Tocqueville said that the theme of history was the growth of equality. Tocqueville said that, starting around 1000 AD, the upper class and the lower class were coming closer together, and would soon touch and merge. In the 1800s, increasing equality meant the growth of democracy. In the 1900s, socialism became popular; like democracy, socialism rejected the idea that kings and nobles should dominate society.1
The trend toward equality affected literature. Novelists began to focus on the lower class; Dickens focused on the lower class in Oliver Twist, Dostoyevsky in Poor Folk, Hugo in Les Misérables. Historians, too, became increasingly preoccupied with the masses. In recent times, historians have studied working-class culture — songs, stories, etc. The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg wrote The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. The American historian Robert Darnton wrote The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History.
Darnton taught at Princeton for many years, then went to Harvard, where he was the director of the libraries. While at Princeton, he was often invited to lecture at other universities, and Princeton grad students struggled to get “face time” with him. A joke circulated among the grad students:
What’s the difference between God and Darnton?
God is everywhere, Darnton is everywhere but at Princeton.
Darnton says that his approach fuses history and anthropology. When he was at Princeton, Darnton often co-taught with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who’s known for his studies of Indonesian society.
The first essay in Cat Massacre deals with French folk-tales. Darnton argues that French folk-tales tell us something about the lives and worldviews of French peasants. French folk-tales can often be traced back to older Indo-European tales, as the French language can be traced back to an Indo-European root. The ancient Indo-European tales were modified by the French (and other peoples), and also modified by the peasants within France. So by comparing the French and German versions of a given tale, we can gain insights into the national character, the mentality, of the French and Germans.
Darnton says that the French tales respect craftiness, they respect the peasant who lives by his wits, though he may violate moral laws. Perhaps the French peasant’s favorite Biblical teaching was, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents.” Darnton says that, even today, the French respect the person who lives by his wits, who defends himself from the powers that be. The French of all times believe
|that life is hard, that you had better not have any illusions about selflessness in your fellow men, that clear-headedness and quick wit are necessary to protect what little you can extract from your surroundings, and that moral nicety will get you nowhere. Frenchness makes for ironic detachment. It tends to be negative and disabused. Unlike its Anglo-Saxon opposite, the Protestant ethic, it offers no formula for conquering the world. It is a defense strategy, well suited to an oppressed peasantry or an occupied country. It still speaks today in colloquial exchanges like: Comment vas-tu? (“How are you?”) Je me défends. (“I defend myself.”)|
I find it astonishing that people would view life this way, that people would view life as defending oneself, so I must have an un-French worldview, an Anglo-Saxon worldview. On the other hand, it was my father’s view, based on hard experience, that if you have something valuable (such as land or money or whatever), people will try to take it from you. My own hard experience has taught me that my father’s view is correct. Yet it’s difficult for me to believe that my experience is the norm; my experience seems strange and abnormal. My feelings and my experience pull me toward different views.1B
Perhaps we need to distinguish between the Anglo-Saxon worldview of a young person, and the Anglo-Saxon worldview of a person who has seen the world, and knows how brutal people are. As Freud said, “The time comes when each one of us has to give up as illusions the expectations which, in his youth, he pinned upon his fellow-men, and when he may learn how much difficulty and pain has been added to his life by their ill-will.”
Arthur Koestler grew up in Hungary and Austria. When he was about 25, he worked in Paris as a journalist, and he noticed some French traits. Koestler writes,
|I learnt the motto of the French little man: il faut se défendre [One must defend oneself]. I heard this phrase on the third or fourth day... when one of the old hands [said] to a colleague, referring to me: “Il ne se défend pas mal, le petit [The kid defends himself pretty well].” I heard it from the instructor of the driving school in the thick of the threatening Paris traffic: “Vous vous défendez assez bien [You defend yourself pretty well].”|
Notice that Koestler speaks of “the motto of the French little man,” he doesn’t call it “the motto of the Frenchman.” If it’s the motto of the little man, does the “big man,” the aristocrat, have a different motto? Would a study of a French aristocrat (such as Saint-Simon or Montaigne) reveal a different worldview, perhaps one that had more impact on French literature? Darnton says that the defensive worldview is suitable for an “oppressed peasantry,” suggesting that it’s not suitable for an aristocracy. Do the French folk-tales give us a one-sided view of the French mentality?
