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Letting France Be France : MY FRANCE: Politics, Culture, Myth, By Eugen Weber (Harvard University Press: $24.95; 412 pp.)

February 24, 1991|David Shaw | Shaw, whose most recent book is "Press Watch," writes about the media for The Times and travels to France annually for his stomach

One can almost see Eugen Weber and his editors sitting around, trying to figure out how to title this collection of essays on France without seeming presumptuous. Weber, after all, was born in Romania, educated in England and works in the United States--as a distinguished professor of modern history at UCLA. What makes him an expert on France? And why would the French, in particular, take him as seriously as he clearly takes himself?

"My France" must have seemed just colloquial enough--just personal enough--as a title to enable both book and author to escape easy dismissal as superficial scholarship from afar. But "My France" is certainly scholarly--not at all superficial--and Weber is indeed an expert to be taken seriously on the subject of France. He is an author of considerable range and depth, providing insightful examinations of virtually every major issue confronted by the French through their tricolored history--among them religion, nationalism, anti-Semitism and the politicization of the peasant classes. He is particularly interesting on the subject of the French language, and any tourist who has struggled with rudimentary French while frantically trying to locate a toilet will be amused to learn that the French themselves were relatively late in learning French.

"In 1893, according to official figures, about a quarter of the 37,000-odd communes in France spoke no French," Weber writes. "And almost half of the children who would reach adulthood in the last quarter of the nineteenth century were taught French, if and when they were taught it, as a foreign language."

Weber's book is a Very Serious book, perhaps too serious for the amateur Francophile. Often--as in his discussion of revolution vs. counterrevolution--the analysis bogs down in the kind of pedantic hair-splitting that might lead to such metaphysical inquiries as "How many Frenchmen can dance on the head of Le Pen?"

But Weber also delves into popular culture, and his essay on how folk tales reflect various stages of French history is fascinating. He shows how the fear of strangers, the role of luck and the changing nature of the family play key roles in French folk tales, mirroring French life itself. As France changed, so did its need for fairy tales. In the 19th Century, "the control that ordinary people could exercise over life increased . . . cattle were no longer left to look after themselves as best they could. They were fattened, selected, bred . . . . The world was being domesticated. Mysteries were explained away." In time, "Manure took the place of magic."

"Escapist fantasies became less necessary and also less relevant" as "Sensation, excitement, amusement became available in print, in images, in access to urban facilities or to developing centers of rural sociability and fun--cafes, cabarets and so on."

In some ways, for the non-academic, Weber's discussion of Baron Pierre de Coubertin's successful efforts to revive the Olympic Games is the most interesting chapter in the book--as much for what it says about French education and the French character as for the Olympics campaign itself.

The Olympics began in Greece in 776 BC and ended in AD 396. Coubertin, born to wealth in Paris in 1863--his family also had estates in Normandy and just southwest of Paris, in Chevreuse--seemed a most unlikely fellow to revivify this ancient sporting tradition. But he had drifted from one social and scholarly interest to another, became intrigued by the prospect of "emancipating and integrating the working classes," then shifted to the even more ambitious task of "promoting the revival, the rejuvenation of France."

How to achieve that noble objective? Inspired by Hippolyte Taine's account of the role of sport in English education, he decided to focus on youth--to "put some color in the cheeks of a solitary and confined youth, (toughen) his body and character by sport, its risks, and even its excesses."

French education was based on Napoleonic discipline, British education on "the gradual emancipation and self-revelation of youth," Weber writes. What mattered in French education in the 1880s and 1890s was not so much the knowledge acquired but "the process which trained the mind." Students of Latin and Greek "were not expected to end up knowing those languages or the societies which they represented and which their classics depicted, but to have exercised their minds by the gymnastics involved in the learning process."

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