How many continue to venerate the models of lucidity and courage, the examples of combativeness and greatness, that were the Vaclav Havels, the Sakharovs, the founders of Solidarnosc, the fiery dissidents of the Soviet Union?
And how many of us, conversely, have not rested easily since learning that the memories of Auschwitz, Kolyma, and the struggles against empires — in short, the « never again » that supposedly is the foundation of postmodernity — did not prevent the genocide of the Tutsis, or the massacre of one in four or five Chechens, or, relatively, the revival, surrounding the business in Ukraine, of sovereignism, which has been promoted to the status of nearly universally shared common sense.
I don’t want to offend anyone.
But in looking around, studying the intellectual map of an era dominated by the regretful certainties of the secure and well-established, the timorous, and the blasé, in listening to the fracas of the ersatz radicalism of those who fancy themselves rebels when all they are is angry or indignant, I encounter only a handful of the genuine article — first among them my colleague and friend André Glucksmann.
In his new book, Voltaire contre-attaque (Laffont), a marvel of rebellious youth and jubilant wisdom, we find a philosophical rehabilitation of the author of Candide.
A return of the Voltairean idea that successful revolutions turn not on fanatical fidelity to an ideal, but on methodical infidelity to solutions that are prefabricated, final, and, precisely, ideal.
We relearn in the book that politics play out in the here and now, in our century of steel and tumult, and not in some heaven of great hopes on which our fierce younger selves were so eager to stage an assault.
We see, consequently, that any small step outside eternity is always a great step for mankind; that the uprisings that count are those of disillusionment and not of utopianism; that an appreciation of finiteness is the beginning not of wisdom but of insubordination.
We hear praised not only patience and doubt, but also the beggar and the gypsy.
We listen to an « anachronistic defense » of a view of human rights that has come to be mocked equally by those whose cynicism confuses reluctance to resist with lucidity and those who embrace the will to purity, the chief contributions of which to the history of the twentieth century were refinements to the art of manufacturing corpses.
We encounter a socialist who retrained in gas without anybody finding anything to say about it.
An East German proponent of a form of pacifism that is but another name for her indifference to the misery of others but that makes her the den mother of the Old Continent.
We meet intellectuals, like Voltaire, who fall prey to what Glucksmann (who must have experienced it) calls the temptation of Frederick, in reference to the Prussian king and his transition from enlightenment to absolutism.
We find Venetians haunted by the fatalism and futility of a world that, like Candide’s mausoleum of a city, is no longer anything more than the mirror of an agony foretold, leading them feel what former French foreign minister Alain Juppé felt when tempted to chuck it all and run off to Venice.
We see posed new questions that make this book quite unlike the « testament » it has been labeled: What if the Germany of today had liberated that of 1944? Where is Athens? What is plague? Who, Mallarmé or Pushkin, offers the best means of escape from the starry and mortal illusion of a History that ends in the valley of Pangloss’s tears?
We ponder an enigmatic quote of Voltaire (« the only just war in history was the rebellion of Spartacus ») and confront the ill wind of anti-Roma prejudice that is blowing through France. (What? Fifteen thousand uprooted people are responsible for all of the problems of France’s sixty million? A handful of the homeless whose plastic shelters are bulldozed in the country of Villon, Esmeralda, Carmen, and Christian charity are the devil incarnate?)
I think back to the Glucksmann of La cuisinière et le mangeur d’hommes (1976), which launched the new philosophy.
I recall our « Apostrophes » with Maurice Clavel, who was all the more inspired because he seemed to know he was nearing the end and passing the torch.
I see us once again in Mexico in amphitheaters drunk on red fascism and white hot with the anger of very old young people who did not want to hear that victims have no color and no party.
Then later in gatherings in Bosnia where we argued–not without a hint of human, all too human, rivalry engendered by proximity of thought–that the spirit of membership was the father of submission, that the disease of identity could ravage entire peoples, that one could be Croat or Serb or anything you wanted on the condition of never forgetting that, as we had been told by a Lisbon poet beyond our years but with whom I had become friends during the Carnation Revolution, « the universal is the local »–yes, but: « without walls »!
I remember all the fights we fought side by side (and always pleased to find the other there) for those whom the wars forgotten by the grand scheme of history left stripped of rights, nameless, uncounted, and lying in unmarked graves.
We will have many more such encounters. But already I know that of all my illustrious contemporaries « Glucks » is likely the most essential.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy