Review of Marc Fumaroli, L’Etat culturel: Essai sur une religion moderne (Paris: Fallois, 1992).

Arthur Goldhammer

Marc Fumaroli’s admiration for the Third Republic is nearly unbounded, and no wonder, because like Raymond Poincaré, the emblematic figure of that tragic regime, he "knows everything and understands nothing." A professor at the Collège de France and distinguished student of French Renaissance literature and indeed of French and European culture generally, Fumaroli makes a great parade of his limitless knowledge in L’Etat culturel, a wide-ranging, free-swinging attack on governmental meddling in culture since Vichy. Beyond its ostensible subject, however, this perversely brilliant book has far broader ambitions: it is nothing less than the credo and cri de coeur of an unabashed elitist who fears that the barbarians are not merely at the gates but positively pullulating urbi et orbi. Fumaroli is France’s Allan Bloom (and it is no accident that he maintains close ties to American Straussians such as Harvey Mansfield).

Fumaroli’s book is really two books, one exoteric, the other esoteric. The book for the marketplace is a tinselly affair, all decked out with eye-catching gewgaws, trinkets of erudition intended to dazzle and entice readers deaf to the more subtle music of the great European rhetorical tradition that is the substance and being of the author’s life work and, consequently, of himself, for he understands that the higher purpose of the cultura animi is not the persuasion of the other but the transformation of the self. The book for initiates is therefore another matter entirely: the latent text is anxious where the manifest text is overweeningly confident, contemplative where it is hectoring, defensive where it is aggressive, apologetic where it is offensive, resigned where it is apoplectic.

Needless to say, I like the second Fumaroli far better than the first. He may well object that this is because I created him, but I, his real adversary, can claim that the opponent he creates for himself for his own purposes is equally a figment of his imagination. Writers often give themselves the better part of the argument; it may be their only privilege. Plato is only the most egregious of the lot. In truth, though, I prefer the Jewish tradition to the Greek: the Jewish writer is always in the state of anxious perplexity of an Abraham standing with knife in hand over Isaac, his son, and the better part of the argument is always God’s, which we can but divine as through a glass darkly while hoping against hope for a reprieve. For the sake of dialogue, however, I shall pretend to humanist good cheer: and therein lies a measure of the success of Fumaroli’s ars bene dicendi, for as he says elsewhere, "the supreme idea of rhetoric is to show ourselves to others in such a way that others will show themselves to us," an idea that he says is "so despised today only because it is unconsciously and ardently desired." I therefore confess at the outset that I would like to be as learned as he, if only it didn’t require the sacrifice of so much else that I hold dear.

So, what of the exoteric text? Its argument is simply stated, though of course to state simply what our modern Cicero spins out over four hundred pages is to mistake integumentum for both spirit and flesh. The educational ideal that was the "pride of the [Third] Republic" (and consonant with a millennial tradition stretching from Hellenic times to the Renaissance and beyond) was replaced, circa 1940, by a new "religion of culture," fostered and promulgated, Fumaroli argues, by an imperious state bent solely on enhancing its own power and reducing its citizens to a state of helpless dependence. Instead of education, the new regime proposed participation. Instead of cultivation, which requires time and effort, it proposed instantaneous pleasure. Instead of individuality and the only true community, which is born of the conversation of free men formed by "studious leisure" (otium studiosum), it offered the lure of a false "organic" community based on the vacuous leisure of modernity. Modernity, for Fumaroli, is the substitution of appearances for forms, of fashion for substance, of the abstraction "culture" for the concreteness of a cultivated second nature, the ultimate end of rhetorical discipline. In the destruction of the Third Republic’s ideal of éducation (as distinct from instruction) and its replacement by "la participation instantanée magico-religieuse," Fumaroli sees three principal culprits: first, Vichy, and more precisely those acolytes of the Révolution Nationale associated with Mounier’s Personalism, the journal Esprit, the organization Jeune France, and Dunoyer de Segonzac’s much-derided Ecole des Cadres d’Uriage in its first two years, before it became purely and simply a bookish boot camp for officers of the Milice; second, the Gaullist Republic, which wreathed itself in the aura of the cultural emanating from the "museum without walls" that Malraux more than anyone else created; and third, Mitterrand’s socialist monarchy, which finally completed the circle begun when absolutism first set its face against the civic eloquence and elegance of the Renaissance to create the courtly culture of flattery and obsequiousness that at last finds its apotheosis, according to Fumaroli, in French television and its cult of power.

