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A lifetime of indignation

David Signer visits Andre Glucksmann, the philosopher who made a career out of rage, and talks with him about his life and autobiography "Une rage d'enfant," which has just come out in German.

Andre Glucksmann. Copyright: DR
Many mirrors hang in Andre Glucksmann's living room in Paris. Even the salon table is mirrored and on it lies yet another gold-framed mirror. Asked why, he says, "It's not as if I'm constantly looking at myself. But the mirrors expand the space."

Glucksmann is a philosopher, he's made a career out of reflection. But he hasn't lost himself in post-modern reflection, which renders everything a representation or simulation, nor in philosophical terminological hair-splitting.

And although his new book "A Child's Rage" has the subtitle "Memoirs", this refers to his youth as a Jew in occupied France and the question of how this influenced his later life and not to a narcissistic self-reflection. After the opening chapter, his life gradually dissolves into philosophical engagement for dissidents in the Eastern Bloc, Chechnya, the Vietnamese boat people, Sarajevo. The mirror that he holds before himself does not narrow the view. It helps others to understand and "expands the space."

It's fitting, then, that Glucksmann's apartment is not in a privileged, quiet spot but on a loud street, not far from the African quarter.

Glucksmann is turning seventy this year, and although he's the man of lifelong indignation, his face has something soft and thin-skinned about it. On the cover of the first edition of his "Memoirs", there's a picture of him at four, ferociously balling a fist.

"Mr. Glucksmann, was the driving power behind your thinking fury?"

"More my childhood and the lifelong sense that I was on the edge of an abyss."

Glucksmann's father came from Bukovina, his mother from Prague. They had emigrated to Palestine long before Hitler seized power; there they met and married. Glucksmann's two sisters were born there. In 1930, the young couple gave up all security to go to Germany to help the anti-fascist opposition. Exposed in 1937, they were able to escape to France at the last moment. There, Jojo Glucksmann was born, a German-speaking Jewish child. To the outside world he was "Andre Riviere", French speaking, Christian. The family lived with false papers in constantly changing accommodations near Lyon.

The father died in 1940. In 1941, French police uncovered the Glucksmann family and brought them to the Bourg-Lastic camp near Vichy, from where they were to be deported to Germany. Andre's shrewd mother rallied her fellow travellers around her and described what she thought they were in for. Fearing tumult, the guards separated out her and her children. Having been born in France, Andre had a right to French citizenship, which provided the guards with a welcome bureaucratic excuse to let the family walk.

But when the condemned boarded the train, Andre's sister Micky ran to them and called, "I am a Jew! There's been a mistake, I'm a Jew!" The mother caught her, slapped her and dragged her back. The police looked away.

The key moment in Glucksmann's biography took place on a sunny afternoon, shortly after the liberation of France. The banker family, the Rothschilds, gave a party at their Chateau Ferrieres for Jewish orphans who had been spared the Holocaust. They were celebrating the end of the war, the mood was light – until little Andre took off his shoe and flung it at the moneyed benefactor.

In retrospect, Glucksmann thinks that he simply couldn't bear that, after all he had experienced, people were pretending that everything was alright, and that this attitude could somehow delete what had happened.

"Much of what I later wrote has come from the same impulse," he says today. "Even after the fall of the wall in 1989, there were many who bought the illusion that everything was better now, that the story was over. 'Dreams are the guardians of sleep,' said Freud. We incorporate anything that might disturb our sleep into our dreams so that we don't have to wake up. There are many guardians of sleep. The thinker's task is to fight against them."

And that he has done, a life long. At 13, he faked his date of birth and joined the communist party. But he'd already left it by 18, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. In 1968, however, he was still a member of the Gauche proletarienne, with which Sartre and Godard sympathised (Glucksmann was unique among his intellectual colleagues as someone who had really grown up "proletariat"). The official break came in the middle of the 1970s with his two books "La Cuisiniere et le Mangeur d'Hommes, reflexions sur L'état, le marxisme et les camps de concentration" and "The Master Thinkers," in which he settled his score with leftist intellectuals and their totalitarian tendencies. It was the time of Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag archipelago", and Glucksmann drew radical conclusions from the reality of the Soviet camp, whose existence was no longer to be denied.

Glucksmann made himself Persona non grata among many leftists with his book "La Force du Vertige," in which he criticised the ideology of the anti-American "green pacifism." The book came out in 1984 in Germany, when many were demonstrating against the deployment of Pershing-II missiles. ("Better red than dead") In "La betise" he did exactly that which he in fact always attacked: he totalised his critique and questioned the intellectual itself. "The intellectual is incompetent," he wrote. "He flouts his own expertise without having any. And at the same time, he presents himself as judge." He suggested that intellectuals abstain from preaching goodness.

What remained was the war against evil, which seemed beyond dispute. He supported dissidents in Eastern Europe and took a consistently strong position against Le Pen and the Front national. He supported Bosnia and Chechnya, was very articulate on the French responsibility in Rwanda and supported the invasion of Iraq. He took a lot of flak for his position (especially from the German-speaking world) but also received praise from high places. When Václav Havel won the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels in 1989, he requested Glucksmann as the speaker ("Leaving communism means entering history," was the title of his oft quoted Laudatio). The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky saw in the French philosopher the "man who freed Paris of its love for totalitarities." Adam Michnik, one of the founders of the Polish Solidarity union read an underground edition of Glucksmann's critique of Marx. And the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili recalls how he learnt French largely from Glucksmann's banned books.

