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.


Louis Veuillot, Lay Preacher

Louis Veuillot (1813-1883), head of L’Univers, exerted a powerful influence on 19th-century French Catholicism. He was also, quite simply, an extraordinary personality. Portrait of a social “ultramontane.”

Rome, 1838. Louis Veuillot, 25, on a mission to the Orient, stopped off in the Italian capital. A journalist for the government press at the time, the young man was disillusioned, having nothing but contempt for the nihilism of his time, whether it had the face of the Voltairean bourgeoisie or revolutionary anarchism. This soul, a friend of religion, yearned for the Absolute, and it was in the Eternal City that he was struck by light: “I was in Rome. At a bend in the road, I met God. He beckoned me, and I hesitated to follow. He took my hand and I was saved.” This “veritable first communion,” which he recounts in Rome et Lorette (Rome and Loretto), was a conversion in the most radical sense of the word. He, the self-taught son of an illiterate cooper living in Bercy, already a bulimic reader and soon an insatiable writer, had just found his way.

A Journalist on Fire

“As soon as he became a Christian, he felt like an apostle,” said his nephew François. Indeed, Louis returned to France animated by a religious zeal that would never leave him, and he chose to dedicate his life to bearing witness to this fire, to making Catholic truth resound everywhere, and also, with the ardor of a convert, to scourging freethinkers of all kinds (including the bourgeois louis-philippard “preceded by his belly and followed by his behind”): “These gentlemen have a great virtue that they preach to us incessantly: tolerance. They tolerate everything, except that we do not tolerate everything they tolerate. And that is where our quarrels come from.”

And it was journalism that was to be the instrument of his apostolate. In 1840, he landed at L’Univers, a moderate Catholic paper with a small readership (1,500 subscribers) and no resources, run by Charles de Montalembert. He soon became its chief editor—along with his brother Eugène, a writer without a genius for the pen but with good business sense—and for forty years made it the leading organ of French Catholicism. Its success was phenomenal: by 1860, the daily had become France’s fifth-largest newspaper, with 13,000 subscribers (and an audience estimated by Mgr Gerbet at 60,000-80,000).

The recipe for such success lies in his popular base. While the bishops always looked on him with a distant, even accusatory eye, the lesser clergy championed this plebeian from the same national bowels. In seminaries, in small parishes and among provincial notables, the flamboyant journalist—whom Thibaudet would say was the greatest of his century—was worshipped. Far from the mundane, he was above all the herald of a faith full of social solicitude, as witness the passage on the death of his father: “On the edge of his grave, I thought of the torments of his life, I recalled them, I saw them all; and I also counted the joys that, despite his servile condition, this heart truly made for God could have tasted. Pure joys, profound joys! The crime of a society that nothing can absolve had deprived him of them! A glimmer of mournful truth made me curse not work, not poverty, not sorrow, but the great social iniquity—impiety—by which the little ones of this world are robbed of the compensation God wanted to attach to the inferiority of their lot. And I felt the anathema burst forth in the vehemence of my pain…”

Veuillot’s journalism continued to be combat journalism, sometimes virulent, driven by a burning concern for the truth, unencumbered by convenience or recognition (he refused the decorations of the Académie française and the Académie des sciences morales): “The journalist forces the stragglers to walk, engages and compromises the timid, holds back the reckless; he binds up the wounded, comforts the vanquished, makes the clumsy understand their false maneuvers and repairs them.” His pen, wielded to wound evil, was genial as it was merciless, as full of ethos as it was of pathos. Hence the polemics and scandals that marked his life.

Church First

Although a staunch monarchist who even drafted a constitution, Louis Veuillot was never a politician—and twice refused to run for parliament. His mantra: “The Catholic Church first, and then what exists; the Catholic Church to improve, correct and transform all things.” His political choices were subordinated to religious interests—a position that heralded the Ralliement. The question is, how to act in a positivist age that has broken with Christianity? Against centrifugal modernity, for fear of dilution, Veuillot opted for centripetal forces: the empire, the Pope, the Church.

However, in the name of the same Catholic interests, the “liberal Catholics” went for the opposite gamble—and this marked the start of a fratricidal war with the “intransigent” Veuillot, who at the same time introduced the writings of the counter-revolutionary Donoso Cortés to France. Born out of the fight for freedom of education, the “Catholic party” fractured over the Falloux Law (which Veuillot disapproved of), then tore itself apart from 1852 onwards. While L’Univers sided with Napoleon III, the “liberals” defended the virtues of parliamentarianism, and considered that the modern regime of freedom (of conscience, expression, the press, association, etc.) allowed and would allow Catholic interests to triumph. The free Church in the free State: “The triumph of the Church in the 19th century will be precisely to vanquish her enemies through freedom, as she vanquished them in the past through the sword of feudalism and the scepter of kings,” professed the sensitive and introverted Montalembert (Les intérêts catholiques au XIXe siècle).

For three decades, infamous adjectives rained down from all sides, and people accused and replied to each other in books. Ozanam, Mgr Dupanloup and de Broglie accused Veuillot of fanaticism. Supported by Mgr Pie, bishop of Poitiers, and reinforced by the encyclicals of Pius IX, the massive plebeian denounced in L’illusion libérale a “rich man’s error which could not have occurred to a man who had lived among the people and who would see the countless difficulties that truth, especially today, experiences in descending and maintaining itself in those depths where it needs all the protection, but particularly the example from above.” In the end, historian Émile Poulat summed up this unfortunate quarrel best: “So-called liberal Catholics are the recurring expression of an unresolved problem in the Church—its place and relationship within our society that has left God behind—while Veuillot remains the witness to an imprescriptible requirement within an anachronistic situation.”

“Lay Legate of the Infallible Pope”

Ironically, L’Univers was banned from publication by the Emperor, between 1860 and 1867, for having published the encyclical Nullis certe verbis, in which the Pope blamed French policy in Italy. A temporary death with apotheosis value. As a reader of Joseph de Maistre, Veuillot was devoted to the papacy—he was very attached to Pius IX—and, along with Dom Guéranger, took up the cause of papal infallibility, a dogma proclaimed at Vatican I (see Veuillot’s Rome pendant le ConcileRome during the Council). These debates were also an opportunity for him to battle against the “provincial spirit” of the “Gallicans,” whom he accused of threatening the unity of the Church—thereby fueling clear tendencies towards centralization. Together with the apostolic nuncio Fornari, Veuillot was the linchpin of French ultramontanism, the “lay legate of the infallible pope,” as the Journal des Débats put it. On the other hand, the “liberals,” supported by a large part of the French episcopate, feared that infallibility was a cover for political authoritarianism, and, along with Montalembert, denounced the “idol of the Vatican.” The truth surely lay somewhere between these two positions, as Cardinal Newman summed it up in his famous formula: “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” And indeed—a second irony of fate—in 1872, Pius IX reprimanded Veuillot for his vehemence against Dupanloup on the Italian (Roman) question, putting side-by-side “the party which fears the Pope too much” and the “opposite party, which totally forgets the laws of charity.” A rebuke tempered by a benediction that Veuillot would say “enters by breaking the windows!”

A genius of polemic to the point of excess, Louis was not a bad guy. A tender and delicate man, a kind-hearted father of six daughters, he lived and died firmly waving the flag of faith: “In all my life, I have been perfectly happy and proud of only one thing: that is to have had the honor and at least the will to be a Catholic, that is, obedient to the laws of the Church.” All is forgiven.


Rémi Carlu is a French journalist. This article appears courtesy of La Nef.


Martians!

What will happen when Putin signs an alliance with the little green men?

There is a danger greater than Putin, greater even than Trump—it is aliens, those that in our childhood we knew as Martians. The Yankee establishment seems very interested in drawing the attention of the American public to non-human technologies and extraterrestrial threats, which seem as problematic to demonstrate as the climate apocalypse. The Pentagon declassifies files with a transparency that would delight the late Dr. Jiménez del Oso. Those who once laughed at UFOs now seem to be convinced that we already have them here. The viewer cannot believe his eyes, while the shadow of a mothership looms over the defenseless United States: What will happen if Putin signs an alliance with the little green men? We can imagine panic on the West Coast, chaos in Washington and desperation in London: Putin is going to enter Paris, escorted by scaly Cossacks.

Such a threat to national security well deserves an increase in the Defense budget, two, three, four, five, as many times as necessary to provide us with the reverse technology that will allow us to overcome the challenge posed at Roswell. Soon, without a doubt, we will see the autopsies of the big-headed Martians who crashed their saucer after a reckless maneuver. And the public will swallow the millstone and cry out for the Military-Industrial Complex to defend them from the legions of Ummo or Ganymede. If intellectual and scientific credit is given to the girl Greta, why not give it to the abductees? At least these have been through a psychiatrist.

Popular Revolutions in Black Africa

Further down, a few thousand kilometers away from this decomposing Spain, in that Africa which we care so little about and from which so many problems come and will come to us, the wrongly labelled “European” Union is witnessing the volatilization of its influence in the Sahel, because of Russia, according to the press addicted to the Regime? Of course, since Putin replaced the coronavirus, all the evils of humanity come from Moscow.

However, the African military leaders who have taken power in recent years in Mali (2021), Burkina-Faso (2022), Guinea (2021) and this year in Niger have not resorted to the Wagner coup d’état, unlike in the past with French paratroopers and mercenaries hired by Paris. They have been military and popular coups that were fueled by France itself, a mere executor of the policies of the American Africom. After the overthrow of the Libyan state in 2011, the jihadists have found a terrestrial paradise in the lands of Fezzan and from there have intervened in Niger and Mali. France orchestrated two interventions to halt the march of the Tuareg fundamentalists on the Sahelian space, but soon discovered that it was much more practical to appease the Salafists in order to maintain their influence in Africa. The military of these countries began to see from their sad experience that the French services always had time to warn the members of the Islamic State of government attacks, in time for them to get their Qatari instructors to safety, for example. Meanwhile, and taking advantage of the occasion, Nigerian uranium was transported to France at ridiculous prices. Somehow the “protection” had to be paid for.

The Sahelian coups are true popular revolutions, like the Egyptian one of 1952, and which have been greeted with enormous popular support. Russian flags and portraits of Putin are more an expression of rejection of French (and European) perfidy than anything else. Macron, completely overwhelmed by his African debacle, has urged a military intervention by ECOWAS (a sort of African NATO) in Niger, as this country provides more than thirty percent of France’s nuclear fuel. However, knowing the internal rejection that an intervention by the sepoys would bring to their regimes, the governments of the zone refuse to move their forces. The United States, that faithful ally of Europe, has already negotiated on its own with Niger and has left Macron and dressed up and nowhere to go, as our grandmothers used to say. It was not for nothing that it was Victoria Nuland—she of F**k Europe!—who was in charge of negotiating the new state of affairs with Niger’s leaders. In case anyone thinks that this does not affect them, they should check their electricity bill in the coming months. France is the powerhouse of Europe.

