Alain de Benoist’s Vivid Memory
By F. Roger Devlin
Alain de Benoist
Mémoire vive: entretiens avec François Bousquet
Paris: Éditions de Fallois, 2012.
Part 1: A Full Childhood
The title of Alain de Benoist’s volume of reminiscences is a play on words: literally signifying “vivid memory,” it is also the French equivalent for RAM, or Rapid Access Memory. In the form of interviews, the author traces his personal and intellectual development and that of the French nouvelle droite.
Alain de Benoist is descended, on his father’s side, from an ancient Belgian lineage traceable ultimately to a ninth-century Italian captain who defended Apulia from Saracen pirates. His father, also named Alain de Benoist, worked for a perfumery, eventually becoming the firm’s general sales manager for a large swath of France. Benoist remembers being strongly and lastingly influenced by his paternal grandmother. She owned a dilapidated 16th-century castle, without running water or electricity, where Benoist spend many summers. She was
passionate, hyperemotional, but also capricious. I believe she always had a rather turbulent emotional life, which in the end crystallized as religious devotion. Besides, she had a literary and artistic culture which my parents lacked. She introduced me to all the parks and gardens of Paris and took me to all the museums.
It was she who first taught me the meaning of noblesse oblige: viz., that belonging to the aristocracy does not consist in benefiting from more privileges than others or in having additional rights, but in imposing greater burdens upon one oneself, having a higher notion of one’s duties, feeling more responsible than others. Behaving in a noble manner, whatever class one comes from, means never being satisfied with oneself, never reasoning in terms of utility. It means the beauty of gratuitousness, of “useless” expenditure, the beau geste, the conviction that one could always have done better, that it is odious to boast of what one has done, that a man’s quality is tested by his ability to act contrary to his own interests whenever it becomes necessary.
All these things were inculcated in me in an almost passionate fashion. My grandmother lived in a sort of permanent state of exaltation.
His mother, born Germaine Langouët, was working at a post office in St. Malo, Brittany, when she met Benoist’s father. She was descended entirely from Norman and Breton peasants and fishermen.
My maternal grandparents were simple people. Thanks to their surroundings, I was also able to live in contact with the popular classes. But it was also thanks to them that I quickly understood the reality of class relations. It was not social inequalities as such which shocked me so much as the contemptuous fashion in which I too often saw people of the lower classes treated.
Born 1943 at Tours, an only child, Benoist’s family moved to Paris when he was six, and he has remained there ever since. He was enrolled at the Lycée Montaigne:
I was an excellent student in the subjects which interested me: French, literature, history, geography, Latin, Greek; and very bad in those I did not like: math, geometry, physics. I think I reached the end of my studies without ever having understood the difference between a division and a fraction. I feel ill at ease as soon as I see numbers instead of letters.
From the age of eight I began to read in a compulsive, bulimic fashion. I read all the time and everywhere. My mother had the weakness to allow me to read at the table; I would pick at my plate without even looking at what I was eating, so as not to interrupt my reading. I would read during class. I would even read in the street, walking to school, holding my book up in front of me, casting only the most cursory glances at the traffic.
I read an astronomical number of comic books, which I got my mother to buy or traded with my school fellows. But it was particularly fairy tales and legends which enchanted me: the tales of Andersen, of Perrault and the Grimms. The Greek myths and the Homeric universe particularly fascinated me.
I quickly went on to literature. My paternal grandmother had in her library a first edition of the works of Hugo in sixty volumes. I read them from the first to the last line, after which I devoured all the volumes of Balzac’s Human Comedy. Then I went on to Zola’s Rougon-Macquart, then Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant, Mérimée, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol. . . . Whatever pocket-money my mother gave me was immediately converted into books. At about age ten or eleven, she gave me bus tickets for my trip to school. I went on foot and resold the tickets half price to other pupils. Anything in order to read!
I read above all in order to escape from a daily routine which I found humdrum, drowned in philistinism and bourgeois convention. In adventure stories it was the change of scene more than the action that I sought.
But I should also admit that I stole books, and with a perfectly easy conscience: it was all for a good cause! I stole quite a few from Gilbert, boulevard Saint-Michel, right up to the day I got caught. The bookstore personnel called up my mother, who arrived immediately, livid in the face. She imagined I would perish on the scaffold one day. She paid for the books but, upon leaving the store, threw them into an open gutter. I was so angry, I went the very next day and stole exactly the same books from another bookstore.
