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Christy Wampole on Degenerative Realism

A conversation with Professor Christy Wampole on the topic of her new book: Degenerative Realism: Novel and Nation in Twenty-First-Century France (Columbia University Press, 2020).  Christy Wampole is Associate Professor of French at Princeton University. Outro song: “Coeur Bizarre” by La Féline

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
I will be coming to you from the Stanford campus.
The language liquid lush voice of our own,
and the university won't pull.
That's Helen of Troy speaking to us through that voice.
No more trace of that lovely face.
Towers hour and the sun is over.
Everything is through.
All over again, life is through.
And the heart stays.
All over again, life is through.
It's on the street.
Everything is through.
It's amazing when you think about it that the oldest epic of Western civilization tells the story of the destruction,
rather than the foundation of a great city.
Troy falls to the achaeans, but that's not the whole story, far from it.
While the Greek warlords spent ten years be seeding Troy from without,
their own societies were collapsing from within.
Thucydides put it mildly when he wrote,
"The return of the Greeks from Troy witnessed many changes,
revolutions and factions disrupted the cities."
In fact, when Agamemnon returns home, he's murdered in his own bath by his wife and her lover.
And when Odysseus finally makes it back to Ithaca, his kingdom is in turmoil,
not because of war or invasion, but because of domestic anarchy.
We think of Homer as the beginning of Greek antiquity,
yet in reality he belonged to the dark age of barbarism that followed the end of the Mycenaean civilization,
whose palaces, economies, and societies had all gone to pieces
before 1,100 BC.
That's some four centuries before the Iliad, first saying of the Trojan War.
In other words, there was an antiquity before antiquity,
before Hellenic antiquity, and Homer looks back at it in his epics.
So while the Iliad tells the story of a destruction,
it actually veils the story of a decline.
In fact, the epic speaks from within the night that followed the downfall of Mycenaean.
Several dark centuries after that downfall, the Hellenic world would burst forth and flourish,
yet Greek culture and after a Roman culture would eventually go the way of Mycenaean.
It would succumb to decline, decadence, and finally to ruination,
giving way to another dark age that would last several centuries as Europe coped or failed to cope with the calamity of Rome's collapse.
For some reason, the destiny of the West seems bound to a law of decline, decadence, and downfall.
The West one could say is "cadusius", which is not all bad,
since some of the finest fruits of culture come from periods of decadence.
Only the most vital cultures, after all, can afford that luxury,
the luxury that is of decadence, or the decadence of luxury.
The West, for all its vices, has a special genius for it.
Over the millennia, it has found all sorts of ways, not only to manage and prolong the process of decline,
but also to turn decadence into sublime forms of refinement.
So decadence is not the problem.
The problem rather is degradation, decay, debasement, and degeneration.
Degeneration does not lend itself to cultivation and sublimation.
It doesn't have the hues of a sunset or of a tuminal leaves,
but the stench of putrefaction.
Are we at another precipice today?
Where decline is giving way to degeneration,
and the hard one gains of civilization giving way to what the 18th century
Neopolitan thinker, Jambatista Vico called,
"The barbarism of reflection", which comes at the end of the course of nations.
Icorso de la Nazzioni, as he put it.
Here's Vico in the year 1744,
describing that reflective barbarism in his conclusion to the new science.
But if the peoples are rotting in that ultimate civil disease of cynicism,
and cannot agree on a monarch from within,
and are not conquered and preserved by better nations from without,
then providence for their extreme ill has its extreme remedy at hand.
For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man,
thinking only of his own private interests,
and have reached the extreme of delicacy,
or better of pride in which, like wild animals, they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure.
Thus, no matter how great the throng and press of their bodies,
they live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will,
scarcely any two being able to agree,
since each follows his own pleasure or caprice.
By reason of all this, providence decrees that, through obstinate factions and desperate civil wars,
they shall turn their cities into forests, and the forests into the dens, and layers of men.
In this way, through long centuries of barbarism, rust will consume the misbegotten subtleties of malicious wits,
that have turned them into beasts made more inhuman by the barbarism of reflection,
than the first men had been made by the barbarism of sense.
