13 February 2005

The Intellectual Situation

Issue Two

Wake up late. Or early? Did we really sleep at all? We’re staring at ourselves in the mirror again. The dark-rimmed eyes, the hollow cheeks. What was it Orwell said—by the age of forty everybody has the face he deserves? Well, it seems at thirty you begin to get some serious hints.

Swing open the medicine chest. We’d forgotten about these. And they were behind our reflection all this time! Safetycapped, luxurious, we’ve got Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, speedy Adderall, tasty Xanax, plus St. John’s Wort and a film canister of pot. Take them all into the bedroom, let them drop onto the comforter, and with a guilty flicker of the eyes take in the bookshelves. Boy, were we going to do things differently.

Happiness: A History

A history of happiness is a funny thing, since, for a long time, happiness was viewed as merely the absence of history. No one lived for happiness the way we do today. In an individual life, it would have been a lack of catastrophic events. As the goal of an era, or civilization, it would have meant stasis, absolutely nothing happening. If you did hit the blank-time jackpot of happiness, the best thing to do was drop dead.

Then came modernity. “Periods of happiness are blank pages in history,” Hegel declared—summarizing the ancient view—and proceeded to spill ink all over them. The more optimistic savants of the era began writing happiness directly into history, into life. They made happiness the goal of civilization, and of the individual living in civilization. The young Saint-Just was probably exaggerating for rhetorical effect when he declared, in 1792, “Happiness is a new idea in Europe.” But he wasn’t wrong. He should have looked across the ocean, too. From the American and French Revolutions forward, engineers of happiness came into firm control. Ideas like “the pursuit of happiness” and the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” migrated from the academies and drawing rooms of 18th-century thinkers to the Continental Congress and the National Assembly. While cheerful Bentham doodled plans for his perfect prison, gloomy Carlyle recognized utility and its pleasures as the “idols of the age.”

The principle of happiness was going to provide the key to a Newtonian science of the human. Traders and treasurers were thrilled: Self-interest would put greed and morality together with a big fat smile. Definitions of happiness were called for and experts stepped forward to provide them. The invading authorities are still with us: economists, political scientists, and brain doctors.

Not everyone in the 19th century went down the long slide to happiness, endlessly. Novelists said again and again they would never represent happiness. Tolstoy’s opening line about all happy families being the same is the best known, but Balzac, too, said, “Le Bonheur n’a pas d’histoire,” happiness has no story. The novel’s only actual version of happiness—marriage—came to seem, toward the end of the century, something of a dark joke. After all that trouble, went the joke, you marry Gilbert Osmond. Those who tried to get away from the marriage plot by seeking their own happiness—Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina—got just what they didn’t deserve. The novel didn’t make you any promises. Quite the opposite: it could have scared you off of life. But somehow its congenital unhappiness actually made you want to live.

And the philosophical tradition, too, secreted an antitoxin, in its own form of institutionalized unhappiness-critique. From Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, to the Western Marxism of the 20th century, the unhappy consciousness of a certain kind of philosopher gave you the only hope comparable to that of the novel. Where the novel was personal and individual, critique was historical and social. Adorno: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.”

But it looks today like the happiness doctors have won. Totalitarian states enforced happiness through love of force, worship of terror, submergence in the mass. Liberal democracy was more easygoing about it, and that proved wiser. Pills keep us cheerful; sex is healthy exercise; violent light entertainment passes the time. Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell right after 1984 appeared, in which he praised the Big Brother vision but had to say he thought his own prediction of the future would be a lot closer to the truth. Not a boot stomping on your face for all eternity, but a society in which preferring unhappiness—because you didn’t want happiness by ersatz means—would be the totally unintelligible thing. We are told the terrorists hate our freedoms—but who was freer than those guys, riding around Afghanistan in pickup trucks with Kalashnikovs? It’s not our freedoms we’re going to bring the peoples of the world. No, we’re going to bring them our happiness.


