|Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)
French Orientalism: The Mystique of Louis Massignon
By David Pryce-Jones
Massignon revitalized for his contemporaries the assumptions
that France was a Muslim power and that Jews had to fit into
other peoples' conception of them, without right to any identity
they might forge for themselves. France's pre-eminent
Orientalist in his day, and a professor at the Collège
de France from 1925 onwards, he nonetheless utilized scholarship
to promote personal and political prejudices. As Elie Kedourie
pointed out in an essay "Politics and the Academy," Massignon's
wild abandon made him a prime example of la trahison
des clercs [betrayal of the intellectuals] which Julien Benda in
his 1927 book of that title held to be degrading public discourse,
and was nothing less than treason to the very concept of an
intellectual. A particularly brilliant misfit, he was a fabulator--a
mythmaker--with a personality strong enough to persuade those
who listened to him that the quirks of his imagination corresponded
to the real world. Accordingly he was to spread mystification
about France's role in the Middle East right through the Quai
d'Orsay [the French Foreign Ministry] to lasting effect.
in 1883, Massignon was the son of an artist and sculptor, and
was brought up in the
milieu of the Symbolists for whom decadence was all the rage. As
a young man on a visit to Morocco,
he met Marshal Lyautey, who believed that the country offered every
opportunity for the expansion of French imperialism. In Cairo
and Baghdad before the First World War, he learnt the languages
of the Middle East, and did the initial research that led to
his reputation. It pleased him to adopt the robes and turban of
a student at Al-Azhar, the historic center of Muslim devotion in
Cairo. A genuine scholar, his special study concerned Mansur
a medieval Shia mystic tortured to death on a gibbet as a heretic
in Baghdad in 922, and impossibly visualized by him as a Muslim
Christ figure. A Spanish friend, Luis de Cuadra, introduced him
homosexual debauchery of Cairo.
Soon afterwards, consumed by remorse, he had a religious epiphany,
a vision of what he called "the Divine Fire." De Cuadra, a convert
to Islam, committed suicide a few years later in a Spanish prison.
The unhappy fate of his friend was to mark Massignon for the rest
of his life, as Robert Irwin judges in For Lust of Knowing,
his comprehensive account of Orientalists and their work.
complex interaction of sin and redemption, in Massignon's conviction,
gave all human behavior its value. One friend was Charles de
of the missionary order of the White Fathers, later murdered in
his Saharan retreat by Ottoman soldiers. Massignon believed that
he too had some such religious vocation, with an accompanying posture
of martyrdom as suffered by both Christ and Mansur al-Hallaj. Although
something which hardly interfered with his incessant travels and
his work, marriage for Massignon was part and parcel of the high
Catholic sacrament. Paul Claudel, another long-standing friend,
was one of the witnesses at Massignon's wedding. From his posting
in Prague, Claudel on February
8, 1911, wrote to him: "You would make an incomparable agent. I
have dropped the word to my friend Berthelot to whom I must introduce
you one day." The Ottoman authorities in Mesopotamia
had indeed arrested him as a spy. Although the Massignon files
in the Quai d'Orsay remain closed, enough
is in the public domain to show that he was some sort of roving
ambassador engaged in secret and confidential work. Loosely described
as head of a "Scientific Mission," he traveled on a diplomatic
passport. Algeria, Morocco and Syria were among his special concerns, and in
one of his books he admitted, "I was aware I was sailing under
false colors in Damascus from 1920 to 1945."
1917, as a member of the Georges-Picot mission, he was present
when the British captured
and entered Jerusalem.
Lawrence of Arabia was also there; they spoke together in Arabic,
and Massignon found fault with Lawrence's
crude dialect. They were two of a kind. And just as Lawrence always
suspected the worst of the French, so Massignon always suspected
the worst of the British.
Massignon as for Claudel, Jews were a "Mystery," whose purpose was to conduct their
private dialogue with God to the ultimate benefit of Christianity.
He took some time making up his mind how Zionism fitted into this
classic Catholic scheme of things. After meeting Chaim Weizmann,
he referred to him as the "Nasi," or president in Hebrew--he enjoyed
dazzling the Quai d'Orsay with his science.
Work on the land might be redemptive for a few proletarian Jews,
but in the background, he warned as early as 1920, was "the horrible Israel of
cosmopolitans, bankers with no country of their own who have exploited
Anglo-Saxon imperialism (Sassoon, Sir Herbert Samuel, Lord Reading,
Lord Rothschild, Schiff, etc), eating you down to the bone." He
sometimes took to wearing a Franciscan habit in the Middle
East, as much a disguise as Arab robes and a turban had been earlier
in his life. Visiting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 1934, he detected "powerful financial interventions" which
alone enabled Zionism to survive.
conviction hardened in him that only "a Franco-Islamic bloc" could save the Holy Land,
indeed the whole Middle East. Nazareth, to Massignon, had unique sacramental
significance for its association with the Virgin Mary. He viewed
the fighting in the town during the Arab revolt of 1936 as sacrilege.
