interview by OLIVIER ZAHM on liberty
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI
OLIVIER ZAHM — The subheading on your new journal L’Impossible is L’Autre Journal (The Other Journal), a reference to a publication that caused a big splash for you in the French press of the 1980s. That journal became a cult item, as well as a reference for many people. So why did L’Autre Journal go out of print when it was such a big success?
MICHEL BUTEL — Because of the first Gulf War, to which the journal was violently opposed. The shareholders stopped financing it; in fact it was straight-up political censure. It is a violent story: it was French president François Mitterrand — a Socialist — and his staff; they made it crystal clear to my shareholders — a large insurance company, one of whose directors was tightly connected to the Élysée Palace and that whole clan — that the journal needed to be stopped. On the final issue, they shanghai’ed my editorial when it was at the printers and deleted it, replacing it with an ad for Philip Morris. They took out the masthead and the names of all the contributors. And then it was done…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were not close to the Socialist French President François Mitterrand?
MICHEL BUTEL — Everyone thought that the journal was so tight with the Left, which was in power then, but in reality, I disagreed with them pretty much down the line.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did it feel to have L’Autre Journal end so violently?
MICHEL BUTEL — I flipped out. I almost went crazy, literally. I launched another journal called Encore, with some friends who are also your friends, a “hipper” journal. It was on really thin, beautiful paper. But I was just going through the motions, mechanically — I was still caught up in the death of L’Autre Journal.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The beauty of Encore was in its freedom. You invented a format, a poetic journal, outside all the conventions of the press, amazing in the context of the early ’90s.
MICHEL BUTEL — It was in 1994-95. Thank you for the compliment, but in my opinion I totally blew it with the new journal. It should have been the beginning of something, and I screwed up. It was quickly buried. I even missed our encounter with your exhibition L’Hiver de l’Amour (Winter of Love) at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, back when we met.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It isn’t that you missed out on the encounter, it was more that that whole period was confusing. It was a time when all the formats were being deconstructed. I mean press formats as well as exhibitions in the arts. Things were going in all directions. And we saw Encore arriving from so far outside the classical press codes; we perceived it as a light, minority enterprise, but we also saw that you were seeking a new form.
MICHEL BUTEL — Encore was also light because of its extra fine paper. But there was a whole backlash, mostly with newsstand vendors who didn’t know how to present it, and of course at the printer’s, who pretended that the paper was tearing. I had found that paper in England. It’s what they used for the supplement to the Manchester Guardian. It flew through the machine. The printer just needed to pay attention. What I loved about the paper was its grace, its almost unbearable lightness, in a journal where you would read very intimate things, war stories, philosophy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was your editorial focus at Encore?
MICHEL BUTEL — It’s still the same. I don’t want either pretense or hierarchy between articles about our daily lives and universal stories. For me, what happens to us in our daily lives is as important to what happens to us all in the world economically, politically, and scientifically. For Encore, I wanted a light journal that would blend two sensibilities, two kinds of concerns, like the mix we have to deal with in life, between the universal and the intimate. And on the horizon there was a kind of elegance. I know I will piss off a lot of my friends by saying this, but L’Autre Journal did not have this elegance. The newspapers and magazines of the time were extremely brutal, as if they were pounding their fists on the table with their maquettes. And I didn’t want that. There was this imperative thing in those journals, which I did not like.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the inherited 19th-century form was rather combative. Press is all about informing or influencing public opinion. Defending ideas.
MICHEL BUTEL — It is the journalistic legacy of a warrior form. And it is like many things in life, which we do not realize are weapons, criminal, or made from violent intentions. For me, an article is like a letter that we send and receive. It should bring news from the center of the crisis in Greece today or the war in Syria. Classical journalism is very institutionalized; journalists are a little like diplomats, with that well-known political-speak; they only believe in official news bulletins…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yours was a more literary approach to journalism?
MICHEL BUTEL — It’s a different language, neither journalism nor fiction, but you do have to have a gift for writing. And also sincerity … you know that sincerity is difficult in a society of lies and deceit. It is not so easy to infringe on this norm and really say what you want to say.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can one have a journal without journalists?
MICHEL BUTEL — I think we could have done it — that you can still do it. Besides, if we had met back then — we’re pretty close — we could have done it together. There are some things, affinities, bonding, that don’t usually happen like that — back then I wasted a lot of time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Then, with L‘Azur you created a journal on your own: a weekly that was written entirely by you. I think that is unique in the history of the press, at least in France.
