Onfray displays the virtue of the philosopher as public figure: according to Foucault, parrhesia,
Greek for telling-all, truth-telling, plain-talk. He preaches the four
virtues to the powerful, pulls down the idols, all the while chanting
out unanswerable indictments. And when the dosage is right, you can
wrangle yourself from the Left to the Right. But sometimes he gets
confused, and then, thump!
A short time ago, in Le Point, our Chief Justice took aim at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which he declared a “Papuan village”, and whose pinko-caviar mafia he decapitated without pity. In the fury of the massacre: “I prefer an accurate analysis by Alain de Benoist to an inaccurate analysis by Minc, Attali or Bernard-Henri Lévy… The Papuans will scream! But they will not make me say that I prefer an inaccurate analysis by BHL on the pretext that he claims he is left-wing.”
This Sunday, Manuel Valls steps in, displaying the virtue of the chief: authority, the constant companion of his anger. Here he is, shutting up the philosopher: “When Michel Onfray claims that basically Alain de Benoist is worth more than Bernard-Henri Lévy, it means that we’re all losing our bearings.”
Onfray is immediately in all the news outlets: he has not been read, he was misread, he even goes so far as to propose in Le Figaro “a close reading of the text.” The problem, in his opinion? Valls is “a cretin”. Not exactly. There is something rather twisted in Onfray’s proposal.
He presents a conflict of preferences. A) As a “man of the Left”, I (Onfray) am expected to prefer other men of the Left to those of the Right. B) As a philosopher, I prefer the accurate to the inaccurate, the true to the false. C) As I am a philosopher before I am a man of the Left, I give way to B over A: a truth from the Right is worth more than an error from the Left.
This chiasmus of preference is not raw Onfray. He found his classical expression in the Latin sentence: “Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas” : Plato is my friend, but the truth is a still greater friend. This thought comes from Plato, and is taken up by Aristotle. Cicero, on the other hand, makes the opposite choice: I would rather err with Plato than be in the truth with Pythagoras (the origin of the celebrated phrase “Better to screw up with Sartre than to be right with Aron”).
What is wrong with Onfray’s formulation is that he is far from being BHL’s friend. He can’t stand him. Thus, the “Plato amicus” is invalidated as a basis for the proverb. Thump! This fact alone endorses Valls’ interpretation.
In fact, Tarski, the great logician, offers the only version that could have made sense of Onfray’s gibberish: “Inimicus Plato, sed magis inimica falsitas“, that is: BHL is my enemy, but error is a still greater enemy.
A mystery persists: why pick on the Papuans? The Papuan cultures inspired the great ethnologues: Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Godelier. Who are you, Onfray, to scorn them?
2. Logic of Gibberish
Now I would like to consider seriously Onfray’s gibberish, to deploy all its subtlety, to tease out its deeper sense.
I will begin with an “oddity” pointed out by Maria de França (“Manuel Valls, Michel Onfray et Bernard-Henri Lévy: what’s at stake in the debate”, La Règle du jeu, 8 March 2015): “We have every right to find it odd that a completely forgotten intellectual, Alain de Benoist, should emerge from the mothballs of obscurity.” In effect, why Alain de Benoist?
Why impute to this very figure the paternity of “the accurate analysis” corresponding to the “inaccurate analysis” of BHL? As an ad hominem attack, with BHL as its target, the mention of his name imposes itself, it is legitimate and necessary. On the other hand, the mention of Alain de Benoist is not necessary but contingent: any other figure from the Right would have done as well. The choice of name has no effect on the logical validity of the reasoning.
We might attribute to Onfray’s theory of preferences the following axioms:
A) the true, T, prevails over the false, F;
A’) scholium: every thesis T (accurate, true, exact) always prevails over every thesis F (inaccurate, false, erroneous) no matter the author of the thesis;
B) to every name belonging to the set of “men of the Right” may be assigned the production of a thesis T;
C) to every name belonging to the set of “men of the Left” may be assigned the production of a thesis F.
Onfray’s gibberish would then rest on the following implication, valid if redundant – since the fact that the author of the thesis comes from the Right or the Left is neutral with respect to the validity of the formula. Namely: for all x such that x is a true thesis with an author from the Right, and for all y such that y is a false thesis with an author from the Left, x is worth more than y.
The choice of proper name destined to exemplify the right-wing author of a true thesis or the left-wing author of a false thesis belongs to the sentimental or ideological, rather than logical, order – that is, it is effectively a rhetorical choice.
In the context of a polemic against BHL, nothing is more legitimate than to identify by this name the left-wing author of a false thesis. However, Onfray’s hostility toward BHL is such that it overflows the bounds of the logical scheme of his crossed preferences- whence the suspicion that we are dealing with gibberish.
Onfray’s chiasmus is overthrown by his refusal to recognize BHL as a proper left-winger. He highlights that BHL “says he is left-wing”. In his eyes, what’s at stake is an illocutionary assertion, expressing a subject’s opinion of himself; which presupposes that Onfray himself refuses to assign the status of objective truth to this claim. Thereafter, nothing prevents the supposed falsity of BHL’s thesis from extending itself to his left-wing presumptions. In other words, Onfray lets us understand, or suggests, that BHL is a false “left-winger”.
The result of all this is that the axiom of preferences, which proposes that, in every case, the true is worth more than the false, does not have as its only consequence the scholium affirming that every true thesis is worth more than every false thesis. There is another implication: that a true right-wing man who authors a true thesis is worth more than a false left-wing man who authors a false thesis. This scholium completely justifies Manuel Valls’ reading of Onfray’s gibberish.
Onfray has wrestled like a devil, has disputed this reading in every way, in every media outlet; he has called Valls a “cretin”. The fact remains: there’s only one cretin in this affair, and it is Onfray.
The boy, who is otherwise far from unintelligent, is “cretinized” by the excess of his hatred. Hatred of BHL. Hatred of the elitist, decadent, Saint-Germain-des-Prés mafia. Hatred of the left in nearly all its known forms. Of all those who have expressed themselves in the media in 2015, Onfray is by far the most consistently hateful, he is the only one whose style transmits something of Action Française. Today’s Rivarol is far behind.
3. The choice of a proper name
Now, what name do we choose to exemplify the right-wing man as the author of a true thesis?
There are names whose association with the notion of “true thesis” would offend the public’s common sense, or, to use Orwell-Michéa’s phrase, “common decency“. In short, to consider someone as the source of a true thesis inevitably conveys a laudatory effect. Let’s say I were to claim, for example: “a true thesis by Hitler”. Even if I affirm my hatred of this figure elsewhere, this claim conveys praise, since I presuppose that Hitler is someone who is capable of making (at least) a true claim.
Yet it is clear that in some sense Hitler made plenty of “true claims”, like: “I will re-occupy the Rhineland by surprise, and they won’t do anything”, “No one will prevent me from enacting the Anschluss“, “We will cross the Maginot line on the recommendation of Manstein, and we will beat them hands down”, etc. Given the exactitude of these forecasting assertions, nothing opposes the strict logicality of speaking of “true claims” of Hitler. To resume Roland Dumas’ memorable phrase from his dialogue with Jean-Jacques Bourdin, from February 16, “Why not say it, if it’s a reality?”
However, it’s quite something to make of Hitler an example, in the context of a purely logical argument, of the source of true claims. It is yet another matter to do so in the “public sphere” (in Habermas’ sense). This particular proper name contains a connotation that no speaker can reasonably ignore, if he doesn’t wish to be seen as a Nazi sympathizer.
Thus the choice of a proper name must respond to certain extra-logical, tactical, and opportunistic criteria. The name has the status of a rhetorical signifier, characterized by its “nebulosity”, according to Barthes’ term. One can calculate in advance its probable effect on the public.
In the present case, the balance of the case would require that name of BHL be paired with the name of a more or less comparable right-wing intellectual, namely a notorious figure, with easy access, indeed privileged access, to the media, ready to express himself loud and clear on questions of current events.
But who is Alain de Benoist? He is an authentic, extreme right-wing, autodidact intellectual. He is a prolific author. He is also the leader of a certain school of thought, whose hour of glory was in the years post-68, when Robert Hersant and Louis Pauwels entrusted the orientation and editing of the Figaro-magazine to him and his group “La Nouvelle Droite”, posts formerly held by François Mauriac and Raymond Aron. Nevertheless, his name satisfies none of the requirements that I have just explained. Whence Maria de França’s astonishment.
I do not mean to say that Onfray’s choice of name was unmotivated. It can be explained, according to Renaud Dély, by the “common points and convergences” between Benoist and Onfray, noted in the latest number of Monsieur de Benoist’s magazine Eléments (“Michel Onfray et les ‘idées justes’ d’Alain Benoist”, Bibliobs, 9 March). In short, it’s an example of payback.
