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.