Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror
Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror
“Entirely brilliant from a methodological point of view, Without God sheds a great deal of light on the work of Michel Houellebecq. Given its very broad perspective and the importance of the issues at stake, this book will appeal to a wide range of readers.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Focusing on Houellebecq’s complicated relationship with religion, Louis Betty shows that the novelist, who is at best agnostic, “is a deeply and unavoidably religious writer.” In exploring the religious, theological, and philosophical aspects of Houellebecq’s work, Betty situates the author within the broader context of a French and Anglo-American history of ideas—ideas such as utopian socialism, the sociology of secularization, and quantum physics. Materialism, Betty contends, is the true destroyer of human intimacy and spirituality in Houellebecq’s work; the prevailing worldview it conveys is one of nihilism and hedonism in a postmodern, post-Christian Europe. In Betty’s analysis, “materialist horror” emerges as a philosophical and aesthetic concept that describes and amplifies contemporary moral and social decadence in Houellebecq’s fiction.
“Entirely brilliant from a methodological point of view, Without God sheds a great deal of light on the work of Michel Houellebecq. Given its very broad perspective and the importance of the issues at stake, this book will appeal to a wide range of readers.”
“Michel Houellebecq is the most important novelist writing about religion today, and Louis Betty has written the first book to explore Houellebecq’s views on religion. Betty guides the reader through Houellebecq’s oeuvre, makes French discussions of Houellebecq accessible to English-speaking audiences, and situates Houellebecq’s work in the context of recent scholarly discussions about the secular. This book should be of broad interest to scholars of religion and literature as well as to those interested in contemporary French thought.”
“A superb book.”
Louis Betty is Assistant Professor of French at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater.
INTRODUCTION: THE HOUELLEBECQUIAN WORLDVIEW
Materialist Horror and the Question of Capitalism
Houellebecq as Character: A Brief Consideration
CHAPTER ONE: MATERIALISM AND SECULARISM
Houellebecquian Materialism: A Qualified Case?
Lifting the Sacred Canopy
Materialism and Suicide: Logical Consequences of the Death of God
Materialist Horror and Moral Secularization
CHAPTER TWO: THE FUTURE OF RELIGION
The Return of Religion
Can a Cloning Cult Be a Religion?
Elohimism, Islam, and the Question of Religious Discipline
CHAPTER THREE: RELIGION AND UTOPIA
The Fresh Ruins of France
CHAPTER FOUR: MATERIALIST HORROR
Lovecraft, Pascal, Houellebecq
CHAPTER FIVE: LIBERALISM IS GOD AND THE WEST IS ITS PROPHET
The Modern Western Woman: A 200-Year Disaster in the Making
As Goes France, So Goes François
A Conversion au conditionnel
Reaction, Romanticism, or Something Else?
Writing a book about Michel Houellebecq is a daunting task, if only because the scholarship dedicated to his work is in a constant state of evolution. When I began this project several years ago, there were no English-language monographs on Houellebecq; now there are at least four and probably more on the way. The present volume is intended as an addition to the scholarly contributions that came before it, some of which are of the highest quality. But it also aims to be more than that, as the pages that follow will bear out. It should come as little surprise that much of the work devoted to Houellebecq’s fiction has centered on its sociopolitical meaning; the Anglo-American academy is still very much enamored of the political causes and controversies that shaped academic life beginning in the 1980s, and this is perhaps nowhere better reflected than in the contemporary study of literature. Carole Sweeney, for example, in her 2013 monograph, Michel Houellebecq and the Literature of Despair, has this to say about the essential significance of Houellebecq’s work: “Houellebecq offers a withering critique of neoliberal late capitalism [ . . . ]. His fundamental concern is the encroachment of capitalism in its neoliberal biopolitical form into all areas of affective human life” (ix). By the term “biopolitical,” Sweeney points to the sense in which market forces have supposedly tended to impose a kind of objectifying logic on domains of human existence, especially sexuality, that were formerly determined by more fluid, less rational criteria.
