bhl asks “what are writers good for?” esterházy, pamuk, sollers & sontag on intellectuals in society

Originally published in Paris as the 1998 edition of the annual series entitled The Rules of the Game: Literature, Philosophy, Art, and Politics, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s compilation, What Good Are Intellectuals?: 44 Writers Share Their Thoughts offers commentary from those writers and public intellectuals who are sufficiently brave, dutiful or arrogant to stand in the middle of that difficult-to-navigate intersection of art and social thought.

BHL had writers from around the globe consider the role and responsibilities of intellectuals in modern society and what one can and should expect from them. Here’s the survey they were assigned to answer, and some of the more interesting responses:

Six Questions:

1. What does the word “intellectual” mean to you, today? Are you an intellectual — or do you reject that term?


2. Have any intellectual figures influenced you in a decisive way? (which ones?) Any “examples” who have inspired you, shaped you, whom you can invoke even today to clarify your mind?


3. What role do intellectuals play at the turn of the 20th century? Do you, like some people, think their role is finished?


4. We have heard a great deal about the “errors” committed by intellectuals, their “blindness,” and sometimes their “irresponsibility.” What do you think of these charges? Do you agree with their severity? Or would you moderate, even contradict them?


5. In the country where you live and work, what do you think are the greatest obstacles to intellectuals: the indifference of the media; the confusion of opinions; police repression; soft repression and competition from public spectacles, with all the illusions and lures that go with them; or other obstacles?


6. What tasks do you see as most urgent, today or always; what is your task? What prejudices are the most threatening, what causes must be defended, what perils must be averted? In short, what, in your eyes,are today’s greatest priorities for thought and action?



Péter Esterházy


1. The writer lives in his room, the intellectual in society. Sometimes I am an intellectual, or in any case, I should regard myself as one since other people consider me to be one. For me, the intellectual is someone who questions. Under that definition, the child who splits hairs, who thirsts for knowledge, and who spends his time asking questions is an intellectual; but the teacher who harps on the same answers in the name of education is not. Neither is the politician, who cannot question: he is condemned to give answers, he must always behave as thought he knows what must be done.


2. It would be pretentious of me to say that I have no thoughts on this matter; however, I do not like to make a point of naming any one source of inspiration, so I will close my eyes and answer: Danilo Kiš, Italo Calvino.


3. For me, this question is too vast. My pretense of an answer is, by “intellectual” we unconsciously mean the traditional intellectual, the one who has studied the humanities. While perhaps his sphere of activity has not changed, his impact, clearly, has diminished palpably (which amounts to the same thing as saying that his sphere of activity, too, has changed).


4. Those who criticize intellectuals are obviously intellectuals themselves. In other words, every critic worthy of the name is a self-critic. In this sense, I fully agree with the criticism. The bankruptcy of the intelligentsia is so painful because it shows that even to be rational, to be conscious, to maintain one’s distance, is not enough to protect oneself from anything. That, for me, is the proof of the enslavement of human thought, of human existence: we live under the sign of Auschwitz.


5. I learned how to play my role as an intellectual under a dictatorship. That is not the best school. We believed that everyone thought like us, or exactly the reverse; that there were only these two ways of thinking. However, those two are not the only ways. Such an attitude, which passes for natural, obviously causes many errors in Hungary

today. It may encourage the “chaotic multitude” and the concomitant terrors, then paralysis.


6. But if I hear the word “fight,” I am immediately overcome by fear and paralysis, so that I won’t even answer this question. But, if I am told in absolute terms that it is forbidden, that it is prohibited, that it is impossible and that there is no valid reason for fighting, then I unsheathe my sword!


There is a feeling that the guild of intellectuals has no grounds for rejoicing today, but obviously that will not be long in changing. It’s always been that way, hasn’t it?


Translated from Hungarian by Nicolas Cazelles



Orhan Pamuk


1. The term intellectual has no particular significance for me. I am neither eager to see myself as one, nor do I reject it as elitist. The word has a widely used meaning and is useful. People such as artists, writers, journalists and academics who resist pressures that limit freedoms and erase differences, whether these pressures originate from the state, religion or the general public, are referred to as intellectuals. However, some people tend to call anyone involved in the arts, writing, journalism or scholarly research intellectuals. In Turkey, there are many journalists endeavoring to have freedoms restricted, books banned, and those holding different views declared traitors to their country. Perhaps these people who engage in mental activity, even if only to a limited extent, might be classified as intellectuals, but in my view they would more appropriately be called “technicians who support the state and government.”


2. Sartre has influenced me with his colorful personality, obstinacy, argumentativeness, and enmity towards bourgeois opinions. I am fond of him. He moved fast and creatively between general theories and philosophy and day-to-day politics and minutiae. But the way in which his ability as a novelist and creative writer evaporated with his increasing obsession with politics is a warning to all writers. Edward Saïd is a good example of an intellectual who transforms literary criticism and close perusal of texts into highly creative social criticism. But as a writer, I have been influenced by creative writers with little interest in politics, such as Proust and Borges.


3. I do not believe that intellectuals have “roles” and “tasks.” I do not view intellectuals as a separate species with a specific program of activities or goals. There will always be people who write, and who speak out against the government, the state, and oppressive ideas espoused  by the majority. Intellectuals who talk of history and of missions bore me, and they are misguided. Intellectuals should see their tasks as more simple, and carry them out with more humility.


4. Intellectuals may have many misconceptions, but it is largely second class intellectuals, those who support the state and nationalists, who bother with these. A widespread fault of intellectuals is to take themselves too seriously, to have an inflated idea of their own importance, and to speak of historic missions and such in an affected and pretentious manner. Another thing I have learnt in Turkey is that most intellectuals who believe that soon everything will improve, and that a better future is just around the corner — mainly thanks to their own sufferings and achievements — are usually disappointed and end up in despair.


5. Being killed is a distinct possibility for Turkish intellectuals. Over the past twenty years, three prominent editorial writers from three leading newspapers in Turkey have been assassinated. Then there is the likelihood of being imprisoned, having your writings banned, etc. Being proclaimed a “traitor to the nation,” pushed aside, and losing your newspaper column and your job at once, is another method. So is disinterest and impassiveness. Particularly in remote provincial towns, intellectuals and writers are killed, or arrested, tortured and sentenced to thirty years imprisonment and not even the Istanbul newspapers take any notice, never mind those in the West.


6. I do not wish to use phrases like “the most urgent tasks” or “the most important causes,” because I do not believe sufficiently in tasks and causes. I want to write the best novels. For me, things are simpler: there is a state that bans books and imprisons writers and some baddies who collaborate. I would like to do something about them. Since I am regarded as a famous writer and an intellectual, I sometimes think that what I do is of some use. The greatest intellectual joy of today is, of course, good literature. Good literature is rarer than good intellectuals.



Philippe Sollers


1. Allow me to laugh a little at your question. What do you think the name “Sollers” means to intellectuals today, whatever their inclination? An abomination. Their response to me is supercilious, clerical, Pavlovian. In the long run, I will show what it means.


2. The history of my personal influence on the “great intellectuals” of my era remains to be written. I knew them all (and if you doubt it, read my books, particularly the one that is most intolerable for the clergy in question: Femmes).


3. The role of the intellectual these days is orchestrated, choreographed, predictable. They are there especially not to speak about real matters (which far exceed their information and their competence, in any case).


4. The pseudo-trial that is, from time to time, brought against intellectuals is just a wheel in a spectacular mechanical device. It refreshes the illusion when that is convenient for the show that is being put on.


5. What obstacles? Public demand (from the right as well as the left) has never been so strong. Watchdogs and denouncers of watchdogs, here, always have full employment.


6. Sorry, but no task is urgent, no prejudice is threatening, there is no cause to be defended, and no danger to be averted. Thought is never in jeopardy, and that is why, as time invariably shows, it is the only real action. “Thought is as clear as a crystal. A religion, whose lies depend upon it, can disturb it for a few minutes, if we wish to speak about effects that last a long time. When it comes to effects that last only briefly, the assassination of eight people at the gates of a capital, that will disturb it — certainly — until the end of all evil. And thought soon regains its limpidity.”



Susan Sontag

What the word “intellectual” means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions, and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals, in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which, as their participation in these events testifies, they belong.




Whether I see myself as one (I try to do as little seeing of myself as possible) is beside the point. I answer, if so called.


Being a citizen of a country whose political and ethical culture promotes and reinforces distrust, fear, and contempt for intellectuals (re-read Tocqueville), the country that has developed the most anti-intellectual tradition on the planet, I incline to a less-jaded view of the role of intellectuals than my colleagues in Europe. No, their “mission” (as your question has it) is not completed.


Of course, it’s speaking far too well of intellectuals to expect the majority to have a taste for protesting against injustice, defending victims, challenging the reigning authoritarian pieties. Most intellectuals are as conformist — as willing, say, to support the prosecution of unjust wars — as most other people exercising educated professions. The number of people who have given intellectuals a good name, as troublemakers, voices of conscience, has always been small. Intellectuals responsibly taking sides, and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in (as opposed to signing petitions) is a good deal less common than intellectuals taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on: for every Gide or Orwell or Veil or Chomsky or Sakharov, we have ten of Romain Rolland or Ilya Ehrenburg or Jean Baudrillard or Peter Handke, etc. etc.


But could it be otherwise?




Although intellectuals come in all flavors, including the nationalist and the religious, I confess to being partial to the secular, cosmopolitan, anti-tribal variety. The “deracinated intellectual” seems to me an exemplary formula. By “intellectual,” I mean the “free” intellectual, someone who, beyond his or her professional or technical or artistic expertise, is committed to exercising (and thereby, implicitly, defending) the life of the mind as such.


A specialist may also be an intellectual. But an intellectual is never just a specialist. One is an intellectual because one has (or should have) certain standards of probity and responsibility in discourse.


That is the one indispensable contribution of intellectuals: the notion of discourse that is not merely instrumental, i.e. conformist.


How many times has one heard, in the last decades, that intellectuals are obsolete, or that so-and-so is “the last intellectual”?




There are two tasks for intellectuals, today as yesterday. One task, educational, is to promote dialogue, support the right to be heard of a multiplicity of voices, promote skepticism about received opinion. This means standing up those whose idea of education and culture is the imprinting of ideas (“ideals”) such as the love of the nation

or tribe.


The other task is adversarial. There has been a vertiginous shift of moral attitudes in the last two decades in advanced capitalist countries. Its hallmark is the discrediting of all idealisms, of altruism itself; of high standards of all kinds, cultural as well as moral. Thatcherism is now the triumphant ideology everywhere on the planet, and the mass media, whose function is to promote consumption, disseminate the narratives and ideas of value and disvalue by which people everywhere understand themselves. Intellectuals have the Sisyphean task of continuing to embody (and defend) another standard of mental life, and of discourse, than the nihilistic one promoted by the mass media. By nihilism, I mean not only the relativism, the privatization of interest, which is ascendant among the educated

classes everywhere, but also the more recent and more pernicious nihilism embodied in the ideology of so-called “cultural democracy”; the hatred of excellence and achievement as “elitist,” exclusionary.




The moral duty of the intellectual will always be complex, because there is more than one “highest” value, and there are concrete circumstances in which not all that is unconditionally good can be honored — in which, indeed, two of these values may prove incompatible.


For instance, understanding the truth does not always facilitate the struggle for justice. And in order to bring about justice, it may seem right to suppress the truth.




One hopes not to have to choose. But when a choice (between truth and justice) is necessary — as, alas, it sometimes is — then it seems to me that an intellectual ought to decide for the truth.




This is not, by and large, what intellectuals, the best-intentioned intellectuals, have done. Invariably, when intellectuals subscribe to causes, it is the truth, in all its complexity, that gets short shrift.




A good rule before one goes marching or signing anything: Whatever your tug of sympathy, you have no right to a public opinion unless you’ve been there, experienced at first hand and on the ground and for some considerable time the country, the war, the injustice, etc. you are talking about.


In the absence of such first-hand knowledge and experience: silence.


On the subject of the presumption (it’s worse than naivety) with which so many intellectuals subscribe to collective action when they know virtually nothing about what they are so pleased to have opinions on, nobody said it better than one of most compromised intellectuals of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht (who surely knew whereof he spoke):


When it comes to marching, many do not know

That their enemy is marching at their head.

