Yale French Studies, Number 98: The French Fifties


This issue of Yale French Studies offers an interdisciplinary exploration of the French-speaking world during the "long" decade of the 1950s-from the Liberation (1944) to the Evian accords between France and the provisional government of Algeria (1962). The volume focuses broadly on the reshaping of national identities in these years. The unsettled landscape that emerges stands in dramatic contrast to the myth of stability that was actively constructed for the French 1950s-a product of the long-standing French ...
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This issue of Yale French Studies offers an interdisciplinary exploration of the French-speaking world during the "long" decade of the 1950s-from the Liberation (1944) to the Evian accords between France and the provisional government of Algeria (1962). The volume focuses broadly on the reshaping of national identities in these years. The unsettled landscape that emerges stands in dramatic contrast to the myth of stability that was actively constructed for the French 1950s-a product of the long-standing French tendency toward immobilisme that existed alongside social, political, and artistic ferment.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300087307
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2000
  • Series: Yale French Studies Series
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.57 (d)

First Chapter

Yale French Studies NUMBER 98

The French Fifties

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08730-6

Chapter One


The Right to Innocence: Literary Discourse and the Postwar Purges (1944-1953)

POMPEI: Let me wage my war. Caesar is forcing this on me. I will always be innocent. CATON: Innocent compared to the other. POMPEI: In real life, everything is always compared to something. -Henry de Montherlant, La guerre civile

When called before the Haute Cour de Justice, the former head of the Etat francais, Philippe Petain, proclaimed that he was innocent: "I say this to you in front of everyone: while believing that you speak for justice, you are condemning an innocent man, and it is an innocent man who will suffer for it, because a Marshal of France begs no one for mercy." From his exile in Denmark, and liable to receive the death penalty, writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine was just as intransigent: "Lies, lies! Innocent I am! Those articles of mine in La gerbe? Fixed interviews. Guignol's Band? A story of bad boys on the Thames in 14-18, you see the connection! And for that, all my books banned in Germany." Better than innocent, Celine is "innocent by default," for not doing all the harm he could have had he accepted the positions of authority offered him: "And another thing: I could have been a very good high commissioner of Jewish affairs. Vichy offered me the job, I refused. The Jews should erect a statue to me for the harm that I could have done them but didn't." As part of a strategy of political or literary defense, the word "innocence" is defined by contrast; it is understood through its antonyms: anyone "not guilty" of the reprehensible act for which he is blamed, "not responsible" for the disastrous events, is "innocent." Claiming "innocence," the collaborators protested that they were neither guilty nor responsible. The tactical importance of this is clear: as they had already been tried, or might be soon, by proclaiming themselves innocent they could attempt to avoid the death penalty, the punishment the postwar purges [epuration] held in store for "traitors."

But their attitude cannot be explained as mere reaction to circumstance. Claiming innocence is another matter altogether: it is asking for an immediate revision of the verdict of History. The discovery of the concentration camps in 1945 made it impossible to accredit political stances grounded in ideologies such as racism, or the respect for law and order, the terrifying consequences of which had become all too apparent. "Should have made it impossible" would be more accurate, because this reappraisal, with very few exceptions, did not take place. As the dangers of the Liberation faded, another kind of innocence, a historical innocence, became the collaborators' priority. Yet the camps made innocence impossible, at least for everyone alive at the time they were in operation. How, then, does one explain that certain writers-who were imbued with classical culture, and filled with the idea of literature's responsibility during the thirties-claimed to be "innocent" after the war, and even invented a "right to innocence" that relieved them of historical responsibility? How is one to comprehend that a large part of French literature after 1945 chose to set aside historical reality?

The Opposition Nationale (Nicholas Hewitt) was made up of writers from the hard-line Right who were opposed to the Fourth Republic and absolutely convinced that the Vichy government's policy of collaboration was the correct course of action. The literature of the Opposition Nationale (produced between 1944 and 1953) can be read overall as a "rhetoric of the plea," as the fabrication of attenuating circumstances for collaborators threatened with legal "purging" in court.