Houellebecq makes this point in his early fiction and nonfiction, perhaps most forcefully in Whatever (see 2009, 29–31, and 2011, 98–99), and it may in many respects be considered the cornerstone of the critique of neoliberal, late capitalist culture that we encounter in his texts. Indeed, as Bruno Viard has written in his book Houellebecq au laser: La faute à Mai 68, “Far from being a banality, the parallel traced [ . . . ] in Whatever between economic and sexual liberalism is totally unusual, and [ . . . ] constitutes the matrix of the Houellebecquian vision” (2008, 41, my translation). Other writers have echoed this sort of sociopolitical or politico-affective reading of Houellebecq’s work, both in English- and French-language scholarship. In her article “L’Affaire Houellebecq: Ideological Crime and Fin de Millénaire Literary Scandal,” Ruth Cruickshank contends, “The crime [of The Elementary Particles] is to challenge the dominant ideology depicted in the novel: the pursuit and production of desire in late capitalist society, an ideological foundation that can never bring satisfaction, but breeds isolation, competition and hatred” (2003, 113). On a similar note, Sabine van Wesemael has argued that Houellebecq is a reactionary novelist bent on using fiction to champion a return to traditional values: “The author takes pleasure in proclaiming a neoconservative reaction and pleads for adjustments to economic and sexual liberalism. Only a return to traditional norms and values (stay-at-home moms, restoration of the family and religion as the cornerstones of society) and a belief in the importance of science and technology for the improvement of the human species can save our expiring society” (2005, 89, my translation). From the very beginning, Houellebecq’s fiction has raised interesting and often alarming political questions, with many scholars assigning themselves the difficult task of elucidating Houellebecq’s often ambiguous and at times seemingly ambivalent engagement with both left and right.
Of course, not all existing scholarship on Houellebecq is wholly given over to political and economic critique, and I certainly do not mean to suggest that such a way of reading Houellebecq is facile in comparison to other approaches. Douglas Morrey’s 2013 analysis of Houellebecq’s work as a contribution to contemporary debates about posthumanism, along with related French-language readings by such authors as Jean-François Chassay (2005), Laurence Dahan-Gaida (2003), and Kim Doré (2002), clearly demonstrates the diversity of responses that Houellebecq’s fiction is able to evoke, especially at the intersection of science and literature. Similarly, a nearly exhaustive amount of work has been undertaken tracing the aesthetic and ideological debts Houellebecq owes to novelists and philosophers of the past. Zoë Roth (2012) has published a comparative study of Houellebecq and Bataille, while Gerald Moore (2011) has uncovered Houellebecq’s problematic relationship with Nietzsche. Elements of intertextuality between Houellebecq and Baudelaire and between Houellebecq and Zola have received treatment from, respectively, Katherine Gantz (2005) and Sandrine Rabosseau (2007); another author has even suggested a similarity between Houellebecq’s fiction and pro-religious discourse in Maximilien Robespierre’s speech of 18 floréal an II (see Betty 2012).
In a more contemporary vein, Houellebecq’s fiction has elicited comparisons with such present-day writers as Maurice Dantec, Richard Millet, Benoît Duteurtre, Philippe Muray, and Jonathan Littell. François Meyronnis (2007), for example, has written about the theme of extermination in these authors’ works (most relevant for Houellebecq in The Possibility of an Island and, for obvious reasons, in Littell’s The Kindly Ones), while François Ricard (1999) has characterized Houellebecq, Muray, and Duteurtre as writers bent on producing novels that are “against the world,” that is, that take great care to skewer political correctness and the hypocrisy of both left and right, as well as to condemn our cultural obsessions with fun, insouciance, and endless festiveness. Yale French Studies has produced an issue subsuming work by Houellebecq, Dantec, and others under the heading Turns to the Right?, which wonders whether Houellebecq’s apparent antifeminism or Dantec’s gnostic apocalypticism do not constitute a reactionary element in contemporary French letters (see Johnson and Schehr 2009). The volume of writing on Houellebecq is so vast that I cannot possibly give a full account of it here; suffice it to point out that such sustained interested in a living European writer is rare in our time. Houellebecq’s oeuvre is so broad in intellectual, ideological, and aesthetic content that he continues to appeal to a wide array of scholarly interests.
