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The French Intellectual, History, and the Reproduction of Culture Daniel Brewer IN 1898 EMILE ZOLA PUBLISHED in the newspaper L'A urore his famous "J'Accuse," an open letter addressed to the President of the French Republic in which, in the name of truth, justice, and the duty to speak out, he sought to galvanize public opinion in favor of Alfred Dreyfus, a young army captain whom a military tribunal had convicted of treason. Denouncing the chauvinist nationalism and militarism that followed the French defeat of 1871, as well as the anti-Semitism that colored the Affair, Zola also represents a new social figure and type of discourse that emerge at the end of the nineteenth century. Putting aside the role of detached observer, which had been that aspired to or proclaimed by many nineteenth-century historians and novelists, Zola sets himself a different goal. He seeks to intervene directly in the public realm through what was then the most popular and effective medium for shaping public opinion, the newspaper (a medium soon to be replaced by what Guy Debord characterizes as a more "spectacular" one, that of the image).1 The intellectual that Zola exemplifies addresses those in power, and in doing so he attempts to act powerfully, seeking to mold public opinion, enlighten, and effectuate progressive change. This intervention is based moreover on the intellectual's claim of special competence to judge issues involving truth and public morality, and to act as spokesperson for a universal conscience that would transcend national, institutional , and dogmatic particularism. For some, the figure of the intellectual that Zola incarnates represents an intervention in the social and political sphere that is antithetical to the proper activity of the mind. A quarter century following the Affair, in La Trahison des clercs Julien Benda consolidates this argument, seeking to revise and reshape the figure of the intellectual that had taken form in early twentieth-century France. Claiming the existence of an intellectual "clerisy," Benda praises its members for their devotion to the "purely disinterested activity of the mind" and for their efforts to rise above the particular conflicts brought about by political passions. Although Benda extends the beginnings of this clerisy some 2,000 years, the intellectuals he praises transcend history just as they rise above politics, for they have 16 Summer 1997 Brewer devoted themselves to justice, truth, and reason, values, claims Benda, that are static, disinterested, and rational. As for contemporary intellectuals , their "betrayal" stems from their involvement with the particular to the detriment of the universal. For Benda that betrayal reflects a willed decision on the intellectual's part. But one might also read Benda's text as an impassioned response to the politics of nationalism that swept France following the first World War. In this sense La Trahison des clercs expresses Benda's own sense of having been betrayed by history. The image of the disinterested intellectual he sketches can ultimately be read as an attempt to escape the contingency of the historical, to keep history at bay in 1927 in what he calls "the age of the political," an attempt made once again in the 1958 réédition in which Benda takes on other political particularisms and passions, including Sartrean engagement . Too rigidly messianic, Benda's model of the neutral, disinterested intellectual-cleric was to have less influence in shaping the image of the French intellectual than the role played by Zola and the active dreyfusards . Throughout the next 60 years of France's national history and cultural memory, that role would provide the intellectual, especially of the left, with a paradigmatic model for self-definition as well as for political action. As Michel Winock suggests, the history of the French intellectual amounts to a repeated reactivation of the Affair as an inaugural event.2 During the war in Algeria, for example, a group of writers, academics , and artists joined together to sign the Manifeste des 121. Affirming their moral duty to support innocent victims oppressed by the French nation and its soldiers in the name of military honor and raison d'état, and especially in their denunciation of the campaign of torture in Algeria, these intellectuals employed a rhetoric...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 16-33
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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