The Unbearable Rancidity of French Letters

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Is it time for us to be done with the French Academy?

A while back, I wrote about the heated debate over gender-neutral writing in French, a subject which has gotten writers, editors, and academics all worked up. Eliane Viennot, one of the major voices in favor of inclusive writing, seized the opportunity to call for putting an end to the public financing of the French Academy. The title of her article in France’s left-leaning Libération magazine was deliciously titled “Débranchons l’Académie,” or Unplug the Academy. In it, she points out the long tradition of misogyny and general conservatism of the famed institution, which has notably spent the last couple of decades mostly railing against the feminization of job titles.

The Academy was created in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, as a way to regulate all aspects of the French language: grammar, spelling, and, by extension, literature. While the French Revolution managed to suppress it for a while, Bonaparte restored it. The first woman to be admitted into the Academy was Marguerite Yourcenar, in 1980. Nowadays, as we’re nearing the Academy’s 400th anniversary, the proportion of women remains dismally low, and don’t even get me started about the overwhelming whiteness of the institution. Calling it a cesspool of misogyny and racism is but a euphemism.

But an opportunity has opened up lately: Jean d’Ormesson, the Dean, died on December 5. He is remembered as a champion of letters, having authored forty books or so and participated in countless TV and radio shows to discuss at length the state of French letters. His daughter founded her own publishing house and has gone on to make her mark in the French literary world.

D’Ormesson was also–surprise!–racist and misogynist (among other things). He always seemed like a likeable old chap, for sure, but what should we think of a man who managed to get sent to Rwanda in 1994, to “report” on the genocide for the Figaro, a right-wing newspaper which d’Ormesson directed in the ’70s, and ended up writing three articles, one of which contains the sentence “These are grandiose massacres taking place in sublime landscapes”? His brand of casual racism and misogyny, the latter masquerading as libertine free-spirited seduction à la française, has been continually concealed behind the way he brought together French readers and celebrated the beauty of all things.

And there’s the rub: in this country, as in many others, literary merit gets you a pass, supposedly superseding any kind of moral failings. If, on top of that, you happen to pass away, then rest easy: you will most definitely get eulogized, but never condemned. D’Ormesson is now, univocally, a champion of everything beautiful and wonderful in French literature. He can do no wrong.

We’ll see who gets elected to d’Ormesson’s seat. Part of me wants to believe that another woman in the Academy can only be a good thing. And yet, all female members of the Academy voted against inclusive writing, decrying it as a mortal peril for the language alongside their male colleagues. Conservative women exist. And even if we get a radical, trans-inclusive, intersectional feminist, how much power would she really have to change an entire institution devoted to the tyranny of linguistic normativity?

Because that’s what the French Academy has more or less always been about: gatekeeping, enforcing a certain normative view of the French literary landscape, and preserving at all costs a mythical purity of French language and culture. And we know how dangerous this idea of a “pure” language is, since it’s no more than the linguistic facet of the fantasy of a “pure” culture. Not to mention the Academy’s efforts in defending the sacrosanct “francophonie,” which refers to the ensemble of people, organizations and governments that use French either on a daily basis or/and as an administrative language. Despite the glaring imperial and neocolonial underpinnings of this, the Academy still continues to be seen as a reference regarding the French language.

The funny thing is that members of the Academy are nicknamed the “Immortals.” Yet, who remembers more than a fraction of them? Who can name every single living member? Most importantly, perhaps: who cares, besides people who still believe in the performance of nationalistic literary rewards and accolades?

Maybe a change of scale is necessary. The Academy has always been mainstream. Refocusing on small presses and local literary initiatives–festivals, workshops, and the like–could be a way to unsettle its authority, to give people back the power to decide what they make of language, far from the madding crowd of literary oligarchs.

And of course looking at feminist writers, thinkers, and activists can give us a good idea of what a radical alternative to the patriarchal power of the Academy would look like, because feminist modes of organizing have mostly sought to not replicate the power structures already in place. To give only one recent example: in her latest works, notably with the speculative novel Les Sorcières de la République (The Witches of the Republic), Chloé Delaume, a French feminist writer, has been interrogating the concept of “sororité”–sisterhood, the female counterpart of “fraternité,” which happens to be the third element of the French national motto. Through her work, she interrogates the entire country’s relationship to language, pointing out that if something is not named, it may very well not exist altogether. Her imaginings of feminist utopias are one way of reenvisioning a literary world that would no longer exist under the tutelage of an Academy that’s hungry for control and obsessed with purity. Against the Immortals, the reign of the witches.