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 …

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