Alain Finkielkraut’s L’identité malheureuse: A book review

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Alain Finkielkraut, L’identité malheureuse (Stock).

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lain Finkielkraut’s L’identité malheureuse (Stock) hit the shelves in France last year, creating a shock wave in the Republic. Finkielkraut faced every possible insult the French language can muster, and there are many. From being called a “vieux con”, roughly translated as an “old fart” on On n’est pas couché, one of the most watched TV shows in France to the too-easily predictable accusations of racism and Islamophobia, Finkielkraut stood the barrage of insults and last April, he was inducted into the prestigious Académie Française, a sort of Pantheon of French intellectualism. But what was so controversial in Finkielkraut’s L’identité malheurese and why all the public denounciation and insults? Finkielkraut’s, consciously or not, answered that question in his book, perhaps anticipating such reactions, as he analyzed the complex and treacherous Western psyche that developed since the 1960s in particular and how modernity, “change” and bad conscience have merged into forming today’s Western malaise, and consequently caused and keep fueling the deconstruction of French identity.

40 years later…

After nearly 40 years of immigration from the South of the Mediterranean, most of them from countries formerly part of the French empire, France, like many Western countries, isgoing through an identity crisis as those migrants changed the demographic make-up of France andmany European nations. Starting in the 1960s-1970s, immigration from former colonies did not take place in a vacuum. Europe had emerged from two World Wars with a damaged conscience. The senseless butchery of WWI, followed by the unmatched barbarism of WW2 was enough for Europe to second guess its idea of itself and whether Western Civilization was a good thing at all. The kernel of doubt in Europe‘s self-image of superiority had grown and the various peoples under colonial rule were openly rebelling against their former colonial masters.

As decolonization swept through the once great European empires, even the countries that had fought fascism and were by then resisting a totalitarian Soviet Union, were put on trial for their colonial crimes, for having the audacity to believe themselves superior to the colonized and for justifying the rule of the white man over peoples of so many creeds. France, seeing itself as a civilization on its own, took the colonial endeavor to heart with its concept of “mission civilisatrice”, in which conquered cultures that had not jumped on the unstoppable historical train of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were to be brought up to standards of what could truly and objectively be called a modern civilization.

That modernity gave a certain illusion of superiority over other people, even nature and history itself. The European man—others would soon follow—believed he could shape the natural world around him by his mastery of science, reversing the ancestral domination of man by nature. By the 1970s, after “les évènements” of May 1968, France and the entire West was basking in self-doubt and a new ideology that aimed at deconstructing first philosophically and psychologically, and, then, literally, every institution the West was built upon. Patriarchy, racial concepts (although such concepts were shared universally), Christianity, judeo-christianity, Western history going back to the Greeks, the Aristocracy and the Bourgeoisie were all under attack. Europe and the West had fully entered modernity in its latest relativist form. Nothing was worth preserving, nothing could be believed to be objectively better than anything else. Rock music was no worse than Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner the same way Western civilization was no better than any other civilization. It was perhaps worse.

The French identité malheureuse

This is the era in which Alain Finkielkraut begins his investigation on French identity in L’identité malheureuse. Finkielkraut does not fall in the easy populist trap of blaming immigration for France’s current numerous woes. Instead, the author paints a holistic picture of the many problems that afflict France in this 21st century and exposes their interconnectedness. Too many will draw a straight line between the cause (mass immigration from the third world countries) to the disease (identity crisis). But “Finkie”, as some affectionally call him, inverses the formula putting the identity crisis in France and the Western world at the root cause of many symptoms and effectively dismantles the intellectual short-cut of the far-right: no immigration = no problems. Finkielkraut counters such discourse by placing the French “unhappy” identity as the junction between modernity’s nihilism, relativism, rampant technological dependance by individuals, Western bad conscience, the overly simplified binary concept of oppressor and oppressed, Democracy’s totalitarian patterns and the power of ideology.

The current malaise in regards to society’s decreasing ability to define what keeps us living together starts with our mobility to truly see and take note of what we observe. Citing Charles Péguy, a French writer and poet at the turn of the 20th century, Finkielkraut explains how we now lack the courage to verbalize and take notice of what our very own eyes witness. Entire areas, neighborhood and cities have become ethnic or religious enclaves from where native residents feel like foreigners when they thought themselves to be representing and forming the norm as well as the welcoming body not long ago while they now find themselves outsiders in an increasing number ofterritories in France. Finkielkrauts account of Islamicized territories of France where the norm is Islam fed by the ideology of the petro-dollars of the Gulf theocratic monarchies could very well describe areas of London, Birmingham or Bradford. The multicultural British spectator too often tends to look down on France’s assimilating Republican system but the patterns that Finkielkraut describes are perhaps exacerbated in Britain as this false sense security that multiculturalism is able to deal more efficiently with identity issues built around religion and ethnicity leads to further blindness and naiveté to mounting social fractures, to everyone’s detriment.

