Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France
Régis Debray, author of Revolution in the Revolution? and now, at forty, one of President Mitterand’s official advisers, shares with most of his coevals a quality that can no longer be taken for granted in younger generations: he knows, more or less, how to handle numbers, how to handle dates, facts, characters, and footnotes. These four or five skills give him an advantage over some of the French literary and intellectual figures whom he attacks in the book under review. “New philosophers” especially, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, seem to have parted company with what a Soviet colleague calls “vulgar factologism,” the modest but indispensable groundwork on which even the loftiest intellectual constructions must be built.
Debray’s style is certainly paradoxical and, I should imagine, a real problem for the translator (and this makes David Macey’s achievement all the more commendable). Debray’s manner harks back to the elite institutions at the top of the French educational system—the Khâgne (the preparatory class for the competitive entry examination to the top schools), the Ecole normale supérieure in the rue d’Ulm, and the most highpowered competitive examination of them all, the agrégation in philosophy as it was in the 1960s. But that is a mere quibble. The main point is that this style and manner provide the necessary link between word and idea which some of my compatriots trample in the mud—either because they have foresworn Cartesian clarté, or because they belong to that age group which only just made it through the baccalauréat even in the lax circumstances of June 1968. So, under all these headings, we must say: Well done, Debray. Let us now follow our author into the galley to see how the slaves of the Low Intelligentsia pull their oars, under the lofty supervision of the officers of the HI (High Intelligentsia)—or rather how Debray described them during the regime of Giscard, when he wrote this book.
These maritime metaphors are not really right, however. Debray is more like an ideological Baedeker or Fodor of the Parisian intellectual world—a deeply disapproving guide, it must be said, for Debray ultimately wants to show that the various “media” of the French intellectual world, and the people who he thinks control them, make up an oppressive network of power in support of “bourgeois” values. He gives us first a geography of publishing. There are two poles: rue Sébastien Bottin, with the great publishing house of Gallimard; and rue Jacob, supplemented by the adjacent rues Guénégaud and de Seine, where we find the headquarters of the intellectually prominent house of Le Seuil. Both poles are on the Left Bank.
At Gallimard, a perceptive and widely informed editor, Pierre Nora, managed to show the long-established firm which had come to regard the novel as the very summit of literary production that the “human sciences” existed, and that history was one of them. (The “sciences humaines” of course are not simply the Anglo-American “social sciences” but include more broadly conceived investigations into human nature and history.) During the 1920s and 1930s, the French intelligentsia coalesced around the figures of Gide, Montherlant, Mauriac, Proust…. In the period from 1950 to 1970 new horizons opened up, and the central names were those of Georges Duby, Michel Foucault, Raymond Aron, Georges Dumézil, Pierre Chaunu, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss; for a long time the first four of these were published by Gallimard.
The dozen or so members on this (by no means exclusive) list held three aces in their hands. First, they had knowledge, they possessed a culture both classical and modern, knew Latin and Greek but also German, English, etc. (Dumézil is supposed to read forty languages.) Raymond Aron, one of Debray’s bêtes noires, can move effortlessly from Thucydides to Galbraith via Clausewitz and Weber.
Secondly, these men had a literary style forged by the more demanding disciplines of the French lycée in its High Period. And finally they had political awareness: through the intricate details of the biography of a peasant or a sixteenth-century monk, they could conjure up without seeming to mention them the concerns that became ours in a period that gave birth to Stalin, Hitler, and the new tyrannies of the nuclear age. Knowledge, style, and modernity—three elements (but not the only three) that go to make up talent, a theme to which Debray gives scant attention as he concentrates on his “media” thesis.
Gallimard was founded by members of the Auvergnat upper bourgeoisie. Le Seuil owes its existence to the left-wing Catholics: led by Flamand-the-founder, they started out on bicycles, pedaling around the bookshops on both banks of the Seine, their luggage racks loaded with the lighter as well as the heavier works of the Catholic writers—Giovanni Guareschi as well as Teilhard de Chardin—who gave the firm its first successes. Nowadays, with the genuine literary strength of Roland Barthes to support their list, and thanks to the Catholic socialist intellectual Jacques Julliard and a few others, Le Seuil has a double claim to authority in journalism and in the university. Enough authority, in any case, to allow this publisher to reach a very wide audience indeed for subjects as austere as the History of Rural France or the History of Urban France, which sell on a par with cookery books and gardening manuals in Britain.
