A decade ago, I was trying to figure out why and how French Theory, alternatively called post-modernism, critical theory or post-structuralism, had so completely vanished from the mediatic scene. After having hosted an army of prominent thinkers (Foucault, Deleuze, Debord, Derrida, Lacan and more), a gigantic void had installed itself over Paris. What had happened?
This question led me to analyse the extinction of French literary reviews which appeared to have played an important role in the transmission of ideas prior to, and post 1968.
Through my research, I’d constantly fall on the name of writer and critic, Philippe Sollers. He was the author of a gargantuan number of books, had directed and contributed to several affluent French avant-garde literary periodicals and was linked to many events that had shaped the golden age of French critical theory. He had defended and rejected Maoism on time, had experienced various literary styles at opportune moments, had won prices, and yet, I had never read anything of him.
I looked him up further, tried to read a few things he had written, and that’s when I realized that not only was he still alive, but he was also directing, in Paris, a literary review called l’Infini. The latter presented itself in the same old-fashioned line as the French literary reviews that had once contributed to the rise of critical theory. Though its resonance was meager, l’Infini remained, as Philippe Sollers himself, alive.
Intrigued by this relic of the past, I took a train to Paris and that’s how, a few hours later, I landed with my recorder and my Swiss accent in Philippe Sollers’ office. His office wasn’t really an office. It looked more like a shoe-box filled with books. Seated behind a desk crowded with stalks of old-fashioned magazines and loose sheets of paper flying all over, Philippe Sollers invited me to take a seat. I climbed over a few boxes, pushed stuff into a corner and eventually managed to squeeze myself on something that resembled a chair. Philippe Sollers smiled, and though the window was closed and the oxygen low, he lit himself a cigarette.
His gaze held a humorous air, which made me immediately feel at ease. The fact that I hadn’t read any of his books wouldn’t be a problem, I figured. I could sense he was happy to speak and that even if he took himself seriously, he also understood what this meant: nothing.
Gifted by the virtuosi of language, he would play with words like a cat with a mouse. He’d interpret what people did and said as a game. A game he was conscious of and happy to take part in.
Being Swiss, Paris and its literary circles have always represented a threat for me. In the French part of Switzerland, where I come from, we suffer from a superiority-inferiority complex which leads us to harshly denigrate our francophone neighbours, especially when it comes to culture. For us, the French evolve in a tiny stinky little bubble which they believe to be the center of the world, whereas obviously no one cares about them. This is what we say, but then again, there I was in Paris, eager to hear about anything Philippe Sollers could tell me about this precise little bubble.
Born in 1936, Philippe Joyaux, who changed his name to Sollers, passed away last Friday at the age of 86. Hereunder are a few excerpts of an encounter I recorded in 2012 in the headquarters of Gallimard, a publishing house he referred to as being “The central bank of French literature”.
Philippe Sollers supported many of the francophone thinkers that were later praised in US colleges. He was in this sense, an enabler. A man who knew how to grant importance and drama to what he and others thought. He was also a heavy smoker. He never switched to Juuling nor to vaping and remained faithful to his cigarette holder. This feature too will be dearly missed.
Who are you?
Since thinking and saying tend, for a writer, to be the same, I am what I say. To risk being pretentious - Exodus 12:14 - Ehyeh Acher Ehyeh: I am that I am. Or, I am who I will be. Or, I am the one who is. This is God speaking from the burning bush and Moses is well obliged to receive his message. In the present moment, you are my Moses. There might be no fire, but it’s as if there were.
How old were you when you started writing?
It's hard to say as writing conjures up signs traced on paper. Whereas, in my opinion, a writer starts writing before writing. Being attentive to language, he understands from an early age that adults are constantly lying. This observation partly influences him to become a writer. More important than tracing letters, however, is reading. I remember when, at the age of 5, my mother was reviewing the basics by my side and how suddenly, bam, the sentences would come. She told me - there you go, you can read. I was completely subjugated by this statement. I went out and ran around the countryside repeating to myself: I can read! This meant I had gained the use of the ultimate weapon. To know how to write, you have to know how to read, and to know how to read you have to know how to live.
