Last week we nostalgically suggested that culturally, things might have been better in the past. This week we will nostalgically infer that they might be better elsewhere. Where? In France, of course.
Because media figures must be drawn in broad strokes, let us paint philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy as the bleeding-heart lefty and novelist Michel Houellebecq as the cynical reactionary. Their international bestseller Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World has just been released in America.
The meeting of the leftist philosopher and the conservative novelist is rather like the meeting of men and women as Musset describes it:
…all men are liars, fickle, false, talkative, hypocritical, arrogant and cowardly, despicable and sensual; all women are treacherous, deceitful, vain, curious and depraved; but there is in the world one thing, holy and sublime, it is the union of these two creatures so imperfect and so hideous.
Adapted to the BHL/Houellebecq letters it would run like this: BHL is talkative, hypocritical, arrogant and cowardly, sententious, didactic without being illuminating, both repetitive and inconsistent, and careless with words—which for a philosopher verges on the criminal, like a surgeon careless with scalpels! Michel Houellebecq is vain, curious, despicable, depraved, and so full of Gallic gall that it leaves little room for anything else…but their exchange is stimulating.
Because it is an actual exchange. Unlike politicians they are not trading blank nonsense, issuing lawyer-proof bleached statements from which nothing can be inferred but a general respect for values and an even more general feeling of hope. And unlike the so-called pundits, they are not simply discharging deaf opinions, the first speaking and then the second, each dumb to the other.
Not only do Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq write to each other, they also read each other’s answers, and little by little a real conversation unravels.
They start by talking about the intellectual’s role in public life—a talk heavily tinged with paranoia just like in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, to which they repeatedly refer. On top of the paranoia, the moderns bring a feeling of shame to the role. Houellebecq sees shame as a device for control (“because in our societies, it is important for people to feel ashamed of themselves; it may even be the case that shame has become the fundamental tool for taming”) and Lévy sees it as inherent to the human condition (“the double specter of being nothing and of being nothing other than yourself, of having no place in this world and also of having one, but one that fills you with an even more biting embarrassment and shame”).
Houellebecq and Lévy have a public role, but they are ashamed of it. They neurotically weigh what must go to the private life and what to the public, a contemporary impulse. Was Dante torn between fighting for the Guelphs and writing poetry? Did Goethe worry about favoring his literary career or his official one? Just as much I suspect he worried whether to read in German or in French, to study philosophy or science. They were all part and parcel of a man back then.
Nowadays the public realm is such a poisoned thing that it is not fit for a gentleman to be seen in, so excuses must be made for participating in it. Like men who meet in a brothel, Houellebecq and Lévy give each other reasons for being found there: Houellebecq did it for the money and wanted to sell enough books to quit his day job. “If,” he says, “I had had a small private income, I would certainly have written books (I might well have written more), but I would never have set foot in a television studio.”
Bernard-Henri Lévy does it for the causes, to bring the “forgotten victims” of the “forgotten wars” to the fore in some sort of belief that publicity is life, some Freudian faith that talking about things will cure them. For his part, Houellebecq is a religious as well as a political atheist.
The letters soar when Houellebecq and Levy talk about literature, poetry, Baudelaire, and Aragon—what joins rather than separates them. There are even some truly rousing pages by BHL about his double passion for writing and women. Apart from that, he comes out looking the worst for the comparison. Next to Houellebecq’s acute comments on everything—Céline, democracy, the smoking ban, France’s behavior in the Second World War—Lévy’s notions end up looking overblown and empty. Houellebecq barely needs to prick them for them to deflate.
Houellebecq is at his best in these letters. Going back to his novel The Possibility of an Island afterwards is like looking at pictures of a man when he was fat now that you see him slim: the same material but unnecessarily sprawling. Glimpses of his sharp vision do poke through, mostly in criticism of society, literature, and himself. His mind seems to work best when set against something. “I always hated telling stories,” he admits in Public Enemies. Yes, we can tell. He advises Lévy to go back to writing novels. As for him, he should stick to philosophy.
…which BHL had perhaps better give up. Lévy may be arrogant but not quite enough to tackle the masters, knock them down, and build anew. He even admits to envying Houellebecq’s easy way with great philosophers, quoting them as if he knew them personally, not just academically.
“As for life,” says Bernard-Henri, “I’m not bad at it.”
True, true, wearing nice clothes, romancing beautiful women, and flying to exotic locations with a whiff of danger in the air is an exciting life. So if he is to write at all, he might try adventure novels.
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