Nonetheless, my sense is that little complaint would be made in academic quarters if I were to suggest, in whatever context, that the concerns that have motivated the bulk of scholarship on Houellebecq tend to be social, political, economic, and essentially secular. Very little has been written about Houellebecq’s complicated relationship with religion. Morrey (2013) has given the subject significant treatment, while Viard in Les tiroirs de Michel Houellebecq (2013b) has elucidated the importance of Comte and his Religion of Humanity in the exegesis of Houellebecq’s texts. Cuenebroeck (2011), Chabert (2002), and Lloyd (2009) have addressed, respectively, the biblical structure of The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq’s debts to positivism, and the redemptive power of love and Christian virtue in Platform and other Houellebecq texts; for my part, I have argued (2013) that Houellebecq’s treatment of religious decline in his novels can be interpreted as a novelistic mise-en-scène of classical secularization theory. Aside from these few efforts, however, the religious, spiritual, and metaphysical dimensions of Houellebecq’s fiction have gone largely ignored in the existing critical literature, with the religion question representing the principal blind spot in both English- and French-language academic treatments of Houellebecq’s work. My purpose in this book is to correct this oversight, for I contend that Houellebecq is a deeply and unavoidably religious writer even if, as is clear from his numerous nonfiction remarks about God, he is probably agnostic himself. My interest in this volume is therefore to place Houellebecq’s fiction in a much more metaphysical context than what has until now been attempted and to argue that the ills that plague his fictional universe stem less from (late) capitalism and the attendant social conditions to which it gives rise and more from the metaphysics of materialism that continues to enshrine and enable them.
Two works have called attention to the issue of materialism in Houellebecq’s fiction, and though they do not go to the lengths I do in this book, they nonetheless accomplish the important task of setting a precedent for the reading I pursue. The first, Aurélien Bellanger’s Houellebecq, écrivain romantique, includes a short chapter entitled “La dépression comme physicalisme” in which Bellanger makes a critical link between depression in Houellebecq’s novels and the materialist, or physicalist, worldview that pervades them. With characters such as Djerzinski and Whatever’s narrator in mind, Bellanger writes, “The depressive experiences the world and himself as nonseparate: life for him no longer represents an exception in the universe, everything possesses the same nature [ . . . ]. Depression is nothing other than the awareness of scientific descriptions of the world. It is an emotional reaction to scientific knowledge” (2010, 162, my translation). In a world where everything can be reduced to physical description, where free will yields to mechanism—where, as Bellanger adds, “[c]onsciousness is but a relatively recent cry in the dreadful tragedy of atoms” (162)—depression is the natural result of one’s coming to terms with the facts of the physical universe. “Physics describes a world where everything is certain, where nothing is possible” (163). Life whittled down to the play of atoms thus represents a kind of materialist horror, and characters unable to see the world in anything but physicalist terms are inevitably prey to depression and suicide.
Ben Jeffery’s Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism offers an equally judicious verdict on the existential havoc wrought by materialism in Houellebecq’s fiction. Jeffery writes,
The villainy of materialism is that it undermines [things that find their best expression in nonbiological, nonmaterial terms]: for instance, when it tells us that love is only a disguise for the urge to reproduce. Along this road we lose the use of a very fundamental and comforting terminology, or at least are obliged to admit that it gives a false or misleading account of human behavior. It emerges that there is basically no getting over yourself, no escaping your skull—and the more you are led to feel this way the more inclined you are to see life as isolated and vanishing. (2011, 34)
Materialism not only eradicates spirituality and transcendence, but also destroys the comforts of ordinary language. Terms such as “love,” “friendship,” and “affection” become meaningless; commonsense humanistic language is exposed as an unreliable system of description, which in due course will yield to a purely evolutionary or neurobiological account of human behavior. Moreover, the reduction of the human to the material, of the spirit to the body, vastly diminishes the meaning that one can assign to a given life. Jeffery adds, “Houellebecq’s men don’t think about God. All they think about—all there is—are the dictates of their biology, and their diminishing capacities to meet them. It is as if to say: the facts are what they are. So long as the facts are in your favor you can be happy, but there’s nothing else to it” (34). As I demonstrate later on, this simple calculation—that the capacity for happiness rests solely in the body’s ability to satisfy its instincts—lies at the heart of the existential despair that many, and likely most, of Houellebecq’s characters endure.
