Books: Cultural Amnesia — Jean-François Revel |
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Jean-François Revel (1924–2006) was the man who defined the Communist world as the first society in history condemned to live behind walls in order to stop people getting out. The best way of defining his style as a writer is to say that there is something as good as that in every paragraph. No political commentator anywhere is so consistently entertaining on such a high level. Revel’s youthful beginnings were as a courier in the Resistance. After trading in his thorough academic preparation as a philosopher for a career as a working journalist, he set out on a long attempt to bring French political journalism back towards philosophy, by developing, over the course of twenty-five or more books, a dense consistency of liberal views always underpinned by both a deep background in historical reading and a close observation of daily events. The close observation fed a good memory, which made him the bugbear of his gauchiste opposite numbers, because he remembered things they preferred to forget: to the end, he retained an impressive knack for tracing the latest progressive fad back to its roots in the orthodoxy before last.

In succession to Raymond Aron, and on a par with the eloquent ex-Communist François Furet, Revel was part of France’s comeback from the depths of glamorous but perilously self-deceiving radical chic. Several of his books, most notably How Democracies Perish, earned international fame. It could be said that in the United States at least one of his opinions made him too famous: his notion that democracy might have to give up some of its liberties in order to protect itself was, when translated into English, far too popular on the American neo-conservative right, as Hendrick Herzberg pointed out at the time. But Revel is at his most rewarding when read in his own language, which he writes in a style that the beginner will find gratifyingly clear in its structure, memorable for its vivid imagery, and consistently funny. Revel is brilliant in attack, but always remembers to dismantle the man’s position and not the man. He has a lively appreciation of how people can get stuck with a view because it has become their identity. In 1970 his book Without Marx or Jesus was an early guess that America would not be universally admired for making a totalitarian hegemony impossible. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Revel was prescient about how nostalgia for a collectivist social solution would continue to infect the left. By extension, he foresaw the crisis that would be brought to liberal democracy by an ideology of multiculturalism, because it would automatically undermine liberal values at home without even needing to pay allegiance abroad. Perhaps Revel’s single best book about the world picture is L’Obsession anti-américaine (2002, translated as Anti-Americanism), which ranges far more widely than its title suggests, persuasively tracing the development of globalized terror from its origins in the threat, not that the Palestinians might be denied their own state, but that they might gain it in a way that accepted the existence of the state of Israel. The best book about him is by him: his 1997 autobiography Le Voleur dans la maison vide (The Thief in the Empty House). It is impossible to imagine any of his dogmatist opposite numbers writing anything so human, self-deprecating and charmingly troubled. No wonder they loathe him. Outwritten, outpointed and outraged, French gauchiste commentators have always consigned Revel to the far right, but they find it hard to make the classification stick. When it comes to the welfare of the common people, he was all too clearly more to the left than they are, never having succumbed to the intellectual opportunism that cherishes a non-existent class struggle as the motor of social progress.

During the preparation of this book for the press, Jean-François Revel, full of years and honours, died at the age of eighty-two. Though the pseudo-left throughout the world went on calling him a right-winger to the very end, it was always apparent, to anyone with an ear for his sardonic music, that he was a popular champion in the very best sense of the term. He began on the left, and, in the only sense that really matters, on the left was where he finished: vigilant against all powers that hold the common people in contempt, including the power that claims they can be coerced into being free.

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There are no genres, there are only talents.

