Meet the Cultural Illuminati Guarding France's Most Sacrosanct Asset: The French Language
When youâre known as âthe immortals,â as are the 40 members of the AcadÃ©mie FranÃ§aise, itâs hard to take yourselves lightly. Over the course of five centuries, 732 of them have walked the earth and reigned as the guardians of Franceâs most sacrosanct asset: its language. A linguistic secret service, if you like, they project an almost priestly aura when they don their habits vertsâ"long black cloaks embroidered with leafy-green botanical motifsâ"accessorized with elaborate ceremonial swords. Drawn from the arts and academia as well as the clergy and government, the AcadÃ©mie is considered to include the nationâs finest minds, and is revered accordingly. It is, after all, the most exclusive club in France.
In recent years, however, these august savants (ranging in age from a sprightly 60 up to 99), who serve for life after being elected by the membership, have begun to face some distinctly 21st-century challengesâ"for starters, replenishing their ranks. Inside their temple-like palace on the left bank of the Seine, opposite the Louvre, in the majestic coupole-topped chamber where they convene, a good portion of the numbered fauteuils have sat vacant for long stretches (six were unoccupied in 2017) while the AcadÃ©mie goes through its laborious election process. In May, it chose its fifth living female immortal, and the ninth ever. Opinions on hot-button issues such as âinclusive writing,â which aims to make French grammar more gender-neutral, have created a cultural stir.
The AcadÃ©mie FranÃ§aise remains a unique combination of pomp and real intellectual powerâ"a bastion, in every senseâ"as I was able to witness one week in May, when the historically press-averse powers of the AcadÃ©mie granted me interviews and access inside their palace. The question at hand: could the arcane, archaic AcadÃ© mie be re-invigorated by new blood, attention, and energy? And just what, exactly, do they do?
Since 1635, when it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIIIâs chief minister, the AcadÃ©mieâs primary task has been to write the official dictionary of the French language. The first edition took 56 years to complete. A new edition is embarked upon as soon as one is finished, and typically requires decades of labor. Work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire de lâAcadÃ©mie franÃ§aise, commenced in 1986, has progressed (as of August) up to surhomme. Each Thursday morning, the 15 members of the dictionary committee convene around an oval table, as their predecessors have for centuries, and proceed word by word. âWeâll cover 20 to 30 if all goes well,â says one member. That afternoon, the entire membership assembles for learned discourse, and itâs livelier than you might think.
âWe have fun; itâs not stuffy. We have discussions , not arguments. Iâve never had to resort to the sword,â says playwright RenÃ© de Obaldia, occupant of fauteuil 22 since 1999, who will turn 100 in October. âIt is a pleasure to go there because people have a way of speaking to each other with such politeness. It is completely out of todayâs time,â says art historian Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, and fauteuil 23 since 1995. âWe are not here to stop change,â says author Sir Michael Edwards, the only British immortal (fauteuil 31 since 2013), âbut to push language in the way of greatest eloquence, resourcefulness, and beauty; to steer it in the direction of the best French possible.â
Controversy can erupt along the way. Occasionally the AcadÃ©mie issues public edicts, injunctions, and alarms, many of which are intended to suppress some pernicious foreign word, particularly an Anglicism, from gaining traction in French discourse; in its place the members proffer a more desirable French equivalent. Some of their efforts take rootâ"courriel is widely used instead of âe-mailââ"but many others, such as prÃªt hypothÃ©caire Ã risque Ã©levÃ© in place of âsubprime mortgage,â just never catch on.