Again, are we on the verge of such a declension?
Are we already, as we speak, descending into those dens and layers of men that mark the end of the Vicky and Corso?
Is Western civilization now degenerative rather than merely declination?
These are questions that I will put to my guest, Christy Wampol.
That's right, the same Christy Wampol who invoiced Helen a few minutes ago,
who received her Ph.D. in French and Italian,
here at Stanford in 2011, and went on to have not only a zestinguished,
but a stellar career, joining the French and Italian department at Princeton as an assistant professor in 2011,
where she is now tenured. Christy writes opinion pieces for the New York Times on a regular basis,
and she has published three books to date, rootedness, the ramifications of a metaphor,
Chicago University Press 2016, the other series, Essays for the New American Generation,
Harper Collins 2015, and her most recent book Degenerative Realism, Columbia University Press 2020.
It's this latest book of hers that we'll be discussing today,
but first, let me welcome her to the program, Christy, welcome back to Stanford and above all,
welcome back to entitled opinions.
You've not only been a guest on this show in the past,
you were also the producer of entitled opinions back in 2009,
when you were finishing your Ph.D. degree in French and Italian literature,
here at Stanford, so Bienvener and Benvenutta.
Robert, thank you so much for that generous introduction.
I wish I could be with you in the studio again,
but I'm joining you today from Berlin, so greetings from Berlin.
Yeah, well, I know that we are at a great distance,
but somehow, Vitotia Molten, I have found the way to record shows at a distance
with a kind of decent audio quality.
It's not ever like being in KZSU studios,
but for the moment those studios are still closed down,
hopefully by September there will be opening up.
So anyway, I apologize for that extended intro, Christy.
I thought it might be helpful to make that distinction between decadence
and degeneration in a larger historical framework since today.
As I mentioned, we're going to be discussing your book, "D-Generative Realism,
Novel and Nation in 21st Century France."
I'd really like to take that title almost one word at a time
and ask you first about the terms degeneration and realism,
and then about novel and nation in 21st century France.
So why don't we just start with your main title, "D-Generative Realism."
How should we understand this genre of literature?
Well, first I should say that my area of specialization is 20th, 21st century French literature,
and I had been reading novels published roughly since early 2000.
Some of them published in the late 90s, but I started to notice a pattern emerging
in contemporary French fiction.
These authors, almost all of the authors that I write about in my book,
they're all white male authors writing about contemporary France
in extremely bleak terms.
So they take a very sociological approach.
Even when they're speaking of one character, you get the sense that as a reader,
you're invited to extrapolate from this one character and think of this person as a sort of type
who represents a larger tendency within society,
and their judgment of contemporary France of contemporary Europe and of the contemporary West
is that these abstractions and their concrete forms are in a state of degeneration,
that they are often the metaphors used to describe the nation or the European Union or the West,
are very organic in nature.
You use the word "pute refraction" a moment ago.
I think it's a great term to describe the forms of decay that they seem to be describing in their novels.
There are a few well-known authors that your listeners might recognize.
Misha Wilbeck is probably the most famous, but there are others, including people like Fridéric Bigbédé,
Jean-Houlain, Yang Wux, Ojélien, Bélaunche, some lesser well-known writers like Xiaobu Basu,
but they're consistent in their articulation of these degenerative forces that seem to be destroying France,
and I just thought the pattern was too conspicuous to ignore.
For sure. Do you find that it's the most interesting kind of fiction that's coming out of France in the 21st century so far?
Because there are a lot of really vibrant women writers as well, but they don't seem to necessarily belong to this genre of degenerative realism you're describing.
Absolutely. I'm so glad you point that out.
I write them the introduction of my book that I think the ultimate appraisal of what the literary scene in contemporary France will be one of a kind of opening up of access to the ability to
the capacity to tell stories to people who couldn't necessarily do that in the past as freely.
And so you're right. Some of the most exciting fiction coming out in France today is written by women and people of color.
People who didn't necessarily have access to the kinds of institutions that would allow you to have a voice in the public space.
