Within days of Time magazine’s publication of Don Morrison’s article on the decline of France as an international cultural power, French media “lit up like the Eiffel Tower in full sparkle.” Major French figures like Didier Jacob, Maurice Druon, Teresa Cremisi, Olivier Poivre d’Arvor, and François Busnel weighed in. The blogosphere went wild. Even foreigners got involved. US Ambassador Craig Stapleton wrote a letter defending France. Feeling that 3,000 words were insufficient to explore such a complex subject, Morrison has now written a book, The Death of French Culture, with a response by Antoine Compagnon, Professor of Literature at the Collège de France.
Laurel Zuckerman: Why do you think your original article caused such a strong reaction in France?
Don Morrison : More than almost any other country, France takes culture seriously. For centuries, it has been an element of French diplomacy, national identity and the “gloire” that sets France apart from lesser nations. Only France proclaimed a “civilizing mission” to imbue colonial subjects with, among other gifts, France’s cultural heritage. Even today culture remains one of France’s unique selling propositions. As, a French diplomat once proclaimed, “Germany may have Siemens, but we have Voltaire.” So anyone who makes critical remarks about French culture, no matter how accurate or well-meaning, should be prepared for a strong reaction.
LZ: How did you get interested in the question of French culture?
DM: I went to a small high school in a small mid-American town, where a small but very tough nun pounded a few words of French into my skull — along with a lifelong fascination with the culture and history of this seemingly exotic country. I thought I’d never visit the place. But when I did, many years later, I was astonished to find that people pretty much understood the strange sounds I was able to summon from the mists of memory. One thing led to another, and I’m still here, still fascinated.