Against Gopnikism

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_469 Jan. 24 19.17In my outline yesterday of the malady of Gopnikism in American writing on France, I omitted to mention what must be the all-time champion of the genre, indeed a strong contender for the title of most frivolous article in the history of journalism. I am speaking of Elaine Sciolino's 'Letter from Paris' in the New York Times of September 21, 2013, “Trendy Green Mystifies France. It's a Job for the Kale Crusader!” The article describes that chapter of the life of American Kristen Beddard after she has quit her job “as an Ogilvy & Mather account manager in New York to follow her husband to Paris.” One night, out in a Paris restaurant with her husband-leader, an angel descended unto her, and caused her to say: “What if I try to bring kale to Paris?”

This is the 'spunky', rule-breaking offshoot of the august tradition of American fawning over French cuisine. I have never understood any of this (I'm with Foucault: “a good club sandwich with a Coke” is just fine for me), and so I'm hardly positioned to be bouleversé by the report of this American ingenue's failure to curtsey at the court of indigenous crudities. I couldn't care less what the French think of kale. I couldn't care less if Beddard fails in her life's mission. What interests me most here is what Sciolino's article reveals about the conventions for American writing on France. The first rule of this genre is that one must assume at the outset that France –like America, in its own way– is an absolutely exceptional place, with a timeless and unchanging and thoroughly authentic spirit. This authenticity is reflected par excellence in the French relation to food, which, as the subtitle of Adam Gopnik's now canonical book reminds us, stands synecdochically for family, and therefore implicitly also for nation.

France, in other words, is a country that invites ignorant Americans, under cover of apolitical vacationing, of living 'the good life' and of cultivating their faculty of taste, to unwittingly indulge their fantasies of blood-and-soil ideology. You'll say I'm exaggerating, but I mean exactly what I say. From M.F.K. Fisher's Francocentric judgment that jalapeños are for undisciplined peoples stuck in the childhood of humanity, to Gopnik's celebration of Gallic commensality as the tie that binds family and country, French soil has long been portrayed by Americans as uniquely suited for the production of people with the right kind of values. This is dangerous stuff.

More here.

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