And then thereâs inclusive writing, a tough as k for a language where gender is a central feature. French nouns are either masculine or feminine, dictating their adjectives, and the masculine always trumps the feminine: if one male nurse appeared in a group of 99 female nurses, they would all be called infirmiers, not infirmiÃ¨res. The French high commission for gender equality recently condemned this practice as âa form of sexual tyranny.â But to the immortals, changing the grammatical rules would produce a worse offense: a clumsy, inelegant, and ultimately less beautiful language. In October 2017, according to The Telegraph, they issued a stern declaration that just said non. Gender inclusivity âleads to a fragmented language, disparate in its expression, creating confusion that borders on being unreadable. . . . Faced with the âinclusiveâ aberration, the French language is in mortal danger, for which our nation is accountable to future generations.â
Many feminists were out raged by the stand; other French speakers, too, have come to view the AcadÃ©mie as elitist and old-fashioned. Journalist FranÃ§ois Busnel blasted the organization, likening it to âa fat, blind, suicidal whale stubbornly determined to beach itself on a rocky coast with everyone watching.â
But the AcadÃ©mie still has friends in high places. In March, President Emmanuel Macron rocked the house with a rousing speech, the first address ever given there by a sitting French president. âGrammar, vocabulary, etymology, and . . . literature are the breeding ground where our lives take root,â he said. A few months earlier, in the courtyard of Les Invalides, which contains Napoleonâs tomb, Macron and his wife, Brigitte, flanked by former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and FranÃ§ois Hollande, presided over the grand state funeral of Jean dâOrmesson, a beloved author who had died at age 92, after a 44-year tenure in the AcadÃ©mie. âWeâre here, different by age, background, jobs, [and] political opinions, but united over what [constitutes] the essence of France: the love of literature,â said Macron, before he placed a pencil on dâOrmessonâs tricolor-draped coffin.
In the past few years the AcadÃ©mie has been furiously devoted to filling its empty seats. After the election of the medievalist Michel Zink in December 2017, this year it tapped novelist Patrick Grainville and philologist Barbara Cassin to join. The selection of the latter was particularly notable, as she is considered a leftist, even a radical by someâ"and, oh yes, sheâs a woman, raising the AcadÃ©mieâs current female population to five. At the time of the first female appointment, Marguerite Yourcenar, in 1980, President ValÃ©ry Giscard dâEstaingâ"who became an immortal in 2003 and remains one today at 92â"sent her a telegraph in which he offered his âdeferential congratulations upon your brilliant election, which consecrates the eminent place of women in French literatur e.â Later, in her acceptance address, Yourcenar said, âOne cannot say that in French society, so impregnated with feminine influences, the AcadÃ©mie has been a notable misogynist. It simply conformed to the custom that willingly places a woman on a pedestal but did not permit itself to officially offer her a chair.â
Less forward-looking was the election held on June 21, when the membership gathered to choose a successor to the late novelist Michel DÃ©on. Among the several candidates, the front-runners were Bruno Racine, 66, an esteemed civil servant who had most recently been the director of the BibliothÃ¨que Nationale de France, and FrÃ©dÃ©ric Mitterrand, 71, a polymath writer-filmmaker and former French minister of culture. A nephew of the late president Mitterrand, FrÃ©dÃ©ric is also openly gay.
The election of an immortal has been compared to the election of a Pope, but with certain distinctions. âEach [Academician] is convinced he is more important than the Pope,â Xavier Darcos, chancellor of the Institut de France and an immortal, says with a laugh. The director of a Paris museum describes the AcadÃ©mie as âa cross between the Vatican and the Jockey Club,â referring to the poshest menâs club in Paris. And like papal conclaves, the Acad Ã©mie can remain deadlocked for long periods. On June 21, after no candidate received a majority of votes (Mitterrand garnered 11 in each of the three rounds, while Racine averaged 8), an election blanche was declared; another try was scheduled for October 11â"though not necessarily with the same candidates. The analysis of one eminent, heterosexual French intellectual I spoke to was this: âMitterrand got the support of an important current in the AcadÃ©mie: the gays. As a group their influence is rather strongâ"not strong enough to have Mitterrand elected, but strong enough to block Racine.â (Historian and novelist Dominique Fernandez, 89, elected to fauteuil 25 in 2007, is the only current Academician who publicly identifies as gay.)
A prominent writer, however, expressed doubt that the membersâ sexual orientation was at play here. âI would think they would refuse Mitterrand because heâs a socialist,â he says. This same source chalked up Racineâs los s to his lack of style: âHeâs a nice bureaucrat, but not anybodyâs idea of
distinguished.â Heâs what my mother would have calledcommon.â And appearances count when you have to call on the immortals to solicit their vote.â
Cardinal Richelieu claimed he had founded the AcadÃ©mie to âfix the French language, giving it rules, rendering it pure and comprehensible by all.â Standardizing and perfecting the languageâ"and tamping down on regional dialectsâ"brought unity and glory to France and its empire. Today, with Brexit-bound Britain and Trump-mired America becoming more isolationist, language is a key tool for Franceâs global ambitions, which presents a renewed mission to the AcadÃ©mie. (In his address there, Macron announced his plan to make French, now the worldâs fifth-most-spoken language, with nearly 300 million speakers, the third-most-common one.)
