Power and culture, a French example

If you’ve read some of these posts, you’ll know I’ve been in France the last few weeks, and you’ll also know that the place keeps surprising me, despite forty-five years of acquaintance. I got my latest blind-siding a couple of days ago, when I picked up the current issue of Les Inrockuptibles, a French youth/pop culture mag in the Rolling Stone category, but with a gauzier, softer focus. I’m about as far from Les Inrocks‘ (as you’re apparently suppposed to call it) target audience as you can get, so I never even glanced at it before. But this week they dedicated most of the issue to the writer Michel Houellebecq, whom I greatly admire– so seeing his face on the cover, I made the impulse buy.

In case you haven’t encountered Houellebecq, he’s a serious novelist, much admired for the elegance of his writing style, with a flair for hot-button, on-the-edge topics, including on-the-edge sex: sex clubs, sex tourism, “escort girls” (that’s actually the French phrase), Thai prostitution. His latest novel features a Paris professor who regularly sleeps with his undergraduate students, and the plot centers on a near-future in which France elects an Islamist government. It all sounds pretty racy, but the novel also includes long disquisitions on an honored-but-rarely-read nineteenth-century novelist, the workings of French society, Catholicism, and so on. So although Houellebecq counts as France’s top-selling author, it’s not surprising that his actual readership is relatively small. His latest has sold 345,000 copies in France, for a population of 66 million. That comes to about one copy for every .006 of an inhabitant– just over half  of 1 percent.

Which makes the space Les Inrocks gave Houellebecq pretty amazing, because this wasn’t just an interview or feature. They made him guest editor for the week, and he filled up almost the whole issue. He got to choose three prominent French-folk for long interviews (they turned out to be a big-shot politician, a reality TV host, and a movie director); there were stories about his tastes in music, books, and drink; we even learned about his clothes and cell phone. And of course they featured him on the cover.

In fact the only thing they didn’t do was review his books– the assumption was, anyone buying the magazine would already know about a high-toned French novelist and poet. Both the politician and the TV host made a big point of confirming that assumption, saying they’d read and loved the novels. The tone of the interviews was, hanging out with Houellebecq had been a long-time dream, and they were only too eager to talk buddy-to-buddy.

So here’s where the “why can’t North America be more like that?” response kicks in. Why can’t we have politicians and TV hosts who at least pretend to read serious literature? Why can’t our public figures talk openly about off-beat sex practices? (The politician in question is a cabinet minister with serious hopes of running for president, by the way, so he’s not some marginal figure who doesn’t care about the opinion polls.) And why can’t our hip twenty-somethings have that kind of interest in serious middle-aged novelists?

But all that Europe-envy sank when I actually got to reading the interview with the cabinet minister/presidential hopeful– because it gave a strong sense of why so many Europeans are pissed off about politics, and how high culture actually contributes to the problem. A few quotations give something of the flavor:

“Contrary to what you might think, [government’s] role is not to promise quality of life or happiness, but to provide a framework in which citizens can be free and acquire autonomy;”

“I believe in consensus-building talks, which allow the top experts to shape the citizens so that they know what they’re doing;”

“The political deciders and the republic should organize a human, political, and social community in which everyone can exercise their spirituality with autonomy.”

The drift is, ordinary citizens should shut up and back off, allow themselves to be enlightened by the experts, and let the “political deciders” make the big decisions about how life is to be lived. Democracy as it’s usually understood– letting the majority decide and all that, believing that people actually know what they need– is a waste of time and energy, plus it leads to bad decisions (“I believe in verticality in how decisions are made,” is how he puts it). And what are the good decisions supposed to produce? Not a better life, or happiness, or even material prosperity. Nope, all this guy’s offering is what he calls “the autonomy of individuals.”

Keep in mind, this is not someone who presents himself as a right-winger. He’s part of the modernizer wing of the current socialist government, although he himself has apparently dropped out of the Socialist Party, maybe as part of his presidential campaign planning.

You might buy this kind of talk if the world was in better shape, and if there were cheerier prospects for using all that autonomy we’re being promised. Also if our experts had produced more impressive results over the last decade, so we could trust their promises about the future; and if this same government hadn’t given its police forces emergency powers to crack down on just about anyone. But who can take this seriously in the real world of today? Does a country with 25 percent youth unemployment really see “autonomy” as its top priority?

And that’s where I start worrying about the role of culture. Sure, it’s great to have a government minister show some respect for a serious novelist– but it’s also part of the process by which a pretty savage worldview gets made to look respectable, cool, humane.