Cover image for Melancholy Politics : Loss, Mourning, and Memory in Late Modern France By Jean-Philippe Mathy

Melancholy Politics

Loss, Mourning, and Memory in Late Modern France

Jean-Philippe Mathy


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Melancholy Politics

Loss, Mourning, and Memory in Late Modern France

Jean-Philippe Mathy

“Mathy has long been a lucid interpreter of French intellectual history. His new book is particularly timely, as it sheds a historian’s light on the current controversial politics of national identity in France. Mathy shows that it is best understood in the context of a national ‘depression’—and his reflections on ‘melancholy politics’ give precise meaning to what could otherwise be a vague notion.”


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The current cultural climate in France is often described as one of “déclinisme” or “sinistrose,” a mixture of pessimism about the national future, nostalgia for the past, and a sinister sense of irreversible decline concerning the present. The notion of “democratic melancholia” has become widely popular, cropping up time and again in academic papers and newspaper articles. In Melancholy Politics, Jean-Philippe Mathy examines the development of this disenchanted mood in the works of prominent French philosophers, historians, and sociologists since the beginning of the 1980s. This period represents a significant turning point in French intellectual life, as the legacy of major postwar and sixties theorists such as Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, and Foucault was increasingly challenged by a younger generation of authors who repudiated both Marxism and structuralism. The book is not a classic intellectual or cultural history of post-1968 France, but rather a contribution to the understanding of the present—a collection of soundings into what remains largely a complex, ongoing process.
“Mathy has long been a lucid interpreter of French intellectual history. His new book is particularly timely, as it sheds a historian’s light on the current controversial politics of national identity in France. Mathy shows that it is best understood in the context of a national ‘depression’—and his reflections on ‘melancholy politics’ give precise meaning to what could otherwise be a vague notion.”
“[Mathy's] study provides highly readable and informative insight into contemporary waves in French thought and political culture.”
“In Melancholy Politics, Mathy has somewhat revived or at least reinvented French intellectual history, and he does so by avowedly not writing intellectual history. Mathy is masterful on the details and maintains a litterateur’s sense of the pleasures of the text.”
“Mathy does not lose sight of the bigger picture of an age of disenchantment and writes about it in a clear and lucid way. Ultimately, he sees the mourning process not simply as a failure to work through the past but as a possible opportunity for the future.”
Melancholy Politics is a stimulating and enjoyable read. . . .

[The book] is perhaps best viewed as a work of contemporary history infused with a healthy dose of memory studies theory, and should certainly be read by anyone with an interest in how a nation attempts to deal with its past.”

Jean-Philippe Mathy is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



Introduction: Loss, Mourning, Memory

1. Specters of the Sixties

2. French Postmodern

3. Le Débat, Year One: The Generation of 1980

4. The Return of the Prophet: Bourdieu, Zola, and the Dreyfusist Legacy

5. Desperately Seeking Marianne: The Uses of the Republic

6. Memory Wars

7. Old Wine, New Skins: Race, Laïcité, Frenchness





Loss, Mourning, Melancholy

In his study of nationalism in Renaissance England, Andrew Escobedo remarks on the sense of belatedness that comes with the emergence of national consciousness. Moments of significant historical change generate an ambiguous, tense relation to the past. On the one hand, there is the pride of the path-breakers as they stand on the threshold of a new era, a sense of accomplishment that comes from the making of new laws, the testing of new beliefs, the invention of a bright future, emancipation from the fetters of tradition. On the other hand, we have the fear of the unknown and the guilt born of the painful break with the world of the fathers. Examples abound in western European history alone: 1688 in England, 1789 in France, 1871 in Germany. The birth of a new social and cultural order leads to estrangement from history, the sense of an unbridgeable gap between past and present. The trauma of revolution—after the exhilaration stemming from the destruction of the old order and the immediate redress of the most glaring injustices and inequities is gone—leaves many with a feeling of emptiness, a mood of bereavement and mourning, a painful yearning for the good old days of cultural certainty. Here lies the source of all restorations, of the reactive affect and tone of all romanticisms. “English nationhood in the Renaissance,” Escobedo writes, “was linked to a perception of historical loss, the sense that the past was incommensurate with and possibly lost to the present.” The rhetoric of rebirth was a compensation for a missing history, never to be recovered.

This book argues that contemporary France in some ways resembles the sixteenth-century England evoked by Escobedo. In both cases the unsettling novelty of the times and the acceleration of history led to various, and often contradictory, attempts to come to terms with the passing of what once was a fairly stable, meaningful cultural formation. But the British in the days of Spenser and Milton saw their nation, and the cultural agenda that came with it, as lying ahead of them, while to many French people today the national grandeur has been left behind. Those who have been mourning the demise of la République, of socialism, and of the great legacy of the Enlightenment often view themselves, in the words of Nietzsche describing his German contemporaries, as latecomers, “faded last shoots of mighty and cheerful generations, to whom Hesiod’s prophecy applies that men would one day be born with grey hair.” The break with Catholicism forced the English to reconcile their past to their present; the advent of postmodernity, or late modernity, or hypermodernity, has the French desperately trying to reconcile their present to a fast disappearing past.

This mood of disenchantment and loss is not peculiar to the French, of course; it pervades all western European democracies, affecting the elites and ordinary citizens alike, fueling the return of tribal identities, traditionalisms, and fundamentalisms and turning the practice of bittersweet commemoration into an ever-growing industry. The haunting, powerful figure of Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” is the obligatory reference, it seems, of many studies of the national sentiment in a transnational age. The angel’s face, like that of many of our contemporaries, is turned backward. The angel “would like to stay,” Benjamin writes, “awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But the “storm . . . from Paradise,” “piling wreckage upon wreckage” and hurling it at the angel’s feet, “irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

If anything, the storm has been blowing stronger, and the refuse of history piling higher, since Benjamin’s days. Strewn all over the European landscape are torn-off bits and pieces from what were once established, respected, self-assured, and freestanding nations, welfare states, colonial empires, parliaments, churches, public schools, family structures, sexual mores and taboos, philosophical canons, principles of aesthetic valuation, revolutionary creeds, redistributive economies, and foundationalist regimes of truth. The chapters collected in this volume forage through what is left standing in the wake of the hurricane of progress as it has ripped through French society and culture over the past thirty years. No wonder the current mood in France (but, again, this is true of other countries as well) has been described as one of déclinisme or sinistrose, pessimism about the future and a sinister sense of an irreversible decline unfolding in the present.

Pierre Bourdieu once remarked that “literary history well shows how very often what is common to the intellectual life of an era is not the content of books but rather their titles.” In 1990, Pascal Bruckner, one of the most visible of France’s public intellectuals, wrote an influential book called La mélancolie démocratique (Democratic melancholia), in which he argued that the end of the cold war had deprived France of an enemy, thereby weakening national identity; in his view, conflict opens up a future, fosters a sense of cohesion, and gives both individual and collective life its meaning. More recently, best sellers bearing titles such as La France qui tombe: Un constat clinique du déclin français (France in free fall: A clinical assessment of the French decline, 2003) and Adieu à la France qui s’en va (Farewell to a France gone by, 2005) leave no doubt as to some of the most pervasive trends in the current French life of the mind. The first book is a devastating survey of the country’s economic woes by a leading economist. The second text is a collection of nostalgic vignettes in which the celebrated novelist, and member of the Académie française, Jean-Marie Rouart looks back at the intimate connections between his own past and that of his country; he evokes the latter’s glorious cultural and military history while he spends a lot of time, it seems, attending funerals, visiting cemeteries, and reminiscing about lost loves and friendships.

Even the economic elites, presumably upbeat and forward-looking, and invigorated not so long ago by the triumph of the market economy over the sins and illusions of socialism, are giving in to a kind of historical-philosophical pessimism. The major French business organization, the MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France, or Movement of the French Enterprises) organized in August 2005 a symposium called “The Re-enchantment of the World.” Managers, politicians, intellectuals, and leaders of civic associations debated “a society in quest of meaning” in panels with such titles as “Nostalgia, Fears, and Chimeras: Has Our Imagination Grown Narrower” and “Has France Dropped the Ball?” Although it is quite ironical to see the practitioners of global capitalism deplore, with a reference to Max Weber, the erosion of ideals and values that the fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to have revived all over the world, one can appreciate the extent to which the eclipse of politics and the uncertainty of the future has affected a large part of the ruling elites as well. The recent collapse of the financial markets worldwide and the ensuing economic crisis are not likely to reverse this trend.

The mood of the 2005 colloquium was encapsulated in the following questions, proposed as a framework for a discussion on “Overcoming Despair”: “Are the French morose? If one is to believe the observers of French society, our country is going through a serious crisis of confidence, marked by the hopelessness of a large part of the population, a fear of the future, and an anxiety in the face of the immediate present. If so, what can we do? Such is the question asked every day by social entrepreneurs, associations, and even some industry representatives.” The various participants in the panel painted a bleak picture of a “situation that has become unbearable,” with “legions of excluded individuals,” “unfortunately untapped potentials,” and the absence of “diversity in the various social bodies.” Azouz Begag, then minister for the promotion and equality of opportunity, and himself the son of illiterate immigrants from North Africa, drew up the now familiar list of all the ailments of French society: “Insecurity, acts of racism, bankruptcies, poverty, unemployment fill media reports and daily accentuate the somber views the French have of their situation. . . . Because so many French people today feel excluded and do not see any future for themselves, the whole of society must react and reinvent itself to prevent the rise of hopelessness and its consequences.”

Both the national conversation and academic historiography are related responses to a heightened sense of social and cultural disruption. It is as true today as it was five centuries ago, when European modernity emerged from the ruins of the feudal order. In the words of Andrew Escobedo, “Nations have often emerged as figures of mediation between a community’s need for historical origins and its anticipations of social change” (15). Because the nation creates representations that in turn help further create the nation, the writing of history plays a similar role in mediating between the duty to remember and the need to forget. The tense relation between these two terms is, as Ernest Renan pointed out over a century ago, central to the invention of national narratives. Michel de Certeau highlighted the paradoxical combination of loss and recovery that complicates all fundamentalist attempts to (re)invent a tradition by (re)writing a history. This is quite obvious in contemporary culture, obsessed as it is with the threat of amnesia and the necessary cultivation of “sites of memory.” For de Certeau, “The ‘return to origins’ always states the contrary of what it believes, at least in the sense that it presupposes a distancing in respect to a past . . . and a will to recover what, in one fashion or another, seems lost in a received language. In this way, ‘the return to origins’ is always a modernism as well.”

