Marc Fumaroli, Champion of Civilization and the Arts

Institut de France in Paris, France (Britus/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
Two weeks ago, Marc Fumaroli passed away. The revered historian spent his life defending the French language, the Western canon, and civilization at large.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n June 24, the French intellectual elite lost one of its most revered members: Marc Fumaroli. Infuriating to some, inspiring to most, the historian and literary scholar left an ineffaceable mark on France’s cultural landscape.

The son of a diplomat and a schoolteacher, Fumaroli grew up in Algeria and Morocco. After a peaceful but uneventful childhood, the future academic started his military service in the midst of the Algerian War. Faced with violence, misery, struggle, and vanishing hopes, the young man took refuge in literature. Descartes once wrote that “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” At the age of 18, in the inhospitable Aurès mountains, Fumaroli began a conversation with Balzac, Chateaubriand, Molière, and all the giants of the French literary canon. The intensity and brilliance of this conversation would never thereafter disappear.

Back to his home country, Fumaroli ascended through a succession of elite schools to one of the most prestigious of Paris’s intellectual incubators, the Sorbonne. In 1980, the academic rising star published his first masterpiece, The Age of Eloquence. This early work already contained the ingredients of Fumaroli’s distinctive style. In more than 800 pages, Fumaroli defended antiquity against modernity, celebrated the Greeks’ oratory excellence, and explored the intricacies of French literary history. This passion for rhetoric and its power animated Fumaroli’s intellectual enterprise. In the opening chapter of The Age of Eloquence, he writes: “if Man is indeed a linguistic animal, then those who manipulate words with brio and tact are more human than the rest of us will ever be.” For Fumaroli, language contained the quintessence of our common humanity; words were to be respected, protected, cherished.

This meteoric rise would never stop. After the success of his early works, Fumaroli’s undisputed brilliance opened to him the gates of France’s most illustrious institutions. He became a member of the Académie Française, an intellectual council charged with the preservation of the French language, and of the Collège de France, Paris’s most renowned academic antechamber. Each and every time, Fumaroli dared to leave his ivory tower to plunge vigorously into cultural debates, rejecting the relentless modernization of French grammar, championing the pursuit of intellectual excellence, and reaffirming the value of the Western canon. Naturally, Fumaroli delighted and upset the Parisian intelligentsia. But even his most ardent critics recognized the singularity of his wit, of his passion, of his sincerity, of his relentless celebration of an old world deconstructing itself before his very eyes.

Fumaroli did not stand still in front of what he perceived to be a form of cultural decline. In 1991, he published The Cultural State: Essay on a Modern Religion. Halfway between a pamphlet and an academic essay, The Cultural State presented an astringent critique of modernity from both the right and the left. In the opening chapters, Fumaroli lamented the erasure of the distinction between culture and mass entertainment, the fall of permanence, and the rise of ephemera. He then deplored the intellectual impoverishment of Western civilization, polluted by radical ideologies, pathological consumerism, and unchaperoned capitalism. Lastly, Fumaroli led the charge against the growing intrusion of English words into the French language; rejecting cultural globalization, he warned about the rise of “globish English,” this transnational dialect devoid of literary roots.

Yet Fumaroli was neither Anglophobe nor reactionary. An avid reader of Shakespeare and an admirer of Allan Bloom, the French academic loved to travel to America and England, where he taught as a visiting professor at Oxford and Princeton. Precisely because he praised and respected the cultural wealth of Anglo-Saxons, he did not want their linguistic heritage to become diluted as a functional Esperanto of sort. Just as Fumaroli fought for the preservation of the French language and its literary tradition, so he applauded the wonderful differences separating cultures and peoples; for him, this cornucopia of civilizations offered a boundless object of study and inquiry.

Similarly, Fumaroli did not attack mass entertainment to keep the cultural domain in the hands of a privileged few. On the contrary, he used his public stature to encourage the development of free museums and to advocate for a rise in public funding of the arts. Fumaroli invited everyone to live the life of the mind; his issue was with art becoming demotic, not democratic. For Fumaroli, artistic institutions had a responsibility not to condescend to the public by treating them like a pack of unelevated fools unable to appreciate sophistication. The average citizen was to have access to the very best of French culture, unabridged, unsimplified, untouched.

In a statement marking his death at the age of 88, the Élysée Palace called Fumaroli “a fervent apostle of our cultural heritage.” This religious metaphor is particularly apt, for the historian dedicated his life to the erection of a mental Pantheon of Art in which the creations of the most varied epochs and peoples are ranged next to one another with equal claims to our attention. In a world devoid of vibrant spirituality, art offered a bulwark against the nihilistic temptations of the era. Just as devout Catholics go to Mass every Sunday to detach themselves from the perils of the quotidian, so ordinary citizens would enter museums and read canonical works to escape from the fast-paced pathologies of modernity. In this sense, Fumaroli was the most inclusive of elitists.

Two weeks ago, as if to pay tribute to this intellectual giant, the French government announced a €5 billion commitment to keep the arts afloat after the ravages of the pandemic. Last week, Britain and Germany followed with similar plans. That politicians chose to rescue the pillars of civilization in the midst of an economic and health crisis would have delighted Fumaroli, who saw culture as a panacea for all ills. Throughout his life, Marc Fumaroli was — and will forever remain — a champion of civilization and the arts.

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