Bastille Day 2008

Bastille Day 2008

I missed Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on Monday – got on a plane back to DC early in the morning.  But let me extend my best wishes on Bastille Day to all our French readers.  And everyone else, too. 

My friend BP, a magazine editor in France, commented at dinner the other night that the thing about America and France is their sometime rivalries arise in large part from the overlap of their universalizing moral impulses and the fact that the content of that universalizing morality has deep overlaps and yet deep differences.  (He said all this with far more elegance and erudition than I am conveying here.)  I asked what those overlaps and differences were.  He said, well, the fact that in America, separation of church and state is about religious pluralism, whereas in France it is about clericalism and anti-clericalism; that the Revolution in France plumbed all the extremes, in a way that the American secession never did; that the notion of modern France is not just about justice and morality in the American sense but, following de Gaulle, a certain notion of civic honor for its own sake, une certaine idée de la France

Someone else at that dinner added that the rise of the reputations of Camus (a revival of whose play, Les Justes, I managed see in an excellent production at the Lucernaire Theatre in Paris, despite my horrible French) and Aron in France itself had drawn French political culture to a much greater awareness of the values of the Revolution not as revolutionary values but, today, as values to be protected and defended.  Much closer, she said, to (drum roll) … Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.   What values, I asked?  Liberte, to start with, was the reply. 

Very well.  In honor of our shared tradition of liberty, then, my Bastille Day offering is a selection from the poetry journal of the Resistance fighter and Surrealist poet Rene Char, the estimable Leaves of Hypnos, written sometime most likely in 1943:

A tous les repas pris en commun, nous invitons la liberte a s’asseior.  La place demeure vide mais le courvert reste mis.

(From the Cid Corman translation:  At all the meals taken in common, we invite freedom to have a seat.  Its place remains empty but it stays set.) 


And finally, of course, La Marseillaise, in not one but three versions … Mireille Mathieu leading the crowd at Sarkozy’s victory, Segolene leading her supporters on the left, and …  

Casablanca.  Vive la France.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Or possibly the other thing is that for the French the world is divided into two types of people – 1) the French and 2) the rest of the world. The first are civilized and human, the second are human. This is coming from a deep francophile who is always amazed by the French “je ne sais quoi!”