Nor does it seem to be news that a good part of the weapons destined for Ukraine by NATO are turning up in Africa, where a certain power, very concerned about gender identity, climate change and aliens, is training its jihadist partners for a future pan-African war. Apparently, they can’t find a better way to end the growing influence of China and Russia on that continent. The Sahel and the Caucasus seem to be the next theater of global warfare. And we are not talking about aliens here, but surely the well-informed viewer, who knows where the star Sirius is and also knows that there are sixty genders, has no idea what Nagorno-Karabakh is or who the members of Boko-Haram are. He will find out eventually. And at his own expense.


Sertorio lives, writes and thinks in Spain. this review comes through the kind courtesy of El Manifiesto.


Featured: “Watching From Mars,” number 13, from the Mars Attacks! trading card series (1962). Drawings by Wally Wood, painted by Norman Saunders.


The Longer the Wait… Krogold: Triple Celinian Myth

With the publication of La Volonté du Roi Krogold (The Will of Krogold the King), Gallimard has brought Céline’s unpublished works to a close, putting an end to almost ninety years of uncertainty about the adventures of this legendary ruler. This will satisfy Céline aficionados first and foremost, while the uninitiated will find it a little-used gateway. If it is not easy to squeeze through, it nevertheless opens up new and unexpected reading perspectives.

Ecce Krogold! The famous Nordic king that Céline fans have been dreaming of since May 1936, when he made his appearance in Mort à crédit (Death on Credit), the second high point of a prolific body of work that is far more eclectic than the hasty reduction to the author’s regrettable (and condemnable!) ideological blunders generally suggests. Far from being part of the contemporary realist fictions that continue to make Céline so successful, King Krogold is an original figure with a doubly mythical aura, firstly, because the story of which he is the central character draws on a number of legends, episodes and memories, including the Arthurian cycle, the biography of François Villon, the writings of Rabelais and that mythical medieval figure from Breton legend, the Bard with the gouged-out eyes, imprisoned for standing up to Christianization.

The mythical brilliance of Krogold the king, then, manifests itself in the improbability, long persistent, of seizing concretely and in a palpable, “haptic” way an epic which has become, over the decades, as legendary as the collection of a few scraps of narratives that, in spite of everything, have come down to us.

Krogold vs. Gwendor

A reminder: From the moment Céline left his Montmartre apartment for Copenhagen, for fear of paying the price for the political upheaval in France in the wake of Operation Neptune, he never ceased to deplore, with the vehemence often characteristic of his writings since Mea culpa (1936), the theft (or incineration, as the case may be) of what he himself, in a letter to his faithful secretary, Marie Canavaggia, described as “a legend from the operatic Middle Ages.” We need only reread his two great post-war texts, Féerie pour une autre fois (Enchatment for Another Time) and D’un Château l’autre (From one Castle to Another), to be convinced.

The literary merit of Krogold seemed rather light, however: “I was disappointed to read it again. My romance hadn’t stood the test of time,” says the Ferdinand of Mort à credit, and judging by the rejection Céline received from his publisher Robert Denoël in 1933. Yet Denoël had not hesitated to publish L’Église (The Church), a five-act comedy of equally fragile merit, the first version of which had been rejected by Gallimard in 1927, just eleven months after the release of Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night). Literary choice or commercial calculation? In any case, important fragments of the legend were incorporated into the narrative of Mort à crédit, in whose pages King Krogold now runs like a weak, if stubborn, thread. It is as if Céline had sought to tacitly thumb his nose at his publisher.

Despite Ferdinand’s repeated efforts to provide a detailed account, the legend’s developing plot remains rather opaque. However, this has not prevented Celinian scholars, such as the American Erika Ostrovsky, from seeking to unravel the mystery behind it. In 1972, in her contribution to Cahiers de L’Herne, devoted to Céline, Ostrovsky noted that while the legend’s known beginning, the deadly confrontation between King Krogold, “mighty and damned monarch of all the marches of Tierlande” and the felon Gwendor, “grand margrave of the Scythians, Prince of Christiania” (and very secret fiancé of Wanda, Krogold’s only daughter) is “nothing out of the ordinary;” so much so that it “could almost pass for a pastiche of epic novels,” but it is special in that, on a more abstract level, it puts into perspective the defeat of the poetic (of which Gwendor is the embodiment) in the face of the degradation of everyday life, embodied by Krogold; the latter presented by Ostrovsky as an “executioner.”

Royal Magnanimity, Poetic Vagabondage

Although the idea of an antagonism between poetry and daily life is resistant to over-hasty expeditions, the development proposed by Ostrovsky half a century ago now requires nuance and even revision, particularly in the contortionist reading she gives King Krogold. This reassessment is all the more necessary given that, thanks to the recent publication by Gallimard of rediscovered pages, Céline enthusiasts and others can now look at a whole series of scenes and tableaux, differently elaborated, The common theme is the equipment of the legendary King Krogold (there is no need to go back over the incredible circumstances which, in the summer of 2021, saw the reappearance of the famous Céline manuscripts, stolen during the Liberation and thought to be lost forever, as well as the medico-judicial soap opera which has been making keyboards clack ever since).

First observation: the material of Le Roi Krogold gave birth to two distinct texts under Céline’s pen, La Volonté du Roi Krogold (a manuscript found in 1939/40) and La Légende du Roi René (an earlier version based on a typescript dated 1933/34). The former is presented by the collection’s editor, Véronique [Robert-] Chovin, as a rewrite of the latter. The numerous thematic parallels that emerge from one plot to the next support this assertion.

Second observation: the elements on which these two versions are based take off from very different starting points. One is based on the defeat of Prince Gwendor’s army by the victorious troops of King Krogold. Impaled by an enemy spear, Gwendor faces death from which, in a classic dialogue, he vainly seeks to obtain “one day… two days…” of reprieve. When the inhabitants of Christianie learn of the defeat of their protector Gwendor and the imminent arrival of King Krogold, they decide, in order to appease the latter’s a priori devastating grudges, not to prostrate themselves before the victor and offer him the city’s treasures, as might be expected, but instead to meet him by—dancing. This unusual stratagem had once saved the city from the advancing regiments of the Great Turk. Given the historical context of the writing, it is obviously tempting to read the advance of these armed troops as an allusion to the invasions (sometimes camouflaged as annexation) carried out by the Wehrmacht.

Alas! King Krogold is no connoisseur of dance. Indeed, he puts the harmless “dancers of the rigodon” to the sword. And yet, once he has entered the city, he heads straight for the cathedral and, while keeping his foot in the stirrup, throws his sword over a huge, panic-stricken crowd that has taken refuge under the nave’s vaults, “right up to the altar step.” This gesture of almost cinematic royal indulgence is greeted by jubilant singing, thanksgiving and even the appearance of an angel expressly sent down from heaven. Thus closes this first narrative, with its chivalric, popular and Christian overtones.

It is joined by another; this time centered on the wanderings of a trouvère, named Thibaut in René but Tébaut in Krogold. This vagabond poet with not-so-Catholic impulses seeks to join the victorious king (Krogold or René, respectively) in the North, to accompany him on his crusade. His itinerary takes him from Charente to Brittany, and in particular to Rennes, where—depending on the version of the legend—he is either about to be thrown into prison after narrowly escaping lynching by an excited mob (Krogold), or to stop off at the brothel where he casually abuses a prostitute (René). In both versions of the legend, however, he becomes the murderer of Prosecutor Morvan, president of the parliament of Brittany and father of Joad, Thibaut/Tébaut’s traveling companion secretly in love with Wanda, the king’s daughter. It is good to set up these triangles of conflict from the outset.

The Underpinnings of a Work

Make no mistake, however: Krogold, far from being an entertaining fabliau, is probably Céline’s most complicated text; René is a sort of first draft written in a French that is, if not academic, at least linguistically more accessible. In fact, these are pages not finalized by the author, with all that this implies of doubles, repetitions, unfinished business, which all very quickly causes a feeling of saturation, but also fatigue. At the same time, these pages are undoubtedly the most interesting and richest among the bundles of manuscripts found.

On the one hand, because together with the snippets of the legend inserted in Guerre (War) and Londres (London), (Gallimard, 2022), the other two recently exhumed unpublished works, they allow us to measure the important weight that throughout the 1930s, Céline gave to the possibility of giving birth to a medieval fantasy legend. That Krogold the King cannot be reduced to a unifying element of Mort à crédit, that he is much more than a mere vanishing point for Céline’s post-war rantings, constantly raising the specter of spoliation, which we now know were not completely aberrant, The major merit of this collection, published by Gallimard under the full title of La Volonté du Roi Krogold, followed by La Légende du Roi René, is that it does indeed create a coherent whole, the hitherto unexploited underbelly of a work that has been widely commented on for almost ninety years.

One of the things we need to look at is how this legend relates to Céline’s polemical writings. After all, the date chosen for the recovered manuscript is 1939/40. In the chronology of Céline’s publications, this corresponds to the period between the publication of L’École des cadavres (School for Corpses), (November 1938) and the release of Les Beaux Draps (The Fine Sheets), (February 1941). But Bagatelles pour un massacre (Trifles for a Massacre), published in December 1937, already invokes the Middle Ages, presenting ballet librettos populated by legendary characters and deliberately drawing on medieval imaginary.

We should also take a closer look at the legend’s many references to Christianity and its key concepts of blasphemy, sin, repentance, mercy and forgiveness, practices whose density is just as unusual here, as the invocation of a united Christianity is absent from the rest of the work—apart from Mea culpa.

“I am Celt”

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly in the linguistic contributions that the primary interest of the recovered pages lies. The few journalistic accounts published to date have made this clear. In the April 27 issue of La Croix, Fabienne Lemahieu writes of a “medieval Nordic tale with accents of Old French;” Alexis Brocas in the May issue of Lire/Magazine littéraire points to a “cousinly relationship between Céline’s language and that of the medieval Rabelais and Villon;” and David Fontaine in the May 10 issue of Le Canard enchaîné describes the Céline of Krogold as an “alchemist of style, [who] intends to resurrect medieval French.”

