Provocation and Silence in Public Enemies

The correspondence between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq,
entitled Public Enemies, far from being a cliché, is invigorating.
The two authors give each other the once-over, confide in each other,
and confront each other regarding literature, relatives, philosophy,
the writer's body, political commitment, and other topics.

Look at their photo on the cover. One, bogarting a cigarette, talks
of his taste for danger and the other, a finger at his lips, reveals
his sense of the secret. And that is exactly what it's all about:
discussion, conflagration, carnage, provocation, silence.

One could expect the worst of this correspondence by e-mail from
January to July 2008 between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri
Lévy. A dialogue between two grand paranoiacs, with equally
expansionist «me»s. An improbable-inconceivable-impossible duo. The
philosopher of splendor and the poet of misery. But they know how to
light or to smother the fuse advisedly. For if neither of the two is
completely conscious of his own faults, each of them perceives those
of the other perfectly.

If Bernard-Henri Lévy starts pontificating, Michel Houellebecq
replies, no posing. If Michel Houellebecq takes on the role of the
international victim, Bernard-Henri Lévy replies, let's give it a
rest. But one cannot read Public Enemies, this lively, bracing,
vibrant correspondence, without remarking the ferocious joy, the
playfulness, the nose-thumbing, the childlikeness that characterize
it.

Both of them being ostentatious and brawlers, it's easy to find matters for polemics. Not surprisingly, the hardiest punches come from Michel
Houellebecq. In sum and without subtlety, he speaks ill of all
journalists and of all newspapers, to the extent that he even misses
the "fairly civilized old fuddy-duddies like Angelo Rinaldi and Michel
Polac". If one is not quoted, it's the worst of all, it means that
one simply does not exist. Of course, there are irrepressible
giggles when Denis Demonpion's unauthorized biography of him is
mentioned, or the diatribe against his own mother. He pursues them,
and all those who have brought up these "cow pies" of a tenacious
hatred. But, quite apart from the right to anger and criticism,
Michel Houellebecq says some very sound things, including remarking
the disappearing line between the so-called "serious" media and the
"people press". And one can admire, in both of them, the stance of
burn-all-the-ships, après moi le deluge,
everything-to-lose-but-one's-honor.

They both do their job as intellectuals confronted with the vulgarity,
the questions, the insults of their time. And they do it well.
Feelings and analyses. But one must not reduce Public Enemies to an
explosive dose of itching powder intended to enflame the Internet
sites, or two riotously funny self-critical numbers in the vein of
"Hi, it's me the Ego, I'm fine" and "Hi, it's me the Provocateur, I'm
fine too". Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq confront each
other in their points of view and of life about literature, relatives,
philosophy, the writer's body, a famous phrase from Goethe, political
commitment.

Fascinating passages on the presence--or not--of a Bentley, on poetry as
a major art, on Romain Gary and Aragon, on courage, on the social
person and the real person, on confessional literature, on the "pack"
that catches up with you or doesn't, on Judaïsm.

Hilarious passages about Nicolas Sarkozy, about their respective bad
reputations, about eczema, about their film, about the Malraux model
(to be avoided) and the Baudelaire model (also to be avoided), about
love, and Google, and Philippe Sollers.

Bernard-Henri Lévy inspires Michel Houellebecq with energy, great
gaiety, and loftiness. Michel Houellebecq suggests humor, hard
lucidity, and lightness to Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Despite the traps set and the looking-glass effect, it works. The
philosopher carries along without ever allowing himself to be carried
away. They avoid the battle of egos. They are good when they listen
to one another and not as good when they evade each other.

They detest one another, but they admire one another as well. Rare
phrases of Bernard-Henri Lévy about his father: «he saw next to
nobody»; «a reclusive king»; «a mysterious bloc, fallen from the sky
in a long ago storm"; "his new taste for austerity, solitude,
silence"; "a soul like a tomb". Michel Houellebecq's words about
Blaise Pascal, that ring true: «And Pascal, if we restore to him his
original violence, can produce nervous upheaval much more violent than
the most violent of heavy metal bands»; and, «Of course, there was
doubtless a hidden flaw that made me fall this way, head first,
without any resistance whatsoever, into the abyss Pascal opened at my
feet." They affirm, one through the hero of a father, the other
through the brilliant Jansenist, their hidden side: a temptation for
the contrary.

It's been said, even before reading them, that they are two bad film
makers, two buffoons who are media kings, two who are on separate
sides of everything, two circus numbers. The text withstands these
clichés. This is the best of each one. Writing with an electric
current and thousand-volt lightbulbs. A mind like a laser, free as
the air, one that likes to play with fire. One is on the same level
as the other. One might underline the juicy anecdotes and the
scathing phrases, with a string of laughs and an edgy tension as a
bonus. But no. Let yourself go with the flow of exchanges, that
flush and flame like the countenances of men, in a blend of violence
and modesty.