From Project to Memory:

The Crisis of Republican Civic Consciousness

by Arthur Goldhammer

Paper presented at the Harvard Center for European Studies, Colloquium on "Reconsidering French Civic Culture: In Search of New Premises," September 26-27, 1997, panel on "Vanishing Premises: What is Changing?"


From Project to Memory

The Crisis of Republican Civic Consciousness

Arthur Goldhammer

We face a tall order: to grasp change as it is happening. As ancients soon to be replaced by moderns, or perhaps moderns soon to be replaced by post-moderns, we are dinosaurs engaged in the difficult but diverting task of defining extinction. For some of us, outsiders, non-citizens of France, there is a further irony to our enterprise, because for us to reflect, as amateurs of things French, on what is changing in France is inherently paradoxical. Whereas citizens can play an active role in shaping their country’s history, outsiders, barred from full participation in the active life, are condemned to the contemplative faute de mieux. Our regard is of necessity tinctured with the aesthetic: we want to grasp the form of the thing, and we want that form to be coherent, to constitute an identity that underlies, and survives, all incidental alterations. We want, in other words, to see France as possessing that quality of the chef d’oeuvre that Van Gogh described in a letter to his brother Theo as "calm even in catastrophe." This durability, or perdurability, of l’esprit français is precisely what attracts, and informs, the outsider’s aesthetic gaze, which resists change, or undoes it.

The citizen’s gaze is, or ought to be, of a different nature. It is, to use Kierkegaard’s famous distinction, fundamentally ethical rather than aesthetic. For if the citizen is defined, through the social contract, by his interest in government, and if to govern, as Mendès said, is to choose, then citizenship is an ethical matter, for as the philosopher puts it, "Whenever … there is a question of an either/or, one can always be sure that the ethical is involved." Of course to conceive of government as existential choice, with all its attendant dramatic heightening, may itself be a French peculiarity, one of those defining characteristics of l’esprit français that draws the aesthete’s eye.

Now, the citizen’s gaze, as I have described it, drifts naturally toward change, while the outsider’s drifts naturally toward continuity. Or so one might assume. Yet when we scan the contemporary horizon, we find a significant number of representative French citizens, from across the political spectrum, depicting French society in ways that favor tropes of continuity or even stasis over tropes of change. Consider, for example, the extraordinary recent revival of that complex metaphor, la République. Think of the various ways in which it has been invoked of late. Most recently by Lionel Jospin in his inaugural speech to the Assembly, which stressed l’école républicaine as the fountainhead of the French civic spirit—harking back to Jules Ferry and thus rhetorically erasing the twentieth century. Or a year earlier, by Régis Debray, who in his anti-political testament Loués soient nos seigneurs recounted his discovery of l’esprit républicain while driving through southwestern France with none other than François Mitterrand. The former revolutionary describes this revelation as a return to sanity after his aberrant fantasies of worldwide regeneration spearheaded by the peasantry of the undeveloped Third World— thus rhetorically erasing the middle decades of the century. And several years before Debray, Marc Fumaroli published L’Etat culturel, whose fulsome praise for the Third Republic was not the least surprising feature of its dapper author’s cunning anathema on modernity—yet another rhetorical erasure. Or think again of Jospin, who, as education minister at the time of l’affaire des foulards, invoked republican solidarity and secularism as grounds for prohibiting the expression of religious difference—a rhetorical revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Or François Furet, whose book La Révolution takes 1879, and thus the consolidation of the Third Republic, to be the date when "la Révolution arrive enfin à bon port"—thus rhetorically transforming a mere political arrangement into a safe haven, a place of tranquillity in which Frenchmen would forever after be free to cultivate their gardens.