Right now, we wouldn’t mind a bit of it ourselves. But the bottles—they’re empty. We never were good about filling a prescription. And the baggie in the canister is all stems and seeds. Not that we can afford any more from Bad Andy. . . . Unless—

In a row under the bed, a bit dusty, is the motherlode. Books upon books. So many candy-colored University of Minnesota paperbacks—Lyotard, de Man, Irigaray—actually, all kind of the same color as the pills. These books were going to be a rebuke to everything false. We were going to bring this false civilization down. Well, to hell with you, Foucault! And to hell with you, Lacan!

The bookstore clerk looks at his watch. “Theory’s dead,” he says. “A year ago.”

“Does that mean you aren’t going to buy the books?” we ask.

“If you’ll take store credit.”

The colossal face of Derrida stares up at us, in death, as in life, made of granite. This face was made for Mt. Rushmore. Derrida seems to say: “Take store credit.”

Death Is Not the End

Was theory a gigantic hoax? On the contrary. It was the only salvation, for a twenty year period, from two colossal abdications by American thinkers and writers. From about 1975 to 1995, through a historical accident, a lot of American thinking and mental living got done by people who were French, and by young Americans who followed the French.

The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction. In philosophy, from the 1930s on, a revolutionary group had been fighting inside universities to overcome the “tradition.” This insurgency, at first called “logical positivism” or “logical empiricism,” then simply “analytic philosophy,” was the best thing going. The original idea was that logical analysis of language would show which philosophical problems might be solved, and which eradicated because they were not phraseable in clear, logical language. That meant wiping out most of what Hegel had left us, and Europe still understood, as philosophy—including history, being, death, recognition, love. Still brand new in the 1930s (Carnap, Russell, Ayer) when trying to develop its ideal logical language, it had only just become institutional in the analytic pragmatism of the 1950s and 1960s (Quine), in time to be cranked up again in the 1970s (Kripke), saved from termination by the reintroduction of naïve assumptions rejected at the start.

They weren’t wrong, the positivists—you didn’t have to get very far into academic Idealism to see it was so much soft-boiled egg. The tragedy of analytic philosophy was the fact that it won so decisively in US philosophy departments—annihilating its traditionalist competition—at just the wrong time. It triumphed in the Sixties, when the actual convulsions of US society called for a renewed treatment of love, freedom, the other, politics, and history—“pseudo-problems” turned intensely real. It was nice to have John Searle so understanding of SDS at Berkeley, and Hilary Putnam chanting Maoist slogans at Harvard; but the kids in Paris had Foucault.

In fiction, nothing is so clear-cut. But the overall problem will be familiar. During the same mid-century decades when analytic philosophy vanquished all comers, the novel was exalted in American culture as having a near-scriptural power of assessment and prophecy. (Bellow on Chicago: “Terrible dumbness covered it, like a judgment that would never find its word.” But there in Augie March he had the words.) By the 1940s and 1950s, when newly professional critics ruled both the small literary journals and the universities, American greatness became a closed system. Because the critics had just solidified two different canons at the same time—an Old Testament of the American Renaissance (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman), and a New Testament of American modernism (James, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner)—they didn’t need to step outside it. It was type and antitype, the 1920s speaking to the 1850s and vice versa, accomplishing all things, and contemporary postwar writers were left out in the cold. The demands on new novelists, for a “Great American Novel” in the vein of these Gospels, became too great to meet. The astonishing thing was that artists still occasionally delivered, as Ellison and Bellow each did once—but they were an end, not a beginning.

By the mid-‘60s something crippling was happening to fiction, still quite hard to explain: articulate writers blamed the sheer craziness of American life (Roth) or the “exhaustion” of forms (Barth). There was the pressure of criticism, which could lead even a dyed-in-the-wool critic like Sontag to declare herself “Against Interpretation”; others pointed to academic writing programs and the group therapy of the workshop. In short order, 1968 arrived, and the chaotic Seventies, an era which received—in place of Germinal or Sentimental Education or The Possessed, or even The Grapes of Wrath!—Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and William Gaddis’s JR. One was a symbolico-enyclopedic epic unembarrassed beside Joyce, the other (in a mode stolen from the minor English modernist Henry Green, alternating dead-to-rights dialogue with brief descriptive passages of hallucinated brilliance, and elevated by Gaddis to demented majesty) a novel concerning nothing less than American capitalism. But in retrospect these books appear marginal where the “Great American Novel” was supposed to be central, heroic sighs of depletion instead of inaugural hymns.


