BOOK REVIEW / Bewildered yes-men lost in the sea of reason: 'Voltaire's Bastards' - John Ralston Saul: Sinclair-Stevenson, 20 pounds

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IT IS one of the most cherished modern myths - and the subject of pretty much all the modernist works of art you can think of - that the Western world is decadent and on the slide, that we spend our lives spinning in the hither-and- thither breeze of the mass media and faceless bureaucratic corporations, and that we have wantonly sacrificed any theological authority for our moral life. You would not have thought it necessary, these days, to write a 500-page book arguing that the world has gone wrong. But John Ralston Saul, the historian and thriller writer, has come up with a fervent attack on the rational technocracy that governs modern culture.

It is a book of rather stunning audacity. Ever since Voltaire, he argues, we have relied too blindly on reason as the chief hope for the betterment of mankind. Worse, somewhere along the way we have settled for the illusion of reason rather than the thing itself. Blind reason, Saul maintains, is what inspired cool mass murderers like Napoleon and Hitler and Stalin. By establishing a secular culture based on frosty logic, in which problems always have solutions, and by inventing doctrinaire schools that provide answers rather than questions, we have floated away from our cultural roots and become dispirited and confused drifters.

It takes confidence - some might say cheek - to see the world as deluded and mechanical while exempting oneself from the charge. I don't suppose Saul includes his friends in this - probably they are all passionate and sceptical free spirits. But the rest of us, sadly, are just bewildered and moronic yes-men.

Still, the book hums with a sharp sense of the absurd ironies in modern life. 'Our societies turn upon democratic principles,' Saul writes, 'yet the quasi totality of our citizens refuse to take part in that process and, instead, leave the exercise of political power to those for whom they have contempt. Our business leaders hector us in the name of capitalism, when most of them are no more than corporate employees, isolated from personal risk. We condemn arms dealers as immoral and sleazy figures, while ignoring the fact that our own senior civil servants and senior corporate leadership together are responsible for more than 90 per cent of the arms traded.'

He goes on to exhibit a hearty and likeable distaste for economists, currency speculators, literary critics, academics, politicians, tycoons and . . . well, pretty much everybody except for Jefferson and the hero of Corsican liberation, Pascal Paoli. Along the way he deals trenchantly with the contradictions inherent in a breathtaking array of cultural manifestations. We are offered forthright judgements on Loyola, the Harvard Business School, democracy, the arms trade, the money markets, Sir Lancelot, Henry Kissinger, Diderot, the legal profession, Moliere, civil rights, US airline deregulation, Iran-Contra, sports socks, inflation, the art market, idolatry, crying on television, Joyce, cartoons, fashion, terrorism and vignerons in Burgundy.

You have to hand it to him. He has set his face against the narrow, specialising impulse of the modern elites, and has the nerve to treat world history as his oyster. But there is something odd and unsettling about the peremptory tone with which he dispenses the fruits of his wide reading and thinking. For one thing, he is always saying 'always': 'The wordsmiths who serve established power are always devoted to obscurity . . . Elitism is always their aim . . . The future is always optimistic . . . Those who take power will always try to change the established language.' Having stated things so vigorously, he is almost bound to present his qualifications with equal voltage. Of course it would be quite wrong to expect a book such as this to strike a reasonable tone, but the points are scored with such a reckless and assertive jab that it is hard, sometimes, to keep our head still. After a while we feel punch-drunk on generalities - and generalisations, as everybody knows, are always wrong.

It only becomes really worrying towards the end, when he reveals that what he is actually talking about is language. The triumph of false reason has corrupted language: anyone, in our 'civilisation of sophists and pharisees', can say 'freedom' and mean whatever they please. 'Language now seems perilously close to being recaptured by the forces of order.' It is up to some brave writer (naming no names) to 'begin stripping language down to its universal basics.'

This, like so much of Voltaire's Bastards, is perfectly true. But it draws an embarrassing attention to his own prose, which is heated without ever being quite hot. He seems ironically keen to reason with us, to argue his case with the

Jesuitical zeal he so deplores in our cultural history. And he 'always' tends towards overstatement, yet refuses to let go and give in to a real flight of fancy.

So when, in his conclusion, he starts going on about the false path taken by modern literature, we can hardly hold our eyebrows down. 'The writers who have the greatest difficulty with what is now the literary status quo,' he declares, 'are those who make money from their books.' This is quite astonishing nonsense. Saul is a successful and prize-winning writer of thrillers: surely, surely he is not arguing, on behalf of writers who have managed to secure both wealth and a large audience, that they should scoop all the critical acclaim as well. This comes at the end of a chapter where he has inveighed at great length against the emptiness of celebrity, the witless obsession with fame, etc. Talk about greedy]

It is curiously vexing to agree so warmly with so much of what someone says, yet still to resent the way he keeps haranguing you about it. You read this book thinking, yup, yup, yup, yup, yup, hah, exactly] yup, yup, listen . . . yup, yup . . . wait a minute . . . yup, yup . . . listen, I agree, okay? . . . sure, yup . . . look, just shut up for a minute, would you? It's unreasonable, I know. But there it is.