This is changing and the degenerative realism that I'm describing is by no means the dominant literary trend, but I thought it was so fascinating because, first of all, it reflects a kind of pessimistic politics that I also see in the United States.
And so I couldn't help but pick on some of the parallels between this very dark vision of our current, you know, socio-political circumstance in the United States and in France.
I also spend a lot of time in Germany. You also get this sense in Germany as well. And I think this sort of this new rise in reactionary politics.
I think reflects some of the same anxieties that the books I describe also seem to be obsessed with.
But this term degeneration, I want to come back to that because the term degeneration has a really important history in Europe throughout the 19th century into the 20th century.
And I found a really excellent definition that gives us a sense of exactly what the word degeneration means. And this comes from, let's see, it comes from an author named Henry Maudsley.
He wrote this in 1884 and a book called Body and Will. And this is the definition he offers of the term degeneration. So he writes, quote, degeneration means literally an unkinding, the undoing of a kind.
And in this sense was first used to express the change of kind without regard to whether the change was to perfect or to degrade.
But it is now used exclusively to denote a change from a higher to a lower kind. That is to say from a more complex to a less complex social organization.
So if we look a little more closely at the etymological root of the word degenerate, it means to depart from one's kind or to fall from ancestral quality, which I think is an absolute fantastic formulation.
And that's what these authors are trying to describe a fall from ancestral quality. So they seem to imagine that there was a time when things were better when our ancestors were more noble in some way.
And contemporary people have fallen from that earlier ancestral quality. I can't help but here echoes in an expression like make America great again or all of these other fantasies of a return to a kind of earlier more perfect state that we somehow failed to live up to in our current generation.
So I thought this is an important word. It's almost as though they've taken a term degeneration that comes from the physical sciences and apply that to culture and to politics.
This is not a new phenomenon. We tend to speak of the birth of a nation, the burgeoning of a new movement, the death of the novel. We use these organic metaphors all the time to talk about culture.
But I think that the generation really stuck out to me is a problematic one. So two questions, do they use the term degeneration?
So they tend to sometimes they use the term degeneration and in other cases there seems to be a kind of slippage between several different terms. So you mentioned decadence sometimes decadence is used interchangeably with degeneration.
On the other hand, decadence, Christie has a noble tradition and a noble past in France. And so you would seem like the 21st century authors were almost nostalgic for the high point of decadence when you have we smile and the other even the posts were part of the decade.
I think they would say that even that possibility of that historical cultural decadence that it's not really possible any longer.
That leads me to my second question which has to do with the mausolee definition of degeneration which I think is problematic in this context because in particular that phrase that it's denotes a change from a higher to a lower kind that is to say from a more complex to a less complex organization.
My impression from reading you on these authors is that what they're responding to above all is an enormous increase or augmentation in complexity and that it's this reaction against the over complexification of society of sexual relations of a world which is dominated by media, social and political and otherwise.
And that it's creating a kind of reaction that is going back to more simple primitive ideas in a reactionary way. I don't know what you think about that.
Yeah, I would put it slightly differently that what they think is happening to culture is a kind of that perhaps the political conditions there's a kind of complexification of the political conditions or our sociological or technological conditions.
But the human response hasn't lived up to this complexity and it's a pure humans have turned into almost, you know, this language of the animal has returned that humans are more or less just these organic creatures that are there to survive.
You have the language of social Darwinism all over these novels so that humans are sort of they're no longer capable of thinking in complex terms or behaving in complex terms of creating complex and beautiful aesthetic objects.
They just watch television and masturbate them to be to speak crudely this is what many of the protagonists and characters in these books been most of their time doing.
Yes, and indeed, you know, sex seems to be an obsession with a lot of these male authors that you deal with well back and others and I can't even pronounce it.
Bij Bij Dij, what's happening pronounce that guy's name? Big Bij Dij, he pronounces it big Bij Dij.
I'll let you do that. But you discuss a novel of his called Windows on the world where, for example, he's lamenting the fact that women are becoming much more like men than they ever were.
And let me just read a quote because this is a kind of fiction that belongs to the degenerative realist tradition according to you.