A single passage illustrates these observations: “The Queen in her finest attire, followed by her ladies and pages, slowly approached and descended the long marble steps. ‘Sir Knight, what would you have us give you?’ ‘Victory! Victory!’ he shouted ever louder, raising his hand to his chest to show his pure heart. ‘Victory? Victory? That it shall be [quickly]! But is not the King wounded? I had a sad dream… a fearful reverie yester night…’ ‘Nothing betides the King, my lady! Nothing betides the King! Apart from a mere wheal, a niggling scuff that his majesty little heeds.’ ‘You tell me so much, Sir Knight!’…’Excelras has won my wager!’”

While work on language is obviously one of the major constants in Céline’s work, his interest in pre-classical turns of phrase in this excerpt is not only in keeping with his well-known abomination of so-called academic French, but also reflects a more assertive approach to a linguistic (and hence literary) genealogy that emphasizes the Celtic heritage of the French language. At the expense of the Greek and Latin legacies advocated by the codifiers of classical French. It would probably be instructive to reread André Thérive’s Libre histoire de la langue française (Stock, 1954) to grasp the full ideological dimension behind this artistic approach.

“The intoxication of this existence must one day cease…”

Last but not least, Céline devotees will find it hard to pass up this collection which, in addition to the two versions of the legend, includes a rich appendix of all the passages in the work that can be associated, in one way or another, with the legend of Krogold the King: from Mort à crédit to D’un Château l’autre, via Guerre, Londres and Féerie pour une autre fois. A contextualizing essay by archivist and historian Alban Cerisier provides a more concrete account of the forces expressed in these two medievalist narratives. Although we are unaware of the legend’s “incompleteness,” “each scene offers, with the author’s ironic finesse and great humor, a variation on man’s relationship with his finitude.”

The aforementioned mythical dimension of the Krogold legend is further enhanced by the fact that it has remained incomplete and fragmentary, and that its material has somehow resisted literary form. But is not this a guarantee of its “legitimacy?” After all, how many medieval legends have come down to us without gaps?


Maxim Görke teaches in the German Department, at the University of Strasbourg.


Featured: King William I, folio 33 of Liber legum antiquorum regum, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D. II, 14th century. [This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.]


The Enlightenment and the French Revolution

Patrice Gueniffey is a French historican whose field is Napoleonic studies and the French Revolution. He has published several important books, including, Bonaparte: 1769–1802. He sits down with Christophe et Élisabeth Geffroy of La Nef magazine to discuss the connection between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, in that the latter carried out a “hold-up” on the Enlightenment. This interview comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Christophe et Élisabeth Geffroy (C&E): What are the main ideas of the Enlightenment?

Patrice Gueniffey (PG): To enumerate them would be to draw up a sort of Prévert inventory, for the activities of the Enlightenment extended to all areas of moral, political and social life. From tolerance to freedom of expression, from the question of education to that of inequality, from the problem of property to political forms, from religious questions to the reform of the penal system and the abolition of slavery, nothing escaped them.

C&E: In what way is the Enlightenment not a homogeneous movement, and what ultimately unites it?

PG: The range of issues addressed is so broad that there is no doctrinal homogeneity that would allow us to consider the Enlightenment as a kind of intellectual party with a doctrine. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau and, last but not least, Condorcet, are not different names for the same thinker. Their divergences, and often their oppositions, in every field, testify to the infinite diversity of what we have come to call the “Enlightenment.”

Patrice Gueniffey © Bruno Klein.

However, they do have one thing in common, which Kant defined very precisely in What is Enlightenment? (1784): “the public use of reason in all things.” This was a revolutionary formulation, since from then on, the most established authorities and venerable institutions would be open to free scrutiny, questioning their foundations and legitimacy. The Enlightenment separated truth and authority.

They invented nothing. They were a continuation of the scientific revolution which, from the end of the 15th century, developing in the 16th and triumphing in the 17th, overthrew medieval science, which found in Revelation the means to understand and explain natural phenomena. At least since Galileo, rational observation replaced the “lights” of Christian science. What astronomers, physicists, chemists and botanists had achieved since the early modern era in the study of the physical universe or the animal kingdom, philosophers were to extend to the realm of social and moral life. “Social science” was born, even if it was not until decades later that Abbé Sieyès gave it this name, thus marking its dependence on the natural sciences, adopting the latter’s methods, based on observation and then the reduction of reality to the laws that affect it, and adding to them the idea that, having discovered the laws that “affect” man in society, it would be possible to reorganize the world on fairer foundations.

Of course, not all the philosophers associated with the Enlightenment followed this path in its entirety. Montesquieu could not be considered an advocate of the “complete regeneration” of society, and while Rousseau thought about it, he stopped short of the consequences of such an undertaking. It would take Condorcet to envisage the complete regeneration of what existed, but Condorcet belonged to the French Revolution. The last representative of the Enlightenment was not the most representative of a movement that placed its hopes more often in enlightened despotism and English-style parliamentary monarchy than in democracy or republicanism.

C&E: What influence did the Enlightenment have on the Revolution? Is the Revolution the daughter of the Enlightenment?

PG: The philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment is certainly to be found in the Revolution—it inspired the establishment of representative government; it was directly behind the reform of judicial procedure; it led to the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the Jews, and inspired all those concerned with widening access to education. This legacy is also to be found in the French Civil Code, the drafting of which began in 1793 and was completed in 1804.

Where the influence of the Enlightenment is most marked is in the policy of reforming society and the State, to which the Revolution gave a powerful impetus between two political upheavals, but which it did not inaugurate. For the monarchy, at least since the reign of Louis XV, is no stranger to the spirit of reform. There was no shortage of ministers imbued with Enlightenment ideas in the royal entourage, and if reforms did not always come to fruition, it was because the weakness of power prevented them, just as the repeated upheavals of the revolutionary period paralyzed many projects. On the eve of 1789, many reforms had been initiated or planned.

The Revolution carried out a sort of “hold-up” on the Enlightenment. It confiscated it even though its last surviving representatives were reluctant to see the continuation of a political enterprise whose violence had always been very alien to them: Abbé Raynal condemned the Revolution as early as 1791; Fontanes preferred to join the counter-revolutionary camp; and Condorcet, after Chamfort, committed suicide when he realized that the Revolution, whose advent he had hailed, had finally turned against the ideals of the Enlightenment.

In 1789, legitimacy remained on the side of the Ancien Régime. No doubt its religious justification had become a fragile title, but the established order remained strong in its roots in time—history and tradition were on its side. The revolutionaries could not oppose another history to the one to which the thousand-year-old monarchy was boundd. They opposed history with philosophy, and tradition with principles that were independent of all circumstances and superior to all traditions. Human rights—identified with the legacy of the Enlightenment—against the tradition to which the Ancien Regime claimed to belong. The battle was unequal, but not in the way the defenders of the established order thought. The cooking pot was not what it seemed, and the Ancien Régime collapsed.

At the same time, the face of the Enlightenment changed. It became a kind of preface to the Revolution, and was reduced to the most radical, and specifically French, currents that had existed within it. For there is a French singularity in this respect. Nowhere else was the Enlightenment—a European phenomenon before it was a national one—so violently anti-religious as in France. At least, nowhere else than in France were so many philosophers, in Voltaire’s wake, so hostile to the Church and even to Christianity as such. Neither in Germany, nor in Italy, nor, a fortiori, in England, did they believe that to put an end to injustice it was necessary to wipe the slate clean, destroy institutions, customs and usages, and even give birth to a new man—in short, to start history all over again from a blank page. This ambition belongs less to the Enlightenment than to French history. Should we blame Gallicanism, which, by making the Church subservient to the State, ended up compromising religion? Should we blame absolutism, which, by reserving a monopoly on public debate, allowed writers and philosophers to discuss everything without ever having to worry about the consequences of their theories, let alone their practicability? No doubt.

C&E: Did the Revolution betray the Enlightenment by following its course towards the Terror, or was this aspect of the Revolution itself inscribed in the “genes” of the Enlightenment?

PG: The Terror: Rousseau’s fault or the fault of circumstances? The debate is long-standing and never-ending. There is no doubt that the philosophical “artificialism” of the Enlightenment contributed to imagining society, and its population, as a field of experimentation

In the political discourse, or rather in the political speculations, of the eighteenth century, there was an absence of any sense of reality that would prove very dangerous once we moved from theory to practice.

That said, we cannot deny the role played by circumstances, by the sudden and brutal collapse of any authority capable of imposing compromise or even repression; nor the role, too often overlooked, of passions that had nothing to do with philosophy; nor, finally, that of the legacy of absolutism which, beyond the great break of 1789, was to be found in post-revolutionary France—the cult of unity, even unanimity, the assimilation of opposition and dissent, the centrality of the State and the religion of administration, the rejection of all local autonomy and all independence of society from those who govern it—in short, old French tropisms, which became more pronounced after the Wars of Religion. This is not a legacy of the Enlightenment. In many respects, the Enlightenment was the very antithesis of it.


Featured: Taking of the Tuileries, Court of the Carrousel, 10th August 1792, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux; painted in 1793.


Simenon on the Noble Refugee

With his most recent film, Maigret (2022), French iconic actor, Gérard Depardieu, was hailed as having found a role cut for him. In fact, he missed out on a far better one. If he, and filmmaker Patrice Leconte, had been more astute, and better read, they would have realized the opportunity presented by the Ukrainian refugee crisis in France. They would have realized Simenon, not the Simenon of the Maigret stories, had written a novel about refugees: Le clan des Ostendais (The Ostenders). The central character, Omer, is a perfect fit for Depardieu: a larger-than-life, sea-faring boss, the brooding hulk of a fisherman thrown into the maelstrom of the collapse of Belgium and France, in May and June 1940.

Simenon, as is well known, led a quiet life during the Occupation of France, where he had settled in Vendée. He witnessed first-hand the “exodus” (l’Exode with a capital E, in French), the desperate rush of French civilians (as well as escapees from the Low Countries), fleeing by the millions the invading German armies, going as far south as they could. The Exode remains today the largest mass refugee movement in Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries. Eight million “evacuees,” to use the French bureaucratic euphemism, were displaced, and among them the fictional Omer, and his clan of Flemish-speaking Belgians.

To Flee and to Exist

This refugee novel, for lack of adhering to the hallowed (French) dramatic rule of the three unities ( in one place, in one day, a single plot shall unfold; not very easy with a novel) is nonetheless a virtuoso exercise in narrative conciseness: the action is focused; the setting is the coastal region of La Rochelle; time is framed by two events: the first, in May 1940, is the theatrical arrival of five trawlers in the harbor of La Rochelle, a high-spirited scene worthy of Fellini’s E la nave va—a different ship, for the beginning of a different war. The second event, just after the armistice of June 1940, is the almost mystical departure of the boats, at night, during a funereal wake.

