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Liberty, equality and misery in modern France

An event can change the way you think about a book. The recent attempts by ISIS in Paris to throw us back into the Middle Ages (they call their victims “Crusaders”) is such an event.

The love-hate relationship the French had with communism for the last hundred years has created one of their most controversial commodities — leisure. And it was their leisure on a Friday night that the terrorists were aiming at: sports events, concerts and restaurants.

Many are envious of how the French enjoy themselves and surround themselves with beautiful objects, and this envy often results in unkind statements about bloated and ineffectual government and people who don’t suffer enough in the workplace. But the terrorists know if they want to destroy civilization the best target is France because it is responsible for a great deal of it. Greece and Rome got Western culture started but without Charlemagne where would it be? Probably in exactly the world ISIS wants to return us to and that it has already instituted in their little part of the world.

The cradle of civilization is dead set on destroying what it started. They are the Crusaders now. Jihadists armed with Crusader-like swords are out to save their Muslim brothers and sisters from the sinful ways of the modern world.

But that’s not what this book is about. As the subtitle says, this is an affectionate portrait of the French mind. The author is an outsider, born in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, which retains a lot of French influence from its colonial period. Now teaching at Oxford and living the rest of the year in Paris, Sudhir Hazareesingh celebrates French culture at the same time that he sounds a warning.

The influence of French culture on the world stage has fallen off sharply in recent years. Not that long ago everyone was reading French novels and philosophy and watching French plays and movies. Then something happened, a malaise. The French are as aware of this fact as anyone.

After World War II a political scientist described the French contribution like this: “France may not find better solutions for the problems of our time, but she best knows how to define them… Wherever she goes, France introduces clarity, intellectual ease, curiosity and, at the end of the day, a subtle and necessary form of wisdom.”

Seventy years later the picture has darkened: “There is an overall decline in the number of French books translated into English” and there is “an absence of interest in contemporary French thought among progressives around the world.”

La Monde made up a new trilogy for France. Instead of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” they now call it “liberty, equality and moroseness.”

Hazareesingh thinks this is due to the French tendency — often the compulsion — to bifurcate. You either are or you aren’t — there’s no middle ground. Further observation is of no interest to the French mind. Anyone who said “penser a” instead of the required “penser de” in French class knows this. The teacher looked at you as if you hadn’t spoken and perhaps never should again.

How then did France manage to be in the forefront of philosophy, literature and art for so many years?

Hazareesingh thinks it has to do with focus. Paris is France. All other cultures are split in two, usually north and south, but sometime east and west. With this centralized nature France has an advantage in that it can dictate a system of laws and culture and even language. It can be incredible precise and take pride in that fact.

Sometimes the pride goes too far.

Often the French arguments seem overly precious. But Hazareesingh points out that this is because the French mind loves an argument, a dialectic, to split every issue in two, to bifurcate. Since these issues aren’t split by nature they have to be split by the human mind. It often seems to outsiders like arguing for arguing’s sake like a debating society where the debaters argue from positions they gleefully don’t believe. But armed with their incredibly precise language and irrefutable logic, the results can be impressive, even persuasive. It was that sort of environment that nurtured many of the West’s greatest philosophers and writers.

But even if France can’t produce another golden age, Hazareesingh holds out one last hope. France subsidizes the arts more than any other country. And it provides the leisure essential for creativity. Maybe the next Descartes or the next Voltaire, maybe this time a Muslim, is waiting in the wings. Or at the very least to quote Albert Camus, “There is no shame in being happy.”

In an age when the Internet has made English the international language instead of French or Spanish, when language seems to be crumbling into twitteresque rants filled with meaningless acronyms, finger-saving abbreviations and emojis, the French language that always knows how to find the perfect words for complicated emotions or thoughts seems irrelevant. But even before the recent events in Paris, Hazareesingh argued that a thorough review of the amazing procession of thinkers and doers that France has produced is not only timely but necessary.

We should reassess our attitude toward the French way of thinking, whose language, rich in precision and poor in mannerisms, the language of diplomacy, the language called on to describe philosophical and literary movements, the second language of our secretary of state, will be needed to define the problems of our time.

The debate-circus language we are all too inured to may simply not be up to the task. The smug know-it-all grandstanding our leaders have been reduced to in the media of soundbites will have them running around in circles unable to focus on what the real issues are in the battle for our culture’s survival.

Maybe instead of more science and math taught in our schools, we should have more writing courses that make students think and French courses that introduce students to a rational, clear language perfect for expressing exactly what they think.

Of course there’s always Latin.

This book is a good place to begin that reassessment.

William L. Morris is a co-inventor of News poetry pages. He now lives and writes in Florida.

How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People

By Sudhir Hazareesingh

Basic Books

338 pages, $29.99