Part 1 of 3
Alain de Benoist
Mémoire vive: entretiens avec François Bousquet
Paris: Éditions de Fallois, 2012
The title of Alain de Benoist’s volume of reminiscences is a play on words: literally signifying “vivid memory,” it is also the French equivalent for RAM, or Rapid Access Memory. In the form of interviews, the author traces his personal and intellectual development and that of the French nouvelle droite.
Alain de Benoist is descended, on his father’s side, from an ancient Belgian lineage traceable ultimately to a ninth-century Italian captain who defended Apulia from Saracen pirates. His father, also named Alain de Benoist, worked for a perfumery, eventually becoming the firm’s general sales manager for a large swath of France. Benoist remembers being strongly and lastingly influenced by his paternal grandmother. She owned a dilapidated 16th-century castle, without running water or electricity, where Benoist spend many summers. She was
passionate, hyperemotional, but also capricious. I believe she always had a rather turbulent emotional life, which in the end crystallized as religious devotion. Besides, she had a literary and artistic culture which my parents lacked. She introduced me to all the parks and gardens of Paris and took me to all the museums.
It was she who first taught me the meaning of noblesse oblige: viz., that belonging to the aristocracy does not consist in benefiting from more privileges than others or in having additional rights, but in imposing greater burdens upon one oneself, having a higher notion of one’s duties, feeling more responsible than others. Behaving in a noble manner, whatever class one comes from, means never being satisfied with oneself, never reasoning in terms of utility. It means the beauty of gratuitousness, of “useless” expenditure, the beau geste, the conviction that one could always have done better, that it is odious to boast of what one has done, that a man’s quality is tested by his ability to act contrary to his own interests whenever it becomes necessary.
All these things were inculcated in me in an almost passionate fashion. My grandmother lived in a sort of permanent state of exaltation.
His mother, born Germaine Langouët, was working at a post office in St. Malo, Brittany, when she met Benoist’s father. She was descended entirely from Norman and Breton peasants and fishermen.
My maternal grandparents were simple people. Thanks to their surroundings, I was also able to live in contact with the popular classes. But it was also thanks to them that I quickly understood the reality of class relations. It was not social inequalities as such which shocked me so much as the contemptuous fashion in which I too often saw people of the lower classes treated.
Born 1943 at Tours, an only child, Benoist’s family moved to Paris when he was six, and he has remained there ever since. He was enrolled at the Lycée Montaigne:
I was an excellent student in the subjects which interested me: French, literature, history, geography, Latin, Greek; and very bad in those I did not like: math, geometry, physics. I think I reached the end of my studies without ever having understood the difference between a division and a fraction. I feel ill at ease as soon as I see numbers instead of letters.
From the age of eight I began to read in a compulsive, bulimic fashion. I read all the time and everywhere. My mother had the weakness to allow me to read at the table; I would pick at my plate without even looking at what I was eating, so as not to interrupt my reading. I would read during class. I would even read in the street, walking to school, holding my book up in front of me, casting only the most cursory glances at the traffic.
I read an astronomical number of comic books, which I got my mother to buy or traded with my school fellows. But it was particularly fairy tales and legends which enchanted me: the tales of Andersen, of Perrault and the Grimms. The Greek myths and the Homeric universe particularly fascinated me.
I quickly went on to literature. My paternal grandmother had in her library a first edition of the works of Hugo in sixty volumes. I read them from the first to the last line, after which I devoured all the volumes of Balzac’s Human Comedy. Then I went on to Zola’s Rougon-Macquart, then Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant, Mérimée, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol. . . . Whatever pocket-money my mother gave me was immediately converted into books. At about age ten or eleven, she gave me bus tickets for my trip to school. I went on foot and resold the tickets half price to other pupils. Anything in order to read!
I read above all in order to escape from a daily routine which I found humdrum, drowned in philistinism and bourgeois convention. In adventure stories it was the change of scene more than the action that I sought.
But I should also admit that I stole books, and with a perfectly easy conscience: it was all for a good cause! I stole quite a few from Gilbert, boulevard Saint-Michel, right up to the day I got caught. The bookstore personnel called up my mother, who arrived immediately, livid in the face. She imagined I would perish on the scaffold one day. She paid for the books but, upon leaving the store, threw them into an open gutter. I was so angry, I went the very next day and stole exactly the same books from another bookstore.
Next to reading, the visual arts were his greatest passion: “Van Gogh and Salvador Dalí were my heroes.” For a time, he imposed on himself a duty to visit at least one exhibition of paintings every day.
The cinema was another interest. His local church published notices concerning which of the new films were wholesome for young viewers and which were to be avoided. The young Benoist consulted these notices and then went to see every film condemned as unsuitable, on the assumption that these would be the most interesting.
He was a difficult catechumen:
I asked all sorts of questions, such as: ‘if God is all-powerful, can he make 2 + 2 = 5? Did Neanderthal man have a soul? If there are extraterrestrial beings, how would they know about the incarnation? If the sun danced in the sky before the little visionaries of Fatima, how is it that no astronomical observatory registered this movement?’
The curés thought my questions preposterous, though perhaps they were only disturbing.
Benoist’s generation was the last to glimpse an era now vanished forever:
The 1950s were a continuous prolongation of the ’30s and ’40s. Despite the war, little had really changed in the realm of social and family structures or in daily life. The automobile and the television spread only slowly. Frenchmen’s ways of speaking and behaving were not yet determined by what they saw on television. They spoke like their parents, with regional accents, not like the host of the latest TV program. Educated people had more learning, the popular classes more spontaneity. People did not systematically mock everything. And among the young, no one would have thought of taking an interest in the brand of clothing you wore.
It is only at the end of the ’50s and the very beginning of the ’60s that the great caesura occurs. There was the revolution in the household, with refrigerators and washing machines. The contraceptive pill came on the market in 1960. Supermarkets appeared in 1962.
Above all, rural life began to decline, a real silent revolution whose full scope hardly anyone understood at the time. Today, the peasants—become farmers, if not “agricultural operators”—represent less than one percent of the French population, whereas they constituted the majority in the 19th century, and still numbered ten million in 1945. The end of the rural world brought about the end of a way of life expressing a mentality which has now disappeared. It involved the end of popular traditions which until recently structured collective existence, the end of a world where men and women often sang as they worked. No one does that anymore; at most, they listen to the radio.
Benoist sums up his childhood by saying “there was nothing exceptional about it—only, it was very full.”