As has already been discussed at this site, an official national dialogue in France is currently underway, the purpose being to answer the question: what is a Frenchman? What is national identity? What are our nation’s values? Here we present reflections on these questions by the French philosopher Robert Redecker.
Reflections on the nation as a carnal reality
Historians agree: the nation is a recent idea. We in France did not mobilize for the nation, or as a nation, until the late eighteenth century. The nation charged onto the European political scene – in the form of a thunderous, destructive warrior – with the French Revolution. Although the nation took a romantic turn early in the 19th century, she is the daughter of the Enlightenment. From the very beginning, the idea of the nation asserted itself as a value – the concept belongs, in short, to the category of axiology rather than to the realm of the merely descriptive. And it is a value that is placed above all others – a value for which we sacrifice ourselves, a value for which we are willing to die. Let us ask once again the famous question: what is a nation?The nation is a carnal principle of human differentiation. It has a mixed nature: it is at once carnal and political. Carnally, it is the product of history, which is its surrogate mother. History spawns two types of political realities: the people, with philosophy acting as the sperm donor (think of the role of philosophers in the genesis of the French Revolution, and of how Diderot wanted to make philosophy «popular»), and nations, which come into being with the help of memory and of poetry. The flesh is a result, not a starting point. The flesh comes after the poem and after the bard. History imitates nature in that it mimics, on another level, the process of creation and growth that takes place in nature. A state can be established quickly: this is the lesson of genesis that Machiavelli’s The Prince teaches. It is also the terrible lesson of the USSR. How to explain this suddenness? A State (a principality, a republic, a monarchy) is not a bringing together of the political and the carnal but is a purely political phenomenon. A state may have no flesh, but without flesh there is no nation.
The nation, then, is the flesh of politics. And as a carnal entity, it demands more than intellectual, rational, abstract affection; it demands the concept of patrie – the idea of a homeland, a fatherland – that came into being with the French Revolution. In the work of the writer Maurice Barres, we encounter the idea that nationalism is not a theory but a biography, «our biography of us all, the French.” It is an imaginary biography – the brief life of each individual fusing with the long life of the nation, and yielding a double movement: we are incorporated into the nation, we merge with it (as others merge in their imaginations with the proletariat), and in return it is incorporated into us, merges with each of us. This nationalizing fusion is a sort of exchange – a reciprocal passage into each other. As a result, every event and every major figure in the history of the nation comes to belong to us, and can no longer be distinguished from any of us.
The principle of incarnation is a power of fusion: it entails the merging of our flesh with that of the nation. The body of the nation is not only that of the men who make it up, but it is also (Maurice Barres illustrates this theme brilliantly) the land, the earth. To analyze the concept of the nation is to uncover an analogy between the earth and flesh. If, as Jules Michelet has repeatedly stated, «France is a person,” the land is its flesh. In its synthesis with the idea of the person, the nation is not just an abstract idea but a living entity, endowed with flesh. The nation is the person, the people are its body (think of the concept of the body politic), and the land is its flesh. An imaginary circulation of elements takes place between the human flesh and the land, giving birth to something new: the national body. This whole process is completely imaginary, that is to say, real (as Lacan has taught us, the imaginary is real): it is as if human beings are intimately involved with their nation, whatever that nation may be. The union between the human individual and the history of his nation brings to light a new kind of flesh: after this union, the human being is no longer what he was before, his flesh is no longer the same flesh: it is possessed of something more long-lasting. His nationality is not simply a line on his ID card – from that point onward, his behavior in every situation seems to suggest that he is formed out of a different kind of clay.
Even if the originating event is, for the people in question, philosophical in nature (Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract) as well as universal or transnational (Rousseau’s Social Contract was an influence not only on France but also on the U.S. Constitution), for the nations it is grammatical, literary, and poetic in nature: among the many examples are Homer, Shakespeare, and Luther, while Du Bellay’s Defense and Illustration of the French Language and Dante’s decision to write his Divine Comedy in Tuscan provide good illustrations of this fact. Whether successful or not, there is no nation without poetic-literary intellectuals whose mediation between the multitudes and the nation constitutes a living reality in which each individual participates emotionally. Alongside the «organic intellectuals» of Marxism, there exist intellectuals whose mission is to make possible this acquisition of a national consciousness. The work of these intellectuals is very unusual: it is physical labor; they write in order to give rise to the flesh – to give rise to the flesh with the pen or the computer.
The nation puts flesh on the difference; it incarnates the difference. The nation’s flesh is this difference. The type of intolerance that is peculiar to the nation – that is called, too vaguely, nationalism (the name has the serious disadvantage of being discredited by a reduction of all forms of nationalism to the horrors of history) – traces its roots to this carnality of the nation. When men have reached the stage of national life at which their attachment to their nation is far more enduring and resilient than their attachment to political structures supported by philosophical ideas, that attachment is owing to this carnality. This attachment of men to the nation is the political equivalent of physical love.
If, contrary to the myth, the nation is not a product of nature (it is a product of history, politics, and literature), it is, however, a creator of nature. More precisely, it is history, literature and politics that bring about nature, that create nature. This nature is multidimensional: it is geographical (landscape), but also psychological and biological. Over time, nations differentiate humans, causing the development of distinctive national characteristics – biological as well as psychological and cultural. The result: national characters and biological differences (Prussian and Gascons, variants of Germans and Frenchman, are no more physically alike than Danes and Andalusians). Once the nation has come into existence, it continues to thrive: the nation creates humans who are by nature French, Germans, Italians, Japanese, Danish, Portuguese. The nation is an entity that creates provisional human types (what we once called races) in history. The nation is therefore a principle that serves to differentiate groups of human beings who are defined by their historical origin and political essence; its purpose, indeed, is to create new forms of human nature, new anthropological types. The growth of nations, then, is a process that involves the natural sciences, bringing political philosophy into contact with science and even with evolution (the nation is always identified with a more or less controlled and more or less conscious artificial process of selection that eventually produces human traits that are specific to a given population).
Why has the idea of the nation succeeded so powerfully in history? The answer: because it possesses a carnal texture, an emotional nature, that forms the foundation of its political existence. What is the nation? It give flesh to the people, it provides them with the substance of flesh. In France, for example, the concept is employed by a historian like Jules Michelet, in his famous 1856 book, The People. He understood that the French people could survive only if they attached themselves to something with a carnal dimension, a dimension that reaches down into the historical and geographical depths that are generally associated with the nation. A people without a nation are a mind without soul or flesh. While the nation is a soul and flesh, the people are the mind. What is a people? The mind, the intelligence, the institutions of enlightenment, the self-government of the multitudes. What is a nation? An entity that unites opposites. It is at once imaginary and real, the imaginary being –in the political order, and owing to the symbolic structure of man – reality. Hence the imaginary (the national as an emotional phenomenon) becomes the foundation (that is to say, something real) of any given form of political life (democracy, socialism, tyranny, fascism, etc …). Imaginatively – that is, realistically – any nation is the incarnated soul of a people.
Translated from the French by Bruce Bawer