In the July 17 TLS, Julian Jackson writes of How the French Think, reviewing Sudhir Hazareesingh’s new book of that title. Jackson notes accurately that after the Charlie Hebdo killings and the global demonstrations of 7 and 11 January, the “momentary spirit of national unanimity has been followed by anxious soul-searching.” Such moments reflect a widely-held sensibility at a point in time, if not always with absolute unanimity; they suggest the beginnings of a movement in favour of those demonstrating.
But are such demonstrations not the beginnings, but the last flowerings of a sensibility or spirit? The soul-searching they precede inevitably changes their society because it engages reason to the spontaneous (or pent-up release) of passion – in itself, a rather French, Cartesian vs Rousseau-esque meeting of opposites. Would people manifest in the streets again for – God forbid – a similar event? Not a journalistic one, that is, where the absence of crowds might be accounted for by a lack of novelty – however cynical or insensitive that sounds. But perhaps if, say, a religious or literary or charity leader was attacked – someone ‘unofficial’, like the Hebdo contributors. We pray that such a thing never comes to pass – indeed I hesitate even to write it – but if it did, would people emerge in numbers once more?
Possibly, but the spirit would have changed in some way from the Je Suis Charlie street demonstrations. They marked the end of something – or perhaps more accurately its peak, or governing pressure limit (on a ‘vent’ theory) – just as, in their quite different ways, did 1968 or Woodstock or the 9/11 vigils. The anniversaries of this last are still poignant and sincere in so many cases, but with different assumptions and feelings latent, now that so much has occurred in the world, for better or for worse, as a result of the original events. Do such outbursts or flowerings signal the end or peak of something? Or the passing of a leader – actual or construed or symbolic? Or the passing of an idea? Or a lack of incoming leadership, hence the melancholy felt so soon?
If some form of leadership will provide an answer to the question such flowerings pose, will it be one of reason or of passion? Descartes or Rousseau? Or, somehow, both? And is this unique to France, given the international examples given – or is this aspect of the French spirit and of French endeavours, as Jackson notes that de Gaulle might have it, something more universal, in “the interest of all”?