interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
I interviewed PHILIPPE SOLLERS for a literary journal 25 years ago — the very first interview I ever conducted. Since then I’ve enjoyed reading nearly all of his novels, essays and articles. Sollers defies classification; perhaps for this reason he’s considered THE BAD BOY OF FRENCH LITERARTURE AND CRITICISM — even as he remains one of the most influential literary editors in France.
Sollers was born in Bordeaux in 1936. His writing, often Joycean in style, is as musical as it is conceptual. His novels treat life as comic opera, weaving the diverse worlds of politics, sex, religion, art, commerce, and mass media into narrative orchestrations.
His first novel, A Strange Solitude (1958), was praised by intellectuals like Louis Aragon from the Left and by ones like François Mauriac from the Right, something nearly an anathema
in French literary circles. In the ’70s Sollers was close to Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan; he married the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva; and founded the eminent Structuralist journal, Tel Quel. He wrote about all of this, the people and the events, in possibly his most famous book, Femmes (1983), which became the cult novel about the Paris intellectual scene of the ’70s. Sollers’ recent autobiographical novel, Un Vrai Roman (2007),
is a primer of the life of this erudite, chain-smoking Casanova and anti-philosopher. I was very happy to meet him again and learn first-hand about his art of living, loving — and thinking.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s begin by discussing your recent book, Un Vrai Roman. If you take the title literally it means that your life is a novel and a model for living, for thinking, perhaps even for loving. There emerges — I don’t know if you’re going to like this term — a moral doctrine that one finds, basically, among the French moralists from the 17th century, such as Voltaire. You said you’re an atypical Voltairian. To be more specific, writing today is often disconnected from life, which in my mind makes most novels rather insipid. First, what is Sollers’s art of living? You once said, “The least amount of society possible is the best.” That sentence has stuck with me. Do you mean that we constantly have to escape society? To desert it?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Today everything is spectacle. Inside heads, society talks. Everyone thinks they’re in a movie, playing a part. 660 novels are published each year in France and maybe two of them make an impression. Which means that the other 658 are a waste. How to escape this virulent intoxication? We are no longer in decline, which should be promising; we are in an era of decrepitude, meaning we’re dissolving like a sugar cube in coffee. Human beings are dissolving — not only in France, which is, nevertheless, historically responsible. But the French decomposition, amidst all the different decompositions/re-compositions going on around the world, is interesting. I thank you for immediately focusing on the French moralists of the “art of living” category. This did not go unnoticed by Lautréamont, otherwise known as Isidore Ducasse, a sublime writer currently being republished in the Pléiade collection at Gallimard. He looked at morality in an entirely new way — a “moraline-free morality” as Nietzsche would say [morality without artificial additives]. It involves a question of style, of maxim, of the language and its possibilities. Isidore Ducasse’s Poésies is 140 years old; he published it independently in 1870, without any critical revision. Lautréamont is just as misunderstood now as he was 140 years ago. Of course, the moralists need to be shaken up and adapted to a current situation. Nietzsche himself said that the French moralists — the French miracle — were a constant source of inspiration. The question of the art of living is important; it has to be able to prove itself through the style and solidity of its maxims, which implies a certain relationship to time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A relationship to one’s own life, as well?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Yes, if you’re fully alive. If you’re not playing a part in a movie that’s fading away. It’s a relationship with instantaneous time, with a constant awareness of time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How does this all play out?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Immediately.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there any way to escape the society of the spectacle?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Yes, if you realize the simple fact that God has become Society. Therefore atheism today means escaping the spectacle, escaping the perpetual false present of social cinema that unfolds within
individuals. Everyone thinks they’re acting in a global movie. You just have to look around you, on any mode of public transportation, or in the street — anywhere. Listen to conversations — nothing is said; each person is trying to have his own little advertising moment. It’s not even Warhol’s 15-minutes of fame. It’s not even 20 seconds, or even ten seconds. But there are a certain number of people who are aware of this general decrepitude.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This seems to relate to the integrated spectacle Guy Debord wrote of in one of his last essays.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — The two first spectacle forms, according to Guy Debord, are the concentrated form in the totalitarian countries, represented by Stalin and Hitler, and the diffused form of spectacle, which emerged in Western democracies. Today we are confronted with what Debord defined as the integrated spectacle, the junction of the two systems, the concentrated and the diffused. Debord’s Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle need to be read carefully: the descent of the State into the Mafia; the rise of the Mafia into the State. This reality is now expanding exponentially. I imagine even Debord would not be so much surprised as stunned to see how quickly it’s happening. We’ve discussed the spectacle. But it’s not enough to study the question we’re dealing with, since it takes us back to talking about society again. Even with Debord, there’s still the idea of having to position oneself with regard to society.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t this also your position? Finally, don’t you lose your footing with regard to this idea of deserting or escaping this kind of spectacle?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Yes, but it happens inside. It doesn’t happen with regard to society, so therefore it has to exist in the form of a transcendent thought. There must be a factor that isn’t social, that doesn’t stop you from playing hide-and-seek with the big beast that is society. In other words, it has to be a clandestine lifestyle. This clandestine life can be conspicuous, in broad daylight, without disturbing anyone. It is what I’ve been able to achieve, I think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even in broad daylight Philippe Sollers is still an enigma. I’d like to know more about your intellectual methods. But, to finish up with this more general question, with regard to the idea of dissolution, despite it all, you’re not a nihilist. You’re not someone who takes pleasure in the subjective vanity of saying, “Well, because everything’s going to hell,
let’s just laugh.”
PHILIPPE SOLERS — No. I’m not nihilistic at all. For me, Nihilism is the true enemy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where does your optimism come from?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — From language. From the wonderful library that is now more accessible than ever — at a time when there’s almost no one left who can read what’s there is to read. Which is great, a wonderful paradox. Everything’s available but there isn’t anybody left who appreciates it. I’m not making this up. It’s right in front of our eyes. We have everything in music, in painting. All you have to do is wander around, say in some corner of Italy for two months. I spent 40 years in Venice, in the strictest incognito. It was as if no one had ever seen me. Again, it’s about a relationship with time — free space for the play of time. There, you’re completely outside what society has in mind. Because society’s space is a closed, locked space, relentlessly full of imagery, relentlessly talking, preventing the free play of time — there is no space for the free play of time. Compare your counter-example to that, all the while keeping in mind that I’m answering your questions. I’m happy to see you. There’s no problem. Radio people can talk to me. TV people can talk to me. I’m not sulking about anything or anybody, because, quite simply, I take the time to know what can be said about what I think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you like solitude, you like to escape, but you’re not an antisocial maniac.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Not at all! That would make it too important. Antisocial maniacs, as you call them, are in reality social militants. In other words, they’re programmed for it. But me, I’m a social antidote, one who is
almost never apolitical, who tries to be as informed as possible. For example, I’m really interested in the flux of money circulating at the moment we’re talking. It’s crackling everywhere. But, I don’t fall for the little political comedies that the media pulls out of a drawer every now and again for dinner conversation. That’s not what’s important. For example, what we should try to get the truth about is what exactly happened for Mr. Obama in Beijing, on the financial level.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re still a Marxist, aren’t you?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Have I ever said anything bad about Marx?
OLIVIER ZAHM — The truly hidden structure is that of the financial world.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — There is that, but you have to question more deeply what’s going on — in terms of religious passion, for example, which Marx didn’t have in mind. He thought that the opium of the masses was going to dissolve in the sunshine of the triumphant proletariat’s freedom, etc., etc. All the progressives, all the revolutionaries, completely misunderstand the religious question. But, it’s about that, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Since it takes shape in a world where there’s growing contrast between extreme wealth and expanding poverty?
PHILIPPE SOLERS— Right. So, you might suspect that the real gamble is the one happening in the Near East, in what Nietzsche wonderfully called “monotonotheism.” Since we’re talking about Marx, let’s not forget Nietzsche, and let’s not forget Freud, for reinforcing our atheism, in other words, especially our sexual atheism. I’d like to see a sexual atheism; it’s not something I can find. I call out for it. But there’s very little about this matter available, unfortunately.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now, let’s consider what I would call your art of loving. People see you as a libertine, but to me, you’re more interested in love — it’s clear from many of the titles of your novels: Le Cœur Absolu [The Unlimited Heart], L’Etoile des Amants [The Lovers’ Star], Passion Fixe [Immobile Passion] and of course your two volumes of Paradis.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — There is a great confusion about sex and passion. Does the feeling of love have to inevitably be romantic, inevitably tragic at some moment or other? That’s the way it’s presented. As for the libertine, he’s seen as fluttering about impulsively from flower to flower like a butterfly that doesn’t know where to land; it’s the moral condemnation with moraline. All this proves just how much we stagnate in the mindset of the 19th century. Open any book or watch any movie — if there’s love or sex, you’ll always see the same predictable plot: it’s going to turn bad at some point because it’s the war of the sexes, blah blah blah. Yet, to the contrary, to follow the true idea of love is actually quite simple: you only need to have a body and to not feel any sexual embarrassment. The amount of ignorance today is tremendous. Ignorance, for example, about the conception of happiness in 18th century France — a certain way of using your freedom, in love as in so-called libertinage [libertine sexuality]. Love is all about meeting someone who will change your life — a fundamental encounter that generally triggers an entirely specific moment in time. As for sexual adventures, they are interesting if you know how to incorporate them into your own life. It’s a very precise moment as well. There are various times which can coexist without necessarily being conflictual and dramatic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t believe in the Beatrice model, which is the model of exclusive love?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — No, but I very much understand what Dante wanted to do with his Beatrice. It was an experience of time, going to Paradise to meet her who had called to him from hell. But everything is in my books. Basically, there’s no community, no society, no group of any kind, but a permanent versatility, sometines univalent, sometimes polyvalent — not monogamous, nor polygamous, not any of those horrible words. But it does require a particular nervous system.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it requieres a certain talent for privacy.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — I wrote a book called Le Secret. I spoke to you about escaping a disintegrating society that recommends that you destroy yourself at every moment, in different ways, through a more or less artificial process. In reality, the goal of society is to be destroyed: destroy yourself, and we’ll do the rest. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — I want to return to that secret community of lovers to which you belong.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Don’t use the word “community.” It’s a word that belongs to poor Blanchot, who spoke about the “un-avowable community.” It doesn’t mean anything. Everything can be avowed if you feel like talking about it. It’s just a way of knowing how to keep quiet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you recommend that lovers keep invisible, secret, anonymous?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — If they don’t understand that something violently anti-social has happened to them, they haven’t understood anything about what’s happening in love. As soon as the couple starts to be public,
as soon as they go for some kind of exhibition — I don’t know, maybe the cover of any celebrity magazine — it’s clear that it’s all a flagrant failure. People who experience a fundamental encounter don’t talk about it. Nothing is more urgent than to hide it all. If it isn’t, it means they haven’t understood what is happening to them, or that they haven’t really come sexually, in the sense of jouissance [sexual pleasure], which in this case is the same thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So what is love according to you?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — There is nothing more antisocial than love! They’re constantly selling you the opposite. Love is supposed to be social, but it’s not true. Love is a-social; it isolates. Society hates love and jouissance. It’ll do anything to stop it. And it does.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does society celebrate love in order to control it and limit it to the family sphere?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Yes, in the family, or in advertising, or in cinema — in the cinema which, once again, is the vision of society today. Love has to be part of the scenario of the society. If you keep quiet — if you’re secretive, discrete — you’re already suspect. Yet you haven’t done anything except keep quiet. If something has happened to lovers, it’s in their interest that they commit to silence, except between themselves.