Jews ought to learn Arabic and become Palestinian, otherwise they
were "disloyal," a key concept for him: he meant that they were
betraying Arab hospitality. In an article in 1939 he deplored how
instead of Arabic-speaking Sephardi Jews coexisting with the Arabs, "Germanized
Ashkenazim have taken the Palestinian issue into their hands, with
the perfect and implacable technique of the most exasperating of
colonialisms: slowly pushing the Arab ‘natives' towards the desert."
he deplored the number of Jews fleeing into France to escape
Nazi persecution, and argued
that French Jews were leading the country to destruction. At the
outbreak of war, he served under Giraudoux [the playwright Jean
Giraudoux, minister of information under premier Edouard Daladier
until January 1941 and author of anti-war plays and an occasional
anti-Semitic essay--ed.] in charge of propaganda to Muslim countries.
His self-dramatizing cast of mind is revealed by a remark he made
at the time to Vincent Mansour Monteil, a devoted pupil and himself
a convert to Islam: "My country is the Arab world." In that same
spirit he had once written about God to Claudel, "It is in Arabic
no doubt that He is pleased that I should one day serve Him." Out
of mortification, he fasted during Ramadan. As Robert Irwin put
it with exactly weighed observations, Massignon was "an unsystematic
racist," and his identification with Arab and Muslim culture arose
at least in part because "he did not like Jews very much."
the war, Massignon campaigned with passionate fury against the
creation of the state
Any agreement with the Zionists was wrong, and besides, "would
convulse our North Africa." The Jewish national home was "an imposture in which
we should not be accomplices." Not really a nation, Israel had to be either something more or something
less. Israel "signifies
nothing unless it lives through spirituality, and if this spirituality
is exclusive, as it is trying to ensure against the Muslim Arabs,
it will be a catastrophe." He founded a "Comité chrétien d'Entente
France-Islam," [Christian Committee for Franco-Islamic Understanding]
enrolling diplomats to help him lobby for the cause. First and
foremost, the Holy Places had to remain in French Catholic hands,
and he too based the argument for this on the architecture of churches
such as the Holy Sepulcher or Saint Anne's in Jerusalem. Any Italian claim, as proposed by the Vatican,
was merely incidental. In an extended polemic in print, he maintained
that the notorious "blood libel" accusing the Jews of needing Christian
blood for their rites had an authentic historical basis. The United
Nations vote in November 1947 in favor of partition--and the Quai
d'Orsay's concurrence in that vote--appalled him. The language of
his frequent articles in Catholic publications such as Témoignage
Chrétien and L'Aube became infused with religiosity
and political hysteria to the point of incoherence. Christian and
Muslim recognition of Israel had "no value de jure." "The State
without a Messiah of Israel" had been formed at the expense of
the Arabs, who were "victims of repulsive Yankee technology." Israel, he was to tell Martin
Buber in what even by his standards was a far-fetched accusation,
had to stop working to exploit oil on behalf of "Atlantic speculators." Obsessed
more than ever by Nazareth and the Virgin Mary,
he insisted, "The world will never have a just peace until Israel
reconsiders its rejection [revisera le procès] of
the Mother of Jesus." Visiting Israel in February 1949,
he felt his "heart pierced by the ignominy of the Jews." Jews were
evidently sinners beyond all hope of redemption. An angry Claudel
broke off a lifetime's friendship, and noted in his diary that
Massignon "has gone off the rails as usual."
1950 in Cairo, the city where he had discovered his homosexuality,
Massignon took holy orders as a priest in the Eastern Melkite church.
In a final somersault, he militated for the independence of French
North Africa, thus undercutting French claims to be a Muslim power.
Right up to his death in 1963, his sense of guilt and sin meshed
with the innate conviction of intellectual superiority and his
intimation of "Divine Fire." Many a Quai d'Orsay
colleague was to assert afterwards that to meet Massignon was to
be in the presence of genius.
and his showmanship served to reinforce the Quai d'Orsay then and
since in its collective view that France and the world of Islam
shared a common destiny; and also that it could define Jews--and
ordain their future--better than Jews were able to do for themselves.
article is based on an excerpt provided by kind permission of
the author from David Pryce-Jone's new book, Betrayal:
France, the Arabs and the Jews, published by Encounter,
André. La Reconnaissance: le Saint-Siège, les
Juifs et Israël. Paris:
Christian, and Jean Moncelon. Louis Massignon. Paris:
Robert. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. New
York: Allen Lane, 2006.
Elie. "Politics and the Academy," Commentary Aug. 1992.
Jacques. "Louis Massignon et la Syrie," in Keryell, ed., Louis
Massignon au cœur de notre temps. Paris: Karthala, 1999.
Jacques, ed. Louis Massignon et ses contemporains. Paris:
Michel, ed. Paul Claudel Louis Massignon (1908-1914). Correspondance établie
et annotée. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1973.
Daniel, ed. Louis Massignon et le dialogue des cultures. Paris:
Massignon et la Palestine," http://jm.saliege.com/palestine.htm.
Amira. "L'Autre dans la spiritualité massignonienne,"
in Keryell, ed., Louis Massignon au cœur de notre temps.
David Pryce-Jones is the author of numerous works of non-fiction,
among them The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs;
The Strange Death of the Soviet Union and Paris in the
Third Reich. He has also published ten novels, and is a senior
editor of National Review.
- Global Jewish Magazine 2007