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Two Biographers of François Mitterrand: Pierre Péan and Jean Lacouture

Joanny Moulin

Two Biographers of François Mitterrand:
Pierre Péan and Jean Lacouture



President François Mitterrand was a complex and controversial figure, from a historical as well as from a political and psychological point of view, and his is a typical and spectacular case of biography intervening in the public political debate, not directly, but by impacting historiography in the making. It may be interesting to propose a study in comparative biography, not in the sense of comparing two presidents à la Plutarch, in the style of Parallel Lives, or à la Suetonius, in imitation of the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, but in the sense of comparing the works of two or more biographers on the same subject, as in comparative literature we compare the works of other authors. Such a proposal contains an implicit methodological take: that biography is, if not perhaps unquestionably a literary genre, a least a form of ‘literature’ (with a small ‘l’), and undeniably a mode of writing; and biographers, whether they are journalists, historians, academics from various disciplines, are writers: they are men and women of letters – gens de lettres – , and as such it is there role and legitimate ambition to enter public debates and exert an influence of their own on public opinion.

Among the numerous biographies of François Mitterrand, it is particularly rewarding to focus on two of his best-known biographers: Pierre Péan, for his 1994 biography Une jeunesse française : François Mitterrand 1934–1947, and Jean Lacouture, for his Mitterrand. Une Histoire de Français, of which the two volumes were published together in 1998. The dates are significant, at least for readers familiar with French political life, bearing in mind that François Mitterrand, the 21st President of the French Republic (4th President of the Fifth Republic, was in office for two seven-year mandates, from 1981 to 1988, and from 1988 to 1995. The post-presidency was very short, since François Mitterrand died in January 1996, some six months after the end of his second term in office, at the age of 79 (he was born in October 1916). Pierre Péan’s biography came out while President Mitterrand was still in office, whereas Jean Lacouture withheld publication of his biography to publish the two volumes together, two years after his subject’s death.

Both Péan and Lacouture were journalists, both had the opportunity to interview François Mitterrand, although neither the one nor the other was what we call an ‘authorized’ biographer: they both declared that Mitterrand had exercised no veto on their writing, and in many instances they demonstrated that he had expressed opinions that were hard to reconcile with the truth. In the latter case, amply illustrated in both these biographies, a ‘space of possibles’ opens up, that is the space biography explores, especially biographies of relatively recent presidents that have to grapple with the political discourses, propaganda, and mythologies that are still very much alive, and as yet undeconstructed.

Both Péan and Lacouture declare a degree of sympathy with, and perhaps of partiality for President Mitterrand, probably for different reasons. Péan said he voted for Mitterrand, but that he was neither a staunch supporter, nor a detractor like those who eventually turned against their former idol: ‘Je ne suis pas un “déçu du socialisme”, puisque je ne suis pas socialiste’ (9). As for Lacouture, he was very much posing as an ‘homme de gauche’, making much of having gravitated in one of the many ‘cercles’ of friends and acquaintances, which Mitterrand cultivated to the point of making it both his trademark and his political method of power-building.

Whereas Péan wrote a biography that is a brilliant example of investigative journalism, Lacouture is quietly contributing to the construction of the mythic figure of François Mitterrand. Having followed the president for years, although at a greater distance than James Boswell did Samuel Johnson, he produced a monumental, ‘cradle-to-grave’, ‘warts-and-all’ portrait. For certainly he does not fight shy of depicting the defects of the character, but in the last resort his readers are left with the very strong feeling that, on the whole, these defects – which he had rather call ‘ambiguities’ – are dwelt upon with a view to producing a ‘reality effect’, bringing in an added veracity value to a portrayal that, when all is told, is hagiographic. Mitterrand is clearly one of Lacouture’s heroes, and this biography comes at the end of a series of presidential biographies: Ho Chi Minh (1967), Nasser (1971), and on the French presidents Léon Blum (1977), Pierre Mendès France (1981), de Gaulle in three volumes (1984 to 1986), and Mitterrand (1998). De Gaulle is the odd one out in this sequence of socialist leaders, but the founder of the Fifth Republic is the heroic presidential figure par excellence, even and perhaps especially for someone like Mitterrand, who would later incriminate him so drastically in Le coup d’État permanent (1964), and who defines himself as de Gaulle’s radical antagonist. One of Lacouture’s most conspicuous theses is that this apparent rivalry is in fact the mask of an Oedipal relationship: a narrative strategy that consists in using the validating authority of the Freudian myth to present Mitterrand as the ‘self-proclaimed “gentle dauphin”’ (I, 110), that is to say the symbolic heir of the General, if not his political and spiritual heir. That is far-fetched, to say the least. In moments like this, Lacouture waxes lyrical, and empathizes with his subject to the point of putting imaginary speeches in his mouth.