Régis Debray, with the self-righteousness of an overlooked prude, takes offense at the cozy arrangements he sees between publishers, the media, and the scholarly world. But he never once asks the fundamental question: in what country of the world outside France could one sell a four- or five-volume work of high erudition on the history of agrarian England or urban Italy to more than 40,000 readers? In what country of the world does the good money (contrary to Gresham’s law) drive out the bad? For that is what has happened with history written by the followers of the Annales school, in which such historians as Marc Bloch, Braudel, and Duby have been prominent. What they accomplished was not only to push “storybook” history out of the universities, as might be expected, but also out of the magazines and television programs (at least the more distinguished of them) and, very nearly, out of general public consumption. That a strategy was needed to achieve this is obvious. But is it right to think, as Debray does, that all maneuvering for influence is improper, except in Central America and except when it involves submachine guns, terrorism, kidnapping, and holdups?
I have wandered away from Gallimard and Le Seuil and landed among the revolutionary guerrillas. Readers should forgive me…. Let us return to the Left Bank, to Le Seuil and Gallimard. Other publishing houses have either run out of steam or have succeeded in keeping up with these two “locomotives.” Editions de Minuit and Maspero have tried to overtake them by going even further to the left. Fayard and Grasset, with an address in the rue des Saints-Pères, have put their money, not unreasonably, on a younger generation of writers. Unfortunately, the struggle of the “new philosophers” against totalitarian ideas (including those put out on occasion by Debray) has been undermined by the disinformation provided by one of their number.
From the rue des Saints-Pères, Debray holds our hand on the walk to the crossroads at Sèvres-Babylone, where we find the glass-and-steel eggbox of the Maison des sciences de l’homme, home of the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS, formerly the “sixth section” of the Ecole pratique des hautes études), the avant-garde of the human sciences in France. Geographical junctions are inseparable, for Debray, from institutional crossroads where we find a mythical five-legged beast, a powerful intellectual who is part publisher, part journalist, part professor, part author, etc. (This straw man of Debray’s invention is of course a caricature; for the creature to function on all five legs, even a forty-hour day would be too short.) In any case the culprits, if such they be, are men of some stature. The EHESS has brought together a sizable part of all that is really new in the “nonfiction” of the 1960s. The names of Barthes, Braudel, Lévi-Strauss, Raymond Aron, Foucault, Bourdieu, Touraine, Furet, Moscovici, Meuvret, Goubert, and many others have given this institution an extraordinary glamour in France and, in some cases, abroad as well.
The Sorbonne is only one stop on the Métro beyond Sèvres-Babylone, but, like universities generally in France, it had to pay the price for the otherwise productive disruptions of May 1968, and also the price for the tremendous increase in student numbers under the Fifth Republic. Debray is clearly elitist in that he seems to consider the demographic explosion of the universities a disaster: in this respect our “radical” author speaks most curiously like a mandarin. It is true, as he says, that the University of Paris-VIII, founded under the most promising circumstances in 1968 at Vincennes on the Right Bank, hit the rocks and sank despite the presence on board of first-rate teachers and intellectuals. But Vincennes was wrecked less by inflated student numbers than by the presence on campus of various hoodlums who had read too much—or, to be more exact, who imagined they could put into practice the notorious first book by Régis Debray which they had not read, Revolution in the Revolution?
These students covered the campus walls with a thick layer of powerful and tendentious graffiti; they disrupted teaching; at times, they played havoc with the institution itself. For various and mostly disputable reasons, Vincennes was moved from its parkland setting on the eastern outskirts of Paris to Saint-Denis in the unfashionable northern faubourgs. Was the real purpose of the move to discipline the extravaganza of the far left that was sometimes to be found at Vincennes by the rigor mortis of Stalinism, which holds sway in Saint-Denis, a district governed for many years by the French Communist Party? I would not put it past our former rulers under the last presidency to hatch such a Machiavellian plot.
There remains the Collège de France, floating free above the other structures. For Debray this great house is the geometrical locus of an inversion of values. He identifies it as the place where the intelligentsia of the left undergoes a disgraceful change into its opposite, where the HI (High Intelligentsia) switches from the rusty but respectable traditions of the republican Sorbonne to the conservative grandeur of the Académie française. This analysis no doubt has some pertinence for the period 1920-1950; but in 1980 it is an oversimplification. Can Lévi-Strauss, Duby, and Dumézil—all members of the Collège de France and numerous Académies—really be included in the Vichy-like group of hollow frauds which Debray denounces in our most elevated institutions? If one were to take Debray to his logical conclusion, one would end up throwing out with the bath water the contributions made by three of the most significant French scholars of the twentieth century, outside of the Sorbonne and outside of the natural sciences.