An excerpt from

Turning On the Mind

French Philosophers on Television

Tamara Chaplin

Philosophy and the Early
Television Book Show, 1953–1968

In the decades following World War II, television laid siege to the culture of the book. However, with French television regarded less as a creative form in its own right than as a means for the transmission of the classical heritage, most early aficionados saw the medium not as a threat but rather as a boon to print culture. Television would “spread the word”—heightening public awareness about important new publications, encouraging viewers to read, and bringing the rich legacy of the French humanistic tradition directly into the homes and heads of the nation’s citizens. Few countries have worked as hard as France to merge the word and the image via the small screen. Indeed, between 1953 and 1989 alone, 106 series dedicated to literary programming sought to marry these disparate entities on French TV. Since its inception, the format known as the émission littéraire, or television book show, has also provided one of the dominant platforms for the televising of philosophy in France.

Lectures pour tous (1953–58) inaugurated the book show genre. Along with Bernard Pivot’s celebrated Apostrophes (1975û89), it remains widely recognized as among the most important in the field. While philosophy was but a small part of its purview, Lectures pour tous became the first television series to regularly feature the discipline and its practitioners. Indeed, thanks to a confluence of factors, from its interview structure, to its hosts’ magnetic conversational style, to its sustained rhythm and innovative camera work, the show inadvertently manifested the range of programming models that have distinguished the televising of philosophy throughout its history.

In this chapter I take up five broadcasts from Lectures pour tous (on Sartre, Camus, Bachelard, Aron, and Foucault) aired between 1955 and 1966. Examining first the earlier shows (including those on Sartre and Bachelard, as well as the 1960 Camus obituary) in terms of the fifties vogue for existentialism and the educational crisis in philosophy, and then the later shows (on Aron and Foucault) within the context of the Gaullist regime’s active anti-Marxism and pursuit of French cultural grandeur, I identify several trends. First, as early as the 1950s, television began to emerge as a formidable advertising tool with an arguably positive impact on the expansion of the market in the chief intellectual commodity: books. Television hosts exerted new forms of intellectual and cultural control, offering, for example, exposure to a philosophy (existentialism) and a philosopher (Sartre) decidedly out of favor with the politics in power. Second, philosophers, faced with a state-regulated medium that requested their presence and, at the same time, socially motivated to speak out on issues of public concern, were suddenly charged to negotiate an audiovisual landscape whose terrain both exceeded their influence and challenged deeply held beliefs about the disinterested and commercially innocent nature of scholarly inquiry. Nonetheless, because philosophy exists as embodied performative practice—and hence could be observed “in action”—philosophers were well equipped to meet both the theatrical and the structural demands of the book show genre. While demonstrating how political considerations and screen charisma equally shaped media access, Lectures pour tous, during the fifteen years of its run, contributed to the postwar construction of French intellectual celebrity, launched an important public forum for philosophy, and became a legitimizing force in the field of French intellectual power—in so doing creating a potent (and increasingly contested) relationship between commerce and culture. Whether it successfully molded mass audiences into the enlightened viewers envisioned by the state, however, was another question entirely.

Lectures pour tous (1953–1968): Birth of a Genre

Lectures pour tous began broadcasting on 27 March 1953. Airing each Wednesday evening on Channel 1—until 1964 the sole French channel—the show enjoyed almost instant acclaim. The fact that it was scheduled into an ideal time slot (originally appearing at 9:30 p.m., during French prime time) did not hurt. After its first six months on the air and despite having not yet developed its characteristic visual style, the new program was commended by La semaine radiophonique as “lively and varied, neither pedantic nor pretentious.” At the end of its first season Lectures pour tous won the 1954 award for best new television show. Admittedly, the competition was not stiff. In 1953 the RTF was broadcasting a mere thirty-two hours a week (up from thirteen in 1948). Initially audiences were small, but even if only 126,000 households boasted television sets in 1954, sets installed in cafés and the télé-clubs introduced the program to a constantly growing public. Lectures pour tous acquired a loyal following. By 1962 Le monde reported that the show regularly captured between 26% and 32% of the viewing public.