Becoming the object of change

The burying of heads in the sands regarding such phenomena can be explained by our notion of change, which Finkielkraut accurately analyses as escaping our own volition. We used to believe that we were the ones initiating “change” in society, but as Finkielkraut points out,the contrary is true as we have been subjected to change. As we become increasingly unable to define what truly keeps society unified in the age of multiculturalism and—somewhat contradictorily if not paradoxically—individualism taken to its greatest extent, we content ourselves that such dislocation and renewed tribalism of our societies exemplified by some British cities and the “lost territories” of France, we cowardly dumb ourselves down by believing it to implied inthe much vaunted notion of “change”, to be inevitable, perhaps even natural and invariably for the better. “Change” has become this force beyond our control that flattens everything on its path, yet no one dares asking the most obvious question of what will actually happens when everything is flattened.

A civilization that abdicates on being a civilization, that abdicates on existing, haunted by its historical demons is one that slowly erases itself as it sees immigration as a way to “expiate its faults” says Finkielkraut. The desire to find redemption through a sort of replacement of the European population by populations from the South is strong and quite real, especially amongst certain academic and political elites. Finkielkraut’s psycho-analysis of the modern European nihilism goes beyond our death wish and encompasses every aspect of society, democracy included. As the modern man swears by democratic liberties and freedom with every breath of air he takes, the modern man has traded the spiritual concept of “transcendence” for the false belief that he thinks for himself, that his beliefs are original and unique. Finkielkraut sees through such illusions when he argues that the modern man has lost the ability to differentiate his opinion from “public judgment” as the former is actually fully formed and constructed by the latter. The swallowing of the modern democratic man into ideologies for the masses doesn’t mean he‘s not coerced into complying, he “sincerely” is abiding and beloving of the “dominant ideology” and thus, he his a walking contradiction, an “individualist and a follower, authentic and opportunist, scolding and sheep-like” says Finkielkraut. In other words, the modern man is everything he thinks he is not or doesn’t want to be and, somehow, believes himself emancipated.

The decline of education

Finkielkraut, a former school teacher, goes further as he explores the decline of education. We fanaticallytry to bring the “present” into the classroom at all cost by introducing various technologies while sacrificingteaching and the old notion of master and apprentice,notions that seems to belong to a past era, argues Finkielkraut. The author paints a modern democratic man repulsed by a romantic account of his origins, of the literature that shaped his language because he doesn’t have one. The modern man only communicates through a given language, he doesn’t particularly hold an attachment to his language, and therefore believes languages to be interchangeable and without any cultural significance. Paradoxically, that cultural nothingness that represents the modern man instills in him the belief that his acculturation makes him superior to past generations, especially the great classics of Western civilization and, in the French context, the existential role that the many great authors of French literature play in shaping the identity of this nation. It would be a mistake to believe that the problem is confined to the French language as the English language cannot avoid the disassociation with its English cultural roots.

Given the popularity of English around the world, the speakers of Chaucer’s language may believe themselves immune to the marginalization of their language but it may be exactly for that reason that the culture and history associated with the English language is endangered. As a vastly superior number of English speakers are not native-speakers and only learn English for commercial purposes, therefore purely to be able to communicate, they have no interest, often no desire to make the rich history of English theirs. If French identity is still strongly associated to its language, English is increasingly dissociated with British identity as it belongs increasingly less to Britons and Americans, but to the world, at the risk of becoming purely used for communications for Britons and Americans as well, losing the entire cultural inheritance of their language.

The troubled relationship to our respective languages is further exemplified by our rapport with the classics. Finkielkraut points out how we used to fear “not living up” to the great French and Western classics or any founding piece of literature respectively to one’s nation. Humility dictated a form of respect in the face of greater minds than one’s own. No more of such subordination today, says Finkielkraut. The modern man not only doesn’t waste any time reading such premodern men from backward, unenlightened times, but he judges them and tries to free himself from whatever imprint they may still have on his conception of himself and where he comes from.

As easy as it is on the far-right, notably the Front national, to blame immigration, their counter-parts bullying use of the stigmatizing, red-hot iron branding of labels such as “racist” and “xenophobe” is equally childish and simplistic. The crisis that French identity is going through is not unlike what the rest of the West is experiencing, they may simply be better at expressing it. There is no quick fix. No easy solution to the malaise but, like Charles Péguy says, cited by Finkielkraut, “we should always express what we see. More importantly, we should always—which is more difficult—see what we see.” The courage it takes to truly “see” what our era, what our civilization has become is, perhaps, the first courageous step Péguy, and incidentally Alain Finkielkraut with L’identité malheureuse, demands us of taking. Remains to be seem whether we have any courage left.