Perhaps this rhetorical inflation of republicanism is not surprising, given that the Republic is "the regime that divides the French the least." But to my ear it has a defensive ring. It is like the use of religious language by people who no longer believe in God but are fond of the echoes that cathedrals create. Or rather, by people who no longer believe for themselves but who see no prospect of maintaining order unless the majority continue to believe in what the unhappy few cannot. As project becomes memory, the faith that once sustained the project diminishes to a rhetoric fraught with ironic double meaning. The present moment, in other words, is like the terminal phase of that "crisis of European consciousness" described many years ago in a justly celebrated book by Paul Hazard. Hazard, you will recall, describes a thirty-five year period, 1680 to 1715, bracketed by two figures, two attitudes toward the world and that which transcends it: at the beginning of this period, he says, "the majority of the French thought as Bossuet thought." Then, "suddenly, they all thought as Voltaire thought. It was a revolution." Now, one can quibble about the word "majority" here, but the rupture, the discontinuity, remains. This prompts one to review the past thirty-five years in French intellectual culture in a similar way, and when one does this, evidence of discontinuity is everywhere. Could it be that we have been living through a crisis of similarly dramatic implication? Could it be that the recent inflation of republican rhetoric might be a defensive response to the collapse of a secular republican theology? Could that theology have been replaced, temporarily, by a skeptical republican "deism," by which I mean a conception of the Republic not as will but as idea—an old idea, whose time is now safely past? Could the once robust conception of the Republic as projet have dissolved into a more nostalgic reading of the Republic as mémoire, to which the center is trying desperately to hold? In other words, could Pierre Nora—the Pierre Nora of that irony-hedged paean to republicanism without revolution, Les Lieux de mémoire—be the Voltaire of the republican civil religion, replacing Sartre, the Bossuet of the God that failed?

I fear that I’m becoming cryptic, so let me expand on these analogies. Le projet, la mémoire: the two terms evoke two works—Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant and Nora’s Lieux de mémoire—which neatly bracket the postwar half-century, the climactic period of the change we are trying to circumscribe. Each, I think, is a monument of its decade. Sartre’s book, published in 1943 but carried to popularity on a tidal surge of postwar societal changes, has le projet as one of its key concepts. I will argue, in fact, that Sartre’s analysis of le projet is the central, if belated, theological statement of the republican civil religion. Nora’s multivolume collective work, originally conceived as a single volume on republican memory, published in 1984, can be read, together with its successor volumes, as both a critique of the revolutionary myth and a paean to its republican double, interpreted as a device for containing the inherently destructive revolutionary impulse. This ambivalence in the history of memory accounts for the undercurrent of Voltairian irony in Nora’s volumes. There is, he says, a "fundamental backwardness" about republican memory, "totally suffused though it may be with a project for the future." The republic’s "founding ideology," he says, was "either a selection or confusion" of memories from the "revolutionary heritage" intended to "rivet the Revolution to the liberal signification of the Declaration of the Rights of Man." The evident penchant for paradox here is the sign of the distance between the historian and the citizen: the historian says that his purpose is to expose the mechanisms of myth-making, but the citizen says, this myth is the gospel of the mission civilisatrice, beyond whose limits chaos threatens.

Let us briefly pursue the two themes, project and memory. First le projet: the Sartrean project is the shadow that absolute freedom casts in the temporal world. It is the choice of a future: the project, the philosopher tells us, is "anticipation: its meaning comes to it from the future that it foreshadows." For Sartre, "it is the future that decides whether the past is living or dead." Hence the past is unstable: the present, sculpting itself a future, is free to rearrange yesterday’s membra disjecta in whatever pose can be made usefully meaningful. The projet is nothing but an idea attached to a will, and the existentialist conception, traducing Schophenhauer, was of the world as willful idea.

In what sense was this a theological analysis? In its radical denial of history. All reality was invested in the future. The malleable past was nothing more than a sign of the sovereign will, a will that, in republican theology, was not divine but human. And just as there were no limits on God’s freedom to make His world, there were, in this fundamentalist republicanism, no limits on man’s freedom to remake his. To be sure, Sartre does not actually deny history; to do so would be absurd. Instead, he allows the social will to negate it: "If human societies are historical, it is not simply because they have a past but because they recycle that past as monument"—as lieu de mémoire, he might have said, had the phrase been coined at the time. For Sartre has in fact articulated, more clearly than Nora was able to in many attempts, the sense in which memory has a history: memory has a history insofar as it is recycled in successive projects. Thus, in the republican tradition, projet and mémoire are intimately associated.

Throughout its history the Republic has thrived on this intimacy. As the institutionalization of a Revolution, hence of the erasure of all that went before, republicanism had no choice but to recycle its own past. It celebrated itself by reenacting its founding myth. Now, the reenactment of a founding myth is the function of a cult. In this sense, republicanism was a cult, a civic religion. It was a religion with high and pure, hence otherworldly and unrealizable ideals, and as such it demanded of its faithful more than they could give. Periodically they were reminded of their shortcomings by defeat. Napoleon, Louis-Philippe, Napoleon the Small, the Prussians, Thiers, the Nazis—all of these were instruments, Bossuet would have said of Providence, we would say of History, whose purpose is identical: to enjoin a return to the straight and narrow through the inculcation of guilt. Even victory could occasion guilt: the victory over the Kaiser’s Reich was the sort of triumph that made Nike fold her wings in shame, and as Antoine Prost has magisterially demonstrated, that shamefaced mourning, that survivor’s guilt, did more than anything else to establish the republican cult, complete with a liturgy centered on the ubiquitous monuments to the dead.

