Confessions of a Sceptical Francophile

In a way I was seeking in literature for the answer to a religious need, and it was not surprising that most of the writers who impressed me were of continental origin, writing in German or in French. The fact that my favourite English-language author, T.S. Eliot, devoted so many of his essays to French and Italian literature and so many of his lines to quoting from it, endorsed my favourable attitude to whatever was being written across the Channel. And the craze for existentialism which, thanks to Walter Kaufmann's book of extracts, included Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard among the elect, confirmed me in the view that philosophy and literature are two complementary components in a single enterprise, and that the purpose of this enterprise is to make sense of the world.

The kind of academic philosophy that I was later taught at Cambridge was sceptical towards such attempts to make sense of things and to bend abstract thought in the direction marked out by art and poetry. In so far as it has a vision of itself, analytical philosophy regards itself as a prelude to science. It continues the great tradition of the 17th and 18th-century empiricists, and adopts the programme put before us in the 19th century by Mill in his System of Logic, and then in the early 20th century by Russell, Moore and Wittgenstein.[1] Maybe I should long ago have accepted that attempts to put into words the 'truths' for which I hunger will always be meaningless, so that it is wrong, in the end, to call them truths. Nevertheless, I remain struck by the thin and withered countenance that philosophy quickly assumes, when it wanders away from art and literature, and I cannot open a journal like Mind or The Philosophical Review without experiencing an immediate sinking of the heart, like opening a door into a morgue.

When I set out on my philosophical career, therefore, it is not surprising that I was more drawn to Sartre than to any other living philosopher. Here was an author who represented the literary ideal. Works of abstract argument and enormous philosophical subtlety, like L'être et le néant, exist in his oeuvre side by side with novels, stories, plays, and those beautiful fragments of autobiography such as Les mots which describe what it is, not just to write like Sartre, but also to be Sartre. Here was an intellectual who was not merely conscious of modern life and its mysteries, but who had succeeded in transcribing it. He had found words, often beautiful words, with which to pick out and dramatise the elusive thisness of modern life, to show what it is like to be living now and thereby, in some way that was hard to express in other words – which in any case were not needed, since he had already given us words enough – to capture and make sense of the extraordinary metaphysical loneliness which haunts the world in which we live.

I did not lose my reverence for Sartre during my university years. What I acquired, however, was a training in analytical philosophy which made it difficult to combine the philosophical and the artistic sides of my own literary interests. I see the literary and the philosophical aspects of my writing as aspects of a single attempt to say how things are for me. But I have always been as much hindered as sustained in this attempt, by a philosophical education that has put valid argument above truth to life in the list of intellectual virtues. Sartre belonged to another tradition, one which we know today only through its degenerate forms.  And in this article I want to say something about that tradition, why it matters, and in particular why it is the degenerate form of it, rather than the healthy flowering, that has been so influential.

My undergraduate studies finished in 1965 and I went straight to France, which epitomised, for me, the effort to unify the artistic and the intellectual life. After two years I came back to Cambridge, but maintained my connection with Paris, which I would visit constantly during those turbulent times, suffering an extraordinary conversion experience on witnessing les événements de mai, from which I have never really recovered. Quite suddenly I found myself on the other side of the barricades from everyone I knew. I did not fully understand what it was all about, but my instinct, at the sight of spoiled middle-class adolescents setting fire to the hard-earned cars of their social inferiors was to side with the owners of the cars. I asked my student contemporaries what it was they wished to achieve, and was assured by all of them that France had entered a revolutionary situation, and that the time had come to overthrow the bourgeoisie and to put the proletariat in its place. This didn't square very well with my assessment of the class to which they or their victims belonged, but nevertheless I recognised the language, and diligently set about reading the texts that were put before me, by way of explanations of the revolutionary unrest.

These texts were of three kinds. First there were the post-war essays from Sartre, notably Critique de la raison dialectique, and Situations, together with the famous Le deuxième sexe of his lifelong soul mate (maybe one should say soi-camarade) Simone de Beauvoir. The Critique struck me as intellectually moribund, a sad attempt by a man who had given up thinking to retrace the overgrown path of forgotten arguments. Its apology for something called 'totalisation' was presented in a wooden and totalitarian prose not dissimilar to the slogans of the Communist Party, and it amazed me that a great writer should stoop to using words in this way, as though they were beads on an abacus and not balls in a field. The Second Sex is a clever piece of writing, but one whose radically misleading view of women eclipsed that of any feminist tract I had read, and indeed of any that was to be written until Hélène Cixous's Le rire de la méduse. Like Sartre's essays, however, that by Simone de Beauvoir was an attempt at argument, which was striving to outline the contours of a political predicament, to give the reasons for changing it and to suggest what might come in its place.

