World War I as a Chapter in the Life of Georges Clemenceau

Joanny Moulin

World War I as a Chapter
in the Life of Georges Clemenceau


What is the point coming to Washington to speak about another George – Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929)? In other words, if I were to undertake to write a biography of Georges Clemenceau for American readers today, what would be the best writing strategy? For I take it as an axiom that you do not write the same biography for different readerships, and that in biography even more than in other literary genres, both the choice of topics and the way you handle them are strongly conditioned by the national community your readers belong to. Maybe I am prejudiced in holding this opinion that if I wrote a biography for the French, I would have a very small chance of seeing it one day translated and successfully published in America. There are many good reasons for this. However, my prejudice goes so far as to think that the reverse is not true: if I wrote a biography for American readers it would quickly be published in France as well, and further than that it would be likely to reach an international readership. There are powerful reasons for this too.

To return to my initial question: Why and how should I write a biography of Clemenceau for American readers? To misquote the famous words of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles E. Stanton on the grave of La Fayette on July 4, 1917, I would quip that it’s a case of ‘Washington, nous voilà !’. What I mean by this – and this would be my take as a biographer – is that Clemenceau remains for us the man who won the Great War – the French still call him ‘le Père la Victoire’ (‘Father Victory’), and as such he is with de Gaulle and very few others one of our closest equivalents to the Founding Fathers. Clemenceau the Republican is literally an embodiment of the Republic, and I would further argue that he is the most American of our Great Men. That is, if you are willing to forget for one moment that he was a God dammed atheist. Clemenceau used to say: ‘What I am interested in is the life of men who have failed, because it is the sign that they have tried to surpass themselves.’ What does it mean, ‘the most American of our Great Men’? Let Clemenceau answer this question himself once again: ‘It is to the Vendean character that I owe the best of my qualities. The courage, the headstrong obstinacy, the fighting spirit.’

It is not always remembered that Clemenceau was one of the very few politicians of the Third Republic who was perfectly fluent in English, because he had lived in the United States for four years, from 1865 to 1869. He had come to New York City as a political refugee of sorts, when the agents of Napoleon III began to crack down on dissidents, and he would probably have stayed in America if his father had not compelled him to return. He tried to settle as a medical doctor, but really made a living as a journalist for Le Temps, that regularly published his ‘Letters from America’, reporting on American political life in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. He also taught French at the home of Calvin Rood Great Barrington, Mass. then at a private girls’ school in Stamford, Connecticut, and married one of his pupils, Mary Plummer, who was the mother of his three children. This was not a successful marriage, and it ended by a contentious divorce in 1891. Comparatively little attention has been given to the influence of his American years on Clemenceau’s character.

Much has been written on his contacts with English Radicals, his admiration for John Stuart Mill, his friendship with Admiral Frederick Maxse, his correspondence with Henry Hyndman, etc. But the mark that America left on him remains to be appreciated: it taught him the effectiveness of political pragmatism, documented his criticism of the institutions of the French Republic where the President shares power with the Prime Minister, and it certainly taught him crucial lessons in lobbying, political campaigning, and the impact of the press on public opinion. Most certainly it reinforced his self-confidence, by convincing him that his natural buoyancy, upfront outspokenness, undaunted stamina in the face of adversity, unswerving fidelity to one’s ideals against all odds, were determining political assets in the quagmire of European intrigues. In spite of the well-known disagreements between George Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson over the Treaty of Versailles, deep down the two men had in fact much in common.

Be it as it may, Clemenceau’s admiration for the ancient Greeks, the fact that he himself wrote a biography of Demosthenes (1926), should encourage us not to forget Plutarch, whose main virtue as a biographer is the concentration on illuminating details rather than extended narrative. Plutarch’s main defect for us is perhaps the suppression of uncomfortable facts to maintain nobility of character. We don’t want another hagiography of Clemenceau. His disgraceful attitude toward his wife Mary Plummer, for instance, brings nothing to his credit. However, it does reveal the ruthlessness of his character. Clemenceau was nicknamed ‘le Tigre’ (‘the Tiger’), and he didn’t like it, saying: ‘All jaws and no brain. That’s nothing like me.’ But it did reflect his killer mentality: a very unpleasant, but very effective defect.