The voice which gives them their orders

Is the enemy’s voice and

The man who speaks of the enemy

Is the enemy himself.



—from Bernard-Henri Lévy (editor), What Good Are Intellectuals?: 44 Writers Share Their Thoughts. New York: Algora Publishing, 2000.




public enemies? more on houellebecq and bhl’s correspondence

Houellebecq and Levy believe their own hype

The odd couple of French literature are disliked because they are public figures first and writers second

Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy 

The odd couple … Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy.
Photograph: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

In Public Enemies, his recently published correspondence with Left Bank philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (also known as BHL), Michel Houellebecq makes a somewhat touching admission about that moment in 1998 when his second novel Atomised began to get talked about: "I understood that I had a chance, a little chance to escape the world of work. I made with my hands and feet to widen the breach through which I had just seen a light. I did all the media, absolutely all of them."

One sympathises. But when a writer scrabbles his way to the light of the oncoming train that is fame, he could do worse than harken to Cyril Connolly’s rumble from The Unquiet Grave: "A public figure can never be an artist and no artist should ever become one unless, his work being done, he should choose to retire into public life."

I say this not so much thinking of Houllebecq’s post-Atomised retirement into music, soft porn films, documentaries, obnoxious public statements on Islam or mai 68, since he must have at least enjoyed himself. All this noise, however, doesn’t disguise the fact that from his sloppy travelogue Lanzarote, to the passable mess that is Platform, to the dismal The Possibility of an Island ("my best work" he concludes), Houellebecq, from being a very good writer, has become a shoddy one.

Whereas Atomised was sad but fun, 10 years on only a vinegary disdain remains. Whether lamenting the loss of friends revolted by his media excesses, or contemplating suicide as a way to silence the snickers of satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé, his lack of self-awareness is increasingly predictable. There is little sense of reality in a man who muses over "the vaguely Christlike aspect my destiny has taken."

Fortunately relief is provided by BHL. Acting like a teacher who has decided to take the unpopular class slug under his wing, he provides this book with a not unwelcome sensation that a friendship is blossoming. A brilliant graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieur who made his name in the 70s teaching the French leftlessons in morality as it persisted in supporting the Soviet Union, he regales Houllebecq with tales of scraps outside pubs in Saint Germain with PLO militants, communists, and sundry outraged lefties. For all his famously derided vanity and fluffy hair, BHL is an engaging, informative and dynamic foil to Houellebecq who, with all the energy of a Parisian décadent, is soon exhausted and glum once he has cocked a snook at the pieties of the French left, including an endorsement of President Sarkozy. "Sarkozy loves France," he offers, and then rolls over.

Nevertheless, there is something unreal about BHL too, not least his "philosopher" appellation. BHL, though born in 1947, has a moral outlook shaped by the second world war, a war his father fought in and in which his intellectual heroes Malraux and Camus played distinguished roles. However much one admires his skill as a polemicist and consensus shaper, it’s puzzling nevertheless that he could be considered in the same breath as Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze. Even as an "intellectuel engagé" in the spirit of his heroes, he has yet to produce imperishable works of the order of L’Espoir or L’Etranger. Unless we decide tomorrow to startle British op-ed writers George Monbiot or Brendan O’Neill by calling them "philosophers", we should think of giving him a more measured job title.

Contemporary society does not have a strong taste for the proper measure of things though. Now that it’s possible to talk with a straight face about giving banks our money so they can lend us our money back, it might be useful to consider that in literature unreal economies also flourish. Trading off bright beginnings, Houellebecq and BHL have generated fame and wealth for themselves far beyond and above their artistic and intellectual stock. While one might have no time for the Parisian sport of deriding Houellebecq’s attempts at infamy, or gloating as BHL squares up to custard pies throwers, they are unpopular, I think, because most people have an instinctive, if not atavistic, respect for the arts and philosophy as a form of husbandry. To quote Connolly again: "The artist has roots that run a hundred feet underground in search of tea leaves, cinders and old boots."

