In Conversation

Emmanuelle Loyer with Emmanuel Laurentin

Emmanuel Laurentin (Lau): Your preceding book was dedicated to Jean Vilar and the ‘Théátre populaire’ (PUF, 1997). How did you get interested in those French intellectuals who had fled to New York during the Second World War?

Photo of Emmanuelle Loyer. Copyright © Kutschera

Emmanuelle Loyer (Loyer): The book I dedicated to Vilar was an attempt to seize one of those happy interludes, which are rare in History, especially contemporary History, when moral requirements which are held legitimate (i.e. theater for all) met with convinced actors, and an audience in deep agreement with this venture. Today, whatever the subsequent sociological refutations, Vilar’s utopia retains an almost mythological nature. Given that I never knew Vilar myself nor went to the TNP shows, I tried to step aside from the cult of ‘Théátre National Populaire veterans’ or of the Avignon Festival by retracing, with the help of archives, a story which in fact was more complex, more difficult, more tortuous—but also more exciting than that.

I then went back in time, towards the Second World War which, albeit superseded by a growing interest for the Algerian War and Colonial History, is still the matrix of very many things in France. After utopia—tragedy. But I did this while questioning aesthetical as well as political matters. For instance I was struck to observe the uncommon path followed by some. Thus André Breton or Claude Lévi-Strauss, passing in New York, could not be classified, as traditional historiography would have it, as either ‘resistance fighters’ or ‘collaborators’. Neither were they prone to ‘wait and see’. They were elsewhere.

Then I wanted to confront with a more narrative form of History. There had been talk, for almost a decade, of the return of the narrative, in contrast to ‘problem history’. In France, as in the United States, but a little later and under a different guise, the way out from structural social History, often of Marxist allegiance, was found through a revival of some historiographic genres which had seemed obsolete, such as biography, through attention rightly paid to micro-historical approaches; to the individual and to idiosyncratic paths, whether exemplary or not, this being fed by the desire to tell a story. This was my attitude: I wanted to tell what had happened to a person, or a group of persons, such as in the case of the Surrealists or Academics from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, as created within the New York School for Social Research, in 1942.

Now the war period for these exiles could be expressed as a very simple story: they went, they stayed for a few years, and they came back. The transatlantic round trip lent itself well to a form of narrative which was anxious to take up again within a life span.

Lau: Do you feel you belong to a school of Exile Studies? Is that in France a subject as important and established as ‘Refugee Studies’ in the United States?

Loyer: Certainly there is no French equivalent, in terms of intellectual production, or of institutionalization of research (with financial means, libraries, et al.) of the American ‘Refugee Studies’, or even of the German Exilforschung. In the first place, the reason is to be found in the varying paths followed by History in these three countries. Out of Germany, and into the United States, went, wave after wave, a considerable flow of German-speaking population and know-how transfer. But a number of historians and sociologists in France are now working on the theme of exile. At the same time—and we must be careful, and I think we are all conscious of this—Exile is a kind of messianic category in our post-modern culture, which only swears by the virtue of uprooting. A creator, an artist, an intellectual readily see themselves as ‘exiles within’, as those who outsmart the comfort of domestic life. We must therefore take into account this new metaphorical usage of ‘exile’ before we start out to write its history. Indeed we may find help in the thoughts of those who actually were exiles during these years, and who, before anyone else, built a phenomenology of their historical plight. Says Hannah Arendt, exiles are a ‘new type of human beings’, as produced by contemporary History, the tendency of societies to fall back into national identities, and the appearance of expansionist totalitarianisms. Adorno, Benjamin, Kracauer have tried to rationalize as intellectuals their own experience of uprooting—to find some virtue in it, and even sometimes a kind of fulfilment.

Lau: Is going into exile a way of fleeing or an act of resistance?

Loyer: There are forced exiles, but also chosen ones. Some ‘flights’ are given significance as acts of opposition, rebellion, refusal to accept ‘fait accompli’. This is difficult to comprehend, and each case is different. This is why I had to—and I favored—an approach stressing portraits, sometimes very precise and detailed, in order to try and retrace, at the scale of a given man or woman, the framework of constraints and choices.