In an earlier issue, I noted that the moral teachings of Plato and Aristotle were based on the morality of the Greek aristocracy. The Greek aristocracy valued honor, glory, excellence, being the best. The idea that life is about defending oneself would have seemed strange to a Greek aristocrat, and would have seemed strange to Plato and Aristotle. And the idea that you should cheat and lie in order to defend yourself would have seemed stranger still. What a difference between the morality of the Greek aristocrat, and that of the French peasant! One of the best ways to understand something is to compare it with its opposite. By describing the defensive morality of the peasant, Darnton helps us to understand not only peasant morality, but also its opposite, aristocratic morality.1C
Let’s return to Koestler’s narrative.
|I soon began to suspect that this motto, ‘one must defend oneself’, was symbolic of the France of our day. The French, next to the Americans, are probably the most individualistic people in the world. But whereas American individualism is youthfully aggressive, aimed at outsmarting the other fellow, French individualism is resigned and defensive. French foreign policy between the wars was obsessed by the idea of sécurité, of hiding behind the Maginot Wall; the private life of the French little man was modelled on a similar pattern.... He defended himself against the State by cheating on income tax, against his fellowmen by an attitude of suspicion and defiance, a manner of sour surliness....
I never saw the interior of a French household. This experience is, of course, by no means unique for a foreigner in Paris. The French middle class is probably the most centripetal, closed society in Europe. If you meet a citizen of London, or Rome, or Stockholm, or Vienna and get on reasonably well with him, you are at once invited for a week-end or a meal at his house. In Paris you may know the same type of person for years and lunch with him in restaurants from time to time, and yet never set foot across his doorstep.1D
Darnton is aware that national character is only one step away from ethnic character, racial character, hence national character is a dangerous topic, a politically-incorrect topic. The definition of political correctness changes continually; as we check the weather forecast every morning, so we need to check every morning to see what words, what subjects, are off limits. Darnton points out that, if we compare a French version of a tale with a German version, we’re more apt to find violence and anti-Semitism in the German version. The German version often veers into the supernatural, while the French version stays on the solid ground of everyday reality. Darnton writes,
|The peasant raconteurs took the same themes and gave them characteristic twists, the French in one way, the German in another. Where the French tales tend to be realistic, earthy, bawdy, and comical, the German veer off toward the supernatural, the poetic, the exotic, and the violent. Of course, cultural differences cannot be reduced to a formula — French craftiness versus German cruelty — but the comparisons make it possible to identify the peculiar inflection that the French gave to their stories, and their way of telling stories provides clues about their way of viewing the world.|
When we talk about violence, anti-Semitism, and German national character, the uncomfortable question arises, Was the Holocaust an expression of the German national character? Could it have occurred in France or England or elsewhere? I think Thomas Mann explores this question in Doctor Faustus, which was published in 1947.
Darnton contrasts French tales with the “piety” and “pietism” in German tales: “As no discernible morality governs the world in general, good behavior does not determine success in the village or on the road, at least not in the French tales, where cunning takes the place of the pietism in the German.” The hero of many French tales is the trickster, while the hero of many German tales is the naive, simple-minded “dummling,” who seems stupid, but triumphs in the end. Darnton writes,
|The trickster heroes stand out against a negative ideal, the numbskull. In the English tales, Simple Simon provides a good deal of innocent amusement. In the German, Hans Dumm is a likeable lout, who comes out on top by good-natured bumbling and help from magic auxiliaries. The French tales show no sympathy for village idiots or for stupidity in any form.|
In an earlier issue, I discussed Marie-Louise von Franz, a disciple of Jung who studied fairy tales. Von Franz has a much higher conception of the dummling than Darnton has. Von Franz speaks of,
|the famous fairy tale motif of the Dummling, the simpleton, who appears in an infinite number of fairy tales. For instance, a king has three sons and the youngest is a fool whom everybody laughs at; but it is always this fool who becomes the hero in the story.... This kind of simple-minded, candid integrity is a great mystery and is already the secret of an individuated personality. The gift of guileless integrity is a divine spark in the human being. In analysis, I would say that it is the decisive factor as to whether an analysis goes right or wrong.|
While the French tales teach that it’s better to be a knave than a fool, the German tales teach that the “holy fool” eventually wins, though he may not win in a worldly sense. When I wrote about Dickens, I noted that he was fascinated by fairy tales, and especially by the “holy fool,” the dummling with deep wisdom, who is a recurring character in his novels.
Darnton doesn’t discuss von Franz, but he discusses other psychologists, like Erich Fromm and Bruno Bettelheim. He says that Fromm analyzes symbols in “Little Red Riding Hood” without considering whether he’s reading the original story or a modern version. Darnton says that Fromm has “an uncanny sensitivity to detail that did not occur in the original folktale.” So Darnton thinks that, before we analyze tales, we need to make sure that we have authentic tales, not tales that were modified to please a modern audience.
