Pierrefonds I

Revolution at Pierrefonds
France, May 1968

Ferment
Vol.XIV#10
June 21, 2001
Roy Lisker

This article first appeared in French in Les Temps Modernes, the magazine edited by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, in 1969. What follows is a revision of the original manuscript:

The day was May 15th. Two weeks had passed since the outbreak of the student rebellions at the Sorbonne and others extensions of the University of Paris. From thence the movement spread rapidly to institutions of higher education across the nation .Public education in France extends to the university level; there are no private universities.Then the agitation was picked up by the trade unions and political parties on the Left (traditional, marginal or ad hoc) . All through the months of May and June, the streets of Paris were host to demonstrations and marches. accompanied by barricades, paving stones flying through the air, clubs, tear gas, violence on by sides.

France was paralyzed by a General Strike. Day by day one learned of enterprises and schools going on strike or closing down in sympathy. It was on this day that I boarded a bus from Paris to Pierrefonds, a charming castle town near the historic city of Compiégne, to take up a post as English teacher at the private Catholic agricultural school, Le Prieuré .

Relative to the purchasing power of '68, the pay was good: 1000 francs ( $200) per month, room, board and general use of the school's facilities, such as they were. The teaching schedule was light and the setting agreeable. Altogether it was a job with many advantages. Considering the straitened circumstances in which I'd lived since arriving in France in March, I was more than willing to make whatever reasonable intellectual and political sacrifices were needed to hold onto the job.

Unfortunately ( or fortunately depending on one's point of view) the historical context made it impossible to keep this resolution. Within three weeks I was back in Paris in my habitual state of unemployment. Among my many specialties, which include quantum theory, sound poetry and narrative fiction, one must include the transmission of spiritual contagions. It's not an easy life, being a vector of intellectual viruses, particularly when you recognize that you can't do anything about it: among other feats, in May, 1981 I brought the administration of M.I.T. to a grinding halt for 24 hours.

The mild strain picked up by proximity to the Paris revolution of May '68 was enough to throw the campus of the school at Pierrefonds into turmoil for a few days. Otherwise its status quo was unruffled. The story is worth setting down, if for no other reason than to present an unusual perspective to an event that is rarely described from anywhere but Paris.

Le Prieuré was a boy's school. The age the student population ranged from 13 to 21. As all of them were the sons of well-to-do farmers, its education was geared to prepare them for colleges of agricultural engineering. Corresponding roughly to grades 8 through 12 in our system, my students were in the years designated in the French system as Troisième, Seconde A, Seconde B, Première and Spéciale.

The school's founder and director, a petty tyrant right out of the pages of a Balzac novel was a patriarchal abbot, the Abbé C --- . His priorities were evenly divided between property, power, money and religion. I was not there long enough to come into contact with other sides of his character.

Apart from the high tuition (18,000 francs/ year at '68 prices. This may have been competitive with schools in the same category.)the rituals accompanying the dispensation of the monthly salary can serve as a metaphor for his personal attitude towards the common medium of exchange. Reaching into the depths of his sepulchral soutane the Abbé produced, like Lazarus bidden to rise from the dead, a huge wallet bulging with scores of 100 franc notes wrapped double. Crisping each bill to guarantee that another was not stuck to it he would peel with deliberation four, five, or however many notes were needed. Having gotten this paltry sum literally "off his chest", the ritual would be replayed in contrary motion, the wallet being returned to the security of his majestic robe. A few taps on his chest in the area where the wallet once more prominently swelled , and one was led to understand that the audience was over.

Despite the enormous pastry-cake castle, restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century under commission from Napolean III*


(*)4 The following description from the Pierrefonds website is in no need of translation: " Au cours de ses diffÄrentes restaurations de monument, Viollet-le-Duc a toujours appliqué sa conception de l'architecture médiéval. Il l'a mÉme poussée, dans le cas du chèteau de Pierrefonds, jusqu'è son paroxysme."
the charm of the antique village of Pierrefonds is undeniably authentic. The castle on the heights casts a spell of medieval enchantment from the moment one enters it. Passing a hotel called the Hotel de l'Enfer on the way to a school named Le Prieuré, I was sorely tempted to dismiss the harsh realities of Paris in May '68 as nothing more than a bad dream.

Included among the historic attractions of Pierrefonds are the grounds of the school itself, on which one also finds a dilapidated 18th century aristocratic chateau and restored medieval church. I was received on the steps of the chateau by the very proper and cordial M. Sylvain, the forestry instructor.(As he has forgotten the real ones, the author has fictionalized all names except his own.) His first comment was that it was a good time to be out of Paris: here one breathed better. We went inside the chateau. As I filled out some papers, Sylvain explained my duties to me. They were very light: no more than 13 hours of teaching per week, so arranged that I could catch the afternoon bus for Paris on Friday, and take the return bus either Monday evening or Tuesday morning. Furthermore the school operated on a two week schedule and the second week had fewer classroom hours than the first. Therefore I could spend as many as four consecutive days in the big city every other week.

