British politics and French culture

The English constitution adopted its modern shape in 1688, and all subsequent changes have been mere embellishments or, these days, corruptions.

By contrast, France has had 14 different constitutions during the same period, which is hardly surprising. She has been ruled by several monarchies (constitutional or otherwise), an ad hoc revolutionary committee, a Directory, a military dictatorship, an emperor, five different republics and, from 1940 to 1944, by the Nazis, first de facto and then de jure.

Given such a kaleidoscope, one can understand why politics has a different role to play in both countries – and why so many French thinkers, including some pernicious ones, have admired Britain’s political dispensation.

Britain may not have pioneered all of such political virtues as constitutional monarchy, inviolable property rights, division of power, independent judiciary and parliamentarism, but she has certainly shown how successfully they can work in a modern context. (She has also shown how thoroughly they can be debauched, but that’s a separate subject.)

That’s why, when one ponders Britain’s contributions to our civilisation, politics springs to mind first. Britain is defined by her politics – and political thought – more than by anything else. Even the country’s religion is fused with politics, which a state religion always is by definition.

That doesn’t mean Britain has nothing else to boast about. Since I don’t see culture as a competitive sport, I wouldn’t want to join a cultural tug-of-war with the French or anybody else. Suffice it to say England has much to be proud of, especially her great language and the literature it has produced.

Yet the English en masse aren’t proud of their language and literature, nor culture in general, as much as the French are proud of theirs. As well they should be: during the Middle Ages France was the cultural centre of Europe.

Even Gothic architecture is a misnomer. It was first created in Île-de-France, and at that time it was called opus Francigenum. Since then French architecture, as it should be more appropriately called, has dotted not only the French but indeed the European landscape with unmatched masterpieces.

That alone would be enough to foster national pride, but there is so much more: literature, music, painting, philosophy and of course the French language. Even though it has ceded its international dominance to English, the French still cherish it and try to maintain its purity. They don’t succeed as universally as they’d like but, unlike the British, they do make the effort.

Yes, their cultural pride is justified – but their cultural nationalism isn’t. As any other kind, this type of nationalism is an attempt to compensate for being underappreciated. Hence it’s always comparative: nationalism is self-assertion at the expense of others.

It’s not just saying “our country is great.” It’s also saying “our country is greater than any other.” When this mode of thought is applied to culture, it’s indeed turned into a competitive sport and consequently vulgarised.

This tendency is observable in France, where, in the absence of an historically stable political arrangement, culture becomes the key marker of national self-identification.

It’s against this background that one can understand the attack launched on Macron by the Republican challenger Valérie Pécresse. Manny, she said, didn’t call for the national (global?) celebration of the 400th anniversary of Molière’s birth.

Such negligence, according to her, was tantamount to treason. Manny betrayed French culture, which is to say France. For Molière, fumed Mme Pécresse, left “an indelible imprint on universal culture”.

Now that’s like a British prime minister being accused of ignoring the anniversary of Magna Carta and not even knowing where Runnymede is.

I know it’s counterproductive to draw parallels with Britain, but can you imagine one British politician accusing another for not venerating some Restoration playwright, say William Congreve? It’s easier to imagine a British politician who thinks restoration comedy is a botched up remodelling job on his conservatory.

I found Mme Pécresse’s diatribe quite endearing – until she insisted that Molière was the French Shakespeare or, if you’d rather, the French Dante. That’s where cultural pride ended and cultural nationalism began.

Molière was an excellent writer, but comparing him to either Shakespeare or Dante is silly. France may be a founder, some may even insist on the founder, of Western culture. But she has produced no literary figure comparable to either Dante or Shakespeare. In any case, usually it’s Racine, not Molière, who is mentioned in that context, with perhaps more justification, but still far from enough.

It’s that difference between national pride and nationalism again. It’s one thing to say, correctly, that Molière is an excellent French playwright. It’s quite another to claim he was a universal genius simply because he was indeed a French playwright. I for one love his plays, but he’s really closer to William Congreve than to William Shakespeare.

There, I said I didn’t see culture as a competitive sport, yet here I am, awarding points and prizes. If that’s what I’m doing, I’m sorry. That isn’t my intention at all.

It’s just that I despise nationalism as much as I respect patriotism – and I’m aware of the difference. That France hasn’t produced a Shakespeare or a Dante is no shame. She has produced enough of everything else to make ten other countries proud.

There are perhaps more great Romanesque and Gothic churches within an hour’s drive from us than in all of the British Isles. Just yesterday we visited, for the umpteenth time, the sublime 12th century abbey at Vézelay, and the photo above, with my bulk strictly for size reference, is testimony to the grandeur of France.

The abbey is where Romanesque meets Gothic and God meets man. We gasp every time we see it, especially in winter, when the basilica and the crypt are empty.

With such truly universal glory to be proud of, why would anybody wish to indulge in petty nationalism? Oh well, nowt as queer as folk, as they say upcountry.   

8 thoughts on “British politics and French culture”

  1. Politics, playwrights, blah blah blah. Look at that cathedral at the abbey! Keeping score? French Gothic cathedrals: 5,000,000; U.S. post-modern “meeting halls”: 0 (can we give a negative score?).

  2. But surely nationalism is the logical next step from patriotism? With ethno-nationalism just around the corner. How does one stop at such an arbitrary point? The road to Auschwitz was perfectly logical.

    What’s brilliant about those cathedrals is the lofty desire they embody; to be free of all pettiness. Of all earthly mores.

    1. Maybe its a lack of patriotism that leads to a kind of ethno-nationalism. If you look at USA it looks like those who lack patriotism are passionate about identity politics, which in turn could be seen as tribal division that is based largely on ethnicity (pitting African Americans against European Americans etc.). Maybe ethno-nationalism is what a people have when there is nothing better. Could patriotism (in a cultural sense) actually be a road out of that. (I think patriotism may have other positives too, but just giving my view in response to your comment here).

  3. I have no views worth advertising about cathedrals, but I do commend Mr Boot for his rationalism and sense of balance.

    Well said, again!

  4. No comparable literary figure to Shakespeare and Dante from France? I submit Proust. Those two giants have the upper on style, poetry, and language certainly, but has anyone ever spouted profounder truths over 3000 pages?

  5. Yes, though I find that their great novels (excepting A.Karenina, the closest to perfection a novel can be) can be full of tedious & unnecessary episodes too. War And Peace is especially guilty. Moscow burns for almost 400 pages, and how is the reader enriched for this?

    1. You have a point there — especially since Tolstoy’s version of why it burned is false. Still, I know of no other writer who described shildbirth and death as poignantly (the fromer in Anna Karenina, the latter in War and Peace, and especially in teh Death of Ivan Illich.

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