Why does Bubba hate the French? Why the prejudice so profound that despite his fluency, John Kerry during the 2004 campaign never answered a French reporter’s question in French for fear that a tape of him speaking that language might be used by the Republicans to destroy him? Why was Derrida’s being French, in Melville’s prophetic words, “The key to it all”?
Ask the Merovingian. The stereotypical epitome of French snobbery, he sits at the table with his fine wine and puts the peasants in their place. “Choice is an illusion” he explains “perpetuated by those with power over those without.” He knows everything, and he knows he knows everything, and of course, he knows it in French.
Why, “of course”? Why did the Wachowski brothers make the Matrix’s heros’ despicable nemesis a Francofile? The answer has roots in American culture that reach deep into our cultural origins, even to scripture and the Biblical basis of the American belief that we can, despite the sneers of the worldly elite, escape our Egyptian bondage, cross the wilderness that exists outside the text, and arrive at last, not in more illusion and deception but in the essential reality of Zion.
We can trace this hostility all the way back to the seventeenth century when to be French was to be ultra-Catholic. The Protestants’ main gripe against the Catholics during the Reformation was that the Catholics practiced what is called a Covenant of Works. In more recent terms, the Catholics believed in presence, while the Protestants developed a negative theology based on absence. The Catholics believed, and still do, that their rituals were more than just ritual, and their symbols more than just symbolic, that the wafer of communion literally becomes the body of Christ, not just an empty symbol.
The Protestants, for their part, preached a Covenant of Grace, a via negativa, which denounced all human texts as illusion and insisted on a denial of the world and the self so powerful that it amounted to psychic suicide. To read Calvin or Jonathan Edwards, or Karl Barth, is to read a theology which Derrida himself has acknowledged bears surprising similarity to deconstruction, but with this crucial difference. Unlike Derrida, the reformed theologians, at least the Calvinists, believed that it was, however minutely, possible to cross over from the textual illusion to a new solid reality through the conversion process they called “being born again.” For them, Christ’s death and resurrection was a symbol of this process. They understood the profound uncertainty underlying all human perception, and they named it terror, or the Fear of God. But they also believed that a few individuals, particularly poor and marginalized ones, might pass across to the Promised land of true vision and find a solid rock upon which to stand.
To these Protestants, Catholic insistence on the efficacy of worldly rituals and the holiness of wafers was not just wrong but dangerous, for it left sinners trapped in the illusionary matrix of the world unaware of their one possibility of escape from spiritual bondage and social peonage. It left them in Egypt, ignorant of the wilderness passage to Zion.
Hence, from the very beginning, French Catholics in particular were represented as the epitome of a worldly phoniness that rationalized its privileges with the language of theology, the Merovingian.
In the nineteenth century, even such a liberal, well-educated progressive as Harriet Beecher Stowe set up the French of the era of Napoleon the Third as her superficial contrast to sincere American values in her novel of domestic manners, Pink and White Tyranny.
But perhaps the best example of this theme in our culture can be found in Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening. Long before Jacques Derrida and his deconstructionists, long before French theory became the darling of the academics, Chopin set up the problem in its starkest terms and provided a window into the cultural difference that has remained so stubbornly divisive.
In the novel, Edna, an American girl from Kentucky, has left her home and moved to New Orleans where she is surrounded by French speaking Creoles. There was, says the author, “something very foreign, very French, about their whole manner of living.” The difference between them and her is not the main theme of the novel, but it is the theme against which her rebellion, and her eventual self destruction, must be understood.
When one of the Creoles plays his constructed role, pretending to flirt with Edna, Madame Ratignolle scolds him: “She is not one of us. She is not like us. She might make the unfortunate blunder of taking you seriously.” And indeed later in the book, he does offend, apologizing for ignoring a request, “I didn’t know you meant it.” When her lover, Robert, realizes that Edna really does love him and might break the social conventions of their culture by leaving her husband, he flees to Mexico. He too didn’t know she meant it.
Unlike the Creoles, who keep up appearances knowing they are but contrivances, Edna is an American, the daughter of a Presbyterian we are told, and she reads the quintessential essentialist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and yearns for something she cannot name beyond the contrivances of the world.
To accept the constructions of the world, and to place them over the search for some essential truth outside that text is and always has been the epitome of what this Frenchiness has signified to Americans.
