- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Le bon temps

“The most obvious [French] minions of Berlin [during the World War II occupation] were fascist or protofascist intellectuals who had been at war with French democracy long before the armistice. Their number included Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Paul Morand, Louis-Fernand Céline and, most notably, the novelist and journalist Robert Brasillach. Here there could be no surprises. Other writers, however, had not been fascist proponents in the 1930s and simply went with the flow. As novelist Jean Giono put it with great economy of words: ‘I prefer being a living German to a dead Frenchman.’

“At a time when both food and fuel were painfully scarce, many cultural figures preferred to live well rather than poorly.

“The list here is far longer - a virtual ‘Who’s Who’ of the French artistic world - and includes pianists Alfred Cortot and Lucienne Delforge, publisher Robert Denoel, playwright Sacha Guitry, singers Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, the comedian Fernandel, the opera singer Germaine Lubin, the film star Arletty. Even as iconoclastic a figure as Jean Cocteau found it easy to adjust to the new order of things. His record of the times, [author Fredric] Spotts writes, ‘gives the impression that the Germans he knew were visiting tourists rather than officers of an invading army.’”

-Mark Falcoff, writing on “Collaborative Artists” on Jan. 3 at the Wall Street Journal Online

Romantic green

“American environmentalism was midwifed into the world by a romantic, Henry David Thoreau. His decision to live for two years, two months, and two days alone in the woods - to hear the Earth - has become part of American mythology. He scorned the supposed inauthenticity of the city and its technologies: Appalled, he said, ‘We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.’

“This tendency ripples on through the following centuries of environmentalism as an ache and a lodestar. You don’t have to spend long among the lead-belching factory-cities of China - or on a snarled-up freeway in Los Angeles - to feel the tug of these back-to-the-trees tropes.

“[Editor Bill] McKibben includes a close-to-parody piece by Alice Walker taking this tendency to its logical extreme. As part of an ‘intense dialogue’ with them, she ‘feels’ the trees angrily shout: ‘That we are alive and have feelings means nothing to you!’ The trees tell her Americans should return to being a hunter-gatherer society: ‘The new way to exist on the Earth may well be the ancient way of the steadfast lovers of this particular land,’ they mutter through their leaves.”

-Jonathan Hari, writing on “Environmental Writing since Thoreau” on Jan. 12 at Slate

Ignoble proletariat

“I have spent a dozen or more years, when writing journalism or researching novels, in and out of Britain’s proletarian nooks and crannies, writing from what I believed was the center of a strange breakdown in the will to common power among what I still think of as my own people. It didn’t always look like a breakdown. It more often looked like an assertion of shared values. But when you really looked at the values being expressed you saw that they were based either on spite or on a desperate, free-floating anger masquerading as moral outrage.

“I first saw this outside the courthouse at the trial of the youngsters who had killed the Liverpool toddler James Bulger. I saw it again among the mobs who scoured the housing estates of Manchester looking for dodgy priests. …

“It was there in the Mall during the funeral of Diana Spencer - not community, but a dismayed reverse of community, where people seemed able to experience fellow-feeling only in a hyped-up circumstance of disorientation. On each of these occasions, the people spoke in the shrugging, accepting tones of pessimism - of something lost, of a way of life being over, spoken with none of the particularly English sense of pride and worth that was said to be in boom in the years of austerity.”

-Andrew O’Hagan, writing on “The Age of Indifference” on Jan. 10 at the Guardian

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