André Glucksmann: The Consummate Contemporary

Swirling around my head since this morning are the many André Glucksmanns that I have known. Caroming, they send me into zones of memory that I had not expected to revisit so soon.
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FRANCE - CIRCA 2006: Andre Glucksmann in Paris, France in 2006 - French philosopher and essayist in his apartment. (Photo by Michel BARET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
FRANCE - CIRCA 2006: Andre Glucksmann in Paris, France in 2006 - French philosopher and essayist in his apartment. (Photo by Michel BARET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Editor's note: French philosopher, author, and activist André Glucksmann died on November 10 at age 78. With Bernard-Henri Lévy he was a founding member of the New Philosophers.

Swirling around my head since this morning are the many André Glucksmanns that I have known. Caroming, they send me into zones of memory that I had not expected to revisit so soon.

There is the handsome young man haranguing a group of ten or so workers and students in an apartment on the Rue du Bourg-Tibourg in Paris in 1969 or 1970. The apartment had been lent by a "progressive comrade" for this "clandestine" meeting of a cell of the Proletarian Left.

There is Glucksmann the strategist and tactician whom I can picture taking over a lecture hall at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and drawing on the blackboard, over smudges of Ancient Greek letters, the broad lines of the Tet offensive accompanied by recommendations that he intended, with perfect seriousness, should be conveyed through us, the students at the prep school, to North Vietnam's General Giap.

There is the Glucksmann of those days of innocence when one could still believe that the cook would prevail over the cannibal (to borrow the terms from the title of his anti-totalitarian book of 1975) and that the people always saw things clearly.

There is the Glucksmann who alarmed Raymond Aron because his knowledge of Clausewitz was not only exhaustive, accurate, and implacable, but because it was intended to change the world. It was 1978. At lunch in a little restaurant on the Rue du Dragon that resembled a railroad car an old and very courteous Aron, grasping the revolutionary uses to which the best of his students were putting his teaching, seemed to be gripped by the same holy terror that seized Gide upon meeting Bernard Lazare for the first time and realizing that one could hold something above literature.

There is the Glucksmann who enchanted Michel Foucault, who saw in Glucksmann's passions the precise expression of his axiom that at the beginning is not power but the spirit of resistance: Foucault's laughter, his delight! And another lunch in the late 1970s, at a time when André had just fused Sartre with Solzhenitsyn, the spirit of French resistance with that of the refusniks of the gulag, the author of Discipline and Punish scribbled on a tablecloth the outline of an article on Andre's Master Thinkers that he would call "La grande colère des choses" (the great anger of things) and publish in what was then still called Le Nouvel Observateur.

There is the Glucksmann who stopped believing in revolution but never stopped getting mad.

There is the anger that was second nature to him and that lent to his most anodyne statements the same tone of anathema and rage.

There is the Glucksmann who was both strategic and angry. When the two occurred together it was like a deep breath traveling from heart to head and back. I picture us walking one evening in May 1977 on the Rue Cognac Jay in Paris, headed to Bernard Pivot's studio. Present were Françoise Verny, our editor, and a very tired and shaky Maurice Clavel, on the verge of passing the torch to Verny. I am convinced that it was on that walk that André arrived at the famous phrase that, before it spread around the world, blew a wind of revolt into the staid studios of the leading literary program: "the platform of the Common Program is empty."

There is Glucksmann's fidelity to his immigrant parents and their struggle through a Europe in flames, laid waste by the Nazis. I have always thought that in that struggle lay the basis for his life and loyalties.

There is the Glucksmann who was adamant on the subject of the rights of the poor, the Glucksmann repelled by the smug shimmer of pride he detected in those in power and those "in the know." Never evincing an ounce of populism, André was always on the side of the ordinary man, where, he believed, true greatness was to be found.

Some writers, it is said, invent a cliché. With Glucksmann, I remember feeling one day in 1995 that he was in the process of inventing a people. Who, at the time, aside from readers of Tolstoy, had really heard of the Chechen people and of the season in hell that was beginning for them? André even developed the odd habit of thanking you whenever the word "Chechen" appeared in one of your articles. Once years ago he sent me a telegram to thank me for citing Solzhenitsyn.

I can picture him in a lecture hall in Mexico explaining to a crowd of Castroite students that Castro, not Pinochet, was the one who needed to be replaced. The crowd jeered, hurling insults as well as objects onto the stage. Glucksmann had the idea of proposing a "lecture hall soviet" in which we and the students would have equal time and take turns speaking. In the first row was André's wife, Fanfan; I do not know whether she was soaking up his words or whispering them to him.

I hear the facile critics harping that Glucksmann cared too much about the Chechens, Bosnians, Libyans, Ukrainians, Georgians, and the other wretched of today's earth. And I see him reflecting with sadness and perplexity on those of his peers who seemed to believe that the world turned on France's regional and cantonal elections, on threats to France's identity, on the cosmos reduced to the borders of the province of Gaul.

There is the Glucksmann who was right and the Glucksmann who could--with the same fervor, the same feeling of being in the right--be wrong. What set him apart from others under such circumstances is that he would admit his error, and when he came around he was fanatical about studying his mistake, mulling it over, understanding it. I have notes from a conversation in January 2007 in which he informed me of his decision to support the presidential candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy; I also have notes of another conversation several years later after the cause of the Roma and other disadvantaged people had led him to change his mind.

There is the Glucksmann whom no setback, no defeat, no "truth" supposedly revealed by the supposed experts could ever separate from his concern for the world. I just reread the splendid message that he gave me one day last year after we had planned to appear, together, in Independence Square in Kiev. "My name is André Glucksmann. They call me a philosopher. Only illness prevents me from being with you, but I've given you the best of me, my son Raphael, who is with you on the barricades, among you now, by your side to accompany you on your amazing path toward independence, freedom, and democracy."

And I have poignant images of us sitting with Mikhail Khodorkovsky after the latter's release from Putin's gulag. Having not seen André for a long time I found him fragile, emaciated, hesitant, somewhat sad, hardly ever leaving his home. But he was no less magnetic and, above all, he retained, intact and unbroken, his outrage, his cold fury at the new Moscowteers of the European right and the shame that they inspire in us.

There is the Glucksmann with whom I sometimes quarreled but always, in the spirit of our mentors, as another way of getting along.

There is the Glucksmann who had no rival in excoriating those who resembled in some way what he himself had been and believed he had transcended. But how can we be sure that his vehemence was not just another way of being true to himself?

Of all these images, I do not know which moves me the most.

When a man dies, we never knows which part of him will evaporate, becoming what the cognac distillers call "the angels' share"--and what part will remain and make him part of our contemporary intellectual and moral capital.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy

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