12 November 2020

Chronicler of Exacerbated Individualism without Individuality – On Michel Houellebecq

Asked what the post-Covid world would be like, the most famous of contemporary French writers, Michel Houellebecq, replied with his customary asperity: “The same – only worse.”

This is because, according to him, if I have read him aright, deterioration in our modern world never misses an opportunity to take place. Man does not learn from experience or from anything else, for that matter; and because time’s arrow flies in one direction only, we cannot reconstitute or restore our civilisation once we have smashed it up. In short, we are doomed.

Strangely enough, this superficially depressing view, that everything is terrible and getting constantly worse, is in a way consolatory, which is perhaps why Houellebecq is so wildly popular (his last book, Sérotonine, had an initial print-run of 330,000 in France alone). If we are doomed whatever we do, we are absolved of responsibility for our own doom. Moreover, by the time we have finished reading his enumeration and examination of the vacuity of existence in consumer society, we feel much the better for it. At least we are not as bad as that, and we have had a good laugh en route to the dismal conclusion.

Houellebecq is a gifted and brilliant, but also somewhat limited, writer who has gross lapses of taste. His brilliance can be appreciated by consideration of the titles of his last two books alone: Soumission (submission) and Sérotonine (serotonin).

Submission is, of course, what Islam means, but in the book it is France that submits to submission, not because of the intellectual strength of Islam (no one could have been more contemptuous of Islam’s claims to intellectual value than Houellebecq, who famously said of the Koran that it was a wretched, a truly wretched, book), but because of the nihilistic lack of faith of the French population in anything spiritually transcendent: especially in the intelligentsia and upper echelons who, after all, decisively set the tone for the whole of society. And what is true of France, of course, is true of the West in general.

As to Sérotonine, it captures brilliantly in a single, ironic word a contemporary, very shallow world outlook, namely that human beings are simply the vector or outcome of their brain chemistry (serotonin being one of the chemical neurotransmitters whose plenitude or insufficiency explains behaviour, or at least those unwanted behavioural phenomena that seem to require explanation). It is not uncommon to hear people say that they are suffering from chemical imbalance in their brain as a means of explaining away, to themselves and others, their bad conduct. Neurochemistry is much less often invoked to explain good behaviour.

It is easy to grasp the general tenor of Houellebecq’s work. His heroes, or rather protagonists, are usually educated, middle-class men neither old nor still young, with no financial difficulties, who are nevertheless in an existential impasse. Life is meaningless to them; their work is usually pseudo-work, in the sense that it has no intrinsic meaning or transcendent worth. Their private lives are a mess because of an inability to attain love. Sex for them is but an itch that has to be scratched, until the tickle returns and has to be scratched again, usually by someone else. They are so unlikeable as characters that one scarcely cares what happens to them; one does not wish them well or ill or anything at all. They are specimens.

Here it is convenient to deal with the charge that Houellebecq is a pornographer. I think that the charge is fully justified. In book after book we get very similar scenes, graphically described, in which fellatio plays a very large or dominant part, scenes so similar both in detail and atmosphere that it is difficult not to believe that they correspond to the author’s private fantasies worked out in this way. But in order to get across the idea that sex has become purely physiological, without emotional implications or even complications, in a world in which all human relations have been thoroughly debased, it is hardly necessary to linger so lubriciously on the actual details.

But I do not think that this pornographic aspect of his work explains his popularity among readers, that is, not among intellectuals. If he were to omit the pornography, which in any case is episodic and does not take up a large proportion of his work, he would sell just as well (no one reads him for his eighteenth description of fellatio and what he calls “violent” ejaculation). He is read because there is no more brilliant observer, at least none who is known to me, of the emptiness of a human existence that is materially prosperous but at the same time deprived of religious, political or cultural meaning. France has become a country in which anticlericalism survives without there being any clericalism to oppose, the latter long since extinguished as a social force; in which political life has been drained of significance by technocratic corporatism, so that Right and Left have hardly any meaning any more in its context; and culture is at most a kind of ornament like the nest or tail feathers of the male lyrebird. But in all of this France is not very different from other Western countries, which perhaps is why Houellebecq’s books have so wide a circulation and resonance outside his country.