This exoteric argument is worth what it is worth. Fumaroli certainly gives himself an easy target. There is indeed something mirthful in the very notion of "cultural bureaucracy," something reminiscent of the old joke about military intelligence (which is to intelligence, of course, what military music is to music). One can chuckle over the very diction of the administrative langue de bois: Le Conseil régional dynamise les arts plastiques, Philip Morris dynamise la musique classique, while the département du Loir-et-Cher "creates" a Centre culturel de la Renaissance in the very heart of what had been France’s "cultural desert," a phrase whose origin Fumaroli is keen to track down. But for all the mirth there is also something grimly excessive about the author’s dismay in the face of this supposed calamity. One can reasonably doubt, I think, that the specter of totalitarianism lurked behind every pronunciamento of Jack Lang, however deplorably idiotic. One can doubt that the plastic tubes and escalators of Beaubourg are the sealed box cars of the 1990s. One can doubt that a Bread and Puppet performance in the amphitheatre at Nancy heralds the Apocalypse. One can suppose that when Bertolt Brecht’s literary executors (Roland Barthes among them) convened to police Parisian performances of the master’s works, the inquisition, notwithstanding Fumaroli’s spellbinding mise en scène, fell somewhat short of an interrogation by the Stasi. Yet I suspect there is no persuading Fumaroli that such things are less sinister than silly. The difference between us, perhaps, is that his eye is so quintessentially French, which is to say, centripetal: "Pour juger l’Etat culturel," he says, "il faut sans doute regarder au centre, dans les affaires du ministère qui porte son nom." On the contrary, to judge this or any other action of the state in France, one must look away from the center, where there is only rhetoric (and not in Fumaroli’s nobler sense), and toward the periphery, the site of that détournement de la volonté du pouvoir which, for most of us and not just Guy Debord, constitutes life. As I was writing this piece, curiously enough, an article appeared in the Boston Globe (Sept. 28, 1994, p. 39) to illustrate my point. Christine Temin reviewed two "dance events" that took place in Boston the previous weekend, one involving a local company, the other a visiting troupe from France. In order to raise money to support its activities, the local company was forced to "come up with a coloring contest. You pay $1 to enter. … In France, dancers don’t have to resort to such high jinks to pay the rent. The French government pays it for them. … The French take cultural policy seriously. … [Look at] the Paris Opera Ballet, arguably the best classical company in the world just now, thanks in part to government support." And the head of the American company lamented that she would "cherish the chance to be a struggling artist with funding, as opposed to a struggling artist without funding." Of course it may be that the French dancers are up to no good: from the description of their work given in the paper, it is a sure bet that Fumaroli would think so. But that isn’t really the point, is it? Not all of Kahnweiler’s investments in young artists paid off, and Diaghilev had his flops (while even his successes were jeered by Parisian bien-pensants in the midst of what Fumaroli, champion of le mécénat privé, can now feel smugly safe in calling the "last European Renaissance"). From my own humble vantage as a translator of French texts, I can testify that fewer works would be translated were it not for the subsidies provided by L’Etat culturel. To be sure, some of what is translated (even by me, alas) might better not have been written at all. But then half the books in the Library of Congress will never be read; the problem is how to know which half.

Or again, one might contrast Fumaroli’s diatribe against television, indeed against technology in general, with Georges Duby’s reflections in his memoir, L’Histoire continue. The great medievalist is evidently a man less fearful of innovation than his colleague at the Collège de France, for he not only participated in the production of several television series and films related to his specialty but also for a time headed the French "cultural" network SEPT, whose promise unfortunately outstripped its achievements. To be sure, even Duby scarcely regards all of his experiments in television as successes. Yet he is quick to acknowledge that a willingness to try new things can yield unexpected benefits. When church naves were emptied of their furniture for the filming of a series on religious architecture, for example, "the purity of their structures" shone forth with a clarity that even he, a long-time student of the subject, had never before appreciated in quite the same way, while the scaffolding erected for the cameras to photograph tympana and stained glass enabled him to climb to new heights, where his eye discovered unsuspected colors and shapes. He also reports that he received letters from all sorts of people, from farmers to cloistered nuns, while passersby stopped him in the street to ask that the programs not be shown too late for their children to watch. What separates Duby from Fumaroli, in addition to his belief in the possibility of inspiring new cultural vocations, is a willingness to learn from experience. Duby is bold enough to take risks and fail; Fumaroli, who already "knows everything," prides himself on his disdain for experience, which he shuns as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave (a remark that becomes rather tiresome after the tenth repetition, repetition being a rather too favored arrow in the Fumarolian rhetorical quiver, a flaw attributable perhaps to too-extensive practice of the magisterial lecture).