And he has this, he mourns the fact that men like his idol Hugh Heffner, anyone who can have Hugh Heffner as an idol is already questionable, but nevertheless have been reconfigured in the new era this time as women.
And here's the quote, today's international playboy is a woman. It's Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw, the hero of Sex and the City.
These are the people, the fanatical Muslims are scared of and I can understand why they scare me shitless too with their heavy artillery, mascara, lip gloss, oriental perfume, silk, lingerie. They've declared war on me.
They terrify me because something tells me that I'll never be able to seduce them all. There's always another one on the horizon. Heels higher than the last.
It's an impossible task. If they crashed a charter plane onto the city every day, they would still succeed in eradicating the bevy.
They still wouldn't succeed in eradicating the bevy of dangerous beauties. A sexual imperialism of these sumptuous sluts in their eye escape, the Betty Ford Clinic T-shirts.
The supremacy of their devastating necklines and their eyelashes, which flutter as they can temptuously write you off, "You're not on my to-do list. Stop hitting on me, man." I do the hunting tonight's cramp beat it.
I mean, this is if you look at any incel website, the involuntarily celibate movement of men who wish they were having much more sex than they're having, that could come directly from one of those websites.
Feminism is one of the big threats of sort of biggest dangers for Western civilization. There's a kind of...
It's a special kind of feminism because feminism has been around in France for a long time to see Mont de Beauvoir.
This is a new empowerment of women who are taking our CEOs and the dominant force, the new actors and so-called media, that there's a kind of
demoralization of women, that's a term that I think some of them use. The verbalization of women and the feminization of the French public, which is in relationship with these virilized women.
Absolutely. Well, I think it's this special conjugation of capitalism and feminism that they're critiquing.
So on the one hand, all of the authors seem to really be disgusted by all of the legacies of May '68 and the '60s and all of its excesses and the new kinds of freedoms that people found.
But they're also, on the other hand, simultaneously horrified by the excesses brought on by capitalism and that somehow these two thought systems have synthesized into this new, what they read as extremely
dangerous phenomenon that threatens men, not only men, but also threatens the family. There's a lot of demographic anxiety in these texts as well.
Not just about seducing women or being afraid of women, but fears about the population falling.
This has always been an anxiety in Europe, particularly after World War I, into World War II, that the population was just too small had been decimated by those two wars.
And how can we keep the population growing in order to support the social state? All of these anxieties are absolutely embedded in these texts.
And how to keep the right population, no, because there's also this reaction to the defrenchification of France and the decay and degeneration of the nation.
That's why your subtitle about novel and nation, these novels are also giving us a national lament for the...
Absolutely. If you don't mind, I'll read a quote. This is from Alexizionis La France de la Gail, the French Art of War, which came out in 2011.
And this really advances this kind of demographic eschatology that I try to describe throughout as a feature of degenerative realism. He writes,
It's good that there are yellow, black, and brown Frenchmen. This shows that France is open to all races, and that the country has a universal location.
But only on condition that they remain a small minority. Otherwise, France would no longer be France. After all, we are a European people of white race, Greek and Latin culture, and Christian religion.
This sentiment comes back again and again throughout these books, formulated in slightly different ways, but it's always the more or less the same idea.
But they're kind of... It's weird, Kristy, because that makes them sound like very traditional conservatives.
And yet when you read someone like Michel de Wèdle Beck, it's very hard for me to just think that he's just a cultural conservative, because he's quite radical in many ways.
And his mind is quite open to all sorts of complexities of his own contemporary era.
And I don't think for a minute he would want to go back and live in traditional Catholic France.
French come.
Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not. He's not a nationalist either. There's one interview where he said something like, "When I choose a hotel, that has about as much importance to me as which country I live in."
So he has no commitment to La France performed. He makes as much fun of Ma'ring Lu Pen as he does of someone like Francois Hollande or someone on the left.
So he's sort of lampooning people from across the political spectrum all the time.
In many ways, he's not really ideological. I mean, he says a lot of provocative things in the press, but I think it's to sell copies.
That's my suspicion. But I just want to read you this quote that he offered after his book "Submission" came out, which was interpreted, I think incorrectly as an Islamophobic novel.
He was accused in the press of being a reactionary. And this is how he responded to those accusations.
He says, "A reactionary is someone who favors some previously existing social configuration, something it is possible to return to, and someone who militates in favor of such a return."
Whereas if there is an idea, a single idea that runs through all of my novels, which goes so far as to haunt them, it's the absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay once they have begun.
It is more than organic. It is like a universal law that applies also to inert objects. It is literally in tropic.
And so I think this is true. I mean, these are not activists' novelists, and their characters aren't really activists either.
It's not as though they're members of the full national or some far-right party, and they're politically engaged, and that they think changes possible.
They're spectators, and they're watching what they see as a decline, and they have no solutions.
They just observe listlessly. These novels don't events any kind of hope for some sort of political redemption.
So I would have to imagine, in order to spend the amount of time you've spent with them, reading them, setting them, writing about them, that there has to be something intriguing, at the least, in the kind of literature that they're producing.
So when we're talking about degenerative realism, I find that, from the quotes that I've been reading that you bring forward, these writers are actually quite innovative.
They're not falling back on the old realism. This is a very new kind of realism that becomes surreal. I mean, or let's say hyperreal, and sometimes,
it's weird as you say into science fiction, or horror, dystopian modes, and all of a sudden, you think you're in a reality, and then you're...
Here's the question that you raise, that they're responding to a crisis in the very concept of the real.
That what kind of reality do we live in in our day and age when we have fake news and we have false information and when we have the kind of idiosyncrasies that are given platforms on social media and so forth, where who can say what's real and what's unreal anymore.
Absolutely, and that's one of the main sort of fascinating elements that I find in their work is that they're bringing back this long tradition of realism in France since the 19th century. I mean, realism never really goes away.
It slightly transforms in different moments. You have this early moment in the 19th century of a kind of almost socially motivated realism, if you think of someone like Zola, who is looking at all of this suffering around him wants to describe it,
and sort of force the bull-swout readerships who address the suffering that he saw. You move up through the 20th century, you have examples of someone like Post, who's trying to think about the real as a kind of subjective reality.
So what does it mean to sort of filter the real through your own subjectivity in its various states of waking or sleep, a dream state, and other examples, what happens when a character is taking drugs, what happens to reality then?
We have the new novel with Alejo Prier later, which sort of tries to destroy some of the conventions that realism put in place, and by the time we get to this realism, we're also in a moment of the internet arrives and becomes widespread, roughly at the very beginning of the period that I'm talking about, late 90s into the contemporary moment.
The internet has permanently distorted, or I don't know if distorted is the right word, permanently changed the way we perceive the world, and all of these authors pick up on that change that was brought about by that technological explosion.
In fact, technology and the internet and the mini-tad, which is the French version of the internet that existed earlier, that these were key tools in the changes in how we think about our bodies, how we think about our relation to other people, how we absorb news and information.
They understood that there's real potential there for rethinking what realism is and can be after the arrival of the internet, and one feature of all of these novels that fall under the rubric of degenerative realism is that they seem to be operating for most of the novel in a realist mode, what we would recognize as something that's like a mimetic representation of reality.
There's often names of political figures who exist in real life, there are descriptions of places that we could go and visit.
So it's anchored in the real at the beginning, and then toward their end, these novels tend to tip into some kind of dystopian horror or into science fiction.
In some cases, in Windows in the world, the Big Bide novel, you mentioned the 9/11 novel, it's about 9/11 at the end of the narrative crumbles like the Tower itself, Ojolien Beinolche's Theory of Information, which came out in 2012, and at the end of that narrative, the narrative almost gets infected with a computer virus, and it breaks down through those means.
They're challenging the, they're asking the question, can realism support the weight of what we're living through, and the kinds of alienation we're experiencing, and the kinds of acceleration, and I think this is a fascinating question.
And I also think, you know, I'm a person of political left, but I think they're asking many of the same questions that people on the left are asking.
So I think whether you ask someone on the left or the right, how are things these days in the world? I'm not sure anyone has a positive answer to give.