Who is Omer, the baes, the boss? Words matter: until some plaques were updated to please politics, the French countryside was strewn with such memorials: “Here the Germans massacred….” Not “Nazis”—that was added later.

In Old Germanic, Omer is noble: “Odomar,” or “master of resources.” Omer is the skipper of a fleet of trawlers, who, having learned of the German invasion of Belgium off the coast of Iceland, heads out for Ostend to save what he can. On his five fishing boats, Omer loads the entire households of his crews, with all their belongings, from children’s rompers to silver cutlery, from heavy Flemish wardrobes to ancestral trousseau sheets. Nothing is left behind. Omer, Master of Resources, reigns taciturn over the fugitives whom he steers to safety. They put in at La Rochelle, intent to do what sailors do: sailing further south, away from the war, and what fishermen do—to fish for “resources,” under his command.

But, in La Rochelle, they get bogged down in French bureaucracy, caught up in the rout, debacle and defeat, and then the arrival of the victors. French and German officials let the Ostenders fish—and they offer their catch, by the caseload, to the thousands of refugees who have filled up the region. Parked in sheds and under trees, these refugees are starving and throw themselves on the manna, free-riding, pilfering, deploying the resourcefulness of French “Système D” (go get what you can). These haggard, scavenging fugitives follow the army’s defeat, like rats follow the plague. At that moment Camus began to conceive his novel of the same name—which may not be about what the post-war existentialist bien-pensant legend says it is. Unlike the main character of The Plague, Omer is not powerless, quite the contrary. And he believes in God, to boot. Whom he serves. To have his clan exist.

Existentialism, one should never forget it, was born out of these dark years’ struggle to survive, as a nation, as a State, as a way of life, as a culture, and as free and honorable human beings—out of a will to exist. A moral philosophy does not spring from abstract vagaries, but from living and dying. Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness under German oppression: how to be when nothing is. Hence how to be more than to endure. That is, to exist.

The Organic Morality of Refugees

So, the Ostenders are accommodated in an economically depressed coastal hamlet, a far cry from the gay daily life of La Rochelle. The locals pity them heartily, because everyone knows, and is told, we should pity these “poor people,” insulting them on account of their king’s surrender, “a stab in the back,” letting the Germans in. Come June 1940, the Rochelais and the villagers start to feel ashamed for having blamed the Ostenders for what the French army, routed in one fell swoop, inflicted in its turn on millions of refugees. The Ostenders do not say a word about it.

The hamlet is half in ruins, and its filth appalls the Ostenders. They are blond, hygienic and organized; they wash every day. They are Nordic and do not speak French, but rather a language that sounds like “Boche,” which intimidates the locals but enables them to get by with the occupiers once the region is under military rule. Omer rents an uninhabited, once bourgeois, dwelling for his family. He settles his lesser relatives to a house “across the yard,” immediately cleaned and whitewashed, while his deckhands’ families settle “at the back” in hovels turned into cottages made spic and span. Simenon—and this is his great art—plants a Vermeer painting in a scene from Les Misérables. An organic community is resurrected, and with it, its values.

The Ostenders create a natural yet civic microcosm, made of distinctions between the master of the trawlers, the skippers, the sailors, and their families. They observe etiquette. It is not a feudal order, but a vertical, kin and clan arrangement, based on a single, natural certainty—a fisherman fishes, the fishing boat provides work that determines duties and rights, and a hierarchy of labor. No one goes hungry, no one goes in rags, no one is unruly. Children attend classes. Every adult can speak their mind. Going astray results in quiet and firm ostracism. This is a natural, organic community.

The Ostenders’ relationship with the locals follows the same ethos. They never complain. They never raise their voice. But their fortitude comes across as arrogance, and it pains the villagers so cruelly that, going hungry themselves, they leave large crates of flounder to rot on the doorstep of the town hall: how can one accept to be fed by refugees? The locals reject this miraculous, yet in their eyes, immoral fishing. None see the Christ-like allegory.

It is so, because Omer and his injured clan will not ask for help, even in grief. What they need, they purchase. They never demean themselves to seek some special treatment. Actually, their only French word is “non,” thrown politely at bureaucrats when they try to pull a fast one on them. They are respectful of the law. They expect the locals to do the same. They are not idle, drinking white wine in port cafes, smoking cigarettes, or chatting in front of the fateful wireless claiming, “Paris, open city!“

The Ostenders offend popular common sense and the moralizing propaganda that proclaims, “Welcome them! We have to help them, no matter how, because it is the gesture that matters.” They will not allow authorities to put a checkmark on a to-do list: “Les Belges, c’est réglé.” They are, strictly speaking, demoralizing.

However, in the mine-infested waters Omer, loses a cherished boat, with her crew and his eldest son, and then more trawlers are hit and sunk, with his youngest son at the helm. The stopover in La Rochelle has come at a high price. Omer’s brood is decimated. A daughter-in-law goes mad with grief.

Refugees’ Fear

Of the sea they have no fear. The sea gives, the sea takes.

Nor do they live in the same fear as the thousands of refugees, corralled in cantonments, and quickly sliding back to a state of nature where homo homini lupus soon rules. The Ostenders live in a fear of their own—that of no longer being what they are. They fear to be denatured. They fear losing their organic civility.

This is the profound reason why they work, day and night; the women are cooking, mending, washing, mothering; and the men and boys, at every tide, when the weather is right and the anti-aircraft guns are not firing, go fishing as far away as the coasts of Morocco and the Balearics, passing destroyers and submarines, friends and foes, to whose captains Omer, strong in his rights, shows his “papers” of a fisherman from Ostend. Captain to captain, they understand each other. They salute him.

And then it happens. In the hazy coolness of a summer’s dawn, having transported aboard their bare essentials, the Ostenders weigh anchor and silently prepare to sail away. The two surviving trawlers depart, in defiance of the Germans and the French. That night was also the night of the wake for their dead, sons and sailors. The small flotilla is crossing their chosen Acheron. But it is also the night they wake up, as free and honorable.

The Noble Refugee

So, what is the lesson of The Ostenders?

Published in 1947 (in the same year as The Plague) by a Simenon whose conduct during the Second European General War was prudent, The Ostenders redeemed his cowardice. Indeed Simenon had taken refuge in a fantasy world of good detective work, while, at the same time, the French odious secret police, the Carlingue, was busy torturing Resistants, aided by the French Police nationale and the Gendarmerie that, somehow, escaped opprobrium, and worse, when accounts were settled in 1945.

Quite possibly Simenon tried to expiate his bystander’s behaviour, when he carried on with his dystopian Maigret novels, as well as not disowning movies adapted from his works with the Germans’ stamp of approval and material help.

But what is not ambiguous is the meaning of this allegory about refugees. Who are they? Are they fugitives, the destitute, the weak, the “expelled” like millions of Germans driven later from their ancestral lands now in Polish hands? The Ostenders are nothing of the sort. They came back to Ostend from Iceland instead of anchoring safely in North America. And from Ostend they left again, some twenty families, under heavy artillery fire. They anchored at La Rochelle, to get supplies, and with the intent to push on, probably crossing over to the Argentines. And it is not their fault if the local bureaucrats and their chorus of villagers wanted to entangle them in the mantra of “welcome to our refugees,” and in the last instance to turn them into detainees at the mercy of the enemy.

So, they set off to remain themselves, leaving their dead in the shell-strewn sands and in Heaven, and to remain honorable. For them, all but honor was lost. And the honor of a fisherman is to be a “toiler of the sea,” as in Victor Hugo’s famous novel. The people, now fleeing back to Paris, channeled by German troops, in the delusional peace of the armistice, were willing to live lives without honor. In June 1940, the Resistance and the Free French were yet to come. The first to join De Gaulle were a clan of hundred Briton fishermen from the Isle of Sein.

The Ostenders’ only respect, as they regroup, mourn their dead, pray for the living, and prepare to depart is reserved to their rustic counterparts, those peasants in wooden clogs pushing their exhausted cattle ahead of them, back to their far away farms soon to be plundered by the Germans, then plowed and razed by Anglo-American bombings.

The Ostenders did not conform to any coded expectations that would reassure the villagers, and neighboring Rochelais, of their moral rectitude. The Ostenders turned the tables—they showed how not to be a refugee. They set themselves apart. Indeed, as they set sail, the armistice Demarcation line comes into effect, a divide that would soon turn this region into a no-go military zone, in addition to the main split between the harshly occupied North and the vassal “free” South basking, for another two short years, in the meridional sunshine sung by Charles Trenet.

The Ostenders had swallowed bitter tears in the winds and frosts of Newfoundland, humiliated by their king’s surrender. They are now restoring their honor, not of a vainglorious military kind but of a deeply civic and organic communal virtue.

Redeeming Honor

The wake—in both senses, funereal and nautical—of the trawlers powering up in a yellow mist toward England drew the Ostenders’ very own demarcation line, between being and existing. So doing, they were also drawing another demarcation line, between the rhetoric of good feelings about “refugees,” contrived to ennoble those who give refuge and find moral reward in it, and the nobility of the fugitives or the expelled who act to restore for themselves honor and self-respect.

The final sentences of Le clan des Ostendais sum up the metaphysical meaning of the escape. “We are there, aren’t we?” replies Omer to his wife and matriarch Maria’s interrogation, half-question, half-puzzlement: “England?” Omer says this, if one pays attention to his words beyond the idiomatic turn of phrase: that “there,” that place, “is it not” or “is it?” Is this landing a stage in a journey of self-respect and the organic preservation of who we are? Omer adds: “Lord, I’ve done what you would have me do”—that is, my natural community has held, and will hold, here or there, so long as we remain ourselves. Honor is our place.

This gives an entire new meaning to the cliché of cosmopolites and soccer players (not that we expect these morons to know about it), ubi bene, ibi patria: where my honor exists (honor being the “bene,” the true summum bonum), there is my homeland. England is merely a stage emerging from a yellow mist. It is a harbor; it is no more than that. For when one’s autochthony has been lost, when the ancestral ground has caved in, when the natural ruler has surrendered, then existing in honor replaces it all.

Le clan des Ostandais carries a powerful lesson about virtue among refugees, and the inner life of organic fortitude whose roots are deep, autochthonous, if one cares about them.

