WASHINGTON — I hope the great restaurants of Paris held a moment of silence early this week upon hearing of the death of the distinguished French philosopher and journalist, Jean-Francois Revel. They should have. He was certainly the greatest gastronome I have known. He was also that rare French intellectual who admires America, and something more: he did not flinch from the evidence in any intellectual debate, whether it be a debate over communism, terrorism, or the tomato.
In one of his many learned disquisitions on food and the history of food, Revel noted that for centuries the French would not eat tomatoes. At one point they considered them poisonous. Ah well, at one point they had the same horror of that stupendously esculent provender served between the magnificent Golden Arches. Now that the French have had some time to think about it, many chic Parisians even eat their Big Macs with a tomato elegantly slapped aboard. Revel was ahead of his time.
I met him in the mid-1970s and knew him for his journalism. His three-volume history of Western thought was beyond me, but his journalism, appearing in the French magazine L’Express and also in English publications, was learned and lively. His French was clear and understandable even to an American with only a couple of years of college French. He was enormously erudite, gruff, and sardonic. During the Cold War when his fellow Europeans in large numbers idolized Castro and Mao, Revel mocked them all. To him the evidence was clear. Behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains was tyranny and economic futility. In America there was hope. In his 1970 book, Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution, he notified anti-American leftists that the great revolution of the 20th century would come from America where the American notions of democracy and economics would overwhelm the “Socialist revolution.”
Revel had been a man of the left in his youth, and by the time I knew him he was still unsure about some of the values that are now considered conservative, at least here in America. In the late 1970s he was unsure about Ronald Reagan, but seeing the President’s resolution against communism he came to admire him. He was also, contrary to what some of the obituarists are saying, unsure about Milton Friedman and Friedman’s brand of free-market economics. Actually, he was slower to accept Friedman than he was to accept Reagan. This was typical. For the intellectual of the left it was always easier to reject communism and accept anti-communism. To reject socialism was more difficult. In America Norman Podhoretz showed the same reluctance.
To my surprise at some point in the 1980s Revel found himself persuaded by Friedman. When I asked him why, he responded that the free-market economy had provided the “evidence” of its superiority. Again, Revel was an empiricist. I have always wondered why in the West, given all our putative admiration for freedom, reason, and boldness, more intellectuals did not follow the path of Revel in France or of the neoconservatives in America, that is to say the small band of liberal Democrats who broke with liberalism when it slipped into its narcissistic fantasy world in the early 1970s.
I suppose the answer is that intellectuals are no more independent-minded or courageous than members of any other social group. They are as much conformists as members of Rotary — notwithstanding all their boasts to independence and high intellect. Revel was living proof that an intellectual could break with the herd.
When I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, alongside the campus of Indiana University in the 1980s Revel visited with me for a couple of nights. He was astounded by the wealth of the university but put off by the smug conformity of the faculty. One afternoon we passed the undergraduate library that then held three million books. “Three million books,” he enthused. But I lamented, the professoriate all think alike. “It is the same in Paris,” he responded, shaking his head. Nonetheless, somehow he was admitted in 1997 into the Academie Francaise, where he was numbered among the 40 “immortals” who maintain the standards of the French language.
After visiting the library I took my friend to a nearby French restaurant, where my thick-set rubicund friend immediately ordered a vin rouge and fois gras. Soon we had the restaurant’s French-born proprietor at our table, delighted to find the great Revel in his humble Midwestern restaurant. But Jean-Francois reminded him that he was famous for his pro-Americanism. On through the fois gras and poulet roti he advanced. Then came the salade verte and the mousse au chocolat. At the end of the meal, by the time we had exhausted every subject of the day, the great gastronome spied a fellow diner’s mousse that had not been touched. “Are you finished with it?” Revel inquired. Given the right-of-way, the philosopher pounced on it. I hope he maintained that gusto to the end.