Solitude and modesty are key words. No-one, as far as I know, begrudges the retiring Lé Clezio his Nobel, while busy BHL and Houellebecq are two public enemies who not only make the hype, they believe it too.

houellebecq & bhl: “always ready to bite… two real monsters who you love to hate” are “almost human”

The cultural whipping boys’ manifesto:

France has vomited on us for too long


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The Guardian, Friday October 3 2008

Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq 
Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq. Photographs: AFP/Corbis

France has often delighted in publicly thrashing its literary greats, from Flaubert and Baudelaire’s morality court cases to Françoise Sagan’s drug busts. But now two self-declared cultural whipping boys have joined ranks to express their outrage at being constantly "vomited on", ridiculed and victimised by their nation.


Michel Houellebecq, the award-winning novelist and ageing enfant terrible, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the dapper leftwing philosopher, epitomise France’s love-hate relationship with its bestselling literary exports. In a surprise joint venture, they have produced a book of confessional letters to each other, raging at the vitriol heaped on them as the "whipping boys of our era in France".


The book, Public Enemies — released next week and seen by the Guardian — is being billed as the publishing sensation of the year, sure to spark a fresh slanging match with critics, some of whom are already talking of a work of staggering vanity and egotism, and a precious insight into the mind of French literary celebrities.


Houellebecq, France‘s most controversial modern writer, was hailed as the defining voice of nihilism after his novel Atomised 10 years ago. But he now compares the chattering classes’ hatred towards him to Nazism. He says his relationship with the French media is "total hatred", and a "war of extermination" is being waged against him.


He writes of a pack hunting him down and says his critics would love to drive him to suicide or stop him writing. He has no qualms about living in Ireland as a tax exile, and fears he can never again do public readings in France.


Despite trying to cut back on the habit of scouring Google for references to himself, he admits he is paranoid, adding: "If there is anyone in France right now with excuses for being paranoid, it is me."


Houellebecq also talks for the first time in detail about his parents, answering his mother, who recently published her own book calling him a "stupid little bastard".


In a literary scandal that gripped France, she took to the airwaves to heap insults on her son, who she gave to his grandparents to raise when he was a baby.


Houellebecq says he has only ever seen his mother about 15 times, and she conjured up a more radical "wickedness" than the "worst mothers in modern literature". He said his friends, on reading her attacks against him, asked why she had not simply had an abortion instead of giving birth to him. He calls her an "absolutely egocentric creature, of real although limited intelligence" and says he cannot even manage to hate her.


It might be that never having a mother "reinforces" one, he writes, but in a way that he would not wish on anyone: one can never take love for granted, and one has difficulty believing in it, remaining a kind of "enfant sauvage", never serene, never tame, "always ready to bite". He saw his mother’s book and press tour as being the media’s attempt to get at him.


"Why so much hatred?" asks Lévy of the vitriol also laid at his door. Known in France as BHL, he has attracted much mockery with his short white shirts and bouffant hair, as he has with his houses across the world, his glamorous wife and ventures into geopolitics, including work in Bosnia and Darfur and travels to Afghanistan as a French envoy. He says in the book that he has a "bulletproof ego", would have been a good secret agent, and compares the attacks against him to those on Jean-Paul Sartre. He also concedes that the "temptation towards paranoia" in the book of letters might be another "zone of folly".


Houellebecq, despite rage at discussion of aspects his private life, volunteers that he prefers to have sex in the morning when he is only half awake. BHL prefers "open eyes" and full lucidity.


The daily Libération said that what could have been a circus show of "two real monsters who you love to hate" in fact showed the writers as "almost human".


The Nouvel Observateur news weekly said that despite the writers’ "irritating" point of departure about their contemporaries’ hatred towards them, the book contained letters which were "strong, radical, even moving" as soon as the pair "consented to come down to earth" and provide confessions and snippets of memoir. 


Michel Houellebecq to BHL

"Everything separates us from one another, with the exception of one fundamental point: we’re both utterly despicable individuals."

"When a country is strong … it accepts any dose of pessimism from its writers … In the 1950s France accepted people like Camus, Sartre, Ionesco or Beckett without flinching. But France in the 2000s already finds it difficult to put up with people like me."


BHL to Houellebecq

"What brings us together: the animosity that we inspire, that’s true; the intuition that makes us immediately smell the bad scent of the manhunt… But also … the certainty that in the end, it is us who will come out on top."