The reason why details like the American episode in his life are scarcely brought into focus is that they are easily drowned in a mass of historical facts, as most biographers of Clemenceau find it very difficult to resist the temptation of cramming in a history of France from the Revolution of 1848 to the outcome of World War I. How his father Benjamin was a Republican leader of underground networks in 1848, who got arrested and exiled in Belgium after the coup of 1851. How Georges went to prison himself in 1862 for similar reasons, because ‘When one has the honour to be alive, one speaks out!’ England. The USA. His action during the siege of Paris in 1870 as mayor of Montmartre. His struggle for the emancipation of the transported leaders of the Commune. His many electoral mandates in Paris and the Var. His opposition to Ferry’s colonial policy. His involvement with General Boulanger. The many ministers that became famous for tripping. The Whole of the Dreyfus Affair and how he gave its title to Zola’s ‘J’accuse !’ The Schnaebelé affair. His opposition to Jaurès and the socialists of SFIO. The Panama Affair that caused his political downfall. His friendship with impressionist painter Monet. His first mandate as Prime Minister from 1906 to 1909. His travels abroad. His career as a journalist. His friends and mistresses. You finally come to the really interesting bit – from his return to power on November 16, 1917, to the Armistice on November 11, 1918 – in the last chapter but one or two.

Would we remember Leonidas if it were not for the Battle of Thermopylae? If it had not been for his action in the last, decisive year of the Great War, Clemenceau would have remained only one among the numerous 87 successive ‘Présidents du Conseil’ (Prime Minister) of the Third Republic (56 before 1917, 31 after), drowned in the roll call on along with the Ferrys, Freycinets, Fallièreses, Brissons, Loubets, Combeses, Sarriens, Painlevés and other Poincarés, with whom he ceaselessly fought duels in words or deeds. But who would buy a biography of Émile Combes, except perhaps if it were a comical ‘parallel lives’ with that of François Hollande? Neither is Clemenceau’s life story really interesting after the Armistice of 1918. As his posthumous enemy Marshal Foch rightly said: he won the war, but lost the peace. What we really want to read about is how it came to pass that Clemenceau rose to power in November 1917, and how his action as head of state contributed to the final victory one year later.

Clemenceau was called upon by President Poincaré to form a government on November 15, 1917, one week after the October Revolution in Russia (November 7th). The United States had entered the war against the continental powers since April 1917, but the American troops had not yet arrived. In April, General Nivelle had launched the great French offensive of the Second Battle of the Aisne (‘Chemin des Dames’), but failed to achieve the expected victory, and the battle dragged on well into October. There were many mutinies in the French ranks, occasioned by the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and its many casualties, and no doubt encouraged by news of the imminent revolution in Russia, and the arguments of the socialists of the SFIO in favour of immediate peace on the borderlines of 1914. At the same time, Ludendorff had successfully inaugurated in Caporetto, on the Italian front, a new strategy based on surprise effect, in an effort to achieve victory before the arrival of the American reinforcements. In secret diplomatic moves, former premier Joseph Caillaux and Prime Minister Aristide Briand were negotiating a ‘blank peace’, with no annexation of territory. Conscious that the French people would never accept a peace that left Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, they lured themselves to believe that the Germans could swap the ‘lost provinces’ for compensations in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, Briand remained feckless, his Minister of the Interior Louis Malvy not even daring to crack down on the traitors of ‘Carnet B’: a list of personalities notoriously in German pay, like businessman Paul Bolo (‘Bolo Pacha’), the dancer Mata Hari, or Émile-Joseph Duval, administrator of the anarchist paper Le Bonnet Rouge. Clemenceau kept storming against the government on a daily basis in the pages of L’homme libre, the newspaper he had founded in 1913, clamouring that the French were ‘Neither governed no defended!’ He was speaking up in particular against censorship and for the freedom of the press, insisting that it was crucial that the French people should be well informed, and that the government should stop treating them like minors. L’homme libre was banned by Malvy in September 1914, reappeared the next day as L’homme enchaîné that was immediately banned in its turn. Clemenceau went on writing directly to the members of Parliament.

