THE BLOG
12/09/2014 06:54 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Reading Philippe Sollers: Literature and Politics à la Française

Ulf Andersen via Getty Images

Why does Islamist terrorism function like a swarm and not like a network or a rhizome -- acephalous, polycephalous, wheeling, invulnerable?

Is it true that George W. Bush nearly suffocated after choking on a pretzel while watching football on TV and seeing Mullah Omar running through the stadium shouting "Guantanamo, Enron! Guantanamo, Enron!"?

How is it that Christiane Taubira, François Hollande's minister of justice, speaks of love like nobody else: through songs wistful, resilient, and tender ("Dansons la capucine," "Le temps des cerises"), through evocations of love in the time of the Paris Commune and of the Communards' Wall, of Juliette Gréco, of Colette Renard?

Was I all that wrong to compare French publisher Françoise Verny to her great role model, Jacques Rivière, and what did Rivière mean when he wrote to Marcel Proust: "They can't understand you; they're sleeping too deeply"?

In occupying Paris, did the German army really have two major strategic objectives: the BDF and the NRF--that is, the Bank of France and the Nouvelle Revue Française, the real bank, the bank of dreams and imagination, the bank of French verse and prose? And how much credence should we give to those who maintain that there was a third objective, the PCF, or French Communist Party, which did not play hard to get?

How do you "get rid of the body" when executing (in Katyn) the crème de la crème of a large country--22,000 Poles, including 4,000 officers--and keeping it secret for 70 years or, to be precise, until the 2001 visit of John Paul II to Bykivnia?

News item: The United States tried 638 times to assassinate Fidel Castro. News? The same Fidel Castro, either out of nostalgia for the Jesuits who educated him or out of a felt need to thank heaven for having spared him 638 times, is said to be rereading the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.

If the Vatican is a state, how does it manage to govern by signs and smoke rings, coded citations, hints and glances, and rattles from beyond the grave? And is that form of governance the essence of power or an aberrant exception?

Should Céline be shot? Sartre burned? Michel Foucault auto-da-féd? And James Joyce? Is he really so clean as all that, that devil, that pornocrat, that enemy of the human race?

Do the jurors of the most prestigious of French literary prizes know that the Goncourt brothers were anti-Semites as virulent as Céline or Drumont?

Was Euripides (and later Simon Leys) right to think that "the sea washes away the stains of the world"? And is it really necessary to wash away the stains of the world?

Who said "Only losers find winning vulgar"? And, "When seeking truth, it is better to be alone," who said that?

Why is it that Solzhenitsyn is quoted less and less? And Shalamov? And other dissident writers of the second half of the twentieth century? Out of fear of irritating Putin or, as they say, "humiliating" him? Ah, the people repeat, over and over, that Vladimir Putin "has been humiliated too often" when in fact few heads of state have been so pampered, humored, deferred to, tiptoed around, and handled with kid gloves.

Was Rousseau a deserter?

Was situationist Guy Debord right in asserting that the Mafia is "the model for all advanced commercial enterprises and thus for all states"?

Who is that young woman who was photographed nude, her back to the camera in her bath, one morning in Chicago in 1952?

Must we agree with Baudelaire, speaking about Choderlos de Laclos, that revolutions are always made by voluptuaries?

What has been lost between Thomas De Quincey, Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, and William Burroughs, on the one hand, and, on the other, the breed of writer/speaker who entertains today's cruise ship audiences?

These are just a few of the questions posed in the 807 pages (notes and index included) of Philippe Sollers's latest book, Littérature et politique (Flammarion).

Forget the man with the cigarette holder, the magazine editor who has already afforded himself the luxury of several disappearances and resurrections, the last situationist, the Voltairean Catholic who went, not from Mao to Moses but from Mao to the sovereign pontiff.

Forget the "literary terrorist," the pirouettes, the polemics, the reproach that has dogged Sollers for more than 50 years now, the art of showing himself in order to hide himself, the television appearances, the newspapers, the "moldy France" remark, and the other countless infractions in his thick rap sheet.

In this book you have the spirit and the letter of the last 15 years of the quintessentially French story of the relationship between writers and politics. Sollers quotes Mauriac in an epigraph: "I'll take politics; I'll baptize it literature; and that is what it will immediately become."

Here you have Sollers at his best, powerful and funny, exhilarating and serious, more offensive than ever, a voracious reader and liver of life, reinforced in his refusal to renounce either by his knowledge that both are disappearing arts that soon, the way the current disaster is unfolding, will be practiced only in secret. The children of Duns Scotus and Lautréamont, the supporters of the unbreakable core of the literate being--subjects structured like a language, worded, one might say--are they not Marranos of a sort?

Read this book right away.

Because it carries the echo of the creeping devastation. And because the author proves that there is, in the ruins, another way to live.

Not anger, not nostalgia, but insurrection through style.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy