What’s with the sudden French Obsession thing? That’s a questions someone, somewhere might ask me. Well, to that imaginary person I say, “It’s not sudden! It’s just recent.” Although they do have a point. My French Thing is definitely farther along the path to obsession than previous areas of interest have gotten. Compared to my late-1990s fascination with the Civil War, my late-2000’s interest in Hacker culture or even my decades-spanning interest in H.P. Lovecraft, the French Thing is definitely more all-consuming. Looking at current trend-lines in both my schedule and my brain, it seems likely to only get more serious.
When I think back on it, that does seem kind of weird. I grew up in the United States in the latter-quarter of the last century. That means French jokes were a staple of my life. It’s not like France is any less mockable than most countries, but whereas, say, German jokes focus on their coldness or efficiency or English jokes on their stiffness and blandness, French jokes often have a tinge of disdain for cowardice and/or effeteness to them. While the former two are based in a kind of teasing respect, the latter embraces a teasing disrespect. That’s my off-the-cuff analysis anyway.
I long had some sort of low-level, back of the head disdain for Frenchiness that I attribute to a general American attitude towards France that is disdainful by default. Not every American of course, and there’s a flip side of putting certain aspects of French culture on a pedestal. French food, wine, cheese, film, philosophy, fashion, and literature are held to be sophisticated and of high quality. Of course, there’s also a strong tradition of American disdain for sophisticated things, so that kind of reinforces the whole anti-French zeitgeist I’m talking about.
I have liked French food, cheese, and wine for a long time, because those things are tasty and good. I had a nice time when I spent a few days in Southern France during my semester abroad in Rome in 1992. I thought Marseilles was fascinating, Nice was beautiful, and Monaco was weird. But the real source of my current French Obsession is not that brief foray into the Cote d'Azur twenty-three years ago. The real source is a college course I took twenty-four years ago at American University: Dynamics of Political Change.
American University, at least back in my day, always gave its courses interesting names. Instead of Biology 101, it was Great Experiments in Biology. Instead of European History 101 it was Renaissance and Revolutions. I guess there’s probably not such a thing as How Revolutions Happen 101, but that’s what Dynamics of Political Change was about. It looked at the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions as examples of the different historical factors that come together to create a successful revolution. Here revolution was defined as a complete change in the power structure and ruling institutions of a country. Under this definition, the American Revolution wasn’t a revolution, but a War of Independence, since the British government and its institutions were left intact.
It’s important to note that I was taking this class in 1991, in Washington DC. We’d just witnessed a massive wave of mostly bloodless revolutions sweep through Eastern Europe. It was incredibly exciting stuff. While I was taking the class, I bought a winter overcoat at a military surplus store that had purchased a huge lot of clothing from the now non-existent East German military. My main defense against the DC winter was an overcoat manufactured for use by officers in the East German Navy. I found it astonishing that the Warsaw Pact, the grand villain of my whole lifetime up to 1989, had just kind of dissolved in the face of it’s people rising up. Revolutions fascinated me.
I know a lot more about what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 now than I did while I was living through it, and it’s even more fascinating now. Ever since then the way revolutions unfold (or don’t) has retained a firm hold on my imagination. I don’t really remember much about the French Revolution from that class, other than the general idea that it wouldn’t have happened if France hadn’t been in an economic crisis and its army hadn’t sided with the people instead of the King. As with 1989, I now know a lot more about the French Revolution and it’s even more fascinating to me.
My current French Obsession is in many ways the full flowering of my long-standing interest in revolutions of all kinds. It has combined with several other abiding passions into a perfect cassoulet of Francomania. I’ve been tracing the recent course of my snowballing interest and I think it makes for an interesting timeline. So I’m going to put it in a timeline! But that’s a future blog post. A post wherein I will discuss books, cookbooks, and audiobooks.