French post-War intellectuals: some generalizations

I am reading Richard Wolin’s The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s in preparation for his visit to Tufts on Dec. 10. It’s a great story about how almost all famous French intellectuals became Maoists between 1968 and 1974. They knew little about the actual Chinese Cultural Revolution, and their infatuation with a movement that was actually tyrannical, murderous, and conformist paradoxically helped them to move toward the libertarianism of the late 1900s.

Although most of the following points are not explicit themes in Wolin, reading about a large number of post-War French intellectuals suggested some distinctive features that they shared (which set them apart from leading thinkers in the US and Britain).

They were almost all radical critics of their society, political structure, and culture, yet they held extremely privileged positions in state-sponsored institutions. So they might actively favor the Soviet Union and the rebels in Algeria, which were literal enemies of France, while teaching at the École Normale Supérieure, which provided status, leisure, and a comfortable salary at the French taxpayers’ expense. This situation is easy to satirize and has been seriously criticized. There might, however, be some value to state-sponsored “gadflies.”

They were internationally famous, chic or cool, with huge student followings and celebrity status, even though their work tended to be theoretical–with much more metaphysics (or anti-metaphysics) than moving narrative.

Despite their deep disagreements, they formed a dense and closed network. In all times and places, famous people tend to know other famous people. For example, in yesterday’s Times, we read that Christopher Isherwood socialized in Los Angeles with: “W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Alec Guinness, Hope Lange, Marlon Brando, Terence Rattigan, Truman Capote, Francis Bacon, Gore Vidal, Richard Burton, Jane Fonda, Igor Stravinsky, Mick Jagger and Jeanne Moreau.” That’s an impressive list, but it represents a tiny percentage of the world’s cultural figures at the time. Many of those individuals probably did not know one another. In contrast, I suspect that a French post-War intellectual like Louis Althusser or Simone De Beauvoir had direct interactions with every other French intellectual of comparable status. They all lived in the same neighborhoods of one city, and most had been educated in the same small university programs, by the same teachers.

Writing was their job. To be sure, Lacan was a psychoanalyst, Lévi-Strauss collected some field data in Brazil, and Foucault haunted archives and prisons seeking material for his histories. But “the text” and the way it was constructed was their central interest. Because they were writers more than specialists or experts, they could switch genres while maintaining their distinctive styles. Sartre led the way by writing drama, systematic philosophy, literary biography, political polemic, and memoir–all of it immediately recognizable as Sartre’s writing.

They were remarkably subject to fashion. Existentialism, Stalinist communism, structuralism, aestheticism, Maoism and Trotskyism, post-structuralism and deconstruction, identity politics, and human rights rose and fell in quick succession between 1955 and 1975. The major thinkers–people like Sartre, Lévi-Strauss, and Foucault–were relatively independent, and one can explain their development as a result of intellectual struggles and discoveries. But other intellectuals seemed mainly interested in staying current, trendy, and avant-garde. That is how Wolin depicts Julia Kristeva and the influential editor Phillipe Sollers. I was left thinking that these people acted just like experts on fashionable clothing or interior decoration, except that their writing was even more pretentious. They also reminded me of some kind of popular and mean high school clique that arbitrates what is “in” and disparages what isn’t.