There remains only one name other than that of Alain de Benoist which might take its natural place opposite BHL without startling anyone: that of Eric Zemmour. It would perfectly satisfy the informal requirements I have enumerated. Here is the basis of the hypothesis that there was a signifying metaphor (in the Lacan’s sense) in Onfray’s claim. The signifier “Alain de Benoist” would have substituted for “Eric Zemmour”, which would have then “fallen into obscurity”.
Provided that this metaphoric substitution took place, what was its sensible effect?
1) Concerning BHL, the metaphor operates by contamination: it sends him back into the mothballs of oblivion along with Alain de Benoist. Associating BHL with Zemmour would have meant associating him with an actual and promising dynamic: associating him with Benoist places him in the past, buries him, it’s the equivalent of saying “Die, BHL!” or “You’re already dead, BHL!”
2) Concerning Onfray himself, the metaphor operates inversely by decontamination: associating the names of BHL and Zemmour would have made a correlative association between the name of Onfray and that of Zemmour. Thus, that which Onfray would prefer the reader to misunderstand would have become legible. This is what we are about to investigate.
4. How to be “left-wing” on the right
This is what I call Onfray’s chiasmus: an accurate analysis by Alain de Benoist rather than an inaccurate analysis by BHL. Until now, we have analyzed it as such, out of context. Now let us replace it in its proper context, the interview in Le Point from which it is excerpted.
The lead-in to the article explains clearly that Onfray is in a transitional phase, a political “moving-out”, and it is not clear that this figure, so quick to rectify everything said concerning him, showed the best judgment in manifesting himself in this case. Text: “The philosopher scorns the proper-thinking left. Suffice it for the right to recover him… ” In effect, Onfray has set out. He is in the process of migrating, with arms and baggage, from the Left to the Right.
However, the difficulty of this operation arises from Onfray’s not having any interest in the Right unless he can join its as a “man of the Left”. He must accomplish a tour de force: to be a “left-wing man” on the Right, indeed “the left-wing man” on the Right.
This demands: a) that the Right be defined as a place, and no longer as a class of individuals; b) that, contrary to Danton’s claim about the fatherland, he, Onfray, may bring the country under the soles of his shoes.
One condition can satisfy both demands at once. It was claimed by Corneille’s Sertorius before Pompey: “Rome is no longer in Rome, she is wherever I am.” This is Onfray’s project: to demonstrate that the Left is no longer on the Left, but rather wherever he is.
I do not abandon the Left, cries Onfray, she, the bitch, is adandoning me, but in so doing she leaves herself. As noted by Baptiste Rossi, Onfray’s Left is “neither the bohemian left, nor the communist left, nor the liberal left, nor the islamist left, nor the proper-thinking left, nor the animal-loving left, nor the Mitterrand left, nor the marxist left, nor the Sarkozy left…” (“Michel Onfray, le mafia ne passera pas”, La Règle du jeu, 9 March). In his interview with Le Point, the rage Onray reserves to stigmatize all the Left’s trends leads him to define the Left by what it is not. This amounts to transposing in political philosophy the major proceeding of negative theology, whose first theorist was, at the end of the 5th century, the so-called Pseudo-Denis the Areopagite, “the father of mysticism”. I might add in passing the regrettable fact that the volume of his Complete Works, once translated for Aubier by Maurice de Gandillac, is out of print.
Onfray’s apophatism with respect to the Left (Wikipedia: from the Greek noun apophasis, from the verb apophemi, “to deny”) knows only one limit: Onfray himself. Baptiste Rossi explains it well: “You might say that for Michel Onfray the definition of the Left begins at Michel and ends at Onfray.” This is the solution to the problem. When the true Left is just wherever Onfray is, and is somehow confused with his person, it is permissible for him to compromise with the Right, associate, flirt, fuck with the Right, indeed bear it children, and for all that never cease being left-wing.
Surely we have lost our bearings, as Manuel Valls indicates, but this is not due to Onfray’s own disorientation. On the contrary, disorientation is his tactic. In order to successfully accomplish his installation on the Right as a “left-wing man”, he must cover his tracks. The idea is to establish a vague situation where the well-known cat can no longer find her kittens. The passage through the “cosmos” will help him there.
