Past Imperfect

Certain books strike a nerve. Their impact is immediately apparent in a flurry of reviews, where one can sense that more is at stake than anyone is explicitly saying. One such book this season is Tony Judt’s PAST IMPERFECT: FRENCH INTELLECTUALS, 1944-1956. With great clarity and force, Judt traces the contortions of French intellectuals who became apologists for Communist tyranny in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Judt also considers the distinctive role of intellectuals in French culture and their prestige outside France.

On the face of it, Judt’s book might seem an unlikely candidate to stir passions. After all, hasn’t the moral bankruptcy of the Communist state been widely conceded even on the Left? Judt’s indictment of Sartre and Company is old news, isn’t it? Read John Sturrock’s front-page review of Judt’s book in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (January 10, 1993) or James Miller, author of THE PASSION OF MICHEL FOUCAULT, in THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD (January 31, 1993) and think again. “Writing after the collapse of communism, and sublimely sure of his own convictions,” Miller says, “Judt lacks the sympathetic imagination necessary to make the siren song of socialism come alive.” Given the obscene evasions of these French intellectuals, so thoroughly documented by Judt, not all readers will agree that a more “sympathetic imagination” was wanted. Indeed, the reactions of Miller, Sturrock, and others suggest that the issues raised by Judt’s book are far from being settled.

Under the heading “Suggestions for Further Reading,” Judt has appended a useful narrative bibliography instead of the usual laundry list of titles—a fitting conclusion to a work of scholarship in which one is always conscious of an individual voice.