One of the principal contentions of this book is that Houellebecq’s novels represent a kind of fictional experiment in the death of God. And this experiment is best understood as a confrontation between two radically opposed domains: the materialism of modern science and the desire for transcendence and survival, which is best expressed in and through religion. The term “experiment” naturally evokes a comparison with the experimental style of Zola, but I want to distance myself from such an association. Zola’s interest was to confront his characters with the inexorabilities of their biological and environmental conditioning. Houellebecq shares this interest to some degree, but only insofar as the implied determinism can be placed under a broader metaphysical canopy. Heredity and environment are not, to be exact, Houellebecq’s central concerns; he is interested in God’s absence and the submission to matter that such absence demands, which deprives human life of a meaning that might escape its immediate conditioning. In this sense, Houellebecq might be considered, if only to a limited extent, a more metaphysical Zola. The term “experiment” also accomplishes the useful task of curbing the quantity of realism one may feel compelled to read into Houellebecq’s work. However realist in style they may be, novels such as The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island should only very cautiously be taken to offer representative portrayals of contemporary European religiosity. As is now common knowledge, most Europeans remain “religious” in various ways, and since the 1980s sociologists of religion have been forced to admit that modernity and religion are not so mutually exclusive as was believed in the nineteenth century. These are points I expand on later; for now, it is sufficient to point out that approaching Houellebecq’s novels as experiments will help to avoid the thorny issue of having to assess the truthfulness of their polemical content. Whether Houellebecq is “right” in his assessments of religion in Europe—or, for that matter, of contemporary sexuality or of the cultural consequences of May 1968—is not of chief concern. Rather, his novels serve as a means to explore the social and psychological consequences of a possible interpretation of historical, philosophical, scientific, and ideological developments in Western civilization and the cultural climate they have allegedly produced. In other words, Houellebecq’s universe is intelligible from a certain point of view, even if it is not accurate.
I hope that my insistence in this book on the religion question compels scholars to think differently about Houellebecq as a writer and also about the stakes involved in the study of religion and literature. Throughout his career, Houellebecq has identified himself as either an atheist or an agnostic, and perhaps scholars have taken this as an indication that the treatment of religion in his novels is unworthy of serious investigation. Additionally, Houellebecq’s fiction seems at least more overtly to be about other, somewhat more politically, sociologically, or anthropologically titillating subjects: sex tourism, cloning, the atomizing forces of capitalism, the shortcomings of feminism, to name only a few. Nothing, however, runs through Houellebecq’s novels more clearly than his Comtean intuition that a society cut off from religion cannot survive, which Houellebecq affirms in a 2015 interview with the Paris Review. Herein lies the deep transgressiveness of Houellebecq’s work: the suggestion, utterly antithetical to the French doctrine of secularism (laïcité), that religion is a necessary element of social cohesion and happiness. And not just any sort of religion, either. Here again, Houellebecq sins against contemporary sensibilities. For instance, much writing on secularism in literature or the postmodern sacred has attempted to recuperate the notion of “sacredness” in a post-theological and postdoctrinal cultural landscape in which traditional constructs such as an all-powerful, all-loving God, the existence of an eternal soul, and the supernatural more generally have fallen out of favor. Amy Hungerford’s (2010) notion of a “belief in meaninglessness,” for instance, provides a case in point: rational, empirical constructs such as “deity” and “soul” may have been discredited, but one can still uncover novel forms of sacredness in language, metaphor, nature, and the human hunger for transcendence. Worthy as such efforts may be, Houellebecq will have nothing to do with them. Instead, he brings the religion question back to what he believes to be its heart: a concern not with sacredness but with survival. A religion that does not promise victory over death is doomed; we may sanctify all we want, but without a promise of material survival, we can hope to save neither the world nor ourselves.
