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  • Homage to Christian Delacampagne
  • David A. Bell (bio)

Christian Delacampagne was an unusual—and unusually fortunate— appointment for Johns Hopkins. Most of our faculty have spent nearly all their professional lives toiling away within academia on a relatively narrow range of subjects. Christian certainly had all the academic credentials one could want, not to mention an enviably long and varied teaching experience. But he had spent most of his career as a journalist and diplomat, and had published prolifically on a range of subjects that most academics would find impossibly dazzling. I remember very well an eminent intellectual historian telling me, as we were preparing to hire Christian in 2002, that we were taking a very big risk in doing so.

Well, I don’t think this was the case. But even if it had been, there is no doubt but that the risk paid off handsomely. Christian certainly brought to Johns Hopkins all the erudition and scholarly heft that our department of Romance Languages and Literatures could want. But he also brought the experience and perspective of a true intellectual —an intellectuel engagé. It was experience and perspective that proved all the more valuable for someone with Christian’s interests, centered as they were so firmly in the world of the great intellectuels engagés of the twentieth century. When he taught and talked about men and women like Sartre, or de Beauvoir, or Camus, one understood immediately that it was not a mere academic exercise for him—that he was vitally and viscerally connected to what they had tried to do, and to the world in which they lived. I don’t think we ever felt this point quite so strongly as during the conference on Jean-Paul Sartre that [End Page 689] Christian organized at Johns Hopkins. It was the first major conference marking the Sartre centennial, and even more important than the glittering range of speakers that Christian managed to draw here were the passionate—actually, sometimes angry—discussions that followed their talks. Nothing showed better the extent to which so many of the issues around Sartre were still relevant—toujours d’actualité.

And this is a key point about Christian Delacampagne as an intellectual. What was particularly wonderful about having him as a colleague and professor here was this absolute commitment to working on things that he thought mattered—that mattered in the world. If you look at the range of his writings, on everything from slavery to racism to religion to modern art, what united them always was Christian’s sense of having his say on things that were genuinely important, and of doing so without concession to fashion or prevailing ideology. For me, as a historian of France, it was impossible not to see him as a living reminder of the intellectuels engagés of the post-war period—and beyond that, as a lineal descendant of the philosophes of the Enlightenment.

As an example of how well Christian fit this role, let me finish by talking briefly about a piece of writing that he was working on during his last months at Johns Hopkins. It was his article “The Redeker Affair,” published in Commentary magazine in January 2007, on the travails of his old friend Robert Redeker, who had been driven into hiding after publishing an article critical of Islam in Le Figaro. Christian’s own essay was directed less against the extremists who had threatened Redeker’s life than against the French intellectual and political establishment for not giving full support to him, and to the principle of freedom of speech that Christian saw at stake in the affair. The article was a classic J’accuse—a biting, angry denunciation of what Christian saw as moral and intellectual cowardice in the face of intimidation, intolerance and bigotry. Christian believed it was vital to explain to an American audience why the French establishments had, in his view, abdicated their moral and intellectual responsibilities, and I saw how hard he worked revising drafts of the article, even as he received the dreadful diagnosis of the disease that would soon overcome him.

I know that Christian had friends and colleagues who disagreed with this...


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