Praised Be Our Lords: The Autobiography 
by Régis Debray, translated by John Howe.
Verso, 328 pp., £19.99, April 2007, 978 1 84467 140 3
Show More
Show More

Regis Debray has led the fullest of lives, embroiled in ideology, controversy and action. As a young man at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he sat at the feet of Louis Althusser; he trained in the use of assault weapons with Fidel Castro; he trod the thankless Bolivian forests with Che Guevara and served nearly four years in jail for his trouble. In Chile he was taken up by Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda. Ten years later he became an adviser at the Elysée to François Mitterrand, his country’s only postwar socialist president. He is a revolutionary Third Worldist turned revisionist, turned Gaullist – his Gaullism a lament for the absence of credible leaders anywhere on the European horizon. He is, above all, a sceptic sorting through the ruins of his former world-historical ambitions, though from time to time the eyes of an unreconstructed optimist gleam behind the mask of the disabused older man.

Debray was born in 1940. He has been many things but not, until the 1990s, a writer of distinction. ‘I wanted to earn a living by the pen,’ he wrote in the first volume of his three-volume memoir. ‘I didn’t know that writing is a job and that every intervention by an editor involves a small surrender of the soul.’ He had the self-regard of the incorrigible scribbler, then, but not much else, and it was Althusser, apparently, who dissuaded him from a purely literary career. Yet Praised Be Our Lords, volume two of the memoir, is a great book. Fluent, witty, argumentative for sure, deeply ‘literary’ in the best sense, but also a work of strategic depth that draws us fully into the world of power and politics, and the characters of powerful men.

It is less a sequel to the first volume of the memoir than a return to the same ground. The first, Les Masques, appeared in 1987, Praised Be Our Lords nearly ten years later in the original edition: time enough to reflect on what might have been said better or not at all. Even so Praised Be Our Lords is not a rejig; nor is it ‘autobiographical’ in any orthodox way. Les Masques and this volume cover roughly the same period: the early 1960s to the mid-1980s (a little longer in the case of the second). They skirmish on the same continents – Latin America and Europe – and pay ambiguous homage to the same masters: Castro and Mitterrand, the real ‘lords’ of volume two, overshadowing both Allende and Che, who are also discussed at length. Les Masques is the more personal book, with plentiful detail about Debray’s journeys, his states of mind, his time in Cuba, Bolivia and Chile and his glamorous, star-crossed love life, a subject in its own right, which provides the book’s subtitle, ‘An Amorous Education’. Praised Be Our Lords is ‘A Political Education’ in the original; the third volume – published in 1998 and still awaiting translation along with the first – is ‘An Intellectual Education’.

The Debray of Les Masques is a conundrum. His transition from brilliant student at the ENS in the rue d’Ulm to revolutionary cadre in Cuba some time in the early 1960s was an unintelligible lurch that a passion for suffering peoples can’t fully account for. Debray’s detractors include many ex-leftists who went on to loftier commitments, as interpreters of dark mysteries such as narrative in the cinema, and felt he had behaved incorrectly, embarrassingly even, by taking the struggle so literally. A glassy-eyed remnant in Latin America can’t forgive him his retreat into Frenchness during the 1970s or his reservations about the classic theory of the guerrilla. Those on the French right who think of him at all remember Debray merely as a national disgrace, too clever by half and yet, as his incarceration in Bolivia proved, too spoiled to manage his life with a modicum of care.

Les Masques addresses some of these objections in passing, but fails to say convincingly what it was, on the inside as it were, that drove Debray from Paris to Havana to become the man that Fidel and his associates referred to as ‘Danton’; the trusted emissary sent to link up with Che in 1967 during his disastrous escapade in Bolivia; the jailbird who sat out his late twenties in a tattered shirt with a pile of books in circumstances that would have made the rue d’Ulm seem like a lost paradise. The transformation, and the problems that followed, are described in a cursory way: it’s obvious that Debray got from one world to another at speed, and you can see the political landscape whizzing by, but you’re not told much about the engine type. Did the prospect of epic conflict in the Third World turn a charmed life into a long tussle with contradiction and difficulty? Or was it simply that a contradictory, difficult person had fallen for the charms of violent revolution in distant places? These questions are left hanging.

