Public Enemies is the record of twenty-eight letters Bernard-Henri Levy, the French intellectual, and Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, exchanged between January and July of 2008. The letters are precisely dated, and a few of them contain salutations, but they otherwise bear little resemblance to the kind of letters you or I might write. There is no gossip. There is no weather. There is no talk of lovers or travel plans or works-in-progress, and scant talk of friends. Sarkozy comes up once—and then twice more when they discuss why, after all, it was better not to have brought him up more often. At one point Houellebecq actually apologizes for not being vaguer: “Okay, I’m sorry for reducing the issue to the specific, but there are some questions on which I tend to think pragmatically, though I’m embarrassed to admit it.” He doesn’t need to apologize again.
Because they leave out so much, the letters do not feel, so to speak, lived in, and reading them one begins to miss the sociable white noise of life’s minor goings-on. Correspondence is not really the right word for Public Enemies. Nor is it, as the promotional material would suggest, the literary answer to a prizefight; the correspondents mostly treat each other with kid gloves. Public Enemies belongs instead to a genre both odder and more arid, an undisciplined hybrid of memoir, literary criticism, and apercu, all composed in a key of complaint. “Someone has a little bile, a little sad passion they need to vent?” Houellebecq says. “Well, there are people you can dump on; Bernard-Henri, for example. And Houellebecq, yeah, not bad, a lot of people are dumping on him these days.” “In the end it all adds up,” Levy says, “and I can assure you that it outweighs the pile of shit that our enemies would like to bury us under.” Indeed, Public Enemies is a book much preoccupied with dumping and shit-piles and parasites, “the microparasites who can—literally—no longer survive without me.” Levy and Houellebecq hold these microparasites—their critics—in contempt. But as Houellebecq himself asks, “how effective is contempt when you are attacked by a tapeworm?” Strange to say, the tapeworm question haunts the book, and gives a measure of its limitations.
Bernard-Henri Levy, who goes by BHL, is the author of several books of philosophical nonfiction and a novel. He has made a name for himself as an intrepid humanitarian who invokes the wisdom of people like Jacques Derrida in reports from places like Darfur. BHL, who is married to an actress with a famous family, is also the kind of humanitarian whose brand of pomade distracts attention from his advocacy work. (A journalist once summed up his philosophy as “God is dead, but my hair is perfect.”) For many in France, he is the personification of champagne socialism, a wealthy and glamorous man who sermonizes to the educated classes on the insignificance of wealth and glamour. Houellebecq has different problems. A former civil servant, he approves of Sarkozy, smokes four packs a day, and lives in rural Ireland. “I am about as ill adapted as it is possible to be for a public role,” he declares toward the end of Public Enemies. Houellebecq is the most famous novelist in France—last year’s La Carte et le Territoire won the Prix Goncourt—yet he is perhaps less well known for his novels than his causticity on the subjects of sex and Islam. This causticity informs the novels but is not confined to them. In a 2001 interview Houellebecq called Islam “the stupidest religion” and was charged with incitement of religious hatred; he was later acquitted in court. As for women, his “reputation for getting drunk and making passes at his female interviewers” is widespread enough to have warranted nervous mention in the introduction to his recent Paris Review interview (again, a false alarm: the interviewer described his actual conduct as “whimsical and charming”).
So both men have image problems. As BHL says midway through the book:
You could bring all the legal actions you wanted and for some people you’d still be only a nauseating matricidal killer, a racist and an Islamophobe. I could attempt to set the record straight in every possible and conceivable way and I would only strengthen their case that I’m a bourgeois bastard who knows nothing about social questions and takes an interest in the world’s disowned only in order to promote himself . . . It’s your reputation that’s your destiny.
BHL and Houellebecq were not close when they began writing one another. It does not seem that correspondence brought them significantly closer. As Houellebecq puts it in the opening letter, “We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Contemptibility is an unconventional foundation for friendship, and indeed these letters are no friendship-building exercise. What they are is hard to say. The agreed-upon purpose of the correspondence is to investigate the ill will its authors have aroused worldwide. This conceals, thinly, a great project of the ego, which is for Houellebecq and BHL to place themselves in the same category as France’s illustrious public enemies past: Voltaire, Baudelaire, Flaubert.