Next to reading, the visual arts were his greatest passion: “Van Gogh and Salvador Dalí were my heroes.” For a time, he imposed on himself a duty to visit at least one exhibition of paintings every day.
The cinema was another interest. His local church published notices concerning which of the new films were wholesome for young viewers and which were to be avoided. The young Benoist consulted these notices and then went to see every film condemned as unsuitable, on the assumption that these would be the most interesting.
He was a difficult catechumen:
I asked all sorts of questions, such as: ‘if God is all-powerful, can he make 2 + 2 = 5? Did Neanderthal man have a soul? If there are extraterrestrial beings, how would they know about the incarnation? If the sun danced in the sky before the little visionaries of Fatima, how is it that no astronomical observatory registered this movement?’
The curés thought my questions preposterous, though perhaps they were only disturbing.
Benoist’s generation was the last to glimpse an era now vanished forever:
The 1950s were a continuous prolongation of the ’30s and ’40s. Despite the war, little had really changed in the realm of social and family structures or in daily life. The automobile and the television spread only slowly. Frenchmen’s ways of speaking and behaving were not yet determined by what they saw on television. They spoke like their parents, with regional accents, not like the host of the latest TV program. Educated people had more learning, the popular classes more spontaneity. People did not systematically mock everything. And among the young, no one would have thought of taking an interest in the brand of clothing you wore.
It is only at the end of the ’50s and the very beginning of the ’60s that the great caesura occurs. There was the revolution in the household, with refrigerators and washing machines. The contraceptive pill came on the market in 1960. Supermarkets appeared in 1962.
Above all, rural life began to decline, a real silent revolution whose full scope hardly anyone understood at the time. Today, the peasants—become farmers, if not “agricultural operators”—represent less than one percent of the French population, whereas they constituted the majority in the 19th century, and still numbered ten million in 1945. The end of the rural world brought about the end of a way of life expressing a mentality which has now disappeared. It involved the end of popular traditions which until recently structured collective existence, the end of a world where men and women often sang as they worked. No one does that anymore; at most, they listen to the radio.
Benoist sums up his childhood by saying “there was nothing exceptional about it—only, it was very full.”
Part 2: An Agitated Youth
When Benoist was a teenager, his father purchased a small country house to the west of Paris. Here he began to spend part of his summer vacations and most of his weekends in the company of a group of boys and girls his own age. One of the girls in the band had a father who was a journalist and author. This fascinated the young Benoist, and he determined to make the man’s acquaintance.
The man was Henry Coston, a longtime anti-Jewish polemicist and, under the occupation, an enthusiastic collaborator. The young Benoist knew none of this, being mainly interested to meet a man who lived by his pen. Coston described himself as an author of books on “big money,” and gave Benoist one of his works, entitled The Financiers Who Run the World.
In the summer of 1960, when Benoist was sixteen years old, Coston invited him to contribute to a large reference work he was compiling on French political parties and movements. Benoist wrote several articles, including the one on Action Française, signing them “Cédric de Gentissard.” By Christmas, he was a published author.
“The youth at that time was incredibly politicized,” Benoist recalls. “At the lycée Louis-le-Grand, half my fellow pupils belonged to a political party (not so today for even one percent of high school and university students). Most were socialists or communists.”
Perceiving that Benoist was still searching politically, Coston recommended he get in touch with the Jeune Nation movement and its student branch, the Fédération des étudiants nationalistes (FEN). When he arrived at Jeune Nation’s headquarters, a young woman said to him “you want to be a militant, my friend? Start by sweeping this floor!” Benoist conscientiously fulfilled the task; she took his information and said “you will be contacted.”
From 1961 to the end of 1966, [recalls Benoist,] I passed a total of six years on the extreme right. It was a short time, really, but undeniably marked me for life, both because of the political situation—the end of a world—and because of my age: there is always a part of our adolescence we do not survive.
The FEN maintained at least forty chapters in all the important university towns of France. They held semiannual meetings for chapter leaders in Paris, as well as summer camps for the general membership, which were a mixture of sporting activities and political training. Benoist was employed mainly in writing and editing various newsletters: “I often slept on an inflatable mattress I kept under my desk, in order to resume work the more quickly the next day.”