Praised Be Our Lords is a much grander book than Les Masques. Often the life that was still worth a serious look in the first has become an object of amused condescension when it features at all, which is mostly as a pretext for reflection, digression, exposition, all done with stylish dispatch, admirably rendered by the translator, John Howe. Closer to a looped sequence of essays than a memoir, the book nonetheless shows off the memoirist’s skill to stunning effect in three somewhat unflattering portraits – Castro, Guevara and Mitterrand – and reminds us that distance and disloyalty can make a good writer very much better.

Debray had already travelled in the US – it depressed him – and had established a foothold in Cuba when he set out in 1963 for a longer tour of Latin America. Passing through Caracas, on his way to pay a surreptitious visit to the guerrilla bases in the north of the country, he fell for a ‘Spanish jasmine’ called Myriam. Visitors to the north were sure to arouse suspicion and on returning to Caracas, Debray had to leave the country in short order. He and ‘Myriam’ – who seems to be Elisabeth Burgos, the woman he later married – drifted around the continent; they lingered in Colombia and Ecuador; they were arrested and held for a couple of days in Peru; they witnessed elections in Chile. It was an important trip for the apprentice revolutionary, with Myriam, his ‘brown Madonna’, acting as guide and mentor. The pleasure of the relationship and the imminence of a life in the struggle were satisfyingly fused. (Myriam/Burgos remained in the picture, in Paris, long after the revolution had receded.)

Debray was, at this time, one of many impatient magi heading away from the overcast politics of the industrialised countries in search of a ‘messiah class’, as he explains in Praised Be Our Lords: the peasantries and otherwise exploited communities of ‘colonial and semi-colonial’ countries. His own Adoration took place in Bolivia, where he stumbled on the manger in all its simplicity: the tin mines of the Altiplano, where workers earned $20 a month, had a life expectancy of 37 and kept the army busy with a sporadic shooting war. ‘My place is with them,’ he remembers feeling in Les Masques, as he emerged from the workings into the cold air of the Andes. It wasn’t just the onset of altitude sickness, as the next few years would prove.

In 1965, Les Temps modernes carried a piece by Debray on ‘Castroism: Latin America’s Long March’. A copy found its way to Guevara and thence to the Jefe himself. Castro was interested and invited Debray to Havana for the Tricontinental Conference – Africa, Asia, Latin America – at the beginning of the following year. He left for a six-day trip in December and remained in Latin America for six years or more. By the time he was captured by the army in a remote part of Bolivia in April 1967, after separating off from Che and his core of foot soldiers, Debray was a favoured member of Fidel’s entourage, more or less trained in the art of clandestinity and the use of firearms. Revolution in the Revolution, his digest of several long conversations with Fidel, had been serialised on Radio-Habana. Even though he told the Bolivians that he was a journalist, sympathetic to Che, and had come to the country in the hope of interviewing him, his alibi looked shaky.

He had spent two weeks moving around with Che: he was briefed to relay advice from Havana and to return with news for the Jefe. Che, in Debray’s reckoning, was by now a rebel miles off compass from any accessible cause, living through a logistical nightmare with only a dusting of local support for his customised guerrilla. His death about five months after Debray’s capture led people to speculate that the prisoner had given away crucial information under questioning, and drawn the net tighter. The trial and its lengthy preamble were widely reported. Time magazine sneered at the revolutionary in chains: even in the land of opportunity, a class traitor was a class traitor. Debray was easily ridiculed with jokes about his father and mother, a city councillor, flying to Bolivia ‘to rescue their petit chou’, accompanied – according to Time – by his ‘childhood nurse’. Easy, too, to make his politics look like the indulgence of a silly rich boy who would probably be rescued by the people he affected to despise. The Bolivians, feeling he should pay for his sins, sentenced him to 30 years in jail, but wheels were already turning in Paris and La Paz.

Debray’s release was agreed in December 1970. He was hustled into a Piper Cub and flown to Chile. One story suggests that France offered the Bolivians some attractive sweeteners – engineering equipment, river patrol boats, and a pilot training scheme – even if these promises were never meant to be kept. Others have it that money really did change hands. Debray asserts in Les Masques that the French never handed over a penny in return for his freedom, not even a discreet backhander, ‘whatever the rumours say’. It had all been done by sheer persistence then. The list of people who’d worked on Debray’s case since 1967 included De Gaulle’s secretary when De Gaulle was president, De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, the staff at the French Embassy in La Paz, the minister of foreign affairs and various colleagues at the Quai d’Orsay. Meanwhile at the Bolivian end, which was complicated by the political allegiances of the military and a swift change of government – to the left, under Juan José Torres, a soldier – there was pressure of a less diplomatic kind. The tin miners had threatened to lead a general strike in his defence, the students were fulminating and the Women’s Union had sworn to start a hunger strike. The Cubans backed the agitation and spun Debray’s story that he was a left-wing writer, not an emissary from Havana.

