Friday, May 29, 2020

Killer cop Derek Chauvin and the origins of "Chauvinism"


Nationalism in its modern sense surfaced in several parts of the globe, which makes it hard to pinpoint one clear point of origin. Some say it was born out of the tradition of a people that lacked a physical homeland for hundreds of years: the Jews. However, it is not hard to conceive of France as the cradle of modern chauvinism. By the same token, it is not surprising that the word for this kind of militant nationalism was coined in France and later borrowed by other languages. Encyclopedias explain that the word comes from the name of a fiercely patriotic soldier in Napoleon's army, one Nicolas Chauvin.

The patriotism of the soldiers of Napoleon, wherever they were, thus became a symbol of loyalty to the French republic. Heinrich Heine immortalized this quality in his famous poem "Two Grenadiers," and Schumann, setting the poem to music, incorporated snatches of the French national anthem, the "Marseillaise."

The French revolution declared that men had rights, and sought to create the free man. But along came Napoleon and translated this bid for freedom into the image of the true patriot, loyal above all to his country and his leader. From here it is easy to see the grim sequence that led to the emergence of 20th and 21st century nationalism. And it all goes back to that old Napoleonic soldier, Nicolas Chauvin.

This soldier came to represent the ugly face of patriotism, which, in itself, might be thought of as a positive trait. Today, the word "chauvinism" is used mainly in the sense imparted by the American feminist movement. The "male chauvinist pig" is the latest incarnation of that faithful soldier, Chauvin, much to his detriment. But here the feminists may have unintentionally hit the nail on the head. Chauvin was much more than a radical patriot: He was a personality unto himself, representing a whole self-contained culture, an assortment of values of which patriotism was only one.

Who was Nicholas Chauvin? What do we know about this mythical character? This was the question posed by a young historian, Gerard de Puymege, which inspired him to write "Chauvin le soldat-laboureur" ("Chauvin the Soldier-Farmer"), published by Gallimard. What began as the biography of Nicolas Chauvin became a book on the history of ideas, or as the subtitle puts it, a "contribution to the study of nationalism."

Toward the end of this delightful book - the kind of history, brimming with cultural riches, which even ordinary readers will read with pleasure - Puymege states that the Chauvin myth is a "foundation myth," one of those basic traditions upon which the state and modern society are founded. No doubt he is talking about French society, but he also seems to be referring to other societies whose nationalism was inspired by France - all modern societies, perhaps - each of which has its own "Chauvin," its own chauvinism.

According to tradition, Nicolas Chauvin came from Rochefort in the province of Charente Maritime. Gerard de Puymege searched the city archives for records of the multi-branched Chauvin family, descendants of which still live in the region today. After a lengthy search, he found a death certificate for Nicolas Chauvin, according to which the man, a soldier in Napoleon's army, died in June 1812. No birth certificate or any other document was discovered, although Puymege also went to La Rochelle, where Chauvin lived and a large branch of the family can still be found. The bottom line is that no real record of Nicolas Chauvin exists, apart from a document attesting to his death.

How is it that none of the local inhabitants or the Chauvin family took the trouble to preserve any personal effects of such a reputed soldier? How did he become famous - or infamous, as the case may be? To whom did he talk about his great patriotism, and who spread the word to others? All this has remained a blank, even after Puymege's concerted efforts. So much so, that the researcher began to wonder if the man was real, even though a person by that name did exist. Puymege hypothesizes that he was born in 1774, but the truth is, virtually nothing is known about the historical Chauvin.

Even so, he was quick to become a literary character. The mythical Chauvin first appeared in 1820, as the protagonist of a mild satire attributed to the comic playwright Eugene Scribe. But Puymege claims that Scribe did not invent this farce about a Napoleonic soldier longing for the good old days. True, on this first appearance Chauvin is still a likable, though somewhat ridiculous, character, who dwells on the past and sings the praises of the ousted emperor. But through this character, and many other comic heroes, French literature proceeded to bury Napoleonic heroism and build the ideological basis for a reactionary bourgeois state.

In the 1840s, after several more literary appearances of Nicolas Chauvin, the word "chauvinism" came into use. At this stage, Chauvin was already portrayed in a more negative light, somewhat monstrous, but likable nonetheless. He was the "crabby old man" or the "boastful soldier" (two characters known to comedy from ancient Roman times). He criticized the youth of his day, and had something of "le Roi Ubu" about him, along with a right-wing slant. By now, he was already a mythic enemy of the left.

But Gerard de Puymege shows that in his earlier incarnations, Chauvin was not just a patriotic soldier. He had started out life as a farmer, and this soldier-farmer duality was always a feature in the plays and skits of the 19th century. He would constantly long for those days when he was a tiller of the soil, and praise the values of agricultural and village life, which he claimed were the "real" values.

Puymege dwells at length on the Rousseauistic elements of the Chauvin character. Rousseau, he points out, hailed farmers and soldiers as an embodiment of the ethos of simplicity and the authentic life. He was one of the wellsprings of the French right. Chauvin, with all his naivete and simplicity, came to symbolize the anti-urban, anti-civilization views of Rousseau.

"Chauvin le soldat-laboureur," originally an MA thesis, presents a vast array of documentary material: Chauvin in the theater, in literature, in cartoons, in the French songs of the 19th century. Through it, we see how Nicolas Chauvin loses his sweet face and becomes a symbol of xenophobia - even more so than love of the homeland. While the French were fighting in Algeria, Chauvin popped up in Parisian vaudeville performances as an occupation soldier. Puymege quotes a song from that time in which Chauvin boasts about beating Arabs over the head.

Gerard de Puymege continues to trace the concept of chauvinism and its mythical properties even after it loses its satirical nonchalance and becomes a vicious indictment of the male sex. In the 1940s, Marshal Petain found this blend of nationalism and belief in the primitive, rural-agricultural values of France - which were being sullied by foreigners - useful for his own purposes. Petain himself was portrayed in Vichy propaganda as a "soldier-farmer," combining honesty and toughness.

The chapter about Petain as the modern incarnation of Chauvin fits in with research published in France on the subject of Vichy culture. Vichy, people now say, was not just a matter of politics. It was a kind of Nazi-like attempt to establish a new national culture. France was in the ideal position to return to a former culture, not necessarily create a new one. And so it returned to the culture of the Napoleonic soldier Nicolas Chauvin.

Chauvinism, after all, is a whole culture. That is the underlying assumption of the book. It ends with a quote from the German philosopher Karl Krause, who says that it is not xenophobia but smug self-love that is the most repugnant feature of chauvinism. Some may argue with this nuance, but there is truth in it. In every society one can find a "Chauvin." England's "Captain Blimp" comes to mind, and the Israeli reader will have no trouble thinking of characters - real, mythical or both - in our own country. Even so, there is no one who fits the bill like France's Chauvin, the apotheosis of chauvinism.

Yoram Bronowski, writer and critic for Ha'aretz, died earlier this year.

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