As for Bettelheim, Darnton says that
|Bettelheim reads “Little Red Riding Hood” and the other tales as if they had no history.... He does not question their origins or worry over other meanings that they might have had in other contexts because he knows how the soul works and how it has always worked. In fact, however, folktales are historical documents. They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions. Far from expressing the unchanging operations of man’s inner being, they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed.|
Once we have authentic tales, we can compare them with the facts of peasant life in the early-modern period. Darnton paints a grim picture of peasant life:
|Grain yields remained at a ratio of about 5-to-1, a primitive return in contrast to modern farming, which produces fifteen or even thirty grains for every seed planted. Farmers could not raise enough grain to feed large numbers of animals, and they did not have enough livestock to produce the manure to fertilize the fields to increase the yield. This vicious circle kept them enclosed within a system of triennial or biennial crop rotation, which left a huge proportion of their land lying fallow....
Great masses of people lived in a state of chronic malnutrition, subsisting mainly on porridge made of bread and water with some occasional, home-grown vegetables thrown in. They ate meat only a few times a year, on feast days or after autumn slaughtering if they did not have enough silage to feed the livestock over the winter.
If they didn’t slaughter their livestock in the autumn, they could use their livestock for warmth during the winter. “Whole families crowded into one or two beds and surrounded themselves with livestock in order to keep warm.”
Since the peasant was frequently hungry, his chief wish was for food. “Once supplied with magic wands, rings, or supernatural helpers, the first thought of the peasant hero is always for food.” Freud emphasized the sex drive, but Jung said that only well-fed people focus on sex, the rest of mankind seek to satisfy their hunger. The folk-tales strengthen Jung’s argument.
If a farmer had a bad harvest, or was crushed by debt, he and his family often took to the road,
|drifting about with the flotsam and jetsam of France’s population flottante (“floating population”), which included several million desperate souls by the 1780s.... Life on the road meant ceaseless scavenging for food. The drifters raided chicken coops, milked untended cows, stole laundry drying on hedges, snipped off horses’ tails (good for selling to upholsterers), and lacerated and disguised their bodies in order to pass as invalids wherever alms were being given out. They joined and deserted regiment after regiment and served as false recruits. They became smugglers, highwaymen, pickpockets, prostitutes. And in the end they surrendered in hôpitaux, pestilential poor houses, or else crawled under a bush or a hay loft and died.|
Marriages lasted only about 15 years, since one spouse usually died by then. It was common to have a stepmother.
|The peasants of early modern France [Darnton writes] inhabited a world of stepmothers and orphans, of inexorable, unending toil, and of brutal emotions, both raw and repressed. The human condition has changed so much since then that we can hardly imagine the way it appeared to people whose lives really were nasty, brutish, and short. That is why we need to reread Mother Goose.|
Darnton says that the French tale “Tom Thumb” (Le Petit Poucet) accurately reflects the harsh world of the peasant:
|“Once upon a time there was a woodsman and his wife, who had seven children, all boys.... They were very poor, and their seven children were a great inconvenience, because none was old enough to support himself.... A very difficult year came, and the famine was so great that these poor folk resolved to get rid of their children.” The matter-of-fact tone suggests how commonplace the death of children had become in early modern France.|
Darnton has drawn a vivid and convincing picture of peasant life in pre-Revolutionary France. He has illuminated the life of an overlooked segment of society — the broad masses, the illiterate peasants — by studying their own culture. He has also thrown light on folk-tales, and on human nature in general.
I’ve published almost 400 issues of this e-zine, but I’ve never mentioned the American psychologist Abraham Maslow. In the last issue, I discussed mystical experiences, experiences of ecstasy. Maslow is known for writing about experiences of ecstasy, which he called “peak experiences.” One of his books is called Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Like Koestler, Maslow rejected traditional religion, but his thinking is often close to religious thinking.
Maslow felt that Freud and other psychologists had emphasized sickness, had emphasized what’s wrong with people. Maslow emphasized health, “the positive potential of human beings.”2 Maslow said, “It is as if Freud supplied us the sick half of psychology and we must now fill it out with the healthy half.”
Early in his career, Maslow called his work “humanistic psychology.” Personal growth is the goal, and man has an urge toward personal growth. “Humanistic psychologists believe that every person has a strong desire to realize their full potential, to reach a level of ‘self-actualization’.... People possess the inner resources for growth and healing.... Individuals must take personal responsibility for their actions.... Only through constant self-improvement and self-understanding can an individual ever be truly happy.”
Personal growth, in Maslow’s view, sometimes culminates in a peak experience. “Self-actualizing people are more likely to have peak experiences. In other words, these peak experiences... represent the height of personality development.” In Koestler’s case, however, the peak experience, the mystical ecstasy, came when he was imprisoned, and his life was endangered. The likelihood of a peak experience seems higher if one is engaged in a retreat or meditation or “vision quest.” For Koestler, solitary confinement was a retreat, a vision quest.
Perhaps danger also leads to the peak experience. If one’s life were ending today, one might be more apt to appreciate the world around one. G. K. Chesterton wrote a novel called Manalive, in which a character fires a gun at his friends, in order to awaken their appreciation of reality, to help them “recover the lost sense of wonder and glamour of everyday life.” When Koestler was in prison, he was surrounded by gunfire and execution, and this enabled him to “recover the lost sense of wonder.”