Two weeks ago, Glucksmann kicked up yet another stink with an article that appeared in Le Monde titled "Why I'm voting for Nicolas Sarkozy." In it, he describes France as "half museum, half nursing home," in which the Left has nothing more to offer than verbal tinkle and cowardly diplomacy labelled "Realpolitik". He finds that the international solidarity that the Left used to count on is now to be found on the other side. It is Sarkozy, not the socialists, who took up the case of Bulgarian nurses in Libya who were condemned to death (more), who protested the massacre in Darfur, who recalls the 250,000 Chechnyans killed. Glucksmann always felt more at home with the Left, he explains in conversation, but the distinction has now become misleading. It was Sarkozy, and not a leftist, who provided the only realistic answer to the uprisings in the banlieues: these people need work, the French economy needs a kick start. Glucksmann argues that if you look at content and not words, you have to vote "right" on occasion.

The autobiography does not provide an answer to the question of who this brilliant personality "really" is. To the contrary, Glucksmann hastens to explain in his first sentence, "It's hard for me to use the first person. 'I am I' is easier for me to say than to think, and the clear certainty of 'I am I' has been refused me from the beginning." In the course of the book, he swings between "I" and "he" and towards the end he states, "I don't think much of seamless or perfect biographies."

He grew up rootless, without a clear identity, and his home was more chosen than inherited, he explains in the mirror cabinet of his salon. And then, unexpectedly: "I profited from that."

Unrootedness as good fortune, after all the horror of his childhood?

Yes, he affirms. Because most problems in the world come from people who need at identity at all costs. Most wars are, among other things, wars of identity. "There's nothing wrong with having an identity, although it's better to have several. The problems begin when someone feels they have to eliminate the others in order to have the feeling that they are themselves. Look at the Serbs." In this sense, his disjunctive childhood prepared him well for the second half of the 20th century, which was, more than anything, a time of disjunction. "I never felt that I had to carry the graves of my ancestors on my back."

But that hardly works as a general prescription, does it? The unrooted are just as likely to become nationalist and identity-fanatics as they are open-minded citizens of the world.

That's the key, he says. "If you have a solid identity, there's no problem. If you don't have one, and that's increasingly the norm in today's world, you can either accept that or try to create one, with violence or at the expense of others." A large portion of the world's population today lives somewhere between the old world of agrarian certainties and Western democracies, where various groups live together according to rules; in a violent zone of uncertainty and conflict over identity. This is an ideal climate for nihilism. The nihilist, in Glucksmann's thinking, may pose as a nationalist, a Marxist or a Muslim fundamentalist, but these are all just alibis. In fact, he is just empty, without a base, and his only motivation is to hate and to destroy the other.

Glucksmann tells of a clandestine visit to Chechnya in 2000, when he met one of the top bosses in the secret service, who, after being bribed, got him through the control points. He wore a golden chain bracelet on which was engraved: "Get what you want." When Glucksmann's friend Hans Christoph Buch said to a Liberian child soldier carrying a loaded Kalashnikov, "You could be killing mother and father," the kid replied, "Why not?" For Glucksmann, the armed Islamic groups in Algeria who play soccer with human heads, and the Iraqi terrorist who blows up passers-by all possess the same nihilistic spirit, a "morality of why not."

In his last book "Le Discours de la Haine" (more), Glucksmann put forward the provocative thesis that hatred in the form of terrorist violence has nothing to do with misery and repression. These are just taken as an excuse to give brutality free rein. In elaborated cases, an entire ideology is constructed. It's never the cause of hatred, it's an alibi that's put there in retrospect. And therefore, the rebuttal of ideologies does not lead to a disappearance of destruction. As he put it so succinctly in his most recent book: "Some feel they've been called upon by God, others feel liberated by the absence of God and all conventions. Both work with or against each other and kill profligately, because they feel they have the right to do everything."

None of that speaks against the right to revolt. Glucksmann remains full of admiration for the engagement of his mother and her comrades in the French Resistance. For him, the Resistance is a perfect example of how partisans must not copy the methods of their oppressors.

Nihilists take aim at three goals in particular: the "capitalist West," because it mobilises everything and everyone for its principles; the Jew, because he draws his identity from his rootlessness; and women, because they challenge the totality of men. The hatred of these gives rise in Glucksmann's mind to very diverse movements: "It's the hatred of the pseudo-unrooted for the universally unrooted."

Today Glucksmann doesn't have to fight against Marx-worship as he did in the 1970s, when even Sartre was swearing allegiance to Mao. But even if Marx is no longer being evoked, his spirit lives on in other forms. If we don't live like Gods, Glucksmann says, it's the brutal laws of the market, Wall Street, globalisation, and the free movement of people, ideas, goods and feelings that are to blame. "Those who fight against the West have retained from the fallen Marx his critique of capitalistic society and the command to destroy it. He disposes of communist dreams and convoluted Utopias but piously maintains the radicalism of heavy accusations. This New Age Marxism–Nihilism is a major nodal point, where religious fundamentalism, national fanaticism, revived racism and the cynicism of the over-saturated all meet."

It seems almost unnecessary to say that Glucksmann doesn't think much of the anti-globalisation movement. For him, it's little more than "Charter flight activism" and "political spectacles" to "places of interest to tourists" like Porto Alegre, Bombay and Davos.

At almost 70, Glucksmann seems to be as alert, distrustful and belligerent as in the days when he was throwing shoes at gentlemen. The last sentence of his autobiography is: "What else should I have done, other than transform the fury of childhood into lifelong anger."

When I asked him about the essence of his thinking, he said: "Nicht wegschauen" (Not to look away). On this particular afternoon, these are the only two words he says in German, his mother's language in which she once lulled him to sleep in occupied France.

Andre Glucksmann's "Une rage d'enfant" (A Child's Rage) is published in France by Plon. The German translation was published by Nagel & Kimche in
March 2007.


This article originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on March 1, 2007.

David Signer, born 1964 in St. Gallen, is Science Editor of Die Weltwoche.

Translation: nb

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