the elegant protofascist

“The generation of 1890, however, only took from Nietzsche the elements it wanted and needed. 'All this modernity is what I am fighting against, modernity as defined by Nietzsche ...', said Maurice Barrès , the chief intellectual leader of French nationalism, the father of the French political novel, and one of the most intelligent founders of the fascist synthesis. His entire opus is devoted to the struggle against the 'rationalist idea', which he considered 'antagonistic to life and its spontaneous forms', and he berated Rousseau for sterilizing life by attempting to rationalize it. For a quarter of a century, Barrès waged a Nietzschean struggle against the French Enlightenment, Cartesian rationalism, the Kantian categorical imperative, the rights of man, humanism, liberal democracy, the idea of progress and democratic education. But where Nietzsche favoured an extreme individualism, Barrès advocated the complete subordination of the individual to the community; where Nietzsche declared his horror of the masses and extolled an aristocracy of thought and will, the primacy of culture, intellectual independence and nonconformism, Barrès took the side of the multitude, the sole depository of great collective values. Nothing could be more foreign to Nietzsche than the historical, cultural and racial determinism of Barrès , his tribal nationalism, his cult of a strong state. Nothing was more agreeable to the nationalists of the generation of 1890, than a national, Catholic, Proudhonian, xenophobic, authoritarian and often anti-semitic state." – Zeev Sternhall, “Fascism: reflections on the fate of ideas in twentieth century history.”

One thing sticks out in French literature, distinguishing it at first glance from English literature: French literature is illuminated by its shits. First rate authors, but shits. The French have Baudelaire, the English have Swinburne. The English have Kipling, the French have Maurice Barrès.

Barrès isn’t well known in America. At most, he is known from his fake trial staged by Breton in 1921. For the hotheaded young men, Barrès represented a certain strain in the French culture – revanchist, ultra-nationalist, anti-cosmopolitan – that had buried so many poilu in so many trenches. At that trial, he was defended by Aragon, who later – in the 1940s, of all times – once said: S’il faut choisir, je me dirais barrésien. » Talk about emptying your revolver into a crowd.

In the eighties, Barrès became a sort of intellectual football in a political backlash against the Foucaultians of 68 among historians. Led by Zeev Sternhall, the “new” idea was that fascism originated not on the right, but on the left – that it emerged from populist Proudhon socialism, and that the anti-semitism that one could easily find on the left became concentrated in the kind of ‘nationalist socialism’ represented by Barrès -- who actually used the phrase when he was running for the French parliament in the 1890s. This debate, which became rancorous, was, to our mind, too narrowly focused on France – a glance at what was happening in Britain, where the liberal hegemony fragmented at the same time – and ignores the imperial effect. However, it did revive interest in Barrès. Aragon was quite right to see him as the inventor of the political novel – the modern political novel.

Which brings me to La Jardin de Bérénice. LI has been reading Le jardin de Bérénice this week. The novel is one in a series that Barres named le culte de moi. Barres politics was limited by his expressed sense that politics was the form in which he was shaping his ego, which had as much to do with his anti-Dreyfusardism, his nationalism, his loyalty to France’s pantomime of a pantomime of Napoleon, General Boulanger, who was promoted by various financial interests in the 1890s as a possible French dictator – his campaign was endowed with some of the same kinds of resentments and hopes that went into Perot’s presidential campaign in 1992.

The beginning of Le Jardin de Berenice presents a dialogue between Renan, who Barres was considering as his master (an odd compliment, since, in the perspective of the Barresian ego, the discipline here very clearly has the ultimate say so about mastership) and a friend. I’m going to translate a bit of that in my next post, as … well, an exercise in translation.