Amherst Magazine

Amherst Authors

Books Reviewed:

What They Are Reading
Francis G. Couvares suggests recent books on the history of liberty and liberalism

Amherst College Books
Quick takes on books by Amherst faculty and alumni


Books Reviewed

François Mitterrand: The Last French President.
By RONALD TIERSKY, Joseph R. Eastman '04 Professor of Politics.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 431 pp., $29.95.

When François Mitterrand died in 1996, The New York Times remembered a man "who revived France's Socialist Party into a modern political force and whose election as President ended decades of Gaullist rule." But the obituary also stressed—and the Times was far from a lonely voice—the "political sins of his youth." Mitterrand had only recently confessed his collaboration with the Vichy government in the Second World War.

Scandal had dogged Mitterrand, and followed him into the grave. American readers were titillated by reports of his mistresses—he had two, in addition to a wife and family—and of his last meal, of endangered baby birds (buntings, or ortolans), considered a delicacy. "How French," Americans smiled. Did he consult with an astrologer? That seemed light-hearted. Mitterrand's alleged use of the Elf-Aquitaine oil company as a slush fund provoked a more critical response, as did reports that perhaps Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had bankrolled his presidential campaign in 1981, or that he ordered his doctor to lie about his worsening cancer in 1996. Mitterrand's grave itself was controversial: he once expressed a desire to be buried on Mount Beuvray, where Vercingetorix rallied the Gauls against the Romans. Critics found that imperious, and Mitterrand was finally laid to rest in his birthplace Jarnac, the humble vinegar-producing city near Cognac.

With Mitterrand there was always scandal to spare. Ronald Tiersky does not dwell on these scandals in François Mitterrand: The Last French President. He tells Mitterrand's story—the history of a politician who was involved in French politics from Vichy almost until his death and had a reputation as a manipulating chameleon.

Still the Times, like most of the English-language press, did spare us the story of l'affaire Observatoire, a 1959 event that Ronald Tiersky calls Mitterrand's defining crisis.

The Observatory Affair was a scandal so brazen that it plays on the page like film noir: Mitterrand may have hired a terrorist gunman to pretend to attempt to assassinate him. France faced crisis in Algeria; interior minister Mitterrand refused to negotiate with Algerian rebels; France went to war. After de Gaulle returned in 1958 and shifted French policy toward Algerian independence, Mitterrand seemed finished. But in 1959 he claimed he was the target of assassins, and indeed one night was chased and fired upon. The gunman was later arrested, but he insisted Mitterrand had hired him to carry out the attack in the hope it would revive his political fortunes. Mitterrand called the allegation a smear tactic by his Gaullist enemies, but the case was dropped and the truth was never established.

It is a complex tale in a complex time. French politics created a Gordian tangle of allegiances and betrayals. Tiersky, who knew Mitterrand and whom Mitterrand himself "flattered and teased . . . by introducing me as an American who 'knows French politics down to the millimeter,'" juggles it all. "Pulling strings in a knot dislodges other strings," as Tiersky expresses it.

But most of French history in the last 50 years has been knotty. Mitterrand memorably described the Vichy regime as a pétaudière, a mass of confusion. Vichy was, indeed, a mess, and Tiersky argues that it would be wrong to blame Mitterrand just for being part of the occupation government. But the resistance was also confused, and Tiersky demonstrates the tension between Mitterrand, one of the internal resistants, and De Gaulle and the Free French. The politics of the Fourth and Fifth Republics, the return of de Gaulle, the Algerian war, the strikes of students and workers in '68, the Rainbow Warrior, the fall of Communism and integration of Europe: French history seems a pétaudière, and Tiersky argues for understanding that Mitterrand did at times need to sacrifice principle in order to maintain power. That's politics.

In 1959, having faced political if not physical suicide, Mitterrand had learned "that in politics nothing is ever permanently won or lost," Tiersky writes. This was the existential lesson, the identity crisis, that formed Mitterrand into the "Machiavelli completed by Moliere" Tiersky describes. A shortcut would not reach his destination. His flexibility—his guile, according to his many opponents—helped him outlast De Gaulle, the father-figure of France, whose shadow always darkened Mitterrand. But Tiersky concludes that Mitterrand was the true embodiment of France in the 20th century.

"The mature Mitterrand's political culture was an eclectic composite of French ideas: realism steeped in a skepticism tinged not only with cynicism but also a certain romanticism and hope." From the facts of Mitterrand's biography one could conclude he was a dissembler: what bends easily may only be crooked. His opponents thought him "a fraud wrapped in an enigma embodied in his sphinxlike façade," in Tiersky's phrase. But Tiersky wants us to consider Mitterrand's political career as something greater than "a series of maneuvers, exploits, and battles." These provide the most entertaining reading, and François Mitterrand: The Last French President is not only instructive and informative, it is a pleasure to read. The American reader can indulge in a bit of schadenfreude watching Mitterrand re-invent himself again and again. No American politician, tip-toeing carefully in the media glare, could ever be so inconsistent.

Tiersky asks us to delve a little deeper into "the primary issue of modern democratic leadership" as Mitterrand did, and to consider "how democratic leaders can balance the conflicting demands of what is necessary and what is good, of Machiavellianism and republicanism, and how, afterwards, they will deal with the problem of their own 'dirty hands.'" Here he echoes Sartre's play Les Mains Sales, about a communist leader's attempt to justify his bloody deeds by high ideals.

France may have been surprised when it elected as its president in 1981 a Socialist who came not to govern, but to rule. "In existentialist terms," as Tiersky interprets it, "it would have been 'bad faith,' violating his own 'authenticity' and the respect he owed others to attempt a presidency in the style of DeGaulle or Bill Clintonto manipulate public opinion and in that way convince the electorate that the necessary course was also the good one for France." But Tiersky believes Mitterrand was the last "Machiavellian monarch" of France, because France now is becoming "internationalized and globalized." "France alone, la France seule, no longer is an attractive image for French young people thinking about their future." Tiersky admits that Mitterrand failed a crucial test of the contemporary politician. He was no pedagogue; he was one of those who convince not by arguments, but by his presence.

Mitterrand was an important personality. He initiated the socialist experiment in France, brought Germany and France together in a United Europe, and recreated the institution of the French presidency. Tiersky's skill in writing is to provide the non-specialist with an intelligent introduction to the history of France in the late 20th century, as he explains a difficult political philosophy to the experts. Specialists may quibble. The reader will enjoy.

François Mitterrand philosophized, but created no system of philosophy. He reminds us that in life, as it is actually lived, consistency is not all. We may disapprove of many of Mitterrand's twists and turnsin the American thesaurus, "Machiavellian" is a synonym for "evil." What was Mitterrand's political philosophy? He once said "One must accept things as they are."

—Paul S. Statt '78
Director of Media Relations

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Paris Inside Out: The Insider's Handbook to Life in Paris.
Fifth Edition.
By DAVID APPLEFIELD '78.
Guilford, Conn.: The Globe Press, 2000. $19.95.

 

The Unofficial Guide to Paris.
First Edition.
By DAVID APPLEFIELD '78.
Foster City, Calif.: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 2000. $15.99.

 

These two books, filled with practical information often absent from other guidebooks, are for different audiences. The first is for those of us who happily live in or visit Paris for periods longer than a week or 10 days; the second is a guidebook for first-time or occasional visitors to this magical city.

Paris Inside Out has chapters on everything from '"Getting Married in France" to "Picking a Moving or Shipping Company," but there is much in this compendium for the short-term visitor as well, including "Culinary Paris" and "Flea Markets." As a frequent visitor to France and Paris, I found a good deal of information that has made my most recent trip an easier one, especially about how to deal with those brief but often frustrating encounters with French bureaucracy that can try even the most Francophilic among us. One caveat, however: Applefield warns against using American credit or debit cards in French ATM machines, saying they generally don't work. They do, and I have found them much more convenient than traveler's checks. (This is the fifth edition, so Applefield works hard to keep his information up-to-date.)

The Unofficial Guide to Paris aims at the occasional tourist; it is a bit idiosyncratic in its judgments and subjects, though still quite useful. Perhaps in an effort to distinguish this from other guidebooks on Paris, Applefield creates and uses his own "map" of Paris, dividing the city into "zones" rather than using the world's standard: Paris's 20 arrondissements. Yet, he often has to revert to that standard division, and advises his readers to buy maps showing arrondissements, thereby creating an unnecessarily complicated—and thus confusing—topography, especially for first-timers. Chock full of "getting-around" information, The Unofficial (an unclear adjective) Guide to Paris is not as informative on hotels and restaurants as other guidebooks, but it does explain a great deal of the day-to-day phenomena that make touring the world's most visited city an adventure. Examples abound: from using the subway system to tipping to unisex bathrooms.

Applefield assumes at times a somewhat patronizing tone toward his readers, warning them to accommodate themselves to Parisian mores: "Don't expect the French to act any other way than as Frenchmen," he implies. This attitude reveals that he has indeed acclimated himself to the charming brusqueness of Parisian life.

Ronald C. Rosbottom
Winifred L. Arms Professor in the Arts and Humanities
and Professor of French and European Studies

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What They Are Reading

Prof. Francis G. Couvares teaches history and American Studies at Amherst, and is Dean of New Students. Below he offers suggestions for those interested in exploring new works on the history of liberty and liberalism.

 

Liberalism has had an odd historiographical career in America. For a long time, historians assumed that the "Empire of Liberty" came into existence in 1776 (or 1789), that Locke was its patron saint and ever-expanding freedom its historical mission. This barge full of self-congratulatory truisms hit heavy seas when 1960s historians forced Americans to acknowledge the history of Indian massacres, slavery, gender inequality, violent suppression of unionization, and imperialist foreign policy. Some historians insisted that, rather than classic liberalism, a set of ideasRenaissance civic humanism, English "country" critiques of "court" politics, Great Awakening demands for a Christian commonwealth, Scottish "common-sense" moral thinkingwhich they called "republicanism," actually played a more powerful and benign part in shaping American political thought. The worm has turned, however, and a remarkable rethinking of liberal ideas and practices has taken place in the last decade. Below are some places to catch up with it:

 

Joyce Oldham Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Harvard University Press, 2000). The author shows that liberalism has been much more than the laissez-faire market mentality of the later 19th century. In this masterpiece she explores a complex moral and political vision, with deep social and cultural roots, that competed quite successfully with republican and Christian notions of the good society.

 

James T. Kloppenberg, The Virtues of Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 1998). This series of clearly written essays tracks the author's leading role in the re-excavation of liberal ideas and practices over two centuries. It also makes clear why contextas revealed in empirically rich social historymatters so much to anyone trying to understand an idea as complex as liberalism.

 

David M. Rabban, Free Speech in Its Forgotten Years (Cambridge University Press, 1997). This legal historian undermines the idea that modern civil libertarian doctrine sprang full-blown from the minds of Chafee, Brandeis, and Holmes. Rather, he shows, in lower courts, in legal discourse, and in popular debate, many Americans linked individual liberties to the vitality of American democracy well before the arrival of the ACLU.

 

Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Harvard University Press, 1998). Rodgers's magisterial comparative history shows that in Europe and America liberalism engaged social democracy in the most important political dialogue of the 20th century, making possible the modern regulatory and welfare state.

 

David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (Basic Books, 1995) offers a historically persuasive case that "cosmopolitan" liberalism is a better ground for equality and democracy than the "identity politics" associated with some kinds of multiculturalism.

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Amherst College Books

Interpretations of American History: Patterns and Perspectives.
Edited by FRANCIS G. COUVARES, Professor of History and American Studies; MARTHA SAXTON, Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies; Gerald N. Grob; George Athan Billias. New York, N.Y.: The Free Press, 2000. Volume I: 454 pp. Volume II: 438. Paperback.

Each volume of this double set contains 10 chapters that pose and explore persistent questions of American history: "American Indians: Resistance or Accommodation?," "The Expanding Nation: Pioneers or Planners?," "The New Deal: Revolution or Restoration?" The editors discuss each issue, then present competingand sometimes overlapping interpretations, in a classic point/counterpoint style. In this way the authors hope to revitalize our nation's history by reviewing events with an updated, considered hand.

 

Updike: America's Man of Letters. By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD '53, Henry Clay Folger Professor of English. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2000. 351 pp. $27 hardcover.

This book is written not as a biography but as a comprehensive portrait of John Updike: it is an inclusive examination of the career, literary reputation, and work of one of the country's most celebrated and influential writers. Updike began his prolific career in 1954 with the publication of his short story "Friends of Philadelphia" in The New Yorker. He is known primarily as an author of novels, poems, and short stories, but he also writes essays, reviews, and memoirs. Pritchard's book serves as both an introduction to this American writer and a dedicated critique of his work.

 

Asthenic Syndrome. By JANE A. TAUBMAN, Professor
of Russian. Wiltshire, England: Antony Rowe, Ltd., 2000. 64 pp. £9.95 paperback.

This study offers a cultural and textual analysis of Kira Muratova's Asthenic Syndrome (1989), one of the two most significant films of the late-Soviet period. While Abuladze's Repentance signaled the beginning of perestroika, Asthenic Syndrome foretold the internal collapse of Soviet society. The film's two main protagonists suffer from nervous exhaustion, a reaction to the morally and aesthetically distorted world around them. Taubman includes excerpts from the unpublished shooting script and quotations from the director.

 

Proximity to Death. By WILLIAM S. McFEELY '52. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999. 208 pp. $23.95 hardbound.

After serving as an expert witness in a death penalty case in a rural Georgia courtroom, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McFeely spent two years observing, visiting, and talking with lawyers, jurors, judges, and death-row prisoners. This book explores the criminal justice system where an unequal contest plays out: a small group of under-compensated defense attorneys at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlantaled by charismatic capital-punishment opponent Stephen Brightwork zealously to keep individuals out of the electric chair; while the power of the state, embodied in the determined prosecutor, argue the case for execution.

 

The Art of Cause Marketing: How To Use Advertising to Change Personal Behavior and Public Policy. By RICHARD EARLE '53. Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Business Books, 2000. 320 pp. $39.95 hardbound.

In his analysis of public service (non-commercial) advertising, Earle takes the reader step by step through the development of an advertising campaign strategy its pitching, planning, production, and placement. He discusses creating a campaign logo; producing television, radio, and printed materials; testing and marketing strategies; and he includes a section by a Harvard medical doctor on the psychology of addiction. He gives case studies of two major cause campaigns ("The Partnership for a Drug Free America" and the "Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program"), along with his list of the best cause-marketing campaigns and a discussion of why they worked.

 

You Are What You Say. By MATTHEW BUDD, M.D. '56 and Larry Rothstein, Ed. D. New York, N.Y.: Crown Publishers, 2000. 253 pp. $24 hardbound.

Subtitled "A Harvard doctor's six-step proven program for transforming stress through the power of language," Budd discusses and proposes to remedy common illnesses through changing one's spoken words. Budd suggests that chronic stress-related conditionslike headaches, insomnia, and high blood pressurecan be relieved by following steps that loosen the linguistic hold on one's mind and body. The book begins with tests to assess the reader's condition, works through detailed exercises to enforce the healing principles of each chapter, and ends with another assessment to measure the reader's progress.

 

Rosie. By Elaine Hatfield and RICHARD RAPSON '58. Pittsburgh, Pa.: SterlingHouse Publisher Inc., 2000. 190 pp. $11.95 paperback.

Rapson and Hatfield draw on their own experiences as Hawaii residents and professors at the University of Hawaii for their latest husband-wife collaboration. This novel tells the story of "political high jinks" in the island state; the Republican Presidential nomination casts Prof. Rosie St. Giles into the hot spot of politics, requiring her to testify in court about the scientific research on same-sex marriages. The chaos intensifies as the media discover her plight.

 

Pot on the Fire: Further Confessions of a Renegade Cook. By JOHN THORNE '65 and Matt Lewis Thorne. New York, N.Y.: North Point Press (a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2000. 377 pp. $25 hardbound.

The latest collection from a major voice on the culinary front celebratesand, in classic Thorne style, ponders, probes, and scrutinizeshis lifelong engagement with food. Interspersed with digressions on such topics as old-time Brooklyn and Harlem restaurants, 200-year-old Irish farm culture and the potato famine, and the French cookpot that "sits on the stove but dreams of the garden," Thorne provides recipes for the best cookie in the world (it exudes "character" and "confidence"), the "quintessential" crabcake, variations on perfect rice and classic Indian khichri, American breakfast favorites, and a myriad of other gastronomical delights.

 

Subjects of Crisis: Race and Gender and Disease in Latin America. By BENIGNO TRIGO '84. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 2000. 252 pp. $45 hardbound, $19.95 paperback.

A "sick continent," a racially handicapped people, a hysterical female body, and an unbalanced psychological subject have all been used to describe Latin America. Disease has become a metaphor for the region in crisis. Discussing Latin American history and literature from an interdisciplinary perspective, Trigo develops this metaphor and the intellectual culture surrounding it and shows how race, gender, and disease are central to the widespread perception
of Latin America.

 

Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. By LIBBIE RIFKIN '91. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. 152 pp. $37.95 hardcover; $16.95 paperback.

In this study Rifkin makes the controversial claim that the four anti-Establishment poets she profiles—Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, and Ted Berrigan—created their personas and their work with a determined eye on their careers: ambition defined their postwar avant-garde identity. This book is both literary biography and social history, engaging not only the poetry of these four men but also their intentions.

Compiled by Elizabeth J. Rolander
and Jennifer Acker '00

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