Initially installed in the Louvre, this âparliament of the learnedâ moved in 1805 , on Napoleonâs orders, to its present palace, a masterpiece commissioned at great expense in 1661 by Cardinal Mazarin and designed in a hybrid of Baroque and classical styles by architect Louis Le Vau, before he commenced work on Versailles for Louis XIV. In its new home, the AcadÃ©mie came under the aegis of Napoleonâs newly chartered Institut de France, which encompasses four other learned societies: lâAcadÃ©mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres; lâAcadÃ©mie des sciences; lâAcadÃ©mie des Beaux-Arts; and lâAcadÃ©mie des sciences morales et politiques. Each academy continues to operate independently under the umbrella of the Institut; together they distribute a hefty $25 million or so in awards each year.
At the annual SÃ©ance solennelle, a meeting held jointly by the five academies to distribute prizes, the immortals paraded into the coupole in their finery after a procession of Franceâs Republican Guard. The design of their signature habits verts originates from a committee appointed by Napoleon that included the painter Jacques-Louis David and the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The bespoke garments are hand-embroidered with delicate needlework depicting botanical forms, and have been made at couture houses such as Lanvin, Balmain, and, more recently, Christian Lacroix and Pierre Cardin. Each Academician also carries a sword that reflects aspects of his or her life through inscriptions and designs. Most members have pieces that have been custom-made by jewelers, such as Cartier, Arthus-Bertrand, Chopard, and Lorenz BÃ¤umer.
Both the threads and the blades are, needless to say, cher. A custom suit can run $60,000, and a swordâ"well, the skyâs the limit. Traditionally, wealthy patrons have formed a committee to raise funds for gifting these items to a new Academician.
Many astonishing swords have been commissioned, but it would be hard to top the one that Cartier crafted in 1955 for the late French writer Jean Cocteau. Designed by Cocteau himself, it featured the main themes of his artistic universe; the profile of Orpheus, his muse, is traced in the curvilinear hilt, while the pommel is crowned by an ivory version of Orpheusâs lyreâ"adorned with a 2.84-carat emerald contributed by Coco Chanel. The crossguard took the form of a stick of charcoal, evoking his drawings, while, on the scabbard, a pattern evoking the grille of the Palais-Royal alluded to Cocteauâs home there.
âIs French sexist? Yes! But . . . if you try to make a language not sexist, I donât know if it will be a language.â
As a visit to the home of the newest immortal revealed, itâs not your grandfatherâs AcadÃ©mie anymore. Barbara Cassin, 71, one of the worldâs leading philologists, is a former research director of the French National Center for Scientific Research who has spent her distinguished career studying sophism, rhetoric, and their relation to phi losophy. Her work has been described as âa synthesis of Heideggerian thought with a linguistic turn.â In another words, as they say in Boston, sheâs wicked smart. Although Cassin describes herself as a feminist, she disapproves of inclusive writing. âIs the French language sexist? Yes!â she exclaims. âBut itâs not a pertinent question to ask if a language is sexist or notâ"everything is sexist. If you try to make a language not sexist, I donât know if, in the end, it will be a language.â Opening the door to her pleasantly bohemian, book-crammed, plant-filled apartment in the Fifth Arrondissement, sheâs also high-energy and good-humored, and seems much younger than 71. âIâm just elected!â she says giddily. âBut Iâm not yet in!â
Cassin will not officially become an immortal until the spring of 2019 at the earliest; a new Academician must first be officially receivedâ"and approvedâ"by the French president in a private meeting at the Ãl ysÃ©e Palace. But the more time-consuming business is the eulogy a newly elected member is expected to write about his or her predecessor. These speeches, lasting up to an hour, stand as the definitive statement about the late Academicianâs career; in preparation, the author is expected to read virtually everything their predecessor ever wrote. The resulting orations, generally published later in book form, are dazzling examples of French intellectual prowess.