We have different sort of diagnostic analyses of how we got here, but I think there is a general discontent, and they try to describe it, and I appreciate that someone is sort of recognizing all these forms of
of alienation that we're facing, that we haven't really had time to register yet, that they're already trying to work through these problems in the novel.
That alienation has certainly something to do with the loss of the real, and I find it very interesting to have a group of
a novelist trying to bring the loss of the real in within the parameters of a realist kind of genre, and allowing that genre to be exposed as completely inadequate when it comes to the challenge of representing the kind of world that we live in.
You talk about 9-11. That is an event, when he speaks about the difference between possibility and actuality, he says that sometimes things become possible only because they were actual, and that they remain impossible until the moment they occur.
If you told anyone before 9-11 that such an event would take place, we would have said it was impossible. It's the fact that it took place that rendered it possible in retrospect.
So that event, you say, was also a very pivotal moment for the degenerative realists.
Absolutely, and the novel I mentioned earlier, the Big Bide novel, "WINDOWS ON THE WORLD." In the introduction, he describes his novel as a hyper real novel, and he says that 9-11 more or less destroyed literature in cinemas, kind of its dominance over reality, that we thought that somehow the novel and cinema superseded reality.
This was an instance in which the reality itself, in its unimaginability exceeded the reality of the real.
And so it's so consistent with this pattern among these authors work. In many cases, they're writing about the internet and about the way that it changes our relationship to truth.
And they raise all kinds of questions about credibility. What do we believe in why? Where do our belief systems come from?
Belief is really central to many of these authors. I mentioned earlier, Misha Wabek, who's written about the problems brought about by digitized world, but also he writes quite a lot about cults, religious cults, and different forms of these belief systems that we're willing to do.
We're willing to buy into now that perhaps we weren't willing to buy into in the past when there were things like, you know, the Catholic church, if we take France as an example, or a belief in, you know, "La Nacional," that's another example. All of these institutions, the family, that's another one, "Fami Patri," that had given us something to kind of feel a part of, something that we could organize at our lives according to.
And once there are sort of holes poked into those abstractions by history, I mean, we see this in the United States right now with this kind of idea of revisiting history and thinking about our monuments and thinking about, you know, our heroes, who are these people? What did they do? What is the reality? Which part is reality and which part is myth? I think they're very interested in these authors. They're interested in what happens once they're interested in what happens.
Once we have those heroes no longer, and what did they get replaced with? Or what do we replace the lack of religion with, or the lack of the state with? All of these things, it's not as though they go away and everyone just is happy. They're always replaced with something else.
And many of these narratives explore what people replace those things with. In some cases, it's medication.
In other cases, antidepressants, for example, Misha Wiedabek's most recent novel, Sarah Tohnen is all about that pornography, any number of new forms of religion or self-help.
Well, this is what happens when you have a demolition of the real is that those institutions you were mentioning. It could be the church, it could be the state, it could be the tradition.
Those institutions did our believing for us. In other words, when you have a demolition of the real and you no longer know what is real and what is not real, that's when belief has to come into play.
That's where you open up a Pandora's box where every person has to come up with a belief of what the nature of the real is.
All it is is it's crazy, oftentimes crazy beliefs about the nature of the historical reality we're living in because that historical reality has become unreal in so many ways.
You mentioned all the ways in which is happening it. I think that belief is almost a natural response.
It does relate to things that are happening in America because of the natural tendency to see conspiracies everywhere.
Because sometimes, you know, Nietzsche said, "Man would rather will nothingness than not will at all." And I would say some people are willing to believe anything in order to believe that something makes sense.
Absolutely. And what's interesting about it is when you had this abstraction like a particular religion or a nation and those things felt somehow kind of monolithic and solid and sort of universal in their vocation that everyone could sort of lean into it, as you said, and let those institutions do the believing for them.
But what you have now is a situation of a kind of highly customizable belief system.
So instead of people tapping into this preexisting thing and on a very massive scale, instead you have these sort of micro belief systems that are kind of perhaps mutually reinforcing, but they're very small communities compared to the larger communities of say a world religion.
And I think that's also sort of something that they're interested in exploring in these novels. What happens when you lose community as well?
