by Ted Welch
Sat Apr 28th, 2007 at 05:16:15 PM EST
I am haunted by philosophers. When I moved to Paris last year I rented a small house in the same road where Lenin had lived from Dec 1908 to July 1909.
It was in 1908 that Lenin wrote his philosophical work: "Materialism and Empirio-Criticism." Its merits as a work of philosophy have been questioned:
But at least Lenin took seriously Marx's point that: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."
Then I moved to Nice and rented an apartment just north of where Nietzsche stayed during his first visit
But Nietzsche had little respect for one of France's most famous philosophers, his demolition of Descartes's "cogito ergo sum" is a philosophical gem and a revelation when I first read it years ago:
Diderot's dresssing gown
Portrait of Diderot by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767
Now we've just moved to Rue Diderot ! I knew that he was one of the French philosophes and was involved in editing the Encyclopedie, but he also seems to have anticipated some of Nietzsche's ideas:
and those of Darwin:
Consumerism and the Diderot effect"
I didn't know that he gave his name not only to my street, but also to a phrase in marketing: "the Diderot effect" ! - and wrote what seems to be the first warning of the dangers of consumerism:
Learning Diderot's Lesson: Stopping the Upward Creep of Desire
In the eighteenth century, the French philosopher Denis Diderot
wrote an essay entitled "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing
Gown." Diderot's regrets were prompted by a gift of a beautiful
scarlet dressing gown. [!] Delighted with his new acquisition,
Diderot quickly discarded his old gown. But in a short time, his
pleasure turned sour as he began to sense that the surroundings
within which the gown was worn did not properly reflect the
garment's elegance. He grew dissatisfied with his study, with
its threadbare tapestry, the desk, his chairs, and even the
room's bookshelves. One by one, the familiar but well-worn
furnishings of the study were replaced. In the end, Diderot
found himself seated uncomfortably in the stylish formality of
his new surroundings, regretting the work of this "imperious
scarlet robe [that] forced everything else to conform with its
own elegant tone."
Today consumer researchers call such striving for conformity
the "Diderot effect." And, while Diderot effects can be
constraining (some people foresee the problem and refuse the
initial upgrading), in a world of growing income the pressures to
enter and follow the cycle are overwhelming."
In fact in another amazing coincidence, one of the first things bought for me by Montserrat (in Venice in December) was a magnificent red dressing gown !
Sarkozy - champion of consumerism
This of course brings us back to the current election campaign in France, where Sarkozy on the Right is in favour of taking France into a future more like the Anglo-saxon model, though he has to make gestures towards retaining traditional French culture. Thus he argues for a "rupture" with the old system, but promises that it will be a "rupture tranquille". Les Guignols, the TV puppet satire show, had famous French TV anchor Poivre ask Puppet Sarkozy about this and he said "Yes, I'm relaxed, look, I have my hands in my pockets" - or will they be in ours? Of course he's generally in favour of business, or, as he would say, modernizing France, so the people trying to get us to buy new dressing gowns, and to generally increase our participation in the consumerist culture will be happy. Diderot warned of the likely consequences:
The Hollywood Ten and the Blacklist
Recently I was enjoying one of our recent purchases, a TV set (we had seen a TV consumer programme which said that the optimal size for a set was about 80 cm, so at least we didn't go for the giant screens) and there was a programme on some of those influenced by the philosophy of Marx, and so against consumerism, i.e. the Hollywood Ten, a period which has echoes today in the US (hence the contemporary relevance of Clooney's excellent "Good Night and Good Luck" set in that period).
In fact the Blacklist had some very good consequences for some of them - they got of the US for a while and enjoyed living in England, Spain and France, some of them writing scripts under pseudonyms, and, given the power of the dollar at the time, living quite well.
Ben and Norma Barzan didn't get paid for scripting the film "Christ in Concrete", shot in England and directed by Edward Dmyytryk. Instead they got a long, paid holiday in Paris, where they met the cultural eltite, including Picasso, who said to them: You are like me - exiles". Ben objected that they'd only been in France two months, and Picasso went round introducing them as "The exiles who don't know they are exiles." He was right, they were put on the Blacklist and stayed in France for 30 years, where they remained friends with Picasso and for a while had a house just 400 yards from his at Mougins. By another coincidence we were planning a trip to Mougins soon, but had no idea that people like the Barzans had lived there.
"Christ in Concrete" - a suppressed masterpiece
I'd never heard of "Christ in Concrete", despite having been a media studies lecturer and left-wing; but that's not so surprising, as this excellent review of a recent DVD release of the film points out:
"All Day has outdone itself with this release, an almost totally unknown film of excellent quality and considerable significance. The 1949 Christ in Concrete was hounded from American screens after one or two bookings. Its director, writer, and several cast members had filmed it in England after being driven from Hollywood by the blacklist. This absorbing emotional experience is a socially conscious scream by artists not yet ready to surrender. The disc cover calls it a 'suppressed master work', which for once is no exaggeration.
Director Edward Dmytryk eventually recanted and named names, thus reclaiming a Hollywood career for himself while earning the scorn of those he betrayed. The result was that Christ in Concrete was never re-discovered. Except for two brief weeks in a tiny New York theater in 1949, and one museum showing in 1975, it has barely been shown in America - and never shown on television.
... In the blacklist-crazed late 40s, a film didn't have to spout anti-capitalist slogans to be refused exhibition. Movies concerned with working realities always walked on thin ice. When old James Cagney pictures examined poverty, they treated it in Horatio Alger terms - slums were a great place to learn character and were prime breeding grounds for priests and violin soloists. Movies implying that basic social change might be needed just didn't get made. Over at MGM, labor concerns were often portrayed as Red agitation - see 1935's Riffraff, where we are invited to cheer as thug Spencer Tracy roughs up a labor organizer... The show doesn't narrow its viewpoint to the approved movie fantasy of happy American living.
