User account

How could Dante be avant-garde?

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Philippe Sollers

What is the Meaning of the Avant-garde’s Death?

Translated by Jordan Lee Schnee


Published: 11.07.2019

DE

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem: Mr. Sollers, for 23 years you were the editor of Tel Quel, doubtless the very last important literary review that can be considered “avant-garde.” It published some of the biggest “avant-garde” writers of its time, like Pierre Guyotat, Maurice Roche, Jean-Jacques Schuhl and yourself, as well as still-unknown academics like Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Gérard Genette. You also published Pierre Boulez and Jean-Luc Godard, who, like the writers and thinkers I just mentioned, were the leading avant-garde figures in their respective fields. In 1983 you left Les Éditions du Seuil, where the magazine and your books had been published for Gallimard. There you started the magazine L’Infini, which differed from Tel Quel in more ways than one. This transition is mirrored in your literary path by the move from Paradis (1981), a punctuation-free torrent of monologue that runs nearly 300 pages, to Femmes (1983), which returned to a relatively “classic” descriptive, psychological, novelistic style. (I would like to point out that I’m saying this without intending to pass judgment. In a certain sense the “form” of Femmes mirrored its “contents,” which already represented a death notice for the avant-garde era.) Your move was often interpreted as a betrayal at the time—a betrayal of a certain “avant-garde” spirit for a more “mainstream” one. In my view anyhow, it was one of the “milestone” events of the avant-garde’s disappearance. The demise of Tel Quel, which went along with the virtual abandonment of all “experimental” techniques in your writing, is in my opinion one of the most stunning historical symptoms of the avant-garde’s collapse. Here we shall subject its remains to an initial autopsy.

In the early ’60s you and Jean-Edern Hallier founded Tel Quel, which would become the great avant-garde literary review of its generation. In its early years it did not see itself as an avant-garde magazine. The model was rather La Nouvelle Revue Française, the magazine Gallimard would look to throughout the 20th century. Now you find yourself at Gallimard, having directed L’Infini magazine and collection for more than thirty years.

So, to start with, this question: where do you situate Tel Quel’s “avant-garde” turning point?

Philippe Sollers: (Silence). First off, my immediate task is to refute the classification above, which is, in my opinion, profoundly normative, academic, and colored by avant-garde baggage. This way I can refigure what I intend to constantly keep creating: a true catalogue—or, to put it better, a true encyclopedia—of what actually occurred, starting in the 20th century. Starting very long ago, in fact. The perception of time here is crucial. It is even possible to identify, if you are attentive, which conception of time the avant-garde, or rather the avant-gardes, trafficked. There is a very immediate answer to that: it starts with its coma, which as you have said began in the 1970s, up until its complete disintegration. I will claim that as having been my goal. Anyhow, the conception of time which controlled the avant-garde’s historical path is deeply linked to the one propagated by the Russian Revolution.

MBK: You’re predicting my questions!

PS: That is the heart of the matter, and it’s still unresolved. Consequently, from there, we can draw massive conclusions relating to what has been systematically ignored by mistake with regards to time, due to a total lack of reflection on temporality. A major work on the subject called Sein und Zeit has already come out.

In fact, Tel Quel’s avant-garde consisted of approaching philosophers by asking them about time. The question is and has always been the same, and one that is not part of literature. Why then does literature think more than philosophy? That is the question. If you substitute the word “poetry” for “literature,” then you arrive at someone who, like a philosopher (even if they don’t accept the label of philosopher, towards the end of their life), has communicated fundamental things to us. Things called On The Way To Language, or Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, namely Martin Heidegger. He is to this day the first devil who is clear on this subject. So from the moment of Drama, or of Writing and the Experience of Limits, which in 1965 was a major work on Dante, what did that have to do with the avant-garde?

Really. At that time, Dante was the avant-garde. The concrete proof is Jacqueline Risset’s first bilingual translation of Dante. She died not long ago. Her Dante very fortunately replaced the abominable Pésard translation in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. How could Dante be avant-garde? That’s how the question should be asked.

MBK: Still that’s a vast topic. Wasn’t Bach avant-garde? (Laughs.) Or Sophocles …

PS: From there we can construct, we can get a glimpse of what the strategy going forward will be. In Writing and the Experience of Limits and, later, in Exception Theory (1985), which means something quite specific: monumental singularities. We have insisted on singularity for a long time now, and have avoided all togetherness. The failure, well, the foolishness, of the avant-garde was to try to force togetherness at all costs.

