Is this a Joke? On Mary McCarthy’s Afterword to Jean-Francois Revel’s Radical Book/Pamphlet, “Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution”

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I always felt like I was born a generation too late. My reception of 60s and 70s radicalism was, if anything, belated. It was the legacy of my parent’s and uncle’s generation. My generation was certainly affected by it but it didn’t “transform” us as it did them. To be sure, as an American growing up in the 80s and 90s, I always wished I had such an opportunity. Instead, I lived in the Regan and Clinton Era. Things were rather stable and status quo. And for me, books with radical content always made me wonder if there was any trace of that transformation left. I wondered if, by reading this or that book, I would get it.   But oftentimes instead of getting “it,” I got something else that I didn’t expect. And that’s great because I love surprises.

For this reason, I love stumbling across rare or out of print books which, years ago, moved the hearts and minds of another generation. As I turned (and turn) the pages of these books, I try (and have tried) to imagine what went through the heads of people who first read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or set their eyes on an experimental novel like Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. On one of my digressive excursions into the bowels of my favorite used bookstore in Saratoga, New York, I ran across a “radical” book published in 1971.   It’s title struck my eye, immediately: Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution.   The book was authored by Jean-Francois Revel – a popular writer in France. He was well known for being a socialist and a radical journalist. Curious about the book and its contents, I bought it and brought it back home with me.

The book was translated from the French into the English. However, one can imagine that he wanted it to be translated since, on the one hand, it is meant to 1) shock Frenchmen and women out of their anti-Americanism and 2) suggest that the Marxism that they adopted and drew from Stalin and Mao was way off in its predictions about where “the revolution” would begin. Instead of taking a foothold in the Third World or in Europe, it would begin in America.   This is a shock for them, but it would, I imagine, be a thrill for those American youth at the time (the early 70s) who were eager for a “revolution.”

I was surprised to see how Mary McCarthy, the celebrated writer for The New Yorker (who was close with Hannah Arendt) characterized the book in the first pages of her Afterword. She imagines how an intelligent American at that time would receive the book. Her style and tone bespeaks a certain kind of way of being an American which is skeptical about things European and, at the same time, it suggests how shocking this book is to the French:

Listen to the first sentence. “The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States.” Pow!!! The French reader is already seeing stars when the second sentence hits him. “It can take place nowhere else.” Americans may feel bewildered, skeptical, glad or sorry to hear the news, curious to know more. But you have to be French to get the full impact, the “visceral reaction.” Every since you could count up to ten or spell c-h-a-t, you have been secure in the thought that the U.S. is the citadel of imperialism, racism, vulgarity, conformism, and now a Frenchmen returns from a voyage of discovery to say it is a hotbed of revolution. (212)

McCarthy asks you, the reader, “Is it joke?” Can Americans take this book seriously?

No and yes. It may have started out as a hardy quip or demolishing retort, and somewhere behind these pages Jean-Francois is still suppressing an inadvertent smile. We, his readers, not required to school our features, laugh out loud in delight. (212)

The delight we take in this book is comical.   Americans laugh, says McCarthy, because we can imagine the reaction it will have on the French who are being “shaken, jostled, disarrayed, like a matron in some old slapstick”(212). But he’s not the only person we will laugh at. We will also laugh at the author:

That expressionless comedian, swinging from a precipice, teetering on a tightrope. We laugh at his imperturbability in the presence of immanent danger, at his reckless aplomb in courting ridicule – the reverse of sympathetic chuckles. He is serious, he protests: “Why are you laughing? (212)

McCarthy goes on to call his books “cliff hangers” and “heresies.” She caricatures him and imagines the French culture and its Catholicism which gave birth to his desire to break the rules.   “His anti-clerical nostrils are quick to detect the slightest smell of incense, and misfortune – or good luck…he has passed most of his life among the devout”(213). And now he wants to write things in rebellion against them.

Should we join him in his rebellion? This is a question which McCarthy seriously entertains. She notes that he is, without a doubt, biased. But “there is something wonderfully disinterested about Revel’s biases, a joy in the bias itself as an artistic form, embracing hyperbole and conducing, finally, to laughter”(213-214, my emphasis).

This moment in her afterword is fascinating. It suggests that a bias can be “disinterested,” enjoyable, and hilarious in its cruelty.   In addition, she thinks that – even though it may be personal and not be rationally justified – it is still…justified:

If he has a personal grievance, it is a long-standing, deeply nurtured one against the immovable forces of entrenched beliefs that insult his sense of the self-evident. (214)

This observation or rather hypothetical syllogism is the basis of McCarthy’s vindication of the book. There is a “dizzying” joy to going against the status quo and if it is personal and biased it is all the more revolutionary and just. As an American, McCarthy suggests that this “pamphlet” – like those of the French Revolution – is a work of agit prop. It includes “provocation, surprise attack, deftness, rapidity, polemical sparkle” but it is not a premonition of a real revolution in America (or as McCarthy says, “a Second Coming…materializing in the California desert”).   Rather, the book should be read as a satire (223).   He posits revolution in America only because it has failed in France. In other words, he wrote this book in order to cajole them.

He addresses serious things no less which are, by no means, a laughing matter. For instance, there are discussions in the book about the necessity of violence in a revolution.   And against many of those who look to violence as a means (such as Georges Sorel and his book Reflections on Violence), he, at one point, suggests that the insistence on the relationship of revolution to violence is an “error”(103).   He notes, however, that the lines between violence and non-violence are not clear:

Real revolutionary activity consists in transforming reality, in making reality conform more closely to one’s ideal, one’s point of view. That transformation can be achieved only through revolutionary means. Sometimes, that means is violence; sometimes, it is not. In any case, violence, as a means, does not signify the same thing. (104)

The question of violence, to be sure, is hard to satirize. And, in reading McCarthy’s Afterword against these reflections, it dawned on me that many people who picked up his translated book in the United States may have had a different reaction. Perhaps they didn’t take it as a satire but as a handbook of sorts. But that may be the twist: McCarthy was worried that people would take the most violent aspects of a new “American” revolution seriously.   Perhaps she agreed with the Europeans who, as Revel notes often (when writing about “anti-Americanism”), regarded American’s as “idiots.”

Regardless, it is interesting to see that McCarthy allows for these rants and sees them justified but, ultimately, sees the advantage of seeing them from a detached comic perspective. She, herself, may understand it but she doesn’t want to participate in it. She lets it happen but prefers to take on the comic perspective. It was, for her, in the early 1970s, the best route. For if she didn’t, she, too, would be taken in by what she considers a great work of “agit-prop.”

Reflecting on this book, today, in September 2015, I wonder, how would I react? Would I side with McCarthy’s comic reading or would I, like many American youth of the early 70s, be eager for something more serious? The fact of the matter is that in hard times, when violence is raging and tension is high, people are less interested in humor than in something more political and serious. Perhaps these times are with us today. But instead of using satire or comedy to get some distance, I realize, today, that comedy can and has been used for agit prop.   Satire can and has been used to spur people to become more serious about political issues: take a look at your Twitter feed or your Facebook feed for evidence of that.   What McCarthy does is to show how polemics can be exciting by way of being personal and even biased but what she leaves out of her reflections is the other side of humor, the violent one.

I’ll end on that note.

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