|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 professorship and 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 al-Hallaj, 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 to
the 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
Foucauld, founder 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
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
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 of Israel. 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
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.
learning 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: Laffont, 1992.
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: Cerf, 1996.
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