Culture

Matzneff Flap Is a Cautionary Tale for Cultural Aristocrats

Film director Roman Polanski at the Cinematheque in Paris, France, October 30, 2017. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
Not all radical fads hold up well over time.

Gabriel Matzneff is not a good man, but it’s taken France a long time to realize it.

Norimitsu Onishi of the New York Times reported an astonishing story this week. It begins:

The French writer Gabriel Matzneff never hid the fact that he engaged in sex with girls and boys in their early teens or even younger. He wrote countless books detailing his insatiable pursuits and appeared on television boasting about them. ‘Under 16 Years Old,’ was the title of an early book that left no ambiguity.

Matzneff, now 83, spent decades as a French literary darling. His work was supported by leading newspapers and literary publications. He’d appear on highbrow TV shows where he’d regale interviewers and audiences with the sublime pleasures of having sex with children in France and on sex tours of southeast Asia.

His overdue comeuppance is the result of a memoir by one of his victims, Vanessa Springora, who was seduced by a then-50-something Matzneff when she was 14.

“He was not a good man,” Springora writes. “He was in fact what we’re taught to dread since childhood: an ogre.”

In his book Under 16 Years Old, Matzneff writes, “To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.” The book was first published in 1974 but was republished, apparently with no controversy, in 2005. In 2013, Metznaff received a major French literary prize.

How could a country that prides itself on being so enlightened celebrate an ogre? After all, we’re not talking about a Jeffrey Epstein, as horrible as he was. The well-connected billionaire spent vast sums to keep his sexual abuses at least somewhat secret. Matzneff not only confessed to his crimes, his confessions were celebrated as literary contributions.

The answer stems in part from the fact that Matzneff was a “Child of ’68” — i.e., a product of the left-wing “May 68” movement that shook France in the 1960s. These radicals subscribed to the idea that anything smacking of traditionalism or bourgeois morality was backward. Conventional sexual morality was part of the same rotten edifice as imperialism and racism. True liberation meant freedom not just from, say, capitalism, but also from the old-fashioned view that sex with kids was wrong. “It’s forbidden to forbid” was a rallying cry.

Some argued, Onishi writes, “for abolishing age-of-consent laws, saying that doing so would liberate children from the domination of their parents and allow them to be full, sexual beings.”

A few years ago, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the famous former radical and leader of the European Green movement, got in hot water for his earlier writings and statements about “erotic” encounters with five-year-olds. He dodged major consequences by disavowing his own words, saying they were merely intended to provoke.

Matzneff can’t make such claims. His whole identity was invested in the seduction of children and teenagers.

Sociologist Pierre Verdrager, the author of L’Enfant Interdit, or Forbidden Child, which chronicled the politics of pedophilia in 1970s France, told Onishi: “There was an aristocracy of sexuality, an elite that was united in putting forth new attitudes and behavior toward sex. And they were also grounded in an extreme prejudice toward ordinary people, whom they regarded as idiots and fools.”

America, so backwardly bourgeois in the eyes of these aristocrats, doesn’t have France’s problems, but it is hardly immune to such dynamics. Director Roman Polanski, who fled America rather than face sentencing for statutory rape, is routinely defended by Hollywood royalty in part because of a similar aristocratic attitude.

Matzneff is a good example of what can happen when people who share a self-styled radical worldview capture the commanding heights of the culture and consider themselves above the rubes from whom they make their money.

There’s a reason Ricky Gervais struck such a chord at the Golden Globes on Sunday when he told the assembled Hollywood royalty to get over themselves.

“If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech,” Gervais said. “You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”

This should be a cautionary tale for all cultural aristocrats. Not all radical fads hold up well over time. Perhaps in 50 years, a memoir from someone who as a child was subjected to hormone blockers to change his or her gender will provoke similar retroactive outrage.

© 2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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