Terry Eagleton once pointed out that the French theorists preserved the modernist tradition in literature when fiction writers did not. Verbose, allusive, experimental, but always to a purpose—declaring that certain thoughts could only be had in certain kinds of words—yes, that was theory. But the more significant thing is that theory took over the thinking function of fiction as well as the stylistic: it treated social theory in the way the novel always had, more for liberatory power than strict fidelity to scholarship, and offered wild suspicion as the route to personal enlightenment. It did the novelistic job of a whole period: it produced the works, at once literary and intellectual, that came to terms with the immediate aftermath of the Sixties.

Many of the classics of the era opened with feats of prose that American novels of the 1970s and 1980s rarely even attempted. Lévi-Strauss could describe a sunset in Tristes Tropiques for longer than a sun takes to set. Foucault did fourteen pages on a single painting, Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” Then there was the drive and audacity of the History of Sexuality, Volume 1: “For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime”—with the Proustian longtemps, thrown off, with such brio, in a work of history! You could walk away from a book like that able to understand nearly everything in the newspaper, on the street, in a brand new way. Ah, so the discourses of sex and health, not repressed but proliferated, sustain the illusory modern “truth” of the self! It helped that the concepts of theory were so complicated that only a nineteen-year-old could understand them.

Where, frankly, were you going to get your diagnosis of society—from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho? Lyotard did it better in Libidinal Economy, and was much scarier—without pornographic bloodshed. A civilization that may have punished less, but punished better, administering its surveillance from inside one’s own mind (Discipline and Punish), or replaced the real with a mediatized world of simulations (Simulacra and Simulation), or had an economic incentive to reconfigure disparate knowledge as commensurable “information” (The Postmodern Condition)—well, that was very clearly the world we lived in. Whereas the itsy-bitsy stories of sad revelations in Best American Short Stories 1989—that was some trivial bullshit.

The best and most exciting novels of the same period, the ones that made you think the notion of a “Great American Novel” hadn’t been misconceived all along, were openly responding to theorists. Don DeLillo’s White Noise brought in a theorist as a character. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (OK, she’s British), and especially The Eye in the Door, triumphed as a controlled experiment in the application of feminist theory to stories (of World War I) a whole nation took for granted.

Theory is only something that could “die” in the last five years because it was an import from a country, France, that had discontinued the model, while the most visible American inheritors were exegetes and epigones, translators and disciples—therefore mediocre. Theory’s death was also literal. Hardly any of the old heroes are alive. The exceptions are Baudrillard (alive, but cynical), Habermas (old and healthy, but German), and, incredibly, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Might Althusser be alive, imprisoned? No, dead. Pan-European successor candidates, the likes of Žižek, Badiou, Ferry, Virillio, Agamben, Negri, Vattimo, Sloterdijk, Luhmann, Kittler, seem somehow, well, small by comparison. Optical illusion? No, they really are smaller. Or up to something different.

The big mistake right now would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us. You hear a great collective sigh of relief from people who don’t have to read “that stuff” anymore—the ones who never read it in the first place. But who will insult these people now, expose their life as self-deception, their media as obstacles to truth, their conventional wisdom as ideology? It will be unbearable to live with such people if they aren’t regularly insulted.

And all of us who spent our formative years on a critique of the sign can’t only have gone into advertising. So theory will return in unexpected ways. The Corrections, a monumental renewal of the critical social novel, spent its first hundred pages in the skin of a teacher of theory. Chip ended up the house-husband of a successful doctor; Franzen himself took up the bigger task, and made something properly novelistic of phenomena that he, too, like Chip, like all of us, had looked to theory to explain.

Theory is dead, and long live theory. The designated mourners have tenure, anyway, so they’ll be around a bit. As for the rest of us, an opening has emerged, in the novel and in intellect. What to do with it?