Look, for example, at Claude Raines playing Captain Renault in Casablanca when he declares he is “shocked, shocked” to discover that gambling is going on in Rick’s Café, even as he accepts his winnings from a subservient croupier. The text he has constructed to serve his worldly ends is so false that we Americans laugh at him and quietly rejoice when in the final scene, he drops the Vichy Water in the trash and heads off with that romantic American hero, Humphrey Bogart, who, instead of covering up a basic dishonesty with a pretense of principle, tries unsuccessfully to hide his romantic heart under a superficial pretense of cynicism. We cheer as the French cynic is converted to Bogart’s heart-felt faith that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans” compared to Victor Laszlo’s romantic fight for Freedom.
In a recent article in the New Yorker, Louis Menand reviewed a new book on Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir.
“The revelation,” he writes “was not the promiscuity, but the hypocrisy. In interviews Beauvoir had flatly denied having sexual relations with women; in the letters she regularly described for Sartre her nights in bed with women. … The correspondence was filled with catty and disparaging remarks about the people [they] were either sleeping with or trying to sleep with, even though, when they were with those people, they radiated interest and affection. …. With the publication of Letters to Sartre it was clear that privately he and Beauvoir held most of the people in their lives in varying degrees of contempt. They enjoyed especially recounting to each other the lies they were telling.”
Ah, the French, Always so French. Norman Mailer said the French would even rationalize sex and jazz. To accept that the world is a matrix of lies, and to use that matrix to manipulate the world for ones own benefit, that is the essence of this construct. Even in politics, we see the same patterns played out. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American pushed the motif of the cynical French playing the game looking down their noses at the naïve and hopelessly innocent Americans in Vietnam in the fifties. More recently, the French opposition to the war in Iraq was based in their acceptance of the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s rule as a reality of geopolitics, part of the delicate balance of the world that accepts evil as long as stability reigns and the oil flows and French corporations profit.
On the other side we have the gullible American naïf, born-again George Bush, declaring a Christian Crusade, essential good against essential evil, whatever the cost; Edna Pointellier abandoning even the social responsibilities of motherhood to achieve some undefinable freedom; Neo, leading a revolt against the Matrix firm in the faith that some essential reality still exists outside the text and that Zion can be attained.
Most fans of the movie know the name of that place where that essential reality survives, that home where we are finally home, that Eden regained. For here we get to the religious lynch pin that ties these all historically together. Zion. It was to build Zion that the Puritans left the phony constructions of England. They did so imagining themselves the anti-type of the original children of Israel. In their typological reading of scripture, Egypt was the type of the texts of the world, the Children of Israel were the few chosen to understand that the world is an illusionary text, the wilderness the place outside the text which, from inside the text, seems to be mere void and therefore, to some, seems not to exist. But Zion is the name given to the goal on the other side of the wilderness that can be attained by those few saints who abandon their allegiance to the old text and brave the wilderness in search of some essential truth outside the lies.
And this is the hope that Protestant Christians, like Edna’s Presbyterian ancestors, brought to America, that we who are entrapped in the worldly texts that define us, red-necks, Bubbas, Joe-sixpacks, adjuncts, are not doomed to live our lives playing out those roles but we can, we can, we can escape from Egypt, break out of the Matrix, and find what Calvin called the “Kingdom of Liberty.”
How naïf? Perhaps, but that is not the point. To argue truth or falsehood of anybody’s discourse is to deny that we are all trapped in discourses and that none have a solid epistemological basis. It is to deny the very sense of uncertainty that academia has made into its new religious text.
Enter then Monsieur Derrida, playing out the role of the French intellectual so perfectly. Like the Creoles of Chopin’s New Orleans, like the Merovingian, he knows that choice is an illusion, that there is no presence in the text And like those other French priests arguing that their wafers really are Christ’s body and their wine his blood, he accepts as inevitable a complexity we cannot escape but can manipulate to our benefit. This his followers understand. And many of these — well paid, tenured secure professors — live comfortable lives, preen before audiences, and enjoy banquet dinners. But what can one do? We are, alas, trapped in our roles.
Here is Zygmunt Bauman in the lead essay in a handbook on Postmodernism:
“Choices cannot be disputed by reference to anything more solid and binding than preference and the determination to stick to the preferred. The preference for ones own communally shared form of life must therefore be immune to the temptation of cultural crusade. Emancipation means acceptance of ones own contingency as is grounded in recognition of contingency as the sufficient reason to live.”