So most of these people are extremely alone in a weird way. I mean, some of the characters make hateful pronouncements, but they're also pathetic.
And you feel a kind of sympathy for these people whose lives are so empty that the highlight of their month is having a particular kind of TV dinner, or that this is sort of the peak of existence.
And so I think they're also tapping into like the social problem of the loss of belief is that you lose a community and you have to sort of forge your own, but perhaps something in your own mind knows that you are sort of co-creating this belief system and it's not real and it didn't pre-exist you.
So then somehow perhaps it's much less solid. So it's true. I've been asking around when I would give talks about the project to find out among Americanists or among comparative literature people if there's something similar going on in other Western traditions.
So I'm very curious to find out if, let's say, in the American novel, the contemporary American novel, is there something that might be the equivalent of degenerative realism, or is this something that's specifically French?
I spend a lot of time in the early parts of the chapter talking about the sort of specificity of Francis history.
So it's history of being that the early revolution that sort of set off this chain of events, the chain of the fall of monarchies in Europe.
It's colonial history and it's sort of obsessional, obsessive, expansionist mentality.
And then what happens when the colonial project falls apart. Francis particular relation to the world wars. It's particular relation to Germany. I mean, the history of the sort of mutual idea of a hereditary enemy between France and Germany alone is pretty fascinating.
There are many things that are very specifically French that are in these books as well, but I'm curious to know perhaps your listeners have ideas about this, whether there's something equivalent going on in American contemporary literature or other national traditions.
Well, I'm not going to speak to the literary traditions in America, but I do believe that France and America are have something in common insofar as these are the two nations that are founded upon an idea of the nation, rather than in a accumulated history and customs of a nation.
The French Republic is the outgrowth really of a front of a revolution, which was a revolution in ideas and notion of universalism. You know, they divide the long and America too is the product of an idea of a republic of, we're all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights and so forth.
And when you I can't say that that's the same in other countries, I think when we go to England or Great Britain, you know, there's England and there's Great Britain and the United Kingdom.
Italy has been a nation not for all that very long. It's not founded so much on an idea, it's founded on some other things. Germany has a very conflicted kind of past now where I don't think it can.
But engage in the same kind of nostalgia for the you know, the cohesive nation that you have still an idea of in France, I think it.
And that's why I think the degenerative realists that you're dealing with probably resonate would resonate a lot more with Americans than with other European traditions like this is pure speculation.
What I would like to go back to is a notion of degeneration as a metaphor because when you're when you were describing all these things, I was asking myself, is this how a historical world begins to fall to pieces and to unravel is this really the late stages of a kind of disaggregation that will lead to a cultural dark age, if not, you know, a literal.
So degeneration is as an organic metaphor, but it has this historical core that many times attested to in our long past assessment.
What I brought forth in my intro and one wonders whether France as it has traditionally existed since the French Revolution has much longer to go under these present conditions and whether these degenerative realists are performing kind of a real diagnostic or I mean, do you think that it's a diagnostic that pertains to the reality of if there's a
such a thing as a reality of contemporary France or do you think they're just fantasticating no standard.
Well, I'd like to stick with a more optimistic view.
I there's one section in the book where I write about this history of Dichy Nodogie in France, the sort of lamenting of the death of the nation that, you know, the population is changing. This is horrific.
No one even knows French anymore. Yeah, but these are things that were written, you know, in the already in the late 18th early 19th century. There's been it's a kind of a pastime in France of a setisizing the demise of one's own nation.
And it never seems to actually happen. I mean, yes, the nation is changing at all times. It doesn't look anything like it did when the authors that I just mentioned were writing.
Perhaps they would describe that as a death of the nation. But I mean, France is actually quite a vibrant place and they're really they're exciting things happening happening culturally in France politically in France.
I think in a sense, I mean, this is one speculation that I had is that France has a tradition of lamenting its own demise and this is these books that I'm reading are just a continuation of that and it's perhaps a purely aesthetic exercise.
I hope you're right, Chrissy, and I'm going to just go in with you and say that you're right. But in that sense, I'm also going to not give into my own experience of having spent a month in Paris under really good circumstances when I was teaching at the College of France for a month in 2010.
