Allow me to begin with a personal recollection. I first came to know the city of Chicago and the region of the Great Lakes almost 50 years ago, in 1949, when I was 23 years old. Nothing then destined me for a literary career. I am a writer who developed late. Having regrettably neglected my university studies, I traveled. During the long war, we felt smothered in France. It was necessary to seek out fresh air elsewhere. I undertook with three friends of the same age to retrace by canoe and paddle the same route as that followed by Father Marquette, who setting out from Trois-Rivieres, in French Canada, discovered the Mississippi in 1673. I called my team, the Marquette team. We traveled up the Saint Laurent, crossing the rapids of the Ottawa River and the French River, passing through Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Green Bay, Lake Winnebago, traveling down the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.
I will not go into detail about the welcome we received: it was fantastic. We were greeted by dozens of mayors, brass bands and majorettes, cheered by thousands of schoolchildren who had never heard French spoken in their lives, and interviewed by dozens of newspapers and radio stations. I have the great privilege of being an honorary citizen of 20 of the towns through which we passed. The keys to these towns still hang on a wall in my study. This rugged and historic journey, which lasted almost a year, was not without a spiritual side. It was the foundation of the unfailing friendship I feel for the United States. With, it must be said, ups and downs, I was, am, and will remain a friend of the United States. I want this to be firmly understood in case, during the course of my little speech, you might come to have doubts about my feelings toward your country.
Throughout this voyage, I had spread out on a rucksack in front of me, in my canoe, two maps of the route to be followed. The first was a modern-day map of America. The second was a facsimile of the map made in the 18th century by officers of the King of France. I set up our evening camps in French historical sites, such as Fort Bourbon and Fort de Chartres, though Belle-Fontaine had become Bloomsdale; Riviere-la-Saline, Flat River; Cabaret, Crystal City; etc. Happily, Prairie-du-Chien was still called Prairie-du-Chien; La Crosse, La Crosse; and St. Louis, the small French capital at the end of the 18th century, was still called St. Louis, the birthplace of T.S. Eliot whose memory, immense work, and poetry, which is almost liturgical in its praising of the transcendence of man, I would like here to honor.
I like to imagine that St. Louis, which was French until 1803, still had in 1888, when Eliot was born, a few palpable memories of its first inhabitants. I know that history moves quickly in the United States, that it is sometimes built upon the trampling of the past, but the young man that I was in 1949 remembered deep in his heart that all of these Western lands—from New Orleans to the source of the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains, where some of the Indian nations of Montana still bear French names—were once French.
If the emperor Napoleon, who did great harm to France and to Europe and who was in reality a man of the past who understood nothing of America, had not sold in April 1803 these fabulous territories to your second President, Thomas Jefferson, for $15 million—quite a bargain for you, by the way—well, it would perhaps be in French that I would be speaking to you today, and it would perhaps be in French that you would be listening to me. English would have stayed in New England, and the world would not be at the mercy of a single hegemonic language which is losing its original beauty in the global melting pot. We can always dream . . . Given my major imperfections in English, a language which I admire so much that I avoid using it so as not to massacre it, you can believe me when I say that, if French had won out, this speech would be less tiresome for you.
Very few French writers—I speak especially of novelists—have received in recent years American literary honors. For my part, I know of none. There is at the moment an enormous gap between the number of American novels translated into French and the number of French novels translated and published in the United States.
There must be reasons for this. Perhaps today’s French novels have simply become too bad, which is the case for many, it is true, but no more so than elsewhere. There are bad American novels, even bad ones written by your famous writers. Perhaps the very French world of novelists in my country is of no interest to the American reader, even though the French reader feels almost at home in the world of today’s American novelists. We could dwell on that subject for a long time. Therefore, I was frankly astonished to learn that The Ingersoll Foundation’s choice for the T.S. Eliot Award had fallen upon my humble self.
In the letter and documents that were sent to me by the Executive Secretary of The Ingersoll Prizes, Mr. Thomas Fleming, who I would here like to thank, I immediately noted that this award is for writers whose work “affirms the best values of our civilization.” With all deference to my illustrious predecessors, I can indeed glimpse the reasons why I have had the honor of receiving this award. And it set me thinking, which can be a dangerous pastime for a novelist.
I am above all things a novelist, which means that I am not a philosopher, a sociologist, an historian, an eminent professor, or a dogmatic writer of newspaper editorials; I am not a professional thinker. I am not intelligent enough for that. I actually believe that a brilliant intellect is a handicap for a novelist: it either makes him go too far and create over-complicated systems and be too demonstrative, or it paralyzes him. Nothing would please me less than to be what we call in French “une belle conscience,” one who gives lessons to others.
When I write a novel, I content myself with telling a story. If that story carries within it a certain conception of mankind and Western society, it is simply because that conception is part of my deepest nature. I do not have to think about it. I do not have to pluck at my heart strings. I simply write because I have to. I do not intend to convey a message. This is why I generally refuse to comment on my books. I do not wish to add a single word to that which I have written. I have written them, and that is enough. Again, if my books carry what some consider to be teachings, I did not do this intentionally. I simply brought out feelings which I experienced naturally and for which I do not have to explain myself, especially if these feelings do not suit the lowest common denominator. One may sense a certain caution in my attitude. This has unfortunately become necessary in France. One may also sense a refusal on my part to enter into a dialogue which, by its very nature, is already distorted and in which words do not have the same meanings for all. Which gives you an idea of the difficulty I have in overcoming my natural reserve to speak to you this afternoon.
