well the differences between a left of center and a societal left. Voltaire advocates the liberal values of tolerance and progress, and thus impiety and materialism; Rousseau advocates the deconstruction of the structures of society, structures that are factious and therefore unjust. Voltaire is linked to Sade, the archetype of the degenerate produced by a society without God, without taboos or prohibitions; while Rousseau is linked to Robespierre, the terrible technocrat motivated by cold and vaunted ideas.

The revolution inspired by Rousseau envisages this: namely, that the citizen consents from now on to give himself entirely to the community, body and goods. In the Discourse on Political Economy, the Swiss defends the idea that everything belongs to the State: property, goods, education of children. What a magnificent totalitarian system! He excludes the one who voluntarily evades the clause of the contract. Rochedy quotes extracts from The Social Contract that are particularly eloquent: “The sovereign people can banish from the State anyone who does not trust them; they can banish him, not as an impious person, but as an unsociable one, as incapable of sincerely loving the laws, justice, and of immolating his life to his duty if necessary.”

The way Rochedy draws the French revolution as a progressive left-wing revolution, opposed to the English revolution, a hundred years before, defined by Burke as conservative, is remarkable. Burke understood the use of a revolution to restore a political situation, by re-establishing historical continuity. It is the people who put a sovereign monarch back in place, conscious of tradition and permanence.

Can we save the 18th century? Yes, insofar as it still produces beauty, designs beautiful castles, large gardens, interiors furnished with remarkable furniture, colorful fittings, delicate paintings. If Rousseau and Voltaire are our enemies, how can we not love the melancholy of the solitary walker and the Century of Louis XIV in which lived the excellent master of Ferneyt, so remarkably well written. Voltaire is the BHL of the XVIIIth century, who has for him, at least, the form and the pith.

“The counter-revolution will not be a contrary revolution, but the opposite of the revolution.” Half of the book, once the left-wing thought is dismantled, is a praise of counter-revolutionaries. Burke is the theorist, de Maistre the polemicist, Chateaubriand the fiddler. This book is an initiation into a current of thought so badly explored and so denigrated. One can only feel a deep sympathy for these thinkers as they are clear, just, clairvoyant; and in the ideas as in the form. They have the talent for the sentence well-written, for aphorism, for the punch line. They all participate in literary glory. Let’s taste the efficient and acid prose of Joseph de Maistre who shoots red-hot at the rights of man: “If they had said the rights of the Citizen, or of the man-citizen, I would still understand them. But I confess that Man, as distinguished from the Citizen, is a being that I do not know at all. I have seen, in the course of my life, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Italians, Germans, Russians, I have even learned, in a famous book, that one can be Persian. But I have never seen the Man, if he has rights, I do not care; never will we have to live together: let him go to exercise these rights in imaginary realism.” Edifying!

The counter-revolutionaries resurrected, in the middle of a century that invented individualism, the holistic conception of the Classics. Man is part of a whole and this whole is made of identity, of tradition. This is the thought of Herder, the best enemy of Kant who ever remained in Koenigsbergian mists, that theorist of a universal history and of a cosmopolitan world inhabited by abstract Man; thought confirmed by this sentence of de Maistre: “Let us be told, let us write whatever we want; our fathers have dropped anchor, let us hold on to it.”

In opposition to the Revolution and the rights of man, theorizing and applying the supreme being, and to Freemasonry, which wants to crush the wicked, the thinkers of the counter-revolution defend Christianity and praised this religion as a guarantee of stability and tradition that societies need. It is not a secularized Christianity, the product of a bland globalism, open to the world, adept at tea parties, but a Christianity that embraces natural law, the famous Ambrosian revolution, and makes sense in the lives of men in an organic way.