The writing of history is a way of salvaging the relics of the dead, those pieces of the deceased person’s body that stand for the whole and participate, in the words of Eric Toubiana, “in the illusion of [that person’s] presence despite the acknowledgement of her absence.” The nation as fetish is a compromise formation between the denial of absence and its inescapable recognition. Moreover, the conversation of historians, professional or amateur, over time is very much like a collective wake: everyone has something to say about the dead, and “as the narratives go on, death seems to be denied and the person of the deceased takes shape again.” This paradoxical attempt to represent an absence, to recoup one’s losses and fill out a body with words, echoes de Certeau’s meditation on the historian’s enterprise: “It is an odd procedure that posits death, a breakage everywhere reiterated in discourse, and that yet denies loss by appropriating to the present the privilege of recapitulating the past as a form of knowledge” (5). Historical discourse, then, is “incessantly articulated over the death that it presupposes, but that the very practice of history contradicts. For to speak of the dead means to deny death and almost to defy it. Therefore speech is said to ‘resuscitate’ them. Here the word is literally a lure: history does not resuscitate anything” (47).

As we shall see, the nation as fetishistic relic suffuses contemporary French discourse: multiple processes of identification crystallize around the idea, since it is through the appropriation or incorporation of an object, attribute, or property belonging to the dead (whether individual or collective, real or imaginary, personal or national) that a subject attempts to deal with what no longer exists. Andrew Escobedo identifies the three main strategies of English national writers as they confronted the disappearance, or at least recession, of their immediate past in the wake of the Reformation: “(1) they must link the past to the present; (2) they must lament the gap between past and present; (3) they must forget the (alien) past to make sure it does not infect the present” (9).

In many ways, mutatis mutandis, the participants in the French debates discussed in this book have drawn similar conclusions from their predicament. The first task, traditionally left to the historical profession, has of late been taken over by activists who—dissatisfied with the distanced gaze of the academic professionals and the interested, consensus-seeking rhetoric of the politicians—have sought to collapse the past into the present, or to infuse the present with the passions of the past, as in the paradigmatic case of the controversies surrounding Vichy France (see chap. 6). More generally, the current obsession for museums, commemorations, and historical narratives, learned or popular, is a glaring testimony to the power of the first imperative, that of linking the past to the present. The national-republican, souverainiste camp has resisted change and taken the path of nostalgia, lamenting the passing of the glorious days of the early Third Republic and of the Gaullist era, while urging the citizenry to ignore the fateful sirens of neoliberalism. Finally, postmodernists and multiculturalists opted for active forgetting and the joyful smashing of idols. They have welcomed the storm of history and the new France it carried in its wake, and rejoiced in the iconoclastic project to “mourn all the refusals to mourn,” as Eric Santner has put it.

In his Mourning and Modernity, Isaac Balbus deplores that the current political choice seems to be between obliterating the past and idealizing it. Liberal postmodernists want to move past the “archaic” project of socialism, laden as it is with remnants of nineteenth-century statism and positivism, while nationalists yearn to resurrect the golden days of an imagined organic community, each position reinforcing the other, locking the present in an endless, nightmarish cycle of violence and counterviolence. “At unspeakable cost,” Balbus writes, “we have finally learned that the modernist murder of the past only feeds the fundamentalist fantasy of resurrecting it.” Balbus sees the need to “counter the modern assault on memory without mobilizing the noxious weapons of nostalgia” as “one of the central political tasks of our time” (71).

Many of the texts discussed in the following chapters were attempts to come to terms with the passing of an old France and the dawn of a new one, and with the need for the citizens of a reconfigured polity to find new descriptions of emerging practices, feelings, and expectations that no longer fit with previous imaginings of the nation. But the consensus over the diagnosis of what ailed the country does not translate into a commonality of views as to what constitutes the best possible cure for the disease. Loss implies recovery, but the term itself is highly ambiguous: to recover means both to retrieve and to heal, and the semantic hesitation points to the heart of the work of mourning, which, as Melanie Klein argued, involves both anamnesis and integration. The word “remembrance,” of course, shares a similar equivocity. To re-member is to recall the past and to put together again (to re-collect) what has been violently disrupted by the storm of history.

Within today’s debate over the future of late modernity, there are pessimists and optimists, iconoclastic postmodernists and reactive fundamentalists, as well as people inhabiting various niches within the vast space in between. Was the advent of a “cool,” individualistic, consumerist, antiauthoritarian society in the years following May ’68 worth the jettisoning—sometimes willed, sometimes forced—of so many elements of the modernist project, from republican secularism and the steadfast cultivation of a public sphere to aesthetic distinction and the once enduring faith in a socialist revolution? The events, texts, and intellectual figures examined in this study, as far as they reflect or illustrate the various ideological positions that make up the field of French public debates on the contemporary, all constitute significant attempts to answer this very question.

