The French Mind: 400 Years of Romance, Revolution and Renewal by Peter Watson - review by Jonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

Salonnières & Encyclopédistes

The French Mind: 400 Years of Romance, Revolution and Renewal


Simon & Schuster 800pp £30

Visiting Paris in the summer of 1770, the English musicologist Charles Burney went to the opera. The experience was disheartening. Not only was the piece performed, Pancrace Royer’s Zaïde, decidedly unmemorable, but Burney remained mystified as to why lyric tragedies of this sort, written in a style essentially unchanged for a hundred years, should go on being performed. All in all there seemed little to detain him in Paris and he was happy enough to set off for Italy, where they knew a thing or two about what made opera tick. As for the French audience, he noted sadly, ‘it is all analysis, calculation and parallel; they are to be wise, not pleased.’

Burney’s shrewd observation encapsulates a significant aspect of the outlook Peter Watson examines in The French Mind. The Gallic penchant for reducing everything to rules and systems has proved a mixed blessing where culture is concerned. Exalting the intellect and the life of the mind in a nation where children are taught philosophy – la philo – at school is certainly magnificent. Yet this concern with ‘analysis, calculation and parallel’, where the aim is ‘to be wise, not pleased’, has sometimes had a seriously limiting effect on spontaneous creativity and imagination. Perhaps this explains why so much of French cultural history over the past four centuries has involved scuffles and skirmishes between partisans of different schools and systems, the various wars – la Querelle du Cid, la Guerre des Bouffons, la Bataille d’Hernani – leaving behind a trail of wounded and not a few corpses, metaphorical or actual.

The 17th-century salons where Watson’s majestic voyage begins nurtured their different kinds of pugnacity and contention. In 1981 the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, the first female ever admitted to the Académie Française in its 350-year history, rightly taxed its members with having deliberately sidelined the salonnières, women whose vision, energy

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