Thursday, October 6, 2016

Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 I

Because of my unease with Simone de Beauvoir's accounts of both historical events and personal matters, I decided to get a second opinion by reading this book by Tony Judt, which was published in 1992. Judt was one of the leading scholars of modern European history, and here he describes in great detail the intellectual environment in France immediately following World War II. In my reading of Simone de Beauvoir I began to detect hints of hagiography, and there is no one better equipped than Judt to unmask historical inaccuracies in this period. Judt was particularly interested in the effects that intellectuals have on history, and he himself became a significant public intellectual following 9/11, when he went public as an anti-Zionist and criticized the Bush administration for its actions in Iraq. He was a breath of fresh air when other so-called intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff were cheering on Bush. It is most unfortunate that he died prematurely from ALS in 2010 at the age of sixty-two. I feel lucky to have met him in 2003. As a humanist and an academic, Judt is still subject to the reservations I have about those camps, but I know that he had personal integrity and was not blinded by professional ambition, as is often the case.

The book discusses dozens of French intellectuals from the period and occasionally ventures as far back as the French Revolution for examples, but I am reading it mainly for his opinions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. So far, about halfway through, he isn't enthusiastic about them:

As a rule, philosophers found Sartre slippery; playwrights found him didactic. But each found him to be a genius at the other activity.

Regarding the second and third volumes of de Beauvoir's memoirs he says:

Although they sometimes lack psychological insight and show remarkable naiveté at times, they are honest and informative narratives of a high quality.

He also notes that in The Mandarins de Beauvoir attempted to clean up Sartre's record on remaining silent about the Gulag system:

Even Simone de Beauvoir, in Les Mandarins, was constrained to insert a series of anguished debates between Dubreuilh [Sartre] and Perron [Camus] over the news of Soviet camps, though she managed to make it appear that these debates had been taking place as early as 1946.

Judt describes France as in ideological tatters before World War II and continuing in that state afterwards. There was no clarity in how to punish German collaborators and members of the Vichy government, and there were mixed responses to events in Soviet East Europe. The communist party in France remained strong throughout the period, and most French intellectuals were reluctant to criticize the Soviets. Sartre and de Beauvoir became influential political thinkers through their journal, Modern Times, which was founded in 1945 and still exists. Sartre believed in a communist future, and this prevented him from criticizing its abuses in the present. De Beauvoir thought that Soviet communism was unrelated to French communism. Camus was the first in this group to criticize the Soviets, resulting in his break with Sartre described in The Mandarins. Judt also complains about Sartre's lack of a solid philosophical foundation for his political views. Because Sartre never wrote a book on existential ethics, as he had promised, the moral reasoning behind his ideas, if any, remained obscure.

To speculate a little, I think Tony Judt would have loved to have been a Parisian public intellectual in the manner of Jean-Paul Sartre or Raymond Aron, but he was turned off by the actual intellectual environment when he lived there and instead became a critic of public intellectuals. I wholeheartedly agree with him and only wish he had gone on the attack sooner when he moved to New York. However, in other respects I don't agree with him at all. He is writing in the tradition of an Enlightenment humanist, which I think has run its course. To me, concepts such as liberté, égalité, fraternité, socialism, communism, democracy and capitalism are obsolete, because humans have conclusively proven themselves to be ineffectual at collective self-governance on a large scale. Having a far lower opinion of mankind than Judt, it appears to me that modern political theory isn't much different from theories one might propose to bring order to chipmunk society. The absence of consideration of the biological limitations of humans in political thought precludes the possibility of a functional theory. In this regard, as I have said repeatedly, in the long run AI is more likely to produce tenable solutions.

I should also mention that, having lived in the U.S. for most of my life, discussion of European political history seems extraordinarily exotic. That is because, with the exception of the Civil War, which had little effect on the structure of government, there have been no major political upheavals here in 240 years, and the population is blindly faithful to longstanding ideas of democracy and capitalism. Efforts have been made periodically to inject socialism into the system during economic downturns, but those have always evaporated once the economy recovered. Although I don't see the present system in the U.S. as sustainable or desirable, Europe seems far more complex and chaotic in comparison.

I'll post again on this topic whenever I finish the book.

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