On Human Thought
|France's Men of Unreason: Clockwise from left: Charles Maurras, Maurice Barrès, Louis Darquier, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. In this article, Bell writes:|
"As in For the Soul of France, Brown tells his story in an episodic, sometimes impressionistic manner. He mixes chapters about Barrès, Maurras, and Drieu together with vignettes about a variety of scandals and causes over which the apostles of “unreason” obsessed. One chapter follows the long campaign to canonize Joan of Arc, which finally came to fruition in 1920. The Action Française celebrated Joan as a symbol of the true Catholic France, and held her up against the godless Revolution of 1789, regularly staging massive processions that ended at Joan’s golden statue in the Place des Pyramides in Paris. (In recent years, the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine, have continued the tradition.)"
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In a book review of Frederick Brown's The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 David A. Bell writes in The New Republic, "Dancing with the devil is an old pursuit among French writers." In this case, the dance is with unreason and irrationality, which can often lead to a need to hate, to find an object to hate, and then to plan and scheme some solution to put an end to this hatred by ridding the world of this object in human form.
Bell, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton University, writes about France's daillance with irrationality before the First World War, including the Dreyfus Affair, which still haunts and divides France more than a century later.
Never in French history did this cultural impulse prove more pernicious than during the troubled decades of the Third Republic (1870–1940). In this period, some of France’s most talented writers gazed longingly into the abyss, and then turned the full power of their eloquence against the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Even as the frail Republic lurched from scandal to scandal and crisis to crisis, writers on both the left and the right subjected it to endless, pitiless mockery and abuse. Robert Brasillach, one of the most brilliant writers and critics of his generation, likened it to “a syphilitic old whore, stinking of patchouli and yeast infection.” Charles Maurras, an enormously skilled polemicist, endlessly denounced it as “the Jew State, the Masonic State, the immigrant State.” Such attacks did much to drain French democracy of legitimacy precisely at its moment of greatest peril. They made it all too easy for a portion of France’s elites to treat the crushing defeat of 1940 as history’s judgment on a corrupt and senile society, and therefore to embrace Hitler’s grotesque New Order rather than to struggle against it.
Frederick Brown, an accomplished literary biographer, has emerged as the leading English-language chronicler of this appalling but fascinating French story. In his book For the Soul of France, he examined the fin de siècle, with particular attention to what he called the “culture wars” between left and right. He centered his account on the Dreyfus Affair, in which the trumped-up conviction of a Jewish army officer on treason charges unleashed a political firestorm that came close to bringing the Republic down. Now, in The Embrace of Unreason, he has taken the story through the interwar period. This time no single “affair” dominates the landscape, but the specter of Vichy looms on the horizon, as the final destination at which so many of those who “embraced unreason” eventually arrived.Even individuals who have reached and scrounged the lower depths of irrational thought have a need to employ, post facto, some reason in their arguments, a psychological need, perhaps, to first convince themselves that what they are doing is right and honorable, and second to convince others of the rightness of their arguments, of their cause. Once the unreasonable step is taken, the human mind needs to appear rational and logical in all of its choices. What is tragically lost in such minds is that their initial views, their initial arguments are all—every single one of them—irrational and unreasonable. They have, so to speak, lost their minds.
You can read the rest of the article at [NewRep].