“Le dernier des immortels” passed away on December 5, 2017 in Paris. His career path is impressive: he was published in the Pléiade in 2015 (within his lifetime, which is rare), and it also included his entry to the École Normale Supérieure as well as the Académie française – two high-ranking French institutions that probably shaped the structure of his thought. From this formative period, he gained a knowledge oriented towards culture and literature; later, he was considered the Académie française’s media ambassador for over forty years. However, Jean d’Ormesson wasn’t just a brilliant student who managed to make a place for himself in
the country’s most illustrious literary society. He was above all a character, both profound and humorous, who mastered perfectly the art of conversation. Many interviews with him prove this statement; therefore, it’s interesting to study how he handled these privileged conversations with the media.
JEAN D’ORMESSON, L’ENGAGÉ ?
The Academician “votait à droite”, as expressed in French by the tradition of l’intellectuel engagé, and never tried to conceal it. As evidence, one can mention his three years as director of the traditionally right newspaper Le Figaro – from 1974 to 1977. In his political commitment, he fought for Marguerite Yourcenar’s election at the Académie française and she joined the institution in 1981 as the first woman to sit there.
His pledge stated women were marginalised by the most respected French literary society, and he stood against this discrimination. D’Ormesson also campaigned to have Valéry Giscard d’Estaing accepted despite his lack of literary experience; it was an attempt to make the Académie française more accessible to those who may not have the means to join it otherwise, and it succeeded. It helped with the reputation of the French establishment as well, the Académie française being often seen as an elitist institution.
Yet, D’Ormesson embodied a paradox when it comes to politics and how it can be exercised. Despite his strong stances and his ability to obtain what he was campaining for, he claimed to be disinterested in power in front of Thierry Ardisson’s cameras [ii]. Similarly, he refused to interfere in the French political life when asked in On n’est pas couché [iii]. Regarding his viewpoint on a writer’s political engagement, he summarised as follows: “Un écrivain a le droit d’être engagé, il n’a pas d’obligation d’être engagé” [iv]. Thus, D’Ormesson established a clear separation between politics and the figure of the writer, while committing himself to causes which seemed important to him as a thinker of his time.
JEAN D’ORMESSON, LE PERSONNAGE
The relationship between D’Ormesson and Chateaubriand is a little more complex than a simple great writer to an admirer. Indeed, the Academician was the descendant of the famous French author, as revealed in Stupéfiant [v]. This direct link to one of the most emblematic novelists of the 18th century made D’Ormesson a figure of authority in the French intellectual landscape.
He was also the embodiment of the French intellectual with an open knowledge on the world, considering his deep interest in the works of international writers and his references to them in interviews [vi]. His ingenious humour, as shown in Léa Salamé’s program [vii], often bordered on provocation but remained full of wit and playfulness.
“Jean D’O” is still recognised by his peers as an eminent novelist and philosopher, despite cultivating a touching modesty when he let it appear, as he did once again in Stupéfiant: “Je n’ai pas écrit de grand livre, je n’ai pas écrit l’Iliade, je n’ai pas écrit les Mémoires d’outretombe, je n’ai pas écrit A la recherche du temps perdu, non, malheureusement” [viii].
He would almost look like one’s grandfather, smiling and accessible, and that’s one of the reasons he was so popular with the media. His philosophical side allows a reflection on the youth of his time: “Je trouve qu’ils ont quand même beaucoup de courage, vous savez. Parce qu’avec le chômage, les difficultés de la vie: trouver un poste c’est abominable, ils sont quand même assez gais et j’ai beaucoup d’admiration pour eux” [ix]. He opposed the idea of a generational conflict, which regularly reappears as a topic of debate in France.
Moreover, D’Ormesson was characterised by the paradox he created when talking about him in the media. One of his habits was to divert the subject to someone else, even though he was the guest of the televisual talk-show. He justified himself thus: “Je suis toujours embarrassé, un peu, à l’idée que je parle trop de moi” [x], and went on with: “Ne parlons plus de moi, parlons de vous” [xi]. His witticism allowed him to avoid personal questions, and to design the paradox of the intellectual thinker who disliked talking about himself.
Jean D’Ormesson’s elegance, his reverent mind of the great novelists and his charisma have made him a prominent figure in the French intellectual scene, and the media, for more than sixty years.
FURTHER INFORMATION & READING
. Jean d’Ormesson par Laurent Delahousse, in the television program C à Vous (November 30th, 2018).
. Monsieur, a documentary directed by Laurent Delahousse (December 5th 2018, 01h37).
. The complete works of Jean D’Ormesson.