A dense, thoughtful study by a Mauritius-born native achieves the right distance from and intimacy with his subject.
While sharing enormous sympathies with the French language and culture, Hazareesingh (Politics/Balliol Coll., Oxford; The Legend of Napoleon; In the Shadow of the General, 2005, etc.) also maintains his academic reserve. In a series of scholarly essays, the author probes the intellectual currents that have fed that distinctive esprit français since the time of Louis XIV to the more pessimistic present. Indeed, the Grand Siècle saw not only the apotheosis of absolute monarchy at Versailles, dazzling intellectual salons, fashion, and cuisine, but also the epoch of Descartes, the philosopher who set out the rationalist tug of war between mind and matter, soul and thought that would plague and elate the French ever since. The author looks at how the writing of Descartes was appropriated by many different, conflicting parties over the centuries, from Christian to anticlerical to feminist, but celebrated as the “emblem of republican rationalism” that would triumph with the French Revolution. French thought is nothing if not contradictory, and while the Enlightenment thinking ushered in a “detached, skeptical and critical self,” Hazareesingh also emphasizes the long French flirtation with the occult and supernatural, culminating in President François Mitterrand’s obsession with astrological predictions. Fantasies of utopia, from Rousseau to Victor Hugo, dovetail nicely with the French proclivity for scientific inventiveness, precision, and accuracy, while the concepts of left and right that rupture French politics to this day are deeply rooted in the French Revolution. Naturally, the cult of Napoleon garners its own chapter. The new pessimism that the author attempts to articulate seems to emanate from France’s acute awareness of its slipping relevance in world influence—certainly next to the English language and American culture—and a deep anxiety over immigration and its ruling elite.
A rarefied and compelling study.