In fact, this phenomenon was seen by many people at the time as a flight, both then and after the war, when exiles came back home. This judgement was sometimes delivered out of bad faith, as in the case of Tristan Tzara (Dada), who had wanted to go through Marseilles and had failed, then later basing on this failure the principle of a ferocious criticism of Surrealists in 1947. I wondered what was the meaning of this almost universal reprobation of the wartime exile, as often internalized by those who had taken part. In fact I think France has a strong Republican tradition of depreciation in this matter. Apart from the big figure of Victor Hugo, it it difficult to name a great French exile. As was shown by Sylvie Aprile, among Republican exiles who fled France after Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup in 1851, few were honored by the Third Republic. France likes to think of itself as a home for refugees—which also was true—but finds it difficult to deal with its own exiles. Why is this so? I think it is because of the shadow of counter-revolutionary emigration which has for ever tarnished a Frenchman’s desire to leave the homeland.

Leaving now the field of mental representations, which had to be recalled if one is to understand the ‘mental code’ of the men of 1940, it is clear that leaving one’s country is a choice which becomes more and more imperative in a situation where freedom is more and more threatened. I became interested in the Surrealists’ case (André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson, Tanguy, Matta, Benjamin Péret—who, unable to join the United States, went to Mexico) because everybody criticized them after 1945; and because the Communists, Sartre and former, sometimes dissident members of the group (such as Roger Vaillant) violently reproached them with this departure and decreed them to have put themselves outside History.

In fact I realized that, to start with, and contrary to many of their contemporaries, the Surrealists were smart enough to imagine the horror of what was going to happen ; to this ‘historical imagination’ one must add the consciousness that the Surrealists’ mode of existence, through scandalous happenings, could not work under a dictatorship. Moreover, at the time of their departure in the spring of 1941, the actual political Resistance movement was still in its infancy. To be true, had it been more highly structured, we must not forget that such a budding Resistance movement is often—though not always—based upon a feeling of national humiliation, a patriotic reflex which was foreign to the Surrealists.

Therefore their departure from France was mostly a kind of refusal, whether explicit or not, which, for all that, could not be termed ‘resistance’ if this is supposed to mean an act which is consciously aimed to harm the occupying power.

Room for resistance may be found in exile, like for those who took part in the American war of information by speaking for the Voice of America; or those who went into the OSS secret services by feeding with their knowledge analyses pertaining to the situation in France in all its various aspects; or again, like Jacques Maritain, the catholic philosopher, by writing Through the disaster, a very fine, though still little known, work of political literature, which quickly spread among the underground networks of the Resistance, and found its way into the catalogue of Editions de Minuit—published as the second title, after Vercors’ Silence of the Sea.

Finally I must stress that many persons who worked in Varian Fry’s escape networks (as commissioned by the Emergency Rescue Committee) in Marseilles between the summer of 1941 and the summer of 1942 later joined the Resistance, in line with their former stance—for those who did not leave the country. It is clear here, although this has long been overlooked, that there is a link between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘activist’ resistance.

Lau: Did French intellectuals and artists, once they were in the United States, establish links with any domestic resistance network(s)?

Loyer: The striking, and quite paradoxical, fact is that people and writings did circulate, in a mysterious way, between both sides of the Atlantic, at least until 1942. Thus some Resistance manuscripts crossed over from France, such as the Cahiers de Témoignage Chrétien, which were published by Jacques Maritain at the Editions de la Maison Française. Therefore all communication, although much more difficult, was not broken. As to ‘political’ exiles, their potential knowledge of the (rather multifarious) French Resistance was a capital they could decide to use in one way or another: there lies the problem of exile politics. I studied the case of Paul Vignaux and Boris Souvarine, both left-wing Republicans who became more and more distrustful of the Gaullists’ political ambitions: both used their knowledge (that of Resistance in the Trade Unions in the case of Vignaux, who had been sent to America by Léon Jouhaux) for the benefit of the United States by working for the Office of Strategic Services from 1942 on. They constantly by-passed the Free French, thus fulfilling the wishes of Roosevelt and of part of the Washington establishment. All reports by the OSS’s Research and Analysis Branch are kept in the National Archives in Washington D.C. They are fascinating…Also, we must not forget that the Resistance did not involve the majority, but a minority, that it was not naturally unified but, in the contrary, as any political field, divided and torn by opposing views. The situation was therefore rather complex.

