Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World Paperback – Jan 11 2011
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About the Author
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.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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 trying to beat my eczema, but I believe I have finally realized that for the rest of my life I will have to suffer the microparasites who can--literally--no longer survive without me, whom I provide with a reason for existing, who will go so far, as in the recent Assouline case, for example, as to rummage through notes for a conference in Chile (where I felt I might be somewhat sheltered), anything they can dig out, cutting and remixing it a little to present me as ridiculous or odious.
And yet I don't want to have enemies, sworn, self-confessed enemies, it simply does not interest me. While I have in me a desire to please and a desire to displease, I have never felt the least desire to vanquish, and it is in this, I believe, that we differ.
By this I do not mean that you do not also feel a desire to please, but that you also feel a desire to vanquish; in this you walk with both feet (which, according to president Mao Zedong, is preferable). And it's true that if you want to go far, go fast, it is preferable. On the other hand, the movements of a one-legged man have something whimsical, unpredictable about them; he is to the ordinary walker what a rugby ball is to a soccer ball; it's not impossible that a healthy one-legged man might more easily escape a sniper.
Enough of these dubious metaphors, which are simply a way of evading the question you were asking: "Why so much hatred?" Or more exactly, "Why us?" Even if we admit that we were asking for it, we still need to understand how we so consummately succeeded. It might be thought that I am senselessly wasting my energy on individuals as insignificant as Assouline or Busnel. The fact remains that my personal parasites (and, in the same way, yours) have, in their relentlessness, had certain results. On several occasions I have received e-mails from secondary-school students telling me that their teachers warned them against reading my books. By the same token, there has always been a scent of the lynch mob around you. Often, when your name comes up in conversation, I will notice an evil grin I know all too well, a rictus of petty, despicable pleasure at the prospect of being able to insult without risk. Many times, as a child (every time I found myself in a group of young men, in fact), I witnessed this vile process, the singling out of a victim that the group will then be able to humiliate and insult to their heart's content--and I have never for a moment doubted that, in the absence of a higher authority, specifically of their teachers or the cops, things would have gone much further, would have resulted in torture and murder. I never had the physical courage to side with the victim; but at least I never felt the desire to join the executioners' camp. We are perhaps, neither of us, particularly morally admirable, but we have nothing of the pack animal about us, this is one thing at least that can be said in our favor. As a child, when confronted by such painful scenes, I simply turned away, happy at the thought that I had been spared this time. And now that I am one of the victims, I can still turn away, more or less convinced that things will not go beyond the verbal, at least, as long as we live in a reasonably well-policed state.
Or I might try to understand, to contemplate this unpleasant phenomenon--although I have never really been convinced by the essentially symbolic explanations given for it, based on the history of religions. The phenomenon existed in rural civilizations, it exists today in our cities, it would continue to exist if cities ceased to exist and all communication were virtual. It seems to me to be entirely independent of the political or spiritual order of the times. Revealed religions could, I believe, disappear without the phenomenon being markedly affected.
A number of passages in Comedie,* which I've just finished, make me think that you have had occasion to ponder the question in your own case. So . . . I pass the baton to you.
And I cordially salute you.
February 4, 2008
Oh yes, eczema . . .
Are you familiar with those tremendous pages in Cocteau about just that, eczema?
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BHL, who can be crudely described as a self-promoting, sanctimonious French neo-conservative (indeed he's a Jewish intellectual who has become a relentless advocate for forceful intervention on human rights grounds), is something of a revelation here. His views are extremely irritating. His public promotion reeks of PT Barnum. Yet he writes about his father's life with a cool, deadpan intensity that, in a few pages, is a more intense and moving narrative than the vast majority of acclaimed social realist novels. He's one of those writers who, even when you disagree with everything he says, has a way of bringing you to a deeper understanding of things through critical engagement. Very engaging.
Houellebecq puts on his usual bathetic show of iconoclastic force, and by sheer nihilistic bravado tends to outdo the more constrained BHL. But again, much of the petulance is given force by personal detail. To take one example, Houellebecq defends himself against BHL's charge that he is insufficiently committed to the accomplishments of the French resistance, specifically the random killing of a Nazi officer in a subway. Houellebecq explains that for him, France died when the mutinies of 1917 took place, events little-known outside France (where they were long a taboo subject). He explains that he knows little about what his family did during the war. But one number he remembers, because it stuck with him, was that his grandmother was part of a family that in 1914 comprised fourteen brothers and sisters. By 1918, there were only three left. Atrocious beyond all measure. But unlike the other combatants, France never experienced a true public reckoning for its complicity in that hideous conflict. "In going beyond the acceptable in that appalling, unjustified war, France lost all right to the love and the respect of its citizens; it brought discredit on itself. And such discredit is, I repeat, permanent." It's difficult to appreciate the complex French attitude towards WWII without understanding this unofficial counter-narrative of a people utterly betrayed by their nation's role in fomenting WWI -- a role which the war's end froze in exaltation, rather than critical condemnation. The official narrative, of course, paints France in WWI as a nation completely justified, heroic, and vindicated against an evil foe. But Houellebecq's unofficial folk narrative explains why the reality was much more complex and conflicted for the French people. This is just one example of the way the two writers' personal confessions give focus and intensity to the otherwise airy ideas tossed about in these letters.
