Friday, 22 October 2010

A funny thing in France

Were it not for the nomadic existence I'm currently leading, I could have commemorated yesterday's anniversary with some ceremony. It was in fact the 205th anniversary of Trafalgar Day. I should probably put it down to kismet that I missed the occasion.

But one can hardly wonder about Trafalgar Day without also casting an eye across the channel at our French contemporaries who are striking like a nation full of demented Swan Vestas. Only the French seem to have the capacity for these levels of self-inflicted harm, or for what looks like self-inflicted harm. Perhaps it is a testimony to the degree to which a sense of the collective still exists en France. On the other hand, my suspicion is that the coming Toussaint holiday will do a proper job of diluting union activism. Among the vestiges of Christianity which the secularised countries of Europe have retained, one of the most important is the conviction that nothing must get in the way of having a holiday.

That of course is ironic. In some ways French Catholicism since the nineteenth century has been associated more with bourgeois morality than with Catholic festivity. This is one more example of the way in which a secular environment leads Catholics into a kind of self-protective buffering - ironically one of the predominant dynamics of modernity.

Irony or ironies indeed. One can hardly speak of France and not mention the word. And that too is highly indicative. Irony can be defined in all kinds of ways, but one might say it is the instinct to poke with a sharp stick the humorous gap between pretension and reality. Not all irony is healthy, however. There is a tragic form of irony and a comic form of irony. Bitter irony is a cry of vulnerability, not a compassion but a comodium; the French caught it from Voltaire, and are never far from it. Comic irony, on the other hand, is another kind of self-protective buffering, but very different from buffered bourgeois Catholicism. It is the mood of postmodernism, but is only healthy when it is not a disguise for cynicism.

Where is all this leading (as I so often have to ask when I catch the verbal trots)? Only to showing you that ideals minus humour equals fanaticism, and humour minus ideals equals complacency. And that if you cannot avoid either, it is probably healthier to be complacently fanatical than fanatically complacent. Curiously, if France's petrol stations run dry before the French all then go merrily off on holiday this weekend, the nation will have achieved the dubious distinction of being fanatical and complacent in equal degrees. And why must it happen like this? It's not that the French couldn't achieve another 1968-style revolution. It's just that they couldn't stand another forty years of the preening self-referentialism which the last revolution unleashed. At least that is my fervent hope.

Still, for a nation in which even the secularists are still recovering from the sickness of jansenism, that's probably not a bad place to be.

4 comments:

Left-Footer said...

Beautiful analysis. I am torn over Trafalgar - I was brought up to regard Napoleon as a great hero, and the possible liberator of Ireland.

Your remark about strikes and holidays recalls an old joke.

An American lady, sightseeing in a British dockyard years ago, sees a circle of men watching something. She walks over, looks into the circle, and sees a man writhing in agony on the ground.

"What's wrong with him?" she asks. "Why don't you help him?"

"He wants to go to the lavatory."

"Then why doesn't he go?"

"What, in his lunch hour!"

Ches said...

GĂ©nial!

GOR said...

One of the things which Americans find strange about Europe in general – and France in particular – is the obsession with ‘free’ time. Whether it is ‘bank holidays’, vacations, a shorter work week, the incomprehensible ‘retirement age’ or generous pensions, this is foreign to us – in more ways than one. When the heat wave hit a few years ago and elderly people – in France, particularly – succumbed to the heat while the younger family members were blissfully vacationing abroad, people here were aghast.

I recall a politician – either German or French – some time ago noting that he would “even give up his vacation” to return home to deal with some domestic crisis. This was seen as a great sacrifice! Here it would have been a no-brainer and if a politician didn’t do so he would soon find he had plenty of time for vacations.

I don’t recall the numbers but I believe studies have shown that Americans work longer hours, take fewer vacations and retire later than most other nationalities. We also have fewer holidays (unless you work for the Government or the Postal Service…). You could say that many have to do so to maintain the lifestyle ‘they are accustomed to’, but I think it also has to do with our much ballyhooed ‘work-ethic’. Maybe we’ve got it wrong and should be more concerned with ‘free’ time and relaxation. But if it is a choice between our situation and the current one in France, I think I’ll take ours every time!

Ches said...

Ah, GOR, you've thrown down the gauntlet, and I'm ready to take it up, but I'm just dashing off for my weekend away ... Ah, the dilemma!

Back on Sunday evening...!