Sympathizing with a mass killer can cost you your job.
That’s what happened to Richard Millet, whose pamphlet “Langue Fantome” (Phantom Language) caused a riot among French intellectuals. Antoine Gallimard, boss of France’s most prestigious publishing house, publicly distanced himself from the star of his reading committee, and Millet resigned.
The bone of contention is the book’s 18-page epilogue titled “Eloge Litteraire d’Anders Breivik” in which Millet, while condemning the massacre of 77 Norwegians in July 2011, praises its “formal perfection.”
The killer himself, he says, is a victim of “the civil war that ravages Europe,” a continent losing its identity under the onslaught of global markets and “multicultural nihilism.”
Millet compares Breivik to the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who, in 1970, committed ritual suicide out of despair over his country’s decline.
The protests against that provocative last chapter have completely overshadowed the rest of the book and its key message. The pamphlet is an indictment, not an apology, and the accused is the U.S.
With its superficial hedonism and its “dictatorship of compulsory entertainment,” Millet says, the U.S. has destroyed serious literature and created an illiterate “Brave New World” like the one prophesied by Aldous Huxley in his novel 80 years ago.
As a recent example of our post-literary times, where everything that isn’t ‘Hollywoodisable’ is ignored, Millet cites Umberto Eco’s decision to bring out a new, dumbed-down version of his bestseller “The Name of the Rose” purged of Latin quotations and other erudite trimmings.
The epitome of our intellectual decay, we’re told, is the endless, brainless prattle of the “social networks,” another import from the U.S.
France, Millet says, once a great power in world literature, has been reduced to a banana republic and an Anglo- Saxon colony: “Writing in French is tantamount to condemning yourself to international invisibility.”
The U.S. is not the only culprit. Millet also lashes out at the “soixante-huitards” (68ers), the French baby boomers, who have demolished traditional standards and are preaching the gospel of “anything goes.”
Non-European immigration is another factor undermining France’s identity. Mentioning this, however, is verboten on pain of instant media lynching.
It’s easy to dismiss Millet’s pamphlet as a nativist rant. In fact, much of what he says about immigration and multiculturalism is more or less what you hear from the National Front, the far-right party that won 18 percent of the votes in France’s recent presidential elections.
On the other hand, his views on the harmful influence of American culture are widely shared by the French Left. In 1982, the then Minister of Culture Jack Lang accused the U.S. at a United Nations conference in Mexico City of “cultural imperialism.”
It’s typical that virtually none of Millet’s many critics took issue with his anti-American stance.
“When I speak diplomatically,” Millet defended himself in an interview with the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, “nobody listens.” He’s probably right about that.
By spicing up his pamphlet with kudos for the Norwegian mass killer, he certainly attracted attention -- at a price, though: His provocation drowned out the message he tried to deliver.
“Langue Fantome” is published by Pierre-Guillaume de Roux (123 pages, 16 euros).
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this review: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.