MICHEL BUTEL — There is a precedent in the USA, with a man Henry Kissinger had chosen as his preferred adversary, who established a journal by himself to oppose Kissinger’s politics in Vietnam and in South America. He made it his personal quest, shooting Kissinger down every week.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Today this format would be a blog. But you are attached to paper. It’s your writing reflex.
MICHEL BUTEL — Not only to writing on paper, but to the object and the sensation. These sheets of paper, this mass of paper, is an object. There are very few that count, that touch me. It’s probably completely infantile, a regression. I say too often that it’s like an adult blankie. I wanted L’Impossible to be small, so you can carry it in your pocket, like your cell phone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — L’impossible is like a personal jolt from you. Its title evokes the difficulty of launching a new journal, as well as the paradoxical conquering of this difficulty, because L’Impossible is on the stands now.
MICHEL BUTEL — But the title also evokes the difficulty of everything: from the difficulty of loving to the difficulty of still being involved in politics.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where did the title come from?
MICHEL BUTEL — From the failure to find another one. I ended up using a title from a book I’ve been writing since I was very young. The first 800 pages will be published this fall. It’s the book of my life, I guess. I have always thought I would never publish it. I had decided to release it after my death.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you have already published some great novels.
MICHEL BUTEL — I have not published a lot … in any case, not before the publication of L’Autre Amour, in 1977, after I went to prison in Switzerland.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why were you in prison?
MICHEL BUTEL — I took some money from a bank in Geneva. I did some dumb shit … I went to prison in 1976. It did not go well there, and I decided that if I made it out, I would write and publish a novel. Before that ordeal, I refused to publish during my lifetime. It depressed me. I have never stopped writing, but I have also never wanted to publish any of it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you stopped writing to devote yourself to the alternative press?
MICHEL BUTEL — No, I never stopped writing, I just refused to publish. I’ve been sick for the past few years, recovering now. Cancer is a kind of prison, too. I said to myself, “No, there’s something off,” and something changed at that moment. I said to myself, “I am going to bore myself considerably if I continue to be this clandestine person, looking for money to finance my next journal, if I don’t shoot the film I dream of shooting or dare to do a certain number of things.” So this fall I am publishing a new book. I think I will be able to enjoy myself for the next 10 or 20 years.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve found your lightness again?
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes, exactly. I am even interested in life again and in the living, whereas before I was deep into melancholy and a kind of stupid hostility toward everything that wasn’t going somewhere. The world disappoints me, and so what? Life goes on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You are one of the last survivors of that revolutionary generation from the ’70s, which never gave up on a certain utopia.
MICHEL BUTEL — To be truthful, that may be close to my story, but it isn’t really what I experienced. First, I was a little older than most of the protagonists of the ’70s. Then — it’s probably a coincidence, but since I experienced a lot of stuff very young — I was born in 1940 … Around 1965, in the group of what were called “Maoists,” I was always the oldest … I have always had a hard time hiding my skepticism, my disappointment or even the outright hostility I felt toward these revolutionary militants. And I think I met pretty much everyone. I am not being arrogant or mean when I say this, either. I know there were some great guys, exemplary militants. But in order to change, if indeed we can change things, it is necessary to have a better weapon than mere generosity. And of course stupidity screws everything up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You say that you cannot dictate change, nor simply organize it — but that you can change the state of mind of those who live in this world. That is still a leftist position, isn’t it?
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes. All the rest — parties, movements, demonstrations, elections — forget about it … and armed resistance just brings out the worst. Criminals or imposters are taking power almost everywhere. I believe in the power of thought, of beauty, of moral or physical elegance, the elegance of action, initiative, and freedom. I am more prepared to trust a musician or an artist than a political organizer devoted to the good cause, that’s for sure. But I think that, for example, after a concert in Beijing, the world could explode. I still think that one day things could go south really fast, in a second, like lightning or a sudden storm.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You are definitely on the side of the artists. In the end the true metabolism of change happens through sensibility and art…
MICHEL BUTEL — Or thought, if it has wings. Not when it is too heavy. When Céline says that men are heavy, well among the heaviest are the philosophers. They are bereft of charm to an incredible degree. Their style is revealing. It is not normal that there be no grace in the process of thinking. This is not acceptable.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean?
MICHEL BUTEL — Something has gotten heavier in the cities, in the architecture, in the way people communicate. Some things are quicker, of course, but everything seems more complex, clouded, and difficult. We are smack in the middle of the sham, the so-called speed that Paul Virilio mentioned — of the Internet, of the cell phone, of the trips we now can take on impulse … I think people do not see that this speed is unreal, that it is strained by an incredible heaviness of morals, money, banality, and fear. And this stops the wonderfulness of speed from being joyful and, yes, light. In any case, it isn’t real speed. Real speed is passion, love at first sight — now that’s speed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Europe is an aging continent — I have just come back from Istanbul, where there is so much more life and lightness in the air.
MICHEL BUTEL — Something that strikes me — when you travel, you notice the happiness in the Third World, the incredible cheerfulness of the people, even when they live in misery or are fighting a war. A feeling of innocence, childlike — even in the most difficult situations. Perhaps we should all just bail. There is a feeling of decrepitude in Paris, instead of a feeling of innocence. Cheerfulness, comedy, innocence — these are serious feelings. And they are reviled and despised. For example, the Left, which won the French elections — their only idea or obsession is the economic recovery, more jobs, etc. It’s serious and also completely boring. What I expect of a leftist government is that it encourage all the initiatives for everyone, the old, the young, the children, so that they may do everything they want to do, whether it’s profitable or not. That would create some joy, some trust in friendship, in the lives of others. But we are all living in a French retirement home.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you accept an official position, for example, being Minister of Culture?
MICHEL BUTEL — Sure, in a heartbeat.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where would this new lightness come from, this innocence? From school?
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes, from school if you like. I’d want the schools to be open day and night, and open to adults for other activities.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you approach political action today? How can you change peoples’ mindsets, their passivity? Do you think a journal can do that?
MICHEL BUTEL — I saw that Purple was leading an action against nuclear power. You have to speak out, without fear, directly — go straight to the heart of things. For me the heart of the heart is nuclear, because it contains all that kills, not only through the theoretical explosion of a power plant, but it also kills with secrets, through the police and military organizations that support it. I wrote an article in which I said that those linked to the nuclear power industry should be treated like war criminals. They really are war criminals. And we know there are others, in the pharmaceutical industry, in the different mafias, others — but the nuclear guys are guilty in everyone’s eyes, with their fancy suits, their education, their pretense, thinking they alone have access to a truth others do not understand, although they are incredibly stupid. They are killers, taking away life, hope, and youth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which means that if information relating to the Fukushima tragedy does not get through, how can you continue to believe in the media? You say, for example, that information is dead, inaudible, and invisible if it is not reanimated by language, by style.
MICHEL BUTEL — Style touches us without our being aware. It does not try to bring together energy and conviction in the militant’s way. Information without style touches nothing. A journal, like an article, must move you, bother you. I would even say it should be able to speak to children. I am tired of having one world for fucking adults on one side, and one for innocent children on the other. It’s the same with books. I realize children’s books, little books 40 pages long, can be as prodigious as books by Joyce or Proust. We say today that everything is mixing together: races, men and women, sexualities. But what we should be mixing more is adults and children so that our adult world — our severe world, so fascinated by morbidity — can be “contaminated” by the amazing intelligence and innocence of children.
OLIVIER ZAHM — One of your convictions, as a man of the press, is to make sure journalism is not exclusively limited to professional journalists. Is that the fantasy of a writer making a journal into a kind of story composed by several people?
MICHEL BUTEL — Let’s say that it is also a quest for the truth, a question of sincerity. Because journalists are the greatest fantasists. It’s not the writers telling lies and making stuff up. It’s the journalists! Sometimes you’ll read something by some correspondent who’s been embedded on the spot in Tel Aviv or New York for 20 years, and then you go to one of those cities, and what a shock, things are not at all as they were described, so then you have to change your mind. I prefer when the press tells us about real experiences, the intimate stuff — everyone can relate to that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In your first issue I saw an article in which a writer describes his morning at a café in Athens.
MICHEL BUTEL — No, no, he’s an artist; he paints and sculpts; he was in school with my children. He describes what he sees and feels on that day, and you immediately understand the economic crisis and depression in Greece. It speaks to me, I believe him all of a sudden. It’s like a love letter or a letter from a friend. Everyone has this talent. People do not share, they don’t dare to. But the proof that these things are true is that historians look at people’s letters to find out what is really going on, not the stuff coming out of press conferences. What we see or discover may be quite fleeting; you only glimpse it inadvertently, but we do pick up on pieces of the truth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You say somewhere: “In the end, intimacy is universal.”
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes, that’s the accident. It speaks to everyone. The press is too predictable, too programmed. It is not open to life’s surprises, to innocence, to absolute unpredictability.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How are you viewed by the press milieu in France? Are you perceived as a traitor?