Debray’s most assiduous helper was Rubén Sánchez, a high-ranking left-wing officer in the Bolivian army. He had already been captured by Che – and released – a few weeks before Debray fell into the hands of the military. Sánchez was at the garrison in Camiri when Debray was helicoptered in, trussed and tied. Four years later it was Sánchez who arranged the details of his release, returning to Camiri, brazening it out in the face of a hostile army faction, and putting him on the plane to Chile. (After Torres was deposed in 1971, Sánchez joined the remains of the guerrilla; he went on to exile in Chile.) It’s surely right, as Debray argues, that he owed his life to Sánchez as well as his freedom.

That debt was easy to acknowledge. But in Chile, as Debray sent off his letters of gratitude to the French – Pompidou was among the recipients – he was forced to reflect on the fine line between contradiction and hypocrisy. Flying out to Cuba at Castro’s behest in 1965, he had rejected France entirely, wished it to hell even – ‘my family, my background, respectability, the state’ – like a conspirator lighting a fuse and stealing away, confident that every obstacle to a glorious future would shortly go up in smoke. Within a few years he was utterly lost; the very people he’d imagined closest to the blast were unscathed; indeed they were now busy dragging him to safety. Debray was put on the spot, though his thank-you notes were impeccable, like so many small gentlemen bowing stiffly to grandees at a society ball. He later grew to feel ‘ashamed’, as he says in Les Masques, ‘of my shame at the time’, however bravely he managed to conceal it.

Yet shame, he writes in Praised Be Our Lords, is ‘the first revolutionary sentiment’ and it was fomenting a palace revolution in Debray’s consciousness, even as he recovered from his time in prison. Allende’s Chile was the ideal place for his convalescence. It had a government of the left, radical if constrained, which had come to power through the ballot box – a source of growing interest to Debray, now 30 and mulling over the ‘mystique of armed struggle’. The country itself was beautiful, seductive even, and easy to identify with its women, ‘Silvia’ in particular, a girlfriend on the near horizon. The mood seemed eternally convivial in a country ‘cheerfully heading for a bloodbath’. All the while, the intimation that had begun in jail and intensified with his release was growing stronger: Debray the radical in Latin America was giving way to Debray the Frenchman, who belonged back in his own country among the ideals, the landscapes and traditions he had come to cherish.

In Praised Be Our Lords, he quotes a letter he wrote from jail in 1969 to Philippe de Saint-Robert, a Gaullist of the left and the author of Le Jeu de la France, which he had just been reading. The letter was signed off by ‘an ordinary young Frenchman who, because he loves his country and its people, went to Bolivia. Everyone plays … in his own fashion … the game of France.’ We know from Les Masques that this is a stretch: Debray did not ‘love’ France when he left Havana to link up with Che, unless it was a turbulent love-hatred. But in his mind Frenchness was becoming aligned with the things that mattered most in the rest of the world; perhaps, as well, there was a suspicion that what France did not do well might not be worth the bother. Liberating Bolivia was a commendably French undertaking of course: he hints as much earlier in his letter, praising a passage in Saint-Robert’s book about the capacity to see ‘beyond the nation, but … primarily through the nation’ (as in seeing through a lens). Debray took this to express an ‘authentic internationalism whose formula is sought in every corner of the earth, everywhere that nations are struggling to be born … a struggle that is identical in essence, but being waged elsewhere’. That, too, is a stretch, but a Procrustean puller and hacker like Debray could wrench the joints of an argument until they creaked. At the same time he was honest enough to lie on his own bed and accept that he was no more or less, neither longer nor shorter, than the French person he happened to be: not such a bad predicament now he came to think of it.

