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Schools, Sculptors and Spring Fools | The Nation

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Schools, Sculptors and Spring Fools

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Paris

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

March 4. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens are marching today to defend "educational freedom"--that is, uncontrolled state subsidies for private Catholic schools. They cleverly present the idea of l'École laïque, a public school with equality for all, as nightmarish 1984, the symbol of the oppressive state stifling civil society. And where are the protesters marching? In Versailles. Ever since the Commune of Paris, the Versaillais have been known as the men of the massacre--the greedy, frightened and finally bloodthirsty executioners of the workers of Paris. Today they parade as the champions of freedom. How is that possible? Why is it credible? Quite simply, because in France political freedom is again confused with the freedom of the market.

The school issue is not an isolated case. Consider the response to the revival of a law designed to prevent press lords from obtaining a monopoly on national newspapers. Passed after World War II and being brought up to date, the law's main target is Robert Hersant, the French Murdoch, who was abjectly pro-Nazi during the occupation. Hersant is now miraculously presented by the right as a martyr of freedom; the Socialist government as the chief enemy of liberty. Why? Because the former no longer stands for the crooked defense of private property but for "civil society," while the latter stands for the overwhelming Leviathan, a state as metaphysical and' undefined as civil society itself.

The government's clumsy propaganda has contributed to the change in climate. The Socialists have never given the impression that they stand wholeheartedly behind the effort to restore the stature of public schools. The press law looks too obviously tailored to check Hersant, whose papers happen to be passionately committed to the opposition. But the reasons go much deeper. When a Socialist President and his ministers praise private enterprise not as a temporary necessity but as a virtue in itself, when supposedly leftist papers (Nouvel Observateur is a good example) repeat time and again that the market is the only rampart of freedom, why shouldn't people begin to believe that interference with Hersant leads ultimately to samizdat or that subsidies for private schools are indispensable to avoid Stalinist education? When you preach irrational premises, why should people draw rational conclusions?

A few years ago you could hear in Paris the theme drawn from Brecht's Threepenny Opera: The time of small thieves is over; we have entered the era of robber barons. What is it robbing a bank, compared with setting up a bank? Today you can read in Le Monde a professor's earnest argument that "the worst outlaw is the one who breaks the laws of the market." So what? Newspapers are allowed to publish fools, and a professorship has never guaranteed wisdom. The snag is that the same sentence could figure in a "leftist" editorial or a speech by Jacques Delors, the Minister of Finance. Indeed, its sentiment lies at the heart of Mitterrand's policy. If the left is what it is, why should one wonder about the disarray of the French people and the triumph of the Versaillais . . .

March 17. Simone Veil, former president of the European Parliament, has a good liberal reputation. That is why the followers of Giscard and the Gaullists behind Chirac picked her to head the list of the United Right in the election to Europe's assembly, to be held in mid-June in all Common Market countries. Presenting the list today, Veil felt compelled to justify the inclusion of Robert Hersant on it. There is something sinister in that match. During the last war Veil, a Jew and a resister, was deported to a concentration camp; Hersant, a Jew-baiter, was a vociferous admirer of the Nazis. (To remind its readers of his past as a collaborator, Le Canard Enchaîné usually misspells his name as Herr Sant.) Why does he want a seat in the European Parliament? Because it will provide him with immunity from prosecution under the revitalized press law. He has been breaking that law for years. As boss of Le Figaro, France-Sow and a host of provincial papers, Herr Sant is the pre-eminent spokesman for "freedom" and the scourge of the "Reds." Which explain Simone Veil's euphemistic remark about Hersant that "all Frenchmen had not been resisters or heroes." What's that saying attributed to Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin? "I'd rather be an opportunist and-float than go to the bottom with my principles around my neck."

April 2. It's difficult to keep up with all the shows here. At the Pompidou Center, that brightly painted refinery in the heart of Paris, the post-impressionist Bonnard has replaced Balthus, but the exhibition arousing probably the greatest interest is that of sculptor Camille Claudel, at the Rodin Museum. The reason is both artistic and social. At the turn of the century Claudel was one of France's most gifted sculptors. When she died, in 1943, she was nearly 80, but she had spent the previous thirty years a prisoner, confined to a lunatic asylum.

The Rodin Museum is a small palace in a big park, where you can see such famous statues as "The Thinker" or "Balzac" in open air. The setting is appropriate for this show because Auguste Rodin played a crucial role in Camille Claudel's life. In 1883, when they met, Claudel was 19, very attractive and already an accomplished sculptor. Rodin was more than twice her age and at last a recognized master. In quick succession Claudel became his pupil, model, lover and close collaborator (contributing greatly, for instance, to his "Burghers of Calais"). Though clearly influenced by Rodin, Claudel was his artistic match (her "Surrender" comparing favorably to his celebrated "Kiss"). Luminaries like composer Claude Debussy and some of the finer critics admired her work, but it brought her little recognition or financial reward.

