The Literary smog

posted by N. Bourriaud on January 12, 1999

Dear Voyer,

I’ve just read your letter to Michel Houellebecq, congratulations for your scientific accuracy. However, I don’t like to be called an idiot without knowing why, one has the right to know, after all, shit…When you use the expression "The perpendicular Idiots", could you please say some more on the subject? I’d like to know if you agree with the arguments of:
A. the Figaro Magazine in its late December issue

B. The Bordeaux Fregoli, who uses this expression in the Nouvel Observateur
C. Flammarion, who ended our co edition contract because we made them flop their Goncourt rattle
D. The Media in general, Ideological stew such as you like them.
Regards to Guy
Nicolas Bourriaud

Reply to Mr. Bourriaud

I have my doubts, sir, that you have the right to know. To my knowledge, slaves have no other rights than to obey although it is fashionable now for the slave to make claims. However, as your request was a polite one, politeness demands that I answer you. Although I deny your claim to the right to know, I admit that you may invoke politeness.

I have neither read the late December issue of the Figaro Magazine nor the Bordeaux Fregoli in the Nouvel Observateur. I know nothing of the arguments put forward by Flammarion. As regards the subject of our concern I have only read Houellebecq’s two novels, his interventions collection of works for Flammarion and the interview in the 11th copy of your magazine, and emanating from you a dismaying page in the tenth of may issue of the Monde.

Before replying to you, I have therefore read again the interview. On page 13, in a paragraph that I quote In extenso:

"N B - Why do you believe that religion is essential to society when there are so many forms of associations or secular social contracts, self managed and Libertarian ones, far more satisfactory in my opinion. "

I noticed I had taken a pencil to underline the following words: secular social contracts, self managed and Libertarian ones. In the space located under the paragraph I had written "Libertarians are idiots!". This note was referring to a sentence from Interventions, on page13: " On the philosophical and political level, Jacques Prévert is first and foremost a Libertarian, that is, fundamentally an idiot". That and no more, sir. Now you know. I must admit I was shocked when I read this Houellebecq sentence just as I was shocked when I read Wittgenstein’s "causality is a superstition. "

Before I proceed to go further, I shall ask of you, sir, where you hide your stock (the quantifier many makes me suppose that such a stock exists) of forms of associations or secular social contracts, self managed and Libertarian, or, if this stock isn’t available, at least the illustrated catalogue which will enable me to take out orders immediately as well as six dozen pairs of knickers in vichy for Mrs. Levy.

On page 9 of the Entretien we can read the following question asked to Houellebecq:

"JYJ - Your characters express problematic ideas which may be scandalous, regarding politics, racism, or exclusion…How far do you share these positions?"

And Houellebecq answers you. He is really a good humoured fellow. The only answer such a question to a writer calls for is "this is none of your business", or, even better, "How the hell could such a thing interest you?" Either you judge the work. Or you judge the man. By trying to do both you end up doing neither and you are only making yourself odious and ridiculous the way Sainte Beuve was when he always had something to say against the habits of writers.

What is more, a novelist may well be incapable of making theories on what he writes, in the same way as theoretic explanations emanating from painters are often involuntarily extremely comic, the sentence "Thanks to speed, we move faster" isn’t from Alphonse Allais, but from Malevitch. Doesn’t one say, by the way, stupid as a painter. I disagree with Wittgenstein who says "What can’t be said must remain silent". That is not so, it must be painted. Houellebecq is no thinker but he really does know how to paint, with great accuracy, the abominable life of two educated slaves. Wittgenstein has an excuse, he was a logician and he was dealing with logic. Confusion is deplorable when logic is concerned, true. This said, where can confusion be seen in Cezanne or Malevitch’s paintings? As far as he’s concerned, Houellebecq has splendidly portrayed two slaves, upper middle ones, consequently left wing ones as he says himself on page 10 of the Entretien. This is perfect. " Denouncing people you don’t know is no craft for a novelist. " In fact this craft is for the intellectual left. Houellebecq is no joker, he is very serious. He’s not the kind of man who’d spend three days in Cloye to write a novel about The Beauce, or to ramble on the thoughts of Chairman Mao: "I only allow myself to speak about what I know". You can see that. He only needs one short sentence to pinpoint, on his way, what the pretensions of claiming puffs are: "what a great life these puffs seem to have". (that’s the way I can remember this line). In this way, these claiming puffs are office clerks asserting to have a great life. Houellebecq seems to remain totally insensitive when being confronted to this show. Like Caesar during Vercingetorix’s surrender, he remains undaunted. There is only one thing which is scandalous to me in the novels of Houellebecq, that is the way of life of the slaves he portrays so well. I can think only of another thing which is even more ignominious, that is, just as regards France, there are fifty million people who have adopted this lifestyle taking into account babies in their cradles as this great life has been promised to them from the cradle. Just imagine France being inhabited by a fifty million Madame Bovary population, a figure from which the Homais who claim to have a great life and keep under control the habits and ideas of writers must be subtracted.