But BHL is no Baudelaire, and this agenda, thankfully, is not adhered to. In fact they pursue it so slackly and distractibly that it quickly recedes into the background, to be overtaken by other, stranger dramas. The book is better for this. Some readers will be stirred by the discovery that BHL considers his “ego” “fireproof, shatterproof,” and that he likes to make love in a state of lucid wakefulness, whereas Houellebecq prefers to be a little out of it—to do it in “the early hours, half asleep.” Others (all, perhaps) will be amused by the sheer Frenchness of BHL’s claim that only writing and love (“and I mean that in the strict sense, in the sense of loving women”) make life worth it: “Why do you write? Because you can’t make love all day. Why do you make love? Because you can’t write all day.” Yet these indiscretions, bite-sized and obvious, are not nearly the most interesting things in the book. Aside from the menace of the press, the two cannot touch a subject without sparking into disagreement, and they do it with entertaining regularity in Public Enemies. Though they range over much (metaphysics, aesthetics, reasons for writing, reasons for being), politics, predictably, is the only topic to tinge the letters with incivility. BHL, a humanitarian, definitionally believes in basic human dignity. Houellebecq, who is a quietist, doesn’t. He recommends a “bacterial” view of humanity, and goes so far as to wonder if the species wouldn’t be better off expunged. Houellebecq thinks the fundamental phenomenon of life is irreversibility, “the absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay.” BHL thinks it’s love.
Their most interesting clash, however, has to do with style and self-presentation. Following the example of his self-made, solitary father, BHL has become, in his own account, a hardcore keeper of secrets. “I’m a real neurotic when it comes to secrecy,” he says. And soon after: “secrecy was as indispensable to me as the air I breathe.” At one point he actually scolds Houellebecq for “surpassing yourself when it comes to enormous, provocative confessions that will give the blabbermouths something to talk about.” Yet just as BHL is not a little bombastic about his “horror of bombast,” so he paradoxically effuses about his love of secrecy. Indeed, he blabbers on about it: “Without saying so, we all . . . dream of the ultimate mystification, the one that will render speechless those of our contemporaries who have been the least deceived and will allow us, poor clowns tired of our own comedies, to be reborn in a new guise, a new skin, another family novel, another novel period.”
It is difficult to tell whether this contradiction stems from lack of self-awareness or, more simply, the incoherence of bad writing. BHL is at least occasionally guilty of the latter. His metaphors, for instance, are so mixed and shambolic they read like parodies: “The shaft of light thrown by the work of words is the bright spot in the dark that finally nails down the idea.” Either way, Houellebecq, who declines to brag about his own elusiveness, is by far the harder of the two to get a read on. He is also the better writer. In these letters as in his novels, his prose displays the same blend of lassitude and lyricism, the same vexed sensitivity to modern life, and here as there it is a pleasure to read him. Houellebecq makes music out of scorn. He describes the “Soviet-style displays of enthusiasm by those in charge” of little poetry journals and, more stingingly still, the prose of another writer:
Everything about the man rings false, his every sentence oozes speciousness and affectation. The restrained emotion, the walks across the moors ‘lashed by the bitter wind’ . . . you feel like you’re in a BMW commercial
Scorn, however, is not Houellebecq’s best or only key. Here he is, with loopy splendor, on existence:
We are only passing through here on earth, I understand that perfectly now; we have no roots, we bear no fruit. In short, our mode of existence is different from that of trees. That said, I’m very fond of trees, in fact I’ve come to love them more and more; but I am not a tree. We are more like stones, cast into the void as free as they are; or if you absolutely insist in seeing the glass half full, we are a little like comets.
BHL is a game and expressive writer, and his activism seems sincere, but he strangely comes off as less serious, as buffoonish even, compared to Houellebecq. At any rate, it is Houellebecq that has the most memorable line in this odd, aggrieved, surprisingly entertaining little book: “If someone believes they know me, they are simply lacking information.”
Everybody loves a train wreck. This one started when Jonathan Lethem came barreling down the tracks with an essay in Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in which most of the lines were cribbed from other sources and then ingeniously stitched together to argue in favor of appropriation and against the tired old 20th-century notion that an artist owns what he or she makes – that dinosaur known as copyright. Then right behind him on the same tracks came David Shields with last year’s sensational freight train of a book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an expanded echo of Lethem’s themes made up of a pastiche of Shields’s own words and the words of many other artists. Among Shields’s words: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”
Then suddenly – watch out! – along came the little engine that could, Marco Roth chuffing down the tracks in the opposite direction with an essay in the journal n+1 called “Throwback Throwdown,” in which he set out to derail the two speeding locomotives. He called Shields’s book “an authentic act of copying” that fits snugly into the “pervasive and growing fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ.” Roth added, “To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly ‘nice’ work of churning out novels, poems, essays and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of ‘copyleft,’ Proudhonists of the ghetto.”
