This excellent book has been given an oddly inappropriate title. “Past imperfect,” in its literal meaning as a grammatical term, distinguishes a particular tense of the French verb from the “past definite” and the “pluperfect.” Here it is being applied metaphorically to a certain historical time span. But history is different from grammar; since all historical periods, whatever their virtues, have invariably been defective in some respect or other, there is no sure point of comparison, no perfection, to give meaning to the metaphor. Besides, the subject the author is dealing with—the strangely uncritical attitude toward the Soviet Union of a majority of French intellectuals in the aftermath of the Second World War—was not a mere lapse from perfection; it was a strong, collective psychosis, an aggressive moral blindness, and so the joky, punning title is rather out of keeping with the seriousness of the theme.
After this initial quibble, I have nothing but praise for Professor Judt’s rigorous analysis, which has helped me better to understand a phenomenon of which I had some direct experience. I worked in Paris for a time after the war, predominantly with intellectuals, and I was struck by the highly charged, almost hysterical pro-Communist atmosphere, so different from the convivial left-wingism of the Front Populaire, which I had known as a student in prewar days. For the only time in my life, I had the feeling of living in an incipiently totalitarian situation, where people had to be circumspect about expressing anti-Communist opinions. As a foreigner, I was under no constraint, but I could see some of my French colleagues maneuvering carefully in case there should be a takeover.
It was a particularly unpleasant experience to attend the so-called Congrès de la Paix of 1948, a shamefully demagogic affair, orchestrated like a Soviet demonstration (which indeed it was), and distinguished by the incongruously Biblical symbol of the dove, contributed by Picasso, and the platform ranting of the poet Louis Aragon, the worst type of French Stalinist. But the hysteria also had its lighter side. A very elegant woman friend, who, following the fashion, had joined the Communist Party, once invited me to accompany her to a meeting of her local cellule. There, perched like a bird of paradise among earnest proletarian sparrows, she joined in the heated denunciation of the Marshall Plan as an instrument of American economic imperialism; then, at a certain point, she handed round a gold cigarette case filled with American cigarettes, which the comrades accepted without demur.
This was an example of what Eugène Ionesco aptly described as “Le vision progressiste” (progressive mink, i.e., radical chic), a short-lived craze of no great importance. But it was also the silly fringe of a serious moral distortion within the French intelligentsia which lasted for more than a decade, and was all the stronger because of the closed, hot-house atmosphere of Paris where, as Judt says, intellectuals paid more attention to their internal debate than to the external world they were supposed to be talking about. They could even turn a deaf ear to what left-wing intellectual refugees from Eastern Europe tried to tell them.
No doubt there was never any real danger of France going the way of Hungary or Czechoslovakia, despite the temporary numerical strength of the French Communist Party. Non-Communist opinion was still strong in the country, and De Gaulle remained powerfully present in the wings. But the persistent, pro-Soviet prejudice of many of the major intellectuals, which was only finally canceled out by Khrushchev’s Secret Speech of 1956, is a curious fact, a sort of historical puzzle.
As Judt makes clear, the pro-Soviet bias of French intellectuals was markedly different from the sporadic pro-Sovietism of certain groups or persons in England and America. In England, particularly, some prominent prewar figures—George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Beatrice and Sydney, and G.D.H. Cole—had been naively enthusiastic about the Soviet Union as a blueprint for the future happiness of mankind, but their influence had faded. Labour Party members, at their annual conference, might still sing: “The people’s flag is deepest red,/It shrouded e’er our martyred dead,” but their mentality was not attuned to violent revolution, and their interest in Communist Russia only lukewarm: Ernest Bevin, the foreign minister in the postwar Labour government, was strongly anti-Communist. The feelings of solidarity engendered in the British public by the wartime alliance did not wipe out the mistrust caused by the Soviet trials of the Thirties and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. British intellectuals, especially those who had been Communist sympathizers at the time of the Spanish Civil War, concluded at an early stage that communism was “the God that failed,” and George Orwell’s two anti-Communist parables, Animal Farm and 1984, became best sellers.
