News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Letter - Hi R: Thanks for the article about non-fiction paying the bills. That’s certainly encouraging, though I won’t consider myself a proper writer until I can author fiction that’s readable…

I’m quite curious about France and it’s one of the reading topics on my list. In eastern Canada, where the English and French live nearby but separate, the French are considered a joke by the English speakers and only marginally less ridiculous than bumpkins from Newfoundland. It wouldn’t surprise me if it works both ways though, with the French thinking of the English as buffoons.

As to the article on France, despite my admitted ignorance of the subject matter, I would take much of what the author says with a large grain of salt. The writer reminds me of the American fans of Chinese classical poetry I used to meet in Taiwan while I lived in a government dorm. They were ecstatic about classical this and classical that and loved to show off their learning but I soon realized their weak point: they knew nothing about poetry in the English language. They were unfamiliar with Wordsworth, Shelley, Kipling, even Shakespeare was a distant memory to people who were used to quoting Chinese poets. I thought it both suspicious and curious.

From the article: “…the immense output on their society produced by the French themselves, on a scale undreamt of elsewhere. Seventy titles just on the electoral campaign of spring 2002. Two hundred books on Mitterrand. Three thousand on De Gaulle.”

This may be the case, but my copy of Lincoln Reconsidered contains the following on page 3: “Jay Monaghan’s Lincoln Bibliography requires 1,079 pages merely to list the books and pamphlets [on Lincoln] published before 1939…”

I tried to chase down the number of books to date written about Lincoln and the closest I could get was 14,000 books and pamphlets. What is a pamphlet? And is it 13,900 pamphlets and 100 books? I don’t know… But to paraphrase a history prof of mine: the most popular subjects for books published in the US in order are Lincoln, medicine, and pets. The as-of-yet unwritten US best seller of all time is Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.

From the article: “High standards of statistical rigour, analytic intelligence, literary elegance continue to distinguish the best of French writing about France, in quantities no neighbouring land can rival.”

If this was true, then why aren’t English language bookstores swamped with translations of French works? Myself, I can name about as many Russian authors as French. In the 19th century US bookstores were full of pirated British author’s works. And probably for good reason. Mencken clearly appreciated European works in his day over American. If the work was of high quality, it would surely show up.

America’s best single work on democracy is probably the Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, written in the 1830’s and which is highly renowned in the US and which, the last time I looked at it, seemed monstrous in scale but masterful. It compares the British, American and French systems in detail and covers in detail topics ranging from democratic governance to religion, morals, and music under the influence of democracy. If just 1% of French books were of this caliber, 50% of the books on US shelves would be translations from French originals. (Of course no nation produces writers of that caliber in great numbers.)

And the great period of French writing I would have thought predates WWI, Proust to Gustave le Bon. Later 20th century French writers that I’m aware of haven’t impressed me. Sartre is a stuffed shirt (I’ve scanned his Colonialism & Neo Colonialism and wasn’t at all impressed), Camus is boring, Anais Nin is famous primarily for spinning her facts and being attached to the American writer Henry Miller, Simon de Beauvoir has something to say but takes twice as long to say it as she needs to, whereas Foucault is a master of saying next to nothing but boldly and in a poetic, high-toned, and finally incomprehensible manner. I place him in the same school of master-hustlers as Rousseau and Marx. The author of the magazine piece quotes Levi-Strauss, who is yet another prominent French author who’s work, at least in English, is nearly completely unintelligible. Clearly there is a connexion between hyperactive soggy writing, circular logic, the begging of questions, the chasing of tails, and the assigning of pointless and lengthy definitions to the obvious with the popularity of certain modern French hacks. These hacks seem to be beloved of dunderheaded academics and lay losers who wish to impress the naïve and impressionable with their erudition. The basic premise, as I understand it, of these scalpers of second-hand sagacities is this: if you don’t understand the Great French authors, that’s because you’re a simple-minded English-speaking parvenu. But of course, when pushed to the wall these hustlers don’t understand it either. It’s just another intrinsically meaningless fad, a way for nerds to be intellectually cool.

Having savaged prominent French authors, it’s worth pointing out that my favorite author, Mencken, is not even known to most Americans (and I presume not known to most Brits either). I might just as easily turn up my nose at a list of American authors famous in France.

The only decent French author I’m aware of is Michelle Houellebecq (the French fictioneer I was recommending to you before, and who the author of this article attacks) who’s forsaken bonny France for Ireland. I know nothing about good French writers and have no doubt that there are some excellent folk out there.

But given the immensity of crap one finds written in English, to suggest that the French are generally superior in this department would also suggest to me (because good writing is usually the product of sound and innovative thinking) that France would also excel in other aspects of intellectual endeavor and thus have the world’s top military, the most efficient economy, the most productive R&D, the most effective polity, and so forth. Like most conspiracy theories, SARS, colonialism, and so forth, if you push some of the basic premises to their logical conclusions you don’t have to be an expert to begin to doubt the experts.

Oddly enough, when it comes to politics the writer seems to back up some of the book that I reviewed: “The political system, riddled with corruption, is held in increasing public contempt… The current ruler of the country would be in the dock for malversation had a constitutional court not hastened to grant him immunity from prosecution: a trampling of equality before the law that not even his Italian counterpart, in what is usually imagined to be a still more cynical political culture, has been able to secure. Foreign policy is a mottled parody of Gaullism: vocal opposition to the pretext for war in the Middle East, followed by practical provision of airspace and prompt wishes for victory once the attack was under way, then eager amends for disloyalty with a joint coup to oust another unsatisfactory ruler in the Caribbean, and agrément for the puppet regime in Baghdad.

The writer also says: “No equivalent exists of the TLS or the LRB, of L'Indice or of the books pages of the New Republic, even of the dull ones of Die Zeit: truly sustained, discriminating engagement with a work of fiction, of ideas or history has become rare.”

Perhaps most telling is the length and content of the author’s article. Who’s going to read this? What is the author’s point, besides impressing the impressionable with his masterful erudition and his litany of unsupported pros and cons? He carries on like an old well-read fag trying to impress young men in his orbit. The shot-gun overkill professorial approach of Professor Chomsky is there too. He says a million things but what does any of it mean at the end of the day? How much sticks to your ribs 24 hours later…

That’s my fifty-cents worth…



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