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does love have a political meaning for you?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Lovers are criminals. Love is the non-manipulable. Love is free. As soon as it’s assigned a value, whether monetary, sentimental, or narcissistic, as soon as it takes shape as a value, that’s proof that it doesn’t exist. That is, it ceases to be free.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s perhaps the secret of your passion for women. From this stance, every encounter is possible.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Absolutely. It’s a way to live with nature, the best way generally being with women, which is all linked to something musical. It’s a question of the ear, and of going just slightly off-key. You have to listen to their voice, to the way women speak… Not the way they look or their fashion… And vice versa, women are extremely sensitive to the way you speak to them and what you say.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s a question of intimation, of intonation…
PHILIPPE SOLERS — L’amour ne va pas sans dire… Love doesn’t happen without words. Sexual encounters can occur within a limited vocabulary. Love, once again, is a conversation that lasts, if it happens. The conversation is very much in danger. No one knows how to have a true conversation anymore, what with instant messaging and texts, with cell phones and satellites. There are only shocks without development. There are only interventions to get oneself noticed. There’s not what you can call thought. Conversation requires thought. It implies that there is thinking. There you go. There’s less and less thinking.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So Philippe Sollers’ lovers’ discourse involves his extravagance, or his perversion. Your position doesn’t revolve around erotic or sexual practices.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — It’s perversion with regard to a perverse world, yes. It’s the most acute perversion with regard to a world that is becoming intrinsically repugnant and perverse, and therefore tends to assign psychological, psychoanalytical, psychiatric adjectives — which are the grub of permanent accusation. Hence the fact that you have to know what era you’re living in, in order to know what it is you yourself are living, to put forward a counter-poison to the poison. We’re living in a period of frightening regression, a regression disguised in riches in the developed countries. But it’s all striving to drown out the poison.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mention Nietzsche a lot when talking about your personal ethics. Did Lacan influence the way you think about love?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Lacan knew some of it. Among the people I’ve personally known, he’s the one who messed around with it the least.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You speak about Lacan often in your coded novel, Women, where all the names of famous intellectuals are changed. I found out that you can figure out who the characters represent on the Internet.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Many of the male characters in Women have been clearly identified, but there’s been an unbelievable indifference to the female characters. A young student once said to me: “It’s funny, but no one ever talks about the portraits of women you do.” I answered, “You’ve noticed! Please, be so kind as to catalogue the many women in my books for me, what they’re all like, their physical description, social milieu, etc.” He’s still working on it. He’s done about 200 different portraits! But, no one wants to see that I love doing portraits of women’s lives, and people only see me as the narcissistic center of my books. This is one of several misconceptions about my work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yet one of the most interesting questions concerns your misunderstanding with women — and with the feminists — about femininity. How do you explain this? On one hand, you’re seen as a great lover. You call for the independence of women. You incite them to leave repressive situations. You’re on their side.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Their freedom makes me free.
OLIVIER ZAHM — On the other hand, you’re criticized and hated by women for having pointed out elements of their secretive nature.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — And, in Women, about their lies. I’m an ethnologist of the nature of women. It’s much more interesting to me than anything Levi-Strauss studied. There’s no need to travel a great deal…
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your main accusation against women?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Women begins like this: “The world belongs to women, that’s to say, to death. Everyone lies about this.” It’s an almost biblical formula, one that I take seriously. Men and women aren’t here to get along. It’s an all-out war of the sexes, but there are pauses, armistices.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Perhaps such radical statements will invariably trigger the rage of feminists. If such statements of difference and disagreement are true, then maybe equality isn’t possible. Perhaps that’s the conclusion they draw?
PHILIPPE SOLERS — What’s bothersome is the rejection of the essential difference between men and women and also the ideal that we could be able to live together, as one sexual community, for example. Which is buffoonery. What’s interesting about this matter is that in going to war one learns things. The problems of strategy interest me a lot. My most recent essay is called Guerre secrète [Secret War]. What’s happening in China interests me very much. There is a Chinese character in Women no one has ever spoken to me about, one who is nevertheless explicit — very important on the erotic level, for example. Somewhat provocatively, I said that the white woman has had her time, but the Chinese woman’s time is coming up. That’s something else entirely, because in the Chinese version of the war of the sexes, you’re never just two people dreaming of becoming one — you’re automatically four people, because the masculine side of a man will never be the masculine side of a woman, and the feminine side of a man will never be the feminine side of a woman. So there are actually four of you at play.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s true that Chinese women are very masculine.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — They have a special virility, which is very different from masculine virility. They often seem more virile than Chinese men.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So eroticism is a like a geography.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Yes, it’s a journey. You have to travel.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’d like to talk about your last essay, where you question what you call “Le secret de la guerre:” a new form of permanent war, which doesn’t alternate between moments of battle and moments of peace. It’s like an invisible war, which isn’t exactly a religious war or a clash of civilisations. You develop an interesting idea: both monotheism (one God) and nihilism (the death of God) hide the true secret of war, which can be found in Homer and ancient Chinese war strategy.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — It’s a meditation on Homer and Dionysus and it has an important Chinese element. How do the Chinese wage war? It’s interesting with regard to what’s happening now, to their extremely concealed way of waging war without waging it, waging it in a way that works everywhere.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There was the ideological war with Mao, in which you participated.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Yes. Mao was a great strategist. But, unfortunately, he liked Confucius too much, and he tried to eradicate him but didn’t succeed.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And now it’s more of an economic war.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — Yes, Obama just realized this, when he got nothing. It’s physical war, because China is a diaspora. China is really much, much further ahead in the 21st century. The American-Russian domination is crumbling. The United States will fade away, slowly floundering. It’s begun its descent into hell. I’m not talking about New York. I’m talking about the depths of the United States, where they mess up capital executions. For example, that guy in Ohio whose vein they couldn’t find for his lethal injection. He survived for two hours in extreme pain, screaming nonstop. The director of the prison finally stopped this torture and postponed the execution. The guy said, in all seriousness, that it was stressful to be executed under such conditions. In a French newspaper I suggested that the French Republic repair its guillotines and send them to the United States, because at least it’s radical. The Chinese have not abolished the death penalty. It’s a bullet in the back of the head, paid for by the family… But at least death is immediate. There’s no messing it up. I would love to see the abolition of the death penalty. It’s absolutely horrible. It’s a desire for vengeance. It’s not justice anymore. It’s vengeance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But, in spite of this cynical climate, you haven’t given up. You haven’t yet left for your imaginary island.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — I’m there all the time. But give up? No, I don’t know what it means to give up. Poetry is war. Love is war. Peace is the biggest lie. There is no peace. Open the Bible: those who preach peace are described as false prophets. Peace, peace, peace — you listen to the speeches. There’s nothing else on the menu. But there’s never any peace! They dress it up with words. They talk to you about a good that never appears, against a background of constant evil.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To get back to where we started: Philippe Sollers understands the art of living. His life is a novel. It’s a model for existence. What I mean when I say you have a fighting spirit is that you don’t hide behind your books. You defend them.
PHILIPPE SOLERS — I defend them because I think they’re alive. I defend them against the “Program.” The social program is death. I hate death, Casanova would say, because it destroys reason. The devil — if we must introduce his highness — is an entirely important character that we somewhat easily forget. I talked about it recently with theologians at the Collège des Bernardins. It was fascinating. If you have a Bible I recommen145d that you open it to John 8:35.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Except you didn’t need to bring up the devil — you brought him with you!
PHILIPPE SOLERS — We’re on good terms. [Laughs]
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