Books Lives & Letters: An old hand at reality

THE PERFECT CRIME by Jean Baudrillard trs Chris Turner, Verso pounds 12
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This small book by Jean Baudrillard is the most startling recent exhibition of what happens in Paris: abuse of the human intellect, abuse without equal in the history of humanity. The only serious alternative possibility is that it's a spoof: perhaps there's a box in a bank containing Baudrillard's confession.

This suggestion is not incompatible with the book's blurb, according to which it is "perhaps the most cogent expression of ... Baudrillard's ... mature thought", and it seems to me that it must be considered very carefully. Nevertheless I'll proceed on the admittedly unfriendly assumption that The Perfect Crime isn't a spoof. (If it is, so is this review.) It's French philosophy, either way, and what Tolstoy said a hundred years ago is true today: "however cloudy the Germans may be, the French, once they absorb the theories of the Germans and take to imitating them, far surpass them in uniting heterogenous conceptions into one expression, and putting forward one meaning or another indiscriminately".

The Perfect Crime is well translated and annotated by Chris Turner. He hasn't picked up the references to the Velvet Underground, but he may be the author of the back cover. This is the most helpful part of the book, and explains that Baudrillard is trying to "unravel the technological and social processes by which our world is becoming a thing of (empty) transparency and visibility, a place where reality, swamped by the `real time' of the news media, has quite simply vanished". Pouft, as they say in France. The disappearance of the real. The perfect crime. In Baudrillard's terms, the "murder of reality"; "the most important event of modern history".

This is already an old idea on the Web, and it sounds rather good, but it's false (Hindus and Buddhists will be particularly unimpressed, for they have always thought that the senses - those paradigmatic real-time news media - swamp us with illusion). And it raises a further problem. If it's a perfect crime, how can Baudrillard crack it? Because, he says, perpetuating the oldest cliche of crime fiction, there are no perfect crimes after all. But this is almost certainly false. Perfect crimes are never detected, so it will always look as if there aren't any.

Pay the fare and take the ride! Embrace the idea that the human condition is the life of a subspecies of French intellectual in Paris! Transcend the fact that Baudrillard's philosophy - like Lord Chesterfield's Letters - has the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore! What can't the French philosopher - the star of the decade - then give you? Teenage paradoxes. The rhythms of the Sun. Sub-Barthesian comments on advertisements. But also something much more surprising: ignorance and dullness - even his extravagant falsehoods are banal - and remarkable thoughtlessness. "If the law of natural selection were true, our brains would have to shrink, for their capacities exceed all natural purposes and endanger the species". The difficulty with this claim is to count all the distinct errors it contains. Placed next to Baudrillard, poor Derrida scintillates, and Jean-Paul Sartre writes like Descartes.

There is a good moment when Baudrillard imagines computers crashing: "what a relief to see 20 pages that has been stored in memory wiped out at a stroke...!" For the rest, he adheres to his slogan: "The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us - unintelligible." "The value of thought lies not so much in its inevitable convergences with truth as in the immeasurable divergences which separate it from truth". It remains only to say that this is not a critical review: "Fortunately, reality does not take place."