He was particularly well informed on current affairs, as a senator, and a member of the Committee of Foreign Affairs and the Committee of War, both of which he soon became president of. He kept sending reports and reproaches to the government, making frequent visits to commanding officers and ordinary ‘poilus’ on the front. He constantly howled against pacifist, tirelessly affirmed the legitimacy of the control of Parliament over the government and the military commanders, true to his aphorism: ‘War is too serious an affair to be left to military men.’ He was instrumental in the dismissal of General Joffre in 1916, saying: ‘stripes on a cap are not enough to transform an imbecile into a clever man’. About the President of the Republic he said: ‘Poincaré knows nothing except by the blanks his own censorship cuts in the papers.’ Yet Poincaré it was who called him to power on November 15, 1917. Clemenceau had taken great care never to mention it, not to speak of asking for it openly, but he had struggled hard, since 1909 at least, to create the conditions for this to happen. ‘I was never a candidate to anything, he said: it had to come from outside.’

Indeed, at the summer of 1917, public opinion was strongly in favour of Clemenceau. From the beginning of the war, in speeches, reports, and newspaper articles, he had constantly hammered in a die-hard determinacy to fight the bitter end. ‘To die is not enough: we must vanquish!’ He would still be driving the nail in March 1918: ‘Home Affairs: I make war! Foreign Affairs: I make war! I always make war!’ On November 24, 1917, the Tigre would be 76, and he had a long record of dauntless political and physical courage, unswerving fidelity to his professed ideas, and fiercely outspoken independence from everyone else. He was also resurrected, as it were, from at least two political deaths: a fatal media lynching in 1893, and a damaging fall from power in 1909, at the end of 3 years of government during which he had definitely alienated one half of his left-wing supports as Clemenceau the ‘strike breaker’. But this most probably played in his favour, for he had long ago and consistently fallen out with the Marxist socialists. In 1880 already he had declared: ‘I am in favour of the integral development of the individual. And if you ask me what I think of your collective appropriation of the land, etc. I answer categorically: No! no! I am for integral liberty, and I will never consent to enter the convents and the barracks that you intend to prepare for us!’ Resolutely allergic to Bolshevism, there was no way Clemenceau would ever yield to the sirens of socialist pacifism. The internationalist socialists were obviously against him, but they were a minority, and he would find a majority in the Parliament with the ‘social patriots’ and a large part of the right on a ‘Sacred Union’ basis. All the more so because, during his first mandate from 1906 to 1909, Clemenceau had won for himself the other nickname of ‘France’s first cop’ by demonstrating his determination to maintain law and order throughout a severe wave of strikes. As a matter of fact, when he came to power the repression against internationalists and pacifists intensified.

As President of the Council and War minister, Clemenceau ruled the country from the War Ministry, with General Mordacq as chief of military staff. Socialist politicians Caillaux and Malvy, suspected of treasonable contact with the enemy, were arrested. ‘Neither treason nor half-treason: War!’ he said in his inaugural speech in Parliament, but he added: ‘We are under your control. The question of confidence will always be asked.’ Only the socialists voted Nay. Then he immediately undertook to purge the administration of suspect or incompetent civil servants, and to energetically curb all revolts in the armed forces and strikes in factories.  He cracked down on ‘Carnet B’ traitors, and put pressure on the pacifist press as much a possible short of censorship, which he restricted to military and diplomatic affairs. ‘The right to insult the members of the government must remain absolute,’ he said, in reply to articles waging fierce attacks against him.

In the army he dismissed incompetent officers, maintaining Pétain in spite of his poor opinion of him: ‘He has no ideas, he has no heart, he is always sombre in the face of events, hopelessly severe in his judgements on his peers and his subordinates. His military valour is far from exceptional, he has in action a certain timidity, a lack of pluck.’ At the Supreme War Council, working with Lloyd George, Italian premier Orlando and American councillor Edward House, he urged President Wilson to send troops, and manoeuvred to have General Foch nominated commander-in-chief of the allied forces in March 1918. In The Grandeur and Misery of Victory, written in 1929, the year of his death, in reply to Foch’s posthumous Memorial, he would regret that the General did not exert his commandment energetically enough. Manpower being most in need, Clemenceau the anti-colonialism turned to colonial troops against the advice of Pétain, turning to Senegalese representative Blaise Diagne to recruit the ‘black force’ of the 9th Corps under General Mangin. With Orlando he negotiated the employment in French factories of 70,000 Italian immigrants to sustain war production. Regularly, Clemenceau visited the ‘poilus’ on the front, thinking nothing of exposing himself to ‘smell the Boche’ and keep up the spirit of these men for whom he more than once wept in hours of exhaustion.

For all that, in the spring of 1918, Paris was partly deserted by its inhabitants fleeing the bombardment of Big Bertha. In May, when Ludendorff launched the Third Battle of the Aisne at the Chemin des Dames, the situation was so critical that Clemenceau came close to firing Pétain for the second time. In July, at the moment of the Second Battle of the Marne, there were over one million American soldiers fighting in France, and the balance tipped in favour of the Allies. Paradoxically, when Clemenceau decided to sign the armistice without waiting for the total defeat of Germany, it was against the judgement of President Poincaré, to whom he presented his resignation because he had written to him saying that would ‘hamstring our troops’. Paradoxically too, in late 1918 and early 1919 Clemenceau was still making war, but it was in the Black Sea, to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks.

Before I conclude, I would like to draw attention to a detail barely adumbrated in this miniature sketch of the life Clemenceau: the contrast between his character and that of Philippe Pétain, 15 years his junior, who would cut a very different figure in French history. Seen through the lens of Clemenceau’s life, World War I looks terribly inconclusive, and much rather like a much longer story that only came to an end, perhaps, on VE Day, May 8, 1945. Clemenceau never stopped fighting with all his might till the last days of his life: in 1929, at the age of 87, he was still writing a book to reply to Marshal Foch’s scathing postmortem criticism of his conduct of the war, touching issues that had a crucial incidence on the outbreak of World War II. Foch derisively called him ‘the superman’, and it is true that there is a strong Nietzschean side to Clemenceau, and not just the moustache. But Clemenceau is precisely not a superman. He is interesting rather because his character appears as a knot, a link, a hyphen of sorts between the Founding Fathers of the French Revolution whose cult he was brought up in by his own father Benjamin, and the Republican spirit of our democracies today. Perhaps, as such, his life is worth writing for his defects, that are his best qualities, like Samuel Johnson’s: ‘warts and all’. In November 1918, the French Academy elected both Clemenceau and Foch. Clemenceau never took his seat. Perhaps because this noble institution was founded by the French Monarchy, the rude old Republican Tiger said: ‘Give me forty assholes and I’ll make you an Académie Française’.

Joanny Moulin, Aix Marseille univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence

Membre senior de l’Institut Universitaire de France

Biography in Theory: Key Texts with Commentaries – Review by Joanny Moulin

Wilhelm Hemecker, Edward Saunders,
& Gregor Schima, eds.

Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017

296 pages, ISBN 978-3-11-050161-2

e-ISBN (PDF) 978-3-11-051667-8 /
(EPUB) 978-3-11-051669-2


This book is an English edition, revised and augmented, of Theorie der Biographie: Grundlagentexte und Kommentar (Wilhelm Hemecker & Bernhard Fetz, Hrsg., Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011). Out of the 41 articles it contains, 26 (63%) were in the first anthology in German, of which 13 have been discarded, while 19 new texts (46%) have been added in. The principle of composition consists in offering an abundant selection of essential contributions to the theory of biography since the 18th century, predominantly issued from the European tradition, each text being coupled with an article by one or several researchers of the Ludwig Boltzman Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Biographie (Ludwig Boltzman Institute for the History and Theory of Biography), founded in Vienna in 2005. The rationale for the game of musical chairs that has eliminated such authors as André Maurois, Emil Ludwig, Michel Foucault, Leo Löwenthal, and also Wolfgang Hildssheimer, Anne-Kathrin Reulecke, to usher in Marcel Proust, Boris Tomashevsky, Roland Barthes, James Clifford, Carolyn Steedman and Gillian Beer is not self-evident, but may simply be explained by circumstantial necessities. Be it as it may, it is regrettable the decision was not made to keep them all on board, even at the cost of reducing the length of the commentaries if such was the diktat of the law of the market, for the whole collection is so interesting and well-made that the longer it would have been the better.

The work is intended as a textbook for students of biography properly speaking, that is to say considered as a distinct genre, no longer subsuming it under the umbrella notion of ‘life writing’ that also includes autobiography and memoirs in all their forms. In this respect, this book does an immense service to the slowly emerging research field of biography studies, and this for at least three excellent reasons. Firstly, by focusing on biography in the strict sense as a specific object of research, it liberates it from the epistemological quicksand in which it has too long remained stilted. Secondly, it provides us with a robust tool for the teaching of biography studies that will do much to ensure the development of its academic institutionalization. Thirdly, it is all the more efficient for being written in English ­– and incidentally Johann Gottfried Herder’s ‘Fifth Letter on the Furtherance of Humanity’ (1793) and Stefan Zweig’s ‘History as a Poetess’ (1943) appear here in English translation for the first time ­­–, and therefore it can easily become an international course book. But furthermore, it reinforces the world-wide dissemination of the achievements of the researchers of the Viennese institute, of which it does more than adumbrate a sample state of the art, and it is only to be impatiently wished that at least their two major contributions to the field, Die Biographie Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte (Wilhelm Hemecker, Hrsg., De Gruyter, 2009) and Die Biographie Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie (Bernhard Fetz, Hrsg., De Gruyter, 2009), will soon be translated into English as well.

In his introduction, Edward Saunders explains that the title Biography in Theory, rather than ‘Theory of Biography’ (Theorie der Biographie), is meant to ‘invite a more open, and altogether more sceptical, discussion’. We understand that this is a rhetorical precaution against a biting North-Westerly anti-theory wind that has for some time chilled the literary Zeitgeist, and that he pays lip service to writers like Ray Monk, the peremptory author of ‘Life without Theory: Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding’ (Poetics Today 28: 3 [2007], pp. 527–570), who prefers ‘to see biography as an exemplar of Wittgenstein’s notion of the “understanding that consists in seeing connections,”’ but paradoxically speaks as if such a statement was not a very insightful contribution to the theory of biography. For there is in fact a misunderstanding on what we understand by ‘theory’, because of a very transitory historical phenomenon by which, in the middle decades of the 20th century, ‘Theory’ has temporarily exerted a rather totalitarian hegemony over Literary Science, of which it must nevertheless be an indispensable component, as long as it remains on a synergetic par with literary history and literary criticism. The Viennese researchers can be praised for being wary of all polemic, yet they should be proud of their laudable heuristic objective, expressed in the very title of Die Biographie Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie: ‘Biography – Towards the Foundation of its Theory’. Moreover, this book, which aims ‘to historicize the development of the theoretical discussion of biography’, demonstrates that the theory of biography is no spring chicken, but that it has been going on in many ways for quite a few centuries already.

Saunders rightly says that ‘Biography in Theory does not seek to provide a uniform theory of biography, or even the kind of typology attempted by Christian Klein, in his useful German-language volume Handbuch Biographie (2009). “The chronological presentation of programmatic texts from the genre’s dedicated ‘history of thought’, combined with commentaries, is intended to historicize and orientate.” That is exactly what it brilliantly does. “Ideally, it will serve to help future students of biography develop their own vocabulary and theoretical positions on the genre of biography.” And here lies the greatest usefulness of Biography in Theory. However, if we focus more particularly on the new texts, that were not in the 2011 Theorie der Biographie, it appears that Biography in Theory is informed by a recognizable outlook. A convenient starting point may be found in Marie Kolkenbrock’s comment on Pierre Bourdieu’s “The Biographical Illusion” (1986), which replaces Hannes Schweiger’s in the first German edition. What Bourdieu takes issue with, Kolkenbrock says, is the narrative construction of life as a whole, the “myth of personal coherence” (Clifford), or the notion of a subject with an “ontological pit” (Engler), considering, in brief, that the subject is rather a social construct, an “effect”, as Esther Marian underlined in her commentary on Anne-Kathrin Reulecke, “Das Subjekt als Effekt von Sprache”. Hence the tropism of some modern biographers away from the set form of biographies “from the cradle to the grave”, focussing instead on significant periods or events, and tending to eschew the chronological narrative. A case in point here can be found in one of the other texts that are provided with a new commentary: David E. Nye’s “Post-Thomas Edison (Recalling an Anti-Biography)” (2003). In “From ‘Anti-Biography’ to Online Biography?”, Katharina Prager and Vanessa Hannesschläger show how Nye practiced a “deconstruction of the life narrative”, resolutely turning away from the chronological order, towards “architectures of historical documents” through which the individual is viewed as a “bundle of possibilities”. As Nye says in The Invented Self: An Anti-Biography of Thomas A. Edison (1983), “The individual ceases to exist as a unitary object and becomes only a series of meeting points, a pattern of possibilities […] a set of relationships […]”. However, as Prager and Hannesschläger recognize, “The question remains as to [to] what extent Nye’s ‘anti-biography’ really is such a thing”. Even though they never say so in so many words, Nye’s project remains steeped in (post)structuralist conceptions that were a dominant academic discourse in his own time, and which have also been one of the main ideological obstacles to the development of biography studies and theory. In his introduction to Die Biographie Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie, Bernhard Fetz spoke of a “Theorieresistenz” (p. 5) of biography, but what we have been witnessing for all these years is more exactly the resistance of “Theory” to biography.

