In the spring of 2003, as the Iraq war got underway, I spent many hours learning about violence in a creaky lecture hall at the Sorbonne. It was a sensitive time to be an American in Paris. "La guerre" had made the city's formerly convivial atmosphere heavy and indignant, and I expected my new class--"Shattered Texts," a literature course about the effects of destruction on people and cultures--to be mired in contemporary despair and maybe even hostility. To my surprise, the news of the day was of little analogical interest to my professor. She assigned texts--short stories, novels, film scripts, articles--that chronicled riots and uprisings and protests. Wars raged on the periphery of our reading, but the focus remained on the little insurrections of urban life. Paris, Rome, Johannesburg, Algiers--the battles were in the cities. And it was with a distinctly aesthetic savor that the violence in these works was discussed. Much admiration--and very little compunction--was expressed over the razing of buildings and the toppling of monuments and even the threatening of the second lieutenant's wife. Yes, I remember one student saying, the author has done a good job describing the way the windows broke. But he might have done something more beautiful by throwing rocks himself.
The recent images out of France's suburbs have returned those Sorbonne lessons to the forefront of my mind. Different rocks, different windows. But violence, and particularly violence as an expression of rebellion, occupies such a distinct place in the French aesthetic that this month's riots can hardly be called anything but, well, French. In France, violence is not merely romanticized-- as it is in many cultures, not least ours--it is intellectualized as a legitimate manifestation of philosophical belief. This is linked strongly, of course, to the revolution and to the guillotine, one of the most macabre symbols of freedom ever conceived. But its roots are deeper still, dating back to the Parisian student revolts of 1229, which ended with the young scholars freed from papal law; to Nicolas Poussin's terrifyingly vivid canvasses of the mid-1600s; to Jean Racine's reworking of Greek horrors for the French stage; to the gruesome exposures of the Grand Guignol. In the twentieth century, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who made the tradition modern. Violence, he wrote, is "the beginning of humanity." He does not seem to have mentioned what the end is.
Those rioting these past weeks did not seem to know what the end was, either, but their actions were new iterations of an old tradition. "La poesie est dans la rue." Poetry is in the streets, or so cried the Sorbonne students who, in May of 1968, took to the avenues of the Quartier Latin to overturn trash cans and burn cars after administrators shut down their university. "Ni doctrine, ni foi, ni loi." Neither doctrine, nor faith, nor law, replied the minister of education. To him, the protests were utterly without meaning--which is to say, utterly without basis in any dogma to which respectable people subscribed. But what the minister missed, of course, is that poetry is not a collection of principles; it is an art. And, for the students, so was violence. Sartre asserted the connection plainly: "[V]iolence ... is man recreating himself." But violence itself is not the creation of anything; it is merely the undoing of the old. It is not art; it is desecration. And it works best when its object was formerly sacrosanct. There is no greater reminder of this than France's legions of limbless public statues, the chipped porches and spires of its great cathedrals, most of them defaced in the pursuit of cultural reversal--a new, supposedly egalitarian, art of undoing.
Today, the Sartrian fusion of violence and art also lives on in the paradoxical figure of Michel Houellebecq, a novelist whose latest tome, La possibilite d'une ile (The Possibility of an Island), has just appeared in France. Houellebecq's work chronicles the lives of apathetic French whose days are marked by little more than graphic bouts of violence and despair. He does not share Sartre's politics; his nihilism has no room for totalitarianism, no tolerance for working-class heroes. This is not Sartre's critique of the bourgeoisie; this is a picture of life after the apocalypse of the '60s: Attempts to reorder society and do away with middle-class mores have failed-- or at least gone very wrong. (As a character in Houellebecq's second novel speculates, "The serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies.") And, now, contemporary French must atone for their revolutionary failures through civil service jobs, bland food, and bad sex. It's self-immolation as a form of vandalism. Belief systems of all kinds have no appeal for Houellebecq, and he has gotten himself into trouble for inveighing, in print and in public, against Islam. (In 2002, he was tried in France--and finally acquitted--for blasphemy.) But the novelist and the rioters, many of whom are Muslim, share a common aesthetic. Call it Sartre nouveau: destruction as an incitement to beauty and meaning, violence as an expression of intellect.
In Le Monde last week, the young essayist Karim Amellal was one of the few writers to hint at this very French idea underlying the riots. "All violence," he writes, "is in a sense profound ... but strictly speaking, there is nothing to be gained from burning a car." But, he continues, "it is a radical act precisely because the only satisfaction to be gained is in committing it." More than that--it is an ancient, nationalistic radicalism. A French radicalism. And the rioters, like the '68 protesters, like the revolutionaries, have been savvy performers, setting spectacular fires against the night sky and posting pictures of their work on the Internet. They have not just expressed their unhappiness; they have dramatized and promoted it as well. It is the same slippery border between art and violence at which the French have stood before.
Along with Amellal's quietly astute words have appeared other articles and interviews, mostly agonizing over how to fold the "ghettos ethniques" into the tricolors. There was much talk of the endemic problems of the "black-blanc-beur" communities, of the anger of youth, and of Islam's discontents. Those thousands of smoldering cars and their igniters needed to be integrated into the republic, many said. Few noticed that they were already, in fact, quite French.
Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.