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Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, journalist, activist, and filmmaker. He was hailed by Vanity Fair magazine as “Superman and prophet: we have no equivalent in the United States.” Among his dozens of books are American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? and Left in Dark Times. His writing has appeared in a wide range of publications throughout Europe and the United States. His films include the documentaries Bosna! and A Day in the Death of Sarajevo. Lévy is co-founder of the antiracist group SOS Racism and has served on diplomatic missions for the French government.
Michel Houellebecq has won the prestigious Prix Novembre in France as well as the lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He lives in Ireland.
Brussels, January 26, 2008
Dear Bernard-Henri Levy,
We have, as they say, nothing in common--except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.
A specialist in farcical media stunts, you dishonor even the white shirts you always wear. An intimate of the powerful who, since childhood, has wallowed in obscene wealth, you are the epitome of what certain slightly tawdry magazines like Marianne still call "champagne socialism" and what German journalists more astutely refer to as the Toskana-Fraktion. A philosopher without an original idea but with excellent contacts, you are, in addition, the creator behind the most preposterous film in the history of cinema.
Nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist: to lump me in with the rather unsavory family of "right-wing anarchists" would be to give me too much credit; basically, I'm just a redneck. An unremarkable author with no style, I achieved literary notoriety some years ago as the result of an uncharacteristic error in judgment by critics who had lost the plot. Happily, my heavy-handed provocations have since fallen from favor.
Together, we perfectly exemplify the shocking dumbing-down of French culture and intellect as was recently pointed out, sternly but fairly, by Time magazine.
We have contributed nothing to the electro-pop revival in France. We're not even mentioned in the credits of Ratatouille.
These then are the terms of the debate.
Paris, January 27, 2008
There are three possible approaches, dear Michel Houellebecq.
Approach 1. Well done. You've said it all. You're mediocre, I'm a nonentity, and in our heads there's nothing but a resounding void. We both have a taste for playacting, we could even be called impostors. For thirty years I've been wondering how I've managed to take people in and continue to do so. For thirty years, tired of waiting for the right reader to come along and unmask me, I've been stepping up my lame, dull, halfhearted self-criticisms. But here we are. Thanks to you, with your help, maybe I'll get there. Your vanity and mine, my immorality and yours . . . As another contemptible fellow--and he was of the highest order--once said, you lay down your cards and I'll lay down mine. What a relief!
Approach 2. Maybe you. But why me? Why should I walk into this exercise of self-denigration? Why should I follow you into this explosive, raging, humiliated self-destruction you seem to have a taste for? I don't like nihilism. I loathe the resentment and melancholy that go with it. I believe that the sole value of literature is to take up arms against this depressionism, which, more than ever, is the password of our era. In that case, I could go out of my way to explain that there are also happy beings, successful works, lives more harmonious than the killjoys who detest us appear to believe. I would take the villain's role, the true villain, Philinte versus Alceste,* and wax lyrical in a heartfelt eulogy of your books and, while I'm about it, my own.
Then there's approach number 3. To answer the question you raised the other night at the restaurant, when we came up with the idea of this dialogue: Why is there so much hatred? Where does it come from? And why, when the targets are writers, is it so extreme in its tone and virulence? Look at yourself. Look at me. And there are other, more serious cases: Sartre, who was spat on by his contemporaries; Cocteau, who could never watch a film to the end because there was always someone waiting to take a crack at him; Pound in his cage; Camus in his box; Baudelaire describing in a tremendous letter how the "human race" is in league against him. And the list goes on. Indeed, we would need to look at the whole history of literature. And perhaps we would also need to try and explore writers' own desire. Which is? The desire to displease, to be repudiated. The giddiness and pleasure of disgrace.
February 2, 2008
I will forgo, for the moment, the pleasures of the delicious debate we could have (we will have) about "depressionism," a subject on which I am, as you say, one of the undisputed authorities. It's just that I'm in Brussels, where I have none of my books to hand, and so might make a slip in this or that quotation from Schopenhauer, whereas Baudelaire is about the only author I can quote more or less from memory. Besides, talking about Baudelaire in Brussels is always nice.
In a passage that probably predates the one you mention (in that he hasn't yet started laying into the human race as a whole, only France), Baudelaire states that a great man is what he is only in spite of his compatriots and that he must therefore develop an aggressive force equal to or greater than the collective defensive forces of his compatriots.
The first thought that occurs to me is that this must be extraordinarily exhausting. The second thought is that Baudelaire died at the age of forty-six.
Baudelaire, Lovecraft, Musset, Nerval--so many of the authors who have mattered to me in my life, for different reasons--died in their forty-seventh year. I clearly remember my forty-seventh birthday. In midmorning, I completed the work I was doing on The Possibility of an Island and sent the novel to the publisher. A couple of days earlier, I had gathered together unfinished texts lying around on CD-ROMs and floppy disks and, before throwing out the disks, collected all the files together on a hard drive from an old computer; then, completely accidentally, I formatted the hard drive, permanently erasing all of the texts. I was still a few meters from the brow of the hill and I had a fair idea of what the long downhill slope that is the second half of life would be like: the successive humiliations of old age and then death. The idea occurred to me more than once, in brief, insistent thoughts, that nothing was forcing me to live out this second half; that I had a perfect right to play hooky.
I did nothing about it and I began my descent. After a few months I realized that I was venturing into an uncertain, viscous territory and that I would have to fill in time before I could get out. I felt something like a falling-off (sometimes brief, sometimes long) in the will to be disliked that was my way of facing the world. More and more frequently, and it pains me to admit it, I felt a desire to be liked. Simply to be liked, by everyone, to enter into a magical space where there was no finger-pointing, no dirty tricks, no polemics. Needless to say, on each occasion a little thought convinced me of the absurdity of this dream; life is limited and forgiveness impossible. But thought was powerless, the desire persisted--and, I have to admit, persists to this day.
Both of us have doggedly sought out the delights of abjection, of humiliation, of ridicule; and in this we have succeeded, to say the least. The fact remains that such pleasures are neither immediate nor natural and that our true, our primitive desire (excuse me for speaking for you), like that of everyone else, is to be admired, or loved, or both.
How can we explain the strange detour that, unbeknownst to each other, we both took? I was struck the last time we met by the fact that you still Google yourself, in fact you even have a Google alert so you know every time a new story appears. I've turned off my Google alerts, in fact I've even stopped Googling myself.
You wanted, you explained to me, to know your adversary's position so that you might be better able to respond. I don't know whether you genuinely enjoy war, or rather I don't know how much of the time you enjoy it, how many years' training it took to find an interest and a charm in it; but what is undeniable is that, like Voltaire, you believe that ours is a world where one lives or dies "les armes a la main."
The fact that you are not battle weary is a powerful force. It prevents you and will go on preventing you from succumbing to misanthropic apathy, which, to me, is the greatest danger; that bleating, sterile sulkiness that makes one hole up in a corner constantly muttering "arseholes, the lot of them" and, quite literally, do nothing else.
The force in me that might play this socializing role is rather different: my desire to displease masks an insane desire to please. But I want people to like me "for myself," without trying to seduce, without hiding whatever is shameful about me. I have been known to resort to provocation; I regret that, for it is not in my innermost nature. By provocateur I refer to anyone who, independently of what he thinks or what he is (and by constantly resorting to provocation, the provocateur no longer thinks, no longer is), calculates his words, his attitude to provoke maximum annoyance or discomfiture in his interlocutor. Many humorists in recent decades have been remarkably provocative.
I, on the other hand, suffer from a form of perverse sincerity: I doggedly, relentlessly seek out that which is worst in me so that I can set it, still quivering, at the public's feet--exactly the way a terrier brings his master a rabbit or a slipper. And this is not something I do in order to achieve some form of redemption, the very idea of which is alien to me. I don't want to be loved in spite of what is worst in me, but because of what is worst in me. I even go so far as to hope that what is worst in me is what people like best about me.
The fact remains that I am uncomfortable and helpless in the face of outright hostility. Every time I did one of those famous Google searches, I had the same feeling as, when suffering from a particularly painful bout of eczema, I end up scratching myself until I bleed. My eczema is called Pierre Assouline,* Didier Jacob, Francois Busnel, Pierre Merot, Denis Demonpion, Eric Naulleau, and so many others--I forget the name of the guy at Le Figaro--I don't really know anymore. In the end, I stopped counting my enemies although, in spite of my doctor's repeated advice, I still haven't given up scratching.
Nor have I given up tr...