But convincing the judges that the accused were not guilty was not its only ambition. At the most basic level, this literature would have liked to put History and the Liberation on trial. The Liberation begins to look like a faded copy of the Restoration (1814-1830), which cast defeated nobles as vile traitors. Thus the Restoration assumes responsibility for the judicial error that the purges necessarily were. Only the "political use of the past," the manipulation of History in accordance with the collaborators' present interests, made this conclusion possible, but that did not make it any less effective. The Opposition Nationale writers refused to conduct a fundamental reevaluation of their past engagement; rather they carried out a defense and illustration of a "culture of bad faith" (Sartre) that, aloof from official culture, made the present morally dependent on a mythic past. Absorbed by their stylistic preoccupations, and constrained by a certain conception of Language, they shunned History in order to better shirk their responsibilities. But how did they manage to have a language-one that, since 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, was supposed to be the "language of rights" (Jacques Guilhaumou)-bestow on them a privilege as amazing as "the right to innocence"?


The literature of the Opposition Nationale, which defended irresponsibility just as Sartre was relentlessly arguing for the writer's responsibility, sought to disseminate a vision of the world as independent from History, or better yet, as impenetrable by History. Its appearance after the war marked a decisive break in the French literary tradition. It marked the end of the paideia handed down from antiquity, that is, those types of knowledge grounded in literature that bring together the esthetic and the ethical. After World War II, French literature lost its vital relationship to Ethics, and defended conflicting codes of literary conduct. And the Opposition Nationale's code of literary conduct was founded on self-deception, or as Sartre would have said, on "bad faith".

An individual of bad faith is one "who is what he is not and who is not what he is." In terms of the Opposition Nationale, bad faith meant claiming to be a victim in order not to be responsible for the consequences of collaborating. "The true problem of bad faith stems evidently from the fact that bad faith is faith. It cannot be either a cynical lie or certainty.... How can we believe by bad faith in the concepts which we forge expressly to persuade ourselves? (Sartre, 67). In a way, the Opposition Nationale's classical culture helped lend credence to its beliefs, as did its dexterity in handling syllogism, that method of reasoning so well known to students of Rhetoric: "A collaborator is not a traitor but a defeated man; a defeated man is a victim; a victim is innocent; therefore a collaborator is innocent." This is one way of expressing the syllogism that underlay the Opposition Nationale's "bad faith" discourse, and which hoped to show that the collaborators judged for "treason" (Article 75 of the Penal Code) were innocent. It is well known that the conclusion of a syllogism is already present within its premises. But this almost does not matter: by virtue of syllogism, innocence goes from a claim motivated by self-interest to the objective consequence of a proof, and as such gains the strength accorded to obvious fact. Syllogism is a rhetorical technique crucial to a culture of "bad faith": it protects the culture of bad faith from the complexity of the real, and it reassures it in its beliefs, by making up a certain truth for it, that of "bad faith" innocence.

"Bad faith" innocence, while resting on syllogism, becomes even more compelling by drawing on a certain conception of History. The Opposition Nationale refused to recognize the mistakes it made between 1940 and 1945, not only because it was in its own interest not to do so, but above all because its "monumental" conception of History did not allow it to conceive of them as mistakes: since what occurred could not have happened in any other way, no choices were possible other than those made. Sartre, in "Qu'est-ce qu'un collaborateur?" (1945), described the act of "bowing to the fait accompli" as "typical of collaboration." But it was in another text that he worked out the idea of a certain relationship to the past as being the matrix of "bad faith" behavior.

Sartre left us a "Portrait de l'antisemite" (Portrait of the Anti-Semite) (1945) but not a "Portrait of the Collaborator," unless we consider that to be the hidden subtitle of his essay Baudelaire. "One sometimes even wonders if Sartre, more inquisitor than investigator, became interested in Baudelaire's case because it gave him the proof of a radical guilt, which could be used, in a preface to a future moral treatise, against an entire extremely vast class of defendants," lamented Georges Blin when the book came out. This displaced subject is at the heart of Baudelaire's relevance today. What is Baudelaire if not the perfect example of "bad faith" behavior, the poet who engaged in an "extreme cult of the past," who chose to close himself up in the past in order to deny the reality of the present? (See Baudelaire; 151, 154-55, 158-59) And what is a collaborator if not an individual obsessed by "turning the present into a past"? Discounted, the present becomes too weak from the standpoint of History to give meaning to the past, let alone claim to judge or assess it on moral grounds. The Opposition Nationale reacted to the discovery of the concentration camps in 1945 in the spirit of that "iconic veracity" given to the past. The camps were relegated to a kind of peripeteia in the story of Germany's defeat, and as such did not dictate a reassessment of the collaborators' pro-Vichyist engagement.

