Maîtres à l'épée, maîtres à danser, maîtres à penser: founding French national consciousness in Russian exile

Proceeding from Lord Acton's insight that "exile is the nursery of nationality," this paper examines a peculiar historical instance of dislocation as a relevant matrix for the articulation of national identity. I inquire into aspects of the elaboration of French national consciousness among French émigrés of the revolutionary period in Russia, approaching the subject at two levels: first, the maîtres à danser, the run-of-themill émigrés who abandon cosmopolitan certitudes or pretensions of a "monde français" and abstractions of dynastic loyalty, in favour of nostalgic attachment to a tangible patrie, very much at odds with the Russian otherness into which they have been thrust. Second, the maîtres à penser, those émigré thinkers in whom the Revolution provokes a reconsideration of established universais and who conceptualize Russia in terms of a project to reconcile universal and particular or national values. I examine the dilemmas and ultimate failure of such a projection by focusing on the work of Joseph de Maistre. On both levels, the historical case studied here is an exemplification of the proposition that nationalism is founded on a disenchantment with the world, and that physical estrangement from both the world to which one believes oneself to belong as well as spiritual estrangement from the world in which one treads, may provide a critical context for defining collective identity.

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In: Canadian Slavonic papers. - Toronto. - Vol. 49(2007), No. 1-2, p. 27-47
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