Books: Cultural Amnesia — Charles de Gaulle |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


As the single most dominant figure in twentieth-century France, Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) has inspired a whole library of commentary, much of it written by him. After absorbing William L. Shirer’s classic The Collapse of the Third Republic, the student of modern French politics, in order to follow everything that happened afterwards, could safely settle down to read nothing but books by, about, for and against de Gaulle. The argument about whether the so-called Man of Destiny was a despot or a guardian angel will never be over. But there can be no argument about his status in French literature. He was a prose stylist in the grand manner, with a force of argument that was held in respect even by his most bitter opponents. His four volumes of autobiography are all available in English. A beginner with French, however, could do worse than become acquainted with them, although he might get the impression that French is a language for and about demigods. All four volumes can be kept easily on the bathroom shelf in the neat little Pocket Presse boxed set from Plon. Jean Lacoutre’s three-volume biography De Gaulle is likewise available in a boxed set. It makes a good story: misunderstood youthful genius, the proof of battle, the rebuffed redeemer, years in the wilderness, eventual triumph. The three volumes of the general’s wartime speeches, Discours de guerre, are likewise a compulsive study, although they should be sipped at rather than wolfed down: the reader doesn’t want to end up talking in that style. Reading in that style is already grand enough. It is a good rule in life to be wary of the company of people who think of themselves in the third person, no matter how well justified they might seem to be in doing so. We can spend only so much time with the sculpted busts of Louis XIV and Napoleon before our own heads start to swell. In almost all his aspects, de Gaulle had a marmoreal momumentality. But he did have one vulnerable point, and it helped to keep him in touch with the ordinary human world.

* * *
A spirit has been set free. But the disappearance of our poor suffering infant,
of our little daughter without hope, has done us an immense pain.

AFTER A LIFE OF misery, Anne de Gaulle, who had a severe case of Down’s syndrome, died choking in her father’s arms. She was twenty years old. At her funeral, de Gaulle is reputed to have said, “Now she is like the others.” The awful beauty of that remark lies in how it hints at what he had so often felt. Wanting her to be like the normal children, the ones who couldn’t help noticing that she was different, must have been the dearest wish of his private life. Knowing that the wish could never come true must have been his most intimate acquaintance with defeat. For us, who overhear the last gasp of a long agony, there is the additional poignancy of recognizing that the Man of Destiny lived every day with a heavenly dispensation he could not control. But to be faced from day to day with a quirk of fate not amenable to human will is sometimes the point of sanity for a man who lives by imposing his personality—the point of salvation, the redeeming weakness. Hitler’s will power was sociopathic: his instinct, when faced with frailty, was to kill it. Stalin’s will of iron came from a heart of ice: his response, when asked to consider what his son might be suffering in German hands, was to blame his son. Roosevelt and Churchill were both paragons of will power but they had great, living countries behind them. De Gaulle’s country was dead. He had to resurrect it, providing an example of political confidence unmatched in the democratic politics of the twentieth century. (Undemocratic politics, alas, was staffed by a full range of would-be national leaders who had the same virtue of never giving up until their dreams came true; but when the dreams did, the virtue tended to be offset by what happened next.)

Establishing himself in London after the French defeat in 1940, de Gaulle had few resources beyond his prestige—he always said that prestige counted for more than anything—and his gift of persuasion. He drove Churchill to distraction and Roosevelt wanted nothing to do with him, but the antagonism he aroused in foreign leaders served his purpose as long as it helped to rally his countrymen. Once he had secured their allegiance, he extended his intransigence even to them. Intellectuals of the French left wing who had seen the Communist element in the Resistance as the precursor of a post-war socialist France were doomed to disappointment. So were the Algerian pieds-noirs who expected, when he came back to power in 1958, that France would retain its sunlit colony. Having ruthlessly and correctly decided that Algeria had been kept only through weakness and that giving it away would be an act of strength, he gave it away. When the Secret Army tried to assassinate him, he never doubted that they were traitors to their country. Je fais don de ma personne à la France. Who did he think he was? This is my body, which is broken for you!

The presidential system he bequeathed to his successors had the flaw of placing more power in the hands of friends and favourites than of elected officials. The flaw showed up early, and the constitutional set-up of the Fifth Republic already looked like a well-tailored tyranny even during the reign of its founder. De Gaulle decided off his own bat to pull out of NATO in 1966: he told only three ministers, and consulted not even them. The French have a word for it: égocratie. Such an identification of man and nation would have been monstrous if it had been made only by the man, but the nation, on the whole, thought the same, including a large part of its liberal element, which had not been the case in the love affair between Hitler and Germany. When the French nation ceased to make the identification, the Man of Destiny fell from power. In 1968 he used television as a megaphone instead of an ear trumpet. It was a miscalculation, but it lay within his nature, and whether his ascendancy had ever amounted to more than a protracted constitutional crisis remains a moot point. What can’t be disputed is his grandeur. Had he been a true megalomaniac, he would have been less impressive. Napoleon, owing allegiance to nothing beyond his own vision, was petty in the end, and the fate of France bothered him little. De Gaulle behaved as if the fate of France was his sole concern, but the secret of his incomparable capacity to act in that belief probably lay in a central humility. This might have been imposed by his awkward height, progenitor of the shyness that made him seem aloof. (Even in the communal bathhouse of his World War I prison camp, nobody ever saw his private parts—he must have been as dextrous with a skimpy towel as Sally Rand was with her fans.) A more likely answer, however, is that the touchstone of his humanity was his poor daughter. Nothing is more likely to civilize a powerful man than the presence in his house of an injured loved one his power can’t help. Every night he comes home to a reminder that God is not mocked: a cure for invincibility.