Chip sold his theory books in The Corrections—just like this. Are we acting out in life what has already occurred in fiction? Are we only an emanation of the zeitgeist?

“Tell you what,” the book buyer says, “I’ll take the Anti-Oedipus, both volumes. The art students still read that.”

No! We’ve been meaning to read that since 1987. Ah, don’t lose faith in the dreams of your youth! We gather up the books like orphans.


Stepping out into the street we look both ways for laundry trucks. We’re on our way to a reading. Walking into the Barnes & Noble, we sit down on one of the metal folding chairs, and prepare to be amazed.

Cancel Them

If you’ve made the mistake of going to literary readings, you know that the only thing that can make them endurable is to ha at each funny bit, and ah at each clever observation, and oh at any grotesque turn. Pity rescues art on these occasions. But art can’t survive it.

A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair. Up at the podium is someone who means to believe in his or her work, and instead he’s betrayed by his twitchy body and nervous laughter. The writer looks like his mother dresses him, he has razor burn on his neck, his hands may be shaking, his voice is creaky. Or she—she was always afraid of public speaking, this is why she became a writer!

And so, to send out a little life preserver, you laugh at a line, which maybe wasn’t intended to be a joke. The writer looks up, a smile possesses one side of his mouth. He is funny? Tears well up in his eyes. You’ve saved him. Literature is so much easier than he thought. But one of your laughs, in pity, leads to two, soon people are laughing for no reason. And the work he’s reading—well, in this format, who can tell if it’s any good on the page? Nobody. And suddenly it’s his life we’re talking about—not only the words and lines, but the pathetic effort he’s devoted his entire life to. This figure in front of you was formerly an independent artist, with at least the solitary belief in himself that a writer needs. Now he’s desperate for a laugh.

On the page, the same person can be a sovereign. And you also are sovereign, throwing the book across the room if it’s terrible, or paying silent homage if it’s brilliant, laughing or crying only when you’re moved. Two sovereigns, writer and reader, meet in a nowhere place, proud, independent, and for once in their lives completely undeceitful.

For the reader in his chair, the act of private reading requires forgetting that the person who produced this work of art is a person with a face. The author’s physical existence in the mind of a reader is a sign of the writer’s failure to do what writing properly does, that is, to create a different world of appearances, one that makes this world so inferior that you don’t want to recall yourself to it. You can measure the unsuccess of many a novel by the number of times you turn to the author photo in the back.

The author photo: Few books fail to include a headshot now; it makes it that much harder to read anything. Even book reviews run photos of the author, in a triumph of crassness that took a decade to worm its way up from local newspapers to the New York Times. The local papers had no other way to fill the columns, lacking staff reporters. What is the Times‘ excuse?

There ought to be nothing more irrelevant than an author’s face. With a photo you enter the double-bind of literature in a celebrity culture: If the writer is attractive, you’re less likely to trust him. If ugly, you’re less likely to read the book. We remember when a friend dragged us to look at the picture of Jhumpa Lahiri on the back—why not the front?—of The Interpreter of Maladies. “Have you read the book?” we asked our friend. He answered, “Why read the book?”

The only really justifiable public appearances are by those who are already famous enough to be monuments, their personas set in stone, whose work we love beyond reason because it is so great and strange. Then it’s necessary that they appear before readers, so they can confirm that it was a human being who wrote so well, and not a God. Still, it would be nice for authors simply to step through the doorway—not read—and answer the perennial questions: How do you get your ideas? Where do you write? Do you use a computer? And, unspoken: Do you really exist? Let them sign the book, to prove a human hand wrote the rest. Let that be the end of it.

The Way Out Is In

The exteriorizing of literature (in public performances, readings, photographs) may be a necessary promotional means by which publishers, increasingly uncertain about what will sell, try to perplex the judgment of readers with extraneous selling points. The truly dangerous thing is when writers take these values up for themselves and internalize them.

Writers always read work to their friends. Kafka read out loud to Max Brod and pals in the cafés of Prague, laughing all the way through The Trial; and Flaubert’s two best friends, after a marathon reading of several days, told him not to publish the first Temptation of St. Anthony, because it sucked.

