Reprising a Myth: Death of French Culture

Publishing an 3000-word article in Time magazine headed ‘The Death of French Culture’ is, one might think, a sure way to bring down the wrath of all France on your head.

deathof french culture Reprising a Myth: Death of French Culture

Perhaps not the best way to win friends and influence people

(Read more French News here)
Strangely, according to the man who did it, former Time magazine staffer Don Morrison, it didn’t quite work that way. For despite the initial opprobrium, a certain notoriety, and embarrassment at his self confessed lack of real knowledge about the subject  (to the extent that he admits to a fragile grasp of the language itself), he is still today the focus of French media attention, for better or worse.

Latest to reprise his 2007  ‘folie’  is a new left of centre online publication – Contreligne. The magazine has translated and published “French Farce” an article by Don Morrison which includes this:  … “of course, France dominated the international cultural scene in the 19th and early 20th centuries. French novelists – Hugo, Zola, Balzac and so on – were read the world over. French composers – Debussy, Ravel, Satie and the like — were similarly esteemed. In art, France was the birthplace of impressionism, cubism, fauvism, surrealism and other major -isms. Same for film (a French invention), photography (ditto), drama, architecture… France ruled the artistic universe. Today, however, the country’s cultural achievements are largely unheralded outside its borders. Works by French contemporary artists command less at international auction, on average, than those of Americans, Germans, Brits and Chinese. New books by French authors are no longer widely translated; of the 1,000 or so published every fall as part of the famous literary rentrée, fewer than a dozen make it to the other side of the Atlantic, or even the English Channel. New French drama is rarely performed outside France, and French movies have lost the cachet they enjoyed in the era of Godard and Truffaut. Serious French music is largely unheard beyond the Hexagon. The same goes for pop and rock, which are dominated by Americans and Brits. Quick, name a French pop star who’s not Johnny Hallyday … The international “buzz” machine – that infrastructure of publications, websites, conferences, publicists and other megaphones for promoting culture – are based largely outsideFrance, and they speak English to each other.”

Although the writer himself apparently proceeds entirely to undermine his initial thesis with this confession —

“If I sounded mildly convincing in a magazine piece on the rather narrow question of French influence in the world, on the larger subject of French culture I remain a dilettante in a sea of anoraks. I read French with difficulty and can barely speak a complete sentence of it. I may manage a few words about the vacuity of French novels in general, but I have read embarrassingly few of them in particular. I remain largely ignorant of the classics of French literature, art, music, drama and cinema. I struggle to tell Saint-Beuve from Saint-Simon, Audiard from Abelard, Caron de Beaumarchais from Choderlos de Leclos. When asked, I fudge things as best I can, changing the subject to something obvious and hoping I am not found out…”

— it would appear not to have made much difference.

“Oddly,”  he continues, “my ignorance hardly seems to bother the French. Chat show hosts and conference moderators are surprisingly indulgent, letting me babble incoherently without ripping me to ribbons, James Naughtie-style (Note: a BBC Radio 4 presenter). Audiences rush up afterward to shake my hand and tell me affably that they disagree violently but find my American accent charming. Still, I can see it in their faces. They know I’m over my head, living a lie, making it up as I go along. They can smell my shame.”

3669897676 f9636e0941 Reprising a Myth: Death of French Culture

Through the Window, Chateau Comtal, Cité de Carcassonne, (Credit: Vic Burton)

With notable restraint Contreligne – which editorially aims, among other issues, to focus on the re-emergence of “a German Question at a time of European and, in particular, French decline ” – writes:  “Don Morrison, a celebrated Anglo-American journalist, caused a scandal with his (2007) Time Magazine article in which he proclaimed The Death of French Culture. He followed this up with a book on the same theme (Polity Press). Now the British online magazine PORT has given him a fresh platform in their Spring  2012 issue an article we reprint here with permission (translated of course).”