Recently, in a village of the French Pyrenees, the local mayor welcomed a motley group of refugees from the Ukraine. One woman was reported as saying she would go back when the moment is right, hardly expressing any gratitude. How this moment will come, she has no idea. There is no honor and no virtue in her reply. The pained mayor turned then to a family and explained that integration may not be easy: “France is a very old country.” The father, surrounded by his wife and two teenagers, a boy and a girl, replied: “We are learning French, we want to belong to our new motherland.” It is unlikely the rural mayor or the Ukrainian father knew that French kings, otherwise proud of their Frankish names, were the first European dynasts, in the 11th century, to adopt the outlandish “Philippe” as a royal name, which endured till the last monarch. It is owed to Anne of Kiev, queen-regent of the Franks, mother of Philippe the First. Honor is indeed organic, or it is not, among refugees. It may, or may not, rekindle roots a thousand years later. Whether those who welcome refugees in France today have a sense of organic honor, and a will to exist, is another matter.


French philosopher and essayist Philippe-Joseph Salazar writes on rhetoric as philosophy of power. Laureate of the Prix Bristol des Lumières in 2015 for his book on jihad (translated as, Words are Weapons. Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror, Yale UP). In 2022, the international community of rhetoricians honoured him with a Festschrift, The Incomprehensible: The Critical Rhetoric of Philippe-Joseph Salazar. He holds a Distinguished Professorship in Rhetoric and Humane Letters in the Law Faculty of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

A much different version of this text appeared first, in French, at Les Influences.


Featured: Three Fishermen Pulling a Boat, by Peder Severin Krøyer; painted in 1885.


Overcoming the Cage of Civilization: Transgression as Freedom

The recent riots in France served once again to highlight the continuing iterations of chaos that are the consequence of the agendas of the Western ruling class.

French philosopher, Henri Hude, recently sat down with Rodolfo Casadei of Tempi magazine in Milan, to discuss the ramifications for ordinary people living in a society made deeply hostile. This interview comes to us through the kind courtesy of Tempi.

Rodolfo Casadei (RC): What is the cause of the riots that swept through France between June 27 and July 3, 2023, after the killing of Nahel Merzouk? Some say French police brutality. Some say social inequality and the lack of opportunities for young people in the banlieues. Others, like Francophone intellectual Mathieu Bock-Coté, say the cause is the “identity rift” produced by massive immigration that structurally cannot be integrated. Still others denounce a misguided integration policy incapable of offering strong values. Which of these answers convinces you most?

Henri Hude (HH): The four hypotheses you make are not mutually exclusive. Regarding police brutality, one must distinguish objective brutality from subjective feelings of brutality. Objectively, the French police were much more brutal to the Yellow Vests than to the youth in the banlieues. If we ask, “how many people lost an eye in a week of rioting?” the answer is “zero.” The average, at the height of the Yellow Vest demonstrations, was 1.5 per day, although their violence was incomparably less. If, therefore, the brutality was objectively the same, and proportionate to the threat, we would have had dozens of blinded eyes (in the Nahel riots). Subjectively, it is different. This kind of gap between the objective and the subjective is a phenomenon frequently observed by sociologists. In the present case, the reason for the gap is that the Yellow Vests were not questioning the legitimacy of the state and the police. Public force, even excessive and disproportionate force, remained essentially a legitimate force, which was only blamed for abuses. In the banlieues, force is immediately perceived as violence because the state has lost its legitimacy. Hence a hypersensitivity to the slightest use of force, or to the simple request for papers. The first hypothesis therefore is not to be discarded, but it is not sufficient.

Henri Hude.

Regarding inequality and the lack of prospects, the hypothesis is valid but not specific. It would explain as much the Yellow Vest movement or the protest against pension reform as the riots in the banlieues. It is not only the young children of immigrants, but the whole youth that somehow shares the same sentiment. It is a sentiment grounded in reality. The social democratic pact has been broken by the globalization of the economy, and it is impossible to reestablish it or replace it with something else. It is impossible to see how to get out of it. The current marasmus is not sustainable, but it is perfectly in line with the principles of the dominant postmodern culture. Inequality is lower in France than in the United Kingdom or the United States, countries we model ourselves after and systematically align ourselves with. France lives far above its means by printing money and going into endless debt. For the moment we can still spend without doing the math. When the system stalls and we need to return to reality, there will be Revolution. What we have today is nothing but the “Flour Wars” that preceded the French Revolution.

As far as integration policies are concerned, I think that these young people are, unfortunately, much more integrated to the current French culture than people say. They are integrated to the culture of the arbitrary freedom of the deified individual, thanks to an integration policy that works perfectly. We hear the Minister of Justice scolding parents for not exercising their authority, when all politics for decades has organized the destruction of authority and the family! With the family out of the picture, that left the school. Hegemonized by pedagogical leftism, it became a model of an ideal society: without authority, without power, without discipline, without tradition. It perfectly fulfilled its mission to impose and transmit a culture whose result is complete intellectual and moral anarchy. This postmodern culture has a perfectly clear ideological function: it justifies the economic arbitrariness of neoliberal elites and protects them by injecting into the people an impotence to act rationally, organize and decide. It should only be added that it is not the bureaucrat-class that is doing so much harm to the people. It has been content to take advantage of the absurdities, especially pedagogical ones, invented by a “social-traitors” left that, having closed any historical horizon of emancipation outside of increasingly monstrous sexual extravaganzas, retreats into its neurosis and claims to retreat the people into it. Let’s say that postmodern pedagogues are subjectively at the service of their egalitarian neuroses and objectively at the service of monstrous inequality.

Talking about the identity rift brings us closer to the most important issue, but we need to understand it well. Every society needs a common substantive culture to make strong decisions of general interest. In France there were two, Catholicism and the Enlightenment. They clashed, but both were serious and universalist. Both now have been marginalized for the benefit of neoliberal, libertarian arbitrariness and its ghosts. The “identity-rift” lies here, between two strong, serious, tested cultures and the great absurdity, the great nothingness of the irrational individual living in his bubble, immoral and moralistic, anarcho-Orwellian.

In the absence of a common substantive culture, we need a common political culture that enables a modus vivendi among substantive cultures. Secularism was intended to be something like that. But to tell the truth, in France it was rather a way of establishing the Enlightenment as the state religion of the Republic, at the expense of Catholicism. But some accommodation existed. Having become postmodern (in the rest of the world more generically), secularism no longer holds back as it used to have the decency to do. A purported formalist and procedural culture has become an intolerant substantive culture. And this culture is a dogmatic nihilism. It has, in caricatured form, all the defects that the Enlightenment held against religions: dogmatism, intolerance, persecution, absurd superstitions, etc.

We also need a minimum of dialogue between cultures, which also presupposes a common reference to philosophical principles accepted by all. A certain humanism could fulfill this function. But today humanism coincides with the monstrosity of the Superman and subhumans. So, the real divide lies here: between the self-proclaimed superhumans à la Macron, and the subhumans, the “deplorables,” the “savages,” etc. I am not surprised that the subhumans hate the superhumans who shower them with contempt. It has been said that young people do not express demands. This is true. They practice a barbaric ritual of the barbaric religion they learned in school. They express their will and sheer violence—this is their freedom.

What people like Macron have not understood is that postmodern libertarian deregulation cannot be limited to economics and sex. The Nazis, who were as postmodern as Trotsky, knew this well: libertarian deregulation must release the violence of the beast that suffocates in the cage of civilization. Sex then is no longer an end in itself; it is the warrior’s repose—the right is that of the strongest, amassing quick fortunes and building empires while quenching a thirst for cruel transgression and destruction.

So, if we wanted to reduce the identity divide, we would need nothing less than a new culture. If we preserve the one that currently dominates us, we will die. Benedict XVI said, “We need a new humanist synthesis.”

RC: The magnitude and severity of the riots that followed the killing of young Nahel suggest that there was a widespread expectation of a pretext to unleash a vast riot. Are we dealing with a generic suburban youth malaise, or do these riots have political significance? Is there a political direction? Are there political actors pulling the strings of these riots? If so, what are they aiming at?

HH: A pretext? More like a match thrown on a barrel of gunpowder. The malaise, what Freud called “the malaise of civilization,” is certain. It not only affects the youth of the banlieues—it is general. Postmodern culture makes one mad, because individual freedom no longer accepts objective truth. Intended to free the individual from all constraints, this culture on the contrary develops a fatal set of frustrations in him. Absolutized individual freedom, detached from all reference to the good and the true, the beautiful and God, the Absolute, nature, reason, society—kills love, kills freedom, kills free love and pure pleasure. Law without the divine Lawgiver kills.

The good, then, consists in surviving, in spite of everything, through transgression, which becomes the only form of freedom. The virtual world kills the sense of the real and replaces the real. The art of governing becomes that of administering an asylum of madmen. But the rulers are also insane. So, it is this world that makes us crazy. The youth of the banlieues are merely sharing and expressing in their own way a radically dysfunctional culture that makes all of society sick, and will destroy us if we do not get rid of it.

Does the riot have political significance? Yes, certainly, but on the condition that we understand well the paradoxical character of the radical rejection expressed by the banlieue youth. They are subservient unconsciously to postmodern culture—but on a conscious level they consider themselves rebellious and more or less connected to Muslim culture; but what is truly Muslim about this destructive nihilism and individualism as a Tiktok and Snapchat user? We are a long way from the fury of the “Arab street.” The phenomenon of destruction without political objective is of a typically postmodern transgressiveness, irrationality and arbitrariness. But together, it is also clearly a critique and self-critique of this very postmodernity. Objectively, what is being expressed is a call for reform, or even cultural revolution. What cultural revolution? Certainly not a Salafist revolution. This same youth would not support it in power any longer than Egyptians supported President Morsi. It is a matter of decisively getting out of this system and defining that new humanist synthesis of which Benedict XVI rightly spoke.

As for pulling the strings, there are some who see in this movement a reservoir of energy, and they would like to capture it for their own purposes; they would like to recover it. But this energy is not political, or even economic; it is cultural and spiritual. And I do not think those who want to recover it, without responding to the precise need that aroused it, will be very successful. Some who imagine they are flanking it and directing it actually control nothing. As Jean Giraudoux said, “Because these events overtake us, we pretend to be the organizers of them.” A vast majority of the political world condemns this violence in principle, but without much imagination. A minority, gathered around La France insoumise, the party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the Trotskyists, supports them. Mélenchon benefited from the Muslim vote in the first round of the presidential election in 2022. But this success carries with it a certain ambiguity and thus probable fragility, because the party is simultaneously pro-immigrantion, pro-immigrant, and in favor of all postmodern transgressions. But immigrants also oppose these transgressions overwhelmingly, and very vigorously. Some think the movement may be encouraged from outside, to pressure France on the eve of the NATO summit. But if this were true, it would only be the opportunistic exploitation of an event whose origin is clearly fortuitous.