The only concession the Opposition Nationale makes to the present-and it is still expressed not as a regret but as a demand-is "the right to be wrong," the title of an article that Thierry Maulnier published in 1949. The article's main idea is that the event proved our adversaries right, and they must show their magnanimity and allow us, the defeated, "the right to be wrong." This "right that matters to everyone" bears an uncanny resemblance to the right whose absence Baudelaire regretted a century earlier, and in much the same terms: "Among the rights that have been spoken of in recent times, there is only one that has been forgotten-the proof of which matters to everyone-the right to contradict oneself" [emphasis added] (Quoted in Blin, 136, n. 2). Baudelaire's legacy, the "right to be wrong," is the writer's natural given right; it is inscribed in the literary tradition, and so should benefit all members of the Republic of Letters, whatever their politics may have been. Everything converges to relegate to the past, the specific moment, in the present, of confronting the reality of the camps.

Using a particular Baudelaire to do so, Sartre historicized "bad faith," that way of thinking the present exclusively in terms of the past, thus bringing Literature and History head to head. Broadly, his approach furthers a conception of the literary discourse of the Opposition Nationale as the consummate expression of "bad faith" historical consciousness. Moreover, the essay on Baudelaire authorizes reconstructing history on literary foundations-which for the Opposition Nationale meant on the novel. Literature, the "theoretical discourse of the historical process," as Michel de Certeau said so beautifully, is invoked here because it alone, using the resources of Rhetoric, and playing grammatical games with Time, offered safe haven to these "alterations" of History that national history does not allow.


In Antoine Blondin's 1952 novel Les enfants du bon Dieu, a high-school history teacher refuses to teach the signing of the Treat of Westphalia (1648). Besides the drastic revision of the map of Europe that this symbolic decision would entail, not to mention its academic consequences, this pedagogical gesture also meant inventing some unusual characters-a German nobleman named Teufoeld, for instance, whose biography looked very much like that of the contemporary Adolf Hitler. Cutting history free from its 1648 moorings left room for the imagination. It permitted, for example, a rapprochement with Germany by "removing the barriers that politics had long ago put in place." It also imagined that the Revolution of 1789 had not taken place, and posited instead a rainy 14 July when the people, deprived of their usual entertainment and finding themselves nearby, decided to storm the Bastille. As for King Louis XVI-a remarkable locksmith-, he was not guillotined as official history would have had it, but, rather, he made it to London, returning from there "a few years later, considerably fattened up, going by the name Louis XVIII, which he had assumed in the Resistance": "Twenty of the most abstruse journals and the most fashionable essayists preached in vain that the pervading philosophy was oriented toward refusal, it seemed to me that I was going a bit far" (Les enfants du bon Dieu, 56). The press of the day delighted in the humor of Les enfants du bon Dieu: "We regret that Antoine Blondin isn't in charge of deciding the course of events. We'd get a real kick out of them." But laughter of course is not politically neutral with Blondin, nor is the historical manipulation "that the late Jacques Bainvile [the official historian of Action Francaise] would not have entirely disavowed when he noted his disinclination to learn a history of France ill-suited to the juvenile state of his knowledge."

Walter Benjamin noted, as early as 1938, that the "the cult of the joke," "the seeds [of which] are first found in Baudelaire," was an essential component of fascist propaganda. It was one of the most frequently sounded notes in Opposition Nationale literature. At whose expense are we so amused by Les enfants du bon Dieu? Essentially, at the expense of the French Revolution-the causes of the storming of the Bastille "in and of themselves make the book worth buying," according to an anonymous press clipping-, at the expense of the circulation of ideas in the eighteenth century, and at the expense of the Resistance, essentially reduced to an off-the-wall use of pseudonyms. The comic effect of History as it is recounted here is inseparable from the charging parade of Kings, Emperors, Revolutions, and Reactions covered by a school curriculum that begins with the Gauls and ends in modern times-stopping short of the very contemporary period: when "History, finally, tells their own story, [the students] have only to consult their favorite newspaper" (Les enfants du bon Dieu, 48). The present has no right to History; the present is not historical, but rather exists only as fodder for today's current, ephemeral events.


Excerpted from Yale French Studies NUMBER 98 Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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