This kind of empathizing – which is probably one of his capital stylistic sins – is very much Lacouture’s signature as a biographer, who does not try to disguise his partiality to his subject, thus giving the impression that he is a fan biographer writing primarily for fan readers. To this must be added a strong redolence of gossip, as Lacouture uses, and abuses, lengthy, anecdotal quotations from testimonies by political celebrities. That is apparently the major reason why volume 2, devoted to the 14 years in office and the six-month post-presidency, is some two hundred pages longer than Volume 1, covering the 61 years of Mitterrand before he finally became President.

On the contrary, Pierre Péan’s Une jeunesse française : François Mitterrand 1934–1947 is a partial biography in the sense that it deals only with some thirteen years in the life of Mitterrand, long before he became President of the Republic. It is not partial in that sense that Lacouture’s biography is: on the contrary, Péan takes the stance of the impartial journalist enquiring to discover the truth, even though at the same time he is manifestly out to write a bestseller. Two photographs on the cover show a very recognizable young François Mitterrand in conversation with Marshal Philippe Pétain in 1942, and disguised with a fake moustache as Morland – one of the several war names under which he was known in the Résistance. Except perhaps on one or two important points, Péan’s biography was disclosing no new piece of information. More exactly, it was bringing back into the limelight aspects of the historical character of François Mitterrand that the political figure of the socialist President had done its best to attenuate. The picture of Mitterrand with Pétain, and his sleuth-like mug shot with the postiche moustache produced a scandal-press effect, which did much for the popular success of a book that forced President Mitterrand to explain himself publicly on his activities under the Nazi-aligned Vichy regime, a commitment so far from marginal that he was awarded the Order of the Gallic Francisque.

The dates of the chosen period are significant too: 1934 is the year when young François Mitterrand arrived in Paris, at the age of 18, to study law and political science, a few months after the 6 February 1934 crisis, when far-right leagues attempted to seize the National Assembly. The young bourgeois Catholic from Jarnac, a small provincial town in the South-West of France, was a member of the Volontaires Nationaux, the organisation of Colonel François de la Roque, the leader of the right-wing league of the Croix de Feu, in fact the most moderate of the leagues, who turned out to have contributed to the failure of the February 1934 coup. However, one year later, in February 1935, young François Mitterrand, still an active militant of the National Volunteers, and already a charismatic students’ leader, was photographed in a demonstration ‘against the metic invasion’ – ‘contre l’invasion métèque’… At the other end of the period selected by Pierre Péan, 1947 is the year when François Mitterrand, at the age of 31, became Minister of Veterans and War Victims in Robert Schuman’s cabinet under socialist President Vincent Auriol (leader of the SFIO – French Section of the Workers’ International). How the young 1934 Croix de Feu agitator with strong ideological sympathies for the far-right metamorphosed himself into a minister in a socialist government, who would later become the figurehead of socialism à la française: such is the mystery that Pierre Péan attempts to unravel in his partial biography. Yet Péan leaves his readers with the enigma of a profound ambiguity of the iconic socialist president at the end of his second mandate