MBK: Bataille is an exception though …

PS: Ah yes, him. Mr. Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Bataille came to Tel Quel with a text because he didn’t know where else to bring it. He sat, exactly like you’re sitting there, in monumental silence. It was he who, without a doubt, held onto “place and form.” That’s what was called the Conference on Non-Knowledge, and came out in Tel Quel, issue 10. You see the conviction needed to stubbornly opt for singularities.

I want to make you aware of the fact that the avant-garde lives—in the Tel Quel sense, and in the sense of Tel Quel alone—because everything else disappears. It lives on, we aren’t sure why, but in the end dictionaries are proof that it does. Recontextualizing this is a highly complex game, because it necessitates moving pieces that seem to contradict or oppose each other (or to be unable to be dialectized in new ways.) Take Antonin Artaud, and you understand that this can take us a long way. As for myself, it took me to court, where I was convicted for publishing his Vieux Colombiers lectures. But then who emerges as avant-garde?

MBK: Singularities.

PS: Well that would be James Joyce, of course! You can connect Dante to Joyce, connect Bataille to Artaud …and who is avant-garde in painting? That would definitely be Picasso! It’s pointless to hide behind Duchamp and co. The avant-garde is guilty of having supported …

MBK: So you’re guilty?

PS: No! Because I’ve never supported the pure avant-gardist doxa. What we call “contemporary art” is a blight on the avant-garde. Art, then, is too. As is literature, when marketing grabs hold of it.

MBK: Returning to the question of time, I think we’ll arrive at something at once both very general and very precise by the end of this interview.

So I’d like to ask my question again, because it went unanswered: Tel Quel did not present itself as an avant-garde magazine at first. So there was, essentially, a turning point—because we’re talking about time.

PS: It was a magazine that presented itself as being perfectly classical. Francis Ponge and I concocted the preface in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Is Ponge an avant-garde writer? He isn’t considered as such by the avant-garde. But in the end he was recognized as one after all, by no less a philosopher than Sartre. So the immediate question is one of knowing how philosophers talk about literature. Are they in the game? Really? How? Up until which point? This was a constant move of Tel Quel’s, one that wasn’t often noticed. Seen from this point of view, the proof was, if you don’t mind me saying, extraordinary. In a nutshell: the first lecturer at the Tel Quel Cerisy Colloquium, whom we began publishing in issue 15, was Mr. Michel Foucault. He had two books which were very important at the time, The Birth of the Clinic and History of Madness. Other authors came quickly, notably Derrida.

And, above all, my particularity has always been in being a sort of lit fuse against what became the avant-garde’s academism. Especially …especially Lacan. And Lacan quickly took on a dimension …every Tuesday I would go audit Lacan’s seminar. It was extraordinary.

MBK: Now you’re talking about someone who wasn’t an academic. When you say “philosophers,” you mean academics. This has played a big role in Tel Quel’s path, as well as your own.

PS: Academia … coming back to the issue with this history of the avant-garde, it was all propelled by gigantic frauds and illusions stemming from the Russian Revolution.

MBK: I was going to insist on precisely that point, on how the heart of the avant-garde concept is nevertheless a knot that connects art and politics.

PS: Yes. Definitely.

MBK: The avant-garde is an idea that came from Lenin. It didn’t come from Dada.

PS: The June 1971 movement is, in this respect, crucial. Why? Because everyone, notably in Academia, who cleaved to that illusion, which was nevertheless avant-garde and therefore communist, ended up feeling at home at Tel Quel.

MBK: I wanted to ask you that question. One about—how to put this—the lover’s quarrel with Academia. The Joyce question, which, once the links to academics are more or less severed, becomes very important—the texts that you consecrated to Joyce are the best ones to date on the subject. In my opinion this takes on a symptomatic role too. Even a “sinthomatic” one, as Lacan would say (the sinthome being to psychosis what the symptom is to neurosis).

So one of Tel Quel’s singularities compared to “normal” magazines, if I can put it that way, is that it publishes many academics, who are themselves a kind of avant-garde to Academia.