The passionate relationship with Rodin soured in time. Claudel was hurt by his refusal to leave Rose Beuret, his ex-model and companion. In an attempt to escape Rodin's artistic spell, Claudel shifted her style, first to expressive miniatures and later to more academic forms. She also expressed her jealousy crudely in drawings and metaphorically in sculptures. (One of her best-known works, "Ripe Age," or "Destiny," shows an aging man burdened with an elderly woman, turning his back on a younger woman, who is kneeling with arms outstretched to him.)

The break did leave wounds. Early in the century Claudel began destroying her works, reportedly because of her fears that Rodin would steal them. According to her brother she was living alone "with shutters drawn...coming out only in the morning to buy her miserable pittance." In 1913, soon after her father died, her family, apparently for no other reason, exiled her to living death in the asylum. Rodin, who sent Claudel some money once or twice and died four years after her confinement, does not come off too well in this story, though better than Claudel's family, especially her younger brother, Paul. Now, Paul Claudel was a distinguished diplomat; but more important, he was France's greatest Catholic poet and playwright, the author of Satin Slipper and The Tidings Brought to Mary. This pillar of Catholic orthodoxy was mainly responsible for setting his sister's life sentence. When family papers are finally published, they may provide scope for psychoanalysis, and possibly some attenuating circumstances.

The sister will in any case remain the victim. Beautiful and bold, Camille Claudel had dared to defy her times, living, loving and creating as she wished. As soon as they could, family and society took their revenge. No wonder her story is arousing feminist passion and general sympathy. Her sculptures are also finally receiving the attention they deserve. Should you come to France before mid-June you will see them in Paris; afterward, until mid -September, you will have to go down to Poitiers.

April 4. Mitterrand's press conference, smooth as usual. Two novelties: it was held in a restaurant instead of the Elysee Palace, and he performed standing (American influence, said those in the know). The President didn't use the word "socialist" once, and the premise underlying his presentation was that there can be no other logic than the one prevailing in the capitalist world. There was one significant piece of news. Mitterrand recommended that the so-called free radio stations soon be allowed to carry some advertising. Until the victory of the left, the state had a monopoly on broadcasting. It owned the public radio stations and had a controlling interest in the "peripheral" commercial stations, whose transmitters are located just outside French frontiers. Given that situation, the pirate stations that began emerging in the late 1970s were welcomed as a refreshing alternative France discovered its equivalent of Pacifica, the iconoclastic radios libres.

Banned by Giscard, they proliferated after 1981, and the government had to impose some order to prevent total cacophony. In 1983 broadcasting permits and small subsidies were granted to about 900 stations all over France--more than twenty in Paris alone. Since the newcomers can't live solely on the subsidies, some have survived marginally through voluntary work and contributions, others got funds from unauthorized advertising or from investors. The law allowing commercials is thus designed to fit facts rather than fiction.

is this the thin edge of the wedge? Will sponsors soon be ruling French airwaves? Probably not immediately, since the law is bound to limit advertising one way or another. In any case, my purpose is not to Judge Mitterrand's proposal but to draw attention to the fact that in France, as in the United States, unless some radical break is made, the alternative to the power of the state is the naked power of money. Freedom, somehow, is coupled with commerce, and equality means that neither the Baron de Rothschild nor the clochard is allowed to sleep under the bridges on the Seine.

Old hat? Granted. The tragedy is that the seemingly obvious has to be explained all over again. One would have thought that with the economic crisis spreading around the world, the inexorable logic of capitalism, concealed for a time, would be plain to see in all its horror. Take just a few recent examples. The European Ministers of Agriculture have managed after much bargaining to lower the targets for milk output. On their agenda: the problem of butter mountains--glut, to put it bluntly--overproduction in a starving world. And what did Mitterrand talk about at his press conference? The steel crisis, the closing down of the most up-to-date plants. Clearly our extraordinary technological inventiveness in reducing working time does not foreshadow the gradual blurring of the line between labor and leisure; no, it spells the misery of mass unemployment. And this is the moment our pundits choose to yell that capitalist logic is the one and only. If you don't believe it, you are either a dinosaur or a secret admirer of the gulag. Worst of all, they get away with it.

My father used to divide fools into spring and winter varieties. Spring fools carry their silliness like a banner. As soon as they enter a room, you know with whom you are dealing. Winter fools hide under camouflage. Only when they have taken off their overcoats, scarves, gloves and jackets do you perceive their nature. I thought capitalism was by now as obvious as a spring fool. I was wrong. We have to keep stripping it, layer by layer, while highly paid tailors are dressing it up in fashionable clothing. A Sisyphean task? Though it may occasionally feel like one, it can't be.

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