Writing in the thick of the postmodernism dispute, some twenty years ago, Eric Santner documented in his book Stranded Objects the “rhetoric of mourning which has come to occupy the semantic field of so much critical theory in recent years, . . . the recurrence, in so many postmodern discourses, of a metaphorics of loss and impoverishment” (7). Both deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis insisted on the elegiac nature of all symbolic processes. The linguistic predicament in post-structuralist theory is such that the speaking subject is, as Santner put it, “perpetually in mourning: for the referent, for beauty, for meaning, for home, for stable terms of orientation, because these losses are always already there as soon as one uses languages” (15). The postmodernist stance has been to exult amid this bereavement, to turn the “symbolic castration” performed by the play of the signifier into a source of jouissance. In this view, the constitutive dispossession and the deep narcissistic wound that lie at the core of human subjectivity must be affirmed rather than deplored. The relentless, radical critique of all forms of nostalgia that underscores these interpretive strategies is ultimately of a political nature, since all forms of fascism, authoritarian nationalism, and patriarchal fundamentalism are seen as inherently regressive and narcissistic.

Jean-François Lyotard, echoing Freud’s well-known essay on “Mourning and Melancholia,” once claimed that his contemporaries failed to accomplish the necessary process of working through the abominations of their century: fascism, Stalinism, colonialism, and imperialism. As a result, they remain trapped within the nets of depression, the psychic price to be paid for the denial of a traumatic past that is part and parcel of what the philosopher calls the modern project. “Under the pretense of safeguarding that project,” Lyotard argued, “the men and women of my generation in Germany imposed on their children a forty-year silence about the ‘Nazi interlude.’ This interdiction against anamnesis stands as a symbol for the entire Western world. Can there be progress without anamnesis? Anamnesis constitutes a painful process of working through, a work of mourning for the attachments and conflicting emotions, loves and terrors, associated with those names. . . . We have only gotten as far as a vague, apparently inexplicable, end-of-century melancholy.”

Lyotard’s remarks suggest that if depression is the result of an inability to bury the dead a second time through successful mourning, late modern subjects have a duty to remember, lest they fall prey to the politically dangerous spectral spell of the deceased’s absence, followed by the desperate attempt to become one with the lost object of collective identification. In Memory, History, Forgetting, Paul Ricoeur also underscored the dialectics of remembrance and bereavement, and the difference between mourning and melancholia:

But why then is mourning not melancholia? And what is it that makes mourning tend toward melancholia? What makes morning a normal, albeit painful, phenomenon is that [according to Freud] “when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.” . . . It is as a work of remembering that the work of mourning proves to be liberating, although at a certain cost, and . . . this relation is reciprocal. The work of mourning is the cost of the work of remembering, but the work of remembering is the benefit of the work of mourning. (72)

Freud’s essay identified two major ways of dealing with the loss of the loved object. The successful Trauerarbeit, or work of mourning, implies a painful, sometimes prolonged process of libidinal disinvestment from the lost object, which can be “a loved person or . . . some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” The reality principle commands the whole development, since the final overcoming of grief alone signals the successful completion of the Trauerarbeit. In Freud’s own words,

Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. . . . Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless, its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it. (244–45)

Should the test of reality fail to carry the day, however, and the psyche prove unable to free itself from the prolonged existence of the lost object, a dysfunctional process, described by Freud as melancholia, starts to take place. Immersed in an interminable labor of mourning, the melancholic subject is unable to “get over” her loss; she cannot “move on” with her life and let go of the deceased in order to invest in the new. It is as though, as Freud put it, “the shadow of the object has fallen upon the ego.” Because of a strong narcissistic identification with the lost object, the ego is no longer grieving another, but rather a vital part of itself: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego itself” (246).

Freud legitimized the transfer of individual categories of interpretation to the sociocultural analysis of collective, intersubjective behaviors when he suggested that ideological objects (“metaphysical abstractions” such as one’s country, liberty, or other ideals) could be substituted for a loved one in the process of grieving. Following his lead regarding the work of mourning, many interpretations of the contemporary have applied the dynamics of dealing with loss from individual pathology to historical condition.

Adrian Stokes and Hannah Segal, for example, have used Melanie Klein’s views on object relations and manic-depressive states to propose an aesthetic theory that likens artistic creation to a successful act of mourning, implying destruction, loss, and restoration. Frankfurt School theorists, especially Herbert Marcuse, relied on Freudian categories to explore the cultural consequences of the deployment of the dialectics of instrumental reason, and Slavoj Zizek’s influence on contemporary theory is based on his application of Lacanian notions to the study of political ideology and popular culture. In the same vein, Julia Kristeva spoke a decade ago of a French “national depression” brought about by “migratory flows,” an acute sense of the decline of the country’s influence in the world, and “social distress” caused by unemployment, humiliation at work, poverty, and the lack of “ideals and perspectives”: “In addition to individuals, France is living today through a national depression, similar to that of private persons. . . . The country does not react in any other way than a depressed patient.”

