A few weeks ago, a post on MobyLives discussed our inner desire to worship our favorite writers as heros and our deception when they fail to behave as such. The post referred to Camus and Sartre and expressed regrets towards the fact they published under the Collaboration. I can’t deny that Vercors‘s conduct was much more praiseworthy. But still, The Myth of Sisyphus and Caligula (1941), The Stranger (1942), and Being and Nothingness 1943), The Flies (1943) and No Exit (1944) — the books Camus and Sartre published at that time — clearly stated the fundaments of their political commitment whose strength, courage and sincerity have modeled the figure of the public intellectual in the 20th Century. Given the fact that World War II and its cortege of atrocity had shaped their thought and writing for the rest of their life, can we really hold against them that they have submitted their texts to the German censorship?
In the same post, a harsh comment by Jean Guéhenno‘s on writers’ eagerness for fame and official recognition caught my attention. I feel this statement conceals another reality tackled by a controversy recently broken out in France following which Louis Ferdinand Celine has been taken off a governmental collection announcing the national celebrations for 2011. To make a long story short, the collection is meant to list “figures whose life, work, moral behavior as well as the values they represent, are today acknowledged as remarkable”. You wonder why Céline was part of the first version of the list in a first place? Well, you’re not the only one!
The university Professor and writer Philippe Roussin emphasized in Liberation how complex the relationship between art and territory was. All along 19th Century, a large part of French literature has been willing to embrace and represent the nation. Kafka, Joyce and Beckett‘s masterpieces have symbolized the end of this coincidence. Philippe Roussin quotes Sartre saying that “government’s representatives are inclined to consider writers as ‘national properties’ and a tendency to transform any of their writings in a ceremony” and he calls this phenomenon “the patrimonial inflation.” As he points out “the patrimonial inflation says our obsession with the literary legacy.”
Taking it a step further, the French writer Marc Weitzmann writes (in another article for Liberation): “The fundamental purpose of a writer is not to be a good citizen. His moral — supposing he has any — is too intimately bound to his writing to merge, even at a distance, with the values used by a society to define itself, since every national commemoration is nothing else but the celebration of these values. A writer couldn’t stand farther from this position.”
As Roussin concludes, “there’s certainly nothing wrong in celebrating Le Voyage au bout de la nuit as a literary work. But we have to think twice before entrusting literature to the single logic of the political patrimony that binds together literary commemoration and national officialization.”
I am curious to know whether the creation of an American Writers Museum — if it ever comes to pass (see the earlier MobyLives post) — will raise similar debates here.