I live in a spiritual world, and an epoch, which sprang full blown from the forehead of a Frenchman, Descartes. I live in a country whose revolutionary values were formed by Rousseau and the Enlightenment, and in [Washington, D. C.] an Utopian city planned by a Frenchman. As I pace the grid and diagonals and through the circles, I think about French painters. I think about their way of seeing nearly every day. Today I am wearing my favorite color combination, which comes straight out of Bonnard: orange and purple.
I read Flaubert as a teenager and was repelled by the same over-analyzed and obsessively parsed amorality, a kind of tortoise-like, unblinking, limbic, motiveless, pulling-the-wings-off-flies brutality I see in Colette. Fitzgerald is our French master: flawless perfection in technique, architecture, form, and atrocious at heart. Since Flaubert and his colleagues and forebears are the primers from which the French learn French, without knowing anything more about French literature one could argue that this atheistic, stoically-dissected, recipe for sensuality is a literary mannerism.
I don’t think so. Or if it is, literary mannerism is the way the French fight for their lives. In the concentration camps, writes Kogon, the Austrian survivor of Buchenwald and “official” chronicler of the camps, the underground did not trust the French because they never stopped arguing with each other. They never stopped talking and never turned outward from their barracks — where inmates were ghettoized according to nationality. The French never made an attempt to penetrate the only possible resistance movement the camps offered. They were famous for this, Kogon writes, in all the camps. Kogon says the French “suffered more from the hardships of camp life than other groups.” They were individualistic, sickly, intellectual, and created “avoidable difficulties” with other prisoners. This deprived them of connections others enjoyed. The French were politically impossible to unite “in order to make them more capable of resistance, to increase their value to the prisoners….Only the minority group of the French Communists had close contact with the camp underground at Buchenwald. Like their German comrades, they never mustered the strength to purge their ranks of politically camouflaged criminals….The preponderant majority of the Frenchmen in the camps were helplessly exposed to every hardship….”
I have since reading Madame Bovary, a profoundly sexist, sadistic, and misogynist manifesto, tried to get a toehold in French literature and failed. The discovery of a bondage fetish in the land of the free — Degas’ voyeurism, Gauguin’s pedophilia — was one of the fundamental nauseas of my youth. Sardou, the Belle Epoque playwright and author of the story of Tosca, was asked what to do when the attention of his jaded audience wandered. “Torture the women,” he replied. Hitchcock and Spielberg have both built careers on this Flaubertian sleight of hand.
To make up for it, I read about France and the French. I read the Larousse Gastronomique because, like the French, I love dictionaries and all the beady-eyed adjudication they entail. Knowing that foie gras was invented in the stone-hearted land of the Cathars, barricaded against the pope high atop their mountain redoubt, the fortress of solitude, in the Languedoc, speaks volumes to me. Larousse Gastronomique is as meticulous with the location of every peasant specialty in France, complete with maps for each region, as it is with the true story of Vatel, who killed himself because le grande conde’s sole was not delivered a la minute. High/low culture? You could call it post-modern, but that would be wrong. It’s revolutionary.
Right now my reading about the French is about how Cambodia — and other places — sprang full-blown from the forehead of oh let’s say Henri Parmentier, the architect whose team excavated Angkor Wat, which Parmentier bogarted from the possession of Thailand for the purpose, for the Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient.
Colette, 1907, appearing in La Chair
When I know I can’t understand a writer, I read their biography. So it is with the French and with Colette.* I’m going to attempt Cheri and The Last of Cheri to see if I can be seduced.
I’ve been reading around the French for years, since my adolescent encounter with the lizard-lidded Flaubert. What stands out, as I stand on the pinnacle of Colette looking back on 30 years of rambling around Frenchness, what I’ve learned about how French women do it, are vignettes. First, of unrelenting poverty. Second, of unrelenting war.
When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir is one of the top five cookbooks of all time, being, as we all know recipes are, an anthropological document, the biography of eight provincial cooks with meticulous recipes for their funky regional specialties, as well as “a feminist manifesto”. Madeleine Kamman so dedicates her 1976 labor of love “to the millions of women who have spent millenia in the kitchen creating unrecognized masterpieces, with a very special thought to Paul Bocuse’s grandmother and mother, and to my Aunt Claire Robert, to whom I owe most of what I know, practice, and teach.”
Kamman was born in Paris between the wars. Her grandmother, a peasant refugee from Poitou, watched her while her parents were at work. Kamman rode Marie-Charlotte’s wool card home in the evenings, after her grandmother spent the day sewing mattresses in the suburban sweatshops of Paris. Marie-Charlotte’s recipes — for pissenlits omelet or home brewed angelica liqueur — evoke the one room apartment in which she lived in Paris and her practice of what she called la Cuisine de Misere, “that ancestral cooking of hard times known…to millions of French women.” Writes Kamman:
Practicing la Cuisine de Misere meant cooking something with nothing. It meant adouber a tiny piece of meat with more vegetables, more dumplings, more sauce to make sure it would stretch to feed a whole family; it meant making a couple of eggs or a piece of cheese multiply into a pie to feed six people; it meant all kinds of calculations going on under those tiny white lace bonnets, so that it would taste good and cost close to nothing.”
The apartment, a huge walkup in an 1870s building in the suburbs of Paris, was the recreation of Marie-Charlotte’s kitchen and living room back in La Bourdrie. There were the sandstone jars for salt pork and the small barrels of liqueur and vinegar, ancient spice jars on the mantel, shelves for the ripening of fruit, and an earthenware casserole in which she cooked everything. She said it was old and came from the Arabs. She grew dahlias and gladiolas in a community garden behind the apartment. On Sundays, she took her granddaughter to market. She had not been to mass since two of her sons had died in World War One.Of the seven other French women whose gastronomic biographies Kamman writes, Victoire of the Auvergne hid resistance fighters in her barn. Mimi of Savoie — who lived in a multi-storied old house in which the body heat of the cows ruminating on the ground floor heated the mezzanine bedrooms — Mimi’s parents had been killed for hiding Maquis. Claire of Touraine hid Jews in the family hotel who were turned in by a family friend. Eugenie of Alsace, her maternal grandmother, died young. In the 1880s, she walked through the snow over the border into France to start a new life — because no one would let her marry her Jewish lover. Kamman meets him, an old bachelor, when she returns to her great-aunt’s house in the 1950s. Loetitia of Brittany says all the trees are gone. Magaly of Provence single-handedly runs her family vineyard and tasting room tours while the men of the family travel selling the wine. Magaly says most of the birds and most of the Camargue salt marsh at the delta of the Rhone, huge in the 1930s, are gone. All but the red flamingoes.
Sarah Turnbull is an Australian journalist who married a Frenchman and writes of her difficulties with French society beginning in the 1990s. Every weekend, her husband wishes to return to his home province, Artois and Boulonnais, on the northwest coast facing the white cliffs of Dover. She loathes its damp grey beaches and the endless rain and played out farmland as much as his family loathes her.
The French all have this hunger for a return to the land, claim to be “paysans” and abandon Paris in August to return to their country homes. L’Express claims the French have more second homes than any other Europeans. It is a connection they revere to la France profonde, and it is a love of flora and fauna of a kind best known to the world in the work of Audubon -the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his housemaid.
Turnbull finds her father in law carefully turned out in coordinated berets and sharply-pressed tweed jackets, aiming for a “gentleman farmer” look — the only English style, Turnbull writes, that the French care to emulate.
While claiming to be peasants, the French sentiment about the family farm may be a throwback to the aristocratic landowner, obliged to depart Paris and preside over the villeins and plantations in pieces of land after whom they named themselves. The Duke of Burgundy may be the inspiration of middle-class Parisians far more than their peasant grandmother Marie-Charlotte. The attachment to la pays profonde, the countryside, is at the heart of the British Fascist Oswald Mosely’s aristocratic utopia. As the son of a baronet, he grew up in an ancient closed society of villagers and farmhands who owed their livings, and those of their ancestors as far back as there was written history, to Sir Oswald, and his ancestors, as far back as there was written history. It was this agrarian society, in which everyone grew up calling one another by their first names, of which Mosely spoke when he thought of Utopia. Another history of Chassignolles, a tiny village in central France by Gillian Tindall, recounts the villagers’ struggle to avoid having the ox cart trail, which was the only way to get to the town for 1,000 years, cleared. The railroad passed the town by in the 1840s. A farmer comes upon Tindall poring over the municipal records, and says, you bought one of our houses and now you’re stealing our history. No visitors were wanted.
The vignettes Turnbull catches a glimpse of in the melancholy north Atlantic province are compelling. Standing on the beach as her husband apostrophizes what he calls the Opal Sea — it’s grey, the Australian surfer girl points out — she notices the German pillboxes lined up along the dunes. Her husband grew up playing Free French resistance warrior in them. At the market in Boulogne, like the entire province, occupied by Germans in both World Wars and flattened in World War Two, unemployment and social problems prevail. She goes to the weekly market, one of the few things she likes outside Paris. There she sees the market women:
Women with thick legs and old-fashioned floral aprons stand behind tables displaying a few handfuls of beans, four dirty eggs and one or two containers of potatoes and strawberries — or some other miscellany.
As valuable as this outsider account of the French is, an insider account by a French-American shines with insight. One French-American writer, Francine du Plessix Grey, visits the four generations of her extended family during their August vacation at their stone farm on the stony banks of the stony Tarn river. It is 1985; her 90-year-old uncle is a veteran of the battle of the Somme. Wounded there and decorated, he went on to hide Resistance fighters in World War Two. Of the battle of the Somme, he says, “The age of leaders may be over. It was already over in 1914. Do you realize that World War One was the first major war in history which did not bring forth one great man? Not one military genius? Led by total dunces who wasted men left and right? I was there, in the Somme….” So said the old man who as a schoolboy at the turn of the century was fed a steady diet of Vercingetorix and Napoleon.
His only child is married to a survivor of Dachau, who has been unable to support his wife and four children since 1962, when he suffered the second of two nervous breakdowns, and began leaving home for years at a time. The young couple had hidden resistance fighters in their Paris apartment. He was sent to Dachau. With two small children, she moved from place to place every few days until the war was over.
Since 1962, this wife has supported the entire family by selling Tupperware to French housewives. Her first big sale was to a group of Communist housewives in a suburban tenement of Paris. One of the first French women to sell Tupperware, she has become a Tupperware executive in France and is demonstrating on the patio to an audience of 20 or so grandchildren, all staying together on great grandpapa’s farm, the latest Tupperware rolling pin. Her grandchildren quote their AWOL grandfather’s first words upon his return from Dachau: ”The first thing grandpapa said when he returned from camp is this,” says 14-year- Nicolas. ”We must remember, but we must also forgive.”
The children tell their American cousin — whose own father was killed fighting for the Free French — that this stony place where there is nothing to do but repair the roof, and explore the cliffs, swim, show your great-grandpapa the leaves and nests you found that day, hang out for a month with a score of cousins from all over France in your wet bathing suit, eating popsicles, these children speak like little old men, this is the place, they tell the journalist, we recharge ourselves. C’est ici qu’on se ressource,” intones a 15 year old.
The family are leftist Catholics. The 90 year old uncle is anti-capitalist, as it is based on usury, which is forbidden by the Gospels. He believes that the Holy Ghost has imbued every religion since the beginning of the world. Capitalism, he says, is totally unjust to the working class. He and his late wife spent their retirement years in an ashram, teaching Tielhard de Chardin to the Indians. After her husband was forced to sell his business, she worked until she died at 87, analyzing handwriting at home, $30 a pop.