The second kind of text was typified by Foucault, and notably by Les Mots et les choses and by the witty essays on the origins of the prison and the mad-house. These were exuberant exercises in rhetoric, with all the panache of the early Sartre, full of paradoxes and outrageous historical fabrications, but sweeping the reader along with a kind of facetious indifference to the standards of rational argument or the claims of truth. Instead of argument Foucault saw 'discourse'; and in the place of truth as a guide to human thinking he saw power. In Foucault's view of things all discourse gains acceptance by expressing, fortifying and concealing the power of those who maintain it; and those who, from time to time, perceive this fact are invariably (in bourgeois society) imprisoned as criminals or locked away as mad – a fate that Foucault had unaccountably avoided.

The third kind of text consisted of the borrowed theories of great subversives – Marx and Freud in particular – dissolved in prose so obscure and self-referential as to be more or less unintelligible. Particularly impressive in this connection were Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, along with Jacques Lacan, who hovered in the background, a kind of ghoulish presence who made himself known largely through reports of his seminars and the rumoured effects of his therapeutic seductions. Althusser's book Pour Marx claimed to be a defence of Marx's 'historical materialism' in its pure and original version, and was received as proof that Marxism was the true guide to the events of 1968. But I was unable to discover a cogent argument in the whole book, which consists of sentences like the following, repeated without variation until collision between book and wall (or, in 1968, book and student revolutionary) could no longer be postponed:

'This is not just its situation in principle (the one it occupies in the hierarchy of instances in relation to the determinant instance: in society, the economy) nor just its situation in fact (whether, in the phase under consideration, it is dominant or subordinate) but the relation of this situation in fact to this situation in principle, that is, the very relation which makes of this situation in fact a variation of the – 'invariant' – structure, in dominance, of the totality.'

That is the voice of the streetwise Marxism of 68: every sentence curled round like an in-growing toe-nail, hard, ugly, and pointing only to itself.[2] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, philosopher and psychoanalyst respectively, were more rhetorically competent, their influential book L'anti-Oedipe consisting of flamboyant flights of fancy influenced more by Marcel Duchamp and André Breton than by Freud. Deleuze and Guattari describe the human being as a 'machine désirante', the body voided of its organs, but summon Freud and Marx as witnesses to the conclusion that this is both the true explanation of schizophrenia, and exactly what we should expect, since 'the body without organs' is another name for capitalism: it is what happens to humanity when the 'oedipianisation' imposed by the regime of consumption empties the biological receptacle in which the human being is contained.[3] As for Lacan, let me say only that Raymond Tallis's description of him as 'the shrink from Hell' aptly conveys his looming and sinister presence in the official prose of the 68 Revolution.[4] The revolution was understood, by the young intellectuals to whom I spoke, as a kind of violent and coercive psychoanalysis of French society, in which the French people were being forced to pass through the 'mirror stage' of consciousness, as Lacan described it, and to face up to the truth of their condition, including such disturbing revelations as that under bourgeois conditions the erectile penis is the appearance in the rank of signifiers of that which occurs in the world of the signified as the square root of minus 1.[5]

I read the books that were set before me, with a feeling of intense gratitude for my training in analytical philosophy, which had taught me to recognise bullshit, and to know when bullshit was being used to advance as conclusions what were really protected premises. I didn't for a moment believe that any of this literature would last, and when it started spouting journals – Tel Quel being the most prominent – and began to recruit a new generation of bullshitters, including incomers from Algeria like Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous and Jacques Attali, from Bulgaria, like Julia Kristeva and from Belgium like Luce Iragaray – I regarded this as a passing fashion, which would in time die the death to which all bad writing is condemned. It seemed to me, then, that it was only a matter of time before the high standard that Sartre had set in his earlier years, that had been maintained by Albert Camus, Vladimir Jankélévitch and Michel Leiris, and which made room at the margins even for conservatives like Alain Besançon and René Girard – that this high standard would soon return and drive all the charlatans from their eyries in the capital.

But it did not happen, not then at least. And reflecting on this I noticed certain peculiar and recurring features of all the literature that I have mentioned. First it is literature directed at an enemy. All of it is devoted to describing the ruses and machinations that maintain the existing order in being, and also to describing that order as oppressive, machine-like, and in some deep sense alien. Secondly, the nonsense, although it cannot be deciphered intellectually, in terms of the true and the false or the valid and the invalid, can be easily deciphered politically. It is directed nonsense, and it is directed at the enemy. It is not just the existence of the enemy that is under attack. The assault is aimed primarily at the language through which the enemy lays claim to the world, the language that we know as rational argument and the pursuit of truth. 'The love of truth,' declared Jacques Lacan, 'is the love of this weakness whose veil we have lifted; it is the love of what truth hides, which is called castration.'[6] The love of truth, therefore, has no independent validity, being merely a disguise worn by the weaker party.  There is no real commodity at issue save power: the enemy shoots out words, and so do we. And victory is brought by the magic wand, the square root of minus one which, waved in the face of the enemy, reveals that he has no balls.

Two other features of the 68 literature deserve mention. First there was an extraordinary agreement among all the writers concerning the nature of the enemy. The enemy was the bourgeoisie, the class that had (according to the Marxist caricature of history) monopolised the institutions of French society since the Revolution of 1789, and whose 'ideology' had spread through all the channels of communication since then. Behind the patriarchal family excoriated by de Beauvoir, behind the institutions of the prison and the madhouse debunked by Foucault, behind the 'machine désirante' of Deleuze and Guattari and the norms of heterosexual respectability mocked by Sartre in Saint Genet stood the same force, both economic and spiritual and too vast and pervasive to be identical with any merely human group, the force of the bourgeoisie.          

The amateur revolutionaries to whom I would speak were very unclear, as a rule, as to what they hoped to put in the place of the 'system' and the 'structures' that they were intent on destroying. But they were united in their conception of the enemy, and in the determination to destroy him or it. The inimical bourgeois was an all-pervasive abstraction, which could be encountered anywhere, and whose presence was proved precisely by the sudden eruption into consciousness of an implacable desire to attack. If the impulse arose to turn over a car and set fire to it, then this car was a symbol and a possession of the bourgeoisie. If you were stirred to anger by the sight of a couple respectably dressed and walking arm and arm through the street, then that proved they were members of the bourgeoisie. If the sight of a policeman led you to pick up a stone, then that was because policemen in general, and this one in particular, are bourgeois agents. If a book, a picture or a piece of music offended you, then that was a proof of its bourgeois origins, and if you could not pass a priest without mocking and insulting him, this was the clearest sign that religion is a bourgeois institution. Defoe wrote at the time of Queen Anne that the streets of London 'were full of stout fellows prepared to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether it be a man or a horse'. So was it true of the Paris of my youth, that its streets were full of young people prepared to fight to the death against the bourgeoisie, without knowing whether it be an idea or a uniform, and certainly not knowing that, by any reasonable understanding of the term, they themselves were it.

One other feature of the literature of 68 deserves mention, because it bears on the lasting influence that this literature has had, especially on academic studies in America. Behind all the flamboyance and the nonsense it was possible to discern the vestiges of previous ideas – ideas that had been alive at the end of the war, when Paris was a centre of serious intellectual debate and when the post-war generation was attempting to shake off the memory of occupation and betrayal, and to conceal the bad things that it had felt and done. The discussions of the Prague school of linguistics, members of which had sought refuge in France in the 1930s, and who had been inspired by the work of Saussure, were absorbed into those of academic Marxism and literary Freudianism, to produce the peculiar synthesis that we find in the work of Roland Barthes. The distinctions between 'signified and signifier', between langue and parole, between phoneme and morpheme, entered the new language, alongside the theories of base and superstructure, use value and exchange value, production and exploitation taken from Marx and the theories of repression and the libido borrowed from Freud. The distinctions and theories were stirred together in the great cauldron that sat in the revolutionary fire, and extraordinary and exciting results often followed, such as Lacan's proof that 'schizophrenia', and I quote from one of the great man's followers, 'designates a purely metonymic form of desire untrammelled by the metaphoric associations of equivalence and meaning imposed on desire by social and/or linguistic codes operating in the name of the father'.[7] Or Guattari's proof that, by getting beyond the signifying semiologies in which we have hitherto been bound to become 'a-signifying semiotic machines' we will 'free desire-production, the singularities of desire, from the signifiers of national, familial, personal, racial, humanist, and transcendent values (including the semiotic myth of a return to nature), to the pre-signifying world of a-semiotic encodings'.[8] The monsters of unmeaning that loom in this prose attract our attention because they are clothed in the fragments of theories, picked up from the aftermath of forgotten battles – the Marxist theory of production, the Saussurean theory of the signifier, the Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex, all I should say, thoroughly refuted by subsequent science, but all somehow retrieved by the Parisian scavengers, and given a ghoulish after-life in the steam above the cauldron.

And there is one idea acquired during the great pre-war self-examination that has not lost its credibility, an idea that endures because it is not a scientific hypothesis that stands to be refuted, but a philosophical reflection on the nature of consciousness. This is the idea of the Other. The dialectic of Self and Other is the great gift of German idealist philosophy to modern European culture. From Fichte to Heidegger the point has been made in a hundred ways, and never without a measure of dignified obscurity, that we come to freedom and self-consciousness only by the path of alienation, and that the self is born from the confrontation with the other, in whose refusal to succumb and to be absorbed we recognise the truth of our own condition – the truth that we too are other, and limited by others like us. Now this story, told many times, entered the culture of France through a peculiar route – namely the public lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology given between 1933 and 1939 in the École Pratique des Hautes Études by an émigré Russian, Alexandre Kojève, who occupied a high position in the French civil service. These lectures are now widely available in the edition of Raymond Queneau, who attended them. And if you are surprised to learn that the author of Zazie dans le métro should have taken, at the time, a consuming interest in Hegel, then you should also know that the lectures were attended by almost everyone of that generation who was to make a contribution, after the war, to the emerging literary culture of a guilt-ridden France. Sartre, de Beauvoir, Marcel, Lacan, Bachelard, Levinas, Bataille, Aron, Merleau-Ponty – and many more – all attended. Each came away from the lectures with his own version of the 'Other', and his own ambition to describe the Other in revealing parables. For de Beauvoir woman had been made Other by man, and it was in confronting her 'altérité' that woman could repossess herself of her stolen freedom. For the humane Levinas the Other is the human face, in which I find my own face reflected, and which both hides and reveals the light of personality. For Merleau-Ponty the Other is both outside me and within, revealed in the phenomenology of my own embodiment. For Sartre the Other is the alien intrusion, which I can never vanquish or possess, but which taunts me with its ungraspable freedom, so that, in the famous last line of Huis Clos, 'l'enfer c'est les autres'.  

This wonderful literary idea, which Kojève rescued from the trunk of old manuscripts in which the Germans had put it for safe-keeping, is responsible for much that is interesting and beautiful in the literature of post war France: you find it in Georges Bataille's encomium to the erotic, in Jean Genet's Journal du voleur, in Sartre's Being and Nothingness, in the Catholic existentialism of Gabriel Marcel, and in the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Duras. You even find it in Deleuze and Guattari, who adapt the Other to their own folie à deux in prose that it would be hard to caricature:


The Other Person is enough to make any length a possible depth in space, and vice versa, so that if this concept did not function in the perceptual field, transitions and inversions would become incomprehensible, and we would always run up against things, the possible having disappeared... (In) the concept of the other person, the possible world does not exist outside the face that expresses it, although it is distinguished from it as expressed and expression; and the face in turn is the vicinity of the words for which it is already the megaphone...[9]

Kojève's treatment of the Other also fed into the Communist Party's programme of recruitment, by giving the French literary elite a language and a habit of thought that could easily be adapted to the war on bourgeois society. (For let us not forget that it was Hegel's version of the idea which had first inspired the youthful Marx, in his theories of alienation and private property.) Whether Kojève had that in mind will never be known;[10] but one thing is certain, which is that the idea of the Other became part of a mass-recruitment of the French intelligentsia to the causes of the left, and that when this idea was boiled up with Saussurean linguistics, Freudian analysis and Marxist economics to form the witches' brew of Tel Quel and deconstruction, it gave rise to a literature that made no place whatsoever for any political view other than that of revolutionary socialism. It was already apparent in the post-war generation that French literature was taking sides, and that this was a kind of substitute for the engagement that Sartre recommended from his throne in Les Deux Magots. Those who did not conform to the left-wing orthodoxies were not merely ostracised but harassed and persecuted by the leftist cliques, and in the pages of La nouvelle revue française – a treatment that led to the marginalisation of Camus and Aron, to the dismissal of Maritain and Marcel and to the demonization of François Mauriac.

By the time of 1968, a kind of impenetrable meta-literature, literature about literature about literature, had evolved, incorporating the features I have mentioned, and about which only one thing was clear – which is what side it was on. If the politics were obvious, then the obscurity of the language was no defect. On the contrary: in these circumstances obscurity could be read as proof of a profundity and originality too great to be encompassed by ordinary words. Hence obscurity served to validate the politics, to show that throwing stones at policemen was the conclusion of a practical syllogism which had the highest intellectual authority for its every step.

I don't need to dwell on the aspect of fraudulence in this literature. Surely nobody with a respect for intellectual honesty could doubt the verdict of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, in their now famous book Intellectual Impostures, which entirely demolishes the phony expertise of Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, Lacan and many more.[11] If you are not persuaded by Sokal and Bricmont, or by Malcolm Bradbury's brilliant satire Mensonge,[12] then there is nothing that I can say that is going to persuade you. And if you still feel that the matter is not closed, and haven't visited Andrew Bulhak's Postmodern Generator, on the web, and had the joy of generating your own contribution to this pile of bullshit, then that is certainly what you should do. What Sokal and Bricmont overlook, however, is the political significance of the postmodern metaliterature. They identify themselves as men of the left, which is of course necessary if they are to have the remotest chance of influencing those who are tempted to join the stampede towards postmodern meaninglessness. But they fail to point out, and perhaps fail even to see, that being on the left is what it is all about. The boiling tide of nonsense flows between secure walls on which indelible messages have been chiselled. These tell us that the world is in the hands of the Other; that the other is capitalism, bourgeois society, patriarchy, the family, in other words, the array of traditional power-structures from which we must be liberated; that we can understand and decipher the secrets through which these structures are maintained in being; and that by understanding the Other we empower the self. In short, the metaliterature that has arisen in the wake of 68 consists of spells, with which to subdue an alien world and open a path to liberation. And that is why it has secured its extraordinary following.

