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Adventures on the Freedom Road.

Morally speaking, the Victorian era closed on the arrest of Oscar Wilde. A new age dawned with the trial of Captain Dreyfus. Zola's uncompromising J'accuse! was a call not only for the liberty of one wronged man. The Dreyfusards, rightly, sensed a greater cause: some terrible vengeance was at work.

What no-one predicted was the organised capability of that vengeance. The dreams of a perfect society would spawn terror of one sort. The desire for civilisation purified of such dreams would produce its own terror. But for historical accident, the chaos after Sarajevo, those dreams and desires would have died on the margins of cafe society. There might have been a different history in which democracy, the rule of common sense, might have developed its generous impulse. Only the mad would have believed in a perfect world, and no-one would be rejected as congenitally impure.

Of course the terror may begin with its own generous impulses. How can it be wicked to believe in a just cause? The ideologies of terror have a tendency to mimic the language of justice and truth. And didn't Marx protest against genuine wrongs? And didn't de Maistre write too elegantly? Yet behind them is a vocabulary of hate. The protest and the elegance mask a fearful silence. One can feel its absence in the streets of Europe, in the memorials which every European city has become.

Of course, it wasn't the hate which attracted idealists to the cause. They weren't thinking of vengeance when the allegiances were made. Some form of allegiance was inevitable. Thinking people are naturally caught up in the great ideas of their time. The casual remark, the temporary affiliation can be discounted as thinking aloud. And there are times of agonised choice. 'Yet there remain those who persisted in their Faustian pact, and who must have known the consequences.'

Monsieur Levy is angry with them, for they led him astray. He wasted years, he says, believing the incredible. Les Aventures de la Liberte was his public act of indictment. A series of television essays in 1990, the long text followed in which every key phrase was annotated at length so that not a word could be seriously misunderstood. It is a long book, at times tedious, at times bitter. But it is a necessary and valuable work. Despite the clumsy title, the translation retains much of the robust eloquence of Levy's rhetoric. The English version contains useful additional notes, and is arranged more sensibly than the French.

As is often the case, the gap between original and translation gives a distorted picture. Since Les Aventures Levy has written a remarkable play, Le Jugement Dernier, which has done much to cauterize the wounds on his soul. His play is the Huis Clos of our times, and awaits performance outside Paris.

Levy acknowledges the primacy of the imagination. For writers to step outside their subtle, ironic, allusive world is sometimes a duty, but too often a betrayal. Politics reduces life's problems to simplicities, like a quack doctor's cure. The will to purity is a powerful allure to writers whose life's work, after all, is in gaining control, and restructuring the messy web of experience. If life can be distilled by art why shouldn't it be purified by ideology? The connection is made so easily, so seemingly naturally that its dangers are barely foreseen.

Aesthetically there is no connection between, say, Le Creve-Coeur and Aragon's abysmal servility to Communism. Who would guess that Giradoux of all people could even think of surrendering to Petain? How could Sartre, who lived and died among books, give credence to Red Guards who burnt books? Of course, there are moments of moral breakdown, but the persistence of the politics of adolescence cannot be readily excused.

Were these people mere celebrities their Salemisms would be of no interest now. It is because they produced supreme works of sensitive imagination that we must come to understand them. Their crises matter because their literature has made us. Not to face unpleasant truths is a guarantor they will be repeated.

Levy has long argued there is such a beast as le fascisme rouge. The idea is an old one, but it has taken a long time to gain the general acceptance it has now in French thought. Levy accurately predicted that Anglo-American culture would follow a different course. The result is yet another Salemism, in the name of liberalism of course.

Where I think Levy falls, or fell at the time of writing, is in his pessimism which is morally treacherous. He is no reactionary, but progressive development demands an active concern. Levy may be right, unfortunately, to say that the concern may need to echo the vigour, the uncompromising extremes of a revolutionary imaginations. This is what political correctness fears above everything. Levy will win few friends in Salem. At best he will be ignored, though the price Salem pays is a terminal loss of touch.

Life is a good deal subtler than slogans. That is why psychoanalysis is anathema to fascism. Politically it is why the fascists in France have consistently hated the Gaullist synthesis. Ideologues need simple targets, hence the Hitler/Stalin contempt for minority cultures.

Significantly, women scarcely figure in Levy's cultural history. The quarrel is among men. Women are admitted as muses, but otherwise they are footnotes. You wonder at the nature of an intellectual history which must marginalise Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute and Julia Kristeva. There is another history to be written.

Les Aventures records ways of feeling which are almost done with now. Perceptions have changed. The intellectual priority has moved from the political grand design to the moral world of human relations. The series of conversations translated as Women and Men are part of the new cultural history.

For Levy feminism has failed through a false empiricism. It has exceeded its social function without offering a convincing metaphysic. Because it denies so much - logic, hierarchy, tradition - it has turned on itself, and has become the new totality of obsession and hate.

Mlle Giroud, while distancing herself from the genderist extremes, is more hopeful. Her career - from assistance to Jean Renoir to Giscard's minister of culture - is testimony to the validity of existing conditions. Not that she is complacent. Giroud provokes and coaxes Levy into a progressively revealing dialogue. Lively, and sympathetic to one another, Giroud and Levy provide some fecund material in an often arid zone. Women and Men is exceptionally necessary. There is enough material to stimulate a thousand private debates which might truly advance our understanding.

The West seems to have arrived at a watershed. All the attempts to transvalue the Judaeo-Christian ethic have failed. The need for social justice and personal values evades the allure of corporatisms which have no sense of individual conscience. The world will never be perfect. There will always be need of memory and hope. The Trojan War did take place. But again Ulysses has returned in triumph. When asked what he did during the Revolution, the Abbe Sieyes would reply: 'I survived.'

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Author:Heptonstall, Geoffrey
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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