Key to Lecture pour tous’s success was the fact that it fulfilled with brio the RTF’s triple agenda (“entertain, inform, educate”), an agenda fervently supported—as mentioned in chapter 1—by the RTF’s influential director of programming from 1952 to 1959, Jean d’Arcy. This agenda relied heavily upon a view of the new technology as a transparent vehicle for the democratization of French culture and emphatically not as a challenge to it. Indeed, television could only accede to the level of a legitimate cultural practice in France if it was able to be of service to the dominant—and ostensibly literary—culture. The book show was the fruit of this belief. Yet, as the hosts and producers of Lectures pour tous quickly discovered, television would not merely transmit but also transform French culture. In the case of the book show, two elements were critical to this process: first the introduction of a new cultural mediator in the person of the television host, and second the impact of the physical image of the writer (or, in this case, the philosopher) on the reception of text. By wresting control of traditional avenues for the attribution of intellectual value and privileging the producer at the expense of the product, both factors challenged elite networks and generated tremendous controversy.

D’Arcy conferred Lectures pour tous on two ambitious young journalists, Pierre Desgraupes and Pierre Dumayet. Both men had worked in the artistic programming division of Radio diffusion française (RDF) and had also presented the radio newsûûDumayet on Actualités de Paris and Desgraupes on Paris vous parle. Television news gigs soon followed. Their collaboration began in 1947, as co-hosts of a radio book show, Domaine français. When the offer came several years later to create a television book show together, they jumped at the chance. They quickly discovered that they had similar perspectives on the new medium. Both had studied philosophy, first as lycée students under Georges Perret and later at the Sorbonne, where Dumayet had taken classes with Bachelard. Following the war, Desgraupes began preparing a diploma thesis on Descartes. Initially, both young men had resolved to take the agrégation in philosophy. Ultimately, however, both abandoned this plan in favor of gainful employment, first as print journalists and then at the RDF. Desgraupes later claimed that it was because they “communed in the religion of Perret” that their partnership blossomed. Although readily disavowing elitist programming (“I’m not at all a fan of ‘intello’ TV,” Dumayet informed me), Desgraupes nevertheless insists, “We were philosophers of radio, and then television” who “were necessarily drawn towards those shows where our studies could still serve us in some way.” Despite this penchant for erudite subjects, both men agree that “even the cultural shows we did, we sought to make as accessible as possible.” Lectures pour tous fit the bill beautifully and established their reputations in the field.

Typically shot live by the use of three cameras in the small third studio at Cognac-Jay, the show exhibited extremely simple production values: as producers and principal hosts, Dumayet and Desgraupes took turns sitting at a small table opposite their guests and posing questions. In the beginning, they reported, no one really knew how to “do” television, so for the first few weeks they simply talked and let the cameras run. The uninspired results ultimately led to the hiring of a new director, Jean Prat. Prat’s youth (he was only twenty-six when he joined the team in 1955) reflected the youthfulness of the field: Desgraupes was thirty-five, Dumayet thirty. Like many new TV directors, Prat (the son of a railroad official) had trained at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC). And like many, when he failed to break into film, he headed for television, widely acknowledged as the fastest route to the top. Lectures pour tous was Prat’s first regular directing assignment. His inspired camerawork quickly transformed the program from what a reviewer called “a radio show of the ‘blah-blah-blah variety’ that has no business being on television,” to one with a distinctive visual signature, reminiscent of Godard’s new wave cinema. Prat’s style, dubbed face à face for its direct staging and serene tone, aimed to establish a sense of intimacy and inclusion that was close to confessional. Under his eye, reported television critic Jacques Mourgeon, “each program [attained] an almost esoteric significance [. . .]; literature became gesture.” Prat’s approach proved so successful that even in his absence (guest directors were not infrequent) his aesthetic imprint endured.

