Category Archives: France, French language and culture

Jeremy Paxman and Rudolf Steiner on French language and culture

Jeremy Paxman, the BBC broadcaster who hosts University Challenge and was formerly the anchorman on the Newsnight programme, has upset French speakers by attacking their language as “useless” and saying that the French nation’s achievements are “long past”. According to Mr Paxman, learning French instead of English, especially in Francophone countries such as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, sets people back in the modern world. Paxman went on to say:

“No one is going to deny that, historically, France has enhanced civilisation. European culture would be a thin thing without Montaigne, Descartes, Debussy and Cézanne, to say nothing of the dictator’s dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The problem is that it is all long past and the new world is anglophone. In the centuries-long struggle between English and French there is one victor, and to pretend otherwise is like suggesting that Johnny Hallyday is the future of pop.

The outcome of the struggle is clear: English is the language of science, technology, travel, entertainment and sport. To be a citizen of the world it is the one language that you must have.”

Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman – photo via The Guardian

 

Needless to say, Paxman’s attack has riled a great many people, not all of them French. It also reminded me of something I had read in the Conferenzen (the record of Steiner’s meetings with the teachers at the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart) so I went to look it up. Sure enough, in the meeting which took place on Wednesday 14th February 1923, one of the participants, Dr Karutz, brought a proposal to replace the teaching of French with another language such as Russian. Rudolf Steiner responded at some length to this proposal. What he had to say would have been music to the ears of Jeremy Paxman:

“…The fact is that what France is doing today is like the last throes or the last frantic outburst of a declining nation, a nation that is fading out of earth evolution, only in history these last throes last a long time. A spiritual view of European history shows this aspect very clearly, of course. The French character is the first vanguard of decadent Rome, the declining Romanic nations of Europe…

Now this whole phenomenon of decadence in French national culture is not least visible in their language. The French language is one of those languages one can learn in Europe at present which, if I may put it like this, drives man’s soul to the very surface of his being. It would be the one in which, to put it paradoxically, it is easiest to tell lies honestly. It lends itself most easily to telling lies candidly and honestly, because it is no longer connected with man’s inner nature. It is spoken entirely on the human being’s surface.

This determines the soul attitude of both the French language and the French character. The soul bearing is such that the French language takes command of the soul. Whilst with a German person the inner configuration of the language puts the soul under the domination of the will element, the moment you speak French it has a numbing effect and takes over command. It is a language that violates the soul and therefore makes it hollow, and thus under the influence of the language, French culture hollows one out. Anyone who has a feeling for these things can always sense that in fact no soul is forthcoming in the French character, only a culture which has grown formal and rigid. The difference is this, that in French you are dependent on the language taking command over you. In French you have not got that endless freedom that you have in German, and which we ought to make use of, the freedom to put the subject in any position we like, all according to its inner significance.

It is not for pedagogical reasons that French is included in children’s education….The aim was to give French the status which Latin had had at the grammar school. They pretended that French had the same educational value as Latin. But this is not true. Latin always contains an inner logic. If you learn Latin you imbibe logic instinctively. This is not the case with French. The French language is no longer based on logic but has become mere phraseology… – and French no doubt does have a fundamentally alienating effect on the children, so that we would certainly like to see the teaching of it gradually disappearing for reasons of its innate quality. It is also quite obvious that in the future it will go.”

One can imagine Jeremy Paxman nodding his head vigorously in agreement, were he ever to read these things. To me, however, these passages show Steiner in a pretty poor light. One has to enter a caveat here about the Conferenzen transcripts, relying as they do on shorthand records, which may have been of a fragmentary nature. But whenever there was an extensive address by Steiner, as in this case, the transcripts can usually be considered as reasonably authentic. So it seems likely that these were indeed Steiner’s views on the French language and culture.

Here we encounter a difficulty which modern-day readers will come across from time to time, where they will need to decide which Steiner they are meeting. By this I mean:

Is it Steiner the great initiate?

Is it Steiner the man of his time and nation?

Is it Steiner the fallible human being who can make mistakes?

In the passages above, we are not seeing anything of Steiner the initiate, but rather Steiner as a man of his time and nation. We should remember that he was speaking less than five years after the end of the First World War, a war which Germany had lost decisively. Could it be that behind his remarks there lies a kind of anger that the Central European culture of which he himself was such an ornament, had been so overthrown and shattered; whereas the French, on the coat-tails of the British and Americans, had found themselves on the winning side. This is surely Steiner speaking from the “normal” level of consciousness rather than the sublime; it could also be Steiner the man, who sees clearly the same shortcomings in French language and culture that have been identified by Jeremy Paxman, but is expressing himself with a chauvinistic bias that undermines any objectivity that might otherwise be there.

Steiner goes on to express his view that the school will have to teach French for the time being because it is necessary for the pupils to reach examination levels in languages in a sound pedagogical way by the time they are eighteen. He says: “Taking it for granted that it is justified that our pupils have this opportunity of attaining certain educational levels, it is necessary that we plan our language lessons the way we have to. We must swallow the pill until something different arises”.

Steiner, Marie Steiner, Wegman

Rudolf Steiner, flanked on his right by Ita Wegman and Marie Steiner on his left.

 

Steiner then returns to what I can only describe as his prejudiced views:

“As a language French is deader than Latin was in the Middle Ages when it was already a dead language. In the case of Latin there was more spirit alive in it when it was ecclesiastical and dog Latin than there is in French today. It is the French temperament, their blood, that keeps their language going. The language is actually dead, and the spoken language is a corpse. This appears most strongly of all in the French poetry of the nineteenth century. No doubt about it, the soul becomes corrupted through using the French language. It gives one nothing except the possibility of a certain phraseology. And people who speak French with enthusiasm proceed to transfer this to other languages. It is also possible at the present time that the French will even ruin their own blood, the very element which has kept their language going as a corpse. That is a terrible thing the French people are doing to other people, the frightful cultural brutality of transplanting black people to Europe. It affects France itself worst of all. This has an incredibly strong effect on the blood, the race. This will substantially add to French decadence. The French nation will be weakened as a race”.

This is quite shocking stuff from Steiner and of course it is nonsense. Steiner was clearly speaking here as an Austrian of his times and as a fallible human being who makes mistakes. To describe French poetry of the nineteenth century as a corpse, which presumably includes the poetry of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarme, is simply to be absurd; one suspects that Steiner’s real problem was with the sensual and sexual elements of these poems. He would no doubt have regarded Baudelaire and Verlaine as decadent and depraved, which is rather to miss the point made by St Julian of Norwich that “sin is behovely” (useful or necessary) in our development as human beings, and that ultimately “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” – while in the meantime, the work of these French poets is part of the patrimony of human culture in the West.

The comment on black people is grossly offensive and typical of the prejudices of his times. The man who was speaking here was not the same Steiner who could speak the following out of his higher self: “What must never be forgotten is that the proclamations to the Shepherds and to the Kings contained a message for all mankind – for the earth is common to all. In that the revelation to the shepherds was from the earth, it was a revelation that may not be differentiated according to nationality. And in that the Magi received the proclamation of the sun and heavens, this too was a revelation destined for all mankind. For when the sun has shone upon the territory of one people, it shines upon the territory of another. The heavens are common to all; the earth is common to all. The impulse of the ‘human universal’ is in very truth quickened by Christianity.”

To return to the teacher-meeting: after all this, a teacher says that French has been abolished in Bavarian state schools and Steiner comments: “If it suggests itself here (i.e. were the Bavarian decision to be repeated in Wurttemburg), we shall shed no tears over the French language. Perhaps the French teachers will say something?” One can imagine the poor French language teachers who had had to listen to this demolition of their subject and who must have felt as though they had been absolutely flattened, both in terms of self-worth and in the eyes of their colleagues, just recovering themselves sufficiently to stammer out a feeble response: “We could not do it just on the spur of the moment”.

What do French teachers in today’s Steiner Waldorf schools make of all this, I wonder? In the meantime, I note that one of the new publicly funded schools, the Steiner Academy Frome, does not teach French, nor even German, but only Spanish and Mandarin. Jeremy Paxman would no doubt approve.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, France, French language and culture, Rudolf Steiner