Another reason why we may regret that Michel Foucault’s “Des Leben der Infamen Menschen [1977]” and Hannes Schweiger’s commentary on Foucault’s Vie des hommes infâmes, “Die Macht der Archive”, have not been maintained in Biography in Theory is that it would have shown, be it only in filigree, that in the later phases of their careers several of the great voices of “French Theory”, or what is called “poststructuralism” outside France, were in fact changing tack, and turning towards the practice, the study, and the theory of biography. This omission is partly compensated for by the addition of “Roland Barthes: Sade, Fourier, Loyola [Extract] (1971)” and its commentary by David Österle, “A Life in Memory Fragments: Roland Barthes’s ‘Biographemes’”. Besides the welcome expounding of the well-known concept of “biographeme”, Österle underlines that Barthes was here revisiting the genre of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives with a series of three biographical essays, but Österle also incidentally foregrounds another potentially fruitful concept, that of “biographical nebulae” ­– “la nébuleuse biographique” (La Préparation du roman, ‘Séance du 19 janvier 1980’) ­–, which Barthes envisioned as a congeries of biographical sources, but which also obviously resonates with Nye’s “architectures of historical documents”, and Bourdieu’s image of the underground network, and Monk’s “connections”. In texts like these, Biography in Theory seems to sketch out a possible evolution of biography theory towards some form of Actor-Network Theory. This could provide a more innovative revisiting of Clifford’s “Ethnobiographical Prospect” than any approach tending to fall back on the worn-out modernist notion of the so-called “de-centring of the self” that often seems to loom large in a not so distant background.

The texts by Carolyn Steedman, “Landscape for a Good Woman [Extract] (1986)” and  Gillian Beer “Representing Women: Re-presenting the Past [Extract] (1989)”, and their commentaries by  Caitríona Ní Dhúill and Katharina Prager are perhaps just a little less thoroughgoing than the articles in part II, “Biographie und Geschlecht” (Biography and Genre) of Die Biographie Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie, as they could probably have gone further to convoke the crucial philosophical relevance of women’s studies for biography theory. The most promising point is no doubt Ní Dhúill’s remark that “Over a decade before the term ‘intersectionality’ enters circulation, Steedman offers a determinedly intersectional analysis, in which class must always be thought in its entanglements with gender and vice versa.” However, these articles have the merit to instantiate that biography studies are an academic field that is still in the process of emerging, and that, as Saunders puts in his introduction, “it is certainly also a specific interdisciplinary sub-field of literary history and the social sciences”, and as always in such cases the perspectives of advancement are most likely to arise in the limitrophe zones of contact with coterminous fields. That is demonstrated again in Saunders’s conclusive paper, “Edward Saunders: Biography and Celebrity Studies”, exploring the frontier between biography and this branch of media and cultural studies that appears as one of the humanities “growth industries”. Saunders’s slightly defensive tone may be read as a sign of realization that here lies a potentially strong vector, perhaps a little too strong to be entirely safe, for the future rise of biography studies in academia.

Among the many assets of Biography in Theory, last but not least come a “List of Sources” and a profuse “Select Bibliography” that provide a most welcome additional toolbox for students of biography, as well as a “List of Contributors” that deservedly publicize the identity of the thirteen apostles of the Viennese institute who have co-authored this remarkable anthology. They must be wholeheartedly thanked for having produced this excellent textbook, which will serve as an inestimable basis on which to ground the further development of teaching and research programmes in biography studies in many master’s degrees and doctoral schools.

Joanny Moulin

Aix Marseille univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence

Joanny Moulin is Professor of English literature at the DEMA, Department of English Studies, Aix Marseille Univ, Aix-en-Provence, France. He is also a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) and the president of the Biography Society.