âThere is also the dress, and the sword,â HÃ©lÃ¨ne CarrÃ¨re dâEncausse, the AcadÃ©mieâs secrÃ©taire perpÃ©tuelle, adds, explaining the pre-inauguration prep: couture houses and jewelers require many months to execute the exquisite elements of their crafts. But this is one tradition that may have to be rethought. âI canât stand the idea it costs so much, that I am supposed to ask friends to pay for it. Certainly not!â says Cassin. âI want to have a virtual sword, like my grandson has, from the good side of the Force.â
Later I report to the imposing, paneled office of Xavier Darcos, who became chancellor of the Institut last December, succeeding Prince Gabriel de Broglie, 87, whose family title comes from the Holy Roman Empire. The arrival of Darcos, 71, a highly regarded career civil servant and politician, is being seen as another sign of modernization; de Broglieâs old-world manner was courtly but autocratic, and this chancellor seems focused on leading the organization into the 21st century.
âLanguage is power,â he says firmly. âRichelieu was rightâ"it is a political tool.â Darcosâs gleaming sword (m ade by Lorenz BÃ¤umer), which he proudly displays, appears a powerful tool, too, with its stunning gold handle. âI have very generous friends,â he notes.
The chancellor disputes any suggestions that the AcadÃ©mie is irrelevant or elitistâ"though he understands why some people have that impression. âSometimes people think we are a bit passÃ© because our members tend to be elected in the latter parts of their careers,â he says. âBut I would say we are the opposite of passÃ©. We are here to support creation. When it is time to look for a new member, we search for people who are not enclosed in their own spaces, for people who moved through different parts of societyâ"someone articulate, sensitive to culture, with an appetite for it.â And if a candidate puts his own hat in the ring, does he stand a chance? Darcos measures his response carefully: âCaution dictates it is better to be asked. The prudent thing is to be on our radar. But there are daredevils . . .â he says, raising his prominent eyebrows.
It has been speculated that, thanks to innumerable magnificent bequests and gifts over many centuries, the AcadÃ©mie is colossally rich. Rumors are rife, but figures are hard to come byâ"âIt has never been very transparent about its finances,â I was told by the museum director. That said, gifts in more recent times have been well disclosed, such as a 20-million-euro bequest from Liliane Bettencourt, Franceâs wealthiest woman when she died, in 2017, to construct a new auditorium.
The French journalist Daniel Garcia investigated the institution in the 2014 book Coupole et dÃ©pendances, and reported that the AcadÃ©mie and the Institut de France possess around 1 billion euros in securities alone, and much more than that in properties and land, including a good chunk of Paris (about 40 prime buildings), hectares of forest land, and numerous historic chateaux, some stocked with staggering art. Foremost among them is the extraordinary Chantilly, whose painting collection is second in importance in France only to that of the Louvre.
According to Garcia, âopacity reigns supremeâ at the AcadÃ©mie when it comes to its financial reports; he also questioned whether its vast endowment has been managed efficiently enough (though he did not uncover any malfeasance). Broglie did not respond to Garciaâs interview requests.
âIt has grown to be a very wealthy institution,â Darcos acknowledges. But when I ask for details, he says, delicately, âCâest trÃ¨s compliquÃ©.â Many of the assets and properties in its portfolio drain cash rather than generate it, he explains, citing, as an example, Chantilly, which was bequeathed to the Institut by the Duc dâAumale in 1886. In 2005, the Institut entered into a long-term partnership with His Highness the Aga Khan to finance the huge costs for its maintenance and restoration.
On this, as on everything, the AcadÃ©mie takes t he long view. âWeâre called immortals, but itâs a joke, of course. Who will remember us?â says Pierre Rosenberg. âItâs the institution thatâs immortal.â CarrÃ¨re dâEncausse says simply, âWe are called the immortals because we have to make sure the French language never dies.â
Still, there are occasionally deadlines to consider. Sir Michael Edwards is cautiously optimistic that work on the ninth edition of the Dictionnaire, begun in 1986, will be completed in 2021. âBut time will tell,â he says. Spoken like a true immortal.Get Vanity Fairâs Cocktail HourOur essential brief on culture, the news, and more. And it's on the house.Source: Google News France | Netizen 24 France