The peril of current practices is that a guild mentality emerges. This is distinct from literary friendship, and it’s no friend to literature. As soon as you hear behind the bookish chatter, “We’re all writers here, what’s to disagree about?” you know we’re sunk, intellectually. Everybody thinks, but there’s no consensus among thinkers; everybody can write, so why should there be a vocational solidarity among writers? The essence of writing is that it’s expressive of ideas and technique—and the primary truth about other people’s ideas and other people’s art is that mostly they will be distinct from and opposed to your own. The guild mentality reinforces a sense that writers don’t do anything threatening, either to the general public or one another. Already guildishness has nearly strangled poetry, and its hands are at fiction’s neck. PEN exists to make sure nobody is being tortured or imprisoned for writing; that’s all the solidarity that’s good for literature.

The guild mentality may start as a defense against a brutal economy trading in celebrity and publicity. Finally it collaborates with these exteriorizing trends. The eagerness to be liked, the need to be noticed, the meretricious desire for gasps and chuckles, gradually infect the writing itself.

It’s natural that writers think in terms of celebrity and notoriety—they belong to our society, they can’t help it. But what can justify that flourishing parasitism, the historical celebrity novel? Bad enough that our coevals write about frontier America, the belle époque, and the old-fashioned freak show, since all historical fiction deprives the author of his sole expertise: the contemporary. But what’s really disgraceful is the novel about Lewis and Clark, or Henry James, or Chang and Eng. (Several years ago there were twin novels about these Siamese twins.) The strong novel creates and releases Anna Karenina or Alexander Portnoy, nonexistent persons who deserve surpassing fame. The weak novel clamps its mouth to the already famous and ekes out a life from borrowed blood. The dizzy publisher encourages this because he knows that Fatty Arbuckle or Fyodor Dostoevsky have already got a fan base.

The novel’s anxiety to have a ready-made public makes it less and less deserving of one. The novel needs to get over the 19th century. For about a hundred years it was the dominant art form of bourgeois civilization. Since then, as if unwilling to resign its old position, it’s tried to contend with the movies and TV, not to mention long nonfiction articles in the New Yorker. Now it tries to rival the stand-up routine and, in novel-memoir, the daytime talk show. How absurd was the effort of Robbe-Grillet to make writing into a kind of film! How silly of Tom Wolfe to think the novel should compete with journalism on the one ground—information-gathering—where it can’t! Someone should tell the novel that it is not and never was dying; those death-throes were just the feeling of a monopoly ending, the shortness of breath that comes with loss of market share. Let the comedians, the lip-gloss models, the movie directors, the journalists and historians be. Their work may be inferior to the novelist’s, but they do it better than he does.

The novel is unexcelled at one thing only: the creation of interiority, or inwardness. How does life look and sound from the inside, where no public observes it and not even a friend listens in? No better instrument than prose fiction was ever developed for answering this question. Beside the novel at its best, even Wallace Stevens is a bumbling simile-monger and Tarkovsky a crude footage-purveyor. That’s not the half of it, you say, that’s just rococo phenomenology, that’s pantheistic camera work. You want “the one bright book of life,” as Lawrence called it. Lawrence had the novelist’s proper arrogance: “I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of man alive, but never get the whole hog.”

But to deliver up the whole interior hog, the writer needs to forget even the small sympathetic public seated attentively on gray metal folding chairs. The writer fails if he tries to become a useful tool, a hot commodity, even an objet d’art. He has to be something more like a set of passive measuring devices: perceptual calipers, emotional wristwatch, barometer of manners, historical astrolabe, social Richter scale. The measuring device never thinks about how it comes across—the question is absurd. What comes into the mind, what comes through the living person? Answer these questions with precision, and actual art has a chance.

It would be tragic to think of inwardness as an artifact of modernism, a trip that started in Flaubert’s Yonville, passed through Musil’s Kakania and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, and came to an end in Beckett’s glass jar. Inwardness does not confine itself to Axel’s castle or reside exclusively in the long-winded periods of Proust. The sharp sigh you hear in one of Fitzgerald’s disappointed aperçus is as interior a thing as Proust’s most byzantine reminiscence. Fitzgerald, come to think of it, was as corrupt as any of us: vain, covetous, in need of fame. But he possessed the vital discipline of seeing what happens when you’re alone. A novelist who isn’t truly alone when he writes will never provide a reader worthwhile company.