“It is the authority,” writes Rochedy, “of the Church that maintains it [society], after having shaped it in view of Christ; it is her infallibility that imposes on men the spirit of obedience and fidelity to that which is older and greater than themselves. The Catholic Church is the guarantor of the principle of authority.” In short, Christianity structures and guarantees society horizontally and vertically through access to a hierarchy that leads to the transcendent and to Heaven. The cross, in short. I would advise my friend Julien to read Father William Slattery’s book, Comment les catholiques ont bâti une civilisation (How Catholics Built a Civilization), a fundamental book in this defense and illustration of Christianity. Christianity has built a civilization of builders, from Ambrose of Milan to the rise of monasteries, Venetian capitalism, the fruit of entrepreneurial freedom, the year 1000, land clearance, the formation of champions of knowledge and of schools. “Catholicism,” says the abbot, “is not a religion, but a vision of the world, a vision of all the dimensions of man, of all the dimensions of society.”

The last part of Julien Rochedy’s book presents in two chapters the project of a right-wing thought that opposes to reason, materialism, politics, individualism, Man, the contract, revolution and freedom, tradition, Christianity, religion, community, humans, history, continuity, freedoms. History is the conscience of right-wingers: it sets the example, makes sense, confirms continuities. Classical truths make sense. One can then begin to dream of a society where the sovereignty of borders would be guaranteed, where the structures governed by God would make sense, from the nation to the family; where solidarity would make a community; where respect for hierarchy would place the soldier, the priest, the father and the ancestor in their rightful place in society. This world is the world of peace that the counter-revolutionaries have outlined.

It is regrettable that the title of the book does not correspond entirely to the project centered on the eighteenth century, at the origin of left-wing thought, and that the author does not continue in the history of ideas with the Romantic current, reduced to Chateaubriand, the anti-moderns such as Flaubert and Balzac, the anti-bourgeois such as Baudelaire and Bloy; then the thinkers of the Action Française up to the philosophers of politics and law, like Spengler, Toynbee, Evola or Schmitt. Perhaps even an overview from Saint Augustine to Tolkien would have given a sum of traditional thought. This is the wish that we address to our friend: to continue his work from book-to-book with a true counter-history of ideas likely to make us renew with the beautiful, the good, and the true. Our society needs it.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured: “Marie Antoinette being taken to her Execution, October 16, 1793,” by William Hamilton; painted in 1794.

Stefan Zweig, Vienna and Times Past

The great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) witnessed the end of a world, that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of a certain Europe that disappeared after the First World War.

Under his polite and elegant airs of a good-natured author, Stefan Zweig was part of the serious avant-garde, at the beginning of the 20th century, which shone in the most beautiful capital of Europe, Vienna. This placid, well-to-do, charming, happy, distinguished and successful author, from the Jewish and literate bourgeoisie—true to form, immaculately dressed, velvet eyes a little melancholic, trimmed moustache—lived on a volcano, in a Europe of crisis; knew the fall of the old Austrian Empire and the terrible First World War; then exile and the defeat of hope.

Of all the authors that Vienna produced, Zweig is the one who most illustrates the cosmopolitanism of a glittering intelligentsia, of an elite that was sure of itself and its qualities. A friend of Freud, Schnitzler, Richard Strauss, he was one of those writers, like Paul Morand, who saw Europe as a vast salon where life was lived in cafés; he spoke French like a native and thought of Venice as an archipelago. It is a higher cosmopolitanism which prolonged the Concert of Europe, that gallant Europe. A great friend of Emile Verhaeren, Romain Rolland and Paul Valéry, he conceived London as the center of his business affairs and Paris as the second homeland he knew in 1902, with its omnibuses and its carriages. Familiar with bookshops and concerts, a billiard player, a lover of unpublished manuscripts, walks in museums, women and Verlaine, his beloved poet—he lost himself happily in the vibrant whirl of beefsteak washed down with Brouilly and bistros on rue Campagne-Première. “For me, Paris is a reward;” everything was there.

In Zweig there is a tension between voluptas in motu, an infernal nomadism, and voluptas in stabilitate, pleasure and things; between movement and fixity; displacement and scrutiny. When he wants to write about Mary Stuart, he goes to London; he comes back to Paris to write about Marie Antoinette. Zweig could write without traveling. This tension is present in his work, but also in his life, the most striking synthesis of which is The World of Yesterday, a sort of autobiographical testament published in 1942. As he says in the preface, he seeks to recount “the destiny of a generation, our singular generation.”