In his novel 1984, Orwell imagines a ministry of Truth, a propaganda organ for the powerful, that hammers out the Party’s three slogans: “WAR IS PEACE”, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY”, “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”. Onfray, who has offered himself in almost all the media outlets this past week, is himself a little ministry of Truth in his own exclusive service. What sublime slogans does he diffuse? Something like: “THE LEFT IS NO LONGER THE LEFT”, “THE RIGHT IS MUCH MORE THAN THE RIGHT”, “ONFRAY SPEAKS THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUTH”.
5. Flash to the Future
1. – Now that Onfray has moved his household gods to the Right, it is all the more urgent for him to reaffirm his identity as a left-wing man. He will have to highlight certain of his supposedly leftist “markings”.
For instance, there’s his anti-liberalism, but this won’t be enough to make up the difference. The conservative is just as anti-liberal. See for example the interview with Denis Tillinac in Le Figaro on March 14, published under the title: “If the Right is a liberal version of the Left, it will die”. Anti-liberal? The reformed neo-fascist is much more anti-liberal than the average member of the socialist party, whence Alain de Benoist’s joke: “I think I’m further Left than Manuel Valls!” In the end, everybody knows that the Front National is henceforth the biggest anti-liberal political force, leaving Mélenchon, the Front de gauche, and the Trotskyites far behind.
Onfray will need to prove himself resourceful. What tricks will he come up with to preserve his left-wing reputation? Heaping scorn on the real leftists is something, but it’s not enough. I can imagine him picking out here and there certain “left-wing truths” with which to associate himself, to mark with his label.
2. – How much time will the Left take before registering Onfray’s defection? L’Obs seems to have already mourned the loss of the mighty scribbler. Such is not the case with Libération. Marianne is easygoing; we would expect its “cosmic” rantings; we could offer it a place to knock on Valls; the literary chronicle deplores the meddling of politicians in cultural affairs: as much as saying, “Valls, to the doghouse!” We shall see how long this time-to-understand lasts with the “pure of ear”.
3. – The conservative right and the extreme right celebrate the return of the prodigal son. We have seen that Alain de Benoist, the grand anti-Christian, already knighted Onfray. In Le Point this week, Christine Boutin would not be outdone: she excuses his militant atheism, for “his will to seek truth through the real rejoins the Christian incarnation”; whatever that means. Then she falls into a swoon: “He even dares proclaim the end of the Left!”
Giesbert doesn’t hide that he and Onfray are “old friends”. He clasps to his breast “the colossus”, the force of whose work he admires. He has always protected “our national Savonarola”, persecuted by “the commissioners of the thought police”. As he sees it, he defends Onfray as simultaneously the son of the poor, the hick, and the heretic.
The true moderate and liberal Right in all likelihood will not be on the same wavelength as FOG (Franz-Olivier Giesbert), its dandy. Will the Onfray case be the apple of discord among the right-wing? We shall have look at each one’s “position” under the microscope.
6. Here’s why the Papuans…
We know a little more about Onfray. But the mystery of the Papuans remains. Can we pierce through it?
What is it all about? A pretty little joke that’s not too serious. It consists in assimilating Saint-Germain-des-Prés to a “Papuan village”. We know that Saint-Germain was inscribed in the post-war years, then during the colonial wars in Indochina and especially Algeria, as the neighborhood of the capital’s intellectual Left, a bit like Greenwich Village (“the village“) in New York, or Bloomsbury in London, in the days of Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf.
It is a racist joke, no doubt, but it means much more than it says. You could not say that the “Papuan ethnic group” was aimed for as such. What counts is the word “papou” [papuan], with the internal alliteration of its labials, “p…p…”, and the final long “u” that recalls the call “hoo…hoo…”, whose significance can run from friendly greeting to hostile derision.
There is no question here of those Papuans whose cultures impassioned the great ethnologists, not at all. Only, in French, given the spirit of the language, a certain ridiculousness is attached to the word “papou”, along with a certain tenderness, as in “papounet”, the familiar diminutive form of “papa”. When you hold that the intellectuals of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés are ethereal, even degenerate, snobs, everyone understands that it is a joke to call them “Papous”, a word which in French evokes the general signification of the un-civilized, the savage.
In short, Onfray’s joke on the Papuans: you can’t get any more French than that.
It’s in the best “Gunslinger Tonto” style. It’s like Michel Audiard. The whole spirit of right-wing anarchism is there.
7. È finita la commedia
I’ll drop the word. There is nothing left to bend: Onfray belongs to the spiritual class depicted in literature by Anouilh, Marcel Aymé, Antoine Blondin, Céline, Michel Déon, and other lesser masters.