Debray’s rediscovery of his Frenchness – to which all proper national sentiments, and struggles, are identical ‘in essence’ – was signalled in Chile by the allure of the place itself. ‘The savour of that welcoming country carried an appetising hint of France’: ‘the white wine’, ‘the shops’, ‘the high-heeled Lolitas in the smart areas of Providencia’. In Les Masques, he revels in the clear Santiago mornings and imagines the first balmy days of the Popular Front in France. Meanwhile he had begun to face the fact that Cuba was not the place he’d remembered. In February 1971 when he ‘returned home’ – not the essential home, but Havana, the adopted home of his devising – he felt himself ‘a different man, in a different country’. A ‘Soviet starch had been ironed into the criollo insouciance.’ The revolution as a whole, he observed,

was being groomed for the premature senility of its East European counterparts. Like those brand-new towns in South America of which Lévi-Strauss observed that they ‘pass from freshness to decrepitude without ever becoming old’, 20th-century revolutions will have gone from adolescence to sclerosis without enjoying a period of maturity. A sunlit dawn, a long winter, a blighted spring, a black hole: the steep slope of ‘real socialism’ was also that of many individual Communists … I would not exclude myself from this group.

Debray was adrift between two faiths and two guiding stars, the one already fading: Castro, once a superb ‘tousled chief’, now converted to ‘brand-new truths’; the other – François Mitterrand, an erstwhile Vichy official, immensely debonair, wily, amusing – not yet in the ascendant. Debray met Mitterrand early in 1973: he was the bearer of tidings, as he had been in Bolivia from Fidel to Che. This time they came from Allende to the leader of the French socialists and a newly minted left alliance known as the ‘common programme’. Debray caught up with Mitterrand on the campaign trail in the south-west. They took to one another and for a few days they travelled together.

I was discovering a cantonal France hitherto known to me only in theory from books and wall maps. I had landed at last and was having the time of my life, as overjoyed as Lindbergh at le Bourget … I was so starved of Frenchness that a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, a steeple with a weathercock or a well-rolled r was enough to put me in touch with the promised land.

Eight years later, at the age of 40, Debray became the president’s adviser on international relations, moving in 1985 to a position at the Conseil d’Etat. He spent his ‘Mitterrand years’ uncomfortably perched on the outer edge of the inner sanctum – he calls it ‘the second circle’ – venturing opinions that were received with courtesy, though often ignored, and honing his gifts as a speechwriter, or ‘chief clerk for professions of faith’. ‘After a little practice,’ he remembers, ‘I shifted from an oratorical style to a buttonholing, almost intimist one. By the end of the first term … I could churn out kilometres of pure Mitterrand,’ including a pre-recorded interview for the press to transcribe, ‘complete with sighs and other incidental business, which the president read out verbatim without changing a single gasp or “er”’. This phase, like others in Debray’s life, begins with a passionate wish to enlist, just as he’d felt in Cuba, and ends with a keen disillusionment that still falls short of bitterness or denunciation.

The put-downs in Les Masques of former supporters and acquaintances – Feltrinelli, Bernard Kouchner, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret – are replaced in Praised Be Our Lords by set-piece summings-up worthy of a high court judge. The philandering is gone, with all the fun and anguish that attended it. The anxiety about Che has abated. Though it’s still a weapon of first and last resort for a particular type of Debray-hater, the haunting question of Che’s death – which he addressed in the earlier book by suggesting that his fellow detainee, Ciro Bustos, was a mine of information for the military – has ceased to preoccupy him. Bigger themes are everywhere in evidence, among them the idea (elaborated in other essays) that socialism is rooted in the ‘graphosphere’, an old ecology of writing and print, now eclipsed by the ‘videosphere’, whose pre-eminence often elicits a grumpy tone: ‘The long Promethean history of the people and professions of the book is being effaced by new crazes without ancestry or issue.’ One of Debray’s talents is to fix this alien, faddish world with an elder’s frown and try to understand how ‘crazes’ proliferate and die without ever achieving purchase, like molluscs skidding down a laminated curtain.

