Paris: A Tale of Two Cities

"What strikes us today as terrifyingly new would in 1914 strike many Parisians, mutatis mutandis, as little more than déjà vu."

Paris: A Tale of Two Cities

THE REIGN OF THE IRRATIONAL and rejection of reason; a mystical embrace of one’s own people and fatal dehumanization of others; the repudiation of tolerance and embrace of martyrdom; the cult of death and romance of sacrifice: all of these traits seem particular to our century. The multiplying sites of terror since 9/11 — from Moscow to Mumbai and Bali to Beirut — seem to make it so. And now we must add Paris, the site of Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, Le Bataclan and Le Carillon, to the list. It’s as if le carillon, the French word for bells, tolls for an earlier world — a lost world free of these dire traits.

But that would suggest we haven’t been listening. In France, the bells started tolling little more than 100 years ago, at the start of an earlier century. While the historical contexts and ideological contours are, in many respects, terribly different, there are certain crucial similarities between these epochs. What strikes us today as terrifyingly new would in 1914 strike many Parisians, mutatis mutandis, as little more than déjà vu.

Shortly after “Black Friday,” The New York Times published an op-ed by the writer Abdellah Taïa. A gay Moroccan novelist, Taïa wrote that when he moved to Paris 16 years ago, he found a haven where he could write and live freely. “I made my life in Paris,” he explained, “because I believe in its values: rationalist, humanist, universalist.” Taïa is not alone: most of us believe in the same Paris, just as most of us recognize this Paris as having played a crucial role in the shaping of the Western tradition. Our Paris was home to Voltaire and Émile Zola, Albert Camus and Germaine Tillion; it has been the stage for the revolutions of 1789 and 1830, 1848 and 1871.

But there’s another Paris, too. This Paris — irrationalist, anti-humanist, and nationalist — is the mirror image of Taïa’s and, for that matter, the one we find in tourist guides and textbooks. This Paris was home to towering figures like Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès: intellectuals who praised anti-intellectualism, thinkers who decried the dangers of thought, individualists who praised tradition and community. Their Paris was the stage for great counter-revolutionary movements, like Action Française, which scorned the abstract principles of justice and equality. Instead, they insisted on the primacy of the nation, the hierarchy of peoples, and a fraternity that reached no further than one’s own “race.”

This is the Paris that sought to break apart, rather than build upon, the legacy of the Enlightenment and 1789. And this Paris has, truth to say, more in common with our age’s terrorists than with its republicans.

The defining political and ideological event of modern France, the Dreyfus Affair, pitted these worldviews against one another. Defending the Jewish officer against the baseless charge of treason were the Dreyfusards. Led by Zola and Jean Jaurès, the Dreyfusards reminded the world that their France, their Paris, was the birthplace of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The judicial railroading of Captain Dreyfus was not just an assault on one man, but also an assault on the ideals of justice, liberty, and equality. By defending Dreyfus, they were defending a certain idea of France.

Yet this was not the France, not the Paris, of the anti-Dreyfusards. Denouncing les droits de l’homme, they instead praised les droits de Dieu. Maintaining a certain distance from Catholic fundamentalists, Maurras and Barrès nevertheless portrayed the nation in mystical terms, as the work of untold generations tied to the land and one another. For Barrès, France was defined by “la terre et les morts” — by the people who worked and were buried in the same soil. As for Maurras, France was the work of a different kind of history, but one no less mystical. It was throne and altar, the monarchy and Catholic Church, these sacred institutions that had shaped France for nearly a millennium before the profane rupture of 1789.

All in all, for the anti-Dreyfusards, rational argument and objective proof counted for little. As Ruth Harris notes in her recent book Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century, many of them were steeped in occultism, spiritualism, and millenarianism. Their enemy was not just Dreyfus, not just the Jews, but everyone and everything that represented the secular Republic. When not penning toxic articles for his anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole, Édouard Drumont dabbled in Satanism, convinced that that “the Supernatural envelops us” and that with the Affair “we are going to witness not only the end of a World but the end of an Era.” How could it be otherwise, given his belief that the Jews and the Dreyfusards had diabolical powers? Even the mandrake root he always carried with him to ward off evil could do only so much.