Once the collision took place, as you can imagine, there was a lot of twisted metal on the tracks. But before the smoke cleared, an actual rapper, the superstar Jay-Z, plowed into the debris with a book called Decoded that cleverly turned the train wreck upside-down by showing how a master of an art form built on appropriation uses old-school literary techniques and a quaint thing called imagination to write lyrics that bristle with originality and socially potent meaning. For good measure, Jay-Z tells the story about the time he stabbed a rival for stealing his music. Train wrecks don’t get any more perfect than this.
Which brings us to the fun part. Now we get to sift through the wreckage, counting bodies and looking for survivors.
I just found a survivor. It’s Michel Houellebecq, the baddest bad boy in French lit today. All this racket about copyright and appropriation (or bricolage, sampling, collage, poaching, rip-off, homage, plagiarism, call it what you will) – it bloodied him a bit but he’s actually in excellent shape. His latest novel, The Map and the Territory, was an instant smash – until someone pointed out that Houellebecq had lifted several uncredited passages almost verbatim from Wikipedia and other websites, including an entry on how flies have sex. The bad boy went ballistic when the word “plagiarism” was uttered. “If those people really think that (this is plagiarism), they haven’t the first notion of what literature is,” he fumed. “This is part of my method. This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by Perec and Borges… I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.” The novel wound up winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.
Sitting next to Houellebecq, also battered but in remarkably good shape, is a German teenager named Helene Hegemann. Her novel about Berlin nightclub kids, Axolotl Roadkill, was a best-seller in Germany last year and was nominated for a major prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. Then word got out that she had lifted passages from several other sources. After admitting to “thoughtlessness” and “narcissism,” an unrepentant Hegemann told Die Welt newspaper: “But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material. What matters is what they do with it. If my novel is interpreted as representing our times, then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade – that is, with the rejection of all those copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.” The newsmagazine Der Spiegel agreed, comparing Axolotl Roadkill to Naked Lunch and Manhattan Transfer: “Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism.” In a statement released by her publisher, Hegemann added, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
James Frey is slumped in a seat across the aisle. He’s not going to make it. As far as Shields and Lethem are concerned, his fatal mistake was not that he fabricated much of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces; it was that he went on TV and apologized for it and, to prove his contrition, allowed Oprah to pillory him publicly. He forgot the First Commandment of the 21st Century: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.” Frey is toast.
Jay-Z came through without a scratch, of course, which brings us to this train wreck’s central irony. The makers of popular music have been brazen and fruitful plunderers for many years because, let’s face it, there are only so many ways to arrange a simple melody and only so many ways to say “I love you” or “It’s over” or “You tore my heart out and stomped that sucker flat.” While blues and jazz artists and practitioners of other more saccharine forms of pop music have been borrowing for years, hip-hop DJs were perhaps the first to revel in their piracy, though they made a point of dressing it up with the lofty word “sampling.” Being a pirate, an outlaw, a gangsta has always been central to the rapper’s pose. Jay-Z didn’t need to do a lot of posing, it turns out, because he was an industrious purveyor of cocaine long before he transformed himself into a one-man corporation.
The source of Decoded’s fascination, for me, is not the author’s projects-to-the-penthouse biographical arc, nor his tales of hustling drugs and hobnobbing with Russell Simmons and Bono and starting his own clothing line and helping turn Cristal champagne into a bling brand. The book’s fascination comes from three very different and very surprising sources.
First, it’s beautifully made – lavish illustrations, clever layouts and ingenious use of fonts, quality paper, plus a Warhol on the cover. Second, and most importantly, the book allows us to peek into the tent of Jay-Z’s creative process. He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. Jay-Z writes that he “felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.” That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary. (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde’s contention: “Most artists are converted to art by art itself.”)
Decoded illustrates its author’s creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes. It’s a revelation. On one drug-selling run to New Jersey, for instance, here’s how he describes his crew watching television while they work – Watchin Erik Estrada baggin up at the Ramada. In the corresponding footnote he writes: “There are a lot of motel references in my songs. Hotels are where a lot of our work got done, where we bagged our powder.”
There’s a telling reference to the made-up selves of rappers. The lyric “They’re all actors” is limned like this: “When I say that rappers are actors, I mean it in two ways: first, a lot of them are pretending to be something they’re not outside the booth; second, it also means that those who are being real often use a core reality as a basis for a great fantasy, the way a great method actor like DeNiro does.”
