Having read Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles and disliked it intensely* I was a bit dubious when Stu from Winston’s Dad selected Public Enemies as a Christmas Humbook for me, but I actually enjoyed this book immensely and am really pleased that he chose it for me.
The blurb for the Atlantic Books edition of Public Enemies describes this book as a ferocious exchange of letters by two of the most celebrated of French intellectuals but it seems a calm and courteous debate to me. I am undecided as to whether I have formed this impression because the publicists have tried to create conflict as a marketing strategy or because I am perhaps not bright enough to detect the subtleties of Lévy and Houellebecq being rude to each other. The book simply seems to be two intelligent and interesting men in correspondence over opposing philosophical positions, hardly the stuff of ferocity or even great passion. Public Enemies is nowhere near as confrontational as most of what passes for debate in the Australian media. (Or cat-fights between literary critics via Twitter, oh why do I waste my time clicking those links?!)
Lévy describes their correspondence like this:
I watch out for the things that connect us, the things that separate us, the things that appear to connect us that in reality separate us – our correspondences …
… less as a match than a game, less of a competition than a way for two people to invent and produce together a work of the mind, with questions, answers, frustrated passions, sudden revivals, shared or hidden flashes of understanding, virtuoso performances, the setting of traps. (p. 173-4)
The correspondence was apparently triggered by Time Magazine labelling the pair as representative of the ‘shocking dumbing-down of French culture and intellect’, an assessment which if as reported in Public Enemies seems ludicrous to me because I cannot think of any magazine less able to rise to its pretensions and be the judge of any culture. Whatever about that, Houellebecq invites Lévy to spar, and away they go, beginning with an analysis of why they should bother to respond:
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? (p.6)
Houellebecq admits that he sets out what is worst about himself at the public’s feet, but it’s not because he has a desire to displease, but rather that he wants people to like him for himself, without hiding what is shameful. Unlike Lévy who harbours a ‘desire to vanquish’ he no longer scratches himself as if he had a ’bout of eczema’ by Googling hostile criticism. Lévy disagrees in part: he doesn’t think of himself as a ‘victim’ of ‘persecution’ because he just doesn’t relate to the image that they portray of him. He’s familiar with ‘the lynch mob’ but he doesn’t feel targeted. However he does like to stay informed about the ‘state of play’ and yes, citing Voltaire, he does like to conquer:
There’s nothing to equal a sense of war, not only to protect a work, shelter it, give it sanctuary but also to see it through and to hang on to the desire to continue, unshaken by winds, tides and the ravening pack. (p. 21)
I like the concept of ‘protecting’ one’s work; it resonates with what I’ve read on various author blogs about nurturing a work, bringing it to fruition and launching it into the world with some trepidation. The life of a writer, Lévy says, is summed up by a ‘state of continual battle dress’ – with the writers he admires fending off attackers, living and dying bearing their weapons.
The idea of literary works under attack might seem a little melodramatic in Australia where the nearest we have come to any similar sort of spleen is the perennial ‘bagging’ of Patrick White and The History Wars, which was more about politics than about literature or philosophy. But in this thoughtful exchange of letters it becomes clear that both these authors have had a rough time of it, especially Houellebecq whose own mother has written a nasty book about him. (She abandoned him when he was a baby and he hardly knows her). They talk at length about how to manage threats, lies, unauthorised biographies and so on, and it is sad to see that they agree (though for different reasons) that protesting and/or suing simply gives their critics more air.
I took ten pages of notes about this book because there were so many interesting insights about all sorts of things, and both authors write really well – so my dilemma here is how to choose what to comment on here. In conversation about their families for example, Lévy admires his father who overcame real poverty and became successful: the downside of this was that, bourgeois himself, he never lost his disdain for the bourgeois and so became reclusive. Houellebecq then writes about a shift in the previous ‘difficult, dignified existence of the working classes’ who lived by their work and expected no handouts. But they were also ‘limited’ in their horizons: they couldn’t afford holidays, they never went anywhere, they had no transport not even bicycles. Today, he says, all of Western Europe has fallen into depression and malaise, and only want happy, escapist stuff because they won’t face their own reality. He likes the optimism of Russia compared to the gloom of Europe: he says it’s true that problems of world over-population, energy use and climate change must be faced, but he likes Russia because they’re cheerfully ignoring it all because they have a desire to live. Lévy’s response to this is what you’d expected from a ‘committed public intellectual’: he says that ignoring significant world issues is tantamount to not caring about them (though his argument is more sophisticated than that).
But Houellebecq is not a ‘politically committed intellectual’ and he mounts an argument about how France interferes in matters of private concern. (LOL I couldn’t restrain a smile when he launched a broadside against anti-smoking campaigns, it never ceases to amuse me when smokers glorify their habit with intellectual arguments about rights to freedom – without acknowledging the logical counter-argument about the rights of the majority non-smokers to breathe clean air). Houellebecq has exiled himself in Ireland and enjoys not being able to shape the affairs of the country by voting; and in support of his distaste for wars and violence, he quotes Goethe who said ‘Better an injustice than disorder’. This got my hackles up because it made me think of Germans using it to turn a blind eye to what was done to Jews in their name - but Lévy is quick to (courteously) repudiate the use of this maxim which he says is often taken out of context: it was actually used in the case of saving the life of an evil man from a lynch mob. No matter, says Houellebecq. He cites terrorists and anarchists and the disorder and injustice they cause: it’s better, he says, to let authorities decide, for all that they are sometimes vague or unjust, than to give in to the impulsive crowd with its potential for violence.
This discussion about pacifism and when it’s morally ok to fight the authorities is stimulating and provocative, not least because of fine shades of meaning that I haven’t got space to reproduce here. Houellebecq raises the question of a government’s legitimacy and how sometimes a government asks too much of its citizens. In the case of the slaughter of WWI, he argues that France lost the respect of its citizens and that discredit is permanent. This loss of faith in what their government said was necessary and right explains the nihilism of Surrealism and Dadaism, the predisposition to think that the USSR was the ‘country of the workers’ and the scepticism about WW2 which led to France’s inglorious capitulation.
In a few short pages, these two writers have encapsulated the tension that many of us feel between the desire to take pleasure in life and ‘smell the roses’, and the responsibility – the obligation – to take action on behalf of others and the planet. The correspondence goes on to discuss religion, politics, fame and literature, finishing up with a very apt definition of what makes books good or bad:
In the bad ones everything is dead. The ink is barely dry and already the words it formed on it are disappearing. These are books without a footprint, books that leave no traces. (p. 241)
Well, Public Enemies has left me with plenty to think about which makes it a good book!
*See my indignant review at GoodReads, but let’s not talk about it, ok? I read it too long ago to say anything useful about it now.
Authors: Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy
Title: Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World
Translators: Miriam Rachel Frendo and Frank Wynne
Publisher: Atlantic Books 2011
Source: Glen Eira Library via inter-library loan, with thanks to Bayside Library
Try your library.