Now, I’m afraid I’ve misled you. I’ve placed the Nazis last in a line of providential instruments, as though they were of a kind with the others. But they weren’t. France’s defeat in the Second World War was no ordinary defeat. Her wound was no ordinary battle trauma. France was not merely defeated by the Nazis, she was humiliated. And in humiliation she began to question the founding myth on which she had lived for a century and a half, a myth not just of Revolution but, still more sublime, of Enlightenment. Therein hangs a complicated tale.

Germany had commenced its own revolt against enlightenment much earlier, but the French reaction was as belated with respect to its Nietzschean and Heideggerian sources as republican rationalism was with respect to its Kantian source. Perhaps the illusory French victory in World War I had held off the day of reckoning. In any case, a curious bifurcation in Sartre’s thinking held it off for another decade still. For while Sartre had Heideggerized Descartes sufficiently to give the cogito a body and a situation, his theory of action, of the projet, and hence of politics remained disembodied and unsituated and therefore resolutely in the Enlightenment prolongation of the rationalist tradition. If this flaw in the second half of L’Etre et le Néant eluded the handful of readers who thrilled to the existentialist Sartre during the war, by 1947, when the reborn political Sartre made his famous speech at La Mutualité, perceptive listeners in the audience were already expressing their impatience. Michel Tournier, who was there with his friend Gilles Deleuze, recalls that one or the other of them observed derisively that Sartre had trotted out "cette vieille baderne, l’humanisme" for the occasion.

Now, I dredge up this bifurcation in Sartre’s thinking not with exegetical intent—this is not the place—but because it points to a bifurcation in postwar French thought that has led to the curious state of suspense, of entre deux something-or-other, that is, I think, characteristic of the present moment. On the one hand the response to the war was the same republican response that had greeted all previous defeats: reenact the founding event by wiping the slate clean and starting over, invoking some parallel in republican memory in defense of the new project. Man’s freedom to reorder the past for the sake of the future remained absolute. Indeed, the dogma of absolute freedom was reinforced by the mythology of resistance: whereas the Revolution of 1789 was in a sense complete before it occurred, the old regime having withered away, the Germans were more obdurate, hence resistance required a more robust conception of freedom, which Sartre provided after the fact. On this point republicans of the left and right could concur. If republicanism had always been a compound of the rational and the national, the two now entered into new combinations. The left, jettisoning its national historical ballast, floated off into the pure imaginary of hyper-Marxist abstraction: La Critique de la Raison dialectique and Lire le Capital are convenient tokens. The right, with de Gaulle, tapped into veins of national memory that lay deeper than the republican stratum, but its embrace of "modernization" as the condition of grandeur kept it within the republican pale. In this incarnation of the world spirit, Reason’s ruse was a marriage of convenience between nationalism and technocracy. In Pierre Nora’s phrase, the French were willing "to put up with the construction of autoroutes" only if addressed "in the language of the crusades." Without that language, as we have come to know, there is only la pensée unique, le franc fort, the three-percent deficit ceiling, and the incantatory vocable Europe.

So much for the continuation of the Enlightenment into the latter half of the twentieth century. This was the work of men like Sartre and de Gaulle, whose thinking was already fully formed before the debacle. But there was also another reaction to the war, a reaction that remained hidden for a time. When it finally surfaced, in the 1960s, it initiated the crisis of which I spoke earlier, the crisis that has transformed the republican project into a memory. This second, long-latent reaction to World War II was the reaction of those who were children when the defeat came, of people like Régis Debray (b. 1940).

Far be it from me to present Régis Debray as the typical Frenchman of his generation. Still, the historian of mentalités has to take his evidence of psychic damage and generational division where he finds it. Debray’s memoir is useful because it offers clues to the way in which the children of the war years experienced the Occupation, namely, as an intimate violation that has haunted them ever since.