Praised Be Our Lords touches on Debray’s work on nationalism and the congregational impulse that drives national identity. There are also hints of the thinking he’d begun about faith in general – and religion in particular. But his more recent fights in public postdate this volume: touchy quarrels over his misuse of science as analogy; a gloves-off brawl with the French press about Kosovo, where he opposed military intervention; a clumsy fracas to do with his complicity, real or alleged, in the removal of Aristide from Haiti (Aristide claimed that Debray had pushed him to resign). Less controversially there was his suggestion before last year’s presidential election that in the second round Ségolène Royal would just about be preferable to Sarkozy. Here he writes that ‘in politics … only outsiders produce new ideas’ and that the second round of every presidential election is always ‘a contest between two old énarques’. In the event, he favoured Royal the énarque and political insider over the non-énarque Sarkozy, an outsider who quickly invented his own inside track. De Gaulle is quietly present in the book as an offstage lord, the subject of an earlier essay, Charles de Gaulle: Futurist of the Nation. He is described here as a great man, which is to say, the product of ‘a great character’ encountering ‘a great circumstance’: ‘I see no one of the first rank able to effect that conjunction of dream and reason … that De Gaulle managed by subordinating the romanticism of the ends to the classicism of the means.’

Of the four principals in Praised Be Our Lords – Debray, Castro, Guevara and Mitterrand – Debray is perhaps the most intriguing. He looks briefly at the shifts that his own position has undergone over the years, and faces the contradictions, notably in the 1970s, when more than one position was occupied at the same time: ‘Where Europe was concerned I now took an openly reformist line, and although I made my self-criticism conscientiously, I continued to preach revolution in Latin America.’ Moments of good humour, at his own expense, are frequent – and beautifully turned. Uninflected statements of personal truth are rare. The most revealing is a passage about living with self-hatred but failing to deal with the hatred of others: even if this began with the beatings in Camiri, what he has in mind are the frequent polemical assaults by enemies in France and Latin America. Yet Debray has a courageous, martial temperament, despising May 68 for its ‘absence of human sacrifice’ and regretting the rise of brittle ‘humanist values’, with their basis in ‘predominantly feminine “life-affirming” mentalities’. Non-Westerners, he feels, know better; they are closer to ‘the laboratories of truth’ where ‘hunger, insecurity, conquering faith and war’ can be studied daily and peace is recognised for what it is: an interlude between states of hostility.

The greatest passages in the book are about the men of power. Allende would qualify, if Debray hadn’t liked him so unequivocally. He had a photo of Che on his desk inscribed ‘To Salvador Allende, who is going to the same place by another route.’ ‘We thought this meant “to the revolution”, not “to suicide”,’ Debray remembers, ‘an interpretation that would have seemed outrageous at the time.’ Yet Allende took his own life in extremis, while Che gave his away. Debray’s view of Che is severe to say the least. There are the usual remarks about his enthusiasm for the ‘corrective labour camp’ in Guanaha in 1960 and how he brought whole sectors of the Cuban economy to a standstill when he was minister of industry. But Debray is thinking of attitudes as well as deeds: ‘Che was not an angel blasted by a stroke of fate. He did not snatch his death: he had been incubating it for ten years.’ He was ‘far harsher and less sympathetic than his power-seeking elder. Less demagogic than Fidel, and much less democratic. The fine photographs by Korda and Burri have left us a sensitive dreamer, when in reality gentleness and kindness were not among his salient characteristics.’ He would think nothing of sending ‘an unarmed recruit to the frontline with orders to get a weapon from the enemy, using a knife or his bare hands’. He showed ‘bad character’ by threatening to put ‘some honourable old combatant’ in front of a firing squad as a deserter ‘just for stumbling during an ambush and losing his rifle’; he was guilty of lunatic ‘rigour’ in condemning a hungry man to three days without food for stealing a tin of condensed milk. ‘What a fertile misunderstanding it was, in 1968, turning that believer in no-holds-barred authoritarianism into an emblem of anti-authoritarian revolt from Paris to Berkeley.’

As ‘the last messenger between the two companions in arms’, Debray is much fonder of Castro, an energetic Caribbean, open, radiating a ‘tropical cordiality’ more attractive by far than the ‘melancholy coldness’ of Che, the ‘armed hermit’. Debray’s Castro has something of Zorro and something of Don Quixote; he is steeped in oral tradition – hour upon hour of speeches – but passionate about books, though in later years he reads nothing but history. Debray recalls in Les Masques that when he was summoned for impromptu guerrilla practicals, a treat Fidel bestowed on his favourites, often in the early hours of the morning, the floor of the Jefe’s Oldsmobile was littered with small arms and the rear shelf with books – Churchill’s memoirs, but also a novel by Cortázar and a stack of livestock management manuals. Debray suggests that the Fidel Portable Library dwindled to a history-only collection when he became ‘obsessed … by historians in the future and his own posthumous image’.

