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  • The Ghosts of World War IIThe Year in France
  • Joanny Moulin (bio)

France is no country for grand old men. The first remarkable event of the year in France in the field of life writing was no doubt the publication of Alain's diaries: Journal inédit 1937–1950. Alain is the pen name of Émile-Auguste Chartier (1868–1951), a French philosopher who has become less well-known in recent years, but who had been a role model of sorts for intellectuals like Raymond Aron, Georges Canguilhem, Julien Gracq, André Maurois, or Simone Weil, and who remained a favorite of lycée classes in philosophy and literature until the 1980s at least. The discovery of his diaries came as a shock, because in them Alain very frankly reveals his anti-Semitism: on January 28, 1938, he wrote, "Je voudrais bien, pour ma part, être débarrassé de l'antisémitisme, mais je n'y arrive point" [As far as I am concerned, I would like to be rid of anti-Semitism, but I cannot] (63). On August 3, 1940, he wrote: "On verra peut-être si, les juifs éliminés de tout pouvoir, les choses vont mieux. Il se peut mais je n'en sais rien" [Perhaps we shall see if, once the Jews have been eliminated from all sort of power, things go better. It may be, but I don't know] (432), while on July 23 of the same year, he expressed anti-patriotic opinions and wished for the victory of Nazi Germany: "J'espère que l'Allemand vaincra; car il ne faut pas que le genre de Gaulle l'emporte chez nous" [I hope Germany will prevail, for the De Gaulle style must not be allowed to prevail in this country] (420). The posthumous damage done to his reputation that followed was all the more painful because Alain had so long been considered a wise man. In retrospect, by the damning aspects of the man's private thoughts revealed by this volume, his works suddenly appeared undeserving of being read. A sense of shame was added to this disappointment for those who had admired the philosopher and would certainly not have had they known these repugnant sides of him.

Shortly after Alain's diaries came out, Michel Onfray published Solstice d'hiver: Alain, les juifs, Hitler et l'Occupation, one of those half-critical, half-biographical essays, for which he has a predilection, that clearly aims at finishing the work of destroying the former intellectual icon. Onfray, a media-savvy maverick [End Page 49] philosopher who prides himself on speaking outside the university, pounced on Alain as another of those great men of the past, like Freud or Tocqueville, whose statues it is his trademark to pull down. Onfray insists on Alain's acceptance of the Vichy regime, his condemnation of the Résistance, his condoning of Gobineau's racial theories, and his silence on these issues once World War II was over. However, Onfray is not averse to great men as such, as his prefacing of a French translation of Ralph Waldo Emerson's work, Representative Men [Hommes représentatifs], seems to indicate. In fact, he tends to play the part of a moral umpire, damning some figures of the past and lionizing others. Thus, his biographical essay on Henry David Thoreau, Vivre une vie philosophique: Thoreau le sauvage, is a panegyric, although it cannot avoid demonstrating that Thoreau's life was in accordance with his philosophical principles only up to a point. "À quoi sert le grand homme?" [What is the use of the great man?] Onfray asks. He continues:

À être un modèle—il nous faut le suivre; à contaminer par son expérience; à générer de nouveau de grands hommes; autrement dit, à assurer le progrès de l'humanité qui, péché contre le marxisme, ne s'accomplit pas avec les masses, mais avec les individualités d'exception.

(l. 196)

[To be a model that we must follow, to influence through experience, to generate other great men, thus insuring the progress of mankind which, notwithstanding Marxism, is not brought about by the masses, but by exceptional individuals.]

French biography, it...


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