Now, a violated child, psychiatrists tell us, will try to escape its humiliation through rescue fantasies and the death wish. Régis Debray in his memoir illustrates both. As he stood before a firing squad in Bolivia, thinking that he was about to be executed for his complicity with Ché Guevara, he remembered a photograph he had seen as a child shortly after the war. It depicted a smiling hero, presumably of the Resistance—a rescuer of the Republic, in other words—cheerfully facing death. It was acting out a rescue fantasy, Debray confesses, that got him into his predicament: identifying with the hero in the photograph, he went to the Third World to save humiliated children like himself. There he discovered that rescue was a more complex matter than he had realized, for part of what the Third World needed rescuing from was the developed world’s misconstruction of the undeveloped world’s plight, its penchant for substituting its own memories for the memories of others. Upon his return to France Debray made the further, and unsettling, discovery that the man in the photograph was not a resistance fighter at all but a milicien, capable of grinning at death because he, too, was confident that it would sanctify the cause in which he believed.

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that this figural reversal—of the rescuer turning into that from which the victim needs rescuing—may have some relevance to understanding the postwar intellectual generation, the generation of those who endured the trauma of Occupation as children? How many of those children identified with Stalin as rescuer in 1943 only to see Stalinism become the enemy in 1956 if not earlier? How many had trouble at times distinguishing between Gaullism, France’s putative rescuer, and monarchism, Bonapartism, chauvinistic nationalism, or even fascism—villains all, enemies of the Republic rather than its rescuers? And how many ex-Communists were drawn, as François Furet was drawn in what will now unfortunately have been his last book, to the German historian Emil Nolte’s controversial interpretation of the period after World War I, which attempts to draw a parallel between Bolshevism and fascism, both being seen as misconceived attempts to rescue industrial civilization from the debacle of the modern, and both ultimately not rescuers but destroyers?

So let us assume for the sake of argument that there is something to this notion of rescue fantasy turning to horror: call it the rescue nightmare and assume that it afflicted an entire generation. Can we posit a link between this rescue nightmare and the intellectual complexion of a group that includes writers as diverse as François Furet and Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Pierre Nora, to cite a few prominent names?

It is perhaps impertinent to ascribe an intellectual complexion to such a disparate collection, but the rules of the genre—the twenty-minute talk—make impertinence unavoidable. I will therefore suggest one possible description —you of course may want to propose others— and to do so I will use a word that will no doubt seem startling in this context: Talmudic. By Talmudic mentality I mean a condition in which: first, the mind’s eye is focused not on the world but on the mind’s own products—texts, monuments, and commentaries; second, those products are not mute but speak to one another across time; and third, our utterances make sense only by reference to this recorded conversation, or supertext. Hence meaning is unstable, because it consists in references to a conversation of which the referring utterance itself becomes an element, hence a conversation which is constantly in flux. Talmudism is a form of skepticism. It holds that knowledge never reaches bedrock, that all is commentary. What we know is subject to a sort of Heisenberg uncertainty: it changes in the process of being observed, hence its location at any given moment is never precise.

Perhaps it is too much to expect that this gnomic definition will make sense to you on first hearing. With time I do not have, I think I could spell it out in a more satisfactory way, with proper textual support. For now, however, it will suffice to examine two aspects of the Talmudic post-republican mentality: its implications for French civic culture, and, to complete my earlier argument, its relation to the rescue nightmare, which, since philosophy is only the husk of anxiety, will serve as a kind of historical explanation for what I am suggesting was a generational shift. The relation to the rescue nightmare will, I hope, be clear: the severance of Talmudic thought from the world is the natural reaction of the threatened child; and the whole context of meaning can change radically—the rescuer can turn into the fiend—whenever a new utterance is added to the conversation. This versatile bottomlessness of the Talmudic mode of thought filled, I want to claim, a deep psychic need of minds that had successively believed both p and not-p and therefore defensively gravitated toward the excluded middle.

The implications for civic culture are equally clear: in the Talmudic world-view, all we can know is what has gone before, the textual memory of the tribe; about the future we must therefore be absolutely, radically skeptical. Civic culture just is the continuing conversation about what the city is. The Talmudic interpretation of that conversation binds us together without binding us collectively to any project. The republican association of project and memory is thereby undone, and action is paralyzed by the impossibility of assigning stable meaning to any project.