This is the group that made the Saint-Germain-des-Prés its chosen object of contempt. During the Occupation, they took aim at the “zazous”- ah! there they are, the ancestors of our “papous”- the non-conformist youth, who belched on Vichy, loved jazz, and sometimes even wore the yellow star for solidarity with the Jews (see Wikipedia). Then it was the existentialists who were publicly scorned by our dear anarchists.
I would say that anyone with an ear for literature, and some knowledge of the history of our country in the 20th century, couldn’t fail to see Onfray as the sucker for this good old French tradition.
Rght-wing anarchism! What infamous politics. Literature owes to it some very beautiful pages, some great writers. Its style and worldview profoundly pervaded the “French ideology”. Don’t seek to banish it: it’s a part of the French genius, from Gabin to Delon, from the Nickel-Foot Gang to Journey to the End of Night, about which Beauvoir said in her memoirs: with Sartre “we knew by heart a bunch of passages. His anarchism seemed close to ours.”
Yes, between left- and right-wing anarchism at first there are always overlaps. Time is needed for them to separate. For Onfray, the time has come.
Read his hateful tirade against the Left.
See him execrating the Robespierres, the Marxes, the Sartres.
See his contempt both for the intelligentsia and for the “stupefied crowd”, which “rejoices in voluntary servitude and throngs the streets as a single unit at the first call of the media” (in Le Point, no. 2216, p. 40).
See his “Proudhonian socialism”, a bait-and-switch utopia that has only ever appealed to the extreme right-wing circles (just look at the history of Proudhon’s own circle).
See him posturing as a “poor boy with clenched fists”, burning to take his revenge on the bourgeois ladies, to overshadow the heirs by the energy of “a child of a humiliated people. Caliban has only one wish: to become Prospero. Or rather, to take his place.”
See him playing the part of the “beast” hunted by “the anonymous society of imbeciles and assholes.” Whereupon Giesbert clasps him to his heart: the theatre of virile friendship. “The right-wing anarchist morality is constantly on the defensive.”
See the tendency in his discourse toward “general, pervasive autobiography”, to the point of unleashing his next opus under the title Cosmos.
See his reactionary nostalgia, “his opposition to the century”, and simultaneously, his conviction that the triumph of this very century is “ineluctable”, that the aristocracy of the spirit is destined to be trampled and vanquished. For his populism “is less the deliberate choice of the victims than the just as deliberate choice of the defeated.”
In the end, “his earthly ideal is the pavilion of millstones” – and now, with his success, “a new Lower Norman HQ” in Caen, as Giesbert teaches us – “and whose social type is the small businessman, whose positive image runs through all his books.”
With my anaphoric tirade I invite you to see in Onfray so many traits that sketch a figure who is unique and recognizable among all the others, that of the right-wing anarchist.
Recognize that the quotations sprinkled throughout my lines after the mention of Robespierre, Marx and Sartre are excerpts from a single book: the historian Pascal Ory’s essay Right-wing anarchism, published in 1985 by Grasset. There is no discussion of Onfray, whose first book dates from 1988.
The excerpts from Cosmos in this week’s Le Point are really uplifting.
Onfray is nostalgic for the age when men were “in direct contact with the cosmos, and their life was set by the impeccable mechanism of universal clockwork.” What presumption on the part of the humans, those tiny creatures, to rebel against the order of things! “The stone obeys the cosmos, as do the plants and animals, of course, but not man(…)” Well, Bye Bye Kant, and the rest. It’s a tirade worthy of Jean Gabin.
Onfray has surpassed himself. He has found himself. He says as much: “This is my first book.” Until now he had been content to be a grouchy post-68 reactionary. Now he’s a post-1789 reactionary, in unison with the purest counter-revolutionary thought, the original thought of the counter-revolution, the most hostile to the Enlightenment. His emblem: the light-bearing eel. So, a word to the wise.
Bonald and Maistre and Maurras and Pétain tell him, “Enter here, friend of my soul.”
9. News Flash
Onfray: our Joseph de Maistre, with less style, and more of Audiard’s blather.
Zemmour, neo-Bonapartist, could pass, compared with Onfray, for a progressive.
No, Onfray will not be the “left-wing man” of the right. Not a chance. He will be, in fact he already is, the right-wing neo-anarchist our era was waiting for.
Energy, spirit, cunning, charm, charisma, cheek, fine on TV: he’s got what it takes.
N.B. : the first part of this text appeared in this week’s Le Point, no. 2218, p. 59.
-translated by John Tamplin