Regis Debray has written a book guaranteed to make Anglo-Saxons mad with rage and covert jealousy: a fizzing, multi-hued display of verbal virtuosity that confirms our traditional suspicion of Francophone theorising. Passionate and remarkably clever, it is the sort of book that British people don't write. Although I am a Scot, or, rather, a Pict, I wish to protest against it on behalf of Albion, where feet are always planted firmly on the ground. But sometimes even we dream of wearing our feet elsewhere, and so to publish this Gallic arpeggio in English was almost an act of mental cruelty.
But what is it about? Regis Debray, you may recall, was one of the more glamorous of the Sixties generation of world revolutionists, imprisoned in Bolivia, latterly a socialist intellectual, writer and member of the French Council of State. Here he has produced a sort of love letter to the great hate-figure of the last generation, Charles de Gaulle. It is almost as if Tariq Ali had written a genuinely thoughtful eulogy of Winston Churchill. But in doing so, Debray argues that perhaps de Gaulle's patriotism has more relevance for tomorrow's Europe than does the 'harmonious technostructure' of the European Union. From a man of the left, this is provocative stuff.
This is also, then, a meditation on nationality and patriotism, and a polemic against the shallowness of contemporary politics. Debray's prose is a shimmer of allusion and provocation that covers thought of real depth. His epigrams are calculated exaggerations which arrest the British reader and point, often enough, to parallels on the misty isle. Like this: ' 'Every man over 30 is a blackguard,' Borges says somewhere. We can say in the same spirit that every administration becomes an abuse of power after 10 years. Individual ethics have no more to do with it than rival isms. It is a question of entropy. Left or Right, to endure is to fall.' On the importance of writing well in politics: 'It is a way of preventing a government from degenerating along the line of least resistance.'
Or this: 'How often are (political) commitments the product, not even of idealism, but of affectation?' Or this brilliant throw-away on the nature of diplomacy: 'International life is right-wing, like nature. The social contract is left-wing, like humanity.' I know of few political writers here (my colleague Neal Ascherson, or Tom Nairn in the Scotsman) with the capacity for such easy stylishness.
Debray's book is, however, profoundly reactionary in theme - and I mean profound as well as reactionary. His case is that de Gaulle found a form of nationalism that was neither blood-and- land racist, nor simply legalistic - 'his nation is an act not of nature but of culture' - and that this discovery may be useful in the turbulent Europe of tomorrow. 'Suppose the dilemma of the year 2000, in Europe and elsewhere, turned out not to be 'federalism versus nationalism' but de Gaulle's nation versus Le Pen's tribe?'
In his introduction to the English edition, Debray frets that de Gaulle, 'vast sea-creature', will be inaccessible to the British gaze. Not quite our sort of stuff. The sort of thing that, in striving to connect, dares to be silly. Not many statistics, not much evidence of hard work among the official papers. Showy-offy. But . . . it's the real business.
Angela Lambert's column will appear in future on Tuesdays.Reuse content