Lee Siegel on modernism in France, from "The Blush of the New:"
"if the French provided the most extreme assaults on Western rationality — Rimbaud’s 'disorientation of the senses,' André Breton’s celebration of primal instincts stored in the unconscious, André Gide’s enthusiasm for the 'motiveless' crime, Antonin Artaud’s 'Theater of Cruelty,' Maurice Blanchot’s declaration of the death of the author — the reason was simple. It was not that French conditions kept creating figures resembling Baudelaire, about whom Gay histrionically writes that he was 'an outcast aware of his loneliness' — though, as Gay admits, Baudelaire lived at the center of Parisian cultural energy. In France, civilization is invincible and eternal. Its immutable stability makes opposition to it all the more cheerfully ferocious. You can hurl the most incredible rhetorical and intellectual violence against French custom and convention and still have time for some conversation in the cafe, un peu de vin, a delicious dinner and, of course, l’amour. And in the morning, you extricate yourself from such sophisticated coddling — the result of centuries of art and artifice — and rush back to the theoretical barricades."
Perhaps we need an historical and social context to understand literature. If, as Siegel asserts, French social critics were particularly scathing of French bourgeois culture because they knew they could not disturb it, then perhaps we will read them differently.