PS: Of course. But why do you think Academia hates me as much as it does? They thought they were at home! Just like after May of ’68 Academia was massively sold to what was then called communism, sold to everything that could be considered the left-wing avant-garde. Exactly that, you know? There was the brilliant political idea of putting it all in a ghetto called Vincennes University, where all you had to do was wait for it to rot. Who were the manipulators behind that? There was Ms. Cixous, there was Mr. Derrida. Them. So we have fallen out.

MBK: In 1972, with the “conversion” to Maoism—it’s at that point that you break with Academia. That’s strange. I’m realizing that as we discuss it…

PS: Not ’72, ’71. One has to be precise with dates. A movement in June of 1971 with interesting leaflets that were, incidentally, avant-garde. Not in the sense of the academic history of the avant-garde, which is by the way interesting in its own right. When Marc Dachy orchestrates it, for example. I’m also proud to have published him.

MBK: I’m going to persist with my somewhat stiff, journalistic questions, but you have raised the point. The avant-garde turning point. Some people place it as beginning in 1966. Which is to say with Tel Quel’s involvement against the Vietnam War. Two years later, if I’m not mistaken, it joined up with the French Communist Party (PCF). And four years after that, by way of breaking with them—the PCF—it linked up with Maoism. However, in my view this is the blind spot in the history of the avant-garde, which is to say the connection that explains both its extreme vigor and its premature demise. The avant-garde’s ideology was a startling energy source for the 20th century. We really can’t take that away from it. Like romanticism in the 19th century. Hölderlin or Baudelaire aren’t romantics, but they wouldn’t be Hölderlin or Baudelaire without the romantic groundswell that cut across the entire 19th century …

PS: Well here it must be said that the most important event was in fact surrealism.

MBK: There was Dada too.

PS: Yeah. The Dadaist would say, “I created the Dadaist movement.” “We’re creating the Dadaist movement.” And as a result, they’d created it. Let’s recall a short poem by Aragon on this … My loyalty to André Breton has been unwavering. I’ve always said that the dedication that has most affected me was his dedication in the reissue of the Surrealist Manifesto in 1962: “To Philippe Sollers, beloved of fairies.”

MBK: So to finish my question: the explanation for both the 20th-century avant-garde’s vigor and its sudden death. That’s why I’m talking about trauma, that is, a death so sudden that no one wants to recognize it …in Lacanian terms, at the time, it wasn’t repression, but foreclosure. People foreclosed the avant-garde and avant-gardism as an ideology.

The explanatory twist is the knot which connects art and politics—in this case literature and politics. Now I’m repeating myself because this point is crucial, but again, it was Lenin whose idea it was, not Dada.

PS: Yes, that was in Zurich. But it’s not Lenin who’s important. What we must recognize in Lenin, in spite of everything, are his notes on Hegelian dialectics. That’s where I get interested in philosophy. That’s first and foremost my undying interest. Philosophy. My God. There you go. That must be thanks to Husserl, who I read very early on. And Hegel, there’s a whole book—I think it’s Movement—that talks about him in the proper way, criticizing Marx’s shocking mistake. Because “putting the dialectic back on its feet” is all well and good, but it was headless at the time. Well, Nietzsche, of course, was such a blow …

MBK: He has been quoted on the front page since Tel Quel’s beginnings …

PS: Of course. And it was Heidegger. Very fast, very early on. The two volumes of Heidegger’s Nietzsche, no one’s read them. Even their French translator, Klossowski, didn’t read them. So it’s extraordinary, the repression, the ignorance around Heidegger, that gets perpetuated by the story of his political capitulation, which is constantly exaggerated. Then there’s an author who is, of course, avant-garde, Céline! And which “avant-garde” author stirred up the language as much as Louis-Ferdinand Destouches?

MBK: Yes, all of this goes together. You “wheel out” Joyce and Céline after your break with Academia and distancing yourself from Maoism.

PS: I’ll make an avant-garde parade for you out of Proust too. Ignored. Totally boycotted by the avant-garde. Mistake. Mistake, mistake.

MBK: True, but in your Tel Quel period, you never discussed Proust.

PS: No, but I was biding my time … You need to see the bigger picture in order to see exactly which strategies are at play. Right now you’ve got my encyclopedias (laughs) … It’s similar in film. For me, the avant-garde legend is definitely Hitchcock.

