The French Review 59.1 (1985): 163-164.
ARON, JEAN-PAUL. Les Modernes. Paris: Gallimard, 1984. Pp. 318.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
Two recent quotes in reference to Jean-Paul Aron's Les Modernes sum up the disparity of opinions which this volume of memoirs has engendered, the first from Jean-Jacques Brochier: "Au bout de quarante ans, la colère risque d'être un peu recuite, et de d'appeler rancoeur" (Magazine littéraire, November 1984, p. 9); the second from Jean Borie: "Ce livre, si joyeusement ravageur des simagrées et des hypocrisies, n'est pas un livre méchant . . . il ne fait que rendre des hommes à leur destin et à leur oeuvre, et des oeuvres à leurs auteurs" (La Quinzaine littéraire 427, 1 November 1984, p. 22). What is this book that has created such a furor in the French intelligentsia? While the volume's cover insert announces its modest goal, "pour en finir avec les maîtres à penser," the back cover notice proposes not only 54 episodes or "témoignages" of cultural events from 1945 to 1983, in a memorial style recalling Saint-Simon and Chateaubriand; it also, and especially, promises "une critique acerbe de la modernité ... un livre de vie face à la glaciation récente de la pensée, de la littérature et des arts."
This last phrase should give the reader pause: on the one hand, it points to the inherent "organization" of these memoirs, as their division consists of five implicit categories: 1) the world of art, which includes theater (Artaud, Ionesco), music (Boulez, the Berliner Ensemble, Johnny Halliday), film (Godard), and above all, painting and sculpture, exhibitions from Giacometti (1954) to Manet (1983); 2) the world of literature, focussing on writers and their fiction (Robbe-Grillet's Les Gommes, Butor's Mobile), reviews and critical works (Critique, Tel Quel, Bataille, Blanchot, Barthes, Foucault, Roger Kempf, Jean Borie), tributes to two deceased writers (Gide and Bataille); 3) the world of pensée, from the portraits of Canguilhem and Hyppolite at the Strasbourg Institut de Philosophie (1945) to the aftershock of May '68 signaled by the publication of L'Anti-Oedipe (1972), with intermediary reflections about such works as Levi-Strauss's Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949), Barthes's Mythologies (1957), Sartre's Critique de la raison dialectique (1960), "Diner avec Roland Barthes" (1963), Annales (1971); 4) the world of French society as portrayed by the creation of Club Med (1950), Paris-Presse's "Page-Magazine" (1960), and a Sunday afternoon in a Parisian salon (1963); 5) the punctual insertion of particularly memorable historical events: the PC congress juxtaposed with the Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956), de Gaulle's rise to power (1958), the manifesto of the 121 and the general's putsch in Algeria (1960-1961), the Six Day War (1967), the events of May 1968, and Mitterrand's election (1981). As a single category, these memoirs focus primarily on the world of la pensée, but taken together, the worlds of literature and art dominate; in any case, these major divisions function as the complementary poles between which Aron's reminiscences oscillate.
On the other hand, to what extent does this work constitute
"un livre de vie face à la glaciation" of these
domains? Apparently, the enlivening and thawing "force"
that Aron would project is located in his style which is as often
witty and elegant as it is tendentious and unjust; in short, this
"force" is the provocative stuff of which pamphlets
and *polémiques are made. It is tempting to see Les
Modernes as a new Mythologies, 1980s style, scrutinizing
and undermining the diverse façades erected by the French
intelligentsia over a period of forty years, with a memorialist's
added strength of providing the valuable lessons gleaned from
insights of a witness to these cultural transformations. Unfortunately,
neither is the case; while certainly offering to francophiles
a lively and sometimes entertaining perspective of contemporary
France, Les Modernes is itself a work of "glaciation,'
attempting to thaw French culture from a mythological "big
chill," but finally announcing merely one more stop en route
to the frozen wasteland of stylish cynicism.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University