The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   108

Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal

Essays on Everyday Life

by Leszek Kolakowski

translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska

Penguin Books, 1999

How Are the Mighty Fallen

Leszek Kolakowski needs more introduction than he used to. Briefly, then: He was born in 1927 in Poland. In the 1950s and 1960s he made a name for himself among scholars as a philosopher and a historian of philosophy at the University of Warsaw, and another name among leftists as a political activist and theorist, advocating a democratic, humanist Marxism. He was specifically denounced for revisionism in 1956, but somehow held on to his position until 1968, when the government expelled him from the University and he was lucky enough to be able to leave the country. His exile, and a visiting professorship at Berkeley in 1969, gave him a highly negative opinion of the western left in general, and the student New Left in particular; by this time he had ceased to regard himself as a Marxist. In the 1970s he wrote and published his magnum opus in three volumes, Main Currents of Marxism, which I hope to be able to review at some point for these pages. From the 1980s through his retirement in 1995 he held joint positions at the Universities of Chicago and Oxford; by then his reputation among the left had evaporated, and his own opinions had moved noticeably rightward, but not uncharitably or unreasonably so.

Kolakowski's work, at its finest, is an unsurpassed combination of massive erudition, keen insight, graceful exposition and the faculty of infusing interest into even very dry matters dead for centuries. He is still capable of writing like that, as the book before this one, a study of Jansenism, amply demonstrates. Perhaps there are other people who can make a three hundred year old dispute over the proper interpretation of St. Augustine and the concept of sufficient grace gripping, but there surely cannot be many.

Unfortunately, the essays collected in Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal are not among his best, or even his second-best. The verbal elegance is still there, but the ideas are those of a grouchy man not particularly fair about his dislikes or well-informed about the subjects on which he lays down the law. (Think of ugly furniture, skillfully upholstered in silk.) I was prepared to find that Kolakowski had grown conservative; indeed I was almost hoping for it, for we have a great need of truly intelligent conservatives. Many things in this book disappointed, but what was painful were Kolakowski's lapses into mere errors. In his remarks on randomness and codes (``On the Wheel of Fortune''), for instance, I find no less than three distinct, basic errors in the space of paragraph, one of them, that unbreakable codes exist, tolerably profound and important to his argument. Again, the very first sentence of ``On Betrayal'' --- ``We are all born members of an ethnic community'' --- is plainly false. (In all modesty, I am a counter-example: my grandparents belong to three different ethnic groups, making me a member of none.) A little later on, we read that ``[a] nation, like an individual, is the creation of nature, not a thing of human design'' (p. 70). To say nothing of the ignorance of the history of nationalism this reveals, I am astonished Kolakowski could live in the United States of America for fifteen years and think such a thing. Not only are we a nation which is no more a creation of nature than is the Hoover Dam, lots of us are proud of it.

There are some good ideas in here, scattered about, and even some essays (``On Respect for Nature'' in particular) which I found it good to think against. But quite honestly I haven't come this close to throwing a book across the room in years. It hasn't enough merit to be worth buying, but it's also such a drastic departure from Kolakowski's previous standards that I can only urge people to read his other books; I hope he writes many more, and that this one will prove to have been an aberration.

Erratum: on p. 58, for ``zoor'' read ``poor''.
143 pp., no index
Cultural Criticism / Philosophy
Currently in print as a paperback, ISBN 0140280448, UK£6.99; in print in the US as a paperback (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999), ISBN 0-8133-3708-9, US$12. Not in the Library of Congress catalog
11 November 1999