Parisian Intellectuals and Their Plague

The year 2020 will forever be known as the year of Covid, the virus that devastated lives and economies throughout the world. On an infinitely more modest scale, for Parisian intellectuals, those well-connected writers, editors, and critics at ease on radio and television, 2020 was also a plague year, one which caused no deaths, but which seriously undermined a longstanding, albeit unwritten French tradition.

Leading French intellectuals, whatever their fields, have long been expected to comment on the pressing social and ethical issues of the day. For centuries their prestige was such that their thoughts were sought after and taken seriously. Examples, invariably male, include Voltaire, Hugo, Zola, Gide, and Sartre. The last person associated with this tradition was Michel Foucault, who died in 1984. To date no one has had the standing to replace him. Instead, Parisian intellectuals have recently provided more reasons for derision than admiration regarding what they say and do.

In 2013, Gabriel Matzneff won the Prix Renaudot in the essay category for Séraphin, c’est la fin !, a work that details the author’s penchant for sex with children. Obviously, many were offended by the prize being awarded to such an opus, but Matzneff was well-connected in Parisian circles, and establishment figures like Josyane Savigneau, the former editor of Le Monde’s book review section, and Philippe Sollers, novelist, editor and critic, brushed aside these objections as emanating from lowbrows out of touch with contemporary literary and sexual mores. Sollers was particularly offensive, dismissing one female critic with an epithet at once vulgar and sexist.

The brouhaha seemed to rapidly subside, until a memoir by one of Matzneff’s victims – Le Consentement by Vanessa Springora – restored him to an unwanted prominence. Matzneff was recently indicted for promoting pedophilia in his writing while his Parisian supporters, once vociferously on his side, largely lapsed into silence. Savigneau offered some lame defense of Matzneff as a writer, and the normally voluble Sollers made no comment. The Renaudot made a serious blunder in 2013, and the initial reaction of an intellectual elite, coupled with its inaction in 2020, did little to enhance the reputation of the contemporary public intellectual.

The Matzneff affair led to one of the periodic soul searches associated with the annual literary prizes. Voices were raised to object to the paucity of women on the juries, to the strong connection of most jurists to publishing houses, and to the politicking surrounding the choice of the lauréat(e). François Busnel, host of a popular television show, La Grande Librairie, pronounced the prize system corrupt. It was also rumored that the 2020 Renaudot was awarded to Marie-Hélène Lafon for Histoire du fils because it was a safe choice. The author is not part of any Parisian coterie and her publisher, Buchet/Chastel, is a small house with few literary/political connections. In fact, Lafon’s novel is an excellent account of several sons whose lives and families, of no particular importance in themselves, become fascinating and moving in the author’s rendering of them.

There is nothing new about these objections to the literary prizes. Aside from the Prix Fémina, few women jurors exist, although that will likely change. Most jurors make their living through some connection to a publishing house, and probably tend to favor their employers in making awards. The big publishers, Gallimard, Grasset and Seuil (also known as “Galligraseuil”), launch annual campaigns on the part of their authors to win prizes. That this year old grievances and recriminations were stirred up reflects both a climate of uncertainty among jurors who rightly fear their judgment is being questioned and a growing impatience in the general public with influence peddling.

Raphaël Enthoven is a media-savvy intellectual who is a frequent presence on radio and television talk shows. In 2020 he published an autobiographical novel, Le Temps gagné, that details his difficult childhood between divorced parents, his intellectual precociousness, physical attractiveness, and awakening sexuality where awkwardness morphs rapidly into expertise. While Enthoven’s amorous exploits are numerous, the reader retains a strong sense that the great love of his life is himself. Were this the extent of the story, it would have attracted little attention, but in a novel of 528 pages, the final thirty created a very public scandal.

In these pages, Enthoven steals his father’s girlfriend, who will eventually leave him for another man, dumps his wife, and enrages his abandoned spouse’s father. Yet the shock and titillation have little to do with the events themselves. Le Temps gagné is a thinly-veiled roman à clef. Enthoven’s fictional father is his own father, Jean-Paul Enthoven, an editor and essayist well-known in Parisian literary circles. Beatrice, the beauty who comes between father and son, is Carla Bruni, the Franco-Italian model and singer who will later marry Nicolas Sarkozy. Enthoven’s jilted wife, Faustine, is Justine Lévy, herself a novelist, whose fictional father, Elie, is an acid portrait of her real father, Bernard-Henri Lévy, perhaps the best-known philosopher/intellectual in contemporary France.

Enthoven’s characterizations flatter nobody. He depicts a world of ego-driven, insecure males for whom women, most of whom are not particularly intelligent, only exist for sexual release and decorative effect. The fine education, formal or autodidactic, these men possess expresses itself in learned allusions often used to bolster some vaguely leftist cause. Cleverness seems more admired than conviction, as intellectual enquiry readily devolves into a form of trivial pursuits or one-upmanship.

The reaction to Le Temps gagné was swift and predictable. Enthoven’s alleged Oedipal fixation was discussed, the real father publicly disowned the real son, the ex-wife made disparaging comments about the origins of her replacement’s beauty, and the philosopher king appeared vexed – all this for the amusement/edification of the general public. Yet, since the matter was essentially private, it did not hold center stage for a long period. Rather quickly, France turned its attention to more serious concerns. Still, in terms of the role of French public intellectuals, the future does not augur well. It appears they are currently providing more entertainment than enlightenment, and by doing so, lessening their stature in a country that has always prized them.

William Cloonan is Richard Chapell Professor of Modern Languages (Emeritus) at Florida State University. His most recent book is Frères Ennemis: The French in American Literature, Americans in French Literature (Liverpool University Press, 2018).