RC: All observers agree that these young people who have caused so much damage, especially in the neighborhoods where they live, do not feel French. But if they do not feel French, is it their fault or is it France’s fault?

HH: I am not surprised that young immigrants say they do not love France, because postmodern France is anything but lovable. One loves it in spite of everything when one has had one’s roots here for a long time. Otherwise, it leaves one indifferent or hostile. If France were France, the question would not arise: one would be proud of it, love it, feel part of it. The problem is that France is invisible, especially in the banlieues. It is invisible because it is like turned off, asleep. Culturally, politically, economically, France, like all other countries in continental Europe, is tyrannically prevented from expressing its own genius. France captive in the shackles of postmodern culture, and subservient to the Anglo-Saxon model, now transmitted through Brussels and NATO, is not France. The fundamental reason for the misfortunes of President Macron, who goes from crisis to crisis and is hated as Louis XVI and Charles X were, is that he uses the monarchical powers of the president of free and radiant France to destroy France’s freedom, its constitution and its genius.

You can love France or not, but you have to understand it. It is clear that Macron does not understand it. One would think he does not know what it means to feel French. As if his homeland is an English-speaking international social class. France is a great country, with excellent climate and soil, rich, inhabited by property-holding but egalitarian individuals, endowed with a strong state in which a monarchical-type power is allied with the people, while respecting the freedoms of an elite, firmly committed to serve the common good, the Republic. De Gaulle had restored France’s historic constitution and national independence. The constitution of the Fifth Republic is clearly incompatible with a regime of inequality, in which economic elites and special interests rule unchallenged. A president who conducts such a policy is seen as a tyrant, and indeed he is.

Culturally, France is a country of strong reason, of clear and distinct language, where aristocratic freedom must cooperate with monarchical work, popular monarchy serving the common good of a free nation (i.e., the Republic), without which there is no true democracy. To want to impose English-style parliamentarism, postmodern EU institutions, or the cultural delusions of the transatlantic on France is to try to destroy it. But nations are indestructible. France will remain France and I do not think it will be destroyed.

RC: We often hear that two organized groups rule in the banlieues: drug dealers and radical Islamists. We never hear about the “forces of good”: teachers who ask to be assigned to difficult neighborhoods, motivated social workers, volunteers. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the “forces of good” present in the banlieues?

HH: Regarding drug trafficking, senior officers of the gendarmerie told me that it was forbidden, by some prefects, to fight drug trafficking in the banlieues. It is often the only economic activity in these places. Without it, there is no telling what people would live on. In addition, drugs are a cynical means of subjectively solving objectively insoluble problems, and of reducing certain risks by weakening potential rioters. About Islamic radicalism, on the other hand, there would be much to say. My guess is that, in Western countries, it is as much an anti-modern and postmodern ideology for its adherents as it is a religion. When ideologues operate side by side with traffickers, as in Colombia or the Sahel, the ideologues, more violent and stronger, end up taking the place of the traffickers. Eventually, ideologist-traffickers become traffickers tout-court, behind the ideological pretext. It is very likely that this kind of process tends to occur in the banlieues.

As for the “forces of good,” the state has invested quite a lot of money in education, and numerous professors go to these neighborhoods like lay missionaries. But because postmodern pedagogy contradicts all the fundamentals of serious education and effective instruction, and because atheistic and woke dogmatism scandalizes little Muslims and their parents, trust is lacking, tensions are high, and results are poor.

RC: Some politicians and observers are proposing to take away social benefits from the families of minors who took part in the riots—among the 3,486 people arrested for the violence, there were as many as 1,124 minors, or one-third. What do you think of this proposal?

HH: I think it is the prototype of technocratic measures that always tragically remain below the level of the problem. Which depends on three variables: education, family and work. The first two are necessarily defective within the cultural regime we undergo. The third would depend on a recovery of our sovereignty and emancipation from the Anglo-Saxon system. Because we cannot talk about the essentials, we discuss the accessories.

RC: What would have to change in France to reabsorb the malaise and anger that led to the riots of the past days? What would Henri Hude do if he had government responsibilities?

HH: I think that the problems of immigrants are the same as those of all society, of all young people, and that between the banlieues and everything else there is only a difference in degree, not in kind. What is needed today is nothing less than a cultural revolution, in France but also in the rest of Europe, spreading to all spheres of life (couple, family, home, school, economy, health, etc.) to the point of bringing about a complete change of civilization and probably demanding a complete re-founding of the political regime. Without cultural revolution, the probability of such an operation succeeding is close to zero. The people and a large part of the bourgeoisie are kept in almost complete ignorance of the bankrupt state in which our finances find themselves. Reforms are marginal and there is no one with sufficient authority to get people around a table to share the losses fairly.

For the time being, therefore, the French can sustain neither their ills nor their remedies. We will inevitably have to go through a time of chaos, from which another power will emerge. But even such a power will only be able to reset the country if it has the indispensable cultural vision. Because you only have power if you have authority. And authority comes from culture. Postmodern culture only offers authority to deconstruct. We have taken the wrong path. We need to rediscover the Absolute, God, reason, nature, etc. And the true man God, the Christ. He has His full rightful place in a humanist society.

In conclusion I would say this: if France is France, immigrants will never be a danger to her. Not even if they are Muslims. France’s fault is that she is not France. Her mission is to liberate herself to become what she is again, and to play her role without arrogance, without contempt for others, in a noble and fraternal way, in the magnificent concert of the nations of Europe, so that Europe can re-enter History—and this is the condition of world peace.


Civilize

The media narrative and sociology produce victims—and a culprit: France, the French state, systemic racism. It’s a familiar refrain. On the contrary, it’s the crisis of the State, the crisis of institutions, the vacancy of authority that creates the conditions for insurrection. On the contrary, it’s the State that needs to be rebuilt, and France with it, provided it isn’t swamped by immigration.


Jean-Louis, sixty-something and somewhat balding, tucked away in the semi-darkness of his studio, stared feverishly at his cell phone. Suddenly, the long-awaited hour appeared. This was his moment. He grabbed his wheeled shopping bag, took a deep breath and opened the door to his apartment. Recalling the exercises he’d learned during his military service, he made his feline way down the stairs and into the hall. Littered and tagged, with a gutted sofa and a pungent smell of urine, it was just as he’d hoped: empty. At this hour, he was safe in the knowledge that “they” were asleep.

Walking along the sidewalk, keeping as close as possible to the buildings in order to remain unnoticed, Jean-Louis could only deplore the damage caused by the riots in his suburban town over the last few days. Burnt-out buses and cars, ransacked street furniture, broken glass and omnipresent garbage were now his daily routine. Long reclused at home, he had resolved only to go out and fill his empty fridge.

When he arrived at his usual supermarket, he found it wide open, its windows smashed after yet another looting incident. After a hasty look around, he rushed in through the gap. Inside, he heard shouts and laughter. “Youngsters” were knocking over displays and vandalizing merchandise, filming themselves and staging the most bestial scenes. Crawling towards the untouched beer aisle, he helped himself before heading home. If he couldn’t feed himself, he could drink himself into oblivion.

Victimization

To his detriment, Jean-Louis had become the actor in a film that closely resembled the latest dystopian series he’d been watching on Netflix.

A young Frenchman died a few days ago, accidentally killed by a policeman during a traffic stop. Hardly anyone knew him, his story, his troubles with the authorities. Yet everyone claimed to speak on his behalf and on behalf of the “young people of the banlieues;” everyone, from the media to the political class, wanted to make sense of this tragedy.

Once again, the infernal machine was set in motion. Journalists spoke of the structural racism of the French police and drew parallels with the United States. Politicians, from the President to the Insoumis, immediately condemned the policeman, without knowing the facts. A ten-second video was enough. The young man had the right to a minute’s silence at the National Assembly, like a soldier killed in an OPEX (overseas military) operation.

His death led to riots which, in their scale and violence, surpassed those of 2005. Faced with the initial destruction of public property and facilities—schools, cultural centers, town halls, buses, tramways—as well as scenes of looting, the media and politicians tried to explain or rather justify the chaos. It’s a familiar refrain: “People in these neighborhoods are discriminated against and immediately identified with this young man, the victim of yet another police blunder. By their violence, they wanted to respond to the violence done to them, excessively, but understandably.”
When Rioters Film Themselves

This argument does not stand up to close scrutiny of the situation in these neighborhoods, which are poor but benefit from a much larger-than-normal public handout: urban renewal, new facilities, increased school resources, etc.

And if you look at the rioters, you’ll see that they’re quite happy to go about their business. Looting and ransacking are staged, filmed and broadcast live on social networks. Everyone seems to aspire to their own little minute of fame, and to take pleasure in assuming and propagating acts that are criminally reprehensible.

It’s hard to discern any political content in these attitudes, or in the targets (tobacconists, public facilities, high-tech or sports stores), or any desire to honor the memory of the young man who disappeared, and who is hardly ever mentioned again.

Yet all this makes sense, or rather, is the mark of a deeper problem, beyond that of suburban youth.

It was not the excessive and unjust force of the police and the state that led to the death of the young man and the chaos we are now struggling to contain, but their weakness, and that of our institutions.

The events leading up to the tragedy are symptomatic: a thirty-minute chase, multiple failures to yield, hit-and-runs and reckless endangerment by the driver, who was finally stopped by—traffic. The police officer clearly couldn’t get a 17-year-old to listen to reason. To be taken seriously, he was reduced to drawing his weapon. Drama ensued.

It’s the State that Needs Rebuilding

The asymmetry between the two protagonists was obvious. On the one hand, a policeman, bound by rules, subject to a hierarchy that pushes harder than anything else to avoid contact and who knows he won’t be supported in the event of an incident. {The “Little angel gone too soon” had a clean record, despite some fifteen arrests. He had never been punished. By tolerating all his transgressions, we fostered in him a feeling of omnipotence). On the other, a young, self-confident delinquent with a strong sense of impunity. He, too, knows that if he commits a serious offence, he will receive a warning or, in the worst case, a suspended sentence. The police officer knows that the offender is not afraid of him, and fears that he will try something against him. A fatal spiral. The good-old fear of the gendarme, which no longer exists for some, would probably have saved the young man, paradoxically the victim of lax justice.

