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Clowns With Kalashnikovs | The Nation

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Clowns With Kalashnikovs

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A crafty rhetorician, Debray is disarmingly honest about his dishonest tendencies: "A philosopher is someone who does not want to lie to himself. The problem (as can be seen from this very text) is that no one makes History without doing so a lot, in petto." He comes across as a paragon of "sinuousness," to borrow a term that he applies to Mitterrand: "The great accompanist of his time espoused its caprices and tendencies so earnestly that he was incapable on any given day of uttering a hint of contrition for the previous one. He absolved himself every time, for he had been sincere and wholehearted throughout."

About the Author

James Miller
James Miller, chair of the Liberal Studies program at the New School for Social Research, is the author of, among other...

In the second half of Praised Be Our Lords, Debray chronicles his years alongside Mitterrand in power, serving the French Republic. Like everyone else on the French left, he welcomed his master's election in 1981 as a historical turning point for socialism in France. At first, he advised the president on foreign policy and served as an informal liaison with Parisian intellectuals: One of his duties was to invite luminaries like Fernand Braudel and Michel Foucault to dinners at the Elysée, and another was to convene experts on sensitive parts of the world--India, the Middle East, the USSR--to meet with Mitterrand and offer their advice.

But his new master let him down. And some of his comments are withering: "A de Gaulle grasps things at the root, a Mitterrand by the leaves." Nobody was killed, a strong franc was created, a new generation of technocrats was trained: "I had passed from faith without method in one continent to method without faith in the other."

So at the end of the "political education" that Debray recounts, what has our sinuous hero learned? In one chapter, he proffers "Advice to the Younger Generation," and some of it comes as a shock. "Reality," he avers, "is the media, and facts are images of facts"--a proposition that is neither true nor original. He speaks of the glory of war, the satisfactions of faith, the sentiment of patriotism, the durability of myth--"where there is institution there is superstition"--again, not exactly novel ideas, as the author well knows (citing, as he does, such eloquent precursors as Georges Sorel and Ernst Junger).

At one point, Debray exhorts his readers (he is, of course, exhorting himself too) to "break with disenchantment," since the one who is disenchanted "is still a good prospect for enchanters." But this is easier said than done.

In the pages of this memoir, he swings erratically from cynical resignation to sentimental defiance. He is too in love with illusion--the joys it can bring, the power it can serve--to give it up altogether. Perhaps that is why in 2007, more than a decade after completing this provisional settling of political accounts, Régis Debray is still engagé--an old-fashioned French intellectual, a melancholy militant, quixotically in quest of a left that won't be left behind, devoted as ever, despite himself, to the traditional ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity), once more urging the saving remnant into combat in the columns of Le Monde.

"What can I say?" he asks with a shrug. "It isn't proper history, but it's my history. Sorry, there's nothing I can do about it now."

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