And remembering when I lived in Paris in the same city in the 80s and how Paris, for example, was a much more vibrant place. And first thing it was stratified, there was room for everyone from the kind of almost penniless Bohemian writer or artist, the street people in the middle and you had restaurant.
And my experience a few decades later is that now it's become a city only for the rich bourgeois people. I mean, it is glued and people have been forced into the margins and the creative life of Paris.
That's true. I find that it isn't. There is a cultural impoverishment, but I'm going to say that that's my own subjective impression and that is wrong and that you're right.
That France is still as vibrant and that this lament today is the same as the limits that were taking place, century or two ago.
Well, I've got a piece coming out soon and Ian magazine called Can Culture to generate and it's exactly about this question.
I think the problem is that there's so much culture produced that it has become difficult to find the kinds of culture that we find pleasing. It's not that it doesn't exist.
It's that popular culture, certain forms of popular culture get rewarded and featured in the public space.
And we get things that generate clique bait and things that generate cliques. Those are the kinds of things that get the most attention.
But I think what actually exists is quite there's quite a rich array of cultural production ideas, lifestyles, people leaving the cities and forming vibrant communities and other places.
I think France is actually more exciting through its diversity and its changes. It makes you sort of stay more limber to have to adjust to change. I think the same as true of the United States.
No, I agree with that. Yeah, the diversity for sure. What I found was the loss of diversity strangely enough in downtown Paris.
But Paris is not France. I know, I know. But then if you go to the rest of France, the provinces are in a terrible state of demoralization and economic depression and the abandonment of all these once vibrant towns and they're now just empty with only some geriatric populations left there.
It's a serious, it's a serious issue. And then you go to Paris, you say, well, that's where that's the payoff. But then, you know, if you don't have a lot of money, the old Paris is closed off to you because it's very expensive.
I agree. It's always on the English way. It's not no longer the Bohemian thing. It's for a completely...
I mean, all those people that the 19th century French literary tradition and the symbolists and the Booglères and the Flobères, it's a bourgeoisie that has now comfortably taken control of the whole...
So we're going back to the question of capitalism that your writers are also reacting against, no?
Absolutely. I mean, again, this is a parallel. We see the exact same problems in the United States. Any city has become more or less unaffordable for the average person.
And perhaps this will lead to some kind of revolution. I feel like these things are quite cyclical.
We can point back to other moments in history where the wealthy owned everything and where these moments where the average person was finally set up with accepting it and found ways to reverse those tendencies.
I think we're on the verge of that. I don't know what form it will take. But to think that France is just dead, that's it.
No, I don't think... No, I bet you your writers don't think France is just dead.
But it's maybe the difference between being dead and dying.
So, Chrissy, since we're running out of time here, I want to be sure to ask one question for our American listeners.
If you have to recommend one novel of these degenerative realists for interested people to take a look at that exists in the English translation, which one would you recommend?
Well, I guess the most famous and controversial one is submission, which was, I think portrayed in the press in a very different way than I think.
The question is, is he writing, "Santyre, first of all, this is a book about there's an election in France in the near future and the Muslim Brotherhood wins the presidency and France slowly becomes a Muslim nation."
And it was sort of depicted in the press almost as though there was some kind of violent Muslim takeover and inside the book.
And it's not that it all actually. And then several interviews, Webek said that he had written much of the novel.
And originally it was not Muslim that took over. It was a Catholic. And the protagonist has to decide whether he'll convert to Catholicism and not to Islam.
So anyway, that's another side note. But I think it gives you a sense of this atmosphere.
The atmosphere of degenerative realism. It's really, it's there on every page, really any one of Webek's novels, the elementary particles, platform, serotonin, all of these books, sort of capture that spirit that I was trying to describe in my project.
Christy Wampol joining us on entitled opinions. Next time you come into town, Christy, we go into the studios of KZSU and we'll continue this conversation.
Really a pleasure to have you on.
And thanks for having me back.
Congratulations on this new book, degenerative realism that came out in 2020 with Columbia University Press.
Take care. Bye bye.
Thank you Robert. Bye.