The role of the public intellectual–and the moral onus, assuming that one exists–seems ever to thread the Scylla of celebrity and the Charybdis of marginality. In a conversation printed in part simultaneously in the French daily Le Monde and German weekly Die Zeit, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Nobel laureate Günter Grass discussed the role of intellectuals in society, stylistic practices in sociology and literature, neoliberal economics, the emerging world order and other topics. The following is adapted from a translation from the French by Deborah Treisman. Bourdieu is a professor of philosophy at the Collège de France, was founder in 1975 of the journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, and is author of, among other works: The State Nobility (1996), The Rules of Art (1996), On Television (1998), The Weight of the World (1999) and Pascalian Meditations (2000). Grass, a native of Danzig (now Gdansk), defines himself as a “citizen writer” and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. Among his works are The Tin Drum (1959), From the Diary of a Snail (1972), The Rat (1987), Dog Years (1989), The Flounder (1989) and My Century (1999).
You have spoken somewhere of “the European or German tradition”–which is also, by the way, a French tradition–of “opening your big mouth.” I am delighted that you received the Nobel Prize, and I am also delighted that you haven’t been transformed by receiving the Nobel, that you are as inclined as you ever were to “open your big mouth.” I am hoping that we can open our big mouths together.
It is relatively rare for a sociologist and a writer to meet in a German setting. In my country, it is more common for philosophers to gather in one corner of the room, the sociologists in another corner and the writers, all giving each other the cold shoulder, in the back. A communication of the kind we are undertaking now is the exception to the rule. When I think of your book The Weight of the World or of my last book, My Century, I see that our works have something in common: We are trying to retell History, as seen from below. We do not talk over society’s head; we do not speak as conquerors of History; rather, in keeping with the nature of our profession, we are notoriously on the side of the losers, of those who are marginalized or excluded from society. In The Weight of the World, you and your collaborators were able to put your individuality aside and to base your work on pure understanding, without claiming always to know better: The result was a snapshot of social conditions and the state of French society that could easily be superimposed on other countries. I am tempted, writer that I am, to mine your stories for raw material. For example, the study of the young woman who came from the country to Paris in order to sort mail at night. The description of her job makes one understand the social problems without harping on them in an ostentatious manner. I was very pleased by that. I wish that there were such a book about the social conditions in every country.
The only question that struck me comes, perhaps, from the sociological domain: There is no humor in this genre of writing. It lacks the comedy of failure, which plays such an important role in my stories, the absurdity inherent in certain confrontations.
You have written magnificently about a certain number of the experiences we evoke. But the person who hears these stories directly from the one who experienced them is often wiped out by them or overwhelmed, and it isn’t always possible to maintain one’s distance from them. We felt, for example, that we had to exclude a certain number of narratives from the book because they were too poignant or too pathetic, too painful.
When I speak of “comedy,” I don’t mean to imply that tragedy and comedy are mutually exclusive, that the boundaries between the two don’t fluctuate.