This disrespected police force is just one of the many avatars of the collapse of the State. We could just as easily talk about teachers, firefighters or nursing staff, victims of what we modestly call “incivilities,” but who cannot respond with a weapon.

To counter this disintegration and restore civil peace, it won’t be enough to mobilize tens of thousands of police officers and finance everything that’s been burnt down.

The State needs to rebuild the institutions that held our society together.

In a country that has become multi-ethnic and multicultural, in the process of becoming a community, and within which populations with different mores coexist, subsidies and “the social” will not be miracle solutions. The only way to avoid definitive separatism and confrontation with a second people on our soil is for the native French to exert assimilation, or for recent immigrants to return en masse to their countries of origin.

The Programmed Destruction of Institutions

The deleterious process we’re facing today is only partly linked to immigrants, however, and affects all social classes. The clashes we are seeing, particularly in the “ZADs” where immigrants are poorly represented, illustrate a more global phenomenon.

The rejection of state authority has its origins in the great deconstruction that followed the events of May 1968, and the seizure of power by social classes who have been relentless in their efforts to demolish the foundations of the old order.

Since the 1980s, the development of a society based solely on the logic of the market, the collapse of structures (mass unemployment, widespread divorce, the collapse of education) and the desire to give precedence to the interests of the individual-as-king to the detriment of the collective have led us to the impasse we find ourselves in today.

Our President likes to use words that are not his own and that he doesn’t understand. Recently, he spoke of the process of “decivilization” that our country was undergoing. For him, “decivilization” boils down to the violent acts of a handful of people who need to be brought back into line.

Wouldn’t decivilization be better characterized by the destruction of institutions that set limits to the omnipotence of individuals, and guaranteed the State’s monopoly on legitimate violence as the sole authority transcending individual interests?

What Are We Passing on Today?

It’s no coincidence that today’s young people set fires and pillage while their elders look on. This younger generation has known nothing but the uncivilized society in which it lives.

For them, fed on mass consumption, in a world where individual success, under the sole prism of money, is set up as an ideal, within decaying family structures, with vulgar TV programs taking the place of civics classes—everything justifies their acts.

It’s not a question of exonerating young people from their responsibility or reducing the seriousness of looting. But we would do well to ask ourselves the right question: what are we passing on today?

Our social model, which contains the seeds of a war of all against all, produces empathy-free monsters who film themselves looting.

A firm and implacable response to this violence is the first step. It will be of no use if we don’t deconstruct the deconstructors and rebuild a collective project capable of uniting the growing centrifugal forces in our country.

To do so, our elites will have to find it in their interest to push for such a project.

In the French banlieues, as everywhere else in France, decivilization is underway.


Pierre Moriamé writes from France. This article comes courtesy of Revue Éléments.


Towards the End of the Enlightenment?

Has our Enlightenment faded? The French Enlightenment postulated the existence of a rational, autonomous individual, whose freedom would stop only at the frontier of that of others (Article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man). More generally, they defended critical thinking and rationalism. Where do we stand today with this ambitious project, which aimed to help the individual free himself from all constraints? Which of these ideas have been preserved, and which have not?

One of the core elements of the French Enlightenment project is individual emancipation, understood as the embodiment of “negative” liberty. Modern negative liberty, unlike “positive” liberty, no longer subordinates freedom to any good, but conceives it as the pure absence of constraints. To put it another way, if the individual is to become freer than before, he or she must emancipate himself or herself from unchosen intermediary structures, institutions and associations (such as the Church, the family, or possibly the nation).

The May 1968 Revolution: When Autonomy became Enjoyment

The ideological revolution that was May 68 maintained this notion of negative freedom, but subjected it to a double movement that would no doubt have surprised many heralds of the Enlightenment.
Firstly, as Jean-Pierre Le Goff demonstrates in detail in Mai 68, L’héritage impossible, “pedagogical” educational experiments of all kinds began here, and had at their ideological heart the extension of this emancipatory project to children. The soixante-huitards seized on the liberal malaise surrounding education (whether or not to actively inculcate children with ideas in order to perpetuate the culture of the Enlightenment) to take a radically “neutral” and seemingly more coherent stance. Nothing will be “imposed” on schoolchildren anymore; and from this point of view (provided we believe that such a will can actually be put into practice), the durability of the Enlightenment project becomes dramatically more complicated.

Secondly, “cold,” quasi-stoic rationalism gave way to “hot” hedonism, and the freedom of the cost-benefit calculator was suddenly transformed, with the advent of the baby-boom generation, into the freedom of “unfettered enjoyment.” The absence of constraints meant the end of any notion of discipline or self-control, making 1968 both the apotheosis of student activism and the beginning of its end, since you had to be able to get up on time for a demonstration if you wanted to fight for anything (Although Twitter now makes it possible to reconcile a lack of individual discipline with the desire to “militate” for a cause.). The inability to postpone gratification (i.e., to put off enjoyment until tomorrow), which “the Thought of 1968” and consumer society bequeathed to their children, made any long-term collective project unlikely.

What’s more, this eulogy of the enjoying-subject was bound to raise its share of contradictions. As Deleuze wrote: “Far from presupposing a subject, desire can only be achieved at the point where someone is divested of the power to say, I.” Absolute jouissance dispossesses the subject, particularly over the long term, of all self-mastery, and thus of any real free will. As Chesterton put it: “Giving in to temptation is like giving in to a blackmailer; you pay to be free, and end up all the more enslaved for it.” The contemporary figure of the “addict”—the man dominated by his impulses and passions—is one of the paradoxical fruits of this conception of freedom.

The Advertising Revolution: When Consumerism “Buried” the Man of the Enlightenment

Advertising played a particularly paradoxical role here; born of capitalism’s need for accumulation, itself a product of liberal modernity, it nevertheless increasingly focused on this second type of individual. In recent decades, advertising has clearly made less and less reference to factual information (which the rational-autonomous individual could sort out at will by calculating his preferences), preferring instead to present the masses with feelings, impressions, through a play of associations of ideas. Blocks of text extolling the “objective” and comparative merits of products (how crazy that sounds today!) have given way to images of dancing iPod silhouettes from the 2003-05 period.

What kind of “factual information” would this offer the rationalist consumer? In other words, contemporary advertising has “buried” the man of the Enlightenment in every sense of the word, both as an observation—it realizes that he no longer exists—and as a project—it has largely worked towards his disappearance by arousing his passions.

The Postmodern Revolution: From Critical Rationalism to the Critique of Rationalism

This rational individual was based on the example of Descartes, whose first act in his Meditations was to question the reality of his senses and the external world, and then gradually rebuild his certainties with the use of his abstract reason alone. This first critical moment was taken up and radicalized by the postmodern movement, which, in an astonishing reversal, turned it against reason itself.

In Penser, c’est dire non (Thinking is Saying No), Jacques Derrida describes the philosopher Alain as “a Descartes who, wanting to be more faithful to Cartesianism than Descartes himself, constantly wants to recommence, once and for all, the gestures that Descartes deemed it sufficient to make.” Inspired by this approach, Derrida would assert: “what matters… what is interesting, philosophically, is not that thought refuses this or that, this rather than that, it is that it is refusal itself, and that it is in itself refusal.” This leads him to make the comparison between the “yes” of the head that the individual makes when falling asleep and the “no” of waking up: “To think is therefore to say no, because to think is to be awake.” Note that in this scheme, the will to say “yes” to anything—in short, to be able to rebuild after the first critical moment—is equated with sleep, itself historically associated with death…

In a similar vein, Michel Foucault (in his lecture, “Qu’est-ce que la critique?”) wishes to retain from the Enlightenment the “principle of a permanent critique and creation of ourselves in our autonomy.” Critical of this point of view, and lamenting the political consequences of the rejection of the Enlightenment by a growing part of the Left, academic Stéphanie Roza in La gauche contre les Lumières asserts: “The left has learned the hard way how much it can go too far. Its limits, which must not be crossed on pain of political self-destruction, are defined by the contours of the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which was its original crucible.” Without passing judgment on the substance of this analysis (for at present, the Left that explicitly rejects the Enlightenment does not win many elections), it’s worth noting that by formulating things in this way, Roza opens himself up to an obvious reproach. Indeed, if the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are conceived first and foremost as critical movements, is it a betrayal of their heritage to criticize them?

A few decades later, the “woke” movement in which our Western societies are increasingly immersed calls for a “critical awakening of consciences.” This unlikely synthesis of Marxism and postmodernism is distinguished by its quasi-explicit praise of pure negation and an inability to formulate its political project positively; we need to “deconstruct” the whole world, “fight against” certain stereotypes, be “anti-racist/sexist” and so on. In addition to the amusing semantic parallel (we “wake up” early in the morning, thanks to the “lights” of this new dawn), Wokeism retains from the Enlightenment, above all, individual emancipation, while specifying that this requires the destruction of the “rationalist/ patriarchal/racist system.” To put it another way, the negative freedom of this movement now sees the Enlightenment and rationalism themselves as constraints.

And yet, for centuries now, we have been called upon to eradicate them.


Pierre Valentin, a graduate in philosophy and political science, will be publishing Comprendre la Révolution Woke (Understanding the Woke Revolution) with Gallimard. This article appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef


Featured: La beauté est dans la rue (Beauty is in the street). A poster from May 1968.


“Preface” to The Last Mistress

The “Preface” to The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse), by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, is a well-known defense of the Catholic novel. The work of Barbey (1808–1889) is exceptional for its depth and its beauty. He belonged to a Norman aristocratic family, was a firm Catholic, a monarchist, and also a man who stressed the importance of refinement (dandyism). He was a prolific writer, who consistently published novels, poems and essays. His influence on writers and thinkers has been profound.

“Preface” to New Edition of The Last Mistress

This novel was first published in 1851.

At that time, the author had not embarked on the path of convictions and ideas to which he gave his life. He had never been an enemy of the Church. On the contrary, he had always admired it as the greatest and most beautiful thing on earth, but only in human terms. Although a Christian by baptism and respect, he was not one by faith and practice, as he has now become, thanks to God.

And since he did not simply pull away his mind from the systems to which he had, in passing, clung, but that, to the extent of his action and strength, he fought philosophy and will fight it as long as he breathes, Freethinkers (Libre Pensée), with their customary loyalty and broad-mindedness, did not fail to oppose his recent Catholicism with an old-fashioned novel, which dares to be titled, The Last Mistress, and whose aim was to show not only the intoxications of passion, but also its enslavements.