His daughter, the matriarch, has become a street evangelist, speaking in tongues, and ascribes to this renaissance the faith she needs to pray for her husband’s complete healing. She smiles as she says both Tupperware and charismatic Catholicism have saved her life, and come from America. This same woman forbade her daughter to join the 1968 student riots — riots which the family sees as opening up the dialogue of the generations so children may now speak at the dinner table. The girl who wanted to join the French revolution says, “It was blackmail on her part, virtual blackmail, but I’ve always been grateful to her for it…She taught us then and there the supremacy of family duty and patriotic values, of order, order above all…and I’ve tried to instill the same values in my children.”
Asked who is her hero, the matriarch says, “Well, those of us who came of age during the last war never admired military men. My heroes are Renoir and Berthe Morisot, those passionate, sensual artists who can fill our lives with joy and warm colors. Oh, I’d crawl through the Sahara on all fours to own one….”
Her daughters each work. One of them has quit teaching math and started leading consciousness raising seminars for women based on the psychologist Carl Rogers. These, she avers, are not feminist, but rather “a quintessence of nonconfrontational feminism.” All strongly support Catholic education, and one cousin is sending his brilliant child to a Jesuit boarding school in England, despite the clans’ hatred of all things British. None believe the Catholic church should impose its view of abortion on the people of France. Everyone, down to the teenagers, denounces pre-marital sex. The teenagers say they have no heroes, that their Catholic schools are not rigorous enough in either education or religion, look forward to working all their lives, joining the EEU and being Europeans, voting for Le Pen to protest socialism. They agree that their parents are “absolutely fair and liberal” in their upbringing.
Her son-in-law only discovered on a Boy Scout trip to the American cemetary at Normandy that the United States had helped liberate France from the Germans. Such was the grip of de Gaulle and the Free French on the textbooks of post-war France he hadn’t known. “I learned there to my total amazement that the U.S. forces had participated in the liberation of France — in all our history courses we were taught that the Free French alone had liberated the county.” They’ve never heard of Derrida. They don’t let their children watch “Dynasty”.
The old man sits in his 17th century bedroom, shoes shined, tweed coat pressed, the boutonniere of the Legion of Honor in his lapel. Every summer, for decades, he and his late wife have presented medals from the Grand Ordre of Le Croze — named after the farm — to the children who have worked “with good humor and diligence” all season to clear brush or repair the generator. The summer of 1985, 14-year-old Nicolas du Bussac is awarded the grand cross — a metal cross on a braided string — “for having completed the restoration of the wheat bin and the renovation of the boat.” The boat is the only way the farm can be accessed. The nearest road is across the river.
This vision of du Plessix Grey’s comes close to defining my perfect happy moment — cooking dinner at the farm in the summer twilight in your wet bathing suit. When she bursts into tears to see him for the first time since his wife has died, her old uncle touches her cheek and says, “Come, come. It’s sad but not so sad. What’s life but a passage to more important things?” She notes especially the loving care of the children for one another, and their absent grandfather. “…amid the tarnished, tenuous concepts of work and nationhood, the narrow pleasures of family life,” writes Grey, “may provide all the more seductive refuge for the young. I could not perceive one chink in the reverence and admiration my young relatives have for every generation of their family…Their docility struck me as downright scary.” Grey notices esepcially “the remarkable cordiality, tenderness and deference….most striking of all, between the husbands and wives.” Though none of the families are rich, they all chip in to support their grandfather and Le Croze.
On one last picnic, she asks the family — all 27 of them — to sing a song her late aunt had taught them all. They raise their glasses of red wine to the Languedoc sun and sing:
Buvons un coup
Buvons en deux
A la sante des amoureaux
A la sante du Roi de France
Pour la Reine d’Angleterre
Qui nous a declare la guerre.
Let’s drink a glass
Let’s drink two
To the health of lovers
To the health of the king of France
To the Queen of England
Who has declared war on us.
*I recently re-read Judith Thurman’s biography as part of my femme studies program, along with Shahrazad Ali’s famous polemic on the duties of black womanhood, Leslea Newman’s femme anthology, Judith Butler on Femme performativity, Stephen Duncombe on punk, zines and their politics, a memoir of riot grrl and Positive Force, and Leslie Turnbull’s memoir of marrying a Frenchman.
What now remains is to place Colette in this context for all French women of unrelenting poverty and unrelenting war, a pressure of French republican and communist history against women and feminism so unrelenting that women — from Marie Antoinette to Marie Curie – while being educated at the expense of the “egalitarian” state to bear more babies (Howard), simply do not appear in the most recent “authoritative” history of the French nation (Jones). It remains to join Kristeva in placing Colette at the forefront of 20th century writers (Wilson) – Claudine’s prose is the foremother of Proust’s inA la recherché des temps perdu (Harman) — and to define her definitively masterful and definitively French version of Femme.
Neither Colette, nor her mother, Sido, had dowries. Sido, an orphan, was sold by her brothers to an old, wealthy, promiscuous, homicidal and hallucinatory alcoholic whose relatives were conspiring to keep him from being declared insane. Sido was married in 1857, the same week Flaubert went on trial for not condemning the adultery of his heroine, Madame Bovary (Thurman). Sido was 22. “When a young girl is without fortune or profession,” writes Colette, “…what can she do but hold her tongue, accept what is offered, and thank God for it?”(Ibid..)
This husband soon died. Before he did, Sido took two lovers. Colette’s father was the second lover and last. He was a Zouave captain who had lost his leg in an an 1859 battle mounted by Napoleon III to help rid Italy of Austrians.
By the time Colette was marriageable, her parents were poor. Colette too had to marry someone for whom a dowry was not important. She loved Willy; whether or not he raped her is a matter of controversy. What is certain is that his mistress had committed suicide, leaving him with a toddler son who needed caring for. His prosperous parents did not attend the wedding and, because Colette was the daughter of penniless provincials, fired their son from his job in the family company and reduced his financial interest to 100,000 francs’ worth of non-voting stock (Ibid.,). Colette and Willy were married in 1893. Colette was 20, and wore a white satin headband “a la Vigee-LeBrun” – Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter.