Another term for this is “tribalism,” a preference for the received communal forms because no truer reality can be found. Is this our choice? A naïve universalism which believes religiously in its own beliefs as somehow true? Or a narrow particularism which accepts the inevitability of contingency and says “my contingency, right or wrong”? Many Americans left the old world hoping to escape from such tribalism. Here, and this is the true American Dream, here we do not have to settle for Vonnegut’s FOMA, but here we pray we can escape the slavery of contingency and find true Freedom. Thus Edna’s final American declaration: “Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than remain a dupe to illusion all ones life.”
One of deconstruction’s dirtiest secrets is its inability to find a place to stand from which to move the world. Despite the radical politics of many of its followers, it is forced to preach a kind of theoretical quietism, an acceptance of the textual cage. Here is Martha Nussbaum, arguing against theoretical feminism.
In the new feminism, she writes, “we are all more or less prisoners of the structures of power that have defined our identity as women; we can never change those structures in a large scale way, and we can never escape from them…. These developments owe much to the recent prominence of French postmodern thought…. Many have also derived from the writings of Michel Foucault (rightly or wrongly) the fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power, and that real-life reform movements usually end up serving power in new and insidious ways.”
It is an ancient pattern. When in the Matrix the Merovingian says “Choice is an illusion,” Orpheus responds, “No, we have choice.” Here enters another player in this comedy, the American black, long a symbol throughout our literature, as Ralph Ellison first showed, of what has come to be called “the magic Negro,” a soul close to nature and close to truth who must show the overly intellectualized Europeans the way out of bondage to Zion.
Purely political readers, trapped in worldliness, argue that the slave hymn “Go Down Moses” was not really spiritual but a thinly disguised metaphor for chattel slavery. William Faulkner, however, knew that those old slaves had a deeper, more universal form of bondage in mind. As McCaslin says of Sam Fathers “His cage ain’t us.” It is no coincidence that Faulkner made the architect who built Sutpen’s mansion French.
This then is the drama: on one side, the white elite European saying we are trapped in the contingencies of the text and must accept them and make the most of our contingency; pass-the-wine, s’il vous plait? On the other side, the romantic American refusing to accept his or her place in the contingencies of the given and striving at whatever cost to break out of Egypt, cross the wilderness, and achieve at long last the true freedom of Zion. Perhaps, as Derrida liked to say, only traces of this cultural construct survive. But enough of those traces do survive to keep John Kerry from speaking French before a camera and George Bush believing that regeneration through violence can redeem the world.
That even those who would flee from the matrix and break out of Egypt, do so within the patterns reaching all the way back to Exodus, suggests that in the end the social constructionists are right, if ultimately even the attempt to escape contingency is controlled by contingency.
But this also suggests that the legacy of Derrida may well not be the innovative breakthrough his devotees claim. In his last essays on Religion, the great man acknowledged these parallels and accepted the similarity between his deconstruction and what is called “negative theology.” His point, however, was that the old Reformed theology, instead of remaining a universal acid calling all constructs into question, instead served as a foundation for institutional churches and even states, and so could not have been true deconstruction. In that he is right. The faith once delivered to the saints suffered declension and fell into the world. And yet we see the same happening to deconstruction, itself less a universal acid calling all into question but more a new methodology held up as a rock, a foundation, upon which departments of literary criticism, and who knows what other churches, can be built.
Plus ca change; plus la meme chose.
Or – As scripture puts it:
There is nothing new under the sun.
But to stop there in the OT is to accept Egypt, to accept that we live in a cage of contingency from which there is no escape. What is offered in the New Testament is the birth of hope that a way out of the cage can be found. The social constructionists denounce the American epic of the individual in the wilderness as white, male “escapism.”
But which is more escapism? To give up any hope of escape and remain in Egypt? Or to break from that tyranny in the hope that across the wilderness, over the rainbow, some essential reality can yet be found?
From the Awakening to The Matrix to the graduate seminar, the French still play Pharaoh to the American Children of Israel, working class Bubbas trying to escape the text. Their convenient, constructed phoniness; our search for an essential truth. Their bondage to the text; our dream of freedom from it.