The FEN’s official goal was to fight against the ”marxification” of the university, and it also supported French Algeria. Members distributed tracts, put up posters, staged public meetings and demonstrations, and (not least) got into fistfights with political opponents of their own age.
I loved the electric atmosphere of the demonstrations, the movements of the crowd, the way in which slogans and cries spread, the confrontations with the police, the smell of teargas. In February 1961, during a demonstration in place de l’Etoile, I was arrested and remanded in custody. My mother, who had come to take me home, was picked up too!
We used to tour all the local chapters of FEN, criss-crossing France in a little car stuffed with tracts and propaganda material. We usually slept in the woods, in sleeping bags, or simply in ditches beside the road, under the open sky.
[Once] we went to brush slogans in tar on various buildings in Chartes—including the cathedral. Each group was assigned a driver with a getaway car. When my group went to our car, we found it had disappeared: the driver had chickened out. We were arrested by the police. Although covered in tar, we energetically denied the evidence; we ended up paying a heavy fine.
Meanwhile, Benoist continued his studies.
Philosophy class had a capital importance for me, for I had a feeling of finally being at home. Although up to that time I had had a purely literary and artistic education, the discovery of the great systems of philosophical thought found in me a prepared heart. It seemed to me that I already had an essentially philosophical spirit without knowing it. I learned the history of philosophy at a great pace, discovering Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Bergson, Sartre. . . .
This brought me not so much a way of understanding the world, nor of changing it, but of interpreting it. The world ceased to be a pure given, neutral, something à propos of which agreement could immediately be reached. Henceforth it existed as something which could gain access to the human understanding only through a meaning attributed to it—which, of course, posed the problem of the criteria of such appreciation. At least, that is how I understood philosophy, as an interpretive key.
It was thanks to philosophy that I realized the need to have a Weltanschauung, a global conception of the world. Without such a conception, things had no meaning. [I don’t mean] an a priori conception, which seeks willy-nilly to fit the real to some sort of Procrustean bed, but one formed on the basis of observation of the world and a systematic interpretation of what is observed.
Benoist matriculated at the Sorbonne in the department of law, following a curriculum in general philosophy, history of religion, ethics and sociology. Yet he refused to sit his exams; obtaining degrees was looked upon as “collaboration with the regime” in his circle of political militants! As a result, Benoist was ineligible for advanced studies later; to this day, he holds no academic degree.
In 1963 Benoist began writing for Dominique Venner’s new monthly, Europe-Action. The magazine had little in common with traditional throne-and-altar traditionalism; it promoted “first, the idea of European nationalism; second, an explicit anti-Christianity; third, a biologizing interpretation of society, implying both ‘biological materialism’ and racism (delicately renamed ‘biological realism’).” Benoist estimates that Europe-Action attained a circulation of approximately 15,000.
He began to travel a lot, becoming a sort of foreign correspondent for the publications with which he was involved.
In each country, I scoured the bookstores and went to see the most diverse political parties and movements. In London, I visited both the Anglo-Rhodesian Society and the African National Congress. In New York, I met Thomas Molnar and Ralph de Toledano. The next day, I went to Harlem to make purchases at the Black Muslim bookstore. In Washington I went to visit the Democrats as well as the Republicans, and then the Nazi party, based in Arlington, VA. In Mississippi, I attended a grotesque nocturnal ceremony of the Ku Klux Klan, where even the grandmothers and babies were decked out in white hoods.
Meanwhile, the movement was changing character. Many of the militants began to devote their efforts to electoral politics. They formed a National Movement of Progress in 1966, but its electoral performance was dismal. Another faction, with which Benoist identified, preferred to move in the direction of what in America would be called a “think tank”: “I proposed to dissolve the FEN and replace it with an Institute of Doctrinal Studies, which was rejected. If one is determined to seek the origins of the ‘New Right,’ then this is the turning point to which one must refer.”
Asked by the interviewer whether in retrospect he sees his years of militancy as a waste of time, Benoist strongly denies it:
Militancy is a school, one of the best there is. It is a school of discipline and deportment, of exaltation and enthusiasm, a school of self-sacrifice. It’s also a crucible of friendship like few others: being militants together creates a bond which endures across time and, sometimes, triumphs over anything else. You have many illusions, believing your impact will be increased in the same proportion as you mobilize yourself completely, but you [also] get the feeling of giving a meaning to your existence.