Vigee-LeBrun, Self-Portrait with Daughter
Colette and Willy spent their wedding night in Sido’s house. When the bride came down early the next morning, she found her mother – “le personnage principal de toute ma vie” – still dressed in her black party dress. She was making the morning chocolate with a look of silent, near animal, sadness on her face (Ibid.,).
Jules and Sido
Colette at 20 resembled, in Willy’s imperialistic impresario phrase, “la Tahitienne avant l’arrivee du missionaire”. She might possibly, as she claimed, have had a black ancestor from her family’s sojourn as spice traders in Martinique. This “natural,” Edenic, tropical island, Tahitian state of sexuality previous to the arrival of the serpent or religion – much on the minds of the society which Gauguin had famously rejected in 1891 for a life of painting and underage girls in Tahiti — was the foundation stone of the reputation on which Colette, the dowerless bride, made a living for nearly two-thirds of a century. She wrote 80 books over the next sixty years, exploiting the same lust for exotic flesh which found its counterpart in French colonial activities from Tahiti to Angkor Wat to Mozambique and Algeria. She prided herself on her anti-feminist, natural feminine voice – feminism being, as we shall see, as loathsomely unFrench as Jews themselves. When the French do not excoriate feminism as Anglo-Saxon, it is called Jewish, and the “feminist” reporters of Colette’s youth, at the heart of Decadent fin-de-siecle Paris, were the first to do it.
But Colette always likened her task as a writer to that of a French peasant. A writer’s task, Colette wrote – quite possibly as a riposte to her exquisite friend and rival Proust – is to milk the cows as the armies of Vercingetorix and Jeanne d’Arc come and go. Or to meet them as an heroic unruffled bourgeoise much like her mother, single-handedly facing down the Boche invasion of the village she was born in, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Captain Colette, by then a tax-collector, hobbled out on his crutches to meet the Germans. He made a heroic speech, Sido recalled, which might have prevented them from pillaging the town. Sido herself encountered one armed soldier. “I went home,” she told Colette, “and buried the good wine, not without pride. The wine that dated from my first husband. Chateau larose, chateau lafite, some chambertin, chateau d’Yquem….” (Ibid., ).
Tahitienne or French resistance heroine? Both were poses, part of her Femme performance.
One is not born a Tahitienne, one becomes one. Just how that process naturalized a woman born in 1873 in the still center of backwater France, unchanged since the 14th century (Tindall), is the subject of new scholarship. The definitive 1998 biography, Colette – with new information and insights from French scholars Francis and Gontier – emphasizes how Colette’s “femininity” and “naturalism” were not the products of her Edenic upbringing. She wrote in detail of her mother’s beloved garden at Saint-Sauveur, of plants and flowers, and it has often been noted how she is a naturalist or a Darwinian categorizer of pleasure. “She could identify the plants, insects and scents of a Breton August with the same precision,” writes one critic, that “she used to delineate nine types of “perverse” love in her 1932 book The Pure and the Impure” (Emck).
Hers was not an unlettered sauvage childhood spent topless in a garland of pandanus leaves. Her mother viewed Colette’s beauty and vitality as her own; she continually noted how much alike they were, and washed the baby’s magnificent golden-auburn hair – “my masterpiece” — in rum and yolk of egg (Thurman). Colette learned to read by the age of three, according to Sido’s standards, and she learned the alphabet, the scales, and how to embroider as well. She learned Sido’s encyclopedic knowledge of botany, housekeeping, and her atheistic credo of natural and untrammeled passion, based on a 19th century theoretician of Utopian socialism and pleasure, Charles Fourier. The study of Fourier may have been Sido’s rebellion against her fate as marriage chattel; the influence of Fourier on Colette while acknowledged has yet to be fully traced.
This Fourier doctrine – the “femininity” and “naturalism” of Colette’s — flowered in city soil as it had in Sido’s provincial life. The Paris social circle to which Colette came as a bride was the heart of the Decadent movement. Francis and Gontier argue persuasively that the Aesthetics’ belief – Mallarme and Wilde’s – that art had nothing to do with morality, politics, or finance, was at least as influential in forming Colette’s personna as a writer as any peasant upbringing. Art was to be erotic and iconoclastic (Emck). This dovetailed neatly with Sido’s advanced Utopian teachings of free love and gastrosophie — eat what you want and nothing else — far more than actual peasant pieties, which tend to be Catholic, communist, or both (Ibid..).
Far from being a simple country girl in the big city, the 20-year-old had married the leading Decadent critic of his age. Willy was the editor-in-chief of the house organ of the Decadents, at the center of the Parisian avant-garde, and introduced his Tahitian child bride to a society which included everyone from Debussy to Oscar Wilde. While Willy pursued the infidelities which were his right, the child bride was taken around Paris brothels and opium dens by a walker — the richest reporter in town, the celebrity journalist Jean Lorrain.
Jean Lorrain, reporter
A homosexual friend of the richest and rowdiest courtesans of the Belle Epoque, Lorrain taught Colette how to dress (Ibid..), how to get out of what she called “those dresses worthy of their village.” Curiously, Lorrain and most of the Decadents were anti-Dreyfusards; the ineradicable pairing of racism and sexism with sexual liberte needs always to be kept in mind when speaking of the French.
Lorrain wore powder and kohl – Colette used it to enhance her grey-green eyes — and served ether with his tea cakes (Thurman). He died of an overdose in 1905.
Years later, writing of her apprenticeship, Colette said Lorrain was “the figure of a real man. Never, even at the end, did Jean Lorrain renounce the right and the desire to be a warrior and even a brawler…..[He] gave me pleasure.”(Ibid.,168).
Her pose as the wild girl of Saint-Sauveur – which matured into the earth mother over the next 60 years – was perhaps not so calculated as her pose as French resistance heroine, along the fatalistic and quixotic lines Sido suggests. It was feminism, and not the Nazis, she resisted, the one French political position at least as traditional, bourgeois, and commercial as the other.
One recent anti-feminist, Mona Ozouf, was received in 1996 with the adulation public intellectuals in France bask in. She ennobles her position by tracing it back to revolutionary street credibility — Rousseau’s Julie. Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise, published in 1761, was perhaps more influential with the proletariat than his 1762 Social Contract, because it is a love story written colloquially. Two centuries later, Ozouf claims Julie as her role model, and that of her non-feminist heroines, because, like the French peasant in the national imagination, Julie is fatalistic. Like Sido and Colette, Julie holds her tongue, accepts what is offered, thanks God, milks the cows as Genghis Khan passes through, and grows where she is planted (M. Higonnet).
Every French person likes to believe he is natural, a peasant, and Colette – though she never lived in Saint-Sauveur again – exploited this connection tola France profonde in her work. Aside from the clarion modernity of the prose which may well have inspired Proust to copy it, the four novels in the Claudine series were traditional. They looked back half a century to Madame Bovary, a naturalist’s account of sexual life in the provinces. To epater the bourgeois and the church, while also institutionalizing the bourgeois, nationalist love of the country – hot teen country girls — was an irresistible combination. In 1900 Claudine at School was one of the first best-sellers of the 20th century.
If Colette became a Tahitienne rather than being born one, her gifts as a heroine of French resistance are more deeply ingrained. She resisted feminism, as the French have done since they guillotined the author of the Rights of Woman, Olympe de Gouges, in 1793. The Napoleonic Code banished what women’s rights the Revolution had emplaced. “Madame,” Napoleon told Sophie de Condorcet, “I do not like women to busy themselves with politics.” Replied the immortal Sophie, “General, you are right. But in a country where women have their heads cut off, it is natural that they should wish to know why” (Kobak). While the conqueror of Europe had silenced French women for two centuries, the question remains.
Colette was strongly influenced by anti-semitic feminist reporters of the Decadents era. And she stoutly wrote throughout the Nazi occupation for publications so pro-Nazi their editors were imprisoned as traitors afterwards. She wrote Gigi, her most famous fiction, for the Vichy journal Present. This may have been because her then husband was Jewish.
And it may not have been. While Colette’s upstairs neighbor, a young shop assistant, stepped up to the plate and offered to hide this Jew in her tiny apartment, Colette continued to write for the Vichy and Occupation press. Her anti-semitism was, a close friend noted, “native” (Thurman). Her reputation as a sell-out to the Nazis is one of the imponderable questions of the sphinx-like nature of which she was so proud, and upon which she capitalized in her music hall career. She prided herself on never smiling for a camera. “I was born,” she wrote, in “Bella-Vista,” in which the narrator witnesses crimes she doesn’t stop, “under the crime of passivity.” To a friend during the Occupation, she wrote “Save your aggression for your work. For the rest of your day-to-day life, passivity suffices” (Thurman).
For this, at the end of the war, in 1945, when all her old editors and music hall friends were going to prison or having their heads shaved for collaborating with the Nazis, Colette was elected to the Academie Goncourt. It was the most prestigious literary prize in France; the terms under which it was endowed were that neither women nor Jews were eligible. Colette would be the exception.
Her resistance to feminism was completely in the bourgeois mainstream of French history.
As her position as a master of 20th century prose now consolidates, Colette’s place as avatar of the hegemony of French anti-feminism must be made crystal clear. More than French, Colette is the lodestar of Femme nation, the inventor of the language of female pleasure. She wrote the book. And her fatalistic tolerance for anti-semitism and sexism, whether ingrained or learned as part of Femme performance, took her straight to the top of sexist and racist French publishing society and placed her in its sexist and racist Pantheon of intellectual immortals. It has kept her there for more than a century, as French society today expresses itself in no uncertain racist and sexist terms. She is politically correct.
Whether this success in racist and sexist publishing society is political agency or the rejection of political agency, whether it is the assumption of the Aesthete’s apolitical mantel as political strategy, or social climbing, or Femme performance, or traditional Femme passivity and secession from political life, may perhaps be unanswerable. But it is the question: Should Femme nation have political agency? Be feminist? Stand up for Dreyfus the Jew? Resist the Nazis? Colette’s answer, throughout a long life in interesting times, repeatedly, was a resounding non. And her influence is incalculable.
Colette’s resistance to feminism was completely in the bourgeois Republican mainstream of French history. I’d like to survey recent literature on this venerable French prejudice, and tie in the particular expression which most influenced Colette.
Winegarten, in Accursed Politics: Some French women writers and political life, 1715-1850, writes about the only political agency available to French women, who were in 1944 the last European women to get the vote. There were no female politicians; their scarcity in French parliaments today is still exceptional. The political agency of women, Winegarten decides, was as mistress to the great. In her 2003 book, she profiles six politically and sexually dextrous women from Alexandrine de Tencin, mistress of an abbot she helped become prime minister, to Claire de Duras, who slept with and invented the writer-politician Chateaubriand. Each of the six ran a salon, and set herself up as the gate-keeper of information while serving a political apprenticeship. When challenged, they were shamed by political rivals and fell to lying. De Tencin was exiled on a sea of disingenuous prose, Manon Roland beheaded in mid-polemic against the sins of women writers, and de Stael, who alone had her own immense fortune, wrote, “It is right that women should be excluded from public and civic affairs….For a woman, fame itself could only prove to be a shattering bereavement of happiness.” (Kobak).
This idea, that the Femme tradition of salons gives French women their political agency, is a touchstone of the idea that the French don’t need feminism. Elisabeth Guigou, one of the 1997 socialist ministers, was appointed justice minister a few months after she wrote, “The very specific history of France, which excludes women from a political role while granting them a well-recognized place in society…has created a unique situation between the sexes. If women have not felt totally inferior, it is because their right to speak out has been consistently recognized, bring them a certain role and power.” (Turnbull)
Socialist Femme Mme. le Ministre du Justice Guigou
One can see, in Colette’s mother Sido, and in Mme. de Sevigne – another famously possessive French mother, whose salon helped mould the modern spoken language, and whose letters are even better than Sido’s – this trope of pouring all one’s intellect and ambition into one’s lover, or one’s child.
Colette arrived in Paris just as the “New Woman” – invented in 1894 by a British woman reporter — made her appearance in France. Roberts, inDisruptive Acts: The New Woman in fin-de-siecle France, argues that “personal beauty is the distinctive feature of French feminism. Beauty was a political act” (Tunstall). The French instinctively believed the New Woman to be Anglo Saxon, lesbian and Jewish. She smoked, rode bicycles and was, in a word, ugly.Pas tres sexe. Not very sexy.
Colette and her “whips”, aged 15, c. 1888
Most Americans have become Americans, and built America, by walking north from Guatemala City or riding a raft up the Mississippi or driving the freeway at night. The French became French and built France by staying in the same place since 950,000 B.C.
It is hard to imagine how ugly the French think strangers are. In the Berry, George Sand country, when the railroad surveyers came in the 1840s, the people thought they were necromancers. It was a countryside where the residents of Chassignoles objected to the widening of the footpath which had been, for 10,000 years, the only way to get into town. Oxcart tracks, like roads and railroads, brought people to town who ate your food. The peasants feared everything – the legacy of unrelenting poverty. Writes Tindall, in her enchanting book, Celestine: Voices From a French Village:
That ‘something’ [to fear] , conceived of as the visitation of a spirit or a neighbour’s evil spell, was in reality famine, sickness, absolute want, recurrent realities for those who still worked the soil. Until well into the second half of the nineteenth century, most of those who dwelt in thecountryside were on the perpetual edge of poverty, entirely vulnerable to a bad harvest, an extra-cold winter, a chance stroke of personal misfortune.
They could remember bad years when serfs ate frozen grass. They themselves often had nothing to eat in a lean winter but chestnuts.
There were fairies and spirits. Le Grande Bissetre was an ogre who hovered over ponds. Itinerant strangers – whether the charcoal burner of the great forests or the peddler, with a printed farmers’ almanac which contained spells for the beasts and crops – could easily be in league with the wolves who still emerged from le grand Villemort, in the misty dawn, to bear off lambs. The shepherds – girls and boys who worked alone – were unable to stop them. The Berrichon were not literate, since the Catholic church did not insist they read their Bibles. They still spoke a Latin-based Roman soldier French called the langue d’oil. They were barely Christian, and celebrated saints’ days by decorating the rich peoples’ oxen and dancing around a bonfire. There were no schools. There was no piped water until 1962. So the lifetime of a woman like Celestine Chaumette, born in Chassignoles in 1844, died 20 miles away in 1933, telescoped six centuries of progress – from eating frozen grass to listening to her grandchildren dance to the tune of a gramophone in the medieval village square (Tindall).
So with the ugly New Woman when news of her arrived in Paris in 1894. Roberts’ important book, published in 2003, traces the process by which this feminist figure was given an extreme makeover, notably in the all-girl newspaper La Fronde (circ. 50,000). She profiles its publisher, Marguerite Durand, as an essential French Femme, who declared, “Feminism owes a great deal to my blonde hair. I know it thinks the contrary, but it is wrong” (Tunstall). Durand employed female typesetters who earned the same wage as men, and championed single motherhood. Roberts calls her “condescending and narcissistic”.
Publisher Femme Marguerite Durand and her young lion, Tigre
French anti-semitism was linked to the New Woman in the Femme performance of three of the great woman journalists of the day, Durand, Severine and Gyp. All three were New Women; Durand and Severine were Dreyfusards. But the fascinating and talented Gyp (Comtesse de Martel de Janville) made her name excoriating Dreyfus as well as other rootless cosmopolitan and unFrench ideas. A correlary pejorative, the feminization of Jews, as opposed to the Judification of feminists, has been noted elsewhere (Doneson in Loshitzky).
This national raising of consciousness took place in the heyday of Sarah Bernhardt, Femme performance master and Jew, who travelled with 250 pairs of shoes and was the toast of pansexual Paris. Roberts writes carefully about Femme performance and mimicry, and argues persuasively that Bernhardt’s vaunted eccentricities were parodies of conventional femininity – love of animals, Manolos. Theatricality is the key concept in Roberts’ book – she reportedly hews to the post-modern party line that performance “had a liberating potential for women who discovered they could put on a performance of femininity and thus expose it as a role, a choice rather than an essence or an ineluctable destiny” (Tunstall).
Thus, arguably, did Durand’s blondeness become a political act. Roberts’ examination of Durand’s buccaneer anti-feminism explores the frontier where Femme performance clears the way for political agency — real sabotage of the patriarchy. In the case of Gyp, at least, the price was anti-semitism. How market viability — that is, selling your newspaper or yourself as a reporter — cut the ladies’ conscience to the fashion of the day is an unavoidable question for women everywhere, whose poverty and marginality, as well as the illness or starvation of their children, is always nearer to hand than men’s.
While this may have been the Femme performance at the end of 19th century, little seems to have changed in France since. A cartoon in the French dailies a few years ago shows a woman taking off her glasses, undoing her bun and shaking her hair loose. The caption: “My God, Miss Kristeva, you’re…intellectual!” There are two ways of seeing it. In the first, Kristeva seduces the male establishment into believing she’s an intellectual. In the second, Kristeva has only been performing femininity to succeed, and now that she’s powerful she may broadcast her real feminist message. Either way, if Kristeva were unattractive, it wouldn’t work (Tunstall). How much feminism owes to the black eyelashes of the Bulgarian rose — or indeed the black eyelashes of Bernard-Henri Levy, who is even prettier and not anti-semitic — is a question I think can be set aside with some assurance.*
*Kristeva’s tenuous collegial connection to the notorious anti-semitic post-modernist, Paul DeMan, as well as her own work in Powers of Horror,(1982)have been branded anti-semitic. “That book looks like an apology for Celine’s anti-Semitism,” says Juliet MacCannell, UC Irvine professor emerita of literature, who reviewed the book in the journal Semiotica. Kristeva’s study “is very anti-Semitic itself. A chapter of Kristeva’s is titled ‘Ours to Jew or Die’; in it, the author repeats Celine’s anti-Semitic discourse in detail: that the Jew is ‘a fecalized, feminized, passivated rot.’ De Man singled out these sections of the book for praise, calling them ‘indispensable readings’ and ‘illuminating and of general interest.’”