Street slang is dissected. “Spike Lees” are “the best seats in the house – in this case whether it’s at the arena or in the jet.” “Sprees” are “custom rims that have internal discs that spin when the car stops, named after Latrell Sprewell… Fun for kids, but for grown-ups, a sign that you might be trying too hard.” Sometimes the reader absorbs the method without aid of footnotes, as when the words “breakfast,” “Lexus” and “necklace” cozy up to each other in a single couplet. Jay-Z freely acknowledges that he plundered his parents’ vinyl record collection, floor-to-ceiling stacks of Motown, pop, R&B, soul and funk, but the act of plundering led to his creative birth, not to mere mimicry. “We were kids without fathers,” he writes, “so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves… Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”
The book’s elaborate footnotes demolish twin misconceptions: that rappers are merely brazen, unapologetic appropriators with nothing original to say; and there’s no longer such a thing as originality, just authenticity. Jay-Z, for one, does not see himself as a hero of “copyleft” or a Proudhonist of the ghetto. As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” He’s also a writer in the purest, oldest sense of the word – that is, he’s someone who uses his experiences, his influences and his skill with language to say something original and new.
I agree with what Michiko Kakutani wrote recently in the New York Times: “In the end, Decoded leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying and ‘the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope’) by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected stream-of-consciousness leaps that rework old clichés and play clever aural jokes on the listener (‘ruthless’ and ‘roofless,’ ‘tears’ and ‘tiers,’ ‘sense’ and ‘since’).”
To say that rappers possess originality and that they rely on traditional literary devices is not to say that they don’t – or shouldn’t – borrow from other sources. And it’s not to say that writers of prose and poetry shouldn’t borrow from other writers of prose and poetry and, for that matter, from rappers and jazz musicians and newspaper reporters and advertising copywriters and absolutely anyone else. All art comes from art. To admit this is not to concede that there’s no such thing as originality any more than it’s a license to borrow without attribution and then call it your own. William S. Burroughs freely admitted that he cut up texts and re-arranged them and inserted the results in his novels. Michel Houellebecq is free to be influenced by Perec and Borges and Burroughs (and anyone else), but I think he’s making a mistake if he thinks copying from Wikipedia adds to the beauty of his books. He’s too good a writer to make such a lazy claim. And while I agree with Helene Hegemann that what matters is not where artists get their materials but what they do with them, I believe all artists need to give up the cheap crutch of claiming that since it’s all been done before, all they can hope to do is rearrange the familiar in some unfamiliar way and then call it “authenticity.” That trivializes art. And it’s stupid and wrong.
Back in 1992 Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer: “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” That’s not to say that writers do nothing but steal from other writers; it is, rather, to admit that literature comes to us not through a writer’s unfiltered experience of life, but through that experience as filtered through the things the writer has read, as well as the things the reader has read.
In “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem writes, “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”
Of course we all quote. But if quoting is all we do, then we don’t do very much. Shields and Lethem seem to acknowledge this without fully admitting it, because they do so much more than merely quote in Reality Hunger and “The Ecstasy of Influence.” As Roth put it in his essay in n+1: “Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn’t follow that theft is art. Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all ‘ready-mades.'” Precisely.
Lynne McTaggart, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against Doris Kearns Goodwin, acknowledged in the New York Times in 2002 that all writers are “relentless scavengers.” Then McTaggart added, “Writers don’t own facts. Writers don’t own ideas. All that we own is the way we express our thoughts… But it is important not to excuse the larger sins of appropriation. In this age of clever electronic tools, writing can easily turn into a process of pressing the cut and paste buttons, or gluing together the work of a team of researchers, rather than the long and lonely slog of placing one word after another in a new and arresting way.”
I think she’s right. Shouldn’t we expect novelists to do more than cut and paste Wikipedia descriptions of how flies have sex?
The third and final source of Decoded’s appeal is the revealing story Jay-Z tells about what happened the night of December 1, 1999 at New York’s Kit Kat Club. His album Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter was not due to be released for a month, but bootlegged copies were already selling on the street. This infuriated Jay-Z. After all, he’s a business, man. He believes that he – and he alone – should get paid for the music he makes. When a rival record producer showed up at the club and admitted that he was behind the bootlegging, Jay-Z stabbed him twice.
This violent outburst left no doubt about Jay-Z’s opinion of people who hijack his material and don’t apologize – and take money out of his pocket while they’re at it. You might argue that bootlegging is more invasive than sampling, and that it goes way beyond the relatively benign forms of plagiarism Lethem and Shields so ingeniously espouse. In fact, Lethem admits as much in the closing lines of his essay: “Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.”
It’s a seductive bill of goods, but you simply can’t have it both ways. You can’t say Pay me for what’s rightfully mine and feel free to rob me while you’re at it. Jay-Z, who understands the workings and the worth of originality, isn’t buying this bill of goods. Neither is Marco Roth. Neither am I.