Bored, distracted, we pick a book off the table and find a seat in the corner. Hm, this thing’s called And Now You Shall Go Wheeeeeee!!

God, why have we been reading this stuff? We are missing so much life—and so many other books. Also our butt hurts.

In fact, there’s something positively digging into us. We lean forward a bit—oh, ha! Our friend’s letter from France, it’s folded in our back pocket. We forgot all about it. He left New York a year ago in disgust, he thought true literature couldn’t happen here, what with beers and cigarettes costing so much. Paris was the place, he said. Does he still think so?

French Sex Novel

Cher Ami,

I am depressed. Things are worse here than I thought. It’s a mess and what’s more it’s a provincial mess. But let me go back.

A brief history of 20th-century French fiction:

in the oughts and teens it was Catholicism, Conservatism, Dreyfus

in the twenties it was the Unconscious and Communism

in the thirties it was Anthropology and Communism

in the forties well, we don’t talk much about the forties, but it was a hard time to be a novelist and you can understand that one must make compromises

in the fifties it was language as structure

in the sixties it was language as destructure

in the seventies it was sex, sex, sex, and feminine writing

in the eighties it was still sex with some regrets and gay sex

in the nineties it was the free market, and some sex.

There are exceptions to this schematic, actually the canon of great 20th-century fiction is largely exceptional: Gide, Proust, Bernanos, Camus, Blanchot, Colette. In the second rank, though, form holds. Go through the library shelves for literature (roughly by decade and alphabetically) and you’ll find authors who fit oh so snugly. The French are classicizers and everything they touch becomes classicism, even pornography.

There are oddballs and Louis Calaferte’s Septentrion is one. He was a little ahead of the curve on sex. Septentrion is published in 1962: “Au début était le sexe” (In the beginning was sex) is its opening line. Almost its last, “le sexe est la mort et la resurrection” (sex is the resurrection and the death). In between, you’d expect a lot of sex, at least as much as Henry Miller. In this respect, it’s disappointing. Septentrion is a bildungsroman, the story of how a nameless working-class boy fails to become a writer in two hundred numbing pages. I haven’t read them all, but I challenge anyone to do so when they have better things to do. And I don’t. But still. There’s a twenty-page encomium to reading in public toilets and the joys of shitting. For a while it looks like autodidacticism will triumph over sex, but, no, sex wins in the end. The grand discovery of the working-class writer: the bourgeoisie are too uptight, and while they may write novels, they miss out on life.

“Writing is a tomb,” our narrator declares. The novel is confessional and the French confessional tradition is dangerous. Rousseau is an obvious model and still the best. Chateaubriand is a purer stylist, but he’s obsessed with religion and death. For French purposes, he invents the idea that writing is a kind of living death and that one writes when you’ve nothing better to do and suicide is not an option. However, I challenge anyone to read Chateaubriand’s Memoires d’outre-tombe and not be weepingly bored. Septentrion is very late French romantic, style Chateaubriand. Somehow the novel is too late and too early. Its main contribution to the tradition seems to have been its conversational tone, colloquial and also a mix of low and high.

It’s not until the ’70s that sex takes over completely and becomes the model for “pure writing.” The case of Pierre Guyotat is instructive. Son of Catholic resistants, Pierre deserts during his military service at the height of the Algerian war and is imprisoned and probably tortured. He emerges in Paris in the late ’60s as a left-wing idol. Then his second novel, Eden, Eden, Eden (1971), becomes the first banned book since Baudelaire. It’s a porno extravaganza. Written without punctuation, it’s a litany of rapes and S&M in a nameless war zone that resembles French Algeria in the ’50s. Guyotat, person, is anti-violence and despairs of the world as anything but a place where the powerful fuck the powerless. His visions are, in some way, probably very close to the truth of what it’s like to be in Algeria, or Bosnia, or Colombia. It’s a bit like Road Warrior without the satisfactions of the revenge plot—just 500 pages of serial rapes. Guyotat, writer, is championed by Tel Quel as the “real thing.” Pure writing at its impurest. All writing is control, rape, manipulation, the great doors of the unconscious have been fucked wide open. Guyotat believes his press, talks about writing while masturbating. Insists he only writes while masturbating.