REVEL, WHEN HE wrote this in the late 1990s, was defending the status of journalism against lofty minds who presumed to despise its immediacy. In France, the philosophers, the sociologists and the savants in general had always enjoyed an automatic superiority to journalists, because for the savants the unit of thought was the book, whereas for the journalists the unit of thought was only the article. Books outweighed articles. Revel had good personal reasons to question this hierarchy. The philosophers in particular, with Sartre always in the ascendant, had an impressive record of getting the post-war world wrong, whereas Revel and some of his fellow journalists had been getting it right. Revel was too modest, however, to quote from his own works in order to demonstrate that the mainspring of this talent was a capacity for compression that left the philosophers sounding vapid. They weren’t just peddling falsehoods, they were pumping the life out of the language while they did so. Revel pumped the life in. He could do so from an historical perspective, which always helps. On the matter of Malraux’s inflated prestige as an omniscient pontifex of the visual arts, for example, Revel could go all the way back to Hegel for evidence that real knowledge about art sounded less like a tinkling cymbal. Hegel, said Revel, actually looked hard at paintings and judged before he theorized. Revel found the French art-history tradition critically short of of Jewish scholars. Elie Faure, august author of that platitudinous tome L’Esprit des formes, had emerged not from a proper scholarly tradition but from a vacuum, and Malraux represented the same vacuum with better publicity. Revel scorned that kind of high-falutin cultural globetrotting for its second-hand world-historical verbiage (“le verbiage historico-mondial de deuxième main”—the sandbag swings more elegantly in the original). He called it vulgarization in an ampule. But the phrase that counted was déclamatoire prétentions métaphysiques. It was the claim to philosophical status that riled him.

Well schooled in philosophy himself, Revel thought the philosophy that mattered most had always begun from the level of well-written journalism, which was in touch with the world and had a professional imperative to keep the contact while making specific propositions. He put a premium on the thinking that did not give itself a licence to get above writing. The danger of that position is to overvalue simplicity: its proponent had better be able to suggest everything else while he zeroes in on a neat precept. Revel could, and can: we need the two tenses because he gets better as he gets older. His prose, right down to the epithet, demands to be unpacked, and it is a long time before we see the bottom of the suitcase. He is the master of the non-moronic oxymoron. In any language, practitioners of broadsheet commentary love the oxymoron as a device, because it hints at a pipeline to profundity. But an oxymoron from Revel always pays its way. He was the first to come up with a two-word formulation for the miraculous ability of pundits to deduce that a past event had been inevitable: “retrospective clairvoyance.” In an everyday piece for a newspaper, he called terrorism “systematized delirium.” Most authors of a treatise on the subject would be very glad to think of an expression as rich with implication as that.

Even in straight expository prose—no rhetorical devices, no tricks—he has the gift of putting a large argument into a small space, usually when he is summarizing what he has just been expounding. In a searing article on the deliberate dumbing-down of the French education system, he encapsulates the possible consequences: “a non-selective diploma is a passport to unemployment.” (Note the resonance of the buried metaphor: a passport implies a foreign land, which is what unemployment is.) In Britain, Kingsley Amis got into the language with a phrase about the same theme: More will mean worse. (He actually wrote it in italics, which helped the op-ed journalists to home in on it without the tax to their poor brains of reading it in context.) But the strength of Amis’s point depended on his treating education specifically, as an absolute; and the strength was also a weakness, because he had no inclination to extend his view to a social tendency. Revel’s phrase leaves the way open for an argument about whether a proposed cure for social ills might not exacerbate them. Always characterized by the bien pensant left as a diehard right-winger, Revel was fruitfully obliged to go on pointing out that he was in fact a liberal democrat who was genuinely concerned that doctrinaire gauchiste measures would leave the underprivileged less privileged than ever. Being misrepresented can be a stimulus, and in France Revel could depend on being misrepresented from all directions. He was energized by a vivid knowledge of what the states in the East had been like when their official thinkers had been in a position to translate their vilification of a dissident into practical action.

As things are now, it is getting hard to imagine just how reluctant the French intelligentsia was to give up on its righteous commitment to the international anti-capitalist dream. “A school of thought that knows itself to be in decline,” said Revel in La Connaissance inutile, “fights all the more furiously to conserve its identity.” As it became clear that the West, in order to bring communism to ruin, didn’t have to do anything except exist, the French left became more vindictive, and not less, against liberal democrat commentators of Revel’s stamp. The left actually intensified, instead of diminishing, its insistence that the Communist world was beseiged by hostile forces. Revel got his answer into a nutshell: “The Communist world is indeed a fortress besieged, but from within.” His critics might conceivably have one day forgiven him for thinking like that. But they have never forgiven him for writing like that. They would prefer to call his way of putting things irresponsible: mere journalism. At the end of 2001, Bernard-Henri Lévy published his portentously titled Réflexions sur la guerre, le mal et la fin de l’histoire. A commentator with philosophical credentials, Lévy is so madly fashionable that his new book appeared in the vitrines of the fashion boutiques along the Boulevard St. Germain. More than three decades having elapsed since the events of May 1968, Lévy has had the time, and the good sense, to work his way to an acceptance of liberal democracy. But from the way he states the position he now holds you wouldn’t know that it had been held from the beginning by men like Revel, who never gets a mention.

Later in the same passage from Le Voleur dans la maison vide, Revel goes on to confess that whenever he wrote an article he was always thinking of how it would fit into a book. This confession might seem contradictory: if talent matters and genres don’t, why should a journalist publish books at all? But the question answers itself. The attraction of journalism is that one runs no lasting risks. But that’s just what encourages the sloven. I prefer to be encouraged by a man like Revel, who has always written even the most fleeting piece as if he might need to defend it on the day of judgement—and for any craftsman proud of his work, of course, the day of judgement is always today. Ce jour: journalism. In French the connection is obvious. In English, we tend to forget that journalism means today, and we are seldom encouraged to remember that history is made of nothing else except one today after another.

Ideology functions as a machine to destroy information, even at
the price of making assertions in clear contradiction of the evidence.

This is an example of Revel restraining himself, rather than letting fly. The propensity of left ideologists to argue from a sense of history while lacking a sense of fact has always got his goat, but he has managed to stay coherent. Sometimes one wishes that he would sideline the suave sarcasm and give way to a bellow of rage. On the same page of the same book, Revel quotes Regis Debray’s ringing assurance, dating from 1979, that “the word Gulag is imposed by imperialism.” (The italics are there in the original French, where they have even more the effect of a proud smile from a man in tights who has just farted a blue flame.) Debray’s confident pronouncement would have been bizarre enough in 1959, when even Beauvoir must have been having doubts, but for 1979 it was a striking example of the determination of the French far left to call their retreat an advance. Revel was the first to spot that those ideologists who did give up parts of their position became very angry if it was suggested that they had done so in response to criticism. “Those who hold the monopoly of error reserve to themselves the monopoly of rectification.”

Revel had always been good at cutting a section through the mechanism of the totalitarian mind so that you could see the cogs turning. Raymond Aron had begun the job in his L’Opium des intellectuels, where he pointed out the essential difference between a sense of history and an ideology. A sense of history reveals variety, and an ideology conceals it. Revel made an advance on Aron by picking up on the bullying aspect, the set of coercive mental habits that made an ideologist a totalitarian even in his way of thought. On a later page of La Connaissance inutile–and also, with the appropriate scholarly back-up, in Pourquoi des philosophes—he pinpoints Heidegger as a case of totalitarisme dans le démarche discursive, tirelessly and needlessly accumulating affirmatives: “terrorist tautology” in the style of Hitler and Stalin. In Le Voleur dans la maison vide, Revel drew sad conclusions about the ideologists in general: “The intellectuals have the opportunism of the exterminator” (p. 231). After the verbal battle of a lifetime, he had come to accept that the reason for the readiness of the intellectuals to connive at mass extermination was that their language was itself a totalitarian instrument. Hence the hollowness of what he called the eternal dream of the bien pensant left: un totalitarisme végétarien (p. 557). The reluctance of ex-ideologists like Bernard-Henri Lévy to acknowledge their debt to Revel is quite understandable. He isn’t telling them that they were bad writers because they thought that way. He is telling them that they thought that way because they were bad writers.