Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Some Things Change

I've been reading W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair of late, and with some enjoyment. Being in some respects a spottily educated person, I'd never read Vanity Fair before, and I'd somehow had in my head the general impression that it was one of these darkly satirical and slightly tiresome works of gravity from the late Victorian era (think Portrait of a Lady). To my enjoyment, however, I find that Vanity Fair hales from the 1840s and is of roughly the same delightful tone as the more satirical novels of Anthony Trollope.

The novel is set (or at least begins -- as the 175 pages I've covered thus far are but a fraction of the length of a good Victorian novel) in the early 1800s, at the time of Hundred Days after Napoleon's escape from Elba and return to power. Given that most of the young male characters are in the army, I suspect we're about to see them all called up and sent away to who knows what fate.

As the news comes in that several hundred thousand Frenchmen have immediately risen to follow Napoleon's call to arms, it struck me how much the culture and national image of France have changed over the last 150 years. When Napoleon returned to Paris in 1815, the French had been through twenty years of nearly constant internal and external conflict, with nearly a million French casualties over that time period. And yet on Napoleon's return he raised in a matter of a couple months an army of 200,000 with another 100,000 in training -- to fight a huge coalition of powers that had defeated them only a year before.

You lose a bit of this sense reading mainly English-language history and literature, since the Brits at the time were at pains to look down on the French, who were, after all, their enemies. But by nearly any view France of 1850 had been a powerhouse of literature, politics, philosophy and science -- and a military and nationalistic power which loomed over the continent and the world with the same terrifying resiliancy that Germany showed from 1900 to 1950.

It's interesting to think how much the character and reputation of France have changed since that time, and try to wrap your mind around how exactly it happened.

1 comment:

Kyle R. Cupp said...

My sense of European history—okay the whole of history—would be found wanting by any grade school standards, but I’d wager nonetheless that the French Revolution, though occurring some years before the time frame mention in your post, continues to have much influence in even today’s French society. The cataclysms of two world wars no doubt played a part in forming the minds of Frenchmen.

On a personal note, I’m very indebted to the French in my philosophical formation. Many if not most of my favorite 20th century philosophers were French: Paul Ricoeur, Gabriel Marcel, and Jacques Derrida to name only a few.