I prefer simply to give you an example. In 1973, I wrote a novel called The Camp of the Saints. This book was translated into several languages and was first published in the United States by Scribners in 1975 and afterward by other American publishers over the last 20 years. The Camp of the Saints tells in a symbolic way, as in a long parable, the peaceful invasion of the West by the Third World. The subject is simple and even oversimplified, I must admit. One morning a gigantic fleet of rusty old boats runs up onto the beaches of the Mediterranean in the south of France. Aboard, ready to disembark on the promised land, are millions of poverty-stricken, defenseless, and starving men, women, and children of different race and culture from ourselves. It is the immense force of numbers and need. Millions of other poor people are ready to follow them and surge into the beach as soon as it has been opened. What do we do? Do we let them come in and risk being submerged and having our own identity swept away by the somber multitude? This would be the response conforming to the Christian ideals of Western mankind, but at what price? Or should we push them back to the sea using all the means at the disposal of the rich, and if so, with what damage to our consciences and with what doom-laden consequences?
This is the theme of The Camp of the Saints. A symbolic one, I repeat: if that day should come, it would not really happen in that way but at the same time the demographic predictions for the next century are eloquent. At the end of the novel, France and the Western world renounce the use of force. Could we, in reality, have done otherwise? Could I, as a novelist, have done otherwise? I drew no conclusions from this story. It was not my role. I had the idea for this book one day at my home in the south of France, one early morning when I was contemplating the sea. I said to myself and what if they arrive? And I saw them arriving. And the whole book followed on from there. It is a story which I told to myself and not a theory on which I elaborated. Which is why I thereafter refused to explain myself Any explanation was impossible.
Let me add that The Camp of the Saints has been continually reprinted in France because it was first published in 1973. However, if it had been published in 1997 for the first time, it would have fallen foul of France’s new political correctness laws. The very word invasion, for example, when applied to situations of noncontrolled immigration, is now condemned in the French courts.
And perhaps that brings us back to the values of our civilization, “the best values of our civilization.” It is the possessive adjective “our,” emphasizing a shared possession, which immediately sprang to my attention. In the basic declaration of the purposes of The Ingersoll Foundation, its president, Mr. John Howard, whom I would also like to thank today, speaks of the ideals of Western civilization. We can therefore conclude from Mr. Howard’s statement, and I naturally agree with him, that the United States and France are part of the same civilization. Western civilization, and defend the same values, the values of our civilization. Believe me when I tell you that I too see therein the only guarantee of a stable world.
Perhaps we should look into this a little more closely. If our countries have indeed affirmed, up until the recent past, the same values of civilization, of our civilization, I sometimes ask myself if the situation is not somewhat different today. Is it not rather new social values which are typically American, resulting from dynamism and unequaled power, from American wealth and certitudes, aided by a language which has become the only universal language, and by an unchallenged domination of the new means of communication, which could become, for better or worse, the only representative of our Western civilization? In France and in Europe, believing that we are cultivating and defending the values of Western society, we could ask ourselves: Are we not in reality sustaining and defending values which are primarily American?
I do not at all want to be offensive in reminding you of the observation of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840 on the possibility of American democratic totalitarianism. At the time Tocqueville was writing, the population of the United States was still small, barely reaching beyond the Mississippi, and his vision concerned only the Americans. Today, as the recent phenomenon of globalization spreads like a tidal wave, fed by irresistible American expansion, I wonder what he would write today. I am convinced that the United States did not intend it to be so, but this inevitable globalization, which first overtook the old divided world of Europe, is naturally modeled upon the most powerful and dynamic nation in the West, the United States. The game is one-sided.
I am French, and I can already see the effects of American-style globalization which, unchallenged, is so profoundly affecting my country. Unlike the Irish, Italians, Germans, English, Poles, Greeks, etc., we do not have in the United States a French community which emigrated here in the past or in recent times which can represent here the continuation of our old culture. Through the cinema, the television, the mimetism of the young, not forgetting political correctness millions and millions of French are already steeped in a kind of banal morass of American popular culture. At the same time, with the exception of a small cultured elite, the majority of the population of the United States is no longer interested in France. It would seem that its ignorance about us and indifference to us has become total. This imbalance could be dangerous in the long term.
Happily, a remedy exists. All we need is to keep one important thing in mind. The United States, Europe, France, and a few other countries are by their very nature inseparable, as they are part of the same Western civilization. If it is still allowed to say so, without offending anyone, this Western civilization was made by the white race. It has even been called the white man’s burden. This civilization was born out of the Greek and the Roman civilization, the Bible and the Gospels, Renaissance humanism, and most of the great scientific discoveries. The rights of man stem directly from Christianity in which Western civilization is steeped. Our spiritual, moral, family, and aesthetic values have their sources in the ideas developed during the course of our long, shared history.
Therefore it might not be imperative to seek out elsewhere additional ideas which could confuse the wonderful and fragile magic formula of our Western civilization. Promoting only that which is common to each individual, each race, each culture, and creating from the residue of this fusion a universal, obligatory, and simplistic system, does not represent the values of our civilization. I believe that we—the United States, France, Europe, and a few other countries—are brothers, that we are part of the same family. I also believe that we cannot do without the United States in the defense and promotion of our shared values. This is an enormous responsibility for your country. This responsibility obliges your country to pay more heed to the cultures of Europe. None of us can act alone.