The great French philosopher André Glucksmann died last week in Paris. Before passing on, he asked—charged—the also great Paul Berman to write his obituary.
Most Americans aren’t familiar with Glucksmann. Sartre and Foucault overshadowed him on this side of the Atlantic. But he was a towering figure in France, and he shouldhave been a towering figure in the United States. At the very least, he should be better known here than the competition.
Berman complied with Glucksmann’s charge to write his obituary inTablet. The whole thing is worth reading even if you’ve never heard of the man.
André Glucksmann was a great man, and he played a great role in history. I think that, in the world of ideas, no one in modern times has played a larger and more effective role in marshalling the arguments against totalitarianisms of every sort—no one outside of the dissident circles of the old Soviet bloc, that is. Even within those circles, Glucksmann and his arguments played a mighty role. Adam Michnik has told us that, during the bad old days in communist Poland, the dissidents used to pass around Glucksmann’s writings. In communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel was his friend. I have seen with my own eyes that, in Ukraine and in the Republic of Georgia, Glucksmann has continued to be revered into our own moment, and the list of countries could go on. It is also true that he has always had detractors. Glucksmann was America’s most vigorous defender among the modern French intellectuals, and I think that not more than one or two university departments in the United States ever invited him to deliver a lecture. In the American universities, no one has bothered to translate his major writings. The fashion for French philosophers in the American universities has always been a fashion for the wrong philosophers. Then again, the universities in America may not be as central to the intellectual world as they imagine themselves to be.
On the New Yorker website just now, Adam Gopnik recalls whiling away afternoons with Glucksmann in Paris during his time as a magazine correspondent there, and the description makes me reflect that, if the intellectual world does have a center, Glucksmann’s apartment ought to count as one of its locales. I recognize Gopnik’s details: Glucksmann’s purposeful conversation, the combination of a sweet demeanor and a moral firmness, the habit of referring everything to the classics of literature. I can attest that conversation in that apartment could make a powerful impression. My own first knock on the door took place in 1984 because the American political philosopher Dick Howard, who had played a part in the French student revolution of 1968, had talked me into reading Glucksmann. Just then Glucksmann had scandalized the French public and the enormous French left by coming out in favor of Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet missiles in Europe, which seemed to me unimaginable. And I talkedMother Jones into sending me to Paris to produce an article, in which I intended to reveal Glucksmann as a deplorable case. I do not have the heart to look at that article today, but I think I did try to suggest that Glucksmann was a fool. Only, by the time the article was in print I had begun to doubt my own evaluation.
The New Yorker writer Jonathan Schell had written a plea for nuclear disarmament titled The Fate of the Earth, in which he made disarmament seem like common sense. And Glucksmann had written a response called The Force of Vertigo, which—though it took me a while to recognize my own response—impressed me. Glucksmann worried about dreamy visions of world peace. Dreamy visions seemed to him a ticket to war. He had a lot to say about the Soviet Union and its own weapons. He argued that, in the face of the Soviet Union, nuclear deterrence and common sense were one and the same. Pessimism was wisdom, in his eyes. He wanted to rally support in the West for the dissidents of the East, which was not the same as staging mass demonstrations against Ronald Reagan. His book was a tour de force of mockery, erudition, spleen, and energy, together with a habit of banging on big philosophical drums from time to time. Reading it made me bug-eyed in wonder.