Nationalism: Maurice Barrès and the Recovery of Identity
Real Americans are bound by traditions and habits that connect them both with the great struggles in the national history and with the local places where their kin are buried and their children christened. If we are not Georgians or Kansans, we cannot be Americans except by the polite fiction that allows us to pretend (as we ought to pretend) that naturalized immigrants are as American as native sons. This generic US identity is as bloodless and bogus as the New Soviet Man. Armed with this fictional identity, nationalists would have to form a party, take over the government, reconstruct the nation by imposing a propaganda-curriculum on the schools and by destroying the last few tatters of provincial diversity--and it would be morning again in America, again.
Even if such a nationalist scenario were a paradise and not a nightmare, it is absurd to pretend that it might ever be played out. To the extent that we Americans still possess an authentic identity, we are finding it in our churches, in our families, and, occasionally, in our ethnic traditions. I am dismayed by the prospect of large parts of the United States turning Mexican, but I am terrified by the reality that we are creating: a nationalist socialist state that will eliminate both the Mexican and the Anglo-American identity.
All of the themes I have been so far discussing in these pieces on nationalism had been addressed well before the end of the 19th century. The wars against national and regional identities had damaged the human soul in Europe and North America: The Risorgimento that unified Italy was also a war against the Catholic Church, the Estates of the Church, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The unification of Canada had been accomplished by the conquest and subjugation of the one real nation of North America—Québec—much as the conquest and subjugation of the South was the bitter fruit of Lincoln’s megalomania. All over Europe, little nations were nursing resentments against the imperial power of the Dual Monarchy, Russia, and Germany, and La Grande Nation itself, though diverse in dialect, regional culture, and religion, was about to concentrate its energies for a war of revenge against Germany, which had unwisely seized and tried to assimilate Alsace and Lorraine after Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War.
Everyone knows the proverbial expression, that “the devil is in the detail(s),” which referred originally to God rather than to the enemy of mankind. (Funny how we replace God with the Devil!) Nonetheless, it is rare to find anyone these days who can be bothered with details. All they want is the picture, which really means they wish only to be told what side they are on. Anyone who does look at all deeply into the minds of people of past generations will begin to escape the propaganda that passes for scholarship and history in our great universities.
An excellent case in point is the French novelist and political thinker, Maurice Barrès. Typically condemned as a rabid nationalist and anti-Semite, Barrès was, for all his many shortcomings, an important reactionary thinker, whose work has been excluded from discourse for the very good reason that it is subversive of the system under which we are forced to live.
Born in the small town of Charmes in Lorraine, he attended a lycée in nearby Nancy, the locale for one of his most influential books: Les déracinés, a brilliant case-study of liberal education’s campaign against provincialism—and its deadly consequences. Barrès escaped from his native region and went to metropolitan Paris, where he became, though the combination is somewhat paradoxical, a Romantic individualist, a socialist, and increasingly a nationalist. As an individualist and aesthete in the circle of Leconte de Lisle, he wrote books (in the 1890’s) with titles like Un homme libre and L’individualiste . Eventually, it was the nationalism that triumphed, though of a peculiar sort, rooted in the soil of Lorraine. Until the end of his life Barrès was the great exponent of French nationalism, indeed he was the founder of the modern French nationalism that is conservative and patriotic, instead of as a Jacobin or a Marxist. What happened?
What happened is that the imaginative and erudite author went back to his native Lorraine, where sitting among the melancholy ruins of an ancient chateau and reflected on the deeds of so many unknown men of earlier times. The bones of these men, dead and gone, were not the bones of strangers: they were his own people of Lorraine. The fruits of these reflections were a renewed sense of French patriotism, which led him to repudiate the Dreyfusards, and a deepened affection for the native soil of Lorraine. More to Come…