In no other country has the great writer received such adulation or the lesser one such respect. To write in France is to make a stake for glory, and ”la gloire” can be a very heady affair since they are often regarded as the conscience of their country. The French do not have to read their poets in order to adore them.
The French look to their writers as other people’s look t their religious leaders, statesmen or captains of industry. The word that best defines the French writer’s role is ”moralist”, by which is meant something much deeper than the qualities we normally attach to it. By moralist, the French mean the person who has a moral vision, who sees into the nature of existence, defines the human situation, gives form to it, and offers, at the great of the spirit, alternatives, bridges, and transcendencies. In one way or another, however explicitly they may reject such a role, however self-contained is their commitment or purely aesthetic their engagement, all important French writers, have been moralists of this kind.
It is the degree to which a writer has been able to transcend their times that their judgements on them are respected; a paradox that reveals how thoroughly the French dispense with our distinction between the practical and the visionary. It is not too much to say that in the long run France receives her most utilitarian lessons from her classic novels, plays and poems.
Voltaire in the Calas case or Zola in the Dreyfus affair would scarcely have accomplished much had not their indignation and demand for justice have been given resonance and majesty by their immense prestige as creators. In this sense the direct effect that great writers have upon French issues is like an overflow from their nontopical work; when they speak out, it is with a voice strengthened by a proprietary concern with permanent values and echoing like the conscience of the people themselves.
Hugo was certainly indulging his taste for egoistic bombast when, from his refuge in Brussels, he told a correspondent, ”It is not I sir, who have been outlawed, but liberty; it is not I who have been exiled, but France.” But at the same time he was telling the French people what most of them wished to have said about their situation under Louis Napoleon and what they were more than willing to accod Hugo the right to say.
In the same way, when Gide published the journals of his travels in the Congo in the late twenties, he acted as the conscience of France. It was his stature as an artist that made it impossible for the government to ignore the charges he brought against the colonial administration, or, more accurately, against the great concessionary companies which Gide found exploiting and abusing the natives they employed and which the administration was unable or unwilling to control. The reforms set in motion, at least in part by Gide’s accusations, provide a not untypical illustration of the power of literature in France to pierce the hide of officialdom and bring about changes in the structure and exercise of authority.
Francois Mauriac was another man whose eminence as a writer gave edge and forcefulness to his critiques of national policy as they impinged upon moral issues. A case in point was his newspaper writings on the brutality on the part of the French army in Algeria and an earlier affair of a soldier sentenced to five years in solitary confinement for distributing leaflets protesting the war in Indochina.