Mona Lisa's Escort: André Malraux and the Reinvention of French Culture

Mona Lisa's Escort: André Malraux and the Reinvention of French Culture

Mona Lisa's Escort: André Malraux and the Reinvention of French Culture

Mona Lisa's Escort: André Malraux and the Reinvention of French Culture

Synopsis

Malraux's cabinet position was created in 1959 by Charles de Gaulle, who entered his presidency deeply concerned over unraveling social cohesion at home and the nation's weak standing abroad. To help him address these problems, he turned to a paragon of the engage French intellectual. Malraux was an acclaimed novelist, a daring adventurer, a flamboyant anti-colonialist and onetime leftist, a courageous resistance leader, and an inspired commentator on art. In his ten years as a cabinet minister, Malraux sought to "marry" the French people to their historic culture and to restore France to her place as artistic center of the West. Lebovics examines the successes and failures of Malraux's remarkable career and the reactions of artists, the political class, and the public to the French state's new engagement with the national culture.

Excerpt

On 23 November 1996, exactly twenty years after the death of André Malraux, the Gaullist government of Jacques Chirac exhumed his body and reinterred him in the Panthéon, the temple of the republic dedicated to the "Great Men" of the nation. the ceremony was part of an elaborate Malraux Autumn of conferences, new editions and translations, exhibitions, plaques, posters, postage stamps, and appreciations. in the course of the fall the historical person became the sign André Malraux. the great man in the Panthéon has become one of the most frequently invoked markers of the glory days of the French nation and French culture.

The government's decision to honor Malraux was driven by highly over- determined motives. Cynics point to the colorless nature of President Chirac's government. This Gaullist presidency, the first since 1974, had yet to "cut a scar on the map," to use Malraux's own definition of fame. Perhaps it aimed to do what Premier Michel Debré had done in 1959 at the request of President de Gaulle: bring in Malraux to brighten an image, to give, in the General's words, "distinction" (relief) to the new government. With no important contemporary intellectuals to crown this administration, perhaps all the latter- day Gaullists could do was to dig up an old one and recycle him. Fiscal austerity required a cut in the Ministry of Culture's budget. Honoring the founder of the ministry while diminishing his creation--taking back economic capital but offering in its place the symbolic kind--seemed a wise maneuver. Yet however valid these reasons may be, and I think that they played a role, in a more profound sense the Malraux celebration touched an absence in the souls of many French intellectuals and artists, and those in France and abroad who have in the past looked to. Paris for guidance.

I watched the Panthéon ceremony on television and read all the accounts of the larger observance I could find. It appeared to me that the Malraux Autumn marked for many intellectuals--of all camps--the sad observance . . .

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