DCSIMG

Jean-François Revel

Philosopher

Born: 19 January, 1924, in Marseille.

Died: 29 April, 2006, in Paris, aged 82.

JEAN-FRANOIS Revel was a prolific philosopher, writer and journalist who summoned the classical polemical weapons of Voltaire and Montaigne, including humour, irony and surprise, to illuminate subjects from French cuisine to French anti-Americanism.

Revel called himself a leftist, but was known during the Cold War as a champion of American values when many European intellectuals praised Marx and Mao, though he castigated the United States for the Vietnam War. In Without Marx or Jesus (1970), he said that America, in fact, was winning, and that "the revolution of the 20th century will take place in the United States".

More than three decades later, when many of his countrymen were outraged by the Iraq war and elements of Washington's effort to curb terrorism, he continued to write in favour of the United States. He suggested that Europeans refused to accept responsibility for their own mistakes.

Revel's career extended from academia, to editing and commenting in newspapers and magazines, to administering three book publishers, to radio commentary, to writing more than 30 books.

His subjects included comments on the attractiveness of Italian women (overrated), the glories of France (very overrated) and the inventiveness in French cooking ("madness", more often than not).

Among his many works, he wrote a three-volume history of the development of western thought; argued against the prevailing Marxist and existentialist interpretations of Proust; and drew much comment with a dialogue about Buddhism with his son, a Buddhist monk.

He was one of the 40 members, called Immortals, of the Acadmie Franaise, which keeps the standards of the French language.

Revel's persistent intellectual thrust was as a philosopher of freedom in the tradition of Raymond Aron. He went from suggesting in his 1984 book, How Democracies Perish, that democracy may turn out to be "a historical accident", to arguing in 1993 in Democracy Against Itself: The Future of the Democratic Impulse, that democracy had become not only indispensable, but inevitable.

A decade later, he contended that the same French sort of intellectuals who had difficulty criticising Stalin seemed unwilling to face up to the threat of Islamic terrorism.

The writer was born Jean-Franois Ricard, in 1924, in Marseille. He first used Revel as a literary pseudonym. When he was six months old, his family took him to Mozambique, where his father had an import-export business. His first language was Portuguese.

He attended schools in Marseille and Lyon, and was 16 when the Germans conquered France. He was active in the Resistance, and later said the officious, disgraceful behaviour of the French who collaborated with the Nazis informed his often wry style of writing. Revel received his degree in philosophy from the cole Normale Suprieure, where the cream of French intellectuals were educated. He taught French in Algiers, Mexico City and Florence, where he collected observations for an irreverent book about Italy that looked askance at hair on the legs of women, among other things.

Early in his writing career, he wrote two book-length essays to the effect that philosophy was no longer a serious subject. During this period, he taught philosophy in Paris.

In 1960, he became chief literary editor for France Observateur, the first of a succession of journalistic jobs, including literary editor at L'Express. In the 1960s, he devoted an entire book to attacking de Gaulle mercilessly for his purple prose and capitalising the title "General" for himself but for no other generals.

Revel wrote speeches for Franois Mitterrand, and in 1967 he ran as a Socialist candidate in the parliamentary elections and lost.

He had begun to become familiar with North America while teaching in Mexico in the 1950s and continued his education during an extended visit to Canada in 1969 and 1970 and to California in 1970. He collected material to support his hypothesis that a profound social transformation was taking place in the United States.

In Without Marx or Jesus, Revel wrote that he found America "in complete contrast to the conventional portrayal then generally accepted in Europe". In particular, he was impressed with Americans' willingness to address and correct their own faults.

He went on to attack those Europeans who said the United States had brought terrorists' attacks on itself through misguided foreign policies. "Obsessed by their hatred and floundering in illogicality, these dupes forget that the United States, acting in her own self-interest, is also acting in the interest of us Europeans and in the interest of many other countries, threatened, or already subverted and ruined, by terrorism," he wrote.

Revel is survived by his wife, Claude Sarraute, and several children.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page