Edited:It is far too easy to find anti-semitism and its corollary in racism, anti-feminism, flourishing at every level of French society, and to make these the crushing dialectic of too linear a French history. It should be emphasized that it was the revolution, the Napoleonic Code, and the Republics which are anti-feminist. One 18th century revolutionary argued that popular prejudice against women necessitated that they not be extended civil rights. The success of the revolution depended on excluding women.
Joan Wallach Scott argues, in her 1997 book, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French feminists and the rights of man, that the 1789 Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man
… deliberately ignored the existence of deep economic, social and religious differences within nations and political communities. As Karl Marx argued in his essay On the Jewish Question of 1843, the paradox implicit in the notion of citizenship set forth by the Constitution of 1791 was that it turned into a universal ideal what was in fact a particular human type: the egoistic bourgeois individual of capitalist society.(Fontana on Scott)
It declared the rights of capitalists, in a word, who are self-evidently male. Science had proved men were the human template, and women’s anatomy, which had just recently acquired names for its parts, was a variation of men’s. Scott explains
… while Enlightenment culture offered rather diversified views on women’s political potential, the line that prevailed among French legislators sanctioned the identification of the citizen with the male individual: The political individual was taken to be both universal and male; the female was not an individual, both because she was nonidentical with the human prototype and because she was the other who confirmed the (male) individual’s individuality. (Ibid..)
Two French feminisms developed, one of difference and one of equality, which now, even in France, have been declared out dated.*
Women were denied the vote in France, and a wage equal to men’s, until 1945, allegedly because the generals and social-climbing shopkeepers who led the Republics feared women would vote for right-wing Catholic candidates (Fontana).
At the same time, systems of unsurpassed education, universal health care, subsidies for stay-at-home mothers higher than the state-suppressed “female wage”, and state-supported child care, polished French women to a standard never equalled elsewhere while keeping them at home.
Birthrates in France fell throughout the 19th century as they burgeoned in England and Germany, a trend which much concerned the losers at Waterloo, the landlords of Europe’s most blood-soaked real estate. One feature of this egalite in education, unsurpassed state-sponsored women’s literacy, was unrelenting “health” education emphasizing patriotism — the maternal feminist duty to reproduce for the Republic (Mary Lynn Stewart, For Health and Beauty: Physical culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s, 2001). This “maternal feminism” is widely seen in France.
Colette’s time was framed by these strictures. Her marriage to Willy and the Dreyfus affair occupied the same decade, during which she became the toast of Decadent Paris. The venue in which she did this was the salon system, which for Colette was, in fact, as such Femme historians as Ozouf claim, the safe space in which women could address men as equals and exert what political agency the Republic denied them. Hannah Arendt has argued Jews – and every other outsider — assimilated in the salons of the Belle Epoque (Thurman). This is a delusion, that cultural agency is assimilation, or even that the paying of taxes for 800 years obliges your country to protect you. Unfortunately, this liberte of the living room was not enough to prevent a reported 90,000 French Jews from being exterminated by the Nazis fifty years later, and an estimated 10- to 15,000 European homosexuals.**
In this delusory free space did Colette, arguably, find herself, and her work itself can be seen as a salon — a recreation of a place where no winds of war blow. In addition, her remarkable music hall and commercial career — imagine if Toni Morrison showed her tits on MTV, followed when she grew too old to do so by ads for Mattress Discounter, Virginia Slims, and Irish Spring — marked Colette as the very social-climbing capitalist the revolution was launched to empower. Her career as a consumer — of attention, sex, food, money — was launched in the same era department stores opened, French patriarchs of sociology like Taine began to worry about controlling the appetites of the crowds of shopping women (Parsons), and the Art Nouveau image of woman as half-locust, half bare-breasted Gibson girl expressed precisely her appetites.
Femme Pestilence: Lalique Hat Pin chosen as Icon of Art Nouveau Exhibition
The issue of the salon, a place of cultural agency in which a democracy forbidden in politics flourishes, goes to the heart of Femme and punk politics. What are the advantages, and disadvantages, of secession from political agency?
Or was Colette’s power as a capitalist — a shill for Lucky Strikes — and as a self made woman, an icon of French culture — a chevaliere of the Legion of Honor — precisely that which prevented the Nazis from coming after her, and her Jewish husband? What was it that made some 7,000 people — mostly women, nearly silent — show up to leave flowers at her coffin? Was it that in the salons she found the story she wanted to write — of Eden? And the sadness of exile?
It is said that while the coarse, the unshaven, the Birkenstock-wearing, the appalling MacKinnons and Dworkins were establishing the existence of sexual harassment in the Supreme Court, French feminists were far too intelligent to soil themselves with mere political agency. They were deconstructing the idea of woman — good salon conversation, the product of 200 years of education for women. They enjoy complete cultural and consumer agency, without the civil right to guardianship of their own children. Revolutionary indeed:
As Nancy Miller was later to put it, if American feminists of the period were presumed to wear the boots of pragmatism, then French feminists were the wearers of the high heels of theory. (Fallaize)
*In their stead, non-gendered philosophy has been posited by such materialist feminists as Michele Le Doeuff, ( Hipparchia’s Choice, 1991), Christine Delphy (editor of the journal Nouvelles Questions Feministes), and Colette Guillaumin, who works in the congruent problems of racism and sexism. Samples of this thinking were collected in 2002 in Kelly Oliver’s French Feminist Reader. The French still deny French feminism exists (Fallaize).
