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A Literature From Below | The Nation

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A Literature From Below

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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).

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Pierre Bourdieu:

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.

Günter Grass:

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.

Bourdieu:

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.

Grass:

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.

Bourdieu:

Absolutely.... That's true.... In fact, what we aim to do is to make our readers see that raw absurdity, without any special effects. One of our rules was that there would be no turning of the stories into "literature." This may seem shocking to you, but there is a temptation, when one is dealing with dramas like these, to write well. The rule here was to be as brutally pragmatic as possible, to allow these stories to retain their extraordinary, and almost unbearable, violence. There were two reasons for this: scientific reasons and, also, I think, literary ones, because we chose not to be literary precisely in order to be literary in another sense. There are also political reasons. We felt that the violence being perpetrated at the moment by the neoliberal politics established in Europe and Latin America and in many other countries--that the violence of the system is so vast one cannot explain it through purely conceptual analysis. Our critical resources are no match for the effects of this political system.

Grass:

We are both, the sociologist and the writer, children of the European Enlightenment, of a tradition that has now been thrown into question everywhere--or, at least, in France and Germany--as if the European movement toward Aufklärung, toward Enlightenment, had failed. Many of its early aspects--we need only think of Montaigne--have been lost over the course of the centuries. Humor is one of them. Voltaire's Candide and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, for example, are books in which the social conditions described are equally horrifying. Yet, even in pain and in failure, the human capacity for comedy and, therefore, victory, comes through.

Bourdieu:

Yes, but our sense of having lost the tradition of the Enlightenment is tied to the complete reversal of our vision of the world that has been imposed by the neoliberal vision that dominates today. I think (and here, in Germany, I can make this comparison), I think that the current neoliberal revolution is a conservative revolution--in the sense that one spoke of a conservative revolution in Germany in the thirties--and a conservative revolution is a very strange thing: It's a revolution that restores the past and yet presents itself as progressive, a revolution that transforms regression into progress--to the extent that those who oppose this regression seem themselves to be regressing. Those who oppose terror come to seem like terrorists. It's something that we have both experienced: We voluntarily classify ourselves as archaic--in French, we are called ringards (old-timers), arriérés (outdated).

Grass:

Dinosauria...

Bourdieu:

Dinosaurs--exactly. That is the great strength of conservative revolutions, or "progressive" restorations. Even what you're saying, I believe, illustrates the idea. We are told: You're not funny. But the era is really not funny! Honestly, there is nothing to laugh about.

Grass:

I have never claimed that we were living in an amusing era. But the infernal laughter triggered by literary means is also a form of protest against our social conditions. What is peddled today as neo-liberalism is a return to the methods of the Manchester liberalism of the nineteenth century. In the seventies, in most of Europe, there was a relatively successful effort to civilize capitalism. If you believe in the principle that both socialism and capitalism are the charmingly spoiled children of the Enlightenment, then you also have to admit that they have had a certain way of keeping each other in check. Even capitalism has been subject to certain responsibilities. In Germany, we call this the social economy of the market, and there was a general consensus, which included the conservative party, that the conditions of the Weimar Republic should never be reproduced. This consensus broke down in the early eighties. Since the Communist hierarchies fell apart, capitalism has come to believe that it can do anything, that it has escaped all control. Its polar opposite has defaulted. The rare remaining responsible capitalists who call for prudence do so because they realize that they have lost their sense of direction, that the neoliberal system is now repeating the errors of Communism by creating its own dogma, its own certificate of infallibility.

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