You are a beautiful living image of this Houellebecq statement: "On the whole, as regards politics, individuals adopt the same ideas as their group…On the whole, they have a tendency to thinking in a way that will disturb their own micro social group as little as possible. " Your group is the Intellectual left and you proudly raise its banner high (on a le Monde page), journalists, professors, school teachers, artists, "the people who have access to information" (on page 10 of the interview) these people who have always said yes to everything and who claim to give lessons as regards saying no ;all these things that Houellebecq wasn’t, rightly so, part of. As far as I know he has never resorted to selling his spirit to survive. No intellectual bloodstains to be found.

Your le Monde column neighbour, the reactive Di Folco robot, gets the message and cannot help his envious seedy Nova–Magazine journalist’s rage from breaking out (as bottom of the page notes indicate with courtesy), a magazine relating the great, and high moral standing lifestyle, against "these ex-clerks, these ex-minor executives Jet propelled overnight to a giga loft" without ever having had to be a professor, a teacher or a journalist. This is what comes as a shock to him, that intellectual collaboration is so badly rewarded whereas such upstarts can sprawl in giga-lofts. One can see what the guy is yearning after: a giga-loft. What a proof of Houellebecq’s good morals. And the robot happens to ask quite a pertinent question (machines would appear to be sensitive to jealousy!) "When was the last time a French or foreign best selling literary work considered to be a major literary event?" Notably as regards French literature, since Madame Bovary which was successful at once. Pascal’s little letters and Courier’s pamphlets were printed ten thousand copies each. The question for a writer isn’t to sell or not, not even whether to sell your soul or not; the question is to have a soul which cannot be said of robots as they are programmed.

If you care to judge the man, judge the man. The ideas developed in his novel are displeasing to you, criticise them and leave the man alone. Does it matter whether he shares these ideas or is he doesn’t? Does it have any effect whatsoever on the contents of these ideas? True, since Quantum Mechanics have been around, one can never be sure of what’s cooking concerning distant influences. Actually, Flaubert has already answered for Houellebecq: Madame Bovary, that’s him.

The Intellectual left has been fighting Fascism for the last forty years now. This should have been done in 1930. An old one eyed lion at last finds some way of waiting which is entertaining. Tartarin’s desert. What does being left mean today? It means claiming proudly and loudly that one likes Negroes, puffs and Jews. It means claiming that one does everything possible to fight fascism. What could be a mere harmless monomania, of the variety which affect Houellebecq’s characters, doesn’t however remain at this stage. Allow me to make a Swiss joke: one hears that a cop sleeps in the heart of every Swiss. For Vaudois, this cop has woken up. The same thing applies to the Intellectual Left, in their case, the cop never sleeps. Djerjinski, you really got a hold! Once a Leninist, always a Leninist. You don’t have a Visa card, there must be something fishy going on. In the same way, if you don’t claim that you love Negroes, Jews, puffs, there must be something fishy going on. This means you hate them. You must be a Fascist at the very least, a racist, anti-Semitic. Unlike Miss Béart, your soul isn’t clean enough.

My position on this is crystal clear: Mr. Le Pen is a detail. Mr. Le pen is almost nothing. The Intellectual left is infamous. What is infamous must be squashed.

Your Le Monde page dated October 10th is overwhelming. You begin by assimilating the Navy to Literature, and confusing Houellebecq and captain Haddock, thundering typhoons! There is one famous navigator in world Literature, His name is Ulysses, and I daresay that he probably couldn’t tell between longitude and latitude.

Translated into everyday language, this means you are really out to get Houellebecq. You remind me of Léautaud and that humbug Duhamel when he was the new Mercure de France director and argued for three hours to decide whether Léautaud would be allowed or not to write the word sperm and eventually came to a compromise: Léautaud would write SP…which made Léautaud weary of the days of Valette the mechanic fitter who only had commercial considerations but didn’t interfere with what his novelists were writing. If you are to be believed, a person active in Intellectual life (poor Houellebecq, what a dirty insult, he has become a person active in intellectual life. By the way, where can you see any intellectual life?) as you say in your delicate intellectual left vernacular, should be busy handling a compass and a sextant rather than a pen. Beethoven replied to the violinist Schupanzig who was complaining that a given stroke was unplayable " Do you think I bother to care about the strings of your little violin when the spirit is talking to me", therefore, as regards a compass and a sextant!

"Clearly displaying one’s principles and opinions" has nothing to do with Stalinism whatsoever; but doing so with an aim to inform the audience of the Ideological content of a work of art is quite typically just that. "Informing the audience of the Ideological content of a work of art" is definitely not improper. This is simply taking people for idiots, this means thinking that the audience, when deprived of the Intellectual left’s righteous knowledge is too stupid and too common to make up their minds on their own. Actually, this is principally an opportunity to inflict to the so called audience your intellectual left hobbies: is he or isn’t he left, is he or isn’t he a fascist, does he or doesn’t he write in fascist magazines, does he have, like Brigitte Bardot, sex with a FN member (understand the word member as you care to), does he or doesn’t he share the views he gives to his characters, what is his moral longitude, what is his aesthetic latitude? To make a long story short the only thing you care about is: is he one of us? Fortunately for Houellebecq, he isn’t. How can one be Persian? How can one dare to be?

Wagner’s music sweats, Houellebecq’s prose stinks. It is offensive to your delicate intellectual left nostrils.

You claim to have "an articulate opinion on a work", you claim to judge a work; but you only do this "after" the author has "clearly displayed his positions" to you. In Flaubert’s time, you would only have dared to have an articulate opinion on his work after he had clearly displayed his positions to you. You only have an articulate opinion on a work to inform the audience of its Ideological content which proves that you couldn’t care less about the work itself and that you are only concerned with denouncing the writer and with the Intellectual police function which the left has been operating in the last seventy years. A retrospective of Hitler’s watercolours must be shown, as one must see how the devil paints when he doesn’t appear in the shape of a black dog. Isn’t this exactly the role of the police, to warn the audience against the evils of literature and those of the devil? Isn’t this the role of the police, to maintain public order?

I can read further on that it isn’t fair that left wing newspapers champion a writer who thinks this or that. What a writer thinks is out of place here. If we examine the case of Céline, it would take a very wise man to know what he thought. Actually, did he ever think? I immediately have to say, for the absent minded reader, that I am not writing that I consider Céline to be an idiot. Whether one thinks or not is no criteria as regards idiocy. Sartre, despite his intelligence and original way of thinking, was in every other field a total idiot and a real bastard. When Céline thinks, we have Mea Culpa which is pet food for his numerous cats and dogs. We cannot apply the word thought to his eructation on Jews (unlike the thought of Hitler and the like, which was perfectly clear and coherent).
Does it matter to know what Flaubert thought to judge his works? As regards Balzac, it was all monarchy, family, religion, birthright. He also agreed with the Pope. He wrote: "the family is gone, there are only individuals." (Already! The only thing missing in the picture is claiming puffs). Stendhal also thought Democracy was a Messianic Ideology for grocers so much so that, by reaction the bourgeois he portrays to us are cynical aristocrats. Better to agree with the pope than with Séguéla or Mitterand.

Portraying what you are unable to think is a possible definition for literature. Why consider the writers thought as what makes him a literary writer, unlike Buffon or Turing, is precisely that he is unable of thinking what he sees. Musil is an exception as there is thought in every line he writes (no single line devoid of irony) so is Sartre (a poor writer) as almost every theme developed in L’Être et le néant is to be found in La nausée in a more elegant and pleasant manner.

I rather like the way in which you define the slavery and suffering of fifty million people as "little things" that Houellebecq portrays in detail through the life of a few characters. What are those ‘little things’ when compared to "the glorious tomorrow". Houellebecq is right. Libertarians and their glorious tomorrows are idiots when they aren’t bastards. (seventy years of Leninist and Stalinian doctrine, fifty years of delayed struggle against fascism, notably as regards Sartre that idiot, and now clear, unashamed, collaboration with Capitalism. Seventy years of intellectual repression and Humbuggery, seventy years of infamy. From Stalin to Milton Friedman. This is crystal clear.) Houellebecq is content with the inglorious suffering today.

Therefore great ideas don’t generate great literature for the aforementioned reasons. If writers were to have an articulated opinion, they wouldn’t be literary writers. It is the strength of their vision of the world (their suffering, that is) which guarantees their obstinacy and not the idea they have of it, and not the spinal bone of their conception.

Houellebecq is right: racism isn’t the problem. Capitalism is. He astonishingly depicts this problem. I admire the manner in which you make the reproach to Houellebecq that his "ideas" are a problem. The portrayal of a problem is problematic. That’s the least it can do.

You want to expand the field of democracy. Thank you very much. Houellebecq is right. The people who wish to expand the field of democracy are idiots when they aren’t bastards. Above all, this given democracy is going to expand by itself neither asking for your opinion nor taking it into account in any way. You can trust it will do so, specially since Mr. Cohn Bendit has taken up the job. Houellebecq strikingly portrays this extension of commercial democracy which he names quite rightly extension of the field of struggle. The field of democracy mustn’t be extended it must be started from scratch.

Finally, you don’t need to define Houellebecq’s thought as reactionary, as he has taken the care to do this himself. He is reacting to the extension of commercial democracy and its intellectual left. Therefore, he is a reactionary. So what? Tip him off to the Gestapo.

One thing is for sure. Today, (yesterday too by the way) all kind of reflection is necessarily outside the borders of the Intellectual left and necessarily against it, and therefore reactionary, as this Intellectual left, urged by the claiming slave, claiming identification with progress, Humanity and lastly, Justice (It no longer dares to identify itself with the revolution anymore). The Intellectual left’s role is precisely to prevent people from thinking, no longer by lettre de cachet, but by occupying the field with its moralising pretension (Homais, Homoblock, Messianic game for fleas, chemists, wood dealers and revolutionary grocers). I don’t think Houellebecq feels any kind of morbid hatred for this world but merely hates its intellectual left and this is very heartening to me. It would be actually difficult for him to hate or to love the Intellectual right as such a thing doesn’t exist, it no longer exists. I appreciate the way in which he makes you mad. One has to say this isn’t a difficult thing to do.

Jean-Pierre Voyer

M. Ripley s'amuse