As it’s the holiday season, here’s a holiday, in part, from politics. I say “in part” because, unfortunately, it’s hard to escape politics entirely, even when the ostensible subject is poetry.
Louis Aragon (1897-1982) was the outstanding French poet of the mid twentieth century, and arguably the greatest lyric poet of the century as a whole, although unless you read French you probably won’t have heard of him at all, since little of his work has been translated. Some of his greatest poems are addressed to his wife of many decades, Elsa, and their ringing musicality is such that a number were actually set to music and sung by popular composers such as Brassens and Ferrat. Aragon was also a very distinguished novelist, short story writer and critic. In addition, he fought with distinction in two world wars, and in the second worked for years in the Resistance, organizing intellectuals and artists and publishing clandestine poetic calls to action. And to top it all, when Elsa died he came out as a bisexual and took up the (then unfashionable) cause of homosexual rights.
So, all round good guy, then? Well no, actually, at least in the sense that hardly anyone has a good word to say for Aragon these days. Does that mean he was a secret child molester, a fraudster or even a murderer, like the philosopher Louis Althusser? No, it’s worse than that. He was a Communist.
Now of course a very large number of French intellectuals and artists were Marxists of one kind or another, usually as a gesture of independence amidst the stifling political conformity of the Cold War. Indeed, these days it’s hard to get a job as a superficial right-wing pundit in France without being able to point a brief youthful flirtation with Marxism (“how could I have been so misguided”?) which gives you the right to assail your former colleagues even more viciously than the Right itself does.
But Aragon was a serious and very senior member of the French Communist Party (the PCF) until his death. He never recanted, and continued to defend the PCF’s positions until the end. It’s for this that “the Communist Aragon” or even “the Stalinist Aragon” can never be forgiven, not least by the non-communist Left, whose hatred for the PCF (entirely reciprocated it must be said) dates from the historic split at the 1920 Congress of the Socialist Party.
You can take the position that art is one thing and politics another (which seems eminently sensible to me) or you can treat them as two parts of the same thing. But it’s reasonable to expect a bit of consistency. So it’s strange to see the collaborationist Paul Claudel, who wrote a poem in praise of Marshal Petain, showered with honours after the war and elected to the Academie Française. It’s even stranger to see the fascist, racialist, Vichy enthusiast Louis-Ferdinand Céline, perhaps the most unpleasant figure in modern French literature, rehabilitated and made the subject of sympathetic studies and special issues of magazines. But then neither of them went so far as to praise the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, so that’s perhaps understandable.
An aggravating factor in all this is Aragon’s patriotism. His wartime poems are full of uncomplicated love of France and exhortations to take up arms to restore the country’s freedom and grandeur. One of the poems of that era consists of little more than the names of one hundred French villages. The modern French elites, whose grandfathers collaborated so happily with the Germans during the Occupation, can hardly contain a snigger at such thoughts, they who so desperately want to be Anglo-Saxon that they dismiss anything French with an embarrassed sneer. (And with everything German becoming fashionable again, who would be so tactless as to recall the Resistance?)
In one sense, of course, even if this is sad, it doesn’t matter very much. Aragon’s books are still all in print, which is more than can be said for most of the evanescent works of the intellectuals who have succeeded him. I say “intellectuals”, but most of them are just shallow media constructs when they are not actually Monty Python-like parody figures (yes, Bernard-Henri Lévy, I’m looking at you). But it really is sad, nonetheless, that the days of the great French intellectuals are over. Whether you agreed with them or not, they had something to say and they said it well. Today’s motley shower, by contrast, are afraid to say anything that might get them unfriended by the American Embassy on their Facebook page, or disinvited from TV current affairs programmes. And ironically the Resistance, as a subject, continues to be popular. Several important books have been published in the last year or so, and the surprise best-seller of recent years was Indignez-vous, a political manifesto by the former Resistance hero Stéphane Hessel, published not long before he died earlier this year at the age of 95. His approximate contemporary Daniel Cordier, secretary to Resistance hero Jean Moulin, is leading a vigorous literary life well into his 90s – his memoirs of Moulin were serialized only a few months ago on TV.
And in fifty years our descendants will look back on the intellectuals of today and say …. well, will there be anything to say at all?