You bring up this small Chinese intervention, “Maoism.” My God! Scandalous! We’re still talking about it. And who came next? I brought that back from Peking. What a beautiful poem. The Chinese Revolution interests me. Without China there’d be no Maoism. There are philosophers who are Maoists. Now I won’t name any names (laughs), but they don’t have the Chinese element of the thing in mind. They don’t realize that it happened in China. When we went [with Julia Kristeva and Barthes] in ’74, there were 700 million Chinese. Today there are three times that. China’s GDP will be the largest in the world in 2030. This means the avant-garde saw nothing coming. But really, nothing.

Of course, the avant-garde does exist. It has its factions, if you will. Its historical vision. But there’s no underlying philosophical thinking. That’s the problem. And then there’s another scandal — I’m really a buff for this kind of thing—it was still Poland’s moment at the time. Jean Paul II forever. Which is to say that I’ve gotten jumbled here a bit, hmm. I ended up making a present to him of a book about The Divine Comedy—you see how tenacious that one is. Who would you want to give a book on The Divine Comedy—that sublime transcendental possibility—to except the Pope? I gave it to him, and a photo was taken of our meeting which caused a scandal. I also got blessed at the event. Blessed by a saint at that, because he’s been canonized. I’m feeling the good effects to this day! I’m telling you, that, that really was an avant-garde job. So there you have it. Yes indeed (laughs).

MBK: The problem is that all your answers already encompass my questions. That was only to be expected, so I’d like to follow up with one that you might make short work of. You were always a great chess player (laughs). So, about the link between art and politics which explains both the avant-garde’s vigor and its premature agony, in all its manifestations—there was another avant-garde magazine that existed between 1957–72, at the same time as Tel Quel, which was widely talked about. It bore the same name as a very tangential contingent of its members, the Internationale Situationniste. Its concept was, how can I put this, more “hard core” that Tel Quel’s. Or in any case it was extremely different. Anyways, we won’t review their differences here, that would take us too far off course. I bring it up though because you had an extremely long and complex relationship with the man who has been dubbed situationism’s “Pope,” namely Guy Debord.

PS: That’s very important. First thought: the SI, and Debord himself, were unable to say anything fundamental about painting.

MBK: Well that’s the avant-garde. (Laughs.)

PS: A second thing: Debord, who I loved in spite of who he was, because …

MBK: He wasn’t very gentle towards you.

PS: That’s the way it was. Me, I read. I read closely. There you have it. Debord, in spite of everything, stayed faithful to the concept of the proletariat when he reissued the Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle. This is surprising as soon as you have the disappearance not only of a concept but of the thing itself. I’d like to lay it out for you, it’s always the same issue. It is: what temporality? And assuming that there’s a “communist hypothesis,” which has … my admiration for Debord’s personality and energy, and most of all for his style. But he had a style that was … hyper-classical! We’re quite far off from the avant-garde.

MBK: Well now you’ve made me think of a very basic question that I hadn’t planned to ask. From when I was a teenager, both the SI, and Tel Quel were important for my education. There’s a tension between what the writers from the latter magazine and what the situationists brought me. Between the extraordinary “textual” linguistic innovation, as you called it at the time, that the Tel Quel writers were prime examples of—yet which did not make many waves outside of literature—and the terribly effective, unbridled “actionism” of the situationists, who nevertheless wrote using extremely classical language. Now I’m thirty years older, but the tension between the two was seminal for me. I would love for you to say a few words about that.

PS: Debord was a great general.

MBK: We were talking about Lenin earlier … The avant-garde is first and foremost a military concept.

PS: Yeah. Me, I’m more like an anomalous cardinal (laughs) … Debord was a great general who saw and understood that he was in Auvergne—in that sinister place, alone, surrounded, suffering. He saw that he could only end it. That’s all.

What’s exasperating about this kind of procedure, a procedure that has to be undergone, is precisely that we remain in the realm of the hyper-romantic.

MBK: Yes. Definitely.

PS: And, to reiterate, the film that best expresses Debord’s truth is obviously In Girum Imus Nocte et Cosumimur Igni, because in it we hear his voice. It sounds a bit melancholic … Melancholy, melancholy … in girum … But we are in Canto 13 of Dante’s Inferno!

MBK: In Venice …

PS: Yes, but Venice in black and white! Never in color (laughs) … Careful, careful … Each detail counts … So here we are: going around in a circle, consumed by fire. All right. A palindrome, if you want to call it that. It’s great. But in the end, we’re pretty much in hell.

For Dante, it’s interesting. Someone like Beckett doesn’t get past purgatory. Debord ends up in hell … Heroic hell! I mean, no joke! Me, I’m in charge of heaven, but there is none …

MBK: There are no takers.

PS: There’s nobody. We are in exalted solitude, with a crowd of objects. Well sounds, apparitions, forms, figures, all blending with each other. It goes on … I realized this very early on, and I told myself, I’ll make the following wager: the avant-garde is Dante! That was something that could disgust one and all because they were ignorant. Theologically ignorant, or just ignorant plain and simple.

MBK: This is just occurring to me now while we’re talking, but doesn’t that actually explain some element of your relationship to Guyotat? Is Guyotat not the contemporary Dante, but just hell?

PS: But … Eden, Eden, Eden!

MBK: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s true.

PS: Why repeat the word three times? (Laughs.) Guyotat found total support at Tel Quel. We’re still friends, which hasn’t always been that easy, by the way. His Joyeaux Animaux de la Misère side, or something else in that vein; there’s Coma … But anyway, it’s still about very romantic prospects.

MBK: The avant-garde is romanticism’s daughter.

PS: The avant-garde should be put under the microscope—all the protagonists of its female stories should be. I think that’s my distinction, to have insisted on this early on and in a very performative way. Because accordingly, in every case, you’ve got something that’s moving and also shows something else. Let’s not talk about Aragon. Breton would see a woman and fall hopelessly in love. He had to marry her that instant, etc. … There are the surrealist’s famous “sexuality surveys,” you’ve got … Well anyway, it’s all amusing. Moving on to Artaud, there’s no point insisting. But it all still reeks of sexual frustration and puritanism.

One of my hypotheses is that the problem was Baudelaire. Why did he get so completely erased from the avant-garde’s “hard drive,” as we now say? The Flowers of Evil is a big thing isn’t it? And why that title?

MBK: I unceasingly ask that question in my work.

PS: And from there I would listen closely to Sade. What he writes about the supreme being. What I’m trying to say is—how to think and write something that is totally new, historically new, about Sade? Because the point of view on Sade has had some movement. I’m honored in this respect to have been concretely active in the avant-garde since I got Sade published in the Pléaide. I suggested it to Antoine Gallimard. Publishing Sade in the Pléaide on Bible paper, that was … (laughs).

And that’s not all. Lautréamont is, after all, decisive. The book by Marcelin Pleynet, an important Tel Quel poet, called Lautréamont par lui même [Lautréamont in His Own Words] has been republished. That book came out in 1967. That was when Aragon woke up a little, because he was in a period of reflection … He and Breton had written Lautréamont et Nous. It’s Aragon and Breton in the Val-de-Grâce military hospital with the crazies, shouting Lautréamont to each other at the top of their voices during the bombing of Paris. So there. And you know what? Today, the psychiatric expert, the psychiatrist, the woman, the Fresnes Prison one who has the toughest encounters with the hardest criminals, serial killers; you know what she said? That she thinks Les Chants de Maldoror is the greatest book!

MBK: Yeah that’s interesting. I don’t read newspapers all that much, but I did see the interview with her in Le Monde. Everything that she describes is fascinating. An amazing woman.

PS: And she’s been an analyst for 15 years. We can surmise that Lacan isn’t far. So we need to look at all of this closely. That’s the avant-garde in my understanding. It means seeing the fact that there is always something new in what we think we know, but do not.

If you arrive at the conclusion that nobody reads anything anymore, and that everyone is blissfully ignorant, you know quite well what I’m getting at here.

MBK: I sure do. That’s very true … the question that I wanted to ask you earlier, about the difference between Tel Quel and the situationists, well there’s also this symptom of bellicose hostility to Academia. What I also wanted to tell you is how when you talk about “philosophers” you’re talking about professors at universities. Of course, there are writers; Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille … They are all first and foremost writers. It all goes together.

All the same, I want to come back to the link between Tel Quel and Academia as symptomatic of its difference from the situationists, who drastically avoided all contact with universities, except for the purpose of causing “Dadaist” scandals there, like in Strasbourg. This all led to May ’68 …

Of course, at Tel Quel, that wasn’t insignificant, and it even constituted a very special moment in the history of philosophy—what gets called French Theory. To run through it very quickly, what that means is Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Genette, Kristeva (not to mention the ones that Tel Quel published). But in any case, there is no other historical example of an avant-garde collective that had academics at its heart. In the history of the avant-garde, this was quite exceptional, which bears repeating and … and maybe explaining.

