by das monde
Mon Dec 30th, 2013 at 05:16:35 AM EST
The Economist has a provoking article in the Christmas issue on French noir moods. It should stir some discussion here.
ONE of the most perplexing questions of the early 21st century is this: how can the French, who invented joie de vivre, the three-tier cheese trolley and Dior's jaunty New Look, be so resolutely miserable? [...] polls suggest that the French are more depressed than Ugandans or Uzbekistanis, and more pessimistic about their country's future than Albanians or Iraqis ....
[...] Le Monde ran three pages under the title "Liberté, Égalité, Morosité", in a bid to decode its fellow countrymen's "persistent melancholy". France, it turns out, has the highest suicide rate in western Europe after Belgium and Switzerland. An American psychiatric study showed that, among ten rich countries, the French were the most likely to have a "major depressive episode" at some point in their life. Even the French language seems to be particularly well stocked -- morosité, tristesse, malheur, chagrin, malaise, ennui, mélancolie, anomie, désespoir -- with negativity.
front-paged by afew
The Economist finds two "seams of misery" in the French culture. One is post-revolutionary romantic ambivalence towards rationalism and bourgeois values. The other "wave of miserabilism" came with existentialism.
Neither Camus nor his contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, was ultimately a pessimist. But it is the torment of existentialism, rather than its conclusions, that captured the imagination. Indeed, the left-bank literary clique led by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, which gravitated to the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Près, adopted ennui as a way of life as well as a philosophy ....
Would melancholia be a natural destination of leftish intellectuals, especially at times like now?
I doubt, therefore I am
One reason could be the French appetite for brutal self-criticism. From Descartes onwards, doubt is the first philosophical reflex [...] In "Candide, or The Optimist" [...] Voltaire mocks the folly of looking on the bright side in the face of unimaginable horrors. "Optimism", says a disabused Candide in the novel, "is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable." When a French magazine recently tried to decode today's national pessimism, it concluded: "It's Voltaire's fault". "We find it more chic and more spiritual to doubt everything."
Up to a point, this is an affectation of the elite. "It is in a certain Parisian milieu that there are intellectuals who are grumpy by trade," argues Jack Lang, the Socialist former culture minister [...] Yet France cherishes public intellectuals, so their influence spreads wide ....
The country treats its philosophers like national treasures, even celebrities, splashing photographs of them across the pages of glossy magazines. And it ensures that the canon of French thought is fed to the whole country. All pupils taking the school-leaving baccalauréat exam must study philosophy, and teenagers are examined on such cheery essay questions as "Is man condemned to self-delusion?" or "Do we have an obligation to seek truth?" [...] Were Americans to pay more attention to the writings of Noam Chomsky and Jared Diamond, perhaps they would be gloomy too.
In other parts of the world, alphas exert more cocky confidences, surely.
If the French are life's critics, they are at the same time idealists, and these two make unhappy bedfellows. Thanks to the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the 1789 revolution, the concept of progress towards an ideal society has, despite periodic turmoil and bloodshed, been a powerful narrative in the French mind....
Left-wing French intellectuals never quite got over the failed revolutionary promise of the May '68 student uprising, nor their disillusion at the declining influence of French thought from the 1980s onwards. Others struggled to reconcile French values with the country's darker moments, notably under occupation. Today, "belief in a better tomorrow has come to an end," says Christophe Prochasson, a French historian. "There is a crisis of progress."
How much is the bleak view more truthful, and useful? Will the French set pessimism fashion soon everywhere?