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The American Revolution of Jean-François Revel

The following will appear as an Afterword to Jean-François Revel’s Without Marx or Jesus, to be published by Doubleday.

Listen to the first sentence. “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States.” Pow!!! The French reader is already seeing stars when the second sentence hits him. “It can take place nowhere else.” Americans may feel bewildered, skeptical, glad, or sorry to hear the news, curious to know more. But you have to be French to get the full impact, the “visceral reaction.” Ever since you could count up to ten or spell c-h-a-t, you have been secure in the thought that the US is the citadel of imperialism, racism, vulgarity, conformism, and now a Frenchman returns from a voyage of discovery to say it is a hotbed of revolution.

Blandly, with a straight face, the enormity emerges, buttressed by figures and arguments, precedents, citations. Is it a joke? No and yes. It may have started out as a hardy quip or demolishing retort, and somewhere behind these pages Jean-François Revel is still suppressing an inadvertent smile. We, his readers, not required to school our features, laugh out loud in delight. At what exactly? At the French, of course, and their starchy preconceptions, which are being shaken, jostled, disarrayed, like a matron in some old slapstick comedy. But also at the author himself, that expressionless comedian, swinging from a precipice, teetering on a tightrope. We laugh at his imperturbability in the presence of his imminent danger, at his reckless aplomb in courting ridicule—the reverse of sympathetic chuckles. He is serious, he protests: “Why are you laughing?”

All Jean-François Revel’s books are cliff-hangers. He is a pamphleteer, and his first necessity therefore is to boldly secure attention. Characteristically, in his opening pages he risks being removed from the scene in a strait jacket. His pamphlets are heresies and they generally result from prolonged exposure to piety. He is restive, like a schoolboy in a church, surrounded by hushed worshipers and prompted to commit a sacrilege—stand up and prove to them that the Bible cannot be true. His anticlerical nostrils are quick to detect the slightest smell of incense, and misfortune—or good luck—has placed him in a variety of churches, chapels, oratories, cenacles. He has passed most of his life among the devout.

Gaullist France itself is one huge basilica, consecrated to Glory. The Sorbonne is a monastery from which pilgrims set out for the wayside shrines of the national lycée system or go on foreign missions, spreading French culture. Revel started off in clerical disguise. He was an agrégé in philosophy and taught, first abroad—at the University of Mexico and the University of Florence and at the local French Institutes—later in lycées at Lille and Paris: history of philosophy, history of art, French literature, geography.

His first published blasphemy or tale-told-out-of-school was Pourquoi les philosophes, an attack on the then reigning gods of French philosophy. Next came Pour l’Italie, a tract against Italy—for Revel a natural by-product of four years as a lecturer in Florentine classrooms. A simple corrective, he would have said, of Italophilia, a healthy explosion of the whole bag of myths about Italian art, Italian culture, Italian virility, Italian gaiety, good looks, liveliness, all of which he found nonexistent, and backed up the verdict with real-life anecdotes and observations, many true, many funny, some brutal, such as the one, which gave much offense to feminine readers of Epoca, that Italian women have hair on their legs.

Not a word, I am sure, was invented, and yet the book was biased to a point that someone who loved Italy could have considered almost insane. Or the result of some personal grievance—an idea that was aired in the Italian press at the time and that I rather subscribed to myself simply from reading the book, which has many complaints about the unavailability of Italian girls. Knowing Revel, as I now do, I no longer think that explanation can have been right. There is something wonderfully disinterested about Revel’s biases, a joy in bias itself as an artistic form, embracing hyperbole and conducing, finally, to laughter. He has a Falstaffian side and only cares that his “slant” should run counter to respectable culture and received opinion. If he has a personal grievance, it is a long-standing, deeply nurtured one against the immovable forces of entrenched beliefs that insult his sense of the self-evident.

There followed one of his most charming and persuasive works, Sur Proust. It is not so much controversial as, again, heretical. Revel loves Proust, which means that he is against orthodox Proustians, including Proust himself at certain moments. He makes the convincing argument that what is good in A la recherche du temps perdu is the wordly social side, the human comedy, whereas the “deeper” parts, the philosophy of time and memory, the madeleine and so on, are simply commonplaces of French philosophy already out of date at the time Proust wrote and often at variance with the book’s real story. I.e., what is considered “superficial” in Proust is profound, and vice versa.

At this point in Revel’s career, it might have been said that the man was simply an attention-seeker, moving lightly from field to field, in search of provocative positions to occupy and abandon, a journalistic enfant terrible or disgruntled academic whose formula was to assert the opposite of what “everybody” was saying. This would have been to ignore the solidity and breadth of his learning but, more than that, to mistake the impetus behind his contrariness, the irrepressible spirit of contradiction that guides him, like a dowser, in the hope of striking truth.

Self-dramatization, eagerness for the spotlight must count very low among Revel’s motivations. He has some traits in common with Shaw (he was once meditating a book against Shakespeare) but he totally lacks Shaw’s theatrical vanity and Irish flair for personal publicity. Unlike Shaw, Revel does not play the sage, ready for consultation by newsmen on all manner of subjects; no Isadora Duncans, so far as I know, have been asking to have babies by him. He is not a highly advertised “brain,” in fact makes no pretensions to having anything more than common garden intelligence; if he is different from the majority, he would say, it is only because he is not ashamed to be caught using that very ordinary faculty—the natural light of reason.

Far from being a star or aspiring to prominence, Revel is very much the citizen, a bourgeois in the old Enlightenment sense of the term—a townsman, fond of domestic tranquility and the arts of peace and commerce. His nature appears placid, benevolent, easygoing, sentimental, that of a private householder going about his business, reading his newspaper without the expectation of finding his own name in it, an urban Cincinnatus. He has a round, flat “Dutch” face (though he is of pure French blood) that looks as if it had seen service in the battles of William the Silent against the Spanish oppressor. It is a moon face; indeed there seem to be several moons perspicaciously turning in its dial, like in one of those grandfather clocks that keep track of astronomical time. He is a better and likes to go to the races, wears a gray suit and carries a briefcase.

Despite the stir of indignation excited by some of his broadsides, his person does not inspire fear nor cause a swift turning of heads in a restaurant. His picture, in L’Express every week over his column, has something bullish about it, the broad-browed, head-lowered promise of some intransigent charge into the arena, and yet it is a good bull, scarcely more than a rambunctious steer. He is occasionally seen on television and once ran for office (Cincinnatus called from the plow) on the Federated Left ticket in the suburban district of Neuilly—not his natural territory. He came in a bad third, behind the Gaullist and the Communist. Notwithstanding the weekly photo in a mass circulation magazine, his “image” somehow, as if from modesty, retires from circulation; if polled, fewer Parisians could identify J.-F. Revel in the rogue’s gallery of current celebrities than could identify Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, Michel Rocard, Alain Krivine, or the man, “La Reynière,” who writes the restaurant column in Le Monde. Not to mention J.-P. Sartre, J.-J. Servan-Schreiber, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Luc Godard, etc.

Yet in terms of meritorious service in the combat against General de Gaulle and Gaullism, the outstanding antagonist was surely not any of the above-named opinion leaders, left or center, nor François Mitterand, nor Lecanuet, but Jean-François Revel. His spirit of contrariety found in the General its absurd predestined windmill to tilt at indefatigably. Three brilliant pamphlets sprang from his pen: Le style du Général, En France: la fin de l’opposition, Lettre ouverte à la droite. He slew de Gaulle again and again, and if the General had more lives than a cat and more heads than a hydra, that did not really daunt Jean-François, though he publicly confessed to battle weariness. In fact, like the deathless General himself, he came back refreshed, reinvigorated, having found a new point of attack, new weapons, generally captured from the enemy camp.

He is still fighting, this time on the left flank. Ni Marx ni Jésus, where the old Gaullist bugbear, the United States, is tenderly embraced as an ally, suddenly discovered, in the struggle, is another engagement with the adversary, resurgent in the form of Georges Pompidou, and that adversary’s eternal cohorts, as Revel sees them, of the French Communist Party and the splinter grouplets of the left. If the emphasis here is more on the vacuities of the left, old and new, than it was in some of the preceding pamphlets, it is only a shift of emphasis.

From start to finish, Revel has seen the so-called left as the right’s accomplice, and vice versa, two sides of the same worn coin—an agreement to perpetuate the status quo. What he holds against both right and left is their joint blocking the way to any real social advance. I am not sure whether Revel, like Shaw, believes in a theory of socialism, but at least during his short electoral career he was running on a socialist ticket. Certainly he is a democrat and egalitarian. To him, plainly, right-left in France is a symbiosis mutually advantageous to both parties and deathly to human liberty. Or as de Gaulle is supposed to have said of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Sartre, c’est aussi la France.”

De Gaulle is France, Sartre is France, the CGT and the Communists are France. France, for Revel, is a suspended solution in which all these elements refuse either to precipitate or to dissolve. What Revel is fighting, singlehanded, is “France,” which has become to him the arch-symbol of all those forces of inertia that the original Adam in him felt bound to contradict when he still thought their locus might be Shakespeare or the obscurantist jargon of the Sorbonne chapel of philosophy. He is somewhat more indulgent toward the young Maoists, Trotskyites, and Castroites because they are young and the objects of a judicial campaign of terror, backed up by riot squads. But for him they too are “France,” in the unreality of their perspectives, doctrinaire slogans, and practical failure to get anything done.

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