Writing and speaking...
Writing and speaking are the same thing. Speaking, thinking, writing.
You never experienced a writing-block ?
The machine works.
Yes. You're right, it's a machine. Though the word machine is a bit prohibitive as it is too technical. It is the body that writes, that is written and wants to be written.
Have you ever been depressed?
No, actually I haven’t.
Do you prefer to be miserable and intelligent or happy and stupid?
Intelligent and happy.
If you had to choose one or the other.
I’d answer you neither one nor the other. Intelligent and happy. Which is what I am. Intelligent, either way.
You were directing Tel Quel, a literary review that held among its contributors, Foucault, Bataille, Debord, Godard, Derrida, Barthes and more. You then founded l’Infini. Is there a continuity between these two reviews?
Absolutely. I've been doing quarterly reviews for the last 50 years and I’ve always maintained the same line: literature, philosophy, art, science, politics. No advertisement. That was the order of Tel Quel and it remains the one of L’Infini which is about to publish its 121st issue.
If the continuity is maintained, how come Tel Quel attracted more resonances than l’Infini?
Tel Quel was a pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periodical. Today we are in a period of general regression. If I hadn’t organised myself a long time ago to edit myself and a few others, I’m not sure they nor I would still be. Over time, this continuity has been censored by a number of opponents including the University. Added to this, we have the defeat of politics and an absolute victory of the financial markets. This general financialization, or as Heidegger would name it, this sovereignty of technologies” is what today rules the world. Human beings have become the prothesis of their own devices, that’s all.
Is this necessarily a regression?
Yes, as it translates into a deep anesthesia, that is profoundly negative. Something might come out of this disaster. A mutation. We will see. Things don’t function in the same way whether you are in Switzerland, France, Brazil or India. Having endured two World Wars, Europe struggles to rebuild itself. Conflicts remain and it’s difficult to build in such an atmosphere. It requires a solid nervous system. The passage to the numeric doesn’t help either. One can surely import Proust on one’s phone but the question is, who still knows how to read? By reading, I mean memorizing what one has just read. A paragraph, a phrase or even a verse. My wife who is a psychoanalyst receive patients who constantly complain of forgetting everything they’ve just read. Nothing is retained. It’s the sign that a deep neurological attack is taking place.
Would people read more before?
No. This has never been the case. Mallarmé, wasn’t more than a few hundred copies. His influence was nevertheless important. After all, to paraphrase Voltaire - it only took 12 apostles to found a religion that still exists today. The latter managed to launch a factory that despite its share of misunderstandings, persists to this day.
Do you believe the financial market as you call it, shatters and will always shatter the spirit?
For the moment yes, though as Napoleon would say - there is the sword and the spirit, and the sword always ends up defeated by the spirit.
If I’m not mistaken, you were surfing on the literally avant-garde wave, which was rather elitist and suddenly you published Femmes, your first readable book and that was it for you and the avant-garde.
You then became what one calls a mediatized personality?
Exactly. I simply understood before many others that media was unavoidable. Even if directed to very few people, media was, and still is, necessary for those who wish to express their ideas. I published Femmes when I understood the importance and necessity of short wave communication. I decided to try it out. My body can do so with no strain. Radio, television, yellow press, no problem for me.
Do you enjoy communicating through short waves?
Again, it’s my interest to do so.
What’s your mission ?
It's a war. One cannot afford isolation and marginalization! This was the great mistake of the revolutionaries who were convinced that it was everything or nothing. It’s never the case. It's a very, very fine dialectic one has to learn how to handle.
When and how did you realize you had to change strategies?
I’d say from the mid-1970s on. As soon as there was a possibility of falling between the cracks of the media, I went for it. I was of course then severely criticized for it.
By all the people I had decided to depart from, like for instance the university as an institution, the communists, basically every politically correct mind of the time. Independence, autonomy, freedom, and unpredictable movements are not given. They require one to fight. Freedom is a war, not an incantation.
You enjoy provoking?
It’s my interest. It's not that I like or dislike provoking. You ask me if I like to go to war. I would prefer not to, but I have no choice.
Is it a game?
Yes, war is a game. It's called strategy, my dear friend. War is neither fun nor cynicism, it is about power relations. It's a defensive warfare with offensive breakthroughs. War is a strategy and war is an art.
Power seems to be important for you. In the Parisian tissue in which you evolve, you seem to have a considerable amount of enemies who criticize you for having, I quote, “ taken the power”.
This is very true. I did take the power and I can only congratulate my enemies for acknowledging it.
What does “this power” mean?
It means that these people, who criticize my power, are in a way, working for me. They are my galley slaves. There are many of them and as soon as I publish or say something, they all come out of the bush.
Does this pain you?
Oh no. It’s crucial people continue saying bad things about me. It would be terrible otherwise. I actually strongly encourage them to continue, as these people are my friends!
You enjoy being verbally slapped?
I don’t enjoy it but it's in my interest. It's neither a question of pleasure or of displeasure. What matters is that they continue to work. Galley slaves, struggle and row, that’s how things function.
You never struggled and rowed?
No. As a matter of fact, I rarely say anything bad about anyone. I defend the things I like, but I don’t attack.
Are the ones who attack, weak?
Weak and jealous.
Why do journalists feed themselves on such controversy?
Because they are frustrated. They are, as Guy Debord once rightly said, “overworked employees of the emptiness.”
You had very close ties to Guy Debord. Were you influenced by his work?
No, as back then, I already existed. Him and I had perfectly antagonistic opinions. It’s a long story…This said, Debord was an excellent writer, brilliantly formulated, and gifted with a very solid mind. His error was to remain faithful. Despite its disintegration, he remained loyal to the notion of proletariat. In my opinion, this was a mistake. Added to this, he had a bad life. Committing suicide in Auvergne because of a painful arthritis was not exactly ideal. With bad wine on top of it all….
When I observe your trajectory, I also notice that when you were in your twenties, you had two fathers, Aragon and Mauriac.
No, they were the ones seeking a son. They never represented my fathers.
Didn't they spiritually adopt you?
They certainly tried, but it didn't work. I must have indeed had quite some charm.
Are you an intellectual?
No. Intellectuals are screwed up. They lecture. They tell you what’s good and what’s bad. Whereas my aim is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, to remain above the Good and the Evil.
If you are not an intellectual, what are you?
Someone who never forgets the importance of humor and irony. My master is Voltaire.
If you could reincarnate, where, when, and in what would you choose to come back?
One of my friends is experimenting with cloning. He told me, "you will be the same, but you won't necessarily be a writer." I told him, in that case, "let's call it a day."
Have you ever in your life dreamed of being something other than Philippe Sollers?
Would you agree to reincarnate as Mozart?
No, as I prefer telephones, electricity, hot water and airplanes. If I have to choose, then I’d say a bird. I spend my summers near a bird sanctuary and they absolutely enchant me. Yes, if I had to reincarnate, I’d come back as a seagull.
Yes. Vogelfrei in German. Vogelfrei is the song of Nietzsche's outlaw, a magnificent poem. Vogelfrei is the free bird, that is to say, in legal jargon, the one that can be shot without encountering any problems. Vogelfrei, the free spirit, the free bird. Vogelfrei.
You never complain?
Never complain, never explain, never complain.
Do you share similarities with Don Giovanni?
No. I don't repent, I don't complain, I don't explain. Seagulls don't complain. They are extremely sarcastic, cruel...and they have a disturbing laughter. Hitchock understood them. If I were him, you would be my Tipi Edren.
Which writers do you admire today?
Well, we are in a transition period. I enjoy reading a friend of mine, who supported me in the United States. Philippe Roth. His books get heavier and heavier. On our side of the world, we have a similar figure, also very famous, Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is in the dark, I'm in the blue.
If you were a philanthropic billionaire, into which cause would you throw your money?
Probably in the field of biological research. Besides the financial market, bio-power is turning into a dominant force. So yes, I'd invest in fields related to brain function.
To keep your power?
It wouldn't be to support anything humanitarian, that's for sure!