In France, on the contrary, pro-Sovietism was an automatic reflex among various postwar intellectual groups, from the philosophers and journalists connected with Sartre’s review, Les Temps modernes, to the progressive Catholics associated with Emmanuel Mounier and L’Esprit. There were also prominent scientists and well-known poets such as Paul Eluard, or franc-tireurs such as Julien Benda, the celebrated author of La Trahison des clercs. That book, published in 1927, had been an attack on right-wing intellectuals of an earlier generation, whom Benda accused of betraying their universal, civilizing mission by promoting revenchard nationalism; now, in old age, while continuing to preach universalism in the 1946 preface to a reissue of La Trahison des clercs, he shifted his ground to some extent because of his eagerness to ensure the punishment of intellectuals guilty of collaboration with the Germans, and was thus inveigled into apparent cooperation with the Communist Party and its sympathizers. Some of these people actually joined the Party, at least for a time, but most operated as fellow-travelers, sometimes remaining faithful to the Soviet Union while falling out with the French Communist Party and sometimes allowing themselves the luxury of a difference of opinion with the Soviet Union on a particular point, while maintaining their general allegiance.
Such a broad spectrum implies that the reasons for the phenomenon were complex. Judt looks for them first in the immediate postwar situation in France and in the philosophical ideas of some of the people involved, then in the longer perspective of French history, going back as far as the Revolution of 1789 and even beyond. From his very detailed account, I can only pick out a few salient points to show the force of his argument.
The ignominous defeat of 1940, the German Occupation, and then the Liberation, which would not have been possible without the Anglo-American war effort, had left France in a very morbid state, humiliated and divided against itself. The Communist Party, which in 1939 first denounced the war as a capitalist undertaking and then reversed its policy overnight when Hitler invaded Russia, had played an active part in the Resistance, and indeed claimed a monopoly of heroism as le parti des fusillés. It also enjoyed reflected glory from the victories of the Red Army. Forgetting its original approval of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Party became a prime mover in the settling of scores with real or supposed collaborators. Judt emphasizes that l’épuration, as it was called, was a very impure activity, in which moral values became blurred and “revolutionary justice” prevailed. This was often not justice at all, but an act of revenge on various people who were caught in ambiguous situations and who, perhaps, were no more guilty, objectively, than the former Vichy judges who were now trying them. Even Emmanuel Mounier, who had initially gone along with the “National Revolution” proclaimed by the Pétain government, was loud in his demands for retribution.
This postwar upheaval, for which, of course, there was no parallel in England, and which was much more dramatic than the settling of scores carried out in the smaller countries formerly under German occupation, revived echoes in France of the different periods of “revolutionary justice” which had marked the Revolution of 1789 and other later crises. Forgiveness and a sense of fairness had never been part of the national tradition. French intellectuals could therefore take a relatively “understanding” view of the trials and executions that were about to occur in the Soviet Union and the satellite territories. They could be seen as comparable to the French épuration, an inevitable harshness dictated by historical necessity, and they could be the more easily tolerated in theory in that they were taking place in the abstract, as it were, at some distance from Paris.
This attitude of acceptance was reinforced, says Judt, by the fact that while the Germans may have lost the war, certain German ideas had long been gaining ground in France and working in favor of intolerance and violence. During the earlier part of the century and particularly during the Thirties, Hegelianism, Marxism, and Nietzscheanism had pushed the softer doctrine of Kantism into the background. Since, according to the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, the motive force of history is the struggle between masters and slaves, between capitalism and the proletariat, life is seen as being essentially conflictual in its forward movement from stage to stage. Violence, instead of being an occasional and regrettable necessity, acquires the positive force of a lyrical act, of a virile expression of political energy—at least in the imagination of these intellectuals, who may never, in real life, have actually struck a blow in anger.
Moreover, since, according to Nietzsche, “God is dead,” there can be no appeal for guidance to the transcendent. The meaning of life cannot be looked for outside history. The dialectical process itself becomes a sacred entity, which it is the intellectual’s duty to further. Thus Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was associated with Les Temps modernes, could argue that a true humanism will reconcile the virtuous goal of the classless society with the exercise of terror to facilitate the achievement of that goal. This reasoning, or pseudoreasoning, which subordinates individual ethical judgment to the supposedly higher requirements of historical necessity, underlay the attitudes of many other intellectuals besides Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. Mounier seems to have managed to combine it with Catholic belief. Only a few notable figures were untouched by it: Raymond Aron, the sociologist and journalist who had been a fellow-student of Sartre’s, but who had differed with him more or less from the start; François Mauriac, the Catholic novelist and commentator who maintained a coherent moral position; and the rising literary star Albert Camus, who eventually became the chief critic of automatic pro-Sovietism. As Judt also notes, this faith in historical necessity was hardly compatible with the Absurdist Existentialism also professed by Sartre, a contradiction that he himself tried to resolve in the vast, unfinished Critique de la raison dialectique, but perhaps only managed to drown in a sea of words.