**Though no statistics on the number of homosexuals killed were kept, the French government rounded up their Jewish and homosexual citoyens and deported them to the extermination camps. Recent histories on French women during World War One (Margaret H. Darrow, 2001) and in the Resistance (Margaret Collins Weitz, 1996) have emphasized the ruthlessness with which their contribution has been excised from the official histories. As we have seen, Du Plessix Grey reports official Gaullist school book histories of World War Two simply did not mention that the Americans had any role at all in the liberation of France.
So the mail has brought me my Colette Studies care package. There’s My Mother’s House and Sido, with an introduction by her coarse American biographer, Thurman, the anthology of girl zine work which includes pieces by fattest and motel666 – the great-granddaughters of Colette, andWomen’s Words: Essay on French Singularity by the distinguished French Uncle Tom, Mona Ozouf, with her stiff silver bouffant and silk blouse, her long career as an historian and literary journalist, her position as director of research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique.
Femme Culture Czar Mona Ozouf
This might be the place to point out that the majority of the French people, millions of them, collaborated with the Nazis. One review of recent books on the resistance notes there are
… three major views on collaboration: that which saw it as a means of strengthening France; that which accepted it as inevitable; and that which, with some suspicion, saw it as an expedient, something which could be useful in the short term. Thus we have a population that veers between hope, scepticism and resignation. But whatever the attitude, the fact was that millions of French people went along with the Government’s policy of collaboration. Several hundred thousand worked for the occupiers or sought work.(Johnson on Cremieux-Brilliac and Burrin).
It is well to keep in mind that it was not the Republicans who formed the backbone of the French resistance, but Communists and Catholic aristocrats, and that 50,000 children of German soldiers were born to French women (an admittedly anomalous statistic).
This sleeping with the enemy is what Femme Nation is most often accused of, of collaboratingin some way with the patriarchy, if only to rip it off, in tropes well-established enough to be sanctioned and regulated by religion and the state in the contract of marriage. It is the confrontation with the collaboration issue that has earned Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon completely undeserved obloquy from Generation X. In this confrontation with men, sex, and slavery did Colette spend her long writing life, as ferocious and contemptuous of men, sex, and slavery as Dworkin herself. Colette’s denial of political agency is delusory — and a national pledge of Femme allegiance — to a degree which calls into question her — and France’s — entire authenticity. As a revolutionary society, an egalitarian, a libertine, a democratic.
Colette was aware of this; she thought of herself a “a mental hermaphrodite” (Thurman in My Mother’s House intro, Farrar Straus, 2001). This is as good a description as any of what the rigorous French education system does to women. They are granted cultural agency no other women possess. They are forbidden political agency, and continue to insist, like the talented, powerful, appalling Ozouf — if they want to keep that job as research director, and literary critic of the Nouvelle Observateur – that French women do not need it and do not want it.
If the French think feminists are lesbian man-hating Jews, Colette qualifies. She found her freedom from Willy, his expropriation of the byline and the royalties of the Claudines, with a lesbian lover in lesbian society. (This lesbian society was, not coincidentally, wealthy, aristocratic, pacifist and politically active. Colette was, above all, like the Republican shop keepers for whom the Revolution was fought, for sale.) Colette was eloquently contemptuous of men and sex. She did not quite know what to do with the fact that her grandfather — “the ginger-colored gorilla” – was apparently black. She was at her happiest married to a Jew. More than this, her nausea on the subject of sex is positively Dworkinesque. Break of Day is not about the dawn of sex, but that free-at-last feeling you get when it is over. Her lesbian friend and mentor Natalie Barney noted, “Torn between the desires of her two contrary natures, to have a master and not to have one, she always opted for the first solution.”(Ibid..)
And that, arguably, is the problem of existence for the Femme feminist. One is a slave. Is it better to act like one, or not to?
Colette, with Dworkin, is one of the foremost feminists of the 20th century. Her adventures as a reporter alone (her second husband was like the first an influential editor) show her confronting matters of justice and injustice for women, degrading jobs, brutal marriages. The journalism alone belies her Femme camouflage. It is the French way to deny loudly that one is doing what one is doing. “Me, a feminist?” she said, in 1910. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.”
As Thurman is not too coarse to note, Virginia Woolf was enacting her ascetic Quaker heritage when she opined that what it took to be a feminist was only 500 pounds a year and one small room of one’s own. What it takes is thousands, a country home, three husbands and lesbian lovers, weighing 180 pounds, and whether you earn it on your back, showing your tits at the Folies Bergere, or collaborating with the Nazis, no one shall stand between the natural force that is Woman and her elegant, cream-laid, blue writing paper.
In the safe space Colette bought with such relentless and amoral gallantry, she wrote of the nausea. Her most optimistic and famous work, Gigi, celebrates old age and the end of sex, the deep peace it brings, the obscene transaction entailed in preparing a spirited and independent young girl for submission, her erotic fate, and – nearly without precedent in Colette’s enormous ouevre – the intervention of a happy marriage.
This Colette wrote at the height of the Nazi occupation. She sold it to a Nazi magazine. And I take it as the message in the bottle: Secede. The Femme world – one’s vegetable garden, one’s writing table, one’s dressing table, the bedside lamp shaded with the blue writing paper, the jewelry an old whore shows her protégé — this is what we fight for. It is what the equally fierce Anglo Saxon, Jew-loving, lesbian Virginia Woolf called for in Three Guineas, her anti-fascist polemic — an outsiders’ society. Get off the grid. As Hitler approached the coast of Sussex, in 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide. Colette too seceded. In this world, she wrote, and the next, that is all there is.
When she was old and paralyzed and dying, the manager of the restaurant she lived over in the Palais Royale sent a lark pie up to her apartment (Thurman). Larks sing. They’re also all there is to eat, besides the frozen grass, in the lean winters in the heart of paleolithic France (Tindall).