Of all the immigrants who washed up on America’s shores, few could be happier than Jacques Delacroix, who confesses in his autobiography I Used to Be French this love-letter to America. And in what does his happiness consist? The love of a good woman, the proximity of the sea at Santa Cruz, California, with free-diving and fishing, a respected though not exalted occupation as Professor of Sociology, and freedom from — from what, exactly? French women, French cuisine, French wine, French savoir-faire, French culture — what’s not to like? Here is the mystery of emigration. By the age of twenty-one, he had tasted all of these in great abundance during summers in Brittany.
Previous refugees from the Metropol had discovered their wild sides in Brittany: Gauguin and his cohorts lived by the Cote Sauvage before decamping to Tahiti and its dusky-skinned beauties (a preference the author shares). The flowering and near-deflowering of Delacroix’ youth occurred in that wild-West of France, where he discovered the many joys of rural life. There too he discovered the most constant love of his life, the sea, becoming an expert diver, swimmer, and sailor. And while the local Bretons specialized in either fishing or farming, young Delacroix did both, helping out with the arduous work of threshing, and not so incidentally finding more amorous opportunities. Largely unsupervised in his leisure hours, he and his confreres earned the reputation that he later characterized as the elders’ opinion of teenagers — as animals endowed with human intelligence devoted full-time to mischief. What glorious summers those were!
For answers as to why a young man might wish to emigrate, we must turn to History, which in France is neither remote nor distant. While Americans tend to regard anything before they were born as irrelevant, Biography and History are intertwined throughout Europe, but nowhere more intimately than in France. Delacroix, conceived in Nazi-occupied France, though in one counter-intuitive episode delivered to safety by a German soldier, his own life and that of the nation are bound together even more intimately than most. And so France, he writes, was gripped by three ‘great sadnesses’ as he was growing up.
The first ‘great sadness’ is the loss and disablement of millions of young men in World War I. This decimation of an entire generation left a gap that Delacroix experienced as an unspoken but ever-present mourning. No family in France was untouched by this loss, every child grew up with the memory of some relative who wasn’t there anymore. The young women who survived were deprived of all the intimate pleasures of domestic life that they and their families expected them to have. Not all reconciled themselves to permanent widowhood. Though the shortage of young males dimmed their remarriage prospects, they made do somehow. In one of the most astonishingly frank discussions imaginable between grandmother and grandson, Delacroix asks his grandmother how she managed, and she tells him! The fact is that the scarcity of young males made sharing them an acceptable custom, and the French reputation for casual adultery is revealed as a demographic by-product.
The second ‘great sadness’ in Delacroix’ telling resulted from the first — France surrendered so quickly to Nazi Germany at the outset of World War II that there must have been high-level collaboration. Despite the courageous role of the Resistance, Vichy compromised the soul of France, and continues to do so to this day, Delacroix asserts. Both De Gaulle’s nationalist followers and their Communist allies, each for their own reasons, preferred a make-believe reconciliation with the collaborators. In consequence, oppressive, silent evil was all around and inside French society. One prominent politician and gross World War Two criminal was unmasked, tried and convicted only in the 1990s, 45 years late, a lifetime late. This failure to come to terms with France’s collaboration, the vast silence that still surrounds the topic, cast a pall over all of French society.
The third ‘great sadness’ is the Catholic Church’s then-monopoly over public and private morality. Although Church morality rarely restrained our hero’s adventures with the opposite sex — and may have, like any restraint, enhanced them — it did interfere with a fateful life-choice. And from this experience Delacroix derives what is probably sound demographic advice: Let young people marry and procreate as early as they like (and from the evidence of this book, they like it a lot). Knowing as a sociologist that the number of children born to a woman is pretty much determined by her age at marriage, he calculates that if half of all French women were married only two years earlier than they do, France would regain its replacement birth rate of 2.1 children per couple. The demographic gap from World War I would soon be filled. If demography is destiny, the suffering from France’s century-old losses has been passed down from generation to generation like a malevolent heirloom. A simple rise in fertility would go a long way toward restoring the French nation.
Rarely has sociology served literature so well as in I Used to Be French. Anthropology has often informed literature, notably in Saul Bellow’s greatest novel Henderson the Rain King, but anthropology has the advantage of the exotic. Philosophy, law, and other learned disciplines have served as points of departure for other writings, but until now, sociology has not appeared to offer much to the literary imagination. Yet here, the characteristically French inter-weaving of Biography and History takes the reader on a Grand Tour of comparative national cultures, inter-generational transmission of customs, and family dynamics.
Delacroix gets an extraordinary amount of ethnographic mileage out of his growing-up experiences. Early on, he describes how he often got into trouble at school for ‘talking back’ (répondre), or worse, for creating a ‘bad spirit’ (faire du mauvais esprit), which meant, as he defines it, talking back in a way that suggested error on the teacher’s part. He was also often cited for ‘singularizing himself’ (faire du genre). Who knew the French language was so replete with terms for suppressing individuality? Just as Eskimos have numerous words for snow, the French, it seems, revel in words designed to put young independent thinkers in the wrong. Even on the way to and from school, our hero follows a wayward path, le chemin des écoliers, always an indirect path with diversions emanating from his own esprit. This book itself is an example of the style of thought that came naturally to him in childhood, exploring whatever digressions the matter at hand suggests. The reader, in my view, is better off for this, as the past or future context of every story is fully elucidated. Much has become clear to the author in hindsight that he had little awareness of at the time; this gradual awakening of self-consciousness, this éducation sentimentale in Flaubert’s phrase, is an integral part of the story of I Used to be French. The very things that got him into trouble at school became over time a guiding light for his later professional career, and a source of pride. He writes I wouldn’t mind if they wrote on my tombstone: ‘Il répondait; il faisait du genre; il avançait par détours.
Our hero’s tour of duty in the French Navy thus inspires sociological inquiry: How could a person harboring such strong (not to say rabid) resistance to authority find a welcome home in a military organization? For one very important thing, the Navy fed him well (this is France, after all). For another, it made use of his English linguistic skills, in one instance saving the Captain from what would otherwise have been an embarrassing (or worse) misunderstanding of NATO instructions. It enabled him to visit ports all around the Mediterranean, this at a time when individual travel was prohibitively expensive. The Navy also proved to be surprisingly accommodating to enterprise and initiative. Delacroix chalks up his Navy experience as a persuasive argument for hierarchical, formal, rule-bound organizations, in spite of his general distaste for bureaucracy.
There’s more: From personal experience in the French Navy and then later in the ranks of academia, he understands that all organizations need unimaginative management. And he understands himself well enough to see that managing unruly people like himself is really a thankless task. As Delacroix puts it, The basic problem is this: People who have a good time doing well whatever they are doing rarely desire the headaches that go with management positions. Who in the world would want to manage the likes of me, I ask myself? You would pretty much have to be a little stupid or neurotically engaged with the exercise of power for its own sake. Perhaps it’s both. So, within formal organizations, the not-so-great inexorably rise. Thus, in our world of organizations, competent, intelligent, sane individuals chronically find themselves bossed around by the professionally less competent. Voila! — the essence of bureaucracy unveiled.
Wisely, Delacroix chooses not to bore the reader with the petty disputes endemic in academia. Feminism he dismisses as a fraudulent cabal of upper-class women masquerading as a people’s movement [that] has accomplished little beyond making bad grammar obligatory. People who cultivate anti-Americanism and Francophilia, which often go hand in hand, exhibit execrable taste: If you placed small turds on their plates decorated with parsley and splashed with guaranteed organic raspberry vinegar, and called them ‘escarmerdes,’ they would profess them delicious and exquisitely refined. The title of this autobiography is more a reflection of the distaste the author feels for such people than a completely accurate statement of his nationality. In America one can be American without giving up one’s birth-nationality; though trading on one’s original nationality for political or personal advantage is another despicable practice that he wants no part of. Much of Delacroix’ professional career in sociology was devoted to documenting that leadership and management play almost no part in organizational performance; this, together with a disinclination to suffer fools gladly, complicated professional relationships in the business school where he taught for 20 years. How did our hero survive 20 years in the politically-correct jungle of academia?
The answer, in a word, is diving. That, and all it symbolized, together with a life on the idyllic California coast that expanded the summers of Brittany to three-quarters of the year. The abalone-gathering and fish-spearing skills honed in Brittany found welcome application in California. It is not only physical prowess that he celebrates, though he is not shy in this book about mentioning that. Underwater, matching wits with a fish or an abalone takes an entirely different sort of thinking than that prevalent in academia. Though Delacroix does not go so far as to say so, I suspect he would not credit his fellow-academics with intelligence superior to that of fish. But he has bigger fish to fry:
I claim that diving transformed me because it summoned forth a part of my mind that would in all likelihood have remained dormant without it. When you are 25 feet underwater (a modest depth), holding your breath while trying to spear a fish with a rubber-band gun, neither brawn nor brain matters much. The reality is that the slowest fish can out-swim you and it’s hellishly hard to think like a fish. Instead, instinct, or perhaps, intuition, must take over. Accordingly, thousands of hours of diving taught me to temper with intuition the skeptical rationalism that is my first inclination. That I cannot explain how, much less prove how, does not cancel out the fact that I speared that fast fish, located that single, hidden lobster, I tell myself.
Even more than the fact that no one else in his milieu had remotely similar skills or experiences, the exercise of instinctual, visceral, intuitive understanding gives tremendous satisfaction. If this book inspires readers to recall and develop their own visceral experiences, it will have served both a pleasurable and useful purpose indeed.
The enormously rich and varied culture of France has somehow produced a literature of astonishingly frank confession in unlikely co-existence with a literature of dogmatic rationalism. So it is with Delacroix’ I Used to Be French. How France produced both a Rousseau and a Voltaire, or, to take another unlikely pair, both a Flaubert and a Descartes, I cannot even guess. My only regret on Delacroix’ behalf — though it is not one that he shares, I hasten to add — is that he seems to have gone overboard on the rationalism. I say this because I believe the quest for self-understanding is unattainable, though there is some benefit in making the effort. He writes: While recognizing the useful part of intuition in my pursuits, in the end, I am glad I grew up a narrow rationalist: On a small number of indelible occasions, I was so strikingly lucky in my underwater quest for edible preys that I was at risk of becoming a fetish-worshiper. Ultimately, I might have persuaded myself that I was descended from some giant grouper, from some legendary spiny lobster, or even from some brainless abalone, and that the totemic ancestor was looking after me, personally! If the sources of human behavior, our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates, our ‘no-matter-what’ efforts, are beyond rational comprehension, then rational explanation will only take us some part of the way toward enlightenment. Where rationalism is most useful, as French history itself shows, is in restraining the excesses of religious or revolutionary zeal. As an end-in-itself, rationalism is not enough. Delacroix’ account of his life aspires at times to a sort of ethnography that is ultimately less than a full account, because it reposes too much faith in rational exposition. In an autobiography, of course one is obliged to present as honest a self-portrait as possible; fabrication would be out-of-bounds. I would only suggest that there is more to any life-story than can be encompassed in rational understanding.
Delacroix’ emigration story nevertheless provides an emotionally satisfying and realistic account of an extraordinary journey. ‘Brittany stamped itself into my mind, he writes, and into my heart early and deeply. It represented most of the part of life where good things happened regularly and frequently rather than occasionally. It was a topography of the heart. In California I was able to make a decent and pleasant living near the sea… and it’s spring and summer for nine or ten months in a row — that’s compared to the rainy or foggy non-summer months in Brittany. Only in hindsight does the move seem so well-calculated to please: I cannot brag that careful planning presided over this satisfactory transplantation of several thousand miles, across significant cultural hedges. Mostly, I just followed a powerful instinct reinforced by much intuition and by only a little knowledge, a little discernment. You might say that le chemin des écoliers took me here. The compromise is not perfect. For all its celebrated beauty, the coast of central California where I live (it includes Big Sur) is not as satisfying aesthetically to me as the Brittany shore. It does not offer the human scale of Brittany nor the subtle inter-penetration of sea and human settlements made of granite and slate. And there are few harbors here, one every fifty or one hundred miles or more. There is no chance to sail to the next small town harbor for a lunch of raw oysters as you can do all over Brittany.Scenes like this would have been common in his grandparents’ day, and are probably not far from the memories of long-time residents of Brittany.
The world’s immigration flows include stories of far more extreme duress than this, from the Irish potato famine to people fleeing current-day wars, to boatloads of people risking death at sea to leave their countries of origin. Many will wander the earth for years or decades, a semi-permanent diaspora, others will wind up in temporary settlements dependent on unwilling hosts or charities. A few lucky ones will wash up on America’s shores, there to discover as Delacroix did that ‘you take what you have and make the best of it’. Not a bad fate, all in all.
I Used to Be French is available from Amazon. Due to Kindle’s unfortunate closed-system format, it cannot be copied to other devices without using invasive apps. The print edition is available from the author at email@example.com .