Another, cruder, factor stressed by Judt, and one that I have already had occasion to refer to, was the strength of anti-American feeling in the immediate postwar situation. Toward Britain, on the whole, the French showed a certain gratitude, perhaps because of the importance of the BBC French Service in providing reliable news and keeping up morale during the dark days. However, a passionate anti-Americanism was rife; even some of my more intellectual friends—normaliens, no less—referred to the then minister for foreign affairs, the former Resistance leader Georges Bidault, as “le Ministre des Affaires américaines.” Judt explains this aberration as a consequence of shame and jealousy. France, an ancient center of civilization, which had long ago lost its foothold in America, had been saved by this brash “young” nation with a simplistic, materialist philosophy. During the interwar years, prominent writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Georges Duhamel had painted a bleak picture of what they saw as the soulless automatism of American life. And now America, the most powerful nation in the world, and the sole possessor of the atomic bomb, was like a child with a dangerous plaything.
Russia, on the contrary, was an old country, in which the French could feel a proprietary interest, because it had shown immense respect for French culture ever since the time of Catherine the Great. She had summoned Diderot to her court, and purchased his library. In the nineteenth century, French had been the preferred language of the Russian élite. Tolstoy had written chunks of War and Peace directly in French. Then, and still more importantly, the October Revolution of 1917 could be looked upon as a reenactment of 1789, but more successful, since it had officially brought the people to power, and not the bourgeoisie, as had been the case in France. The Red Army, which had so gloriously defeated Hitler, was a people’s army, like the heroic defenders of the French Revolution (the analogy between Hitler, beaten by the Russian winter, and Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow could be conveniently overlooked).
Because of these elementary feelings, in any confrontation between the two world powers, Russia benefitted from an emotional advantage, which had nothing to do with a realistic assessment of the contemporary situation. For many left-wing intellectuals, whatever the defects or the mistakes of the Soviet Union, it was always on the side of the angels, whereas America still had a long way to go before becoming fully part of the civilized world.
This view can be neatly illustrated by a literary example not mentioned by Judt. In 1946, Sartre put on a crude little play, La Putain respectueuse (“The Respectful Hooker”), which denounced the injustices of American sexual and racial relationships. Actually, the underlying theme was the Existentialist subject/object tension, which presumably can be found anywhere, but Sartre’s decision to set the action in America and to show Americans in a bad light was clearly a result of his inbuilt prejudice; at the time, he had only a rudimentary knowledge of America. Some ten years later, after the publication of Viktor Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom, one of the first books to criticize the Soviet Union from the inside, Sartre refused to believe in Kravchenko’s authenticity and wrote another play, Nekrassov, which in effect presented Kravchenko as an invention of the Western capitalist press, an almost totally gratuitous supposition. Now, whatever one may say against Sartre, it must be admitted that he had an impressive brain, and the fact that he could be so monstrously biased is a very peculiar circumstance.
To explain it, Judt invokes the negative, nonpractical nature of the French intellectual tradition, which deals in concepts without necessarily testing them against reality. The first intellectuals, the philosophes of the eighteenth century, were full of reforming zeal, but under the absolute monarchy they had little or no access to political power; indeed, politics in the modern sense did not yet exist, and their role was essentially critical. The Revolution, in its early, idealistic phase, produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which seemed to guarantee individual liberty within a democratic context, and therefore fruitful political participation by everyone. But, in fact, during the later, chaotic stages of the Revolution, and then during the Napoleonic era, the individual was constantly reduced to silence in the name of the maintenance of order by a strong centralized authority. An early, tragicomic intellectual dissident was Mme. de Staël, trundling around Europe in her coach to avoid the wrath of Napoleon. Another, slightly less comic perhaps, was Victor Hugo, thundering from the Channel Islands against Napoleon III. The attempts at parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, which were made between the two Napoleons, all ended in failure, and it was only after 1871 that the modern republic finally came into being in the wake of national disaster.
By that time, certain antipolitical, antiparticipatory attitudes had hardened. Not only was there an irredentist, monarchist Catholic right, which looked upon the republic as a historical mistake (the fact that Charles de Gaulle came originally from this milieu helps to explain how he later managed to establish himself, above the parties, as a republican king); within the republican bourgeoisie itself there was a long-standing opposition between on the one hand the conservatives and center-left, as the parties of order, who believed in running the system as it existed, and, on the other hand, a large body of dissidents—latter-day Jacobins still wedded to the idea of revolution, anarchists of various kinds, rebellious artists, poètes maudits, and nonaligned intellectuals—many of whom, while living more or less within the bourgeoisie, tended to behave like internal exiles or as the enfants terribles of their conventional families. The examples are numerous, from Baudelaire to André Gide, or from Verlaine to Alfred Jarry and Cocteau. And, through a strange historical fluke, which has to do with the influence of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, the patron saint of the more literary Bohemians was an American, Edgar Allan Poe, who has been worshiped in France as never in America, but as a uniquely anti-materialistic, anti-American American.
Although less marked nowadays, the opposition between participants and rebels, Bourgeois and Bohemians, still survives, sometimes in the most unlikely quarters. Only the other day, I saw Yves Saint-Laurent on television declaring, with apparent conviction, “I detest the bourgeoisie. I detest its spirit and its taste.” He was sitting in his luxurious salon, with his devoted mother, an obvious bourgeoise, and he was surrounded by bevies of the grandes bourgeoises he has been catering to during the last thirty years. The fact is that even ordinary, conventional bourgeois often think of themselves as secret rebels; hence, the well-known saying: “avoir le coeur à gauche et le porte-feuille à droite” (to have one’s heart on the left and one’s wallet on the right). And, as Judt points out, since the final democratization of education under the Third Republic, many dissident intellectuals have been what he calls “insider-outsiders”; they owe their position to the system through which they have risen, yet they claim to reject it, and begin sawing off the branch they are sitting on. This would be admirable, if it were always a truly generous gesture, backed by detailed practical knowledge and pragmatic efficiency. Too often, however, it leads to bombinating negatively in the void.
Take Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They came out top and second, respectively, in a particularly brilliant group of agrégatifs, and so had the intellectual self-assurance of an officially recognized élite. This allowed them, both in their early nonpolitical phase and later during their “committed” period, to adopt a condescending attitude toward everyday politics as a series of unprincipled compromises, and to think in terms of absolutes. They did this all the more confidently in that, like Parisian intellectuals in general, they naturally felt themselves to be invested with that French cultural universalism which dates back to the philosophes of the Enlightenment (perhaps even to Louis XIV and le grand siècle), and was fortified by the Revolution and then by Napoleon’s temporary dominance of Europe. Even a modest Frenchman may quietly assume that France thinks for the world.
In the post-1945 situation, successive French governments of whatever shade of opinion were faced with the practical problem of living between America on the one hand, and Russia on the other, amid all the confusions of postwar reconstruction and decolonization. In effect, they had no choice but to be on the Western side in the cold war divide. Sartre operated on quite a different level. While proclaiming “commitment,” campaigning noisily and sometimes justifiably on specific issues, and even forming a nebulous and short-lived Rassemblement, he had no intention of becoming involved in the day-to-day political routine. His action was theoretical, rhetorical, even imaginative, and so he could go on drawing a wealth of negative emotion from his ideal schematic view of politics; this view, since in effect it ignored the complexities of Absurdist Existentialism, can be stated in relatively simple terms: thanks to the October Revolution of 1917, the General Will of the Russian people had come to power in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat; the Party, as the executive arm of the immanent General Will, might make superficial mistakes, but it could never be fundamentally wrong because of its intuitive feeling for the necessary movement of the dialectic. And whenever events seemed to belie this pattern, Sartre’s wonderfully ingenious brain could always think up some escape clause to save the ideal at the expense of reality. The parallel with the acceptance of revealed religion is obvious.
I have emphasized Sartre’s role perhaps rather more than Judt does because it seemed to me at the time that Sartre ruled the intellectual roost. Mounier and his team at L’Esprit, whom Judt quotes frequently and with damaging effect, were secondary figures operating over a much narrower area. Sartre’s prestige was such that, at the height of his fame, criticism seemed to bounce back from him to the detriment of his critics; even Raymond Aron, his former fellow-pupil at the Ecole Normale was, I thought, rather in awe of him. Sartre, for his part, had no consideration for his opponents; there was little of the democrat in his makeup, and he was soon surrounded by disciples rather than valid partners. Incidentally, I have always thought it characteristic of his extreme antipolitical and negative views that he should have devoted an immense volume to Jean Genet, the archetypal symbol of total alienation, while making only an occasional brief and insulting reference to De Gaulle. In fact, from the Absurdist/Existentialist point of view, the General was at least as remarkable a phenomenon as Genet. Indeed, as I shall try to argue in a moment, De Gaulle could be considered as an alternative Existentialist hero, at the opposite pole from Genet. De Gaulle and Sartre never met, but the General, the more generous of the two megalomaniacs, is on record as having made one excellent, ironical remark about Sartre: “Sartre, c’est aussi la France!”
