Washington Diarist


In the spring of 2003, as the Iraq war got underway, I spent many
hours learning about violence in a creaky lecture hall at the
Sorbonne. It was a sensitive time to be an American in Paris. "La
guerre" had made the city's formerly convivial atmosphere heavy and
indignant, and I expected my new class-- "Shattered Texts," a
literature course about the effects of destruction on people and
cultures--to be mired in contemporary despair and maybe even
hostility. To my surprise, the news of the day was of little
analogical interest to my professor. She assigned texts--short
stories, novels, film scripts, articles--that chronicled riots and
uprisings and protests. Wars raged on the periphery of our reading,
but the focus remained on the little insurrections of urban life.
Paris, Rome, Johannesburg, Algiers--the battles were in the cities.
And it was with a distinctly aesthetic savor that the violence in
these works was discussed. Much admiration--and very little
compunction--was expressed over the razing of buildings and the
toppling of monuments and even the threatening of the second
lieutenant's wife. Yes, I remember one student saying, the author
has done a good job describing the way the windows broke. But he
might have done something more beautiful by throwing rocks
himself.The recent images out of France's suburbs have returned those
Sorbonne lessons to the forefront of my mind. Different rocks,
different windows. But violence, and particularly violence as an
expression of rebellion, occupies such a distinct place in the
French aesthetic that this month's riots can hardly be called
anything but, well, French. In France, violence is not merely
romanticized-- as it is in many cultures, not least ours--it is
intellectualized as a legitimate manifestation of philosophical
belief. This is linked strongly, of course, to the revolution and
to the guillotine, one of the most macabre symbols of freedom ever
conceived. But its roots are deeper still, dating back to the
Parisian student revolts of 1229, which ended with the young
scholars freed from papal law; to Nicolas Poussin's terrifyingly
vivid canvasses of the mid-1600s; to Jean Racine's reworking of
Greek horrors for the French stage; to the gruesome exposures of
the Grand Guignol. In the twentieth century, it was Jean-Paul
Sartre who made the tradition modern. Violence, he wrote, is "the
beginning of humanity." He does not seem to have mentioned what the
end is.

Those rioting these past weeks did not seem to know what the end
was, either, but their actions were new iterations of an old
tradition. "La poesie est dans la rue." Poetry is in the streets,
or so cried the Sorbonne students who, in May of 1968, took to the
avenues of the Quartier Latin to overturn trash cans and burn cars
after administrators shut down their university. "Ni doctrine, ni
foi, ni loi." Neither doctrine, nor faith, nor law, replied the
minister of education. To him, the protests were utterly without
meaning--which is to say, utterly without basis in any dogma to
which respectable people subscribed. But what the minister missed,
of course, is that poetry is not a collection of principles; it is
an art. And, for the students, so was violence. Sartre asserted the
connection plainly: "[V]iolence ... is man recreating himself." But
violence itself is not the creation of anything; it is merely the
undoing of the old. It is not art; it is desecration. And it works
best when its object was formerly sacrosanct. There is no greater
reminder of this than France's legions of limbless public statues,
the chipped porches and spires of its great cathedrals, most of
them defaced in the pursuit of cultural reversal--a new, supposedly
egalitarian, art of undoing.

Today, the Sartrian fusion of violence and art also lives on in the
paradoxical figure of Michel Houellebecq, a novelist whose latest
tome, La possibilite d'une ile (The Possibility of an Island), has
just appeared in France. Houellebecq's work chronicles the lives of
apathetic French whose days are marked by little more than graphic
bouts of violence and despair. He does not share Sartre's politics;
his nihilism has no room for totalitarianism, no tolerance for
working-class heroes. This is not Sartre's critique of the
bourgeoisie; this is a picture of life after the apocalypse of the
'60s: Attempts to reorder society and do away with middle-class
mores have failed-- or at least gone very wrong. (As a character in
Houellebecq's second novel speculates, "The serial killers of the
1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies.") And, now,
contemporary French must atone for their revolutionary failures
through civil service jobs, bland food, and bad sex. It's
selfimmolation as a form of vandalism. Belief systems of all kinds
have no appeal for Houellebecq, and he has gotten himself into
trouble for inveighing, in print and in public, against Islam. (In
2002, he was tried in France--and finally acquitted--for
blasphemy.) But the novelist and the rioters, many of whom are
Muslim, share a common aesthetic. Call it Sartre nouveau:
destruction as an incitement to beauty and meaning, violence as an
expression of intellect.

In Le Monde last week, the young essayist Karim Amellal was one of
the few writers to hint at this very French idea underlying the
riots. "All violence," he writes, "is in a sense profound ... but
strictly speaking, there is nothing to be gained from burning a
car." But, he continues, "it is a radical act precisely because the
only satisfaction to be gained is in committing it." More than
that--it is an ancient, nationalistic radicalism. A French
radicalism. And the rioters, like the '68 protesters, like the
revolutionaries, have been savvy performers, setting spectacular
fires against the night sky and posting pictures of their work on
the Internet. They have not just expressed their unhappiness; they
have dramatized and promoted it as well. It is the same slippery
border between art and violence at which the French have stood

Along with Amellal's quietly astute words have appeared other
articles and interviews, mostly agonizing over how to fold the
"ghettos ethniques" into the tricolors. There was much talk of the
endemic problems of the "black-blanc- beur" communities, of the
anger of youth, and of Islam's discontents. Those thousands of
smoldering cars and their igniters needed to be integrated into the
republic, many said. Few noticed that they were already, in fact,
quite French.

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