To me this is the most important cultural fact: not that nonsense should survive and propagate itself. This is nothing new, as we know from the history of alchemy and 'esoteric doctrine' – the history of dullness, as Pope called it, in a satire as pertinent today as it was more than two centuries ago. Even if we lack a plausible epidemiology of nonsense,[13] there is no mystery in the fact that nonsense, once introduced, has a natural capacity to reproduce itself. For, in the right circumstances, nonsense is power. In the decades following its birth, the metaliterature of 1968 was accepted throughout the English-speaking academic world, not as a source of knowledge, but as a political weapon. Works like l'Anti-Oedipe and Derrida's Dissemination assumed the place that books of spells acquired in alchemy. In the hands of a new academic establishment, which had no confidence that there could be any ground for academic studies in the humanities other than that provided by a political agenda, these works were the instruments of a Faustian pact. By means of the holy books the teacher of the humanities could acquire power over the Other, and possession of the academic citadel from which the Other was being forced to flee.[14] In the creation and enforcement of orthodoxies nonsense is much to be preferred to rational argument, since it leaves no opening to opposition, no place where the Other can creep back and sow dissent. Perhaps this is one reason for the enormous gratitude with which the generation of 68 was received in humanities departments in Britain and America. Derrida, Cixous, Kristeva and others accumulated honorary degrees all across the Anglophone world, and Deleuze was apparently, in 2007, quoted more often than Kant in academic writing in English.

But it is pertinent to ask why Anglophone common sense proved so insubstantial a barrier to the torrent of métamerde. Respectable critics like Stanley Fish, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, were swept up in the flood, and analytical philosophers either refused to take note of it or, in the case of Richard Rorty, claimed to be swimming in the same subversive current as its exponents. Was the problem that we lacked a real discipline to lead us onto firm ground and in a clear direction? Or was it simply that the charm of nonsense, when attached to a left-wing posture, proved irresistible? It seems to me that this question touches on deep differences between our two cultures – that of English-speaking common sense, and that of French literary panache.

French culture is not now, and seldom has been, simply a machine for the production of subversive messages. Nevertheless Marxism had a dominant standing between the wars and served as a focus for the kind of anti-patriotism that flourished among the intellectual elite, expressed thus by André Breton in his second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930:

'Everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste the ideas of family, country, religion...[Surrealists] intend to savour fully the profound sorrow, so well acted, with which the bourgeois public...greets the steadfast and unyielding need they display to laugh like savages in the presence of the French flag, to vomit their disgust in the face of every priest, and to level at the breed of 'basic duties' the long-range weapon of sexual cynicism'.

Others expressed their repudiation of France and its Catholic culture less childishly. But there is no doubt that Kojève's lectures served to provide intellectual and psychological foundations for a widespread movement of repudiation. The betrayals and capitulations of the Second World War, and the experience of the Nazi occupation amplified the disgust with the French cultural inheritance. The generation of Sartre emerged from the war with a deep need for a scapegoat that would bear the burden of their guilt. This scapegoat was bourgeois France, and the Marxist theory gave the perfect description of its sins, which ceased to be our sins, once they were pinned on the Other. Many, like the poet and novelist Louis Aragon, joined the Communist Party, conveniently forgetting the Nazi-Soviet pact, when the Communist Party had sabotaged the French war effort by staging strikes in the munitions factories and calling for a negotiated peace with Hitler.

But, while Marxism provided a backbone to the flabby culture of anti-patriotism which spread among Kojève's pupils, Catholic France survived. When Valéry, France's greatest modern poet, died during the liberation of Paris, General de Gaulle organised a state funeral and even headed the cortège, German snipers notwithstanding. Bernanos and Mauriac both survived the war and Mauriac was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1952. Four great composers – Poulenc, Messiaen, Duruflé and Dutilleux – kept alive the spirit of Catholic France in music that defies the modernist orthodoxies. The generation of Sartre was also the generation of Camus and Aron, and of Commentaire – the journal that stood courageously against the intellectual terrorism of the Communist Party. The France of Claudel and Péguy lived on in the thinking of Maritain and Marcel, in the films of Truffaut, in the sardonic humour of Jacques Prévert and Boris Vian and in the abstract paintings of Manessier and Jean Le Moal. And at the very moment when the métamerde was beginning to pour from the left-bank journals and Foucault was declaring the 20th century to be the century of Deleuze, Alain Besançon was writing Les origines intellectuelles du Léninisme, Messiaen delivering his lectures on plainchant and birdsong and René Girard embarking on the extraordinary series of books (beginning with La Violence et le sacré) that have had such an impact on our conception of what the Christian heritage means or ought to mean to us today. Within 30 years of the événements de mai Stéphane Courtois brought out Le livre noir du communisme, which invited  French intellectuals to repudiate the Communist movement once and for all, while Louis Pauwels published his novel Les orphelins, in which the spiritual vacuum of 1968 is presented in all its frightening negativity. Many leading French intellectuals today – André Glucksmann, Alain Finkielkraut, Luc Ferry, Françoise Thom, Chantal Delsol – are happy to be counted as enemies of Marxism, even if not enemies of the intellectual left. Among les intellectuelles médiatiques perhaps only Alain Badiou talks the old metalanguage, and fragments of sense haunt his pages, blown in through the window belatedly opened onto the thought of Wittgenstein. The days of métamerde are, from the French point of view, a troubled moment in the decline of a worldview that is no longer capable of occupying more than a corner of the national culture.

We should also notice that intellectuals in France often enjoy a secure place in public life and a share of political influence. They arise and flourish outside the academy, preferring the mantle of the prophet to the gown of the scholar. This was the case with Sartre and his generation. But it remained true with most of the major figures of 1968. Their reputations were established in the open market of ideas, and few of them enjoyed, at first, the protection of an academic institution. Of course, in the wake of 1968, when new universities were scattered all across the capital by a President Pompidou anxious to be seen as a friend of the intelligentsia, the leftist gurus were head-hunted to extinction and disappeared from the streets. But a new mutation of the species was soon appearing in the restaurants and bars. Like the left-intelligentsia of the sixties and seventies, the liberal intelligentsia that replaced them occupy distinguished social positions, move freely in political circles, and are figures about town of a kind that we know in Britain only among footballers and fashion models. They have television series, dedicated columns, public appearances and stunning mistresses. It is easy to believe that, when President Sarkozy decided to recognise the rebel government in Libya, it was after a phone conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy, who happened to be in Benghazi at the time.[15] The social identity of French intellectuals means that their position is both more glamorous than that of the Anglophone scholar, and also less secure. They rely upon their celebrity, rather than on the endorsement of colleagues and the privilege of tenure. Their star rises and falls with the speed of politics rather than that of academic journals – which, it is important to remember, usually have a three-year backlog, unlike politics, which has no backlog at all, but only a frontlog of dangerous competitors.

To put the matter simply, the extraordinary influence of the literature of 1968 says far less about France and its culture than it does about the Anglophone academy, and about the weakness of the culture on which that academy was originally built. The Anglophone academy is conceived as a community of scholars, and what is left over, when the results of scholarship are deducted from its achievement, is not usually art or literature or anything that would lift students out of their previous experience and grant them a redemptive worldview, but often little more than plain common sense. That is not entirely true, of course. Genuine literature has emerged from Anglophone academic scholarship: witness Iris Murdoch, Isaiah Berlin and the 'campus novelists', David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. And Bertrand Russell, the principal founder of analytical philosophy, was surely rightly awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Nevertheless, by trying to make common sense into its own branch of scholarship, my subject has also engendered the tedious results that I complained of at the start of this article. Literature departments, until the discovery of the soixantehuitards, relied upon 'practical criticism' in the manner of Richards and Leavis, in which students are invited to test what they read against the edicts of a common-sense conscience. Or else they buried their subject in literary scholarship of the historical and biographical kind, so that its meaning for me, here, now can be retrieved only with difficulty.

I don't doubt that much good has been done by this. After all, academic criticism from the pre-bullshit days has displayed a survival value at least as great as that of the literary productions of post-war France. I think of the Chicago school critics, of F.R. Leavis in England and R.P. Blackmur and Lionel Trilling in America, of the critical works of poets like Empson, Auden and Eliot, and the Shakespeare criticism of J. Dover Wilson and L.C. Knights. There is a wealth of academic Anglophone scholarship in the humanities that can be read with pleasure and profit, and the fact that its bullshit quotient is low to vanishing ensures that it will be read with pleasure and profit by people who are not yet born. But there was something that it did not provide, and which the métamerde provided instead; and the intellectual discipline it engendered was not strong enough to resist the charlatans who promised that thing. So what was it, that Anglophone scholarship in the humanities failed to provide?

The answer, I believe, is membership. There are broadly two motives for embracing an intellectual movement: one is the love of truth, the other the need for membership. Religions pretend to address the first of those motives, while in fact recruiting the second. Science ignores the second and promotes the first. But the humanities have always been caught in an awkward position between the two. The common sense curriculum frames the study of art and literature in the language of truth: it asks you to collect the data, to evaluate them, to draw conclusions as to their lasting worth and their place in the wider scheme of things. It does not promise to make sense of the world, to bring companionship or love, still less does it bring an offer of redemption. Young people are drawn to the humanities, however, because they have felt in themselves the need for something other than bare truth and argument. They are drawn by a primal human need, which is for the rite of passage, the transition into the community. The existence of this primal need was one of the major discoveries of French anthropology at the turn of the 20th century. And what quickly became clear in the wake of thinkers like Arnold Van Gennep and Claude Lévi-Strauss is that modern societies don't provide for it. Rites of passage, in post-industrial society, are truncated or non-existent, and this is one reason why so many people find the escape from adolescence so hard.

The ungrown-up nature of modern art of the Damien Hirst and Chapman Brothers kind, its life-negating force and narcissistic alienation is, in my view, one result of this. But another result, and one central to the understanding of academic life today, is the triumph of bullshit in the humanities. You don't learn bullshit; you are initiated into it. No knowledge, no data, no rational enquiry is needed. All that is required is the repetition of mantric formulae. 'There is only desire and the social and nothing else' (Deleuze and Guattari); 'There is no hors-texte' (Derrida); 'E=MC squared is a sexed equation' (Iragaray); and so on: such cryptic utterances are invocations, with which the student is inducted into the great temple of unmeaning. What is being offered is precisely that which the surrounding society withholds, namely a rite of passage. Take a sentence like this (from an essay on Deleuze): 'social production is not contraction on a progressive, historical continuum or a subject-orientated linearity, but is a resonation of the virtual as a fractal attractor.'[16] Taken out of context that sentence is nonsense; but so, you will discover, is the context. On the other hand it is futile to complain that the sentence does not mean anything, or that there is no way either to refute or to confirm what it says. For that is its point. By writing in this way the author is displaying her membership: she is showing that she has undergone the ordeal of initiation, in which her mind was stripped of the old and oppressive meanings, and offered a new and purer way of thinking, in which truth has no voice, as sin has no voice in the mind of the born-again Christian.

If we see the métamerde in this way then two features of it become immediately explicable: the attack on truth and objectivity, and the constant, chorus-like repetition of political commitment. Baudrillard (who, to his credit, writes rather more clearly than his fellow priests) puts the foundational doctrine of the temple explicitly: 'Science accounts for things previously encircled and formalized so as to be sure to obey it. "Objectivity" is nothing else than that, and the ethic which comes to sanction this objective knowledge is nothing less than a system of defence and imposed ignorance, whose goal is to preserve this vicious circle intact'.[17] Reading that sentence the membership-hungry student will feel a great burden fall from his shoulders, like the burden that falls from the back of Pilgrim in John Bunyan's great allegory of the religious life. He discovers that there is no objectivity, no truth, no reality against which the student's words can be measured and found wanting. Now he is free and unencumbered: he can pass into the community of the meaningless.

But what is the salvation that this community offers? The freedom to 'speak in tongues' has a certain value, certainly; but in itself it is no lasting consolation. The born-again soul requires solidarity, immersion in a cause, the sense of standing side-by-side with fellow initiates in the indestructible phalanx of the saved. Politics enters the liturgy as the binding promise of redemption, the thing that holds the community together in defiance of the world. If you ask why the politics should be invariably left-wing, and subversive of the 'power structures' of the bourgeois order, then surely the question, conceived in this way, will answer itself. The membership that is offered is one of repudiation – a defiance of a social order that has offered no clear path to inclusion, and which makes no obvious space for an academic leisured class. Of course, there will be schisms and heresies, just as there are in Marxism, Freudianism and the other subversive movements of recent times. But there will also be a shared posture of negation. Academies are in the business of defining themselves as another space outside the 'bourgeois' order, a space in which old hierarchies, customs and rites of passage have no authority, and into which young people can be recruited at the very time of life when recruitment has become an urgent need – a need of the blood.

That is only a first shot at an explanation, and of course there are other factors that have fed into the politicisation of humanities departments in the Anglophone world.[18] But I want to conclude on an optimistic note. For when I look at the history of intellectual life in France, and endeavour to see the degeneration of the 1960s in its full historical context, I very quickly discover another message than the one I have been recording – a message of hope. The métamerde triumphed in the Anglophone academy, but it did not triumph in France, for the very reason that real intellectual life in France is conducted largely outside the academy. The poison was quickly expelled from the system, and its effects died with the people who had produced them. There is a way that we English writers can fight back against the destruction of intellectual life by bullshit and that is to do everything we can to ensure that intellectual life takes place outside the academy, and that young people learn at university that it is not there that they will find the membership they are seeking, but in the places where culture, rather than metaculture, holds sway.

