|Man Without Qualities|
Wednesday, July 10, 2002
It is being reported that Tony Blair told a friend the following anecdote:
"Blair, Bush and [French President] Jacques Chirac were discussing economics and, in particular, the decline of the French economy. 'The problem with the French,' Bush confided to Blair, 'is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur.' "
If this wonderful story is true, George Bush is vastly more insightful - and funnier, and a little bit meaner - than one could have imagined.
The assertion is clearly correct, notwithstanding the obvious French origin of the word "entrepreneur." In English, one uses the expression "The French have a word for it!" where English includes words that would convey the basic meaning of what one intends to say, but it is the French who have crafted the one word that expresses all of the exquisite and exact nuances. Often there is even a single English word that would convey the basic meaning - but its meaning has been cluttered by distracting secondary associations - so one reaches for the purity of the French.
And in this sense, the French clearly do not have a word for "entrepreneur."
It is not an isolated occurrence. Today there are many wonderful ideas that were originated or brought to fruition by the French, but of which those wonderful people now have only an uncertain grasp. One might start with the principles of modern democracy, where the original insights of eighteenth century political thinkers really made the difference. Then there is the concept of modern financial securities and the corporation - where more recently the French securities markets and corporate culture have long seemed to exist in some twilight demi monde.
But perhaps the most spectacular example of the French losing their sure grasp of their own idea is in the case of "abstraction" itself. One can hardly overstate the importance of French-style abstraction in every area of modern life. French abstract political considerations - "separation of powers!" - are the absolute bedrock of the rights of man. That which was abstract French mathematics at its birth - Fourier series and transforms - provides the framework and vocabulary for all of modern science and engineering. Continuing extensions of this approach have recently given rise to information compression technology that powers the Internet and much else.
And then there is Matisse - who neither accepted the plein aire approach of the Impressionists (although he understood them) nor submitted himself to any living academic teacher (although he worked in their studios), but spent years studying and abstracting the great masters of the past. Here was an intellect and an eye that assimilated the Apocalypse of Saint Sever - a set of medieval religious illuminations - and abstracted its artistic force to create Jazz and many of his later works that at a stroke prove an optimistic universal unity that we have somehow in the hurries of modern life simply overlooked. That Matisse contributed more than genius - and that mere genius, as such, of even the highest caliber, is but a modest gift in whatever sphere it is in which artistry intersects our most basic understandings of the value and oneness of human life - can be sensed from the fact that this same Apocalypse of Saint Sever also informs the un-French, fragmenting, pessimistic Guernica created by the Catalan Picasso.
Once could go on for pages with just a list of the awesome products of French and French-style abstraction. But in each case, the French themselves seem to have lost their way. It has been said that there are two species of abstraction: that in which one is boiling down, boiling down, boiling down to an essence - and that in which one is just thinning out, thinning out, thinning out, tossing in buckets. The French leapt this particular species barrier sometime during the 20th century, and we are all the worse for it.
"Entrepreneur"? Today, the term in France is suffused with a certain suggestion of the sociopath, of the cowboy now so dreaded in that country.
Mr. Bush was correct: The French have no word for "entrepreneur." Perhaps they once did. It must have fallen out of a tear in their pocket during the war, or perhaps it escaped through a hole in the fence, or maybe it perished under an inadvertant ink blot from the quill of some well-meaning scholar at the Acadamie. But, whatever the reason, it's gone now.
But to actually have been able to say this, naturally, in conversation with the British Prime Minister and the President of France!? Could the President really have said such a thing?
My God, I wish I had said it - and not just have had it possess me as a diable de l'escalier!
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