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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.