- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2011

By Bernard-Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq
Random House, $17 309 pages

America rarely makes big-time celebrities of its writers, doting on their every utterance, deed and sexual peccadillo. At least not like the French do. In 1885, 2 million admirers joined the funeral procession of

the great poet and novelist Victor Hugo. It was one of the biggest Parisian events of all time. Sixty years ago, the French (and much of the world) eagerly followed the latest in the press on Nobel Prize-winning authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and there was always much to read about.

Two contemporary French writers find themselves in similar positions: Bernard-Henri Levy, a philosopher and prominent journalist, and the poet and novelist Michel Houellebecq. Both men have their admirers, but both likewise have major detractors, and for Mr. Levy as well as Mr. Houellebecq, the detractors may well outnumber the admirers.

Certainly, the detractors are louder than the fans who approve, and they make their case with an impressive level of venom that’s often very personal, and sometimes ugly. What spurred this outspoken contempt?

It’s one of the questions (among many) the writers set out to answer in a wide-ranging series of letters the two men exchanged during the first half of 2008 now published in English as “Public Enemies.” Neither man rigorously answers the question, though both talk a great deal around it. In the process, readers learn more than a little about these two controversial figures and about French cultural life today.

The immediate causes of their disfavor among much of the public aren’t difficult to fathom.

Mr. Levy (now 62 and familiarly dubbed “BHL” by the media) burst onto the scene 35 years ago as one of the “New Philosophers,” a group of young Turks loudly boasting their break with earlier French thought.

Mr. Levy has always described himself - as he does today - as a man of the political left. Yet the book that made him famous, “Barbarism With a Human Face” (1977), was a hard-hitting attack on communism, which he found to be inherently inhuman and corrupt. It was not a position that endeared Mr. Levy to his leftist colleagues, to say the least, and he’s often been called to task for it. His longtime outspoken support for Israel - eloquently voiced in “Public Enemies” - and Mr. Levy’s open admiration for America have deepened the left’s hatred.

The vilification of the 56-year-old Michel Houellebecq - more virulent at times than the dislike for Mr. Levy - springs from different sources. Mr. Houellebecq is a cultural pessimist, deeply and absolutely at odds with modern life and thought. His pessimism - some call it nihilism, but it isn’t - permeates his novels from “Whatever” (1994), through “The Elementary Particles” (1998), and emerges full-blown in his more recent fiction and in “Public Enemies.”

Mr. Houellebecq has been called a disciple of the Marquis de Sade because of the rampant sex in his books. He’s also been described (and denounced) as one of France’s “new reactionaries.” The latter charge is closer to the mark. Mr. Houellebecq despises contemporary French culture and society, which he believes is in free-fall decline. He argues that nothing can reverse that decline.

“Our societies,” he writes in “Public Enemies,” referring to France and the West in general, “have come to a terminal stage when they refuse to recognize their malaise. …

“[Y]ou only have to look at the way young people nowadays drink, until they lapse into a coma, to deaden themselves or they smoke a dozen joints one after the other until their panic finally subsides.”

Nearly a decade ago, Mr. Houellebecq got in trouble for calling Islam “the stupidest of all religions.” A court dismissed all charges against him, upholding his right of freedom of expression.

But he is no Christian, either. What he makes clear in “Public Enemies” is that while he can no longer believe, he nonetheless regards the decline of religious faith as a major cause for the West’s malaise.

Contemporary atheism, he asserts bleakly, “is something cold, something desperate, lived like a pure incapacity; a white, impenetrable space where one advances only with difficulty, a permanent winter.”

At its best, “Public Enemies” provides a close look, and at times, an honest look at the two controversial writers, their likes and dislikes, and some of the reasons they are what they are.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Houellebecq expresses admiration for the 19th-century German philosopher Schopenhauer (a rich source of his pessimism) and for Pascal’s “Pensees,” which Mr. Houellebecq read as a teenager and from which he derives his very low estimation of humankind.

Mr. Levy’s reading is more predictable: Homer, Hegel - the classic writers - and Emmanuel Levinas, the Lithuanian-born French and Jewish thinker. (Mr. Levy has helped to establish an institute on Levinassian studies in Jerusalem.)

The most light-hearted (and French-male) part of “Public Enemies” comes when Mr. Levy declares, talking about himself, “Why do you write? Because you can’t make love all day. Why do you make love? Because you can’t write all day.”

But on the whole, this book is disappointing and readers may come to agree with Mr. Houellebecq, who sums up in his deadpan way the role he and Mr. Levy actually play in contemporary France: “Together, we perfectly exemplify the shocking dumbing-down of French culture and intellect. …”

Indeed. But it should be said in defense of both writers that their detractors are very often more contemptible than Mr. Houellebecq or Mr. Levy, who do raise serious questions, and far more indicative of a dumbed-down French culture.

Stephen Goode is a writer who divides his time between Milton, Del., and Albuquerque, N.M.

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