One way of complicating the contemporary politics of loss is to distinguish between the two separate modalities of the melancholic and the nostalgic. The latter, as Charity Scribner has remarked, “refuses to kill the lost object; he steels himself against the work of mourning.” Unreconstructed Stalinists in the former East Germany or national-republicans in France today provide examples of such a strategy. “The nostalgic’s refusal of mourning,” Scribner goes on, “metastasizes into funerary excess and artifice. If the nostalgic affixes himself to the object’s loss, then the melancholic, in contradistinction, focuses on the lack that always inhered in the primordial lost object” (308). Scribner refers to Lacan’s “objet petit a,” which “is not simply the lost object, but rather one that comes into being only through its loss, that is to say, an object that merely gives body to the loss” (318n20). In this Lacanian reading, the melancholic has “got it right” concerning the fundamental structure of the human subject, forever deprived by the advent of the Symbolic of a symbiotic union with the Real, while the nostalgic is deluded into thinking that he ever possessed anything. In Scribner’s words, “The nostalgic confounds loss and lack: he interprets the original lack as the loss of something that he previously possessed” (308).

In Black Sun, her study of clinical and literary depression, Julia Kristeva relied both on Kant and Freud to describe nostalgia less as a relation to a lost object than as a fixation on a temps perdu, an absent past in dire need of quest and recovery. According to Kristeva, “Concerning the specific variant of depression constituted by nostalgia, Kant asserted that nostalgic persons did not desire the place of their youth but their youth itself; their desire is a search for the time and not for the thing to be recovered” (60). Similarly, the psychic object for Freud is “a memory event, it belongs to lost time, in the manner of Proust. It is a subjective construct, located not within a physical space but within the imaginary and symbolic space of the psychic system” (61). This suggests that the ideal institutional and cultural regime eulogized by les nostalgiques de la République, who have defined a good part of the discursive space within which current ideological debates have been deployed for the past three decades, is a psychic object reconstructed from memory that exists not in the past, but in their past—that is, in their youth, the golden age of the immediate postwar period, before everything went to pot in the sixties and seventies.

The use of Freudian, Kleinian, or Lacanian approaches to explore intersubjective dynamics of mourning is not limited to French literary theory or Anglo-American cultural studies. The recent historiography on the politics of commemoration, in addition to reviving Maurice Halbwachs’s notion of collective memory, has often couched, so to speak, its interpretations in psychological and psychoanalytical language. Henri Rousso, for example, used a Freudian vocabulary to describe the existence of what he famously named the “Vichy syndrome” in French contemporary culture. The historian’s periodization of the contested memory of the Pétain regime during the postwar years is clearly borrowed from psychoanalysis. In Rousso’s narrative, the initial “unfinished mourning phase” (1944–54) is followed by a “repressive stage” (1954–71), the short period of the “return of the repressed” (1971–74), and finally, an acute “obsessive” stage marked by the “awakening of Jewish memory” after 1974. “Rather like the unconscious in Freudian theory,” Rousso writes, “what is known as collective memory exists first of all in its manifestations, in the various ways by which it reveals its presence. The Vichy syndrome consists of a diverse set of symptoms whereby the trauma of the Occupation, and particularly the trauma resulting from internal divisions within France, reveals itself in political, social, and cultural life. Since the end of the war, moreover, that trauma has been perpetuated and at times exacerbated” (10).

Although he was careful to caution his readers (and his fellow historians) that “what is borrowed from psychoanalysis is simply a metaphor, not an explanatory schema” (23), Rousso was roundly chastised for his uncontrolled use of Freudian concepts outside their original field of applicability. He nevertheless defended his interpretive framework in the foreword of the second French edition of his book, claiming that words such as repression, mourning, forgetting, and trauma had now acquired a common meaning independent of their original association with clinical psychiatry. “I do not repudiate in any way this interpretative grid,” he persisted, “however empirical it might be” (24). Undeterred, Rousso persisted in using Freudian “metaphors” to make sense of cultural-political developments in the book’s sequel, cowritten with Eric Conan. Remarking on the evolution of the Vichy syndrome since the late 1980s, the authors remained squarely within a psychological register. They uncovered “the phony taboos and historical fantasies” (11) involved in the duty to remember at all costs, explored how “the present obsession is being fed by a two-fold feeling of guilt” (3), and diagnosed “a denial of the legitimacy of the ‘right to forget,’” and its “paralytic effects” on politicians who “have gotten caught up with slips of the tongue” (5).

The methodological questions raised by Rousso’s books prompted Paul Ricoeur to wonder whether the transposition of psychological categories from the individual to the collective was legitimate. As explored in Memory, History, Forgetting, Ricoeur found ample justification for such an interpretive move both in Freud’s own work and in what he called the phenomenology of wounded memory. Freud himself did not hesitate to extrapolate beyond the original scene of psychoanalytic treatment to considerations on culture, the psychosocial order, and historical situations in Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, The Future of an Illusion, and Civilization and Its Discontents. For Ricoeur, the pathological situations psychoanalysis is concerned with can be found in the traumas of collective identity, even “in the absence of recognized therapists in interhuman relations.” “The notion of the lost object,” he goes on, “finds a direct application in the ‘losses’ that affect the power, territory, and populations that constitute the substance of a state” (78). Going beyond Rousso’s prudent use of psychological labels as “metaphors,” Ricoeur argued that “we can speak not only in an analogical sense but in terms of a direct analysis of collective traumatisms, of wounds to collective memory.” The great funeral celebrations where an entire nation is assembled “constitute a privileged example of the intersecting relations between private and public expression. It is in this way that our concept of a sick historical memory finds justification a posteriori in this bipolar [i.e., personal and communal] structure of mourning behaviors” (78–79). The public space of collective debate becomes the equivalent of the intermediary domain between the therapist and the analysand in the individual setting of the cure.

National contexts produce specific manifestations of the collective management of a traumatic past. The Vichy trials and their impact on the public conversation in France are reminiscent of the German situation examined by Santner in Stranded Objects, from Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s “inability to mourn” thesis to the related Historikerstreit (historians’ debate) over the revisionist interpretations of the Third Reich. In contrast, France and Britain defer markedly in the way they have been dealing with the shadows of the past, as Perry Anderson pointed out in a recent essay. On the one hand, Britain’s world-historical decline since the war has been a drawn-out process: “Little alteration of political arrangements; moderate growth but still low productivity, pinched universities and crumbling railways, . . . an underling diplomacy. The British way of coming down in the world might itself be termed a mediocre affair.” France, on the other hand, has told quite another story, in large part because of the political and cultural brilliance of the country during the Gaullist era: “The arrival of the Fifth Republic coincided with the full flowering of the intellectual energies that set France apart for two generations after the war” (5).

This blooming of the French mind (from “theory” and experimental literature to cinema and historiography), coupled with assertive, principled Gaullist foreign policy, enabled the country to regain an enviable position in the world. This underscores, by contrast, the depression of the current scene, where, according to Anderson, “le déclinisme burst into full flow with the publication of La France qui tombe, a spirited denunciation of national default” (3). France’s reckoning with its own cultural-historical diminution since 1980 has led, on the one hand, to a “working through” of the legacies of an unpalatable past and, on the other hand, to the cultivation of interminable grief reflected in the current mood of resigned despondency among many in the cultural elites, especially on the Left.

Anderson deplored the passing of the great French revolutionary tradition, repeating the metaphor of the fall: “The feeling is widespread that the Fifth Republic, as it approaches its half-century, presents a fallen landscape” (6). Thereafter follows a long list of the devastations wrought on the Republic by Benjamin’s storm of history: an ailing economy, crawling forward at 1 percent a year through the 1990s; unemployment at 9 percent (two-fifths of black and Arab youths are unemployed); one of the lowlier rates of reading in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; a political system riddled with corruption and increasingly held in public contempt; a foreign policy reduced to “a mottled parody of Gaullism”; and, last but not least, a widespread tumble in cultural matters (6). Death has picked off all the great names of France’s sixties Renaissance, from Barthes in 1980 to Derrida in 2004, leaving the field wide open for Bernard-Henri Lévy, whom Anderson summarily dismisses as the “crass booby of France’s public sphere,” to step forward as the country’s leading public intellectual in the eyes of the world (7).

The figures and moments in recent French intellectual and cultural history discussed in the following chapters all address, in various and conflicting ways, the predicament of the democratic individual, deprived of the ideological certainties of yesteryear and condemned to face the anxieties of an open-ended, undetermined historical condition. In the spirit of this dramatic change in contemporary societies’ relationship to historical teleology, the periods corresponding to each chapter should not be taken simply as uniquely defining moments, pivotal points in a one-directional chronological development, but also as symptomatic events, signs of effects rather than temporal markers of sequential causality. Each of these moments (March 19, 1978 for chap. 2, April 1980 for chap. 3, July 14, 1989 for chap. 6, December 1995 for chap. 4, April 21, 2002 for chap. 5, and March 2004 and September–October 2005 for chap. 7), are not turning points or starting points, but crystallization points of processes that overlap and intersect one another, contributions to the story of this “new France” that is perplexing so many domestic and foreign observers today. As illustrated in Anderson’s own nostalgic account, the birth pangs of the new France include the cooling of revolutionary passions, the displacement of politics by humanitarian rhetoric, the painful, nostalgic rapport to an increasingly distant cultural eminence, and the growing inability of the republican framework to address the challenges of social exclusion, economic marginalization, and racial discrimination.

Chapter 1 starts with a retrospective survey of the commemoration of May ’68 in the media in 1978, 1988, and 1998, and ends with a reading of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, providing various angles from which to approach the fate of the revolutionary imagination in “post-political” France. Chapter 2 looks at the failure of the Socialist-Communist coalition to come to power in March 1978 as an illustration of what Marcel Gauchet later called the eclipse of the political, and provides an opportunity to reevaluate the French postmodern debate (launched the following year by the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition).