By focussing on these problematic years in the life of Mitterrand, Péan paradoxically challenged the myth of Mitterrand and confirmed it at the same time. In these now remote and generally forgotten chapters of his personal history, he had played a role that was, on the one hand, apparently poles apart from that of his presidential destiny, yet, on the other hand, so consistent with the darker, manoeuvring side of a man who had then come to be called ‘le Florentin’, in reference to Machiavel, for his boundless political cunning. The strong effect produced be Péan’s biography rested on this powerful contrast, yet the biographer did his job with professional seriousness, investigating the facts in considerable depth, and seemed to leave the readers to judge for themselves in the end. Péan roughly follows the chronological order, while interrupting his narrative on five occasions with a series or recurring chapters entitled ‘Bagages’ – meaning something like ‘Impedimenta’ – where he goes to great lengths to describe his family relationships with right-wing milieus and personalities, that is part of what the biographer calls Mitterrand’s ‘ideological luggage’ – his ‘barda idéologique’ (479). In these ‘Bagages’ or ‘Impedimenta’ the readers learn, for instance, that François’s brother, Robert Mitterrand, was the brother-in-law of Eugène Deloncle, who in 1935 founded the fascist-leaning, anti-communist Comité secret d’action révolutionnaire, commonly known as La Cagoule.

François Mitterrand had been a prisoner in Germany from June 1940 till December 1941, when after two failed attempts he finally escaped from Stalag 9A.  He then joined the Vichy government, and, with the help of his family connections according to Péan, became a middle-rank civil servant taking care of the returning French POWs, which were potentially a fighting force for the resistance of the interior. François Mitterrand’s brave commitment in the Résistance is beyond doubt. What remains problematic for many is that he should have chosen to do so from within the Vichy Establishment, instead of joining the Free French in London or Algiers. That was conveniently explained out by a rumour, extent during World War II in occupied France, but which never held water, according to which Pétain and de Gaulle were conniving with one another in one and the same ruse, de Gaulle organizing the military action while Pétain was only pretending to play Hitler’s game to alleviate the sufferings of the French people – the so-called theory of the shield and the sword (‘l’épée et le bouclier’).

With the deficit of hindsight, as a ‘Vichy resistant’ Mitterrand was bound to give the impression that he was biding his time while remaining in a winner-winner position whatever the issue of the war. Besides, he made dubious friends in Vichy, and he would later be blamed for remaining faithful to them to the end. Chief among these, collaborationist René Bousquet, who was sentenced to five years of indignité nationale after the war, then saw his sentence reduced for having also aided the resistance, went into business, returned to politics in the 1970s, and was among President Mitterrand’s ‘visiteurs du soir’ and close relations for years after his election in 1981, until in 1989 he was accused of crimes against humanity, indicted by the French Ministry of Justice in 1991 for his responsibility in the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Roundup, which was the prelude to thousands of Jewish men, women, and children being sent to extermination in death camps. Bousquet never went to trial, for he was shot dead in his Paris flat in 1993. ‘I saw him with pleasure,’ said President Mitterrand to Pierre Péan. ‘He had nothing to do with what people say about him.’ The ultimate truth about René Bousquet and François Mitterrand’s relationship with him is still open to question. To Pierre Péan goes the merit of having honestly documented this aspect, among many others, of Mitterrand’s action in Vichy.

Compared to Lacouture’s biography, Péan’s has the reverse effect of positioning Mitterrand on the side of Vichy and therefore against de Gaulle from the start. Lacouture claims that Mitterrand had ‘missed’ de Gaulle because as he was a prisoner he had not received the mystical shock of the Appeal of 18 June 1940. Not so Péan, who represents Mitterrand as a radical opponent. Mitterrand happened a rival of Michel Caillau, the General’s nephew, for the organization of a network of the returning POWs in occupied France. When Mitterrand made the move to fly to London, and from thence to Algiers where he also met General de Gaulle in December 1943, Péan argues that it was to meet General Giraud, who was President Roosevelt’s choice against de Gaulle, in the vain hope of reconciling the Resistance and the Free French with Vichy. Mitterrand, aka Morand, aka Monier, rightly considered as a Giraudiste, was detained much longer than necessary by the Gaullists in Algiers, then in London, and in both cases he finally broke free with the help of Giraud’s networks.