The “volcanic” upheavals shook Europe, and it is up to Zweig to narrate them: “I was born in 1881 in a great and powerful Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy; but let no one look for it on the map; it has been erased without a trace.” The golden age of security. A nebula of artists, from Rilke to Mahler via the secessionists and Otto Wagner, participated in the greatness of the capital of an Empire that recognized its limits. It turned inward, shaping its own security, to be in the vanguard of the arts: “Austria no longer asserted political ambitions nor experienced particular success in its military ventures, so that patriotic pride was most strongly transferred to the desire to conquer artistic supremacy.” Who would have believed it—the Empire—in the image of old Franz-Josef—devoting itself to the Ver Sacrum, to new ideas, sensing the new sense of art.


The whole of Vienna was frenzied in ebullition. “Live and let live” was the famous Viennese maxim “instead of this German value which finally poisoned and disturbed the existence of all other peoples.” Vienna of the cafés and of a triumphant, precocious youth, gifted for literature, love and the arts, like Hofmannsthal. The Jung-Wien. The brothels were an institution to which all youth rushed; syphilis, the mark of the Devil, condemned many talents to an early silence. Sexuality remained, although its era could no longer be considered pious, and tolerance was now a central value, tainted with an anarchic, disturbing aura that agitated modern minds of which Freud was the exorcist.

Music was a hard drug, where the simple mistake of a violinist at a concert was worth the disgrace for life in musical circles. Only accuracy. But already the inevitable First World War was on its way—the conclusion of national consciences all over Europe, from the Italy of the Risorgimento to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Austria, subjected to Prussia, qualified as vulgar and arrogant, submitted to a disgraceful alliance; the death of Franz-Ferdinand, if it was not synonymous with tragedy because the archduke, successor of the old emperor, was far from unanimous, led to war by a game of alliances that led to the intervention of France and England to the rescue of Serbia. “Es steht schlimmer als je, die Maschine ist doch schon im Gang—It is more serious than ever, the machine is already in motion.” It was the defeat of Europe, the end of empires, the fall of the dream into a generalized civil war.

Stefan Zweig had a delicate but also lively, almost dry and stripped writing style, a style with a light, concise and efficient smile that he shares with Arthur Schnitzler, and a style which cultivates this feeling of erosion, this motif of the irremediable flaw dear to decadentists like Catulle Mendès. Zweig’s fragrant, pleasant style cuts like a scalpel, butchers the heart of man. Unlike his friend Josef Roth, he does not have a talent for lyricism and the burlesque, as one can find in The Radetzky March, a novel of collapse, a roman à thèse and a comic-tragic novel about the saga of the overturned world of the von Trottas.

Zweig’s novels are lively, with a talent for finesse. Noteworthy is Confusion. A university student recalls the memory of his philology professor who opened up the ways of the mind to him. Beyond the love of study, this text evokes the bond between two men and the ambiguities which agitate against the morals, the law and in the glances of others. The professor has a double and disconcerting attitude towards the student—sometimes he lets him get close to him, sometimes he coldly pushes him away. This behavior plunges the student into a deep confusion that quickly turns into a great torment.

This work, praised by Freud, has a recurrent logic: to highlight internal struggles, triggered by an external event. This logic is present in Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, the story of a young woman who runs away from her world with a young man she met only one day before. The comments of the narrator and an elderly English woman go to great lengths to describe the fires and consuming passions which, despite the extinguished embers, still stir the purest of hearts.

Zweig also excelled in the art of biographical portraiture, to discover the key to genius and its mysteries. A gallery could well be made of his portraits in the Louvre or the Prado. Nietzsche describes the philosopher as the martyr of the world, a man who gives birth to his ideas in pain, a man of nerves of steel ready to break, with a head boiling like a still. His Magellan fires the imagination, with the tough and courageous adventure of a gentle dreamer; his Balzac is a monument to creative force; Tolstoy traces the how and why of a mystical conversion of a writer at the height of his fame.