I wasn't required to leave the school on my off days; I could remain in my room and use the services of the dining-room. These convenient arrangements had been made by my predecessor, a teacher from England who would be returning in a few days to collect his things. My first class was scheduled for 9 the next morning. Under normal circumstances, a serious difficulty in connection with my employment would have presented itself in that I did not have the work and residence permits required for all foreign workers in France. In this instance the revolution was on my side; the general strike took in most of the administrative offices of the government. For the 3 weeks during which I was employed by the school, from May 15th to the first week of June, work permits were not to be had by anyone . This being the case, I was authorized to begin teaching immediately, with the understanding that it was my responsibility to "regulariser ma situation" at the first opportunity. This fortuitous development was to prove of great importance later on.

M. Sylvain then offered to show me around the premises. The terraced grounds slope downwards towards a pond before climbing a steep hill to the ceinture , the protective fortification separating the castle from the town. I followed Sylvain along the road circling the castle wall until it turned off to the left into the playing field. Several boys were in it practicing gymnastics. Sylvain emphasized to me that physical education was considered an important part of the program. Like the Impressionist painters, several hours out of every school day were spent en plein air. Somewhat sententiously he quoted the Latin adage : mens sana in corpore sano .

Much to my surprise he immediately followed this up with a cynical comment to the effect that the minds for which I took responsibility were not likely to benefit much from development. Speaking with unusual frankness he explained that the students all came from well-to-do families engaged in farming enterprises. They didn't need to be educated: upon graduation they had an automatic place in the family business. This was all to the good, as they gave little evidence of any love of learning.

For the moment I accepted his remarks at face value, yet could not avoid asking myself why a dedicated teacher ( as I discovered him to be ) like Sylvain should be so contemptuous of the innate abilities of his students. The roots of this attitude, as I was to learn, lay very deep. Ultimately at stake was nothing less than the entire French system of education , with its entombment in the archaic order imposed upon the school at Pierrefonds by the despotic Abbé C --- .

I met the rest of the faculty and several of my students that evening at supper. For the evening meal students and faculty sat in the same dining-room, with the faculty together at a large table at the back of the room, and the 200 or some odd students filling up the rest of the room on parallel benches going from back to front. The students gathered around the tables and waited for a teacher to ring a bell before seating themselves. An hour later the bell served as the signal for them to get up and leave.

It was inevitable that the new English teacher would be the prime attraction. Some students came up to me to shake my hand; others waved or smiled. Several of my colleagues counseled me to ignore them and keep up the ridiculous aura of pomposity which high school teachers appear to develop all over the world. In this, and most other respects, they were not dissimilar to high school teachers I'd known at home . There was, for example, the French teacher, M. Mourni, with his inevitable question : "Do you read the French classics in America?" . Shortly after my appearance in the dining-hall, M. Vigier, the physical education teacher, slapped me on the back and said, more or less, " We're pals, okay? " .

M. Cohen the mathematics teacher, tended to get steamed up whenever the students in Paris came up in conversation. Then he would get very excited and cry out : " Its Mao! Not Marx! Mao! Not Marx!" . M. Hearn the biology teacher, an elderly yet not unkindly reactionary, told me how he'd learned that the French educational system was superior to the American: before going into education he'd been doing research on the staphylococcus bacillus. Some of his co-workers in the lab were Americans. He'd observed that they could talk about nothing but staph, whereas his French colleagues were informed on all sorts of subjects.

Père Joseph and Père Simon were on the staff of Le Prieuré as spiritual counselors. Each of them In his own way was at odds with the Abbé. They may have been worker-priests; Père Joseph never wore the clerical habit and always dressed as a farmer ready for a day's work in the fields. Quick tempered on occasion, he behaved like someone trapped for too long in a community by which he could never hope to be understood.

For his part, Père Simon did not hesitate to speak out against the failings of the school. There was little that either of them could do to correct them . There is no doubt that the perspective of these two priests was broader and more radical than that of any one else on the faculty. Père Joseph in particular was identificably post-John XXIII. He was unfortunately linked to a school with a philosophy that could only be labeled vintage Pius XII.

The principal building of the school was the elegant Rococo chateau. The upper floors had been outfitted with student dormitories and faculty accommodations. Offices and a large reading room were at the ground level. Among the attractions contained in this room, were several statuettes in a neo-classic style and an upright piano that had never been tuned. Much of the remaining space was occupied by oak reading tables arranged in a rectangle. Stepping into the corridor one was greeted by parallel phalanxes of graceful sculptures . Sweeping marble staircases indicated an earlier, more leisurely, albeit feudal origin to what was now a freezing private school dormitory. Although it was already the middle of May I found it impossible to work at my typewriter without swaddling myself about with three blankets, into which I was obliged to withdraw my fingers from contact with the icy keyboard every five minutes or so.