Lau: How did these French people fit in with the New York scene? Did they recreate a ‘Little Paris?’

Somewhere between alienation and adventure, each person experiences exile in a singular way, and gives it a sometimes unpredictable significance. In the world of expatriates, as in France at the same period, tensions between the necessities of commitment and those of survival were felt, but with some differences. Poets were less well-off than painters, within the surrealist circle. Breton found it hard to make a living. At a time he was employed by Peggy Guggenheim, but later she sacked him, and he had to work as an announcer for the Voice of America. This sequence became famous, although Breton was later embarrassed when reminded of these propaganda activities—even though for a good cause. He then said something like: ‘a poet must be able to write anything, from adverts to funeral orations!’ But the best known painters, Masson, Ernst, Matta, Tanguy, soon became integrated into the American artistic scene, where, without being ‘stars’, they were not unknown. Academics were more or less in contact with their American colleagues, to a degree which varied according to subjects. Those who held a position in American universities were naturally better integrated than those who lectured in French at the Ecole Libre before a French-speaking or Francophile audience in New York. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who taught at the Ecole Libre and at the New School, told how much he had benefited from the treasures of American libraries, but also from American anthropology, whose ‘Titan’ was Franz Boas. Now Levi-Strauss knew his disciples well, and Boas died practically in his arms.

Lau: You explain that the few thousand French war exiles almost all came back to France after 1945. Why?

Loyer: Indeed these American years ended with a massive departure. This must be compared with the reverse choice made by German exiles, who, for the most part, wanted to stay in the United States and became naturalized citizens. This is one of the points at stake in this work: exile is a good laboratory for observing national identities. French expatriates had always waited for their return to France as their only horizon. Very few asked for American nationality; and in that case, as for Jean Malaquais, a Polish Jew, a writer and a former secretary to André Gide who was awarded the Prix Renaudot in 1939 for Les Javanais, it was because of a veritable disillusionment for a country he had loved too much. It had ripped him apart, irrevocably. A rare phenomenon, too. For most, even among the many Jewish French expatriates, the link with the homeland was never broken. No resentment was felt against France: they thought they were ostracized by a regime which had been imposed by the Nazis, and was in no way a product of the Nation. I may add that the very nature of the building of national identity, always inseparably French and universal, made it more difficult to question. France is France, but to save the spirit of France is to save the spirit of the world! The exiles, being men and women of their time, were highly imbued with this universalist rhetoric, apart from a few, among whom Claude Lévi-Strauss, who realized that France, if it was to revive, must abandon its cultural and colonial imperialistic logic. When he was appointed ‘Conseiller culturel’ in New York from 1945 to 1948, he tried to set up a policy of exchange rather than influence. France no longer was the center of the universe! Therefore the national identity, this varying from case to case, emerged inequally wounded, changed, but on the whole it may be said that while remaining faithful to France, the exiles had lived in different cultural surroundings, had experienced another way of life. They were more able to criticize the traditional vision of France as the mother of Arts and Letters, and to tone down the chauvinistic expression of a compensatory nationalism which was very much in fashion at the time of the Liberation. This was not to make their return easier.

To sum up I must say that the lives of these exiles, as knocked about by History, were to me a subject of never-ending curiosity.


Translated by Denis C. Griesmar


Alumna of the École Supérieure Fontenay-Saint-Cloud, Emmanuelle Loyer teaches contemporary history at Lille University III. Producer for radio station France Culture, she is the author of Le théâtre citoyen de Jean Vilar: une utopie d’après-guerre (Jean Vilar’s citizen theatre: a post-war utopia) (PUF 1997) and has recently published Paris et New York: Intellectuels et artistes français en exil (1940-1947) (Paris and New York: Intellectuals and French artists en exile (1940-1947) with publishing house Éditions Grasset.


Emmanuel Laurentin is editor-in-chief and presenter of the daily programme La Nouvelle Fabrique (formerly Fabrique de l’histoire) for radio station France Culture.


This interview was made possible by the Villa Gillet,a center for the analysis of contemporary thought based in Lyon, France. www.villagillet.net