Although on the whole Péan’s biography is certainly much more impartial than Lacouture’s, it is probable that the latter carries the greatest authority in the end, although Lacouture never really contradicts Péan’s, but on the contrary he has only compliments for the seriousness and accuracy of his work. Hypothetically, that is because Lacouture’s is a biography ‘from the cradle to the grave’, relating the whole life, instead of just an aspect of his personality or a short period of his life. Although the readers do sense that Lacouture is partial to his subject – and indeed most of them probably like his biography better because of this. The Vichy youth years become only a detail: it is conceded that they are a mistake, it is a ‘wart’ that only makes the hero more human, and reinforces the readers’ sympathy. On the whole, it is in fact a denial, or a quiet refutation, of what Péan had begun to demonstrate: that Mitterrand’s Vichy years, far from being a youthful error, may very well give the key to his dissimulative personality, and that in fact there may be no solution of continuity between the Mitterrand of the 1940s and the Mitterrand of the 1980s.

The same can be said of at least two other problematic aspects of President Mitterrand’s life: (1) his bigamy, or the fact that he had a secret double life wife Madame Anne Pingeot, with whom he had a daughter, Mazarine Pingeot, and (2) his cancer, or the fact that he learned he had prostate cancer with bone metastases only a few months after his first presidential election in 1981, and that his doctors gave him only two or three years to live, predicting to him that he would not live to the end of his term in office. So that throughout his fourteen years in office the President was a doomed man, living in severe physical pain regularly alleviated by injections of morphine, who was also accommodating his second family in a Paris building belonging to the State in Quai Branly, then in a residence of the French Republic in Souzy-la-Briche, under the supervision of special policemen whose job it was to guard the two women as well as the secret of their existence.

Lacouture chooses to reveal these two facts at the same time, in the middle of the second volume, under the pretext that Anne Pingeot was the only one to know about the cancer. The story has then reached 1986, the year of the socialists defeat in the legislative elections that brought about the first ‘cohabitation’: the inauguration of political configuration where a right-wing prime minister acts under a left-wing president. Why 1986? There is no logical reason. The President’s fatal cancer became public knowledge only in 1992, the existence of Mazarine Pingeot in 1994. François Mitterrand’s affair with Anne Pingeot began in 1965, the year of his first presidential campaign when he ran against de Gaulle and imposed himself as the most promising left-wing leader, and Mazarine was born in 1974, another presidential election year, when Mitterrand ran and lost against Giscard d’Estaing. The biographer’s empathy with the character, which is supposed to be Lacouture’s trademark, demanded that these facts be narrated at the moment when they happened in the life of the hero; then the narrative of his life would have been very different: the readers would thus have been placed in a position to infer what the mental states of the President may have been like. Instead of that, Lacouture writes the history of Mitterrand’s life from the outside, as it appeared to be, year in, year out, to observers to whom large parts of the picture were intentionally concealed. Like his subject, Lacoutre chose to purposefully withhold from his readers part of the knowledge he did have, while time and again he indulged in supposedly imagining, viva voce, what his hero may have thought, as if these withheld facts did not exist. What can be the reason for that? A form of partiality: Lacouture empathizes with the myth, not with the historical character; in other words, he refuses to deconstruct the mythical political icon, of which his biography is ritually celebrating the cult. Whereas Péan’s biography raised questions and honestly investigated to provide his readers with elements of answer, Lacouture deliberately refuses to really take into account facts that were public knowledge by the time he wrote and published his text; it is not as if he did not know, but he pretends not to know, for reasons that, whether consciously or unconsciously, may well be demagogic. Both are instances of biography ‘correcting’ history, but Pierre Péan is modestly offering to correct the myth with facts, whereas Jean Lacouture sidetracks historical facts with a flourished style, the better to reassert the legend.

Works Cited


Lacouture, Jean. Mitterrand. Une Histoire de Français. Vol. 1. Les risques de l’escalade. Paris : Seuil, 1998.

Lacouture, Jean. Mitterrand. Une Histoire de Français. Vol. 2. Les vertiges du sommet. Paris : Seuil, 1998.

Mitterrand, François. Le coup d’État permanent. Paris : Plon, 1964.

Péan, Pierre. Une jeunesse française : François Mitterrand 1934-1947. Paris : Fayard, 1994.

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

Membre senior de l’Institut Universitaire de France

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.












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.

Joanny Moulin, “Darwin Bashing”: Review of A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker

“DARWIN BASHING”, a review by Joanny Moulin.


Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker

by Andrew Norman Wilson

London: John Murray, 2017

448 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1444794908

The main temptation to read A. N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker is that it presents itself as a “damning biography”, written by a latter-day discipline of Lytton Stratchey, the great “debunker” and paragon of the New Biography: Wilson clearly sets out to tilt at the impavid statue of another eminent Victorian. Alas! His attempt soon proves Quixotic. Wilson’s tone and style are those of the polemicist, and he declares his intention in capital letters from the very start: ‘DARWIN WAS WRONG. That was the unlooked-for conclusion to which I was inexorably led while writing this book.’ This is a biographie à thèse, although the exact nature of Wilson’s thesis is rationalized only in the last chapters. To begin with, Wilson’s take is that Darwin’s theory was less a purely scientifically valid proposal that the produce of his historical time and social class: a vision of the world chiefly inspired by Malthus’s economics that operated as a justification of the bourgeoisie of which Charles Darwin was the unrepentant offspring. This pushing at open doors is the pretext to an unrelenting aggression, no doubt partly motivated by class resentment, as Wilson’s father was once an employee of Wedgwood’s, the family of Charles Darwin’s mother, Susannah, and of his wife, Emma, who was also his cousin. ‘It remains to be seen, as this class dies out, to be replaced by quite different social groupings, whether the Darwinian idea will survive, or whether, like other cranky Victorian fads’.

The syllogism on which this argument is based, as if to say: Darwinism is the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, and Darwin’s social class is being replaced by others at the top of the ladder, therefore Darwinism, especially social Darwinism is not scientifically valid, is disturbingly based on approximations, often so gross that they amount to falsehoods. For instance, Wilson purposefully forgets that ‘the survival of the fittest’ was not Darwin’s phrase in the first instance, and that Darwin himself said nothing at all of the social applications of his theory, which were developed later by some of his followers. That these remarks will eventually be made, very late in the book and as if grudgingly, does not exonerate the biographer from the fault of having ignored them in the first place. Paradoxically, Wilson practises a kind of implicit ‘Darwinism’, as if science was a matter of struggle between various theories, and scientific truth the result of the survival of the fittest of those at a given historical time.

To such approximations and blunt assertions made in blatant bad faith must be added a number of factual errors with which the book is literally ridden, but to point them out would not only be tedious, it would mean entering the lists of the time-worn polemic between defender and detractors of Darwin, which is precisely the sterile terrain on which Wilson hopes to thrive. By an inversion of the most arrant tricks of hagiography, Wilson insists on reading into the childhood of Charles Darwin the signs of his supposed intellectual dishonesty. The very title of the book, Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythographer, implies that Darwin was deliberately insincere from the start, as a man and therefore as a scientist. For instance, the biographer pounces on Darwin’s own confession, in his autobiography, of his propensity to tell fibs as a child, to jump to the conclusion that he was constitutionally dishonest: ‘“I may here also confess that as a little boy I was much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was always done for the sake of causing excitement.” The solipsism and the dishonesty would scarcely be worth mentioning in so small a child, were it not that both characteristics were carried on into grown-up life.’

In like manner, Wilson denies Darwin’s endorsement of Darwin-Wedgwood family’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement, going as far as to imply that his personal response to the question on the well-known Wedgwood medallion, “Am I not a man and brother?” was most certainly negative. On the contrary, in his narrative of the voyage of the Beagle, the biographer omits the episode of Darwin’s row with Fitzroy on the question of slavery, and his explicit disgust when he witnessed the behaviour of slaveholding planters in Brazil, but emphasizes every word in Darwin’s writing that do unfortunately reflect Victorian racial prejudices, which by twenty-first-century standards are bound to be deemed politically incorrect, to impart that in fact Darwin was a racist, and that he implicitly condoned in advance the social Darwinism and eugenics of some Darwinians, going as far as to imply that Darwin paved the way for Nazism. ‘Of these myths,’ write Wilson in the last chapter, ‘one of the most potent is the Darwinian belief that “all of nature is a constant struggle between power and weakness, a constant struggle of the strong over the weak”.’ […] ‘(The sentence I quoted at the end of the last paragraph was, of course, spoken not by Darwin or Huxley but by Adolf Hitler in a speech entitled “World Jewry and World Markets, the Guilty Men of the World War”.)’

This is guerrilla tactics: the biographer is dogging his subject at the heels, constantly on the lurk for the next opportunity to bite. From beginning to end, we are served with a drab, factually dubious narrative, interlarded with scathingly judgemental interventions by the biographer. Two drives, shooting at cross purposes, pull the narrative forward: chronology and criticism. Wilson is unravelling the yarn of Darwin’s life, leaving no stone unturned to find what his critical verve could pounce upon, declaring that he ‘would be cautious about judging men and women of the nineteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first’, yet constantly doing so in the same breath. On the whole, Wilson keeps looking down on Darwin, in a typical illustration of what C. S. Lewis called ‘”chronological snobbery”: the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited’ (Surprised by Joy).

What makes this a bad biography has nothing to do with the biographer’s opinions about his subject, or with his polemical style as such, but everything with his lack of subtlety and deontological responsibility as a writer. In other words, Wilson has jettisoned any idea of the indispensable self-discipline of a biographer to avoid a posture of omniscience that is purely a benefit of hindsight, and makes no effort whatsoever to try and understand the personages in their own time, but on the contrary, he manifests a willingness, and insistence on not doing so. If reading his book is an aesthetic experience of sorts, it is a negative one, very similar to that of reading one of those pulp fiction novels where awkward scenes of sex and violence are interspersed by lengthy passages that seem to be dull on purpose to create cheap suspense. Thus, the life narrative stretches are the run-of-the-mill episodes of Darwin’s well-known life, written out without any innovation or dramatization, watered down by unessential detailed portrayals of secondary characters, that serve as the background against which the next bilious onslaught of the biographer’s discourse will soon flare up.

Towards the middle of the book, one realizes that the writing oscillates between two modes: narration, or the life story, and argumentation, or the unfolding of the biographer’s discourse in reflexive commentaries. Some chapters, one feels, are predominantly narrative with a discursive minor, others the other way around, in irregular alternation. This goes on roughly for two thirds of the book, until the year 1859. Then, with the publication of the On the Origin of Species, Wilson shifts over to summarizing the main argument of Darwin’s work, and criticizing it from the point of view of 20th and 21st century science, convoking a plethora of modern scientists, among whom Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Michael Denton, Dan-Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, etc. Meanwhile, the biographer addresses the readers to comment on the versions of the Origin they have probably read, staging himself at his writing desk, describing the physical aspect of the sources, again relentlessly casting doubt on Darwin’s honesty, comparing him to a conjuror, as if he had been a mere self-server, propounding a theory that he knew to be false in his self-serving thirst for fame.

Putting aside matters of opinion and literary good manners, the major problem is that Wilson is transgressing the codes of the genre, stepping out of the biography into the essay, or more exactly the pamphlet. It is not a case of hybridization of the genres, but of code-shifting. Wilson is constantly jumping over the fence and back, leaving the stage as a biographer to reappear immediately in a pamphleteer’s costume, and then vice versa. The problem is not that a so-called ‘reading pact’ be breached, but that by doing so Wilson loses his credibility both as biographer and as pamphleteer. The result is farcical, Wilson’s antics producing an effect of involuntary humour, very much like a struggling stand-up artist, or a ventriloquist whose puppet interrupts him in an obstreperous voice and register. In other words, Wilson’s chronological snobbery goes into overdrive, and becomes caricatural.

Wilson’s role model is clearly Lytton Stratchey: he inherits his bias against yet another ‘eminent Victorian’, but without Strachey’s wit and humour, and from a standpoint rendered inefficient by the overextended time gap, as the satirical debunking of the Victorian simply cannot have the same relevance today as one century ago. In this respect, Wilson’s imitation Stracheyan style is as outdated as a ventriloquist’s show: it is hopelessly Kitsch.  Furthermore, Wilson commits a variant of Stachey’s redhibitory fault of style in Elizabeth and Essex, where the ‘New Biographer’ mixed fiction with non-fiction. Writing an essay to demonstrate, or a pamphlet to castigate, the supposed ineptitude of Darwin’s theory is one thing. Writing Darwin’s biography is another, because the arguments against the enduring validity of Darwin’s theory are not to be found in Darwin’s life, but in the afterlife of his work. Wilson would have had a point if he could have demonstrated that Darwin was a ‘mythographer’ in the sense that he deliberately set out, in his own time, to produce a myth, that is to say a fake theory, motivated only by his yearning for fame and riches. But that is not what Wilson is doing; although he repeatedly insinuates as much, his work as a biographer strictly speaking relentlessly demonstrates the contrary against his better knowledge. The shifting over from a narration of Darwin’s life to a discussion of the reception of Darwin’s theory would have been critically profitable as long as it remained historically consistent. The anachronism of assessing Darwin’s theory from the vantage point of ulterior knowledge — see for instance Wilson’s use of modern genetics: ‘Darwin wrote in complete ignorance of the modern science of genetics, and what he knew of embryology was, by the standards of our times, primitive in the extreme’—is damaging to the biographer’s work, not to his subject’s, because on the epistemological level it is a gross fault of method, while on the level of aesthetics it is a grotesque fault of taste, and on the deontological ground it is dreadfully inelegant.

For all its failings, Wilson’s book deserves some degree of critical redemption when he eventually explains his point, showing that he was perhaps not motivated so much by a hatred of Darwin, as by sheer disbelief, considering that Darwin’s theory does not hold water as an overall explanation of the world, and that it deserves to be deconstructed, just as ‘Freud and Marx have been toppled from their thrones in our own day’, as the ‘great narrative’ or ‘ideology’ that Wilson says it is, without having necessarily got to be replaced by an alternative theory. Here, Wilson the belated Romantic evokes John Keats, vindicating ‘negative capability’, that is, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, the latter being, in Wilson’s eyes, ‘the foundation of the modern obsession with science.’

It seems most likely that A. N. Wilson started off to write yet another biography of Darwin, and that in the course of his work his ideas about Darwinism matured to the point of entailing a mutation of his project into a pamphlet on evolution theory. The other option may be that he deliberately set out to use the popular genre of biography as a potentially powerful vector for his ideas about the theory of evolution today. One way or another, he opted for a losing strategy, because by mixing the two genres, or rather by superimposing to different projects onto one another, he has exposed himself to unavoidably negative criticism on both sides. It is a well-known anecdote that the publisher John Murray III said that he considered the Origin of Species ‘as absurd as contemplating a fruitful union between a poker and a rabbit’, but decided to publish it all the same because he thought the book would be much discussed. Although it falls very short of equalling Darwin in scandalous fame, Wilson’s Darwin, also published by John Murray, sets out to puncture the myth of the great man, and is deservedly skewered in critical discussions.

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.