Surreal trip from Dada to Derrida

Modern French Philosophy
April 9, 2004

Robert Wicks provides us with an accessible, well-documented survey of French thought in the 20th century, with its focus on a specific strand of modern intellectual history proving both its strength and its weakness. His decision to begin his story with the drama of "surrealism" represents an original option. Where most surveys of this period tend to start with precursors such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, or with the formative influence of the three H's - Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger - Wicks offers us a more home-grown genealogy - namely, Dada and sons.

Admittedly, this singular perspective gives a powerful narrative cohesion to the overall account, running from the heyday of Dadaism to the exuberances of May 1968. The story takes us from existentialism and vitalism, through structuralism and poststructuralism, to postmodernism.

En route, the author identifies a number of underestimated continuities in the evolution of modern French thought, and affords a central place to figures such as Emile Cioran (the ecstatic nihilist) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (the mystical paleontologist) - thinkers normally ignored or neglected in such intellectual histories. This does contemporary scholarship a great service.

Wicks' surrealist lens also serves to highlight the particularly literary nature of Gallic philosophy in the 20th century. The opening chapters, for example, are devoted to three Nobel laureates in literature - Bergson, Sartre and Camus. And a literary critic such as Barthes is afforded two chapters out of 18.

But it is here also that the manifest strengths are ghosted by weaknesses. How, for instance, can one justify two full chapters on a literary figure such as Barthes in a book titled Modern French Philosophy ? How can one defend devoting a full chapter to a faddist sociologist such as Jean Baudrillard when there are no more than a few sentences dedicated to profound philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty? And how do you explain the virtual silence on the influential movement of French feminist philosophy running from Simone de Beauvoir to Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva? Or the exclusion of innovative religious thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel or Simone Weil? Indeed, when the author does deal with a major figure such as Derrida, for example, he does so under the narrow and misleading rubric of "linguist and literary theorist". Most of Derrida's writings have nothing to do with either.

The reason for this is surely the author's idiosyncratic - if original - criterion of selection: Dada rather than phenomenology; Andre Breton rather than Husserl. The author has every right to chose such a selective grid. In fact, one could argue that it makes for a better story than trying to say a little about everyone and ending up saying nothing of any depth about anyone. The problem, if there is one, is not with the specificity of editorial focus. It is, rather, with the overall title of the book, which does not reflect this focus.

The publishers would have been well advised to make some mention of the term surrealism in the title or subtitle. The lurid, vulgar cover image chosen is more suited to horror literature than to an academic work of philosophy. But these are minor points in what is otherwise a powerful and provocative presentation of one of the golden ages of western thought.

Richard Kearney is professor of philosophy, Boston College, Massachusetts, US.

Modern French Philosophy: From Existentialism to Postmodernism

Author - Robert Wicks
Publisher - Oneworld
Pages - 342
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 85168 318 6

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