There is another reason for interest in what he writes: its seemingly prophetic quality. His novel Plateforme, published in 2001, relates how an Islamist bomb in the Far East kills large numbers of Western holiday-makers who are enjoying all the freedom from sexual and other restraints that distance and relative wealth confer. (One of the rarely recognised corollaries of multiculturalism is that if we have to accept and make accommodation to others as they are, others have to accept and make accommodation to us as we are – and since we have, or at least had, the money, they have an additional, non-ideological reason to put up with our degeneracy.)

A year after publication, the Bali bombs killed 202 people. A lucky guess, then, on Houellebecq’s part, or real foresight? It is unlikely that his novel was itself an inspiration of the perpetrators. Suicide bombers have fantasies, but do not read novels.

The very day in January 2015 on which Soumission a novel that describes the advance of Islamism in France and the enfeebled French response to its challenge, such that surrender in order to procure social peace is likely in the near future – was published, the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were attacked and thirteen of its staff murdered by Islamic extremists. And in his last novel to be published, Sérotonine, written not long before the emergence of the Gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement, there are scenes in which the disgruntled population of peripheral France, highly antagonistic to the metropolitan elites who know and care nothing of the hardship of their lives, start to behave exactly as the Gilets jaunes behaved.

At the least, then, Houellebecq seems to have finely-attuned antennae for the subterranean social rumblings that are about to erupt into political action or violence. Furthermore, he knows how to transform his intuitions into compelling prose. There is no contemporary writer, at least known to me, who can come near him for such insight. I should add that, though he is deeply pessimistic, he makes the reader laugh (optimists have little sense of humour).

Prophetic qualities aside, I have said that he is a somewhat limited writer. I mean by this that he has a dominant theme to which he returns again and again, obsessively, and whose import is quickly grasped even after only a few pages. Fortunately, his theme – the vacuity of life in the absence of belief in anything that transcends the individual is one capable of infinite variations, thanks to his very acute powers of observation. He is worth reading for this alone, for his observations are both funny (rarely do I laugh on reading a printed page as much as when reading him) and extremely well-chosen and brilliantly pointed, in that they capture to perfection our spiritual malaise. The we of our, by the way, is almost everyone in Western society, not just the French.

If I were to recommend a single piece of writing of his to a busy man who was unacquainted with Houellebecq’s work, and had limited time to explore it, it would be his novella Lanzarote, published in 2000. It condenses his thought to perfection and, though short, contains a scene or two that appear to me pornographic.

It is written in the first person, and from the first sentence establishes the emptiness of the narrator’s life:

On the 14 December, 1999, in the middle of the afternoon, I realised that my New Year’s Eve would probably be a failure – as usual.

In order to avoid this painful failure, which is presumably the result of social isolation and lack of close family relations or real friends, he goes into the first travel agency he comes across in Paris (in those days, one could still easily come across them) to arrange for somewhere to go. His solution to the problem is a purely geographic one, seemingly forgetting Horace’s dictum that they change their skies, not their souls, who run across the sea: though not really forgetting it, because it is obvious from the first that he knows that this attempt to evade a problem of the soul, radical loneliness, by changing location is absurd and doomed only to exacerbate it.

The travel agent was busy with a client:

She was a brunette with an ethnic blouse and a piercing of the left nostril; her hair was dyed with henna.

Who among us does not know or recognise the type?

In two lines, Houellebecq, by making a simple and everyday observation available to anyone, suggests a great deal. The ethnic blouse and henna are symptomatic of the young woman’s rejection of her Western heritage, no doubt (having been indoctrinated by Third Worldist propaganda for years) considered by her as purely oppressive, especially towards those whom the ethnic blouse symbolises or represents. She thinks thereby that she is demonstrating her sympathetic identification with the wretched of the earth, though the very term ethnic carries a large charge of condescension, for all that is not Western is deemed ethnic without distinction, distinctions between ethnicities requiring some real knowledge and genuine interest to make. As for the piercing, it sends a double message. While piercing still carries a fading connotation of transgression, with the intention of marking the wearer out as an independent and rebellious individual (rebellion, of course, being a good in itself), it also allows her to join an imaginary community of like-minded (or perhaps I should say, like-feelinged) people.

