By Henri Astier
Pierre Boncenne, Pour Jean-François Revel: Un esprit libre
Plon, 343 pages, 21 euros, ISBN 2-259-19920-8
Pierre Boncenne has written the first book ever about Jean-François Revel. The fact that it was published after his death goes a long way towards proving its main point – the greatest French thinker of his age was also the most misunderstood.
Others – such as Michel Foucault, Claude Lévy-Strauss, Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, Philippe Sollers – were the subjects of countless studies during their lifetimes. Roland Barthes even wrote a tribute to himself as part of Le Seuil’s prestigious “Écrivains de toujours” series of monographs. Jacques Derrida, perhaps the greatest French intellectual star since Sartre, was celebrated in a feature film and his death in 2005 was front-page news all over the world.
Not so Revel. There was little fuss when he died in April. French papers carried a few (mostly lukewarm) tributes, but other media ignored the event. France-Culture, the thinking Frenchman’s radio of choice, did not mention it on its website and did not broadcast a discussion of Revel’s work until eight months later. As one commentator remarked: “Revel is treated like people with a readership of one.”
And yet he was hardly obscure. All his books since Without Marx or Jesus (1970) have been worldwide successes. A one-time leading newspaper editor, Revel had extensive connections. Political leaders at home and abroad consulted him; he was a close friend of Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Saul Bellow. His stature grew with age: during his final decade he joined the Académie Française, published five hugely successful books, and was a regular guest on TV and radio.
How can such an influential insider be treated like a marginal figure? Why did he pioneer a new genre he called “the reviled best-seller”? These questions lie at the heart of Pierre Boncenne’s outstanding book. Pour Jean François Revel is not just the intellectual portrait of a man, but also an account of France’s cultural life in the past half-century and its peculiar workings. Boncenne draws on interviews from many writers, foremost among whom is the sinologist Simon Leys, a fellow friend and admirer of Revel. Leys has had his share of problems with the Paris establishment but is now held in considerable respect, and Boncenne’s frequent references to him serve to reinforce his contention that Revel too deserves to be regarded as a major author.
The case against Revel centres on his militant anti-communism. Alone among France’s top journalists, he openly challenged Communist leader George Marchais, with damning revelations about his wartime past and party funding by Moscow. Marchais called him “a scoundrel”. Some of Revel’s sharpest barbs were directed at democrats, particularly his fellow left-wingers, who bowed to Marxist intimidation. He saw the alliance between France’s socialists and communists from the early 1970s as a betrayal. In The Totalitarian Temptation (1976) and How Democracies Perish (1983) Revel analysed with passionate intensity the 1001 ways in which self-styled progressives engaged in doublethink and connived at Soviet aggressiveness.
What put Revel beyond the pale was not anti-communism per se: the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1973 had a deep impact in France and criticism of the Soviet Union was occasionally voiced on the left. The French “antitotalitarians” revived a political trend that had died out in America in the 1960s: cold-war liberalism. But to the extent that the French tolerated anti-communism, they liked it sugar-coated. Any condemnation of Moscow and its far-flung clients had to be balanced by denunciations of right-wing dictatorships, to show that the critic was not a fascist sympathiser. Revel called this requirement the “great taboo” of his time – and he cheerfully broke it.
Communism and fascism may have been each other’s enemies, but both were above all enemies of freedom. Revel felt it should be possible to censure one without appearing to condone the other, from a strictly democratic standpoint. Having risked his life fighting Nazi occupation of his country, he did not see the need to scatter his shots by engaging in ritual anti-fascism, and focused on what he identified as the main threat to democratic civilization after 1945: communism.
This single-mindedness earned him the scorn of smart opinion. For 20 years after The Totalitarian Temptation, Le Monde never mentioned a single book by Revel. He was shunned by reference books until the late 1990s – when his admission to the Académie Française automatically qualified him for entry in the Larousse dictionary. By then many lesser figures had been there for years.
His name continues to smack of heresy to this day, notes Boncenne, who suggests a neat “Revel test”. Mention him in polite company and watch the shocked reaction: “Don’t tell me you like this right-wing pig!” All Revel aficionados have experienced this. The enduring “Revel-is-a-reactionary” meme explains the deafening silence that followed his death.
The widespread view that he was an obsessive cold-warrior is rooted in a misconception that Revel himself identified three decades ago: anti-communism is not seen as deriving from observation or reflection, but from irrational hostility. When Soviet dissidents told the world about the persecution they endured, the reaction among many in the West was not so much to consider the crimes, but to question the motives of those who were swayed by them. Revel lampooned this attitude thus:
“The facts revealed by Solzhenitsyn should not lead the unbiased observer to form a negative opinion of communism. On the contrary, it was the prior contamination of their souls by anti-communism that made them susceptible to such rumours and induced them to… spread them, thus abetting the plot which (the most incriminating clue of all) was being orchestrated at precisely that time!”
An encyclopaedic mind with many interests, Revel did not confine himself to politics. He wrote a History of Western Philosophy – which rivals Bertrand Russell’s – as well as books about art, poetry, cuisine, and literature. This probably counted against him in a country where heavyweights tend to claim exclusive rights over specific fields.
Revel broke the French intellectual mould in the style as much as the substance of his writings. He had a gift for crystal-clear prose, and for compressing complex ideas into arresting formulas. On the immunity from scandal a top-heavy constitution confers on the president, he wrote: “In France the person held responsible is not the one who gives orders, but the one who receives them.” He argued against cultural protectionism and government attempts to curb imports from Hollywood thus: “Nothing would please me more, as a viewer, than to bathe every night in an invigorating flow of Albanian, Tanzanian or Burmese filmography – on one condition: that the choice should be mine.”
Revel’s biting irony often makes you laugh out loud, and this too counted against him: a great author is not supposed to amuse you. As Boncenne notes, Revel had more than wit – he had humour, the power to turn his irony against himself. This is most obvious in his 1997 autobiography, but early in his career he had emphasized the need for both individuals and groups not to take themselves too seriously. “One can assess the degree of civilization of a society by its capacity to make itself an object of ridicule or contempt,” he wrote in 1958. Thus France’s propensity to pose as an example drew one of his sharpest barbs: “French culture has radiated for so long that it’s a wonder mankind hasn’t died from sunstroke.”
Revel’s pugnacious style led many to dismiss him as a “pamphleteer”. He did not object the label – pamphlets have a long tradition in France, going back at least to Pascal’s Provinciales – but he rejected the implication that it is an inferior genre. “There is no effective polemic without solid content, without underlying truthfulness,” he wrote. Equating vigorous prose with lack of substance is the mark of superficial minds that confuse obscurity with profundity.
Revel sought to reach out to the layman rather than impress the literati. He avoided high-flown language, lengthy footnotes, and other trappings of “seriousness”. Boncenne notes that his decision in the mid-1960s to work for Robert Laffont, a subsidiary of Time-Life regarded as low brow, rather than a prestigious publisher such as Gallimard or Le Seuil, reflects a lifelong preference for a wider audience over the elite. Reactions to his books reflected this choice: the public lapped them up, critics and academics shrugged them off.
Revel did not belong to a coterie – a drawback in a culture that prizes neat intellectual labels. During his time he saw trendy schools come and go: phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism. Revel punctured the pretensions of these cliques and never created one himself. The only French school he can be associated with is “libéralisme”, in the old-fashioned sense that stresses individual liberty and small government. He is the latest in a line that includes Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Raymond Aron.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, the figure he is closest to is another intellectual loner: George Orwell. Boncenne points out the deep similarities between the two: the obsession with clear writing, the view of communism as a deadly threat to socialism, and – above all – the exposure of man’s resistance to facts and vulnerability to ideology.
Boncenne rightly regards The Flight from Truth (La Connaissance inutile, 1988) as Revel’s most profound essay. It is also his most Orwellian. The book explores in detail the human ability to ignore data that do no fit pre-conceived ideas. Like Orwell, Revel saw our preference for mental comfort over information as fateful for democracy. Both rejected the widespread view that “there is no objective truth”. The great weakness of totalitarian systems is that there is a real world they cannot change: remove any possible confrontation with facts and you lose the main weapon against powers that are relying on propaganda to get inside your head.
This reviewer has no doubt that Jean-François Revel will one day achieve the recognition he deserves. And Boncenne’s book will be seen as groundbreaking – the first comprehensive tribute to one of the most eloquent champions of liberty in the 20th century.
See also some other details on the book in french here.