Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. (Letter from Paris)

Article excerpt

One of the questions that always crosses my mind when I visit Paris is, What do unintelligent or uneducated people read there? Certainly, the daily newspapers cannot meet their requirements: Le Monde, Liberation, Le Figaro (to say nothing of L'Humanite) strenuously eschew the wilful vulgarity that the British are inclined to mistake for vigor and a critical spirit, but which is, in reality, just plain old vulgar vulgarity. I confess that it is a relief to read for once newspapers that do not worship at the shrine of meretricious celebrity, and assume that their readers might actually be interested in the affairs of faraway countries of which they currently know nothing. But their circulations are small, at least by British standards: and the rest is silence.

I confess also to a mild frisson of irritation--so tonic in the mornings as one sits in a cafe--at their incessant use of the word "anglo-saxon" as a term if not of outright abuse, at least of thin-lipped and not well-veiled disapprobation. What does "anglo-saxon" mean in this context, exactly? In the mental economy of the French intelligentsia, it means crass, shallow, and vulgarly materialistic, though also regrettably powerful and attractive to lesser breeds without culture. It plays the same role as the term "judaeo-masonic" once did in the minds of some of the less intellectually distinguished, though perhaps more historically influential, political philosophers of the twentieth century.

Of course, I know as I experience my brief frisson of irritation that I shall experience precisely the same frisson as soon as I return home. And what will irritate me? All the crass, shallow, and vulgarly materialistic people I see around me. Only their mysterious, preternatural power is missing from the judaeo-masonic version. And the worst thing about the British is that they are materialistic without being very good at it.

Still, this gets us no nearer the answer to the question as to what unintelligent and uneducated Frenchmen read. The bookshops--in which I spend quite a few of my waking hours in Paris--provide no answer. France is definitely not the land of the airport novel, to say nothing of the less elevated literary genres. One looks in vain for the garish paperbacks that make up so much of the merchandise in a modern British bookshop. (Incidentally, there are far more independent bookshops in the land of Colbertian dirigisme than there are in the homeland of Smithian free enterprise where, in the name of competition, bookselling has been almost entirely consolidated into one or two enormous chains. With regard to book publishing and selling, at least in England, Karl Marx was right.)

Nor do the French seem to go in much for self-help or personal development, those manifestations (deep in one sense and shallow in another) of popular self-absorption. On the other hand, they have an insatiable appetite for something far worse: the prose of psychoanalysts. And it goes almost without saying that the French psychoanalysts can out-obscure those of any other nation, and drive an intelligent, literate person insane within the space of a paragraph. The laws of the marketplace suggest that these books must be bought, but we are no more entitled to conclude from this that they are read than a doctor may conclude that his patient takes his medicine merely because he is prescribed it.

It is also true that the works of the current French maitres a penser--Jacques Derrida chief among them--are available everywhere. Their pretentiousness can addle a perfectly adequate brain almost as quickly as heat can coagulate the albumin of eggwhite. Not long ago, for example, I attended a conference of French intellectuals at which a Lacanian gave a lecture. It was only two-thirds of the way through that he realized that he was reading out the pages in the wrong order: something which, to do him justice, no one in the audience had detected either. I was one of the few who found this both amusing and significant: most of the audience took it as being one of the hazards of profundity. …