Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the Worldby Bernard-Henri Levy, Michel Houellebecq
In one corner, Bernard-Henri Lévy, creator of the classic Barbarism with a Human Face, dismissed by the media as a wealthy,/i>/b>
The international publishing sensation is now available in the United States—two brilliant, controversial authors confront each other and their enemies in an unforgettable exchange of letters.
In one corner, Bernard-Henri Lévy, creator of the classic Barbarism with a Human Face, dismissed by the media as a wealthy, self-promoting, arrogant do-gooder. In the other, Michel Houellebecq, bestselling author of The Elementary Particles, widely derided as a sex-obsessed racist and misogynist. What began as a secret correspondence between bitter enemies evolved into a remarkable joint personal meditation by France’s premier literary and political live wires. An instant international bestseller, Public Enemies has now been translated into English for all lovers of superb insights, scandalous opinions, and iconoclastic ideas.
In wicked, wide-ranging, and freewheeling letters, the two self-described “whipping boys” debate whether they crave disgrace or secretly have an insane desire to please. Lévy extols heroism in the face of tyranny; Houellebecq sees himself as one who would “fight little and badly.” Lévy says “life does not ‘live’” unless he can write; Houellebecq bemoans work as leaving him in such “a state of nervous exhaustion that it takes several bottles of alcohol to get out.” There are also touching and intimate exchanges on the existence of God and about their own families.
Dazzling, delightful, and provocative, Public Enemies is a death match between literary lions, remarkable men who find common ground, confident that, in the end (as Lévy puts it), “it is we who will come out on top.”
A dialogue between two acclaimed French writers, originally published in France.
Liberal activist and philosopher Lévy (Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, 2009, etc.) and libertarian social satirist Houellebecq (The Possibility of an Island, 2006, etc.) collaborated for six months in 2008 to produce this book, written as an exchange of letters. Despite their eminence in the French intellectual scene, both have been attacked by the French press (and have attacked each other)—Lévy for hypocritical egotism and Houellebecq for racism. As the correspondence unfolds, the reader comes to see them in a different light—as social critics who are trying to grapple with the important issues of the day in different ways. Unfortunately, many of the topical illusions and literary and philosophical references in the book will be missed by readers unfamiliar with the specifics of French culture. While both Lévy and Houellebecq support Israeli policy toward Palestine, their stance is quite different. Houellebecq, a self-proclaimed nonbeliever, sees no value in ethnic identity; Lévy describes himself as a happy Jew, writing that "[t]here are Jews who suffer; I'm a Jew who fights." He accuses Houellebecq of not caring enough about the destiny of the human race: "Africa's forgotten wars, the massacres in Sarajevo, the Pakistani madrassas where jihad is taught, Algeria in the grip of mass terrorism." How is it, he asks reflectively, that "one of us [Houellebecq] could act as if nothing was more important than to on listening to 'Ticket to Ride' in the company of gorgeous blondes, while the other gets up on his high horse." Houellebecq counters by explaining why he puts personal freedom ahead of civic duty: "I believe that people who want to get too mixed up in the lives of their fellow men, to redesign or regenerate humanity excessively, are either dangerous lunatics or crooks, or both."
The arguments are often engaging, but the narrative could have used more editing for an American audience—will appeal mostly to academics and dedicated readers of philosophy.
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Read an Excerpt
Brussels, January 26, 2008
Dear Bernard-Henri Levy,
We have, as they say, nothing in commonexcept 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 fellowand he was of the highest orderonce 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, Nervalso many of the authors who have mattered to me in my life, for different reasonsdied 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 persistedand, 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 feetexactly 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 othersI forget the name of the guy at Le FigaroI 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 canliterallyno 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 contentand 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 phenomenonalthough 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?
Meet 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.
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