PUBLIC ENEMIES by Bernard-Henri Lévy


Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World
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A dialogue between two acclaimed French writers, originally published in France.

Liberal activist and philosopher Lévy (Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, 2009, etc.) and libertarian social satirist Houellebecq (The Possibility of an Island, 2006, etc.) collaborated for six months in 2008 to produce this book, written as an exchange of letters. Despite their eminence in the French intellectual scene, both have been attacked by the French press (and have attacked each other)—Lévy for hypocritical egotism and Houellebecq for racism. As the correspondence unfolds, the reader comes to see them in a different light—as social critics who are trying to grapple with the important issues of the day in different ways. Unfortunately, many of the topical illusions and literary and philosophical references in the book will be missed by readers unfamiliar with the specifics of French culture. While both Lévy and Houellebecq support Israeli policy toward Palestine, their stance is quite different. Houellebecq, a self-proclaimed nonbeliever, sees no value in ethnic identity; Lévy describes himself as a happy Jew, writing that “[t]here are Jews who suffer; I’m a Jew who fights.” He accuses Houellebecq of not caring enough about the destiny of the human race: “Africa’s forgotten wars, the massacres in Sarajevo, the Pakistani madrassas where jihad is taught, Algeria in the grip of mass terrorism.” How is it, he asks reflectively, that “one of us [Houellebecq] could act as if nothing was more important than to on listening to ‘Ticket to Ride’ in the company of gorgeous blondes, while the other gets up on his high horse.” Houellebecq counters by explaining why he puts personal freedom ahead of civic duty: “I believe that people who want to get too mixed up in the lives of their fellow men, to redesign or regenerate humanity excessively, are either dangerous lunatics or crooks, or both.”

The arguments are often engaging, but the narrative could have used more editing for an American audience—will appeal mostly to academics and dedicated readers of philosophy.

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8078-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2010


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