Now, this hyper-skeptical mentality fit the situation of France after 1965 like a glove. This was when republicanism, founded on a belief in the limitless possibilities of the general will embodied in a state sanctioned by universal suffrage, awoke to the realities of constraint, limits, relativity. The French economy, opened by the pressures of reconstruction to the world economy as never before, became heir to countless shocks. Growth, with its attendant need for manpower, enforced compromise with other cultures, as did technological developments in communications, ease of travel, and the globalization of the subconscious. French forces that had gone into Vietnam under the command of de Lattre, one of the generals who rescued France from the Occupation, had themselves had to be rescued after Dien Bien Phu. De Gaulle the savior had had to rescue himself from the menacing temptation of compromise with the nefarious OAS. Indeed, the whole century began to be seen as one vast inversion of the metaphor of rescue: "La Fayette, nous voici" turned into "Ridgway la peste"; the victor of Verdun became the villain of the Vichy syndrome. Meanwhile, historians discovered the inertia of the longue durée and l’histoire immobile. Social scientists, though largely untouched by the Talmudic style, shared its pessimism, discovering a plethora of blocages and pesanteurs sociales and a stalled society. Students of literature incarcerated themselves in the prison house of language. Marxists discovered the "relative autonomy of the political," with its baffling power to halt the locomotive of history by lying down on the tracks. Revisionist students of the Revolution mounted a concerted attack on revolutionary voluntarism, arguing that it was precisely the republican belief in the limitless possibilities of the collective will that produced the dérapages they saw it as their mission to deplore. The protesters of May ’68 discovered that it was possible to reenact all the rituals of republican rebirth without significant effect on the course of events.

So many reversals, so many bafflements, fed the new Talmudic skepticism about the possibility of meaningful action. For a time this skepticism seemed sober and responsible. If not exactly full of hope, it was at least purged of delirium. But the Talmudic interpretive impulse generated a delirium of its own. The past, detached from any global projet, fragmented into multiple pasts: l’eclatement de l’histoire, enthusiasts called it, whereas doubters saw only l’émiettement. Memories, suddenly everywhere, led nowhere. The history of memory, as our latter-day Voltaire himself conceded in a comparison of his enterprise with Proust’s, is an aestheticizing history. If it allows us, as Kierkegaard says the aesthetic must allow us, to accommodate diversity, it does not bring us face to face with an either/or, with the citizen’s obligation to choose.

But is there a choice? Has the recognition of constraint left former republicans with no margin for maneuver at all, mere instruments in a process on which the republican conversation has no purchase? To cite just one small linguistic marker, the sort of glissement that catches the eye of the student of language: will history remark as significant the fact that when Alain Madelin took over Le Parti Républicain last June, he changed its name to La Démocratie Libérale? Was he, in clasping the invisible hand of the market, blindly registering the death of republicanism? Perhaps, perhaps not. Paul Thibaud, in a recent article, nicely captures the hesitant, suspended, entre-deux quality of the present moment: "The postwar state, the state that directed French growth and modernization, oversaw redistribution, planned development, and managed the economy, was an avatar of the Republic. The drama is not that this form of active state is obsolete, but that no one is giving any thought to imagining another. Yet it is by no means certain that a state whose ambition is to embody and implement shared fundamental values is less adapted to the present situation than a free-market state that leads to social disintegration or than the German solution of stable global compromise, which finds it difficult to deal with growing economic uncertainty." Does M. Thibaud intend his words to be a call to republicanism to reinvent itself once more? Or is he offering a hopeful declaration that, if the republican moment is over, so is the paralyzing skepticism that had replaced the limitless possibility of the project with the airless, self-referential, eternal recurrence of Talmudic memory, from which there was seemingly no exit?

In either case, it is clear that self-assertive particularisms, which form the subject of one of tomorrow’s panels, can no longer be silenced by appeals to a republican solidarity that has nothing solid at its core. And, as we will explore in tomorrow’s second panel, the job of reinventing or synthesizing will have to be done with an outillage mental forged by skeptics dubious about the possibility of invention and the coherence of synthesis. Unless, that is, at the end of this crisis in republican civic consciousness, there awaits what followed Paul Hazard’s earlier crisis: a new Enlightenment, the flower, one might hope, of a generation over which the dark shadow of World War II no longer hangs. For according to the ancient psychology, memory was not the mind’s only faculty. There was also imagination. The France to which I was drawn as a younger man was not un lieu de mémoire but un lieu d’imagination et de rêve. Perhaps, if the rescue nightmare is indeed over, she can become such a place again.