Chapter 3 is a close reading of the first three issues of the influential journal Le Débat, which was an attempt to set a new intellectual agenda for the postrevolutionary era. The publication of the first issue in April 1980 coincided with Sartre’s death, and both events were markers of a significant shift in French cultural politics. Under the leadership of the historians Pierre Nora and Marcel Gauchet, the new publication, soon to be a must read among the intelligentsia, proved to be extremely successful in establishing the preeminence of the social sciences over literature and philosophy, opening French academic interests to the rest of the world, and ushering in a new generation of scholars and public intellectuals. These newcomers, born during the decade following World War II, and whose coming of age had coincided with the turbulent late sixties and early seventies, would transform the ideological landscape of the country, replacing Marxism and structuralism with a pluralistic, more pragmatic conception of the role of cultural producers in a liberal-democratic environment. The original enthusiasm generated by what was perceived by many as the end of theory-driven dogmatism soon gave way to disenchantment with the excesses of liberal individualism, as initial hopes in the return of participatory democracy and the “modernization” of French political culture failed to materialize.

Chapter 4 places Pierre Bourdieu’s political evolution in the last decade of his life in the context of the strikes of December 1995, the most extensive social movement in France since May 1968. I suggest that the usual comparison between Sartre and Bourdieu as the latest avatar of the traditional figure of the committed intellectual misses the mark. In his defense against the threat of neoliberal globalization—of what he called a civilization “associated with the existence of a public service, the civilization of republican equality of rights, rights to education, to health, culture, research, art, and, above all, work”—Bourdieu was much closer to Zola than to Sartre. The evolution of Bourdieu’s conception of the state, from the institutional site of the reproduction of economic and cultural inequality to the guarantor of collective social rights, paralleled the sociologist’s growing concern with safeguarding the best of the republican tradition as the last line of defense against free-market ideologies. Both his militant and journalistic interventions and the theoretical texts of the 1990s showed his unwillingness to jettison Enlightenment models of commitment and rationality while refusing to embrace the narrow nationalism of the neo-Jacobins. In his later years, Bourdieu attempted to recover the threatened legacy of both the Third Republic, illustrated by Zola’s struggle for justice and democracy, and the Fourth Republic, during which the main tenets of the Conseil national de la Résistance’s program became reality, laying the groundwork for what Bourdieu saw as a “civilization” associated with the social state. The institutionalization of the postwar welfare state and the figure of the public intellectual speaking truth to power were associated in Bourdieu’s writing as an expression of what would be lost with the triumph of liberalism.

Chapter 5 centers on one of the most traumatic moments in recent French political history, the presidential election of April 2002. During the first run of the election, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the nationalist and xenophobic candidate, edged the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, for second place behind Jacques Chirac, the incumbent. Chirac eventually won with 80 percent of the vote, as the Left had no choice but to support “a crook rather than a fascist.” The two-week period between the first and second runs of the election saw a flourishing of references to the national “republican compact” in politicians’ speeches, media reports, and public intellectuals’ contributions to op-ed columns. These political uses of the republican legacy revealed the semantic vagueness of the word, which serves as an equivalent to democracy, cultural exceptionalism, or simply “Frenchness.” The Republic has become a floating signifier that can attach to a variety of referents according to the whim of its user or the specific context of its utterance. This polysemic uncertainty shows to what extent public discourse on the current national predicament in France is at a loss for words. “Republican” has become a catchword for what the culture has to come to terms with, in an as-yet unarticulated way, in the wake of tremendous social change: individualism, the weakening of patriarchal authority, the retreat of the nation-state, and ethnic and religious diversity. The national conversation, groping for words, is finding in the semantic constellation associated with the republican reference, in its all-encompassing vagueness, the least inadequate carrier for meanings that have yet to become fully comprehended.

Chapter 6 takes the year 1989 as its starting point: the collapse of the Berlin wall, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, and the controversy over the right of Muslim students to wear a veil in public schools all happened within a few weeks. These three events illustrate the role of memory in current reformulations of the republican and revolutionary legacy. The subsequent memory wars over Vichy and the Algerian War, and the professional historians’ growing discontent with the interested appropriation of the national past by politicians and militant cultural organizations (what the French call the “instrumentalization of history”), form the background of a study of three books published a decade ago by Editions du Seuil. In these short volumes aimed at a general public, prominent intellectuals or historical figures attempt to educate the youth about values and events threatened by oblivion: patriotism, the republican tradition, and the French Resistance during World War II.

Chapter 7 ends this survey of recent ideological disruptions with comments on the 2005 law on laïcité, which banned large religious emblems and articles of clothing from public schools. The interminable debate on the veil (which has recently resurfaced as a controversy about the burqa, a garment that covers the whole body rather than just the head, increasingly visible in French streets and taken to signal a step-up in female subjugation) points to the loss of a long-standing fiction of the national community as culturally homogenous. What is mourned through the veil is more than a threatened form of political institutions (the Republic) or historical legacy (the revolutionary tradition, secularism); it is the notion of a people conceived through the prevalence of uniformity over difference.

Rather than examining the array of positions that have been staked time and again since 1989, I chose to approach the law on laïcité and its consequences from the side, as it were, as a symptom of a larger problem. In the same way that la République functions as a code word for a democracy in trouble, the much-debated notion of laïcité as another marker of the French difference serves to displace, and obfuscate, some of the salient issues linked to ethnic diversity. The uprisings in predominantly black and Arab working-class neighborhoods of major French cities a year after the law was passed were in many ways the return of the repressed of a decision that targeted teenage girls as metonymies of the entire French Muslim population; the laïcité law framed their lives through the prism of Enlightenment rationalism and the history of the separation of church and state, ignoring their concrete, ordinary, everyday “immigrant” or “minority” experience of confrontation with chronic unemployment, job discrimination, and spatial segregation. The chapter ends with considerations on the related recent debate on affirmative action—or “positive discrimination,” as the French prefer to call it—as another attempt to deal with the dismembering of the body politic.