In truth, what Fumaroli resists is not so much experience as the present moment, l’actualité. And he does so in the belief that memory, or more precisely la générosité désintéressée de la mémoire savante, is the only "counterweight to scientific and technological innovation, [a counterweight needed] to maintain a sense of propriety and measure in the midst of economic and social changes." We thus come to the twin keystones of the esoteric text within the exoteric husk, which Fumaroli surely made as meretricious as it is in the confident belief that the tawdrier the display, the more certain it would be to attract the interest of the despised and notoriously tasteless media and thus gain a hearing for his secret message. Indeed, "la racine du mal" is "l’enfermement carcéral dans l’actualité," and one can only admire the way he takes the word carcéral, a mot d’actualité if ever there was one, and turns it against itself. His aim is to wean minds from the pleasures of this world and, with disinterested generosity, introduce them through scholarly memory to another one, not the Christian "otherworld" but the pagan world of Latin Antiquity that Fumaroli agrees with Ernst Robert Curtius in seeing as the backbone of European culture. Yet he remains Christian in one very profound sense: he conceives of this weaning as a conversion, or better still, a redemption. In some monasteries it is the practice for novices to experience a symbolic death and resurrection: they lie in their open coffins, contemplate eternity, and emerge dead to the world and reborn to a new life in that terrestrial outpost of celestial beatitude, order, and discipline, the cloister. Such a death and redemption is what Fumaroli would like his readers to experience. It accounts for his violence against l’actualité and le moderne, whose etymology, he reminds us, associates it with both the Latin modus, or fleeting appearances, and modo, fashion. He would slay the modern, kill it stone dead. The one true life is that lived sub specie aeternitatis, and its apostle is Fumaroli.

Subsidiary to the matter of redemption is that of election. Just who shall be allowed to lie in the coffin to experience his own death and awaken to the better world of eternal forms? On this question of grace Fumaroli is notably evasive, as he must be, because he casts himself as a defender of liberal democracy, a phrase in which the substantive democracy really functions as an adjective legitimizing liberalism, understood in the Roman sense as the liberty of the few, with bread and circuses for the (democratic) many; senatus populus quae Romanum, and to hell with the slaves who make it all possible (in the ancient mind they were indeed already dead). One of Fumaroli’s humanist complaints against L’Etat culturel is that it resorts to inhuman technologies to dazzle and overwhelm its spectators, thus recruiting them to participate as mere functional cells in the organic community whose head and only conscious member is the State: he cites Malraux’s effusions (following Bazaine’s) about the mystical effects of Chartre’s darkness as a quaint example of this, and the multimedia extravaganzas of Langian-Goudean France as more modern extremes. Against this one has of course the humanist parables of the Platonic Academy and the Ferryan école laïque, where the aspirant to culture is seduced rather than stunned into submission: for rhetoric is also a preening display that invites emulation and, in the best of cases, love. But the novice who is taken on by his master must die to the world as surely as the cloistered monk. Fumaroli quotes Valéry: "Cette liberté exige … un refus de toutes ces sensations violentes ou incohérentes que nous recevons de la vie moderne, à chaque instant." Toutes: such a categorical refusal would seem to rule out a great deal of ordinary life, from family to politics to the everyday pleasures of bed and board. One wonders if la mémoire savante for all its generosity and rewards is quite compensation enough.

Am I being unfair? Is my tone too strident? If so, it is because I agree with Fumaroli that tone is important and react to what I perceive as his pugnacious condescension. Of course Fumaroli also claims that few readers nowadays have the capacity to register tonal differences, and he may be right. Perhaps I misread him, and in so doing reveal myself as one of the uninitiated. Yet isn’t this precisely one of the dangers of the rhetorical style of argument he adopts with such zeal? No two ears are perfectly attuned. A more neutral tone encourages debate, whereas Fumaroli’s polished barbs, which rain upon the reader as abundantly as the shafts of Prince Hal’s archers at Agincourt, serve, not unintentionally I think, to silence critics. Reading him, one sympathizes with Rousseau’s squirming discomfort in the salons of elegant Enlightenment: retreat is the only option, il faut se cacher pour mieux s’exprimer.

Of course Fumaroli’s style is anything but classical. It is rather the opposite of classical: baroque, even mannerist. The author of L’Age de l’éloquence revels in gaudy display. Reading him, one feels rather like a gloomy provincial chef-lieu treated to an entrée royale. The relief from banality is welcome at first, but the surfeit soon becomes overwhelming, and one can hardly fail to notice that the sumptuous display is meant to bolster a tyranny of which the putative subject is oneself. This is particularly true if one is American, for Fumaroli is prodigal of invidious comparisons in which the alleged noblesse of French culture is contrasted with the promiscuous platitude of the American and the policed savagery of the barbarian East. This, alas, is not Fumaroli’s finest register: at times he sounds dated, a latter-day Georges Duhamel or (perish the thought) Robert Brasillach, classically cultivated men for whom the civilisation of the French was imperiled by the syphilisation of places where, as Tocqueville feared, democracy had supposedly leveled par le bas. In bringing up the name of Brasillach, who like our author was a great admirer of the theater of the Pitoëffs, I do not mean to tar Fumaroli by association, as he tars l’Etat culturel by its association, through Mounier and the Personalists, with the Ecole d’Uriage and Vichy. There is not the slightest whiff of the fascist about Fumaroli: the Other is so far beneath his notice that he feels no need to imprison or exterminate him. Despite repeated efforts to appear as well-informed about America as he is about France, it is only too apparent that his sources, apart from Duhamel, do not extend much beyond Allan Bloom and Dinesh d’Souza. He believes, for example, that America today suffers from "egalitarianism," a "pathology of liberal democracy" perpetually revived by the "proliferation within of intolerant sects and coteries: Ku Klux Klan, Black Panthers, Women’s Lib, Political Correctness, and other ideological ‘lobbies’ working to destroy the fundamental principles [of liberal democracy] and thwart their free exercise." The Borgesian incongruity of this list has apparently escaped the author’s notice, while the curious use of the franglais "lobbies," entre guillemets in the French text, is a patent bluff, a warning to would-be refuters that the author knows the foreign terrain sufficiently to sling its lingo about freely. Alas, in this case the trick backfires and reveals plainly that he is, as we say in English, talking through his hat: il nous la baille belle. (Two can play at this game.)

For all his expressed concern about the effects of statist culture on the arts, he is strangely out of touch with the genuine sources of creativity. His instincts are encyclopedic; culture for him is a mountain to be taken by assault, not a soil in which seeds take root. His prose is torrential, his faconde astonishing, his débit rapid, but its effect is not to "donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu." Instead he seeks to muddy meaning, particularly of the words that resonate most forcefully in his text, words like noble, élite, générosité. Of Mallarmé the critic Albert Thibaudet once said that he squeezed words so hard that they turned to diamonds and then squeezed them some more until poems emerged drop by drop. Yet Mallarmé cultivated only one small corner of the vast tundras of literature that Fumaroli evokes. Villon, Hugo, Baudelaire, Poe: these were enough to create the purest poems in the language. Fumaroli, du haut de sa chaire, might well have sniffed at the presumptions of the humble prof d’anglais at the Lycée Condorcet had they been contemporaries; the décalage becomes the grace by which the inculte Mallarmé is able to enter the Fumarolian Pantheon.

There is finally something rather quietistic about Fumaroli’s "refusal of actuality." One is reminded of the work of another colleague of his at the Collège de France, Pierre Hadot.Hadot has studied the spiritual exercises of self-transformation that the ancients practiced in order to achieve what Hadot’s American interpreter, Arnold Davidson, summarizes as "tranquillity of the soul (ataraxia), self-sufficiency (autarkeia), and cosmic consciousness." Beneath the fulminating surface of Fumaroli’s text, one can read him as, one can even honor him for, advocating studious leisure as a modern route to these same ends. Yet he would conceal from us the failure of antiquity to come to any agreement about the desirability of those ends, the means to achieving them, or indeed their implications for life in the phenomenal world, and he would deny that the discord of the ancients was in any way responsible for the advent of a modernity that he is capable only of deploring en bloc—or is his profession of incapacity only a rhetorical pose? In the end there is something profoundly disturbing, in the best as well as the worst senses, about a man who so loathes the world that gave him birth. One thinks of Molière’s Alceste. Of course Alceste had his admirers, not the least of whom was Rousseau. And Fumaroli surely approves of the virile rhetoric of the Lettre à d’Alembert. Of the rest of Rousseau, however, we know what he thinks: the democracy of which the author of The Social Contract dreamt was not nearly liberal enough for the author of L’Etat culturel. To hold out, even theoretically, any hope of community embracing more than a select and happy few is utopian madness, only too likely to disrupt the desired tranquillity of the soul. Yet can Fumaroli truly believe that the Platonic Republic he imagines in its stead is any less utopian or less mad? Nor is there anything Rawlsian about his liberalism: no veil of ignorance for Fumaroli, only the inexorable ignoratio elenchi with which he persuades himself and his banquet companions that they are among the elect, the Guardians, of the ideal state. It is a bracing thing, this utopianism à l’antique. Yet the ancient world was fundamentally divided against itself: there were Greeks and there were barbarians, free and unfree men, masters and slaves, Christians and pagans, male conquerors and female breeders. Are these divisions inscribed among the eternal Forms? If we must be pessimists, and we must, I prefer to make the Pascalian wager so forcefully expressed by a man of far more modest cultural attainments than Marc Fumaroli: the Parisian cheminot Eugène Potier, whose rhetorical imagination was "generous" enough to envision redemption in the form of a hopeful, no doubt too hopeful, synecdoche in the future tense: "L’Internationale sera le genre humain."