Doing away with his Cuban mentor is something Debray regrets. It was, as he hints, one in a series of compulsive killings on his part: ‘Disaffiliate, kill the Father, acquire another, reaffiliate, kill again.’ But the facts must have made the decision easier. In prison, he remembers, he’d heard that Fidel had endorsed the invasion of Czechoslovakia; and in Chile that the poet Heberto Padilla had been forced into a humiliating self-denunciation of the kind that’s nowadays inflicted on the staff of large corporations. By 1989, when the veteran revolutionary Tony de la Guardia went to the firing squad with General Arnaldo Ochoa after the Havana show trials, the Líder Máximo held no more surprises for Debray. La Guardia told his executioners to ‘make sure my sons don’t become soldiers like me, because I’ve been betrayed.’ These last words, Debray tells us, ‘emerged afterwards because in a country of secrecy everything is filmed: love in bedrooms, death in the open air.’ Tony and his brother Patricio, he recalls, could strip down Uzi machine pistols or hold forth on the virtues of a Miró canvas with the same ease and ‘made the grubby academic Bolsheviks I knew turn pale’. He adds that since the executions ‘I have referred to Fidel as “Castro”.’

Mitterrand’s is the most nuanced portrait. There is very little about his policies but it’s soon evident that Debray has a low opinion of him, lower no doubt for his having once been so smitten. He describes the charms of his subject, along with his faults – closely studied from inside the court – with a Saint-Simonian eye, praising his magnanimity but dwelling chiefly on two great shortcomings, as he understands them. The first, to use a Debrayism, is ‘mediological’: the literate Mitterrand was far too happy to abandon the graphosphere and service the requirements of the videosphere by founding a personalised presidency, not least during his illness, when the fate of the nation seemed to hang on every detail of his health. Once a ‘man of the pen’, he became in the end ‘a man of the image, monopolising the screen with his states of mind and live confessions, director-producer of his own ego in countless news reports, films, interviews’.

The second is that Mitterrand would not do the sort of intellectual heavy-lifting that Debray expected of a good leader. The president classed ‘friends of the Idea with the elves and fairies’, he says, supplying a Mitterrand quotation by way of evidence: ‘“A certain idea of France” … the expression is General de Gaulle’s. I don’t like it. I don’t need an idea of France; France is something I live.’ To Debray De Gaulle’s ‘certain idea’ – aim high, win or lose but never settle for mediocrity – was a good one, while an idea of any kind was a start. To have no idea, to reject ideas out of hand, was simply nonsensical. Strange that Thatcher, more the ideologue than De Gaulle and just as forceful about ‘certain ideas’ – aim low, never lose, find greatness in the stuff of mediocrity – should have hit it off with Mitterrand.

Mitterrand’s ‘short-range lucidity’, Debray argues, was not a compensation for his lack of an idea, since close up, as he explains, ‘a bad point seems as good as a good one.’ As for Mitterrand’s ‘anti-intellectualism’, it ‘had seemed to me to indicate courageous freedom of mind, leavened with dandyism and guile: really it expressed an allergy to deductive exposition, and I am afraid to the very idea of truth.’ The verdict is harsh but so was the consequence. As far as Debray could see, Mitterrand’s presidency coincided with the hollowing out of the left in France. It became a clannish assortment of managers and opinion-chasers, clinging skilfully to power for 14 years, at great cost in terms of the ‘philosophy’ of socialism and what he describes as its ‘soul’. ‘And now,’ he reflects, ‘we are all lighter, physically and morally.’ He agrees that it was part of a larger story unfolding far beyond the borders of France and that it may not matter; or that maybe it matters too much to him. ‘There are churches for people worried about the meaning of life. Each to his own catechism.’ The Hegelian world-spirit still stalks through Debray’s and his closing sequence, as we say in the videosphere, involves a cruel juxtaposition of two visions, the first of Napoleon in his hour of victory, glimpsed by an excited German philosopher in 1806, the second of the amenable Mitterrand, surveyed from a set of shabby rooms in the Elysée by a world-weary French writer and ex-revolutionary turned minor statesman:

Like Hegel, who, after the battle of Iéna watched the essence of the world pass under his window on horseback, I will be able to tell my grandchildren, with a crooked little smile, that I sometimes watched the essence of a world without essence pass under the window of my office, his bulletproof Renault 25 crunching over the white gravel … past the red plumes of the Republican Guard.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences