Monday, April 18, 2011

Public Enemies, by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq

Life is full of odd confluences.

I few days ago I finished Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World. Near the end of the book, Michel Houellebecq—the author, most famously, of Platform—offers his advice on how to write honestly:
You simply have to visualize your own death. And imagine that it will occur shortly after publication. After the book has been printed, of course, so you have the pleasure of touching it, smelling it. But a couple of days before publication or, at the extreme, on the publication date itself. Imagine that, as a result, the critical reception doesn't affect you at all. (his emphases)
This idea was still somewhere in the back of my mind when I read a blog post last night titled "What Lucky People Do Differently." The post's author spends a lot of time quoting Steve Jobs; among the quotes, this:
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool that I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
In short, an infamous French novelist who's generally regarded as a reclusive sociopath (and who also happens to be one of the few working novelists I find worth reading) and the most influential businessman on the planet (who also happens to be, from what I hear, something of a sociopath) both give us the same advice: To be successful, imagine—remember!—that you'll soon be dead.

I note this confluence in part because Public Enemies is a record of similar surprises. Two of France's central cultural figures think through, in very different ways, the problems of violence, humanitarianism, fame, artistic creation, private personae, family life. It's a deeply personal book, spiced with some touching French petulance and, most importantly, invigorated by the ongoing conviction that the life of the mind matters. That literature matters. That passion matters.

One hopes they're right.

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