Maurice Barrès and the Recovery of National Identity, II

In his novel Les déracinés (1897), Barrès chronicled the adventures of a group of boys at his own lycée in Nancy.  Their philosophy teacher, brilliant and ruthless, instills in them vast, almost Napoleonic ambitions to put their talents into the service of the ongoing revolutionary liberal tradition.  This is a late reflection of the tradition of Romantic heroism that usually ends disastrously in fiction.  Remember Julien Sorel?  Raskolnikov?  

What happens to the boys in Paris is the subject of the novel.  Some become dissolute; others are reduced to poverty; but all begin to collaborate on a journal of the progressive type.  In the end, two of them murder a woman for her money, and the principal hero achieves the success he had dreamed of.  Returning to Nancy to be feted, he basks in the adulation of all.  It is the philosophy teacher, now a man of considerable importance in politics, who pronounces the final verdict:  “I used to admire your talent, which I predicted, you remember, in 1880, but what I especially admired is that you are at this point liberated from every intonation and, more generally, of every peculiarity of Lorraine.”

As the years went on Barrès waxed mystical on the significance of his (and others’) native lands.  His extraordinary book La colline inspirée tells the story of a hill in Lorraine that had been sacred to Celts and Germans and became a great monastic center in the Duchy of Burgundy and he lauds the great ladies of Lorraine: Mary Stuart (her mother was Mary of Guise, and the Guises were of Lorraine) Marie-Antoinette, and Jeanne Darc.  He thus claimed three great national martyrs for Lorraine, including the refoundress of France.

Maurice Barrès became a French nationalist only be becoming a Lorraine provincialist.  What is ironic is that while there is today a France, and a Germany, and even a Belgium and a Netherlands, there is no country of Lorraine.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can argue that France and Germany were destined to be, while Lorraine was doomed not to be—but then how would we explain Belgium and Switzerland?  The sad tale of Lothar's failed kingdom, perhaps, ought to be reserved for later.

Lorraine, especially in the East along the Rhine, was very much a frontier zone between France and Germany, but for Barrès it was the cradle of the French nation.  Barrès was very alive to this paradox, and, much as South Texans are among the most passionately American people in the United States, Lorrainers could be more self-consciously French than the inhabitants of more secure regions.  Tragically, large parts of Lorraine were surrendered to the Germans in 1870, at the end of Louis Napoleon's  unjustified and ill-advised invasion of Germany.  Barrès was eight years old.

The author's Lorraine, then, was occupied territory undergoing its own kind of Reconstruction, as the German Empire did its best to Germanize the population.  Barrès, ardent Lorrainer and ardent French nationalist, beat the drum emphatically for the bloody and costly revenge known as the First World War.  Colette Baudoche, published in 1908, is both a fine work of fiction and a magnificent piece of nationalist and regionalist propaganda.

The novel is set in Metz in the early 20th century.  Colette and her grandmother occupy one floor of a respectable house.  The conquest of Metz, the death of Colette's father, and the departure of most of their relatives have left them impoverished but  respectable.  Neither has much use for Germans, and the grandmother has bitter memories of the conquest and humiliation imposed by the people they call, alternately, Prussians and Schwobs.   The two ladies keep body and soul together by making dresses, a task that keeps them occupied a good twelve hours a day.  To make ends meet--and to scrape together a small dowry for Colette--Mme Baudoche has decided to rent out the nicer half of their apartment, but months have passed and there are no takers.  Ironically, they do get a tenant, a young German teacher from Koenisburg.

Dr. Asmus is partly a German stereotype--a giant with big hands,  crude manners, and clumsy sentimentality.  Barrès portrays him drinking beer in a pewter mug, "a life-sized reproduction of a familiar trinket."  He discourses on and on about his sweetheart back home without realizing he is only inciting mirth, and he does not have the French sense of  tact that would tell him not to bang all the doors when he comes home late.  On the other hand, he is also a Romantic idealist.  Asmus' colleagues are a triumphalist lot who look down on the French as an inferior race.  "These professors had all come to Lorraine with the idea of finding a people satisfied with the conquerors, and they were inwardly irritated when they were shunned by the conquered," who were perverse enough to continue to speak their native "patois" whenever they went home.

Asmus shares their sense of Prussian superiority, but he also looks forward to the opportunity of improving his French.  While he stolidly insists upon the superiority of Germans in nearly every respect, he cannot help admiring the neatness of the French, their cheerfully mocking spirit, their sense of beauty. 

The subject of the novel is his growing love of all things French, including, naturally, the pretty young Colette.  What is most interesting is Barrès' celebration of Lorraine (and France) and his portrayal of a decent German whose reading of Goethe and other great German writers has rendered him capable of appreciating it.  In three important scenes Asmus becomes a cultural traitor:  First he  he is struck with admiration for the subtle elegance of free Nancy, then he learns to appreciate the faded beauties of a village under German occupation, and finally he witnesses a memorial service for the French soldiers killed in resisting the Germans.

Barrès regards Metz less like a provincial town and more like a city-state with its own civic identity.   Near the beginning he comments:

"The Messins (people of Metz, pronounced Mess in French) before the war, all soldiers or relatives of soldiers, lived in daily contacts with the agricultural region.  The rentiers had their farms there, the merchants their buyers, and the most modest family dreamed of a country house where each autumn they would go to supervise the grape harvest.  All that produced an atmosphere very proper to the conservation of the old French type.  Who has not known, reflected on this city, perhaps does not know the value of a civilization formed in the habits of agriculture and war."

I think Southerners, especially, can appreciate this.  Mme Baudoche is the classic repository of local wisdom: "There are local deeds full of soul not known in history because there is nobody to write them.  The old lady had seen and remembered them."  In listening to her anecdotes Dr. Asmus "caught  glimpse of a new, proud, undreamed of civilization."

In the course of this brief tale, the gauche and comical Asmus becomes more and more infatuated with the decency of French culture, the restraint, the light-heartedness, the cleanliness.  Spending the day in Nancy, he is enchanted with the Place Stanislas, named, I can only imagine, for Louis XV's Polish father-in-law who was given Lorraine to rule before it was incorporated into France.  This is more or less the home town of Barrès himself, who takes several pages to express his enthusiasm for the town's beauties.  "It is impossible to love, t understand an object, if we have not mingled our dreams with its reality."

As he falls in love with France, Asmus naturally is falling for Colette, whom he cannot help mentally contrasting with his "beautiful Valkyrie" back home:  Shew is so serious that she insists on putting off the wedding until her fiancé has made himself more worthy of respect.  Colette is bewildered, "Yet you love her very much, do you not, Doctor?"

In the beginning he reads his fiancée's pretentious letters to the French ladies and proudly shows off the scarf she has knitted from her own hair.  Nonetheless, educated and ripened by his experiences in Lorraine, he wants only to marry Colette.  She has grown fond of her barbarian admirer and always agrees to marry him, but in attending a memorial service for the French veterans of 1870, she  is deeply moved.  As Barrès comments, "These Metz people believe they are attending the mass of their civilization.  They form a community linked by its memories and its griefs. "  Colette feels that she cannot betray the dead heroes who are watching her.   Even love and happiness have to be sacrificed, if Lorraine is ever to be returned to France, purged of Prussian barbarism.

This is a stern lesson that might have been a short chapter in a lost book of the Maccabees, and it seems to jar with Barrès’ insight that national patriotism begins in the region. Barrès not only went secretly to Metz to agitate for an uprising against the Germans, but his line of thought flamed revanchiste flames in France that proved to be very costly.  In classic Western novels, like Owen Wister’s The Virginian and (to a lesser extent) Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ Pasó por Aquí, sectional differences are resolved by a marriage between the Southern/Western cowboy and a Yankee schoolmarm.  This is surely a better model than Colette’s ferocious rejection of the man she has learned to love.

Barrès is not a perfect model for regional-national patriotism, but he has a great deal to teach Americans who are less at home in their skins even than the uprooted boys of Les déracinés.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina