Cunning like a heldgehog. In memory of Jean-François Revel, man of letters, man of integrity, friend
Par Simon Leys
The Australian Literary Review, 1 August 2007
G K. CHESTERTON, whose formidable mind drew inspiration from a vast culture – literary, political, poetical, historical and philosophical – once received the naive praise of a lady: “Oh, Mr Chesterton, you know so many things!” He suavely replied: “Madam, I know nothing: I am a journalist.”
The many enemies of French philosopher Jean-François Revel (1924-2006) often attempted to dismiss him as a mere journalist which, of course, he was among many other things, and very much in the Chestertonian fashion.
At first he may seem odd to associate these two names: what could there be in common between the great Christian apologist and the staunch atheist, between the mystical poet and the strict rationalist, between the huge, benevolent man mountain and the short, fiery, nimble and pugnacious intellectual athlete (and, should we also add, between the devoted husband and the irrepressible ladies’ man)? One could multiply the contrasts, yet, on a deeper level, the essence of their genius was very much alike.
Revel was an extrovert who took daily delight in the company of his friends:
I am the most sociable creature; other people’s society is my joy. Though, for me, a happy day should have a part of solitude, it must also afford a few hours of the most intense of all the pleasures of the mind: conversation. Friendship has always occupied a central place in my life, as well as the keen desire to make new acquaintances, to hear them, to question them, to test their reactions to my own views.
Always sparring with his interlocutors, he was passionately commited to is ideas, but if he took his own beliefs with utter seriousness, he did not take his own person seriously. Again, one could apply to him what Chesterton’s brother said of his famous sibling: “He had a passionate need to express his opinions, but he would express them as readily and well to a man he met on a bus.”
Revel’s capacity for self-irony is the crowning grace of his memoirs, The Thief in an Empty House. Personal records can be a dangerous exercice, but in his case it eventuated in a triumphant masterpiece.
His humour enchanted his readers, but kept disconcerting the more pompous pundits. The French greatly value wit, which they display in profusion, but humour often makes them uneasy, especially when it is applied to important subjects; they do not have a word for it, they do not know the thing.
Whereas wit is a form of duelling – it aims to wound or to kill – the essence of humour is self-deprecatory. Once again, a Chestertonian saying could be apposite: “My critics think that I am not serious, but only funny, because they think that ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘serious’. But ‘funny’ is the opposite of ‘not funny’ and nothing else. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German.”
What compounded the dismay of Revel’s pretentious critics was his implacable clarity. One of his close friends and collaborators said he doubted if Revel, in his entire career, had written a single sentence that was obscure. In the Parisian intellectual world such a habit can easily ruin a writer’s credit, for simple souls and solemn mediocrities are impressed only by what is couched in opaque jargon. And, in their eyes, how could one possibly say something important if one is not self-important?
With the accuracy of his information and the sharpness of his irony, Revel deflated the huge balloons of cant that elevate the chattering classes. They felt utterly threatened, for he was exposing the puffery of the latest intellectual fashions upon which their livehood depended. At times they could not hide their panic; for instance, the great guru of the intelligentsia, Jacques Lacan, during one of his psychoanalytical seminars at the Sorbonne, performed in front of his devotees a voodoo-like exorcism.
He frantically trampled underfoot and destroyed a copy of Revel’s book Why Philosophers?, in which Lacan’s charlatanism was analysed.
Yet such outbursts weere mere circus acts; far more vicious was the invisible conspiracy that surrounded Revel with a wall of silence, well documented in Pierre Boncenne’s Pour Jean-François Revel: Un esprit libre (Plon, Paris, 2006), a timely and perceptive book that takes the full measure of Revel’s intellectual, literary and human stature.
A paradoxical situation developed: Revel’s weekly newspaper columns were avidly read, nearly every one of his 30-odd books was an instant bestseller, and yet the most influential “progressive” critics studiously ignored his existence. His books were not reviewed, his ideas were not discussed, if his name was mentioned at all it was with a patronising sneer, if not downright slander.
Revel was quintessentially French in his literary tastes and sensitivity (his pages on Michel de Montaigne, Francois Rabelais and Marcel Proust marry intelligence with love; his anthology of French poetry mirrors his original appreciation of the poetic language), in his art of living (his great book on gastronomy is truly a “feast in words”) and in his conviviality (he truly cared for his friends).
And yet what strikingly set him apart from most other intellectuals of his generation was his genuinely cosmopolitan outlook.
He had spent abroad the best part of his formative and early creative years, mostly in Mexico and Italy. In addition to English (spoken by few educated Fench of his time) he was fluent in Italian, Spanish and German; until the end of his life he retained the healthy habit to start every day (he rose at 5am) by listening to he BBC news and reading six foreign newspapers.
On international affairs, on literature, art and ideas, he had universal perspectives that broke completely from the suffocating provincialism of the contemporary Parisian elites. In the 18th century, French was the common language of the leading minds of continental Europe; 20th-century French intellectuals hardly noticed that times had changed in this respect; they retained the dangerous belief that whatever was not expressed in French could hardly matter.
Revel never had enough sarcasm to denounce this sort of self-indulgence; on the bogus notion of le rayonnement français, he was scathing: “French culture has radiated for so long, it’s a wonder mankind has not died from sunstroke.” He fiercely fought against chauvinist cultural blindness, and especially against its most cretinous expression: irrational anti-Americanism. At the root of this attitude he detected a subconscious resentment: the french feel that when Americans are playing a leading role in the political-cultural world they are usurping what is by birthright a French prerogative.
By vocation and academic training Revel was originally a philosopher (he entered at an exceptionally early age the Ecole Normale Superieure, the apex of the French higher education system). He taught philosophy and eventually wrote a history of Western philosophy (eschewing all technical jargon, it is a model of lucid synthesis).
However, he became disenchanted with the contemporary philosophers who, he flet, had betrayed their calling by turning philosophy into a professional career and a mere literary genre. “Philosophy,” he wrote “ought to return to its original and fundamental question: How should I live?” he preferred simply to call himslef “a man of letters”.
Ancient Greek poet Archilochus famously said: “The fow knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Revel was the archetypical fox, but at the same time he held with all the determination of a hedgehog to one central idea that inspires, pervades and motivates all his endeavours:
The belief that each individual destiny, as well as the destiny of mankind, depends upon the accuracy – or the falsity – of the information at their disposal, and upon the way in which they put this information to use.
He devoted one of his books specifically to this issue, La Connaissance Inutile (Useless Knowledge), but this theme runs through nearly all his writings.
Politics naturally absorbed a great amount of his attention. From the outset he showed his willingness to commit himself personaly, and at great risk: as a young man in occupied France he joined the Resistance against the Nazis. After the war, his basic political allegiance was, and always remainded, to the Left and the principles of liberal democracy. He was sharply critical of Charles de Gaulle and of all saviours and providential leaders in military uniforms.
Yet, like George Orwell before him, he always believed that only an uncompromising denunciation of all forms of Stalinist totalitarianism can ensure the ultimate victory of socialism. Thus – again, like Orwell – he earned for himself the hostility of his starry-eyed comrades.
Revel’s attempt at entering into active politics was short-lived, but the experience gave him an invaluable insight into the essential intellectual dishonesty that is unavoidably attached to partisan politicking. He was briefly a Socialist Party candidate at the 1967 national elections, which put him in close contact with François Mitterrand (then leader of the Opposition). The portrait he paints of Mitterrand in his memoirs is hilarious and horrifying.
Mitterrand was the purest type of political animal: he had no politics at all. He had a brilliant intelligence, but for him ideas were neither right or wrong, they were only useful or useless in the pursuit of power. The object of power was not a possibility to enact certain policies; the object of all policies was simply attain and retain power.
Revel, having drafted a speech for his own electoral campaign, was invited by Mitterrand to read it to him. The speech started, “Although I cannot deny some of my opponent’s achievements…” Mitterand interrupted him at once, screaming: “No! Never, never! In politics never acknowledge that your opponent has any merit. This is the basic rule of the game.”
Revel understood once and for all that this game was not for him and it was the end of his political ambition. Which proved to be a blessing: had politics swallowed him at that early stage in his life how much poorer the world of ideas and letters would have been. (And one could have said exactly the same about his close friend Mario Vargas Llosa, who – luckily for literature – was defeated in presidential elections in Peru.)
Dead writers who were also friends never leave us: whenever we open their books, we hear again their very personal voices and our old exchanges are suddenly revived. I had many conversations (and discussions: different opinions are the memorable spices of friendship) with Revel; yet what I wish to record here is not something he said, but a silence that had slightly puzzled me at the time. The matter is trifling and frivolous (for which I apologise), but what touches me is that I found the answer many years later, in his writings.
A long time ago, as we were walking along a street in Paris, chatting as we went, he asked me about a film I had seen the night before, Federico Fellini’s Casanova (which he had not seen). I told him that one scene had impressed me, by its acute psychological insight into the truth that love-making without love is but a very grim sort of gymnastics. He stopped abruptly and gave me a long quizzical look, as if he was trying to find out whether I really believed that, or was merely pulling his leg.
Unable to decide, he said, “Hmmm” and we resumed our walk, chatting of other things.
Many years later, reading his autobiography, I suddenly understood. When he was a precocious adolescent of 15, at school in Marseilles, he was quite brilliant in all humanities subjects but hopeless in mathematics. Every Thursday, pretending to his mother that he was receiving extra tuition in maths, he used to go to a little brothel. He would first do his school work in the common lounge and, after that, go upstairs with one of the girls. The madam granted him a “beginner’s rebate”, and the tuition fee generously advanced by his mother covered the rest.
One Thursday, however, as he was walking up the stairs his maths teacher came down. The young man froze, but the teacher passed impassively, merely muttering between clenched teeth: “You will always get passing marks in maths.” The schoolboy kept their secret and the teacher honoured his part of the bargain; Revel’s mother was delighted by the sudden improvement in his school results.
I belatedly realised that, from a rather early age, Revel had acquired a fairly different perspective on the subject of our chat.
At the time of Revel’s death in April last year, Vargas Llosa concluded the eloquent and deeply felt obituary he wrote for our friend in Spanish newspaper El pais: “Jean-François Revel, we are going to miss you so much.” How true.