Sunday, May 15, 2005

Silence is my national anthem

A number of works in the 1920s explored the possibilities of Franco-German rapprochement. The conflict between the two nations was considered the central problem of European peace. Many of the works I have analyzed in my dissertation have argued that the Rhine could serve as a foundation for cooperation between the nations. But there were other works that explored the issue in other ways. They criticized the innateness, and permanence, of mentality.

Jean Giraudoux’s first play, Siegfried, was a popular work in the 1920s for exploring Franco-German antagonism and the possibility of rapprochement. The central character is an amnesiac, who is given the name Siegfried by his nurse and becomes chancellor of Germany. He introduces reforms that would put the Weimar Republic on firm ground (that is to say, make it look more like France’s republic).

However, he longs to know his true family, an ongoing search that leads him to the truth: that he is a Frenchman named Jacques: an artist with a penchant for Nietzsche and Geist who was believed killed on the field of battle. Two women, advocating for both countries, fight over him. The choice he makes is to return to France, not because he is a Frenchman but because of his need to know his past; and he does not return as Jacques, but as a hybrid of Siegfried and Jacques. Giraudoux offers no finality: Jacques/Siegfried is a synthetic being who belongs to neither nation.

Other authors during the 1920s and 30s looked at transnational cooperation. Pabst’s Kammeradschaft describes the daring rescue of trapped miners by miners from the other side of the border. Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion makes social divisions more meaningful than nation in an officers prison camp during the First World War. Both films used proximity as a means of defeating, or re-situating, international antagonism. The bonds of humanity proved stronger than patriotism.

Giraudoux attempts to produce something in common, imagining what a Frenchman who did not despise Germany would be like. Memory – or lack thereof – is critical. Siegfried has no specific prejudices. Consequently, he can save the republic from conservatives who associate it with Frenchness. Indeed, the loss of identity allows him to overcome strife in German society.

Throughout the play Giraudoux returns to one question: does language structure thought. The question recurs as the particulars debate whether or not Siegfried/Jacques would naturally express himself in French or German. His identity was initially based on the thinnest evidence: that he was able to ask for Wasser when he was revived. The physicians and nurses ascertained from this request that he was German, even though they taught him the rest of the language. They also give him a heroic name and the nation’s history as his memory.

But he also lacked adeptness in French. He speaks imperfectly, apologizing for his accent, but he clearly had no appreciation for the language as spoken in Paris.

Giraudoux seems to assert that language is abstraction until it is informed by experience. Bringing levity to the play, Jacques’ ex-fiancee Genevieve is introduced to Siegfried as a teacher of French from Quebec who will be his tutor.

As they discuss the differences between languages and dialects, Genevieve attempts to act like a Quebecoise. Truthfully, she performs a French stereotype of a Québécoise: the words that they say differently, the economic and cultural poverty, the routine of daily life and lack of achievement or individuality. When asked where she came from, her answer exudes arrogance:

What town? You know people don’t pay much attention to names in Canada. It’s a large country, but everybody feels near to everyone else. We used to call our lake “The Lake”, and our town “The Town.” No one remembers the name of the river – I’m sure you’re going to ask me about the immense river which crosses Canada – it’s just the river.

People don’t write much. When they do, they deliver their own letters by sleigh [instead of by post].

[We did] what everyone does in Canada: look after the snow.

Siegfried dismisses these assertions. He insists that Québécois French should have its own charm. It is informed by the simplicity, the vastness and the naturalness of the landscape and its people. Words that lack reality in the daily life of France take on new meaning in Canada:

I know [these words] are French, but in your mouth they take on something of the unknown. In France the word snow has never touched as much snow as it has in Canada. You took from France a word which she used for only a few days out of the year and with it lined your entire language.
Siegfried’s perspective contains German notions of culture’s relationship with nature. His analysis of the dialect of Quebec assumes that French need not be abstract: it is capable of taking on rich meaning and being personalized. The abstractness of civilisation must be a deliberate project rather than an innate characteristic of the French people and their language.

Can Franco-German conflict be reduced to warring mentalities? No. Only history and politics, as they are taught, can produce the “hereditary” animosity between the two nations. They come after language, after experience. Giraudoux suggests that it is possible to come to a synthesis of the French and the German without disturbing civilisation and Kultur, repealing the layers of historical propaganda.

Nationality is another choice, something that can be learned or relearned. For Siegfried, “silence is my national anthem.” With a little forgetting, it can be overcome.

Theatrical Arts of Jean Giraudoux

Plaisir à Giraudoux

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