Finkielkraut Plays With Fire

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Alain Finkielkraut

This interview appeared originally in Le Monde on 23rd October, 2013, on the publication of Alain Finkielkraut’s book, L’Identité malheureuse—The Unhappy Identity. It typifies the then attitude of much of the official French media to the breaking of received taboos. Now, two years later, and under the weight of subsequent catastrophic events such as Charlie Hebdo and the migration crisis, the first hairline cracks in the media front are coming into view. However, to all appearances, Le Monde remains today as staunchly bien-pensant and bourgeois-bohème as before. The tone of the article appears ironic more or less throughout; and the final paragraph is characteristically moralizing. Le Figaro, on the other hand, seems to be taking a more balanced view of political and social issues as Europe enters what many observers regard as some kind of endgame.

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Jean Birnbaum | Alain Finkielkraut plays with fire | 2013-10-23

❝ All the works of Alain Finkielkraut are at pains to protect a certain relationship with texts, a way of collecting them as a sort of fragile legacy, demanding of us attentiveness and gratitude. What is in play in his writing is a love of books that raises cultural inheritance to an art-form: from whence comes the first unease to grip his faithful reader on closing The Unhappy Identity.

Even before it was generally available, this new essay was already being brandished by flippant agitators: editors who decide to put a book on the front page without even casting an eye over it; television hosts who use the text merely to stoke heated controversy. These people don’t read, they bet. As for the others, men and women who year after year have read the works of Finkielkraut in solitude and silence, they have to exercise their judgement despite the brouhaha. And distinguish between what has been said before, what is new, and what remains unsaid.

What he has already said is no small spray. On the boorishness of the ‘moderns’, on the feral schools where nobody is in charge any more, on this society that teaches youth to the young when it should be inculcating the wisdom of elders….one recognizes here the themes and style that contributed to the charm of Finkielkraut’s essays in the past, and which continue to lend a familiar inspiration to his pen. One finds again also his best enemies, starting with the sociologists in general and Christian Baudelot in particular, portrayed once more as princes of political correctness, the sovereigns of our time. One observes still the pristine zeal with which Finkielkraut excoriates Le Monde, that well-known organ of right-thinking bourgeois-bohèmes, whose headlines he has mocked in book after book over a decade.

So then, what’s new? The tone and the vocabulary rather than the subject matter. For Finkielkraut’s concern over education is still in tandem with his anguish over identity. The son and grandson of deportees, he is a child of the never again! that followed the Shoah, and which has rendered suspect any vaunting of origins. Regardless, from his first publications the philosopher has confronted the question of belonging. His new book advances interesting ideas that merit debate. Thus he affirms that Europe, post-Hitler, believes itself to have faced down its evil demons by inventing the romanticism of the Other, that is, pride of identity for the whole world, except for itself. Likewise, he finds it deplorable that the Old Continent espouses cosmopolitanism while having renounced all universalist perspective, as though it no longer had any values to offer the world. Finally, the philosopher mocks the elites who celebrate cultural diversity but refuse to measure its effects. Finkielkraut sums it up with “All power to difference, but cursed be they who watch it at work!”.

However, the novelty of the book lies in the lexicon and tone. The vocabulary, first of all, has become more nationalistic. Formerly, Finkielkraut watched over the Republic, today he chaperones ‘French identity’. Formerly, he relied on teachers—the black hussars of the universalist Enlightenment. Today, he swears only by the indigenous people, the white hussars of a dark separatism. Only a short time ago he was emphasizing the blind spots of the antiracist narrative; now he deplores above all that one can no longer pronounce proudly the word race. Of course, Finkielkraut is aware that he’s playing with fire; he emphasizes that himself. But to all appearances, he revels in it: “Nobody wants to carry through life the brand of infamy. It is necessary, however, to run the risk”, he simpers.

Attitude

And so the tone is more than ever one of the pamphleteer: Finkielkraut wallows in his role as John-the-Baptist, a voice crying out in the desert, the bearer of an obvious truth that, however, no-one else can see. He feels like a failure. When the philosopher approaches the riskiest areas of his reflections, he’s on fire. After Hitler, can one still think of an unsullied belonging, a we without excluding a they, a visceral homeland without a universal mass-grave? Finkielkraut has turned over these questions for thirty years. One thinks for example of the beautiful study he dedicated to Péguy, Le Mécontemporain (Gallimard, 1991). One thinks also of La Défaite de la pensée (Gallimard, 1987), a classic, some of whose devices are almost exactly reprised in The Unhappy Identity.

But if Finkielkraut burns with the fire of identity, it is perhaps because he no longer belongs himself. The tone and the lexicon that mark the writing in this book evince an exhalted alienation. And it is here that the unsaid comes in, whose name is Renaud Camus. The Unhappy Identity shares with the writings of Camus, words, references, and above all the same obsession with the double-decadence: that of La Grande Déculturation (by means of the schools) and Le Grand Remplacement (by means of l’immigration de peuplement—the immigration of whole populations. Either way, France was becoming une auberge espagnol—a melting-pot, in which “the French, whom one no longer dare call de souche”, don’t know where they live anymore. “When the internet café is called Bled.com—Village.com—and the butcher or fast-food eatery, or both, are halal, these residents feel like exiles [….]. They haven’t moved, but everything has changed around them”, writes Finkielkraut. “On the very turf of my own culture and my own civilization, I walk in another culture and another civilization”, observes Renaud Camus (Le Grand Remplacement, éditions David Reinharc, 2011).

One would have thought that The Unhappy Identity would have marked the return of Finkielkraut to political prose after his essay on love. In reality, this new text sounds more like a protestation of love; it bears witness to an extraordinary passion for Renaud Camus. For the Châtelain du Gers (Camus) is here not only quoted by his friend and protector, he literally ventriloquizes him. This emotional surge can have its beauty. That goes without saying, — as does the fact that Alain Finkielkraut makes clear how far his passion goes for a writer who has very openly declared his love for the president of the National Front. ❞