Perhaps the most telling parallel between the anti-Dreyfusards and Islamic State fanatics is the cult of martyrdom and death. Following the suicide of Hubert-Joseph Henry, the military officer who had forged the evidence used against Dreyfus, the anti-Dreyfusards transformed him into a martyr. According to Maurras, Henry had cut his own throat with a razor for a cause far greater than himself. There is not a drop of Henry’s precious blood, Maurras wrote, “not still warm wherever the heart of the nation is beating. […] The coffin, the bloodstained tunic and the soiled blades should have been paraded in the streets, and the pall borne high like a black flag.” Of course, there is much distance between Maurras’s “black flag” and the Islamic State’s. But the distance shortens when it comes to martyrdom. The mujahid who takes his own life after taking the lives of others and an officer who takes his life after failing to take the life of Dreyfus are both hailed as martyrs for a spiritual cause infinitely greater than they themselves.

Less than two decades later, the unleashing of World War I again revealed the abyss between these warring conceptions of Paris. The Dreyfusards — the standard-bearers of the Enlightenment — had the same reasons to during the war as they had during the Affair: they were defending the Paris which had given the world the Revolution and its trinity of universal values: liberty, equality, and fraternity. These ideals are not just universal, according to this camp, but are accessible to each and every individual. They are, moreover, the same values we believe are now under siege in Paris, the values that the Islamic State has identified as a source of the moral rot afflicting the world.

But the other Paris, in the years leading up to 1914, also saw these values as undermining the moral fabric of the nation. As Barrès declared: “The individual! His intelligence, his ability to grasp the laws of the universe! We must reject all that. We are not masters of the thoughts born in us.” Frederick Brown covers much of this territory in his stunning book The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940. In the great cascade of articles Barrès wrote during the war — making good on his vow to write one every day until France declared victory — he transformed the killing fields of the western front into an altar of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Recalling the example of Joan of Arc, who was “self-sacrificing to the core of her being,” Barrès announced that the French trenches radiated “with the incredible vibrancy of inner life. Ah! How alive are the hearts of our soldiers!” Scanning the battlefield near Arras, Barrès told his readers that the view “inspires less horror of its abominations than respect and admiration for these men who know how to die. It seems as if a mystery were taking place beneath our very eyes in this corner of the earth.”

Where Barrès saw mystery, French soldiers saw muck and mutilation. In the first five days of the second Battle of Arras, there were more than 130,000 French casualties. Described by the historian John Keegan as a “comprehensive” massacre, Arras sparked the great mutinies of 1917, when tens of thousands of French soldiers put down their arms. They refused to participate any longer in Barrès’s “mystery” — at least, that is, until they were reassured their self-sacrifice would have tactical, and not mystical goals. But this did not prevent Barrès from continuing his self-appointed task of making massacres the stuff of glory and praise. For the appalled Romain Rolland, Barrès had become France’s “nightingale of the carnage.”

The day after the carnage wrought by Islamist fanatics in Paris, the nightingales again sang. In its official message, ISIS praised the “youth who were divorced from the worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to be killed for Allah’s sake, doing so in support of his religion and his allies. They did so in spite of His enemies.” The seemingly great distance between this message and those of Barrès shortens when we substitute “nation” for “Allah,” and “nationalism” for “religion.” In both cases, martyrdom is the end, not the means. In both cases, it is for a cause greater than the individual, one that has nothing to do with the liberties that make our lives in this world worth living. In both cases, we confront fellow human beings who revile humankind’s ability to reason and rejoice in its attraction for the irrational.

There is at least one more disquieting parallel. In his recent book Les droites extrêmes en Europe (The Extreme Rights in Europe), the French historian Nicolas Lebourg argues that extreme rightwing politicians in Europe — or, for that matter, in our own Republican Party — in many ways “share the same dualistic vision of society as do certain Islamist groups.” In both cases, Lebourg writes, we find the same “distinction between friend and enemy and a powerful emphasis on the organic relationship between the individual and community.” At the end of the day, I would prefer to have spent that day in the company of, say, a Maurice Barrès than an Abu Bakr al-Baghadi. Our shared language and shared cultural heritage would help me overlook that, as a Jew, I would always be an outsider for Barrès, and, as a rationalist, I would always be a fool. Overlook but not forget that unreason has no less been part and parcel of our own history as it has for the history of Islam.


Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor, and he teaches in the Honors College, University of Houston. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!