Not often does a country march to the beat, ‘I regret nothing’. It’s an anthem more than half a century old, but Non, je ne regrette rein by French singer Edith Piaf has crossed borders and languages as a symbol of resistance. Even as France holds its ground in its fight against ‘Islamist separatism’, it is a country that has penned, sung, fought and dreamed resistance. Recently, authors, booksellers and publishers asked the French government to make bookshops an ‘essential’ service.
France gave us writers, philosophers, artists, fashion designers, filmmakers – all who left indelible stamps on the world. It has never shied away from provocative expressions. Subversion, scepticism and irreverence has been the country’s cornerstone for centuries.
There’s a saying that 19th century Western literature was divided into before Hugo and after Hugo. Victor Hugo’s widely acclaimed novel Les Miserables (1862), which was written in exile and smuggled to France because he revolted against Napoleon, shook a complacent country out of its romantic reverie to view the poor and disenfranchised people living a tough life. Les Miserable continues to haunt the world stage with its explosive performances.
Nearly three decades later in 1898, another well-known author Emile Zola would publish a letter on the front page of the L’Aurore newspaper accusing the government of anti-Semitism and the unfair jailing of a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was accused of treason. The letter titled J’accuse (I accuse) left the country divided between conservative and liberal French. This conundrum gave the world the phrase, ‘Dreyfus Affair’, which points to bitter political divisions, and is even being used to explain the upcoming US Election.
Much before them though, the Father of French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave the world The Social Contract (1762). Geneva-born Rousseau made Paris his home and dreamed of a society where governments would allow for freedom for all its citizens. His fundamental question, how can humans live free in society, has shaped the principles of the UN Charter and the US Declaration of Independence.
Parisian salons and cafes were hotspots of new thought and the City of Lights bred many minds during the Age of Enlightenment, which privileged reason and inquiry above all.
It is not without wonder then that when famous philosopher Voltaire turned his guns at every religion, be it Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, the deist in him did not condone the intolerance of any sect. A prime advocate of religious tolerance, he encouraged people through his writings (from 1730s onward) to have a sense of detached “rationalism mixed with observation”. He also wasn’t popular with the royals; he was thrown out of Paris for writing a satire on the French royal family.
This idea of critical self-image carried forward centuries later into the writings of playwright-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. When he wrote “Hell is other people” in his play No Exit (1944), it was this sense of judgement that he decried. He gave the world the theory of existentialism, where he presented that every individual has the power of choice, which comes with consequences. Meanwhile his lover and companion Simone de Beauvoir wrote the seminal book The Second Sex (1949), which looked at the idea of the ‘other’ and in doing presented the innate sense of distrust people have. This feminist manifesto recognised that one is not born into one’s identity, be it being a woman or a man, it is imbibed. And therefore, women have always been in an inferior position in society.
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That’s why when writer Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary (1856), the society was scandalised that she could indulge in extramarital affairs. Flaubert even faced a court trial for the book.
Being irreverent and debunking tradition of every kind has been second nature in French culture. As Marcel Ducamp did, when he shocked the art world with his ‘readmade’ objects or found objects with a urinal he called Fountain (1917). His objective was to “put art back in the service of the mind”, which to him had become a slave of the visual. 📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram
And finally, the oft-quoted thinker Michel Foucault said power is everywhere. According to him, “new governments control people by focusing on their minds”. Ultimately, be it Foucault in the 20th century or Rene Descartes in the 17th century, the French have always believed in one fundamental principle: ‘I think, therefore I am’.