To engage in a conversation with Regis Debray, one of France's most stimulating public intellectuals, is to expose oneself to an avalanche of unorthodox ideas. From the study of his fourth-floor apartment in the Latin Quarter he casts a disabused glance at the chaos assailing the world from all sides. Aeons ago, after disastrous stints in the company of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, he renounced all craving to change the course of history through an armed, left-wing revolution. His flirtations with democratic socialism first with Chile's Salvador Allende and later with Francois Mitterand of France also proved to be short-lived.
Once he bade farewell to any direct truck with the political establishment, Debray devoted all his time and energies to what he believed was his true vocation: writing. Over the past quarter of a century his output novels, extended essays, columns in the press, books on art, religion and 'medialogy' (a discipline he claims to have forged) has been prolific. Each publication generated fierce controversy. His critics, especially on the left, have damned him for promoting ideas that they think belong to another, reactionary age: the importance of the state and nation, the need for a robust national identity, the role of religion in human affairs and so forth.
Debray, now touching 70, asserts time and again that he has been, remains, and will be a materialist, an agnostic, a man of the left but with a Gaullist underpinning. In his most recent book, The Fraternity Moment, he rails against what he calls the 'religion of the contemporary West'. The central beliefs of this 'religion' relate to activism about human rights; a preference for unabashed individualism to the detriment of the common good; an endorsement of the market ideology as the be all and end all of human progress; a condescending attitude towards other faiths and cultures in the name of pluralism and tolerance; a subservience to the 'videosphere' (where the image reigns) at the cost of the tried and tested value of the 'graphosphere' (where the printed word is supreme.)