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Birth of a Nation

THE CULT OF THE NATION IN FRANCE Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800; By David A. Bell; Harvard University Press: 304 pp., $45

RETHINKING FRANCE Volume I: The State; Edited by Pierre Nora and David P. Jordan (English-language editor), Translated from the French by Mary Trouille; University of Chicago Press: 484 pp., $40

November 25, 2001|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of "Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914."

The French are drunk on history, gorged on its dark blood. Retrospection, commemoration and evocation wash over the land, leaving their sediment on it and on its people's psyche, race relations, conversations, orientations. As with certain couples endlessly hashing over marital banalities, triumphs and disasters, French self-appraisals and reappraisals feed on themselves and keep the conversation going.

David A. Bell has interesting things to say about the French kindred and about an important aspect of their life together. "The Cult of the Nation in France" is about the way a particular kind of togetherness and a novel kind of identity were implanted, grew (and may have begun to wither) in France's fertile soil. The nation, he argues, is no spontaneous growth but a political artifact: not organic like a tree but constructed like a city. Groups of supposedly common origins had been around for quite a while. But "nation" could apply to Bretons or Normans as well as to the French. The notion of nationhood--a sense of unity, a will to live in common--came to France only in the 18th century, and it took hard work and struggle to acclimatize it.

As part of international and then of internal conflicts, 18th century thinkers and publicists specified and polished concepts of the nation and of the fatherland. The nation had to be built, its members indoctrinated, re-formed, transformed in their allegiances, language, manners, feelings. The dust of history was stirred in search of common ancestors--Gauls, Franks--to be invoked or discarded. On another note, Bell surprises us by showing how poems and songs generated by anti-English propaganda in the wars of the 1750s and 1760s ("Aux armes, citoyens!" for example) were later cribbed for the Marseillaise.

These activities came to a head during the great Revolution, one of whose major projects would be "to form Frenchmen, and to endow the nation with its own unique physiognomy." We know that the nation-builders succeeded, or at least their heirs in subsequent generations did; and Pierre Nora in "Rethinking France" points out that history and its teaching became principal tools for creating patriotic awareness. Briefly put, notions of unity and of a common fatherland were developed to avoid long-drawn-out civil strife and to impose the authority of a God-willed monarch. In the 1790s, royal supremacy justified by the passions of old religious strife would be replaced by the higher authority of the sovereign people justified by still more strife. And justification would not draw on the religion of God or man, but on the cult of the fatherland recognized as a "second divinity," only to become a rival divinity in its own right.

This was the result of a long-term change in relations between the world and God: the self-assertion of a secular sphere no longer determined by God's will but by its own acts. And it involved what Bell calls a blazing intellectual war in which opposing armies used similar weapons, tactics and strategies but claimed legitimacy from a different source. The authority of king and church rested on God. The claims of the other side were warranted by appeals to the good of the commonwealth. Painfully, sensibilities were shifted from the personal and particular (king) to the impersonal and abstract (nation).

Inclusion implied exclusion, identity implied antipathy: "[T]hat holy antipathy," wrote Madame de Stal, "for foreign manners, customs, languages, that fortifies the national bond." There was no room for hyphenated identities a l'Americaine. Those outside the patriotic circle were excluded, but identity was also open to adjustments, and foreigners could become "naturalized" by imbibing the national culture.

Better still, as Bell points out, traces of Catholic commitment to a universal human community minimized the connotations of exclusivity. So the French did not define themselves by "othering" foreigners. On the contrary, after 1789, the Constituent Assembly proclaimed the brotherhood of peoples in its "Declaration of Peace to the World." That did not go far or last long but, leaving aside the chasm between rhetoric and reality, patriots dedicated to removing obstacles to national unity faced a gigantic task. Under the kings, national unity had not been an issue. Now, disunity was ferreted out so that unity of faith, mind, feeling could be asserted. Kingdom or young republic, France was a congeries of regions, estates, laws and, not least, languages. Few until the Revolution recognized that most French subjects spoke Occitan, German, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Italian, Flemish, Yiddish or a host of dialects and patois barely comprehensible to one another. Now these were targeted as a hindrance to identity, uniformity, homogeneity, concord.

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