MICHEL BUTEL — First of all, I have no relationship with them. I think they despise me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You never wanted to write for other press?
MICHEL BUTEL — No. I went to some of them when I was 16 or 17. I went to L’Express and I said, “I would like to do a column for you,” because I saw François Mauriac’s column on the last page of L’Express. To my utter amazement, they said yes. In reality, I didn’t think about it seriously. I just wanted to see if they would go for it. It will sound extremely pretentious, but when I was young I thought it was undignified to live off my writing or my thinking. I went to see Breton, Queneau, and others. But back then it wasn’t like it is now. These people received me; they were quite attentive to the young people who wrote to them. Some more than others. The only one I missed, whom I really admired — again it was a stroke of fate — was Merleau-Ponty. I lived with and had a child with his daughter. It was funny, because the world was divided between those who were for Sartre and those who were in favor of the philosopher Merleau-Ponty, and I did not agree with his political opinions on Algeria, which I thought were too reformist. But he was someone I admired intellectually, and — just my luck — I never met him. He died quite young.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were also close to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes, but that was so much later. He is the most intelligent person I have ever met. Intelligent according to the meaning I give the word, which is to say in his way of being, of living, even of dealing with money. And his humor touched me, as well as his absolute, incredible refusal to accept the smallest admiration or token of respect, to have a disciple; for him that was unacceptable. Other great thinkers find joy, reward, and encouragement in the process, but for him it was ontological. He refused to accept it. He couldn’t stand being showered with compliments or being admired. Not at all. There are books that were published about him that really are beautiful — not the dry, academic kind — they say something important about him, about his voice and his intonations. This is someone I loved, whom I admired. In addition, I think he was the person with whom I have had the most fun discussing things. Including important questions of philosophy, which I still ask myself today, to which he did not respond, I think he didn’t know how to answer. But he wasn’t faking, he wasn’t avoiding the problem. When he had a thought he knew was weak, he didn’t fake it then either. In particular, for things dealing with party politics, where he would say stuff like, “Yes, okay, fine, but in the end you still have to vote for Mitterrand,” I would howl with laughter — I mean, even Deleuze was saying that … Really, he was a great artist, a great artist.
OLIVIER ZAHM — As a man of the press, you have always managed to find an echo in great artists, such as Deleuze and Godard, who have supported your projects. That is quite rare.
MICHEL BUTEL — They supported me personally and materially as well, with donations.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That must have been very encouraging.
MICHEL BUTEL — With Godard, it was sometimes so surprising, I was really touched. He sent me money, but anonymously, I had to go look for the envelope and the stamp to figure out that he had sent it to me from Switzerland.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you enjoying the difficult process of creating a new journal in the Internet era?
MICHEL BUTEL — There are already problems with L’impossible, but I am dealing with them. I want to take it even further: I would like the journal to appear weekly, instead of monthly, beginning in September. I want it to be disconcerting, magnetic, and shaken up by the drive to meet the new deadlines. I want it to feel pushed, as if we were yanking the journal from the hands of those in the middle of writing it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You want that kind of immediacy?
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes, I want it to be untidy. Not because I like messy situations, but because sluggishness is just too hard.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you still optimistic about the future of the press?
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes, absolutely. It’s easy because I hate the old forms, the stuff that has already been said, already been thought. We need to invent some new stuff. The danger is always the same, it’s the risk of repeating yourself, of beginning to legislate, of daring to give lessons based on your own experience. What I hope to do with my journal is to mobilize earthshaking changes in minds — the desire to be on your best behavior morally. We are almost nothing, but we must still pay attention to that almost nothing. We need to pay attention to new things, new ways of protesting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — An astonishing contradiction: Michel Butel, an agitator of “almost nothing,” of tiny shifts in conscience. Yet at the same time you scare the establishment. Is this what it means to be an independent man of the press, one whose thoughts and position on the intellectual scene cannot be controlled?
MICHEL BUTEL — Yes, it’s something like that, although it sounds so pretentious to say it. The conclusion I have come to is this: somehow my very presence elicits widespread fear — which I cannot remedy.
[Table of contents]
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Harmony KorineRead the article
Leo GabinRead the article
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Jemima KirkeRead the article
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Michel ButelRead the article
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Zoe KazanRead the article
French TwinksRead the article
Ed RuschaRead the article
Damon and Paul McCarthyRead the article
Dave HickeyRead the article
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