From the margins to the centre

The Word from Paris

John Sturrock <em>Verso, 256pp, £18</em>

Jeremy Paxman's line about "the English approach to ideas" being "not to kill them, but to let them die of neglect" was quoted in more than one survey in 1998. It was impossible to know whether this ambiguous highlighting was a proposal for Pseud's Corner or an embrace of approval, but I'll quote Paxman with unambiguous solidarity.

The English solution to thinking against the grain, in particular, is precisely not a repressive fatwa but an insidiously leery "gotcha!" - which will be issued against difficult or foreign ideas, political or creative idealism, anything guilty of the portmanteau offence of pretension. Abused of meaning in this way, the word pretentious seems coined for the subject of John Sturrock's new book about modern French thinkers and writers. Sturrock has long been a reliable advocate of French ideas and literature, as this collection of his journalism from the TLS and London Review of Books testifies. The Word from Paris covers thinkers from Jean-Paul Sartre to Jacques Derrida and novelists from Marcel Proust to Georges Perec and so comes heavily wreathed in "gotchas!".

Sturrock's approach is, however, light on pedagogy and almost free of polemic. He describes his "persistent engagement" with the philosophical theory of the 1960s and 1970s in particular, and his efforts to disseminate it. He claims - convincingly - that it was "more enjoyable for requiring to be done in a country so gruffly unreceptive to anything even faintly theoretical". For "theoretical" read the ideas of thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, as well as Derrida. These thinkers were recently denounced, by Alan Sokal and Jean Briemont in Intellectual Impostures, as frauds and "epistemic relativists". As physicists the authors claimed to resent their misuse of scientific ideas. Sturrock responded with a polemical attack in the LRB, properly taking them to task for misusing and miscomprehending the key philosophical ideas of their times. He was about the only person to commit himself in that way and against predictable cross-media cheering for the physicists.

The Word from Paris is a kind of extended antidote to this reflex cynicism. Sturrock writes from enthusiastic engagement with theory as well as with writers conscious of form, rhythm and language. The book includes essays on Louis-Ferdinand Celine and the emperor of French formalism, Raymond Roussel; as well as excellent pieces on Raymond Queneau and Nathalie Sarraute. Sturrock writes with patience about his subject, but is also capable of authoritative clarity about the ideas of Lacan and Derrida, for example. The latter involves a translation into everyday language which is notably difficult to achieve, not least because these are theories about language and its very equivocity.

It is this irreducibility of language, the elementary notion that human languages are not natural and fixed equivalents to objects in the world but a means of codifying experience, that upsets the Sokal "gotcha!" tendency so much. The complaint seems to be against complexity, uncertainty, interpretation and even, oddly, metaphor. This leads not only to grossly reductive and anachronistic simplification but misses out on what Sturrock so convincingly celebrates: the intoxicating pursuit of things interior and exterior that the most vigorous and adventurous literary language can offer. As such, the complainers would reduce Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the subject of the most intimate and affectionate essay here, to a postcard about dunking biscuits.

Sturrock's essays have actually been reworked from pieces spanning a 35-year career, driven by what he calls "a desire to enjoy the status of an alien without leaving home". He celebrates the formalistic and the ludic in a writer like Perec, while examining the role of the critic as a public figure as exemplified by Sartre. He begins with a chapter about intellectuals in postwar France, which defines the intellectual as a practitioner who intervenes beyond his or her field to influence public debate and "infiltrate . . . conformist opinion". And he laments the cold war between the academy and popular media, one that pieces like these are modestly designed to mediate.

Sturrock is thus enabled to ask of Lacan's notorious opacities, "how far should we feel obliged to go in order to understand what he wrote?" His answer is "as far as our brains and our patience can take us" - because, in spite of Lacan's eccentric late fascination with maths, his "remarkable intelligence" generates distinct "rewards and pleasures". Similarly, Sturrock argues openly but forcefully for Derrida's own work, as opposed to its American hinterland - in particular, the early pivotal writings in Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and the astonishing essays in Writing and Difference (all of which were published in 1967).

Dissident intelligence is the defining characteristic of these writers, since they were almost all figures from outside the mainstream of French life. Sturrock's people are Jewish, gay, immigrants, orphans, woman writers, reclusive, ill - and all have crossed boundaries in life or in the realm of ideas.

For those of us taught by the generation that came of age in the aftermath of 1968, this is a collection of historical ideas that shaped our world-view, and one that we necessarily think against, too. Nevertheless, Sturrock's essays sent me back to the books with refreshed interest, and that is the highest recommendation for a work of enthusiasm of such lucidity and critical engagement.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again