Biography Society Seminar: “Transnational Biography in Europe”, Brno, 29 Aug.-2 Sept. 18



14th ESSE Conference
Brno 2018
29 August – 2 September 2018

In the nineteenth century especially, biography has played an important literary and cultural part in the building of the national identities of the European nation states. Today, on the contrary, there is a discernible interest in biographies of figures of international significance – artists, scientists, politicians, etc. Such transnational biographies can be lives of historical personages belonging to linguistic and cultural areas different from the biographers’ and the readers’, or simply biographies highlighting the transnational connections and interactions of a person. This seminar, backed by the Biography Society network, would focus more particularly on biographies that forge and foreground transnational communities, which may be cosmopolitan, humanist, linguistic, religious, political, etc. Among related issues, this poses the question of the translatability of biography, not so much in terms of language as of cultural transference, for an individual’s life is bound to be written differently, depending on its reading community. The readability of a biography beyond the linguistic and cultural community in which it was originally written and published depends very much on the transnational relevance of the person whose life it relates. Some biographies focus on particular go-between figures whose lives are remarkable for the linkage they establish and cultivate between different national agents of cultural transference. Others present the lives of personages of universal relevance. There seems to be a “world biography” category of the genre, in the sense of Auerbach’s Weltliteratur, which poses the question of the place and impact of biography in global studies. It is debatable whether transnational biographies can perceptibly contribute to building a sense of cultural belonging to one region of the world, like the European Community for instance, or whether today this has become an epiphenomenon of cultural globalization. This seminar on transnational biographies would welcome proposals for contributions offering general reflections on this topic, as well as related case studies. The longer versions of the papers will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal with the permission of the authors. The presentations will be limited to 20 minutes including discussion. Abstracts no longer than 200 words should be sent before 31 January 2018 to


Conveners :

Joanny Moulin, “Capacité négative”: Recension de Vivre une vie philosophique :Thoreau le sauvage de Michel Onfray


Recension par Joanny Moulin de:


Vivre une vie philosophique — Thoreau le sauvage

de Michel Onfray

Paris: Le Passeur, septembre 2017

122 pages, ISBN13 : 978-2368905432

“Le livre qu’on lit a beau être bête, il importe de le finir ; celui qu’on entreprend peut être idiot, n’importe ! écrivons-le !” Cette pensée de Flaubert traduit fort bien l’impression que fait l’ouvrage de Michel Onfray, Vivre une vie philosophique — Thoreau le sauvage, car c’est un livre qui en fin de compte vous amène à tirer des conclusions contraires au discours qu’il tient (ou vice versa). Fidèle à la méthode de sa Contre-Histoire de la Philosophie, l’épicurien normand affectionne une approche biographique, préférant déguster ses auteurs sur place, un peu aussi comme Sartre disait aimer le jazz et les bananes, c’est-à-dire lire leurs œuvres toujours dans le contexte de leur vie. Ceux qui choisissent de voir le fondateur de l’Université populaire de Caen en réactionnaire barbant auront beau jeu de dire qu’il pratique une critique beuvienne, sur le mode désuet du « Untel, sa vie, son œuvre ». C’est une sorte d’écologie critique, une AMAP littéraire : un peu comme il existe des Associations pour le maintien d’une agriculture de proximité, Onfray pratique une critique durable qui ne rompt jamais les liens entre les idées d’un auteur et le sol de la vie où elles ont poussé. Philosophe biographe, Onfray possède au plus haut point le talent d’empathie : philosophe caméléon comme John Keats se voulait « poète caméléon », totalement exempt de ce « snobisme chronologique » que dénonçait C. S. Lewis et qui est en somme l’imbécile illusion de supériorité des modernes sur les anciens, il cherche à comprendre les auteurs de l’intérieur, en se mettant à leur place sans quitter la sienne, le temps d’un essai. De Keats, Onfray hérite encore la « capacité négative », c’est-à-dire la capacité de vivre des contradictions sans être trop impatient de rejoindre la terre ferme de la rationalité conceptuelle. « Est-ce que je me contredis ? » disait Walt Whitman. « Très bien, alors je me contredis, je suis grand, je contiens des multitudes ».

Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson : transcendantalisme, romantisme américain, transplantation en Amérique du Nord de l’idéalisme philosophique allemand pour en faire la pierre de touche de la Déclaration d’indépendance intellectuelle de l’Amérique. Contradiction, paradoxe d’une philosophie qui tourne le dos au Vieux Monde et pourtant en a tout importé, y compris la contradiction revendiquée comme une marque d’originalité, y compris le culte des grands hommes. Emerson, pour qui « Il n’y a pas d’histoire à proprement parler, seulement la biographie des grands hommes », tenait cette idée de Carlyle, grand auteur écossais de l’essai sur Les héros (On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History). « Qu’est-ce qu’un grand homme ? » demande Onfray dès le titre de son premier chapitre. « À quoi sert le grand homme ? À être un modèle – il nous faut le suivre ; à contaminer par son expérience ; à générer de nouveau de grands hommes ; autrement dit, à assurer le progrès de l’humanité qui, péché contre le marxisme, ne s’accomplit pas avec les masses, mais avec les individualités d’exception. » Mais qui parle ? Onfray, Thoreau, Carlyle ou Emerson ?

Qu’admire-t-il au juste en Thoreau, hormis son franc-parler d’ours mal léché, puant littéralement tant la toilette du corps relevait pour lui du superflu d’une civilisation dévoyée ? À en croire le portrait qu’il brosse de Walden ou la vie dans les bois, aucune de ses idées ne survit au test de sa vie. « La biographie, remarque Onfray, rend justice de ces clichés romantiques… » « On se représente le philosophe en Diogène américain », mais il n’a vécu dans sa cabane que vingt-six mois en tout, comme dans une sorte de villégiature, rentrant chez lui tous les deux jours pour se restaurer de cuisine bourgeoise. « On imagine la vie du rebelle derrière les barreaux », forgeant la légende du chantre de La désobéissance civile emprisonné pour avoir refusé de payer la part de ses impôts au prétexte qu’ils servaient à financer un régime esclavagiste, mais il ne passa qu’une nuit dans une geôle rurale, libéré le lendemain matin quand un parent paya sa caution. Thoreau le pacifiste qui dit-on inspira Gandhi se fit l’apologiste de la violence politique, dans son Plaidoyer pour John Brown où il prenait fait et cause pour cet assassin d’esclavagistes. « Thoreau se méfie des livres », et peut-être à cause de cela il n’a guère une idée qu’on ne trouve dans quelque ouvrage, celle-là même venant tout de droit de William Wordsworth — « les livres nous trompent ! » — qui ne l’avait lui-même pas trouvée tout à fait tout seul.

On retient que Thoreau serait grand parce qu’il vit sa philosophie autant qu’il philosophe sa vie. Il serait ainsi un philosophe véritable et non point un « professeur de philosophie », à l’instar de tous ceux qu’Onfray l’athée anticlérical nomme « les curés du christianisme, les curés de l’université, les curés de l’idéalisme allemand, les curés de la French theory »… Héritant de Schopenhauer son dédain de Hegel, Onfray l’étend aux fumeux thuriféraires français du concept, au premier rang desquels Deleuze « l’inventeur de personnages conceptuels », « le créateur de glossolalies », et Derrida croyant « que tout ce qui est se résume à ce qui a été dit de ce qui est ». Le professeur Onfray, nous parlant toujours comme à ses ouailles, nous résume succinctement les principales idées d’Emerson pour montrer avec quelle originalité Thoreau s’efforça de les appliquer dans sa vie. Sans doute, en effet, est-il nécessaire d’enseigner à ses lecteurs qui fut Emerson et ce que fut le transcendantalisme, car l’influence du Nouveau Monde sur l’Ancien est aujourd’hui telle que, par une application aussi abusive qu’inconsciente de certaines idées d’Emerson, on en viendrait presque à prendre l’illettrisme pour une vertu. Et de prêcher la supériorité de la philosophie américaine sur le conceptualisme de « l’Europe philosophante », et de nous mettre en garde contre une pensée trop exclusivement livresque, parce que « ces façons de faire conduisent souvent à dire des bêtises, voire à en faire… » En effet, Onfray parle en connaissance de cause.

Joanny Moulin

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Joanny Moulin is Professor of English literature at the DEMA, Department of English Studies, Aix Marseille Univ, Aix-en-Provence, France. He is also a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) and the president of the Biography Society.

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