Thursday, February 17, 2011

Public Enemies

The new book by Bernard-Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq was pre-ordered for me as a gift over a year ago, so it's fair to say I've been looking forward to it for some time. I'm grateful for the gift, of course, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I get the impression that the two (or their agents) cooked up the idea as an easy way to make money. Perhaps they also wanted more publicity, and to beef up their reputations a little, Levy by association with a bad boy and Houellebecq by association with a real philosopher. Who knows. There is no sense of animosity between the two, though, despite the title of the book and the cover illustration of them dueling with pens. What there is is a lot of griping about reviewers and casual references to literary and philosophical works that, presumably, they don't mind readers believing they have read. Name-dropping, in other words. I almost stopped reading about 20 or 30 pages in.

What got me through it was skipping the parts by Levy. I can't say they aren't worth reading, since I didn't read them, but I found that this made the book bearable and even worthwhile for me. Houellebecq talks about moving from Pink Floyd and Pascal (whom he continues to admire, I think) to the Velvet Underground, Dostoevsky, and Kafka. So that's good. And he's a big fan of Schopenhauer, which is also good. He's generally interesting without either trying too hard to be provoking or saying anything really deep or memorable.

The closest he gets to that is when he says, on p. 225: "What is humor, after all, but shame at having felt a genuine emotion?" This is arresting, but mostly, it seems to me, because it is so hard to find even a grain of truth in it. There is humor in recognizing a shameful truth. Homer Simpson is funny, at least partly, because we can see ourselves in him despite (or even because of) his obvious buffoonery. But if we ever feel genuinely (or perhaps I should say purely) sad or happy or afraid or angry, does this ever prompt shame? And, if so, is this funny? It sounds as though he is saying that it is the genuineness of the emotion that causes the shame. Because we so rarely feel genuine emotions? Maybe. But if that is ever funny (and I can sort of imagine its being smiled at) it hardly seems to be the whole or the essence of humor. Perhaps the translation is to blame.


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