Wednesday, 16 January 2013


A few years ago, Perry Anderson wrote a brilliant piece on French miserablism.

The French national stereotype is an indifferent shrug of the shoulders: it's cool not to care. Anderson's point was that the powerful French tradition of staging a conflict between passion and cynicism, most obviously in the nineteenth century as Romanticism slowly gave way to Realism (echoing the movement from revolution to restoration to republicanism), has turned really sour.

Because the French civic ideal is social justice for all, it has a massive national debt. The state benefits infrastructure is cripplingly expensive, and will not survive the European recession intact. The outpouring of anger and proto-rebellion has been steady for several years now, as workers' rights are curtailed in favour of the employer, and long hard looks are taken at healthcare subsidy.

This generalised economic gloom in the face of austerity has been coming out in French literature and film for some time. Houellebecq's portraits of disenchantment draw their sap from French miserablism.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that English audiences are crying their eyes out at a Hollywood adaptation of a French musical adaptation of a nineteenth-century French Romantic/Realist novel.

As we watch and pity Fantine and Valjean, Eponine, Marius and Cosette (and wonder why Sacha Baron-Cohen plays Thénardier as Fagin), we are of course all wondering how far we have to fall ourselves, whether if we took to the streets we'd all be shot, and how we managed to elect a bunch of right-wing fools to manage the nation's finances by making us pay for each of its mistakes.

Look who's miserable now.

1 comment:

Kirkegaard said...

Many apologies to all those who've told me they are trying to leave comments!