The program opened with a presentation of the evening’s featured books. The body of the show was then divided into two to four interviews, each lasting eight to fifteen minutes. Rounding out the program were light reviews of fiction, theater, or Parisian literary life (given between 1953 and 1959 by Nicole Vedrès, a novelist); interviews with “imaginary” guests from other epochs; and an “address to the reader” delivered in a static shot—often at some length—directly to the camera by the poet and critic Max-Pol Fouchet. In keeping with the tastes of the hosts, guests ran the gamut from literary celebrities (Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, François Mauriac, Roland Barthes, Nathalie Sarraute, Vladimir Nabokov) to bright young talents (Françoise Sagan), to writers of popular fiction, to authors on current affairs, to pedestrian topics (pets, travel), and to such disciplines as philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and history (with Bachelard, Foucault, Aron, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among others). During the interviews the camera cut from long shots encompassing host and guest to alternating medium one-shots, to lingering close-ups. This gradual tightening of the frame mirrored the interview process, which sought through successive questions to expose the authentic private face hidden behind the public persona.

The interviews began with a close-up of the volume under discussion. If at first publishers were neither mentioned in the prefatory monologues nor legible in the cover-shots that opened each sequence, it was nevertheless clear that the filmic choice was both descriptive and promotional. It bears noting that Lectures pour tous was launched during a watershed in the French publishing industry. In 1953 Hachette pitched the livres de poche—mass-market, affordable paperbacks. Reeditions of the classics competed with new works, and sales (up to 200,000 copies per printing) shot off the charts. Within a decade the production of rival series (like J’ai lu [I’ve read it] and Presses pocket) signaled the arrival of les trentes glorieuses, thirty years of economic expansion in the literary world. However, thanks to the impact of the television book show, the publishing market no longer responded solely to the careful assessments of literary critics in the pages of Le monde, Le Figaro, or Les nouvelles littéraires. The employment of a press secretary charged specifically with television relations at the Julliard publishing house indicates that under the influence of the small screen, selling books now meant selling writers. Indeed, René Julliard felt the new medium was so important that he actually equipped Monique Mayaud, his director of press relations, with a television set. More than half the bestsellers published in 1958—including Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter—had benefited from exposure on Lectures pour tous. The program made evident that, visually incarnate, the right book (and—more importantly—the right author) could charm a newly affluent public into loosening its purse strings and buying.

According to Dumayet, Lectures pour tous was conceived as a chemin vers l’oeuvre, a path to the work, and understood as an educational instrument for the diffusion of traditional culture. Its explicit goals were twofold: to encourage the public to read, and to inform it about literary current affairs. Its implicit message was that there was something to be gained from the visible communion of author and text. The attraction for the viewer lay in what the author would reveal, both verbally and physically, that the text could not. The potential results could be both intellectually hypnotic and commercially rewarding. To its creators, the visual element was vital: “We mustn’t forget that television came from radio,” Desgraupes remarked. “It was revolutionary to bring that ‘something extra’ that is the image, to an interview.” For the public, the identity of the author and the meaning of the work, the corporeal and the written, appeared symbiotic. To its fans, the notion of judging a work on the basis of its author was hardly new. It harked back to the salons of the eighteenth century. To its detractors (whose positions suggest emergent structuralist critiques), the results were blasphemous: the author was nothing more than a contaminant of the text. From this perspective, television, and particularly the television interview, threatened the sacred status of the text. Lectures pour tous scoffed at such criticism, asserting that the visual presence of the author opened up new possibilities for the textual encounter. These possibilities—even when politically hindered—applied particularly to the televising of philosophy.

Existential Dilemmas and Subversive Strategies: Jean-Paul Sartre

Between 1945 and the early 1950s the philosophical movement known as existentialism put Paris back on the global cultural map. Famously reduced to the phrase “Existence precedes essence,” and philosophically traceable to S°ren Kierkegaard, existentialism insisted on the personal, subjective dimension of human existence. In its Sartrean incarnation, existentialism was inseparable from France’s wartime experience, for it invoked the necessity of moral choice both under the German Occupation and after. In postwar Paris, existentialism led a double life: one philosophic, the other cultural. Despite resolute attempts to distance themselves from the latter, by the end of the 1940s, Sartre, Beauvoir, and—more peripherally—Camus were irreversibly linked in the public imagination to the cultish hordes of black-clad young people who be-bopped with feral abandon to the beat of American jazz in the smoky underground bars of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

While it had all the features of a surefire media sensation and drew attention in both the press and cinematic newsreels, existentialism received scant television coverage. Famous for its purported transgression of gender norms, celebration of individual freedom, and avid promotion of new models of sexual morality, existentialism (especially in its cultural incarnation) tacitly critiqued the fragile state of the nation. Taking direction from the reinvention of conjugal morals devised in the late 1920s by Sartre and Beauvoir as a governing principle for their own legendary relationship, existentialists in general (and women in particular) were thought to embrace free love and reject marriage and family. Consequently, for the television administration the topic was delicate. Yet as literary celebrities, existentialists were part of the cultural capital that the medium was eager to exploit. Camus was not the problem. Less politically strident than his colleagues, and a close friend of Lectures pour tous’s Fouchet, he was happy to appear before the cameras. With Sartre and Beauvoir it was different. Their support for revolutionary movements (particularly, by 1956, the cause of Algerian independence) and their anti-American, anti-imperialist beliefs increasingly brought them into conflict with the French government. Nervous about provoking government ire, through the 1950s and ’60s TV news largely avoided the famous couple. Meanwhile, Sartre and Beauvoir refused TV interviews, a fact that probably suited the state broadcaster, who was uncomfortably caught between political whims and the interests of both producers and the public. Both Dumayet and Desgraupes report wishing that Sartre had acceded to an interview on the show. While Desgraupes attributes the philosopher’s reticence to his opposition to government politics, Dumayet recalls that the television administration “advised against” Sartre’s presence on the broadcast. Regardless, since they were unable to entice Sartre to appear but eager to capitalize on his intellectual celebrity, the hosts of Lectures pour tous resorted to representing him indirectly. The decision was a ratings coup and provided a prototype for covering controversial subjects in the years to come.

On 19 July 1955, Dumayet interviewed Francis Jeanson to discuss his recent study, Sartre par lui-même. Sartre’s face, captured in a photograph on the jacket of the book, opens the program. The still image—its serious bespectacled gaze, teeth clamped on a pipe, lips seemingly poised to utter profundities—introduces Sartre, as intellectual sobriety incarnate, to a public not yet entirely familiar with his features,. The camera cuts to an over-the-shoulder two-shot, depicting Dumayet holding the book, angled across from Jeanson, who faces the camera. Dumayet’s first question, “What is generally said about Sartre, and how does the book correct that opinion?” intimates the slant of the discussion that follows. This seemingly innocuous book review not only makes possible a conversation about the value of Sartre’s work but also opens a public debate about Sartre’s status in contemporary French society.