A major intellectual disaster of the period was that Sartre’s dominance nullified the influence of Albert Camus, his only intellectual rival in terms of fame, and one of the few prominent left-wing figures to see through the Soviet myth at an early stage. Camus had been a Communist for a while during his youth in Algeria; he had played a part in the Resistance and, as the editor of the ex-Resistance newspaper Combat, he was one of the first people, along with the Catholic François Mauriac, to denounce the injustices of the épuration. But, most importantly, in his novel La Peste (1947) and his theoretical treatise, L’Homme révolté (1951), he put forward a tentative lay morality, very different from the intolerant certainty Sartre always displayed, however often he might modify his tactical position. Camus, having a deeper understanding of evil than Sartre, saw that the end rarely justifies the means; in particular, to accept the existence of the Soviet labor camps as a transitional blemish on a system moving irresistibly toward perfection was to bet on a future that might never come about. Meanwhile, the evil done to individuals here and now was absolute, contrary to humanist morality, and could never be compensated for by any future development.
The point seems obvious enough now, and was obvious then to a lot of people outside Saint-Germain-des Prés. As Judt says, Camus was in the right some twenty-five years before the majority of left-wing Parisian intellectuals. But L’Homme révolté, with its criticism of dogmatic political ideology as a mistaken transference of religious faith from the transcendent to the historical, was condemned as reactionary by Sartre’s review, Les Temps modernes. There was a resounding quarrel, from which Camus should have emerged victorious. However, intellectual fashion continued to favor Sartre, and Camus, for the rest of his short life, was under something of a cloud. I well remember a luncheon party at which the chef de cabinet of the Minister for Culture dismissed him contemptuously as un esprit primaire. Here, perhaps, I can add a little to what Judt says, in order to explain why Camus failed to win the day.
Despite his popularity with the general public, he was never quite at home in the Parisian literary milieu. He was outside the charmed circle of les grandes écoles, having gone through school and university in his native Algeria. He spoke with an Algerian accent, and could be heavily sententious in a provincial way. His natural feeling for the country of his birth prevented him from taking a simple, left-wing line in favor of the Algerian uprising. At the same time, he had a well-established reputation as a womanizer, and this naturally aroused jealousy; his publicity photographs made him look remarkably like Humphrey Bogart and, through another cultural paradox similar to the Edgar Allan Poe case, anti-Americanism did not prevent Bogart from being a Parisian heart-throb. There were, then, some personal factors working against him, but the real trouble, I think, was intellectual: L’Homme révolté was sound on the essential point, but in other respects it was a muddled book, and failed to make the anti-dogmatic case as forcefully as it might have done.
To explain why, we have to return to the underlying philosophical issues already touched on in connection with Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. Camus was an Absurdist (he was also, despite his denials, an Existentialist, but that is another issue); Absurdism is based on the principle that the world is, in essence, incomprehensible; we have no access to any so-called “transcendent”; men can communicate only with other men. Absurdist humanism therefore postulates the solidarity of all men in face of the Incomprehensible—a principle easy to formulate, but infinitely difficult to apply as long as so few people understand it clearly. It stipulates, as I have said, that men should not persecute other men in the name of too confidently held religious, political, or historical assumptions. This, by and large, is the doctrine put forward by Camus in La Peste, where he uses the symbol of the plague, perhaps too broadly, to represent all forms of evil, both human misdemeanors and natural disasters or “acts of God.”
However, he wasn’t a pure Absurdist because, in L’Homme révolté, he falls back onto the misleading Romantic concept of la révolte, or rebellion, of which he distinguishes two main forms: la révolte métaphysique and la révolte politique. The second form makes sense, if we take it to mean, in sober terms, that every individual has the right to try to improve the society around him for his own good and for that of his fellow men. But the first form is literally absurd, and contrary to true Absurdism, since we cannot rebel against the universe; at most, we can opt out by committing suicide, but that is a poor form of rebellion, which in any case Camus had already rejected in his earlier treatise, Le Mythe de Sisyphe. The fact that he got himself entangled in la révolte métaphysique and made a certain amount of play with dubious figures, such as the Marquis de Sade, shows that, like Sartre, he wasn’t a total nonbeliever, but rather an atheist or crypto-deist, that is, someone who clings to the ghost of God as a source of negative emotion.
This, of course, is an aspect of Nietzschean inheritance with its Dostoievskian echoes: “In the absence of God, man must become Superman,” “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” Sartre’s most ambitious play, Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, which can be read as a naive apology for Stalin’s inhuman dictatorship, is squarely based on the first formula. When the hero, Goetz, finds that God, being Absent, doesn’t support his attempts to do good, he goes into a huff and turns himself into a stern Superman, ruling his subjects with a rod of iron. In Camus’s early play, Caligula, which clearly illustrates the second formula, the hero provokes his own assassination through behaving outrageously because of the unnerving cessation of religious faith. A later play, L’Etat de siège, has a hero, Diego, who hurls vacuous defiance at the universe. So, although Camus was different from Sartre, he was tarred to some extent with the same Nietzschean brush. He couldn’t give an absolutely clear lead in politics, because he was still partly on the pseudometaphysical heights with Zarathustra.
I have always been puzzled by Nietzsche’s hold on the French imagination. How can rational men be swayed by these two hollow formulae? “God is dead” is only a theatrical way of saying that He never existed (i.e., He was, at all stages, an anthropomorphic projection) and if He never existed, the problem of human morality has not changed, basically, since the beginning of human society. And how could any man, contemplating the universe, suppose that he might measure up to its mystery, or rise above his human status? By Übermensch, Nietzsche may, of course, have simply meant an ever-more-civilized man, but the term has not usually been taken in this moderate sense and has generated a lot of antihumanist rhetoric.
If Camus was an uncertain Absurdist, Sartre, in effecting his sudden conversion from prewar apoliticism to postwar “commitment,” actually denied the Absurdism he had expressed so admirably in La Nausée. It was as if he had backed away from a more complex grasp of reality to take part in a pseudopolitical game that he played much more crudely, either because of the intoxication of fame or through the anarchistic irresponsibility into which his thought was always liable to collapse. Certainly, his initial Absurdism ought to have prevented the ironic antibourgeoisism of La Nausée turning into the passionate antics of the fellow-traveler, which were little more than shadow-boxing on the margin of real life.
At this point, I can explain my previous reference to De Gaulle as an Absurdist hero, unrecognized by Sartre. It seems to have escaped Sartre’s attention that, operating under his very nose, was a committed neo-Nietzschean intellectual, who had taken the arbitrary absolute of the French Nation as his guiding principle, and who, acting according to his principles, carried through his action with outstanding success, until in the end he was betrayed by age. As is obvious from De Gaulle’s two prewar books, he was only nominally a Catholic, and he had probably read Nietzsche; at any rate, he was as bleakly convinced as Sartre or Camus that there is no given meaning to existence, and he took it upon himself to create his own meaning by an extraordinary act of will in extremely difficult circumstances. In short, on the real-life political scene, his behavior was comparable to that of Goetz in Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, except that he was extremely astute, genuinely heroic, and relatively humane, unlike Sartre’s cardboard figure, with his metaphysical posturing and gratuitous cruelty. It is a pity that the intellectual spectrum of the decade did not include a great complementary exponent of nonnationalistic Absurdism; Camus, alas, did not quite fit the bill.
Judt’s book is undoubtedly a damning indictment of a period in French intellectual history which, paradoxically, in fame and world attention, could be counted brilliant. He further turns the knife in the wound by pointing out that, while some minor intellectuals eventually cried mea culpa, the major ones, Sartre included, just quietly lost interest in the Soviet Union, and turned their attention to the Third World, a new and convenient theme for ideological attitudinizing. As a result of this, Judt implies, French intellectuals are now largely discredited, except in academic back-waters in various parts of the world where the later, and still less reliable, gurus—Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida—are taken more seriously than in their native France.
It is true that there has been a change in the last forty years. The purely theoretical clerc is being gradually elbowed out by a new and impressive breed of technological experts, with their knowing fingers on the world’s pulse. But having lived through the now half-forgotten decade, I still have a stubborn affection for it, while accepting all the points made by Judt against the principal actors. Setting aside the fatal attraction of the Soviet Union, which was such a disastrous, distorting factor, there still remains, I think, in the works of Sartre, Camus, and others, a wealth of Absurdist-Existentialist insights for which we have no parallel in English-language writing. Perhaps this is enough partly to redeem the imperfect time.
February 11, 1993