... The other extras are a gold mine of insights and revelations. Norma Barzman, the screenwriter's widow, is the star attraction on a commentary [as she was in the programme I saw on French TV] ... the book [is] a key piece of literature in the Italian-American experience, a direct inspiration for the Neorealist film movement in Italy. Norma's story of the Blacklist is one of the best first-hand accounts I've heard. Still fiery on the subject, she's an original 'progressive' from the 30s who has opinions on everything ..."
What a shame that such people were silenced for so long. But then she's lived in France for 30 years, where lots of people have opinions on everything and it's a country where philosophy is taken seriously - an American constrasts this with the US (and the same applies to the UK):
Sarkozy v the French philosopher Michel Onfray
"A little more Sarkozy vs. Onfray philosophy debate:
Sarkozy then says that he has never heard anything as absurd as Socrates' "Know yourself" "This admission turns me to ice" [Onfray:] "...In other words this person who wants to lead the destinies of the French nation believes that knowledge of oneself is a vain undertaking?" Onfray reminds his readers that the last three heads of state have all had need of expert psychological help at different times during their mandate. Clearly Sarkozy feels this sign of fragility is not for him.
Struck by the cultural differences again. We'd never have an atheist philosopher arguing phil. with a conservative pres. candidate here. And criticizing the candidate for not itnending to undergo psychoanalysis while in office?
...a note on American philosophers' view of the French. By and large US phil. academics are jealous of the greater role philosophy plays in public life there. This Onfay fellow had a recent book that sold 300,000 copies and was tops on the non-fiction, best-selling list in France. Plus Onfay is regularly all over TV. How many people in the US can even name a living, practicing philosopher?"
Onfray's account of the discussion (mostly Sarkozy on the attack according to Onfray) is damning:
"J'avance une autre phrase. Même traitement, flots de verbes, flux de mots, jets d'acides. Une troisième. Idem. Je commence à trouver la crise un peu longue. De toute façon démesurée, disproportionnée.
Si l'on veut être Président de la République, si l'on s'y prépare depuis le berceau, si l'on souhaite présider les destinées d'un pays deux fois millénaires et jouer dans la cour des grands fauves de la planète, si l'on se prépare à disposer du feu nucléaire ... alors comment peut on réagir comme un animal blessé à mort, comme une bête souffrante..."
France needs philosophers, not political animals of the Right like this. Segolene Royal was on TV Fance2 (25.4.07) and came over as a very bright, but very humane person; preferring encouragement rather than punishment. One imagines that she warms to the injunction "Know thyself" and that, unlike Sarkozy she is not afraid to do so.
Onfray himself is quite a character, almost combining Nietzsche and Lenin:
"... a self-described "Nietzschian of the left", except that Onfray is also "radically libertarian socialist". Thus he is also rather like one of the few people I really respect, Noam Chmsky, but with added French hedonism:
But also with a popularity in France, which even a Chomsky cannot achieve in the context of US media control and philistinism (see above). Like Chomsky he isn't interested in celebrity for its own sake and is something of a workaholic (despite the hedonism):
"Onfray is a well- known figure in France - not just through his many books, which avoid academic cant and are rendered in an elegant but accessible, sparkling prose that is admired even by critics who abhor his ideas - but as a frequent guest on French TV's numerous literary and intellectual chat shows. The national public radio network France Culture annually broadcasts his course of lectures to the Universite Populaire on philosophical themes. But Onfray has deliberately rejected the incestuous and corrupt Parisian mediatic-politico-academic microcosm and its seductive but ephemeral blandishments, and insists on living in the small Normandy town of Argentan where he was born, just 57 km. from Caen. Free from the distractions of urban mundanities, Onfray devotes his time exclusively to his intellectual work, which helps explain his astonishing output at such a relatively young age."
... Onfray's latest book, Traité d'Athéologie (Paris, Editions Grasset), became the number one best-selling nonfiction book in France for months when it was published in the Spring of 2005 (the word "atheologie" Onfray borrowed from Georges Bataille)."
Onfray has helped rescue one of France's earliest atheists and radical thinkers, Jean Meslier:
I. Of a Certain Jean Meslier
"HOW ASTONISHING that the prevailing historiography finds no place for an atheist priest in the reign of Louis XIV. More than that, he was a revolutionary communist and internationalist, an avowed materialist, a convinced hedonist, an authentically passionate and vindictively, anti-Christian prophet, but also, and above all, a philosopher in every sense of the word, a philosopher proposing a vision of the world that is coherent, articulated, and defended step by step before the tribunal of the world, without any obligation to conventional Western reasoning.
Jean Meslier under his cassock contained all the dynamite at the core of the 18th century. This priest with no reputation and without any memorial furnishes an ideological arsenal of the thought of the Enlightenment's radical faction, that of the ultras, all of whom, drinking from his fountain, innocently pretend to be ignorant of his very name. A number of his theses earn for his borrowers a reputation only won by usurping his work. Suppressed references prevent the reverence due to him."
What a contrast between Meslier's obscurity and Onfray himself, a star TV intellectual who uses the profits from his best-selling books to fund radical education and a popular philosophical community:
I wouldn't be surprised if many streets are called "Rue Onfray" in future, in a France made even more philosophy-friendly by him, and, I hope, less friendly to demagogues like Sarkozy.