The End of a World

Yes, yesterday’s world is over. In 1916 the old emperor died. In 1918 the Empire became a federal republic, gangrened by socialism. In 1938 it was annexed to the German Reich as a large province of the empire. What disgrace! Zweig, so quick to detect the perversities of the heart, but not very lucid in politics, did not see the rise of Nazism. In Salzburg, he saw nothing of Hitler’s rise to power, whereas Josef Roth, a supporter of the restoration of the Empire, had already in 1938 in The Emperor’s Tomb identified the appearance of men in black uniforms, Hugo Bosses swarming the cafés. The eagle flags, yellow and black, were replaced by swastika flags on a red background.

Zweig believed that the order of history would get rid of Hitler without any drama. That was Zweig’s big mistake. Then came exile. Farewell to the Europe that was disappearing. Hofmannsthal died in 1929. Schnitzler in 1931. Roth in 1939.

After exile in London, here he was, lost at the other end of the world, in Brazil, in Petrópolis.

In 1942, in good health but consumed by the black bile buried in his heart, he committed suicide with his wife, in despair at seeing his world collapse, which would never recover and whose resurrection is impossible.

Fortunes and misfortunes carried off Zweig. The society he loved so much has disappeared, but his words yet preserve that world’s likeness and its core essence.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured: Stefan Zweig in Rio de Janeiro, 1936.

Man and Woman: Nature is Right!

In a fascinating and accessible book, Homme, femme. Ce que nous disent les neurosciences: La nature a raison! (Man Woman. What neuroscience tells us: Nature is right!) Professor René Écochard reaches into the contribution of neurosciences to explain how our biology influences our behaviors as men and women—contrary to what gender theory asserts.

The brain is a genius. It grows with us, shapes itself, operates, at each moment of life, with mechanisms, exchanges of fluids, release of hormones, so that it is at the same time a receptacle of our education and our evolution and a predisposed engine since our birth. We are born male or female. Our brain is marked, like a seal, with this quality; and an astonishing alchemy, a clever play of hormones, like a machine, is at work.

René Écochard is not a polemicist and this book, in a calm, sober, natural manner, asserts conservative ideas about the family, the couple, the function of woman and man, opposing their equality, supporting, on the other hand, their holy and beautiful complementarity, between love and war, Mars and Venus. Écochard is one of us, and consequently, opposed to the theory of gender, careful not to adhere to the progressive delusions, to the modern and deconstructionist theories, to the open world of Davos, and to wokism. If the reader is afraid of reading a book on neuroscience, he should rest reassured— the tone is simple, accessible, even though there is a substantial set of notes and a substantial biography at the end of the volume. But isn’t it the characteristic of a great scientist to allow lambda readers, like us, gain clarity of ideas and purpose, while also digesting a complex quantity of data?

The professor places the debate on the side of science, though the debate is now also informed by the political and economic challenges of a fragmented, liquid, liberal, too liberal, consumer society. So be it Also, it becomes necessary to restore the intellectual stakes of these last years. Societal progressivism claims, in the name of human rights, the absolute freedom of the individual, in the very name of his rights and even of his whims. Nothing should prevent the freedom of man, not even nature which, unjustly, works like fate. We are born a man, by chance, without having chosen. What misfortune! This kind of biological determinism is unsustainable for progressives.

Distinguishing Nature and Culture

Progressivism’s second fight is to try to distinguish nature and culture, to separate them drastically, as two things that have nothing to do with each other, and to make of the one something outdated, and of the other, a kind of a la carte menu from which one chooses everything as one pleases. Thus, a little boy can become a little girl, despite having a penis, if he decides to wear make-up. The father is a symbolic function. The family can, well, in the name of modernity and of rights, be constituted by two moms. The reign of the individual.