Jeanson quickly seizes the opportunity to champion his protagonist. Dismissing those who discount the philosopher’s oeuvre because they find it excessively morbid, Jeanson argues that Sartre is interesting in part because “he performed his own psychoanalysis via his work.” Leaning forward, body tense with the force of his convictions, he contends that it is Sartre’s capacity for meticulous self-reflection that is the root of his philosophical brilliance. Jeanson acknowledges that Sartre is widely criticized for “being an absurdist” and for asserting “that life is necessarily failure.” Sartre’s detractors, he observes, were especially fond of quoting “that famous phrase from No Exit, ‘Hell is other people,’” to illustrate the philosopher’s pessimism. However (and here Jeanson draws heavily on his cigarette), the interpretation of Sartre as “a man who doesn’t know what love is, and who always considers ‘the other’ an enemy, is wrong.” Defending the Sartrean concept of “bad faith,” Jeanson insists that Sartre’s “denunciation of that which is inauthentic in interpersonal relations is born of his passion for what is true.” It is this passion for the authentic, he claims, “that is properly the Sartrean passion.” And if the philosopher’s oeuvre is “a black literature and a literature of abjection,” it is because “Sartre said that there was no point in pursuing fine principles on the moral level if we haven’t shown man first that he is responsible for his own failure—and we can only show him that when he is at his most defeated.” Yes, Jeanson concedes, “Sartre is generally reproached for creating a pessimist philosophy.” However, he continues, one thumb pushing firmly into the other palm, “In his defense I would simply like to repeat something that he himself said to me one day, which to my mind covers his entire oeuvre: ‘Men are only powerless when they declare themselves to be so.’” Given France’s recent history of collaboration and occupation, this call for accountability rings strong. It also evokes Sartre’s rather slow political awakening during the war years—an awakening that sometimes seems to undergird his philosophy like a whispered mea culpa.

Up to this point the clip remains uncharacteristically static, fixed on the two-shot described above. Not until seven full minutes have elapsed does the camera finally cut away. During the final four minutes of the interview, the focus gradually tightens on Jeanson. When the frame changes, so too does the topic of conversation. Dumayet employs a favored technique, seizing a line from the text to pry open the subject at hand. “There is a word that you use a lot in your book, the word ‘bastard,’” he remarks. Jeanson responds, intrigued: “This word unsettles you?” “No, no, not at all,” Dumayet retorts, “but I was surprised at its frequent appearance.” Jeanson explains that Sartre himself repeatedly used the term mal-né (literally “badly born”) as a metaphor for marginality. All of Sartre’s heroes (notwithstanding Jean Genet, who really was born out of wedlock), “live in slightly unbalanced situations” and, in so doing, “reflect in their double consciousness the contradictions of our time.” Reminding Dumayet of his initial question, how Sartre is generally perceived, Jeanson observes, “There are more and more people who consider Sartre a good man, a generous man.” Sartre’s admirers, he continues, believe that the philosopher “dedicates his work, in instances that are evidently uncomfortable for him, to courageously defending the difficulties of our age.” They understand that Sartre’s aim is “to show the public [. . .] that we are all living in a contradictory epoch in a world that is heartrendingly divided against itself.” What is essential, Jeanson concludes, his eyes troubled, is “the degree to which Sartre is forcing himself to live that contradiction, to be that contradiction, to assume it, while many among us feel that contradiction but seek rather to ignore it or to flee.”

Lectures pour tous used Francis Jeanson to bring Sartre to the small screen. In a seemingly apolitical fashion, this second-degree incarnation—with the philosopher absent but discussed—created a platform for the defense of the man and his oeuvre, both tacitly banned from French television at that time. The program’s spectacular dimension (presenting the author as an “embodied text”) was necessarily deferred, since Sartre was not visibly present, but in this case Jeanson served as a physical conduit to the philosopher. Trust me, his earnest presence implied, you will like the guy. The biographical thrust of the discussion reflected the mounting fascination with philosophers as cultural celebrities. In a simple but effective way, this broadcast also demonstrates how television professionals had begun to understand that they could ignore both implicit government directives and authorial desires (in this case, to avoid TV) and fulfill their own agendas for programming content, thus exerting a modicum of control over the nature of public discourse.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 52-62 of Turning On the Mind: French Philosophers on Television by Tamara Chaplin, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2007 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Tamara Chaplin
Turning On the Mind: French Philosophers on Television
©2007, 350 pages, 48 halftones
Cloth $62.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-50990-7 (ISBN-10: 0-226-50990-7)
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