Seen in true perspective Sartre was by no means unusual. In the great days that preceded and followed the Revolution of 1789, France contained many figures who compare with him: writers for whom abstract philosophical argument and the artistic presentation of the thisness of the world went hand in hand. I think of Rousseau, known now for his contentious political essays and the remarkable book of Confessions but far more important as the poetic author of La Nouvelle Héloise and even deserving a footnote in musical history as the composer of Le Devin du village. I think of Diderot, the philosopher whose Jacques le fataliste and La religieuse are two of the most original and powerful novels of the 18th century. I think of Montesquieu, philosophical author of the beautiful Lettres persanes, and of Voltaire, the philosopher who poured out his distinctive worldview in plays, poems, novels and stories as well as in reasoned arguments.

Later, in the period of reaction, the story is repeated: writers like Chateaubriand and Maistre wrote philosophy that was also literature, and they showed that you could understand the presence of the social world without feeling the old revolutionary urge to destroy it. None of those great writers had anything much to do with academic life; all of them were fully part of the current of contemporary events, and between them they set the standard for an independent literature which would also be a mirror to the world.

We have not achieved any equivalent of this literary culture in the Anglophone world. The nearest we have come in England to a genuinely literary philosopher is Coleridge, whose argumentative works are, however, stumbling and uncertain when compared with those of such French contemporaries as Tocqueville, Chateaubriand and Maistre. Likewise T.S. Eliot, exquisite poet and refined critic though he was, never brought his concrete perception successfully to bear on his occasional attempts at philosophical argument, which remain rough at the edges and full of uncertainty, as in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Still, the attempt has been made, by Carlyle, William Morris, Ruskin and a few others in Britain, and by Thoreau and Emerson in America. Such writers remain testimony to the fact that there could be real literary intellectuals in the Anglophone world, and that they would not have to be imprisoned in an academy, but could roam the streets, arm in arm with their stunning partners, like Bernard-Henri Lévy, or preach from a throne in some fashionable club or restaurant like Sartre, and never set foot in a university from the cradle to the grave.


[1] Nor is this tradition dead. See for a particularly lucid adaptation of it to modern –problems, Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy, Oxford, Blackwell 2007.

[2] Of course, it would be a gross insult to Marxism in general, and Marx in particular, to suppose that this is the only available form that Marxism in our time can take. See the impeccably Marxist dismissal of Althusser by Jerry Cohen (G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979, Preface), and also that by E.P. Thompson in The Poverty of Theory, London, Verso, 1978.

[3] Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, L'Anti-Oedipe: capitalisme et schizophrénie, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1975, ch. 2

[4] 'The Shrink from Hell', in Michael Grant ed., The Raymond Tallis Reader, London, Palgrave, 2000.

[5] The proof occurs in Écrits; see my review, contained in The Politics of Culture, Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1981, p.101.

[6] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Book XVII, New York, Norton, 2007, p. 52.

[7] Eugene W. Holland, 'From Schizophrenia to Social Control', in Eleanor Kaufman and Kevin Jon Heller, eds. Deleuze and Guattari: New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy and Culture, Minneapolis and London, U. Minn. Press, 1998.

[8] Gary Genosko, 'Guattari's Schizoanalytic semiotics' in ibid.

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, tr. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, New York, Columbia University Press,, pp 18-19.

[10] Kojève has been posthumously identified by the French intelligence service as a Soviet agent. However, he was a close friend of the influential conservative political theorist Leo Strauss (influential in America, that is). He was also the propagator, through his Hegel lectures, of the 'end of history' idea that Francis Fukuyama later delivered in a form that could be easily swallowed by American liberal conservatives. It seems that Kojève wore a Mephistophelian mask that nobody has ever deciphered, and the fact that he was one of the architects of the European Union and fully party to the mendacities by which it was invented and imposed upon the continent is entirely consonant with his inscrutable character.

[11] Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Impostures intellectuelles, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1997, published in America as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, London, Profile Books, 1998.

[12] Mensonge: My Strange Quest for Henri Mensonge, Structuralism's Hidden Hero, London, King Penguin, 1985.

[13] Richard Dawkins's theory of the meme (The Selfish Gene) is inadequate for many reasons, not least because it does not distinguish between sense and nonsense; likewise Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture, a Naturalistic Approach, Oxford, Blackwell, 1996.

[14] See Robert Grant, 'Ideology and Deconstruction', in Anthony O'Hear, ed., Verstehen and Human Understanding, London, Royal Institute of Philosophy, 1998.

[15] See FrumForum, March 27th 2011. It is difficult for an English reader to believe BHL when, in his recently published exchange of letters with Michel Houellebecq, he characterises himself as a persecuted outsider, and victim of the mob. See Bernard-Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies, London and New York, Random House, 2011.

[16] Judy Purdom, 'Postmodernity as a Spectre of the Future', in Leith Ansell Pearson, ed., Deleuze and Philosophy: The Difference Engineer, London, The Psychology press, 1997, p.115.

[17] Simulations, in Richard Kearney and David Rasmussen, eds. Continental Aesthetics: Romanticism to Postmodernism, Oxford, O.U.P., 2001, p. 418.

[18] See again Robert Grant, op. cit.

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