For those who missed the initial scandale Morrison’s own website bares all here: “Within days of Time magazine’s publication of the article on the decline of France as an international cultural power, French media “lit up like the Eiffel Tower in full sparkle”. Major French figures like Didier Jacob, Maurice Druon, Teresa Cremisi, Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, and François Busnel, weighed in. The blogosphere went wild.”

Of course the whole issue of France and its approach to culture — ‘vaste sujet’ as de Gaulle would undoubtedly have reiterated  –  is well reflected in its summer programme. Whereas locals in many other countries head for the beach to sunbake, drink, eat and party, the French, while doing likewise, add a festival dimension of which they are enormously proud, as can be seen by the massive participation during the Summer Festivals season.

As many visitors and residents know Summer in France is a cauldron of cultural fervour, with Festivals and cultural events dominating the landscape, the agenda, the holiday plans and the life of communities from one end of the country to the other.

There are major highlights of course in the great musical and associated festivals of Languedoc and Provence, but during July and August hardly a corner of the country is not involved in a festival ranging from the erudite, to the folksy, the traditional to the entirely unexpected.

Indeed an inveterate festival-goer could be on the move virtually every day for two months and still fail to take in the half of them — assuming they even managed to get tickets, many festivals being sold out months in advance.

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See French News Online’s own non-stop cultural coverage here:
France Festivals

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Story: Ken Pottinger
editorial@french-news-online.com

 Reprising a Myth: Death of French Culture



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10 Responses to Reprising a Myth: Death of French Culture

  1. Lafayette July 10, 2012 at 7:28 am

    {Still, I can see it in their faces. They know I’m over my head, living a lie, making it up as I go along. They can smell my shame.”}

    So, why does he persist in doing it?

    Both Americans and Brits come from highly individualistic cultures. French culture, like most European countries, is more collective. I doubt that those of an Anglophone culture can understand readily the subtle but important difference, since what they see whilst living here is only the superficial variations (with their own). Especially when they must deal with the French administration and even more particularly if they speak no French.

    And yet, those difference are important for any living here to understand.

    Highly individualist cultures believe the individual is most important unit
    • People taking care of themselves (including immediately family only)
    • Self-orientation
    • Identity based on individual
    • Guilt culture
    • Making decisions based on individual needs
    • An “I” mentality
    • Emphasis on individual initiative and achievement
    • Everyone has a right to a private life

    Highly collectivistic cultures believe group is most important unit.
    • Expect absolute loyalty to group (nuclear family, extended family, caste, organization)
    • Group orientation
    • Decisions based on what is best for the group.
    • Identity based on social system
    • Shame culture
    • Dependence on organization and institutions (Expects organization / institution / group to take care of individual)
    • A “We” mentality
    • Emphasis on belonging
    • Private life “invaded” by institution and organizations to which one belongs

    Reply
  2. admin July 10, 2012 at 7:39 am

    Thank you Lafayette, for some interesting observations on cultural differences, differences which after all are what make life interesting for expats wherever they are … and that includes the French living in Anglophonia!

    Reply
  3. Lafayette July 10, 2012 at 7:52 am

    {and that includes the French living in Anglophonia!}

    I could be very wrong, but I suspect the French person adapting to an Individualist Culture does so more readily than an Anglophone adapting to the French culture. As chief cook and bottle-washer of an “International Club” I meet many expats (both French and Anglophones living here).

    The Anglophones I know in France, which are many, do far more complaining about the French than the reverse. They simply do not understand that cultural differences exist and they are far more than just superficial. Some live their whole lives here in that manner.

    But, thankfully, there are also a great many who do understand the “trick”. To adapt to French culture wholeheartedly but still keep that bit within us that remains “always British” or “forever Yank” or whatever our culture of origin.

    In fact, that is what (I think) the French we meet enjoy the most in us.

    Reply
  4. admin July 10, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Absolutely. Perpetual complainers are failed integrationists entirely missing the point of their move. If travel broadens the mind, expat living surely enhances it permanently, and of course acculturation is required, particularly language-wise, without that commitment why not just stay home?

    Reply
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