The Enigma of Régis Debray

The French intellectual who ran around with left-wing insurgents and knew many famous writers looks back on his life

Today Régis Debray is one of France’s most honored public intellectuals. In the 1960s, he was a young man who believed so strongly in Che Guevara’s campaign to sow the seeds of Marxist revolution in Bolivia that he got arrested and it took the meddling of none other than Charles de Gaulle to bring him home. This story and many others from an eventful and dramatic life are the subject of a new book, Où de vivants piliers, which is not yet available in English.

Jérôme Garcin, the culture pages editor of the prestigious magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, suggested in a review that this may be the book that shapes how future generations remember Debray. The wry and witty author shares his views on a long list of personalities and subjects, which he presents alphabetically.

In these pages, Debray is fascinating and often brilliant. Yet Où de vivants piliers may leave some wondering whether this is really the work that they would want to speak for them if they were the author.

An A-List Cast

As Debray looks back on his career, he speaks from a different perspective from that of men of letters in other countries, who have not typically devoted themselves to both the writing of fiction and to hard epistemological work. The writer-philosopher is a phenomenon that pops up with a singular frequency in France.

That, at least, is the thesis of one of the short essays collected in Où de vivants piliers. Many of the entries are about authors who gained renown for their work in one or another medium, such as novels or poetry. Here are reflections on Georges Perec, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Marcel Proust, Jean Giono, Romain Gary, Paul Morand, and others who France, if not America, still celebrates these days. Debray admires them, but most are not writer-philosophers like himself.

One figure who does exemplify the hybrid ideal is Jean-Paul Sartre, but the quality of that author’s epistemological and philosophical output is a subject of controversy to this day.

Does France lead the way in the production of writer-philosophers? Countervailing evidence comes readily to mind. The late David Foster Wallace was not only a pioneering novelist and short story writer, but a profound student of mathematical and logical conundrums who wrote books taking up the questions of Pi and free will. Wallace might be an ideal person to review Où de vivants piliers, grasping, as he did, the difficulty of trying to encapsulate all the vastness and variety of one’s inner life and present it to readers in a form even remotely faithful to what the writer has seen and felt.

Où de vivants piliers should inspire discussion and debate for a different reason. Debray is an intriguing figure with an awesome range of interests. Whether this book will endear him to the youth of the future is another matter.

Bolivian Adventure

After his arrest in Bolivia in April 1967 for involvement in Che Guevara’s leftist insurgency, Debray received a sentence of 30 years in prison. His fate may have looked bleak, but his grandmother back home in France just happened to be friends with a man named Jacques Vendroux. When Debray was growing up, the grandmother used to hold bridge games on Sunday afternoons in which the boy and Vendroux both played.

Vendroux, it just so happened, was the mayor of Calais and a friend of Charles de Gaulle, the president of France and one of the most powerful men in the world.

It did not take long for de Gaulle to pull a few strings and get Bolivia’s ruler, the ruthless General René Barrientos, to show Debray a leniency denied to Guevara and others. Of course, this is not to suggest that Guevara was innocent of atrocities or that Barrientos was wrong to suppress the insurgency with brutal force. The world was a better place without Che Guevara.

At the same time, the Régis Debray who emerges from the essay “Familles” is a sunshine soldier who relied on the connections of a comfortable family to get out of hot water, after he had dabbled in activities for which others, lacking the same resources, faced execution. In his writings, even after what happened in Bolivia, Debray explicitly encourages guerrilla war against the right-wing regime. He urges others to endanger themselves for his ideals and to risk punishments that would never apply to him.

Elsewhere in his oeuvre, Debray projects an attitude that would get him in trouble with the academic establishment of our time if he were not an iconic left-wing writer and intellectual. When Rudyard Kipling writes condescendingly about non-European peoples, he commits an offense that gives rise to calls for expunging him from curricula. Cancel the imperialist author!

Yet Debray, when writing about the Bolivia of the 1960s in La guérilla du Che (translated as Che’s Guerrilla War), freely disparages the populace as a backward, politically naïve bunch in need of guidance. He compares Bolivia to the ancien régime of the 1780s to which the French Revolution put an end, and says that a crucial difference is that Bolivia lacks people with the political sophistication you would have found in France. Bolivia is more like Russia in 1905, Debray states. Everybody is backward, without even a grasp of the capitalist headwinds that buffet countries and make workers miserable.

“Bolivia is the classical example not of a country in which an old bourgeoisie has set its seal on all social development, but of an agrarian country which, though backward, is dominated by the capitalist world market, and where it falls to a young and forceful proletariat to fulfill the historical tasks left undone by the bourgeoisie,” writes Debray, in Rosemary Sheed’s translation.

With the help, needless to say, of a chic French intellectual who can explain Marxism better than anyone actually caught up in the daily life of Bolivia.

On the Backs of Miners

Analyzing economic data, Debray saw a country where mine workers did by far the largest share of the work driving exports and were, ultimately, of greater importance to the class struggle than farm laborers. “It was basically the 30,000 tin miners who supported a country of five million inhabitants,” he writes.

His concern for the exploited tin miners, who carried the weight of an impoverished nation on their shoulders, is touching. But did they, and Bolivia, need Marxist revolution? Debray wrote these words in 1974. That is still before the Cambodian killing fields, but a time when the world had known for many years about the murder, torture, and forced labor visited on thousands of political prisoners in concentration camps in the repressive Cuba of Fidel Castro, not to mention the crimes of Lenin and Stalin.

Debray’s account of the tin miners who bore a huge and disproportionate burden without receiving due thanks from others recalls a passage in the writings of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard evokes the image of watchmen at a remote outpost who are responsible for protecting a community from menaces that lurk outside its borders. Their crisis of faith, Kierkegaard explains, intertwines with the feeling that they make tremendous exertions and put their lives on the line daily without the gratitude and recognition needed to redeem their sacrifice. The answer to their plight, Kierkegaard suggests, is fundamentally spiritual in nature. Not political.

If Debray really exemplifies the hybrid of writer and philosopher he claims is unique to France, then perhaps he might give the analogy a bit of thought.


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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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