Thursday, October 09, 2003

For you people who hate the French

I don't hate the French.

I've lived for short periods in France, and a year in Switzerland (I now share, with the Swiss, a general disdain for the UN, thanks in large part to intense dialoguing with friends just before, during, and immediately after the Three Weeks' War).

I like French cheese, bread, chocolate (though I like Swiss chocolate more). I like French women. They're sexy even when their pits aren't shaved. I've had a great relationship with my French host family, whom I first met in 1986 as a bewildered high school junior spending a month in the Nantes area (the city of Carquefou, to be exact). The Ducoulombier family is about as stereotypically French Catholic as you can get. I had a great time in '86. We drove to Cherbourg and stayed at a relative's farm for ten days. I learned farm vocabulary and got shat on by a frightened cow. Papa et Maman own their own business in Carquefou and live in a big-ass house with lots of property and tall trees walling in their back yard. Weather is fantastic except when it gets stormy (this is Nantes, after all).

There's a lot to love about French society-- the logic and illogic of it, the almost goofy joie de vivre that many French folks radiate, the shameless raunchiness (which we Americans are still bizarrely prudish about in public and on non-cable TV).

But yeah, I fucking hate French politics and can't stand the 20th-century French contributions to philosophy and literary theory.

That hatred isn't big news. Americans have long detested French politics, often rightly. And postmodernism/deconstruction will prove to be, I hope, a flash in the pan, philosophically speaking.

In the meantime, I feel that tonight I should do my part to rehabilitate, at least partially, France's image. We'll leave the current question of French "declinism" (their term, not mine) aside to concentrate on one French philosopher whom Americans should get to know better: Jean-François Revel.

I first made this man's acquaintance in reading the book The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue between Revel and his son, Mathieu Ricard. Revel is, in many ways, an old-school rationalist and down-home humanist, a gastronome and bon vivant who is also a diehard atheist. Ricard has a doctorate in molecular biology, but he ended up leaving a promising career to become a monk in a Tibetan order. It was a shocking and disappointing switch, as far as Revel (the father) was concerned. These days Ricard is the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama, among other Buddhist duties. The Monk and the Philosopher is an edited transcript of a fascinating dialogue between Revel and Ricard, in which they discuss Life, the Universe, and Everything from very different perspectives. And as I was reading this dialogue, it struck me:

Jean-François Revel is on our side.

I knew this long before the current crisis in Franco-American relations thanks to that book, which came out pre-9/11. Revel is a confirmed anti-utopianist, which I think is one of the greater traits in the American character. Both the Maximum Leader and Bill Whittle have argued in favor of America's messy public process-- the debates, the gridlock, the headache that comes with letting the screaming masses have their say-- and I agree with them. A friend of mine in a private email recently made some very similar points about the ultimate uselessness of the utopian vision. The best we should expect and strive for, he contended, is slow, incremental improvements (get ready to face reality, Arnold... you won't move mountains governing the world's fifth largest economy, but that's OK).

Revel's books about France, America, democracy, religion, and communism have been out in French for a while. But this evening I saw a post by Andrew Sullivan: another one of Revel's works is now available in English: The Anti-American Obsession.

I haven't read this particular book, but have skimmed Revel's How Democracies Perish and The Totalitarian Temptation. I ascribe to Revel a great deal of prescience regarding where French society is going, but also think he's on the right track when he discusses the big picture. His antireligious bent may not please many Jesus-toting Americans, but Americans will adore his harsh attitude toward communism, totalitarianism, and utopianism. I think he's a Frenchman you'll like. He represents a school of thought that's not getting as much air time as we might prefer these days, so I submit to you that not all French are deluded Tranzi Frogs. Revel and his ilk are proof of that. There's hope.

So go read Revel. I recommend him, even though I haven't read this particular book. And think kind thoughts about France now and then. I simply can't view them as an enemy; their collective temperament is too flighty for me to believe they won't turn around eventually.

Yes, this was a rambling mess of a blog, but it needed to be written. I'll go further and suggest that you folks who're saying "France is the enemy!" (something I've always juxtaposed with question marks on this blog) need to get that stick out of your bunghole. Consider: you don't seriously believe that France could kick our ass at anything, do you? Then use the term "enemy" for those who deserve it! Otherwise it's a bit like calling an old, gimping housecat your "enemy" when you know full well that a single swift kick to the poor bastard's brittle ribcage will solve all your problems.

Back to systematically thought-out blogs when I return to North Korean issues and Heart Sutra metaphysics (I still haven't forgotten!).

Meantime, go check out my new blog-warehouse, Only The Chewiest Tumors, and buy a book or a Bodhidharma pic or some "Buddha Mind" calligraphy.

Post scriptum: My brother just wrote to warn me not to make this blog into "a big commercial." I agree; I shouldn't. But for the moment, I have to shill for Chewiest Tumors until it takes off. Hairy Chasms is averaging about 70 visitors a day; that's not impressive when compared to most blogs, but it's something to market with, and why not be a dirty capitalist and have a little fun? These are my blogs either way; it's not as though I'm advertising for someone else! So go visit Chewiest Tumors. Shop around. More stuff will be coming soon, including (I hope) greeting cards. And thanks in advance.


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