But the fact that she is in a travel agency, probably seeking an exotic destination, reveals her as a humbug and a hypocrite, insofar as her ability to travel to an exotic destination in the first place is dependent on the very society and economic activities to which she would claim to be opposed.

The narrator’s turn is next. He tells the travel agent that he wants to go in January, but somewhere not too expensive.

We have Tunisia. It’s a classic destination, very affordable in January. The South of Morocco also. It’s very beautiful out of season.”

Why out of season? The South of Morocco is very beautiful all year round. I know the South of Morocco very well, probably better than this silly cow. It might be very beautiful, but it’s not my style, it’s that that I have to get into her head.

I don’t like Arab countries …”

To this, he adds in his mind, “Arab countries would be worth going to, as soon as they manage to get rid of their shitty religion”. And he tells the travel agent:

It’s not Arab countries I don’t like, it’s Muslim countries. You wouldn’t have a non-Muslim Arab country, would you?” That would be a bit hard for a quiz champion. “A non-Muslim Arab country … you have forty seconds.” The travel agent’s mouth was half-open. “We also have Senegal”, she said, to break the silence.

This, of course, is ironic, because 95 per cent of the Senegalese population is Muslim: thereby Houellebecq signals that the travel agent, a typical worker in a service industry, knows and is interested in nothing about the destinations to which she is sending her clients. She is empty. But the narrator thinks he knows about Senegal:

Whites are still very big in West Africa. All that is necessary for a white man to get a chick into his bungalow is for him to turn up in a nightclub. She won’t even be a hooker; they do it for the pleasure. Obviously they like presents, little gold jewels; but what woman doesn’t like presents?

But the narrator rejects Senegal: “I don’t want to fuck”, he says. This does not bring an end to the travel agent’s quest for a destination for him, despite his outrageous remarks, for she is a slave to her job:

Have you thought of the Canaries?” With a professional smile, she broke the silence. “People rarely think of the Canaries … It’s an archipelago off the coast of Africa, bathed by the Gulf Stream; the climate is mild all year round. I’ve known clients swim there in January.” She left me time to digest this information before continuing: “We have a deal on the Bougainville Playa. 3290 francs the week all-in, departures from Paris the 9, 16 and 23 January. Four star plus hotel, local standards. Room with bathroom, hairdryer, air-conditioning, telephone, TV, minibar, individual coin-operated safe, balcony with a view of the swimming pool (or of the sea with a supplement). 1000 square metre swimming pool with jacuzzi, sauna, hammam, gym. Three tennis courts, two squash courts, minigolf, ping-pong. Folk-dance shows, excursions from the hotel (programme available at the hotel). Health/repatriation insurance included.

This is both funny (ultimately tragic) and finely observed. The travel agent who sells the Lanzarote of the title has become parrot or automaton-like, as do so many of those employed in service industries; she vociferates a description of a materialist heaven that has no connection with her own thoughts or emotions, a Muslim paradise for those without any religious faith. Holidays are important in Houellebecq’s books precisely because they reveal what so many people dream of the year round as a release from their meaningless drudgery and an entry into a supposedly better or more gratifying life: that is to say a better life that, in reality, consists of little more than physical comfort and an absence of responsibility (how artfully placed is the reference to the hairdryer, suggesting the importance to potential clients of something so trivial!). Incidentally, the travel agent’s assertion that the South of Morocco is very beautiful out of season is an implicit admission that mass tourism ruins or destroys everything it touches, rendering worthless what was previously worth going to see when few people go to see it: a typically pessimistic Houellebecquian paradox or observation.

