Fellow 1991-92

Jean-Philippe R Mathy

French & Italian

Extrême-Occident: Twentieth Century French Fictions of America

"America" as myth and metaphor appears to be a contested signifier, which has given rise to conflicting interpretations. Some accounts tend to demonize American culture as the Absolute Other, and stress its differences from the European tradition. Other descriptions, while acknowledging American exceptionality, focus on aspects in which the cultural and political continuities between utopias of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were (and still are) given historical reality through a process of continuous social experimentation.

It is Professor Mathy's contention that these texts often reveal more about their authors' positions in the French political and intellectual fields than about American society itself. As the United States gradually conquered a dominant position in international relations of power, the evaluation of American society and culture became an issue in domestic ideological debates throughout Europe. Because of their ideological importance, representations of America are a key to the understanding of recent French and European intellectual history. A careful reading of romantic, liberal, Marxist, nationalist, libertarian or postmodern versions of American culture and society lends support to the central thesis of the study: despite their obvious ideological differences, most of these texts share a common opposition to what they perceive as the death and/or disappearance of European aesthetic standards and moral values in American society. This oppositional stance is rooted in a fundamentally humanistic and aristocratic ethos, derived from models of intellectual excellence and critical practice born in the age of French Classicism.

The competing versions of the American way of life and thought take on added meaning when also related to cultural and political developments both within and outside the French intellectual field and constitute invaluable tools for the understanding of contemporary culture, in France and elsewhere. Text and context interact: the content analysis of particular works throws light on the dynamics of intellectual politics. Conversely, the impressive amount of scholarly material now available on French cultural history can contribute to the study of individual theories and interpretations. Since the present study is concerned with the situation of literary works and philosophical essays on America in the broader context of French and European social and cultural history, Professor Mathy has combined approaches from literary criticism, history, and the social sciences.