The End of the French Intellectual

The End of the French Intellectual:From Zola to Houellebecq

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Charting the decline of the French intellectual, from the Dreyfus Affair to Islamophobia

Internationally acclaimed Israeli historian Shlomo Sand made his mark with books such as The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel. Returning here to an early fascination, he turns his attention to the figure of the French intellectual.

From his student years in Paris, Sand has repeatedly come up against the "great French thinkers." He has an intimate knowledge of the Parisian intellectual world and its little secrets, on which he draws to overturn certain myths attaching to the figure of the "intellectual" that France prides itself on having invented. Mixing reminiscence and analysis, he revisits a history that, from the Dreyfus Affair through to Charlie Hebdo, seems to him that of a long decline. As a long-time admirer of Zola, Sartre and Camus, Sand is staggered to see what the French intellectual has become today, in such characters as Michel Houellebecq, Eric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut. In a work that gives no quarter, and focuses particularly on the Judeophobia and Islamophobia of the elites, he casts on the French intellectual scene a gaze that is both disabused and mordant.

Reviews

  • In a book that is both scholarly and autobiographical, political and polemical, the historian Shlomo Sand traces a story of decline and fall. And yet, this son of a scarcely literate housewife and a Communist militant who failed to finish school had long sought to join the privileged band. As an adolescent, he even dreamed of becoming one of the ‘mandarins’ portrayed by Simone de Beauvoir. Their troubling reaction to Nazi occupation, their blindness towards Stalinism, and their emotional outpourings to Mao Zedong, have all caused the statue of the French intellectual to crumble.

    Le Monde
  • Ever since his student years in Paris, Sand has regularly come up against the ‘great French thinkers’. He has an intimate knowledge of the Parisian intellectual world and its little secrets, on which he draws to overturn certain myths attaching to the figure of the ‘intellectual’ that France prides itself on having invented. Mixing reminiscence and analysis, he revisits a history that, from the Dreyfus Affair through to Charlie Hebdo, seems to him that of a long decline. As a long-time admirer of Zola, Sartre and Camus,Sand is staggered to see what the French intellectual has become today, in such characters as Michel Houellebecq, Éric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut. In a work that gives no quarter, and focuses particularly on the Judeophobia and Islamophobia of the ‘elites’, he casts on the French intellectual scene a gaze that is both disabused and sarcastic.

    Ouest France
  • This brilliant essay is not just another history of intellectuals in France. It is rather a critique of those figures ‘caught in the torment of the twentieth century’, following the models of Zola, Sartre or Camus whom Sand so admired in his youth, yet whose ambiguities he recalls here, from Zola’s attacks on the Paris Commune to Sartre’s lack of courage under the Occupation, or Camus’s position during the Algerian war. Sand emphasizes how a large section of the dominant intellectuals during the Dreyfus Affair were not in fact Dreyfusards, but championed an ethno-biological conception of the nation, excluding all those whom they did not consider of ‘French stock’. This enables him to draw up a detailed and rigorous charge-sheet against our contemporary media intellectuals, Finkielkraut, Houellebecq, Zemmour, Bruckner, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Philippe Val who, often with a past in Stalinism or Maoism, and having undergone a belated and easy anti-totalitarianism (long after Orwell, Souvarine or Castoriadis), invoke the old demons of xenophobia, in their case an Islamophobia that suits the spirit of the time and ‘stabilizes the existing hierarchical order’. The very opposite of the function that intellectuals should perform in a democratic society thatis today in crisis.

    Olivier DoubrePolitis