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.
(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.”
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.
See French News Online’s own non-stop cultural coverage here:
Story: Ken Pottinger
- A French Cow Shed and The Silent Movies
- Desperately Seeking the Next Prix Goncourt
- Camargue Fights Catalan Bull
- Digital Dragon set to slay Rural Cinema?
- Dijon – So Much More Than Mustard
- Festivals 2010 – The Very Best of France
- Festivals 2011 – Arles is for Early Birds
- One Thing Leads to Another
- Paris is for People with Passions
- Radio France with an Accent Anglais?
- War of the Buttons: a Battle of Remakes
- Intouchables Touches the ‘Handi-Ignorants’
- Philippe Jaroussky – His Angel’s Voix
- The Genius of the Opera-Ballet
- France honours Donald Sutherland (bbc.co.uk)