Well, it is this opposition between such a book and his faith that the author of The Last Mistress intends to reject today. He in no way admits, whatever the Freethinkers may like to say, that his book, for which he accepts responsibility since he is republishing it, is really an inconsistency with the doctrines that are, in his eyes, the very truth. With the exception of a libertine detail of which he admits guilt, a detail of three lines, and which he has removed from the edition he now offers to the public, The Last Mistress, when he wrote it, deserves to be classed with all those compositions of literature and art whose object is to represent the passion without which there would be no art, no literature, no moral life; for the excess of passion is the abuse of our freedom.

The author of The Last Mistress was then, as he is now, no more than a novelist who painted passion as it is and as he saw it, but who, in painting it, condemned it on every page of his book. He preached neither with it nor for it. Like the novelists of the Libre Pensée, he did not make passion and its pleasures the right of man and woman, and the religion of the future. True, he expressed it as energetically as he could, but is this what he is being reproached for? Is it the ardor of his color as a painter that he must catholically accuse himself of? In other words, is not the question raised against him with regard to The Last Mistress much higher and more general than the interest of a book that was not being talked about all the time, for lack of a reason to throw it in its author’s face? And is not this question, in fact, that of the novel itself, which the enemies of Catholicism forbid us Catholics to touch?

Yes, that’s the question! Put like that, it is impertinent and comical. Take a look! In the morality of the Libres Penseurs (Freethinkers), Catholics are not allowed to touch romance and passion, on the pretext that their hands must be too pure, as if all wounds that spurt blood or poison did not belong to pure hands! They cannot touch drama either, because that is passion again. They must not touch art, literature or anything else, but kneel in a corner, pray and leave the world and Free Thought alone. I certainly believe that Freethinkers would want that! If it is buffoonish on the one hand, on the other, such an idea has its depth. I do believe they would like to get rid of us by such ostracism, to be able to say, having blocked all avenues, all specialties of thought: “Those wretched Catholics! Are they distant from all the ways of the human spirit!” But frankly, we need another reason than that, to accept, with a humble and docile heart, the lesson that the enemies of Catholicism are kind enough to teach us about the Catholic consequence of our actions and the fulfillment of our duties.

And to bring things out in the open, by the way, how do they come to know about Catholicism? They do not know the first thing about it. They despise it too much to have ever studied it. Is it their hatred that has surmised the spirit beneath the letter? What is morally and intellectually magnificent about Catholicism is that it is broad, comprehensive, immense; that it embraces the whole of human nature and its various spheres of activity; and that, over and above what it embraces, it still deploys the great maxim: “Woe to him who is scandalized!” There is nothing prudish, pompous, pedantic or restless about Catholicism. It leaves that to false virtues, to shorn Puritanisms. Catholicism loves the arts and accepts, without trembling, their audacity. It accepts their passions and their paintings, because it knows that we can learn from them, even when the artist himself does not.

There are terrible indecencies for impure minds in Michelangelo’s painting (The Last Judgment), and in more than one cathedral there are things that would have made a Protestant cover his eyes with Tartuffe’s handkerchief. Does Catholicism condemn them, reject them and erase them? Did not the greatest Popes and the holiest saints protect the Artists who did these things, which the austere Protestants would have abhorred as sacrilegious? When did Catholicism forbid the recounting of an act of passion, no matter how awful or criminal it may have been, the drawing of pathetic effects from it, the illumination of a chasm in the human heart, even though there might be blood and mire at the bottom of it; in short, the writing of novels, that is to say, of history that is possible when it is not real, that is to say, in other words, of human history? Nowhere! On the contrary, it has allowed everything, but with the absolute reservation that the novel would never be a propaganda of vices or a preaching of error; that it can never allow itself to say that good is evil and evil is good, and that it can never be sophistry for the benefit of abject or perverse doctrines, like the novels of Madame Sand and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. With this proviso, Catholicism has even allowed vice and error to be portrayed in their deeds, and to be portrayed in their likeness. It does not clip the wings of genius, when there is genius.

Catholicism would not have prevented Shakespeare, if Shakespeare were Catholic, from writing that sublime scene which opens Richard III, in which the desolate woman who follows the coffin of her husband, poisoned by her brother, after spewing appalling imprecations against the murderer, ends up giving him her wedding ring and surrendering herself to his false and incestuous love. It is abominable, it is dreadful, the simpletons even say improbable, because this hideous change of a woman’s heart takes place in the short duration of a scene, which is, in my opinion, one more truth; yes, it is abominable and dreadful, but it is beautiful in human truth; profoundly, cruelly, frighteningly beautiful; and truth and beauty, of whatever kind, are not subtracted or abolished by Catholicism, which is absolute truth. And, mind you! Shakespeare does not dogmatize. He exposes. He does not say or make the spectator say: “Richard III is right. The woman he seduces over the warm body of her murdered husband is right to let herself be seduced by the murderous brother-in-law who is now king.” No! he says: “Such it is;” and with the superb impassivity of the artist, who is sometimes impassive, he makes it seen, and in a way so powerful that the heart writhes in the chest, and the brain is struck by it as by a shock of lightning electricity.

Well, now, descend from Shakespeare to all artists, and you have the process of art that Catholicism absolves, and that consists in diminishing nothing of the sin or crime that was intended to be expressed.

But there is more, and Catholicism goes even further. Sometimes vice is amiable. Sometimes passion has eloquence, when it tells or speaks, that is almost a fascination. Will the Catholic artist shrink from the seductions of vice? Will he stifle the eloquence of passion? Should he refrain from painting either, because they are both powerful? Will not God, who has allowed them to man’s freedom, allow the artist to put them in his work in his turn? No, God, the Creator of all realities, forbids none of them to the artist, provided, I repeat, that the artist does not make of them an instrument of perdition. Catholicism does not shun art for fear of scandal. In fact, sometimes scandal is a good thing.

There is something (if you will pardon the expression) more Catholic than you would think in the inspiration of all those painters who have taken pleasure in depicting splendid beauty, like gold, purple and snow, of this butcheress, this Herodias, the assassin of Saint John. They did not deprive her of any of her charms. They have made her divine in beauty, looking at the severed head offered to her, and she is all the more infernal for being so divine! This is how art should work. To paint what is, to grasp human reality, whether crime or virtue, and bring it to life through the almighty power of inspiration and form, to show reality, to enliven even the ideal—that is the artist’s mission. Artists are catholically below Ascetics, but they are not Ascetics; they are artists. Catholicism hierarchizes merit, but does not mutilate man. Each of us has his own vocation within his own faculties. Nor is the artist a police prefect of ideas. When he has created a reality, by painting it, he has accomplished his work. Ask nothing more of him!

But I hear the objection, and I know it: But the morality of his work! But the influence of his work on the already shaken public morality! etc., etc., etc.

My safe answer to all this is that the artist’s morality lies in the strength and truth of his painting. By painting reality, by infiltrating it, by breathing life into it, he has been moral enough: he has been true. Truth can never be sin or crime. If a truth is abused, too bad for those who abuse it! If a living, true work of art leads to evil conclusions, too bad for the guilty reasoners! The artist has nothing to do with the conclusion. “He lent to it,” you may say. Did God lend to man’s crimes and sins when He created the free soul of man? Did He lend to the evil that men can do, by giving them everything they abuse, by putting His magnificent, calm and good creation in their hands, under their feet, in their arms? Come now, I have known imaginations so unbridled and carnal that they felt the fiery lash of desire as they gazed at the lowered eyelashes of Raphael’s Virgins. Should Raphaël have stopped to avoid this danger, and thrown into the fire his Vierge d’Albe, his Vierge à la Chaise, and all his masterpieces of purity, apotheoses of human virginity repeated twenty times over? For some people, is not everything a stumbling block, an opportunity to fall? Should Art expire defeated by considerations that support all failures? Should it be replaced by a preventive system of high prudence that allows nothing of anything that could be dangerous, i.e., ultimately, nothing of nothing?

The artist creates by reproducing the things God has made, which man distorts and upsets. When he has reproduced them exactly, luminously, he has, it is certain, as an artist, all the morality he should have. If one has a fair and penetrating mind, one can always draw from one’s work, disinterested in anything that is not the truth, the teaching, sometimes contained, that it envelops. I am well aware that we sometimes have to dig deeper, but artists write for their peers, or at least for those who understand them. And besides, is depth a crime? Surely Catholic wisdom is more vast, more rounded, more frank and more robust than the Moralists of the Libre Pensée imagine. Let them ask the Jesuits, those astonishing politicians of the human heart, who understood morality so greatly, who saw it from so high up, when on the contrary the Jansenists shrank it and saw it from so low down, making it so narrow, so silly and so hard! Let them question one of those Casuists with a spirit of discernment and relief, such as the Church has produced so many of, especially in Italy, and they will learn, since they are unaware of it, that no prescription rips from our hands the passion whose history the novel writes, and that the narrow, chagrined and scrupulous Catholicism they invent against us is not the one that has always been the Civilization of the world, both in the order of thought and in the order of morality!

And this is not a theory invented at pleasure for the needs of a cause, it is the very spirit of Catholicism. The author of The Last Mistress asks to be judged in this light. Catholicism is the science of Good and Evil. It probes the kidneys and hearts, two cesspools filled, like all cesspools, with an incendiary phosphorus; it looks into the soul—this is what the author of The Last Mistress has done. He has described passion and its faults, but has he apotheosized it? He has described its power, its interlocking, the kind of bar it puts in our free will, as in a distorted coat of arms. He has not narrowed either passion or Catholicism, while painting them. Either The Last Mistress must be absolved of what it is, whatever it is, or we must give up this thing called the novel. Either we must give up painting the human heart, or we must paint it as it is.

If only the gentlemen of the Libre Pensée, so devoted to social interests as we know, found The Last Mistress subversive. Her! But the author, in telling this sad story, could have been impassive, and he was not! He condemned Marigny, the guilty husband! He made him feel remorse and even shame! He made him confess to his grandmother and condemn himself. But his wife, to whom Marigny eventually begs forgiveness, does not forgive him! No novelist has been more the Torquemada of his heroes than the author of The Last Mistress. Yes, passion is revolutionary; but it is because it is revolutionary that it must be shown in all its strange and abominable glory. From the point of view of the Order, the history of revolutions is a good story to write.

That is what we have to say to the gentlemen of the Libre Pensée! Let us finish with a word from their Master. “There are vile decencies,” said Rousseau.

Catholicism knows no such thing.

October 1, 1865.


Featured: Portrait of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, by Émile Lévy; painted in 1882.