I have dwelt on these two pages of text not because they are of crucial importance or significance in Houellebecq’s work, but simply because they exemplify his manner of exposing the spiritual emptiness of so many people’s lives in the Western world: an emptiness which, when it affects a large proportion of the population including, or especially, the most highly educated, will render it unfit to meet the challenge of countries or civilisations that actually retain firm beliefs, however absurd or retrograde they may be from an abstract intellectual point of view. And this is to disregard the constant subliminal misery than an absence of belief in anything causes people, once the raw struggle for survival has been won. There are hundreds of pages of observations such as those in Lanzarote in Houellebecq’s books, and it is for them that I, at any rate, read him. He shows us what is before our face but which we prefer not to see.

The economist Bernard Maris, who wrote for Charlie Hebdo and was killed in the attack on its offices in 2015, published a short book about his friend Houellebecq only a few months before he, Maris, was murdered. In this book, Maris claims that Houellebecq understands the modern economy better than any economist – not that Maris has any regard for his own profession or for economics as a discipline – and he quotes with delight the words of a university teacher of the subject who appears as a character in Houellebecq’s novel La Carte et le territoire, that her work consists of “teaching evident absurdities to arriviste cretins”.

Maris claims that Houellebecq’s target is what the French call neo-liberalism. The latter is a lazy portmanteau word, because by no stretch of the imagination can France, or indeed any Western country, be called liberal, unless it be accepted at the same time that it is also socialist, in short that it is corporatist. It is not market relations that supposedly have replaced all others, even in the bedroom, that Houellebecq reprehends, but the destruction of the human personality by managerialism in the absence of all other belief. Houellebecq has nothing to say about, or against, the relations existing between customer and merchant in Adam Smith’s famous passage about the benevolence of the butcher and baker; and indeed no one could have been harsher than he about French intellectuals’ espousal, largely humbug, of left-wing economic ideology. His target is the dehumanisation of life by a Taylorism of the soul, which requires two preconditions: the necessity to work in large impersonal organisations and an absence of belief in anything, be it in God, country, or even an ideology.

It is to the absence of belief that Houellebecq gives causal primacy. Behind bitter denunciations of the status quo, there often lurks disappointment. Because all judgement is comparative, as Doctor Johnson says, behind every criticism there is, even if only inchoate, an idea of something better. For Houellebecq, whose disillusionment psychologists would no doubt trace back to his childhood (I do not think he was ever very illusioned in the first place), and to his betrayal by his parents, the something better is a past, largely mythical no doubt, but in any case completely irrecoverable.

Houellebecq was a poet before he was a novelist: a kind of Baudelaire of the supermarket, the high-speed train and the dual carriageway, as well as of disillusionment in love. Even in his poetry, Houellebecq was highly confrontational, reintroducing both rhyme and classical lucidity into his work. Here is Paris:

Les humains qui se croisent au métro Invalides Les cuisses des secrétaires, le rire des techniciens

Les regards qu’ils se jettent comme un combat de chiens, Les mouvements qu’ils font autour d’un centre vide.

(The humans who cross one another in the Invalides Metro The thighs of secretaries, the laugh of technicians

The looks they throw at one another like the fighting of dogs, The movements they make round an empty centre.)

Come, come, one almost feels like saying, are things really as bad as that? But it is not the duty of poets, novelists or prophets to be accurate in the opinion-poll sense of the word (besides which, a sixth of the humans who cross one another in the Invalides Metro are probably taking antidepressants). Tendencies, underlying realities, are their subject.

It was better before, when people believed in something:

We want to return to the old home

Where our fathers have lived under the wing of an archangel, We want to find again that strange code

That sanctified life up to the last hour.

We want to find something to be faithful to As being tied to a sweet dependency,

Something that is greater than and contains existence; We don’t want to live any more far from eternity.

But recovery of the home requires recovery of the faith, and this to Houellebecq is impossible, hence our modern tragedy.

Houellebecq is a chronicler of the exacerbated individualism (without individuality) that technocratic materialism results in when untempered by belief in the transcendent. But one of the reasons that he is able to chronicle it so well, so incomparably better than anyone else known to me, is that he partakes of it himself. His mode of dress – carefully chosen to look grubby, despite what by now must be great wealth – is in itself a message of exacerbated individualism: “I am not going to make an effort to make myself look agreeable just for you.” 


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