The book does have one truly annoying aspect, however, which is that they spend too much space, measured by a third party's taste, blithering about the mundane details of French literary life -- the publishers, the critics, television appearances, and so forth. Almost none of this is interesting for a foreigner, and most of the specific references will be meaningless. For example, they'll debate at considerable length whether such-and-such editor at some literary journal is a complete dolt or not. I can understand why this was interesting to them, but it is unlikely to interest anybody else except for other French writers. It's akin to listening to a musician whine about record label politics; tiresome shop talk.
Since political discourse in the United States has become so profit-driven, the chances of such a book happening here (between known American political personalities) are pretty much zero.
Rush couldn't correspond with John Stewart because it would be "beneath him," just like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn't appear in the same movie back in their heyday, because one wouldn't give top billing to the other.
Each political voice here in America is a business enterprise, not a true intellectual interested in debate for the sake of bettering the nation. It is all for profit, not for the people.
It is sad time for the world, but this book offers a small glimmer of hope that some people, in some places, still want to better themselves.
I, at least, see the book as an exercise in mentorship. BHL takes under his wings a wretched, paranoid, hurting Houllebecq and tries to help him dispel the demons of hatred, contempt, depression(ism) and self-pity. The touch is ever so light, never patronizing but rather shines with generosity -even nobility - of spirit even when embedded in (somewhat) self-conscious charisma. after all, the giving part comes from someone who can afford to give, someone who loves (and this endeared him to me), Piero della Francesca. Houllebecq's gravitas, on the other hand, reads more like bathos, especially when it comes to the tortured view of himself as a writer/poet. As evident from Elementary Particles, H's inner space has collapsed to a singularity threatening to disappear into disconnection and madness. BHL counters this with:
"..there have been two things I felt were worth living for: first, love (and I mean this in the sense of loving women) and, second, writing, just writing, spending nights, days, and more nights at my word-kit... I believe that they come down to the same thing. Deep down, fundamentally, they are the same thing. they same kind of energy, the same drive, the same force - reined in, building up - the same mix of sensual pleasure and pain, suddenness and patience, scrupulous searching and effortless finding. Why do you write? Because you can;t make love all day. Why do you make love? Because you can't write all day" (P. 237).
What impresses the casual reader in PEs are not only the intimate, incestuous, relationships in the contemporary French literary scene (you can find their mirror image, say, in NYC if not Berlin) but also the effortless familiarity with which the two writers approach illustrious predecessors. We see that Montaigne, Lautreamont, Gide, Hugo, Rimbaud, Valery, Comte, Malraux, Aragon,Sartre - but also Cocteau, Robbe-Grillet, Artaud - are very much alive, informing the present in an ever unfolding dialogue. The author of Fleur du Mal towers above them all, like a giant half-buried in a sand dune. These guys have become immortal in a way that an American cannot really comprehend. Everything is connected, everything is implicated, ideas and words, phrases are percolating within the national memory through centuries in a way that can be shared. Reminds me of Indian brahmin pundits who used to grow up with collective memories of the Vedas, Upanishads and proverbs, or Native Americans (say, White Mountain Apaches) for whom every rock, every stream lives through stories handed down over generations. we see, in this book, the richness that is the patrimony of every Frenchman.
I do wish they talked less about their parents and more about their women :)
In addition to the lucidity, there was much bravado and score settling with unaccommodating critics, some naivete & even tribal savagery. It was interesting to see BHL, a committed social activist who flies around the world fighting injustice, for brutalized peoples in Darfur, Bosnia, Angola, etc - ignore the savagery of Israelis who have stolen Palestinian land & water,pushed "natives" into isolated desperate little ghettos,consciously dehumanized them and pushed them into acts of terrorist despair. When it comes to Israel, there is a blind spot the size of a fire truck - the intellect gives way, the Goddesses of Justice and Compassion flee and the neolithic tribal YHWH spirit takes possession. The emotional & cognitive dissonance extends to BHL's ethics and morality, as demonstrated by his defense of DSK.
What does it mean to be a Jew and a Frenchman for BHL? Whose side has more sway when it comes to the clash between esoteric talmudic reading of the meaning of words and European enlightenment? Derrida or Diderot? In any case, by choosing to identify as a Dreyfusard you perpetuate the evil game of separation. Dialectics 101. How can Israel be happy and safe unless its Palestinian neighbors aren't happy and safe?
Anyway, there is much that is fascinating in this book, and much of it between the lines. Worth taking a peek.