On the first night of my stay at Le Prieuré, soon after laying out my things in my bedroom I went down, book platyhelminthe that I am, to the reading-room to examine its small library. Books and magazines stood in a floor-to-ceiling glass-enclosed cupboard at the back of the room. I rarely saw anyone else use this room. Apart from myself, it was always deserted after school hours.

The books made up a curious collection. Two shelves were filled with old textbooks, including some grammars, (one German and several English). All the other books were statistical reports on agricultural production in the Oise, this region of France. By far the largest allocation of space had been accorded to accumulated volumes of agricultural trade journals dating back a century or more. I concluded, and later confirmed, that this was not actually the school library but a documentation center for agricultural engineering.

Standing next to the bookcase was a rack holding recent issues of periodicals similar to those in the bookcase. The only other reading matter was a week-old copy of the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro.

At nine the next morning I was introduced by M. Sylvain to a classroom holding about a dozen students between the ages of 12 and 14 : Troisième in the French system. The class was almost called off at the last minute because I'd not thought to bring a jacket and tie with me from Paris. Fortunately there were still some clothes in my room left over by my predecesso, who had not yet returnd to collect them. After forcing myself into a jacket which left little leeway for my shoulders, and knotting a cute polka-dot tie, I was suitably attired , in the opinion of M. Sylvain, to maintain my dignity in front of a class of teen-agers.

Right from the beginning one student , let's call him "Étienne", stood out from all the rest. He was far in advance of the mediocre school at which his youth was being suppressed. In language and music in particular his aptitudes were outstanding . On the very first day of class he surprised me very much by striking up a conversation directly in English! What he had learned came from three months in England and absorbing the lyrics of songs by the Beatles, many of which he knew by heart.

Eventually I would discover that he was the only , and I mean the only , student in the entire school with capable of handling anything more than "Good morning" and "Thank you" in the language of France's millennial foe. He already knew more than the students in Première, many of whom had been studying English for as much as eight years ! In this domain, and in all other areas, Le Prieuré held out little promise for him beyond another four years of stultification.

To the extent that generalizations about such matters are valid, Étienne's aptitudes were artistic rather than mechanical.He was very musical, with a good natural ear. It was his misfortune to 'have been landed up ' in a school designed to prepare him for a career in agricultural engineering. Inevitably he did poorly in those courses on which the school laid the greatest importance: husbandry , soil chemistry, statistics and so forth. For his musical and linguistic talents Pierrefonds furnished not a shred of encouragement.

To me this situation, one of deprivation, was transparent. Such, however was not the opinion of most of the faculty, by whom he was disparaged and ridiculed. Whenever his name came up at the faculty lunch one could expect a spate of adjectives like "retarded (!) ", "conceited", "lazy" and, in the astonishing words of one vituperative pedagogue, " sick" (!) It was the prevailing opinion that he belonged in a school for abnormal children . There was a great concern among all of them to prepare this unfortunate for a career in which he would be happy: landscape architect. I was made to understand that Le Prieuré was not equipped to deal with unbalanced individuals. For my own part, I remember him as the only student possessing endowed with curiosity, inspiration or imagination. In one particular only were his professors on the mark: he was indeed in the wrong school.

All the same, with the weight of 13 years heavy on his shoulders, Étienne appeared, at least outwardly, to have accepted society's master plan: the blueprint for higher education that he described to me through a series of colleges of agriculture, would carry him to the age of 26. It was safe to predict that he would soon be rebelling violently against the mediocrity surrounding him. In the meantime he was in for a rough haul, no doubt about it.

There wasn't much point in having him in the same English class with the others. By the end of the week I suggested to him that he didn't have to attend class on a regular basis. The project I assigned to him was to write a report in English on some work of English literature. He agreed with me that this would be less boring. " Are there any books in English in the student library?" Étienne looked at me strangely. He smiled, no doubt from my comic way of saying things in French, but also because of the way in which this teacher from America seemed to be alienated from the real world.

"We don't have a student library."

" You must have a library of some sort. What they've got in the chateau is not a library."

" Well, there used to be a library of about thirty books, but it's been locked up."

" Do you mean to tell me that in Pierrefonds there is no place where you can obtain books?"

" No. But so what? We have our textbooks, don't we?"

" That's not enough." He wasn't convinced; but he replied:

" I'll see if I can get permission from one of our teachers to examine the library" , he said, " but I don't recall any books in English in it."

" No. That won't be necessary. I'll find you a book." I suggested Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare.

" Shakespeare? Who's he?"

" You've never heard of Shakespeare?"

" No. Never."

" Many people consider him to be the greatest writer in English. Perhaps in the world."

He laughed : " That's because you come from an English-speaking country. Here in France we think Victor Hugo is the greatest writer. Of course I've read Hugo. "

Touché ! It was evident from this comment alone that the school's assessment of Étienne 's intelligence was completely off the wall . In any case I was now determined to get to the bottom of this library business.


Continued, part 2


Return to

Home Page