Professor Écochard’s book seeks to present three main points: born male or female, our biology determines part of our behavior; our education, our culture, our evolution in society are anchored to our sex disposed at birth, as if married to it. Man and woman are not undifferentiated but complementary: “The same hormones masculinize or feminize the body, but also the mind.” There is a coherence between a male body and a male personality; hence the deep distress of a society where we repeat that we are physically a man but not psychologically; that what is natural is a stereotype, therefore atrocious and oppressive, where we distinguish between gender and sex and, even more grotesquely, “gender identity” and “gender expression.” While modern society asks us, in the name of vague rights, to choose—nature takes the opposite view of Beauvoir’s famous phrase and enjoins us to observe this precept—one becomes a man because one is born a man.

Without talking about determinism, the professor well says that “human societies are not structured by genetics alone—free will enriches human life.” And to add that where progressives deny the importance of nature and the fullness of culture, it is necessary to consider a kind of concordance between biological determination and our way of being a man, a woman, based on our education and our personal trajectory: “The process of masculinization of the male brain is biological; but it is also educational; education participates in the development of the natural given which the Y chromosome establishes directly or through testosterone.”

The Evolution of Boys and Girls

The first part of the book is devoted to children and their evolution. Girls have a predominance of empathy. This is explained by the fact that boys and girls “have a natural foundation, linked in part to the higher level of testosterone in boys than in girls in the fetal period.” From childhood, we read, “the brains of girls and boys develop differently under the influence of the games that attract them, the interactions with their environment and the gaze of those around them, which indicates their horizon as women or men. All this contributes to the development of a personality whose feminine or masculine traits are gradually revealed.” It thus appears that everything is established from the conception of the child; that the child, girl or boy, is fitted by its sex with such or such characteristics which will influence its behavior, its tastes, its ideas. The mechanisms work! Let’s get on with the show!

The most relevant part of the book is the one that deals with the family. At a time when it is explained that a grandmother can be a father, at a time of the reconstituted family, single parent, model of perfect capitalism, and marriage for all in its version 2.0, the information of the professor is delightful. The family is the perfect illustration of a cultural, civilizational institution, anchored, copied in nature, sublimating the instinct of reproduction and the animal behavior of man and woman, by a sacrament and an institution. To understand that an alchemy at the level of the brain takes place between the married couple, between the mother and her child, between the father and his child, confirms and reaffirms the defense of the family according to natural law. A man tends to become a father—and the father, this changed man, chemically transformed, is irreplaceable. The conjugal bond, marriage, a cultural institution, is in perfect harmony with the natural feeling of love between a man and a woman, so much so that at the time of pregnancy “the greater the hormonal changes observed in the mother, the greater the changes observed in the father.” Amazing!

The Father Back in the Spotlight

The father resumes, under the professor’s observations, some meaning. Whereas he had been reduced to being a function, now the man who becomes a dad is transformed, “the hormonal balance of the father changes during the pregnancy of his wife; even the view of the newborn’s smile triggers a burst of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, in his parents.” How can that happen, even in the name of individual rights, with a surrogacy pregnancy? During the first months of the child, the father feels less testosterone, this drop encourages him to stay in the family nest, which has served, during evolution, to encourage the father to protect his child from threats. The model of the protective “Dad” is not just a stereotype, it is biologically posited. This is remarkable—becoming a father is not simply an apprenticeship by a method, a What-do-I-know-about-paternity, a Being-a-dad-for-dummies—but on the contrary happens naturally. “Even later, the man undergoes a kind of metamorphosis; seeing his wife breastfeeding, he also benefits from a hormonal shift that strengthens his attachment to his wife and their child. The same hormone therefore serves as a vector to nourish the child and to strengthen the bonds.”

This book will therefore be a necessary vade-mecum for all Catholic supporters of natural law and those who want to justify their principles with factual and scientific data that will reassure us about our ideas and our struggle.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured image: “Das Stelldichein” (The Tryst), by Carl Schweninger d. J. Painted ca. 1903.