Jim Holt

I hope I have not made Parisian intellectual life sound altogether frivolous. It is not. There remain engagé figures of passionate intensity and fearful erudition.

The most conspicuous of these is Pierre Bourdieu, a left-leaning sociologist at the College de France and the leading scourge of invisible power structures. Bourdieu’s recent polemics have been against the influence of television (the médiatique philosophes were not spared) and masculine domination. He takes great pains to distinguish his mission from those of famous precursors. He is neither an intellectuel total comme Sartre nor an intellectuel collectif–a spokesman for the scholars engaged in the social struggle, scholars who reject the “dogma” of the value-neutrality of the social sciences. He rings the usual themes with a Gallic subtlety whose force, I am afraid, often escapes me. The French pay constant homage to Cartesian logic, but they honor it more in their brilliant engineering of everyday life–transportation, sanitation, information–than they do in the lucidity of their intellectual discourse. But then as Richard Rorty has argued, it may be that lucidity is nothing more than familiarity.

If Bourdieu is the most influential French intellectual of the moment, the greatest alive is, by consensus, Claude Levi-Strauss. The legendary anthropologist just turned 90, and his birthday has been marked by a special issue of the journal Critique that appears in Paris bookstores today.

Last week I went to a reception for Levi-Strauss at the College de France. It seemed an unremarkable occasion at first. Though the courtyard of the College de France is fittingly grand for the republic’s premier scholarly institution, the rooms inside are meanly proportioned and shabby. The three dozen or so academics in attendance looked dreary and moth-eaten the way academics do. There was a sprinkling of journalists, but no cameras or microphones. Fortified by a couple of glasses of indifferent burgundy, I obtained introduction to Levi-Strauss, who rose with difficulty from his chair and shook my hand tremulously. The conversation went poorly, owing both to my shaky French and to my lack of conviction that the nonagenarian I was talking to could actually be Claude Levi-Strauss.

A few minutes later, he was asked to give a little speech. He spoke extemporaneously, without notes, in a slow, stately voice.

“Montaigne,” he began, “said that aging diminishes us each day in a way that, when death finally arrives, it takes away only a quarter of half of the man. But Montaigne only lived to be 59, so he could have no idea of the extreme old age I find myself in today”–which, he added, was one of the “most curious surprises of my existence.” He said he felt like a “shattered hologram” that had lost its unity but still retained an image of the whole self.

This was not the speech we were expecting. It was intimate, it was about death.

Levi-Strauss went on to talk about the “dialogue” between the eroded self he had become–le moi réel–and the ideal self that coexisted with it–le moi métonymic. The latter, planning ambitious new intellectual projects, says to the former, “You must continue.” But the former replies, “That’s your business–only you can see things whole.” He then thanked those assembled for helping him silence this weird dialogue and allowing his two halves to “coincide” again for a moment–“although,” he added, “I am well aware that le moi réel will continue to sink toward its ultimate dissolution.”

It was pretty affecting stuff, and I must admit that I had to avert my eyes and do a little manly fist-clenching and shoulder-squaring before I was ready to go out into the drizzly Parisian night for a nice plate of choucroute.