PS: Well well well, the problem is a simple one, and we will analyze it using …(Silence). Using the class struggle (laughs). The overwhelming majority of academics come from leftist petty-bourgeois or middle-class backgrounds. Now they don’t forgive me for being well off, Mehdi, that’s undoubtedly because of my bourgeois background. That’s the issue. There is no other. So much so that I am obliged to constantly repeat that my life didn’t begin with the publication of my first book, which was acknowledged by Mauriac and Aragon, but in the deep hinterland near Bordeaux. I lived there amidst sophistication and entertainment, and from this I would periodically draw all the energy for escaping class hatred that I let loose in my literary beginnings and which endures to this day. That’s what no one in the avant-garde will say.

And Debord definitely intrigued me, because while it’s true that he quickly went broke, he didn’t come from the proletariat, far from it. Which is to say, the way he clung to a future proletariat always seemed to me … let’s say, pretty weird.

So then: teachers are definitely reactionary petits-bourgeois which is to say: leftists (laughs).

MBK: All right. I was going to ask a question, but it’s barely a question, it’s a line of inquiry about … it’s pretty Lacanian, again. What I mean is, why are things so rocky between philosophy and literature? It’s like how in life there are love stories and, as you know (laughs), they usually don’t work out very well, but sometimes they do. Wonderfully, even. Plus, paradise can be found there. But the relationship between philosophy and literature—without, by the way, deciding which one’s the woman and which one’s the man—never seems to work out.

PS: But it actually works out great (Laughs.) But, only in a sense. It’s a question of power. Mehdi, that’s what made me realize very, very early on, and very quickly, that you have to grab philosophers by their ears (laughs) to see how they make out with literature.

Listen, I waged a campaign on that. It was really, really … classic. A hell of a guerrilla war. They all came to explain themselves on the subject, at my request. Don’t forget that there is an entire book by Mr. Derrida called Dissemination, which is being studied at universities the world over, while the book which contains the question, Nombres

MBK: One of your favorite books, by the way.

PS: … hasn’t even been translated. It hasn’t been translated into English, and how can there be commentary on a book that hasn’t been translated? Voilà. That, that’s a French question, Mr. Belhaj Kacem. It’s the question of the French language’s French. When does this marvel which is French, with all its successive geniuses—from Sade to Baudelaire and a long list of others, let’s say my compatriot Montaigne … why do I start to feel like the supposed avant-garde is really bad at French? Well that makes me ask a very, very tough question. The only one who … Breton doesn’t have any problem in French. He writes it magnificently. Aragon, besides the communists, clean, clean. He got away from them as best he could, in La Semaine Sainte [Holy Week], he was got into with that one, in 1958. That’s where he discovered that I’m touched with genius. He wanted me to embody it. Debord was admirable with French, but he considered it, with good reason, to possibly be a dead language. That it must be possible to write as closely as possible. That was great.

Anyways, French: there’s Baudelaire, there’s Rimbaud, there’s Mallarmé, and yes there’s Lautréamont too … and well, you know that there isn’t much else, right. You’d really have to be deaf and blind not to see what the language deserves …

MBK: Care.

PS: For us to make sacrifices for it. Which I did.

MBK: Silly question: the “fated” path from Tel Quel to L’Infini (according to some)—what was the deciding factor for you in how that happened? I’m surprised by the fact that no one has ever asked you that question! At least as far as I know. Is it possible to talk about a specific moment?

PS: It’s very simple. Yes, there was an exact moment. We were totally autonomous at Tel Quel … First off, it’s very strange that a publisher would create three magazines in order to crush a fourth one! Les Éditions du Seuil were at the helm on that one. There was Jean-Pierre Faye’s Change, Genette’s Poétique, Cixous, etc. So there we found ourselves, backed into a corner, but we had two very important lifelines. Barthes is a Tel Quel author, after all. Barthes. A friend to the last. Great guy. You know, Barthes’s L’amitie [Friendship], which collects his correspondence, is not such a bad book. It’s a question of deep friendship. And then there was Lacan. So we were untouchable. “What? Sollers? Tel Quel? What’s the problem? Is something wrong?” (laughs) Then they both died!

MBK: That’s true. I didn’t think of that, but it’s obvious isn’t it. It’s explained in Femmes through the stolen letter.

PS: They both died. And then I immediately saw things get worse: we didn’t have any more support, nothing. We were in a trench, surrounded on all sides (laughs), and, Mehdi my boy, that’s when, to everyone’s amazement, we left and drove 200 meters in a truck full of documents. First we went into decontamination at Denoël, which is part of the Gallimard group. How could that happen? Ooooh (laughs). Ooooh how great! (laughs).

MBK: One last symptom, which is not uninteresting in the least: Tel Quel foregrounded writers from the past as being in a way the avant-garde itself. Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Joyce, Bataille, Artaud … Basically, you were saying, “That’s where it’s taking place.” So that too, is already pretty fresh, compared to the avant-garde procedure which is … which was more the assumption of a blank slate. Today this gets rehashed as parody, and we don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. As in contemporary art, like you said … .

PS: Ah, you have to have principles. I’ve got them. Very strong ones.

MBK: You’ve considerably expanded the field of literary criticism with L’Infini all the same. You defend everything that you read during your Tel Quel period without stating it outright, like Proust and Céline but also, for instance, Fitzgerald, Hemingway … You defend everything that you’ve always read.

PS: It’s as simple as that.

MBK: In a way it’s the returning of the repressed though.

PS: Of course! Because I expect that to be the main point of conflict in the war: that nobody reads anymore. Our immersion in the digital, in communication, is irreversible. So knowing where we’re headed is of great interest to me. Therefore I’ll pick up again on an idea that I discussed with Barthes. The encyclopedia, he told me, needs to be redone. He had just published an exquisite book on encyclopedia plates. The encyclopedia must be redone.

So, I did it.

MBK: That brings us to what could be called the “media’s Sollers,” who has been such fodder for the muckrakers (and whom we associate with the “betrayal” of the avant-garde … ) Yet Sollers had already been mediatized in the ’60s and ’70s, regarding Tel Quel specifically, but also Femmes and L’Infini (“intellectual terrorism” and so on). Everyone goes at you with the label “Sollers, the French media’s minstrel” etc. I’ve always wondered why you were the one who got labeled, and none of the other famous French writers of the time. You’ve been a sort of scapegoat for a lot of people—but for what?

PS: Spectacle, always in the Debordian sense of the word. It has a power that is … gigantic. To be able to live inside of Spectacle, I dare say you need to have a very special set of nerves.

MBK: Well, time for the last question. It’s a quote from your last book. There’s a fantastic passage about the demise of the avant-garde, and how you were actually a kind of avant-gardist at the end of the avant-garde. You, Phillipe Sollers, can be historically defined in that way. In a sense, that’s what you have to answer for. You stand accused of being a sort of gravedigger for the literary avant-garde. In any case, I’m going to quote you, because this is, to my mind, an exemplary reflection on what happened: “Yet the discovery that is quietly moving forward, one articulated by Freud, is that the past is now the future. Not the linear past, as told by historians and schools, but an explosive past, whose DNA is only just beginning to be decoded. The 21st century, in an extremely present genetic present, is a brutal detox which will highlight all of the singularities of the past, from prehistory to the present day. What surprises await us! What a wonderful encyclopedia!”

PS: There you go. It’s sorting. We are in the sorting era. “The new era is nothing if not harsh.” That’s sorting. So … like someone said … “gravedigger.” For there to be a gravedigger there has to be a dead body.

MBK: (Laughs.) Well, I think that that will be the last word.

PS: “The avant-garde’s gravedigger.” I like that. Do you remember the gravedigger’s conversation in Hamlet?

MBK: No.

PS: Oh it’s great. So great … The oldest positions are held by “gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.”

My language
English

Selected content
English, French

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem

is a Tunisian-French author and philosopher. He wrote his first novel Cancer at the age of 20. Before the appearance of his second novel, 1993, he turned his attention to philosophy, and in recent years has published numerous controversial essays, most recently Dieu : La mémoire, la techno- science et le Mal (2017), Artaud et la théorie du complot (2015). He and Jean-Luc Nancy are the editors of new the DIAPHANES series ANARCHIES.