There were clues. His first book, Tombeau pour cinq cents mille soldats (1967). It’s the same thing with a bit more narrative structure (revenge is suggested, and then coolly denied) and lots of vampirism and raw meat. Of note, the “enemy country” taking over the world is called “Septentrion” and in the title we hear the warnings of Calaferte’s narrator about writing and entombment. Is this irony? Coincidence? Critique? Next to Guyotat, Calaferte and Henry Miller are prudes. I’ll tell you that I find all this sex and violence disgusting. That’s the point. I’m properly bourgeois, bien sûr. But I’m amazed that Guyotat, who ought to have been treated as a polemical savage, was instead crowned as a liberatory genius. It’s his bad luck that he believed it. It’s as though French intellectuals discovered Darwinism late and erected biology into destiny and the replacement for dogmatic Catholicism, celebrating it as freedom and deploring it as tyranny at the same time.

Guyotat is still alive, he’s only 64, but he hasn’t really done anything of note since the ’70s. It seems like he’s working on a 3-part enormous book that someone could someday fail to read. He’s also become a campaigner for prostitutes’ rights. This a long way of saying this is not my taste in fiction.

How can I like Houellebecq then? Houellebecq is a model of positive restraint compared to what came before. He’s so much more open-minded than the absolutist ‘68ers, especially Sollers. Houellebecq at least offers characters who are capable of dissent from dominant models in sex, politics, economics, and aesthetics. I tell you to read Houellebecq! The Elementary Particles offers two possible responses to the problem of sex and late capitalism—each developed through character, rather than style. Bruno finds love and tragedy, he couldn’t have known a degenerative illness meant all the spectacular S&M would break Christiane’s back. Michel stands on a gray cliff, scientifically eradicates the sexes through genetic engineering. And Houellebecq wants tragedy and utopia at once. Do you know what he says about Huxley? “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society.” Have you read Huxley lately? OK, it’s for kids, but still.

So coming from America, Houellebecq looks like the next great novelist a thèse. Approaching him from France, people find him an impure stylist, a bad writer, a popular hack. Do they see what’s right under their noses? Of course it would help if he wrote another masterpiece. Or stayed sober during interviews. Or does he just put that on for Americans, when he passes out in his soup?

I will keep looking, my friend. In the meantime, I embrace you . . . Yours, etc.


All that sex, to so little profit. We were just going to hop on the subway. But an embossed card is right next to the train pass. How long has it been there? We consider its message, again:

APPLICANTS NEEDED. ADVANCED DEGREES (PHD, MA). MEN AND WOMEN AGE 18-32. HEALTHY PAY.

In this world, only one place believes an intellectual is worth his or her weight in gold. And that’s the sperm and egg bank.


An hour later, we’re in the waiting room. Well, why not? Here they have cut flowers. Comfy chairs, reading lamps. And the latest issue of the London Review of Books. Perhaps some infertile couple needs a child with bad eyesight, a tendency to melancholy, and a habit of reading? All our gametes did sit through lectures with us. If that’s what a banker and a lawyer want for their kid—are we going to stand in the way of happiness?

This may be the only way to keep the mutation alive. Intellectuals: reproduce! Honest means not required. Suddenly, we conceive a vision. Not one, two, or ten tykes, identical to us, but a hundred, a thousand! So adorable—if only we could see their faces—but they’ve all got their noses buried in books. It’s the Children’s Crusade. It’s the New York Public Library, Bibliothèque Nationale, and Bodleian Reading Room taken over by dwarves. But those dwarves are us! A million of us! We will singlehandedly keep Sartre in print! We will put the NYRB Classics on the bestseller list!

The nurse appears, the music swells. Immortality awaits.

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