The Plague Within Us: Shlomo Sand on France and its Intellectuals

By Robert ZaretskyFebruary 10, 2017

The Plague Within Us: Shlomo Sand on France and its Intellectuals

La fin de l’intellectuel français? by Shlomo Sand

LE DÉCLINISME has long been on the rise in France. Whether it is over their nation’s diplomatic and cultural sway, its military and economic punch, or its capacity to meet the domestic challenges of the 21st century while maintaining its historic valeurs laïques, French intellectuals are wringing their hands — that is, when they are not writing books about why they are wringing their hands.

Of course, France’s ostensible decline has not spared its chief diagnostician. Among the victims of le déclinisme is the French intellectual. But this is hardly new. The urgent headline to a recent story on the website of France Culture — “L’intellectuel français menacé d’extinction” — loses a bit of its urgency when we realize that such warnings have long been commonplace. During the Age of Heroes — the century stretching from Zola through Sartre to Foucault — the intellectual was a recognizable and specifically French species. Flourishing in the wilds of the Left Bank, the “intello” held forth on matters of right and wrong, good and evil.

But it has since given way to a different species: bottom feeders that flourish in this cultural ecosystem. Pamphleteers like Éric Zemmour, novelists like Michel Houellebecq, and essayists like Alain Finkielkraut, the titles of whose recent works — Le Suicide Français (Zemmour), Soumission (Houellebecq), and L’Identité Malheureuse (Finkielkraut) — reflect their dismal content, have come to represent a once-glorious tradition.

Or not so glorious. As Shlomo Sand suggests in his new book, the French intellectual was never what he was cracked up to be.

Like Groucho Marx, the contrarian Israeli historian refuses to belong to any club that would have him as a member. A few years ago, his book How I Stopped Being a Jew caused a small uproar. Not only, he argued, was the very notion of a single and unified Jewish people a fabrication, but it was also a myth that underpinned the creation of what he calls the most racist nation in the world: Israel. Predictably, Sand’s argument — the fruit of deep historical grounding, keen personal experience, and sharply incisive writing — won him few friends in Israel. La fin de l’intellectuel français? (The End of the French Intellectual?) will probably win Sand as many friends in Paris. Yet, just as with his Jewish heritage, so too with his adopted heritage as an intellectual: Sand would like to slam the door on the club, but his foot keeps getting in the way.

Sand devotes much energy to scraping the mythic veneer off the heroic phase of French intellectuals. If the decisive criterion for membership to this guild is a devotion to truth and justice, how is it that the majority of intellectuals were dead set on keeping Dreyfus on Devil’s Island? For every Émile Zola, Sand reminds us, there were dozens of intellectuals, led by the formidable likes of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, defending the cause of the army. For every newspaper like L’Aurore, which published Zola’s “J’Accuse,” there were dozens of newspapers that both fueled and fed on popular anti-Semitism. Building upon the work of Christophe Charle, Sand suggests that the era’s cultural avant-garde, including figures like Léon Blum and Charles Péguy, rallied to Dreyfus not simply as a matter of conscience, but as a means to challenge the stranglehold that conservative institutions had on literary production.

From these less than rarefied summits, the career of the French intellectual careens from one historical pothole to another. Consider Julien Benda’s celebrated 1927 book-length essay La Trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). The veteran Dreyfusard lambasted those fellow “clercs” who, having descended from the heights of truth and justice, had become shills for political parties. True intellectuals, he declared, are immune to “political passions” and dedicated to a “realm not of this world.” Finishing his days as a Communist fellow traveler, Benda himself never escaped this world’s gravitational pull. As deluded as his peers on the left and right, he confounded a particular and provincial perspective — in his case, republican nationalism — with what he took to be universal verities.

And yet, compared to intellectuals whose universalism is not quite universal enough to include Jews or Muslims, immigrants fleeing war and immigrants fleeing starvation, Benda’s blindness appears positively benign. From the interwar years through Vichy, anti-Semitic writers like Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle flaunted their intellectual credentials. As Drieu wrote in 1945, imprisoned for collaboration with the Nazis, “During my life, I have conducted myself in full conscience of my conception of the duties of the intellectual.” (As for his death, he committed suicide in his prison cell rather than face a firing squad.)

Just as the rise of French intellectuals began in the fin-de-siècle explosion of “judéophobia,” their decline and fall is tied to the growth of Islamophobia. (Sand suggests that the doctrinal intolerance of the French Republic’s attitude to the presence of the Islamic veil is the mirror image of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s attitude toward its absence.) Intellectuals have not been exempt from this burgeoning Islamophobia. Indeed, the anti-Muslim sentiments of leading thinkers are even more dismal than the anti-Semitism of prominent intellectuals like Brasillach and Drieu, Céline and Maurras.

Due, in part, to the omnipresence of the electronic screen, figures like Houellebecq, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour are less “intellectuals” in the traditional mold than what Pierre Bourdieu described as “fast-thinkers who offer cultural ‘fast food.’” And Sand argues that what they are serving is not just fast, but also poisonous. On Houellebecq’s best-selling novel Soumission, Sand wonders what the public and critical reaction would have been if, in place of an Islamic government coming to power in France, it had instead been a Jewish government that imposed privileges and handicaps based on religious law. (Such a book was, in fact, a best seller in the late 19th century: Édouard Drumont’s La France juive.) As for the Zemmour and Finkielkraut essays, Sand argues that while they differ in style, they share the same diagnosis of what has made France suicidal — to wit, “the massive immigration that will lead to Muslim domination.” Both writers, Sand notes, tirelessly bemoan the intellectual and cultural decline of France. “That their books, despite their mediocrity, have been so successful,” he quips, “proves that this claim is not entirely false.”

Mostly merciless and mordant, Sand’s book also occasionally misleads. Not unlike Zeev Sternhell’s Ni droite, ni gauche (Neither Right nor Left, 1983), whose lack of historical context he lambasted many years ago, Sand at times neglects the social complexities behind the rising tide of Islamophobia. In particular, he slights the role of growing Salafism and what Gilles Kepel, in his new book Terreur dans l’Hexagone (Terror in the Hexagon), identifies as the “radicalization of Islam.” In his introduction, Sand also slights the words and actions of an intellectual with whom he shares many affinities: Albert Camus. Sand quotes the controversial remark Camus made about the terrorist activities of the FLN in his native Algeria: “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” The problem is that Camus never uttered those words. As the Pléiade edition of his works makes clear, Camus instead observed that bombs were being planted on tramways in Algiers, where his mother still lived. “If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

But given the stakes involved, these are quibbles. At the end of his book, Sand warns that no one, “neither republicans, socialists, or even persecuted minorities and their descendants are immunized against the contagious plague which consists of rejecting and fearing the other.” Fittingly, with these words, he echoes Camus, who in The Plague called for constant vigilance and self-vigilance — since all of us have the plague within us.


Rob Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013, and recently reissued in paperback. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.

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.


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