Sunday, December 16, 2007

Violence and better critics

"The Paris intelligentsia disengage from real life". This is a headline you can expect to read every few weeks in the British press, particularly in the supposedly sophisticated, supposedly left-wing journals like the New Statesman whose turn it is this month to sneer. As Bernard-Henri Lévy said last week in response to US claims that "French culture is all but dead", the sneering tells us more about the British than it does the French. The author, Andrew Hussey, did more or less the same last year writing about Jonathan Littell's novel Les Bienveillantes, and I really don't want to respond by repeating what I said then. But, if it helps to counter the influence of such cheap, insidious articles, here goes. He begins with a dark scenario of what's happening in Paris now:
In the suburbs, gangs of rioting immigrant youths are once again setting fire to cars and fighting running battles with the police. Unlike in the riots of 2005, which nearly brought the government down, the gangs are armed this time, mainly with cheap hunting rifles and air pistols. They move in small, predatory packs with the stated aim of shooting policemen.
It's like a scene from Resident Evil: Extinction (which I was watching as I wrote this); and almost as artificial.

Against this scene Hussey sets the character of Phillippe Sollers, "the epitome of snobbish, bourgeois, mondain Paris", whose book Un vrai roman: Mémoires is the "biggest literary event of the Parisian festive season" - that is, as defined by the same Parisian press who no doubt provided the juicy details of the riots. He is appalled that Sollers has nothing to say about not only the riots but the "cultural significance" of the Sex Pistols and rap music, and assumes Sollers hasn't heard of either. To Hussey, burning cars and popular music is more real than the life and mind of a 71-year-old man. Yet why are the gangs of rioters not out-of-touch themselves because they know nothing of the cultural significance of Tel Quel, Mozart, Voltaire or Nietzsche? Maybe both are out-of-touch. What might being-in-touch mean? Such are the questions endlessly begged by articles like this.

However, Hussey is right to say that "[o]ne of the most interesting facts about the riots of 2005 and 2007 has been the absolute silence of Parisian intellectuals on the subject". Indeed it is, particularly if it's true. Apart from Sollers himself, there is absolute silence here about names of the silent ones. He decides nothing has been said "because it doesn't fit in with their idea of the real world". So why not use the space available to report on the intelligentsia's idea of the real world? That would tell us more about France, wouldn't it?! Hussey instead sticks with his narrow definition reality as that which is violent, loud and fashionable. Hence:
If Sollers is largely unknown in the anglophone world, this is simply because French writers no longer occupy the central place they did in the days of Sartre or Camus.
For "central" read "fashionable". As the Literary Saloon suggests, it could be that this is due to a lack of English translations - which in turn suggests something about the constricted nature of English-language culture. Such possibilities don't seem to fit with Andrew Hussey's idea of the real world:
Meanwhile, somewhere not too far beyond the cafe tables of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, sirens blare, the police vans tear up the ring roads to the banlieue and another evening of car-burning and violence begins.
This is pure literature. It might be of cultural significance that the writers and thinkers who matter are no longer seduced by or appeal to fashion. We've seen how (for want of a better phrase) younger intellectuals have moved beyond the shallow end of philosophy and literature to find for themselves writers and thinkers who speak of what matters now and always. Soon I'll be posting a translation of a new article by a French writer who has done just that. I'm pleased to say it will also mark the 600th post on this blog.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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