“To love oneself,” as Oscar Wilde (who knew more than most about the matter) once quipped, “is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Anyone doubting the truth of this observation need only dip into Claude Lanzmann’s simultaneously compelling and repelling memoir, The Patagonian Hare, to see that, if anything, Wilde was understating the case. Even the most passionate of lifelong romances tend to cool with time. But not only is Lanzmann, 86, still in love with Claude Lanzmann, but the temperature of his self-involvement seems only to have risen with the passing decades. Even the book’s title—a reference to a breed of hares, dozens of which bounded in front of his headlights as he drove through a dark forest in northern Yugoslavia during a trip there in the early 1950s—is an act of primitive appropriation. For Lanzmann, the hare is a pure expression in animal form of the life force, of the will to freedom. And while he doesn’t quite say he is its human incarnation, the reader is left in no doubt that this is precisely what he believes. “If there is any truth to metempsychosis and if I were given the choice,” he writes, “I would unhesitatingly choose to come back as a hare.”
In fairness to Lanzmann, self-deprecation has never been much prized in French intellectual life. The great aphorist Chamfort had it, but he died in 1794 from wounds caused by a failed suicide attempt. In the nineteenth century, Flaubert had it in his haunted, depressive way. (Judith Thurman summed his case up brilliantly when she wrote that his style “was the product of French arrogance painfully unlearned.”) And to the extent that Chamfort’s great twentieth-century admirer, E.M. Cioran, can be considered a French writer rather than a Romanian or essentially stateless one, he had it too. It is true that a tradition of modesty and understatement—and an acceptance of the fact that, brilliant as one doubtless is, one does not necessarily have something valuable to contribute about every subject making political, cultural or intellectual news—has always flourished in the world of French academic scholarship; and that alternative self-presentations—ironic, self-effacing, stoic—have been a common feature of the writings of many of the great figures of French science, from Claude Bernard to Marie Curie (and, more recently, such luminous figures as the classical scholar Jacqueline de Romilly and the physicist Georges Charpak, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1992 for his invention and development of particle detectors). In contrast, and despite its many virtues, the nonacademic intellectual mainstream has been a confederacy of braggarts dating back to Charles Péguy and Charles Maurras on the right and Henri Barbusse on the left in the early part of the twentieth century, up through the great post–World War II decades in which Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir occupied pride of place, when Paris was in many ways the center of the Western cultural world, and where Lanzmann cut anything but a minor figure. In our own day, the decadence of such self-absorption is personified in the absurd figure of Bernard-Henri Lévy, who really has succeeded in giving self-love a bad name in a way no French intellectual before him ever managed to do (though not, of course, for lack of trying).
This cultural context is important for a non-French reader to grasp from the outset. An attempt to read The Patagonian Hare without, as it were, having first read the cultural ”warning label”—without understanding, as Tony Judt once put it, that the motto of mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals like Sartre, Beauvoir and Lanzmann was “never say sorry”—risks provoking in the reader the alarming sense that he or she has stumbled onto a case study of vainglory in a psychology textbook. For example, early in his memoir Lanzmann speaks of his life as having been “unique,” which is not just a boastful but an idiotic claim for an adult to make, given that all lives are unique. At other points in the book too numerous to mention, Lanzmann extols his prowess in more or less every field in which he has taken an interest, from politics, philosophy and journalism to sport and eros (including the sexual positions he liked best, one of which, as an English reviewer noted tartly, Lanzmann misidentifies). Compared with Lanzmann at his worst, Muhammad Ali sounds like Epictetus. Lanzmann’s one-upmanship is beyond obtuseness.