Later in his career, Maslow decided that self-actualization wasn’t enough, “Human beings... need something bigger than themselves that they are connected to.” Maslow called his new approach “Transpersonal Psychology.” “Without the transpersonal,” Maslow said, “we get sick, violent, and nihilistic, or else hopeless and apathetic.” I’ve often argued that man needs a theory of the universe, a theory of everything. I quoted Timothy Snyder: “We don’t have theories of everything, right? That’s why everything seems so blah.”3 Maslow deals with the transpersonal in a late work called Toward a Psychology of Being.
A. Man of Iron (1981) is an excellent Polish movie about dissidents and the rise of the Solidarity union. The slogan of the dissidents is, “No lie can last forever.” The movie was directed by a prominent Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda. It’s available on Youtube.
B. Persuasion (1995) is based on a novel by Jane Austen. A member of the landed gentry has fallen into debt, so he rents his manor, and moves to more modest quarters in Bath. His middle daughter, Anne, is approaching 30 and still unwed. It’s a good film, and it’s a good introduction to Jane Austen.
The Colonial, the Post-Colonial, the Global
|1.||Tocqueville: “If, beginning at the eleventh century, one takes stock of what was happening in France at fifty-year intervals, one finds each time that a double revolution has taken place in the state of society. The noble has gone down in the social scale, and the commoner gone up; as the one falls, the other rises. Each half-century brings them closer, and soon they will touch.”(Democracy in America, Introduction)
The original French:
|1B.||Perhaps my feelings are partly a result of the experiences of my ancestors. My ancestors may have been in a higher class of society than I’m in. Or one could argue that our society doesn’t have classes, everyone is in a jumble, so everyone needs to be on the defensive.
People don’t try to take your land/money every day, it’s a rare occurrence, but it has a big impact on your life. One might compare it to the PearlHarbor attack, or the 9/11 attack; such attacks are rare, but they have a big impact on history. back
|1C.||“The pursuit of areté and honor [I wrote] inspired not only Homer’s heroes, but also later Greeks like Plato and Aristotle. ‘In many details, the ethical doctrines of Plato and Aristotle were founded on the aristocratic morality of early Greece.’ Like their ancestors, Plato and Aristotle advocated the pursuit of the noble, the beautiful, the heroic, even if that pursuit ended in death.”
If peasant morality would seem strange to Homer and Plato, it would also seem strange to a religious person — to a NewEngland Puritan, for example. A Puritan would aim at self-improvement, moral improvement, eternal bliss, not defending himself. back
|1D.||Arrow in the Blue, Ch. 23. If the French tales reveal an “oppressed peasantry,” a peasantry tempted to kill their own children in order to survive, should we view this oppression as a prelude to the French Revolution? Was there less oppression in England, and therefore less hatred of the upper class, and less motive for revolution? back|
|3.||The psychologist Erik Erikson was born in 1902, six years before Maslow. Erikson’s theory of identity reminds me of Maslow’s “transpersonal.” Erikson linked the individual to his society, to his historical era. Erikson said, “We cannot separate personal growth and communal change, nor can we separate [the] identity crisis in individual life and contemporary crises in historical development.” So there’s a “transpersonal” element in Erikson’s psychology. back|
|4.||If this is true, Namier has erred. I have a high opinion of Namier, so it’s hard for me to believe that he had a high opinion of the Russian Empire. back|
|5.||Westad praises Jeremy Adelman of Princeton who wrote World Together, Worlds Apart: An Introduction to World History From the Beginnings of Humankind to the Present (co-written with Robert Tignor, Stephen Aron, etc.). Adelman’s mentor was Albert Hirschman, who was born in Germany, and volunteered for Spanish Republicans in the 1930s, during summer break from college. Hirschman worked for the OSS in World War II. Hirschman wrote about economics and development, especially in Latin America. He died at 97. Adelman also focuses on Latin America.
Westad wrote much about the history of the Cold War; he also wrote about the history of China (Westad can read Chinese). Like Adelman, Westad co-wrote a history of the world (The New Penguin History of the World, co-written with J. M. Roberts). back
|6.||Stus’ first term in the Gulag started in 1972, his second term in 1980, he died in the Gulag in 1985; Stus said, “Ukrainians were not able to leave the country, and anyway I didn’t particularly want to go beyond those borders since who then, here, in Great Ukraine, would become the voice of indignation and protest? This was my fate, and you don’t choose your fate. You accept it, whatever that fate may be. And when you don’t accept it, it takes you by force... However I had no intention of bowing my head down, whatever happened. Behind me was Ukraine, my oppressed people, whose honor I had to defend or perish.” “The commandant [of the Gulag camp], Major Zhuravkov, committed suicide after the death of Stus.” back|