This book is not an intellectual or cultural history of post-1968 France (many such studies have been written in the past two decades). A contribution to the understanding of the present, it is rather a collection of soundings into what remains largely a complex, murky, ongoing process. I have been fascinated by these developments since I left France twenty-five years ago, as it became clear that a significant change was underway, even though its precise contours remain difficult to delineate, precisely because it is in process. Many of the changes were already happening in the late sixties and early seventies, but, as one colleague once remarked to me two decades later, “we did not know then that it was going on.” From one visit to the next, I witnessed behaviors, heard comments, saw images, and read arguments that could not easily be reconciled with what I thought it meant to be French.

Born in the old, Fourth Republic France of gray-smocked public school teachers, tree-lined two-lane highways, the comedies of Bourvil and Fernandel, and politicians whose worldview and rhetorical flourish had been shaped by World War I, the Great Depression, the Popular Front, and the Nazi Occupation, the postwar generation came of age in a new France of personal computers, nongovernmental media, wide-ranging multicultural claims, and the collapse of communism. Baby boomers are said to be arrogant and self-indulgent; many of the books they wrote about the transition to the new times may well reflect these unsavory traits, as they often equated the fate of their generation to that of 1789, arguing that the “second French Revolution” that took place between 1965 and 1985 rivaled the first in terms of the magnitude of cognitive and material disruptions involved.

The controversies addressed in this book display a wide range of affects, from despair, anger, and resignation to claims that the way things used to be will not do any longer, that the republican framework is in serious need of overhauling if the political disenchantment, cultural malaise, economic woes, and social and racial tensions currently facing the country are to be addressed and, hopefully, redressed. Even the direst accounts of the “new France” written in the eighties and early nineties often ended on an optimistic note. It is as though their authors were reluctant to follow the logic of their argument to its most depressive end, perhaps comforted by the thought that the country had been there before (in 1598, 1793, 1871, and 1940), mired in chaos, bled by civil or foreign war, threatened with dissolution, and yet always rising, phoenixlike, from the dead.

Emmanuel Todd concluded his study of the disruptive effects of technological change and cultural liberalization on political and electoral processes with a belief in the capacity of the nation’s time-tested ideological values to survive the challenge: “Today France suffers from . . . an absence of ideological identification [that] has everywhere produced a feeling of unrest, and the impression that the system does not work, even when there is no threat of a serious crisis. The disappearance of the Right-Left dualism is the most obvious aspect of the disintegration of the old system.”

Marcel Gauchet has repeatedly argued that the gradual erasure of the idea of collective power, almost entirely replaced by the notion of individual freedom, is a threat to contemporary democracies. “This broadening of the dimension of individual independence at the expense of the dimension of a common government upsets the balance” of democratic institutions. And yet he refers to himself as “pessimistic in the short term, but optimistic in the long run,” finding solace in the fact that “farmers, teachers, middle-level managers, railroad workers, and small business owners” often seem more capable than professional politicians and public intellectuals to engage in open-minded dialogue and to try to find workable solutions to their problems (346).

Cornelius Castoriadis, who has condemned in no uncertain terms the complete atrophy of political imagination in contemporary social formations, shared a similar confidence in the ability of ordinary citizens to reinvigorate the dynamics of autonomous self-creation that stand at the core of the Western democratic project. According to Castoriadis, “One cannot say that Western societies are dead, simply writing them off from history. We are not yet living in fourth-century Rome or Constantinople. . . . There are signs of resistance, people who are struggling here and there. . . . Important books that appear. In the letters to the editor columns of Le Monde, for example, one often finds letters expressing entirely healthy and critical points of view.” Far from being an epochal catastrophe, the effacement of the belief in a “guaranteed historical progress” was for Castoriadis an opportunity to free up “our creative social imaginary” and to make contact with the living past: “It is only by coming out of . . . the fantasy of immortality . . . that one can establish a genuine relationship to time, . . . it is only then that we will be able to be truly present to the present, by being open to the future and by having a relationship with the past that is neither a repetition nor a rejection” (73).

In his monumental Memory, History, Forgetting, Paul Ricoeur suggested that Freud might have missed the affirmative, joyful side of sublimated melancholia. Sublimation as “the missing piece in the panoply of Freud’s metapsychology might perhaps have provided him with the secret of the reversal from the complaisance toward sadness to sadness sublimated—into joy. Yes, grief is that sadness that has not completed the work of mourning. Yes, joy is the reward for giving up the lost object and a token of the reconciliation with its internalized object” (77). From this perspective, melancholy politics in late modern France could be described as a process of “new mourning,” the double entendre suggesting that historical loss is not only a tragedy, but that it can also open up a space for new mornings, for the task of hopeful politics, and, who knows, for the gift of what Ricoeur called la mémoire heureuse, a happy memory, reconciliation through remembrance.