The Action Française was formed in 1898 in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, promoting an anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and nationalist agenda. The writer and critic Charles Maurras (1868—1952) led the movement with a call for a unified French nation, to be brought about by a return to the monarchy and a rejection of the democratic values of the French Revolution. For Maurras, the Revolution was a catastrophic break in the core tradition of Western civilization that had begun in Greece, continued in ancient Rome and spread to Latin Europe through the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. This tradition he called 'classical', and he opposed it to the spirit of the Revolution, which he termed 'romantic'. The Swiss—French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778) was for Maurras the embodiment of romanticism, and, like many conservatives, he traced the intellectual source of the Revolution to Rousseau's writings on man's natural virtue and equality. More than any other figure, Maurras was responsible for turning the terms 'classical' and 'romantic' into starkly opposed political positions, where classical stood for order, reason, hierarchy, community and tradition, and romantic for chaos, emotion, equality, individualism and revolution (Asher 1995: 23). The Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of France (1940—1944) declared itself indebted to Maurras's ideas, and Maurras and his fellow members of the Action Française were enthusiastic supporters of the regime (Weber 1962: 442-56).
The Dreyfus Affair. In 1894 a military court convicted the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus of spying and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The case polarized public opinion: Dreyfus professed his innocence, and those who supported him (the 'Dreyfusards') argued that he was the victim of anti-Semitism and anti-liberal forces in the military. The novelist Emile Zola was arrested for publishing an open letter under the heading 'J'Accuse', which claimed (correctly) that the military authorities had suppressed evidence that could exonerate Dreyfus. The anti-Dreyfusards used the case to shore up nationalist sentiment against those it saw as France's enemies within: Jews, socialists and liberals. Dreyfus was retried in 1899, and again found guilty but pardoned; in 1904 he was retried by a civilian court of appeal and finally cleared.
References to the Action Française began to appear in Hulme's writings during the spring of 1911 in the three instalments of 'A Note on the Art of Political Conversion'. Hulme holds up the French movement's success in attracting young French intellectuals to the conservative cause as an example to which the British Tory party should aspire: in France 'the really latest and advanced thing is to be a Neo-Royalist', he writes (1994: 210). But while the Action Française's doctrine of classicism helped Hulme to organize ideas that had long been part of his literary criticism, such as his aversion to aestheticism, it was inconsistent with his interest in Bergson. The Action Française condemned Bergson's philosophy as romantic and, on his return from the International Philosophical Congress in Bologna in April 1911, Hulme visited one of the movement's leading members, Pierre Lasserre (1867—1930), to discuss the issue. In Hulme's account (in 'Balfour, Bergson, and Politics'), Lasserre explains to Hulme that Bergson's theory of time is used by the French left wing to argue for progressive politics and democratic rule. To the Action Française's argument that France should return to the monarchical rule of the pre-revolutionary period, the democrats respond that it is useless to apply the political lessons of the past to the present, citing Bergson's conception of the present moment as unique and unrepeatable (1994: 165). Hulme's initial response to Lasserre's denunciation of Bergson was to find a compromise: he suggested that Bergson's analysis of time applied to the individual consciousness, but not to collective human experience. In writings produced during the autumn and winter of 1911—1912, including 'Romanticism and Classicism', Hulme advocated both the classicism of the Action Française and Bergsonism. But over the next few years, Bergson was to lose his pre-eminent place in Hulme's thought, while the classicism of the Action Française endured, renamed in his later work 'the religious attitude' (1994: 426).
Eliot first encountered Maurras, Lasserre and the Action Française in one of his graduate courses at Harvard, 'Literary Criticism in France', taught by Irving Babbitt (1865—1933), Professor of French and Comparative Literature. Although Babbitt did not support every aspect of the Action Française's programme, he agreed with key elements: its stance against romanticism, Rousseau and democracy, and its commitment to tradition, order and cultural elitism. During his stay in Paris the following year, Eliot read Maurras's L'Avenir de l'intelligence (The Future of Intelligence) (1905). When he delivered a lecture series
Humanism. General term for philosophies or beliefs that prioritize the human. Renaissance humanism developed from the study of Greek and Roman classics and, though consistent with religious belief, signified a shift of focus from God and the supernatural to the human. Since the mid-nineteenth century, humanism has frequently been used to denote anti-religious philosophy.
on 'Modern French Literature' in 1916, he followed the theories of Maurras, Lasserre and Babbitt closely, characterizing the twentieth century as a return to the ideals of classicism. Their books were included in the course bibliography (Schuchard 1999: 27, 30-31).
Eliot was also drawing on Hulme's writings in these lectures. Recently uncovered evidence has proved that, despite Eliot's statement to the contrary, Eliot and Hulme met during the period between Eliot's arrival in London in August 1914 and Hulme's death on 28 September 1917, for much of which Hulme was fighting in France. Although he does not appear to have known Hulme well, Eliot admired his writings, and the information for the second lecture in the 'Modern French Literature' series not only gives the Action Française and Babbitt definition of classicism, but adds Hulme's particular contribution, that classicism may be defined as a belief in original sin (Schuchard 2003: 66; Asher 1995: 37-39). In 1929, in the second of two essays on Babbitt and humanism ('The Humanism of Irving Babbitt (1928)', 'Second Thoughts about Humanism (1929)'), Eliot compared Hulme's religious classicism favourably to Babbitt's humanist classicism, in which he detected a taint of romanticism. Eliot's classicism is thus indebted primarily to these three sources, and it became the basis for both his literary philosophy and his right-wing conservative politics.
Was this article helpful?