All this being said, it is a school one must know how to leave. Nothing is more ridiculous than those old militants who keep trotting out the same slogans for decades. The militant is not only someone who gives of himself completely; he is also a partisan in the worst sense of the term. He repeats a catechism; he refers to a collective “we” which relieves him of all personal thought. The “good militant” is a true believer who prefers answers to questions, because he requires certainties. And like all believers, he puts aside all critical spirit and glories in his sectarianism.
Part 3: The Beginnings of the Nouvelle Droite
During the years 1966–’67, the movement in which Benoist had been a militant went into its death throes. Europe-Action ceased publication following its November 1966 issue; the FEN held its last summer training camp in 1967. Concurrently, Benoist was undergoing a personal evolution which might be summed up as the victory of the philosophy student over the militant.
I felt a strong desire to start again from scratch. At twenty-three, I had just passed several years in a milieu where I had the feeling of having “seen it all.” I had learned a lot, but also experienced its limits. I was aware of having said a lot of stupid things, of having repeated slogans only because they corresponded to what “we” were supposed to think. I wanted to submit all that to a critical examination, perform a sort of triage between the correct ideas that could be kept and the false ideas that had to be abandoned.
I had definitely concluded that I was not a man of power but a man of knowledge. The life of reflection, not to say the vita contemplativa, was more important to me than the vita activa. After having forced my own nature for a time, I had found myself. I aspired to reconstruct a general view of the world on a new basis.
In the fall of 1967, I went to stay in Denmark for a week or so, on the coast of the Baltic, in order to reflect calmly upon what I wanted to do: viz., to lead a “theoretical” life, as Aristotle said—but how? I did not want to set forth any catechism of ready-made ideas, but to set in motion a train of thought. I could imagine the starting point, but did not wish to prejudge where it would lead. It was a matter of taking clear positions, engaging oneself completely, but never forgetting the primacy of questioning.
A few weeks later I arranged a working seminar in an old barn in the Vendée where a FEN summer training camp [presumably the last] had just been held. It was during this meeting that I announced my intention of launching a review entitled Nouvelle Ecole.
The inaugural meeting of the Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) took place at Lyons, May 4–5, 1968. But the idea had been in the air for some time. At the beginning, I conceived GRECE quite unrealistically as a kind of synthesis between the Frankfurt School, Action Française, and the Centre nationale de recherche scientific!
From the chronology, we can see that the Nouvelle Droite was not, as is so often asserted, a “response” to the events of May 1968. Benoist, however, did take an interest in the events of that “revolutionary” month, and witnessed many of them close up.
It was only afterwards that I understood that there were in fact two different “May ’68s.” On the one hand, there was the initiation of a radical critique of consumer society, the society of the spectacle and mercantile values, with which I could only sympathize. On the other hand, it was a pseudo-revolution of “desire” (“untrammeled enjoyment,” “it is forbidden to forbid,” “the beach on the pavement”) which betrayed a spoilt-child individualism beneath its revolutionary appearances. Unfortunately, it was the second tendency which won out.
By 1970, GRECE was expanding rapidly, with “circles” forming in most of the major university towns: the Vilfredo Pareto Circle in Paris, the Henry de Montherlant Circle in Bordeaux . . . even a Leconte de Lisle Circle on the island of Réunion!
By the fall of 1968 it acquired a modest internal newsletter, Eléments, which expanded over the years until it became autonomous, the magazine for the general public it is today. Beginning [also] in 1968, GRECE has organized a national colloquium every year, as well as a summer university which is held in a big provençal building at the foot of the Roquefavour Aqueduct near Aix-en-Provence.
It was a matter of creating a working community, even if the first term was forgotten by some. But it is true that we attached great importance to the idea of community. We appropriated the classic distinction made by Ferdinand Tönnies between community, inherited or acquired, but always founded upon organic bonds, and society, of a contractual nature, and thus more artificial and “mechanical.”
Most of the members of GRECE were then between twenty and thirty years old. Some were still students. It was the time of first marriages and the arrival of first children. Since we were not Christians, there were no baptisms or church marriages. Some members wanted us to work out substitute rites.
I myself got married June 21, 1972—the day of the summer solstice—to a young German from Schleswig-Holstein, Doris Christians, who all her life has always remained a wonderful wife. We would have two sons: Frédérik (1978) and Adrien (1981).
Benoist describes the 1970s for GRECE as a period of “systematic exploration of the ideological landscape, with inevitable ambiguities, some theoretical wavering or mistakes.”
I wrote a number of articles on the nexus between culture and politics. I was struggling to define the idea of “cultural power.” I insisted on the role of culture as an element in political change. A political transformation [merely] sanctions a revolution which has already occurred in minds and mores. Intellectual and cultural work contributes to this mental change by popularizing values, images and themes which break with the order in place or with the values of the dominant class.
The first polemics against GRECE came at the end of 1972 from a far-right royalist organization which accused them of “racism.” Some members even attacked a GRECE seminar, pick-handles in hand. This had no lasting effect, and GRECE “established itself definitively in the intellectual landscape during the next five years.” In 1976, members established the publishing house Copernic, which published some fifty titles over the next few years.
In 1977 a series of events began which would turn Benoist’s little “working community” into an international media sensation. A close associate, the author and journalist Louis Pauwels, began to produce a Sunday supplement for the newspaper Le Figaro in which Benoist published interviews and book reviews. This venture proving successful, in October 1978 it was upgraded to a weekly magazine, Le Figaro-Magazine. Benoist worked closely with Pauwels on the project, and induced many of his associates to write for the magazine. “Nearly all [Pauwels’] editorials were a fairly faithful reflection of the ideas and work of the Nouvelle Droite,” remembers Benoist. After ten weeks of publication, the magazine had boosted Le Figaro’s circulation to 400,000, and it eventually shot up to 850,000.
By the summer of 1979, the ideological mainstream was worried. On the 22nd of June, Le Monde launched an attack under the title Le Nouvelle Droite s’installe (“The New Right Settles In”). This was the first appearance of the term “nouvelle droite,” which had never been used by Benoist or his associates to describe themselves. On July 2nd, the Nouvelle Observateur followed up with a cover story about GRECE. “From that point on,” remembers Benoist, “a snowball effect took hold.”
Within the space of a few weeks, several hundred articles were devoted to the Nouvelle Droite. After the articles there were books, then radio and television programs. I was giving swarms of interviews. One of the most memorable was two full pages in France-Soir of 20th July on the theme “What to Think of the New Right?” Playboy devoted their interview of the month to me. I was also pressed with questions by the television networks of France, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Japan, Denmark, Israel, Mexico, Brazil, Lebanon, etc. They asked whether I was considering running in the presidential elections. It was surreal.
We may note that not a single English speaking country appears in Benoist’s long list of international media which took an interest in the Nouvelle Droite.
On October 3, 1980 a bomb went off in a Paris synagogue, a crime later shown to have been the work of Middle-Eastern terrorists. The head of Licra (French acronym for International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism) declared that the attack was the consequence of a certain intellectual “climate” to which Figaro-Magazine had contributed. Hysterical reactions followed, and the police told Pauwels and Benoist that they could not guarantee their safety, and recommended that they “beat a retreat.”
I had to leave my house and spend several days undercover in Paris. Pauwels and I arranged a few discreet meetings. He wore dark sunglasses and looked over his shoulder as he spoke. It was like being in a John Le Carré novel. Two months later, a national colloquium organized by GRECE was forcibly attacked by a band of zealots. One of our friends lost an eye in the course of the brawl.
Devlin, F. Roger. “Alain de Benoist’s Vivid Memory.” Counter-Currents Publishing. “Part 1: A Full Childhood,” 10 July 2012, <http://www.counter-currents.com/2012/07/alain-de-benoists-vivid-memory-part-1-a-full-childhood/ >. “Part 2: An Agitated Youth,” 17 July 2012, <http://www.counter-currents.com/2012/07/alain-de-benoists-vivid-memory-part-2/ >. “Part 3: The Beginnings of the Nouvelle Droite,” 25 July 2012, <http://www.counter-currents.com/2012/07/alain-de-benoists-vivid-memory-part-3/ >.
Notes: This review of Alain de Benoist’s Mémoire vive does indeed end as presented here (with the quotation), a manner which many readers would consider somewhat abrupt.
Also of note is the fact that Mémoire vive has been recently translated into German as Mein Leben: Wege eines Denken (Berlin: Junge Freiheit, 2014).
For a listing of other major works by Alain de Benoist and their translations, see the section on further reading on the page for the “Manifesto of the New Right”: <https://neweuropeanconservative.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/manifesto-of-the-new-right-benoist-champetier/ >.