Finally, I should say something about Houellebecq’s place in the landscape of contemporary French letters, since it is in many respects unique. A consensus has emerged among many in the French literati that today’s hexagonal literature is, to put the matter bluntly, not very good: it is mired in an obsession with hollow formalisms and stylistic trivialities; it is self-absorbed, solipsistic, and fails to engage society, religion, and politics; and, perhaps most damningly, its self-referentiality and more general failure to have anything to say makes it “too French,” that is, totally “inexportable” (Bardolle 2004, 13). The reasons assigned to this literary atrophy are multiple. Tzvetan Todorov (2007), for instance, blames the legacy of structuralism and its excessive preoccupation with language. Olivier Bardolle (2004) and Donald Morrison (2010) bemoan the triviality of the plots and characters that animate the average French novel, where often the most exciting action the reader can expect arises from a love triangle, a love quadrangle, or whatever geometrical configuration in which the protagonists may choose to erotically disport themselves. Pierre Jourde (2002) insists that French literature lacks guts, while Bruno Viard in Littérature et déchirure makes the shattering claim that “it is not certain that, since the Renaissance, French letters have known such discredit” (2013a, 11, my translation). Houellebecq has added to these refrains, writing in Interventions II,
I have never been able to witness without a pang of anguish the technical extravagancy put to use by such and such a formaliste-Minuit for such a paltry end result. In order to cope, I’ve often repeated this phrase of Schopenhauer: “The first and practically only condition for good style is having something to say.” With its characteristic brutality, this phrase can be helpful. For example, during a literary discussion, when the word “writing” [écriture] is uttered, you know that it’s time to relax a little bit, look around, order another beer. (2009, 153, my translation)
As I hope to show throughout, Houellebecq is an author who very clearly has something to say—about social life in contemporary France, about the economic future of Europe in the twenty-first century, about sexuality, and, most important for my purposes, about religion. This is not to suggest that Houellebecq is the only French author of his time to escape the solipsism and stylistic fetishes that Todorov and others deplore. He is, nonetheless, the most en vue, both in France and abroad, among his like-minded contemporaries—hence this book.
Materialist Horror and the Question of Capitalism
In pursuing the reading I have outlined, I do not, of course, mean to imply that the critique of liberalism—and specifically of American liberal economics—that is found either implicitly or explicitly expressed in Houellebecq’s fiction is less worthy of scholarly consideration. Indeed, central to the Houellebecquian worldview is the contention that the economic and sexual liberalism that emerged in France in the wake of the 1960s (and that, one might argue, marked the end of the Trente Glorieuses) has been a disaster for French culture and that the blame for this disaster rests squarely with the United States of America. At multiple places in his texts, Houellebecq unequivocally associates the process of Europe’s “Americanization” with the liberal sexual practices exported to Western Europe by the American entertainment industry. For instance, in The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq writes,
It was precisely at this time [the 1960s] that the consumption of prurient mass-market entertainment from North America [ . . . ] was spreading all over Western Europe. Along with the refrigerators and washing machines designed to make for a happy couple came the transistor radio and the record player, which would teach the adolescent how to flirt. The distinction between true love and flirtation, latent during the sixties, exploded in the early seventies in magazines like Mademoiselle Âge Tendre and Vingt Ans, and crystallized around the central question of the era: “How far can you go before you get married?” The libidinal, hedonistic American option received great support from the liberal press. (2000a, 47)
The link suggested here between a liberal, consumer-driven economy and liberalized sexual practices informs perhaps the entirety of Houellebecq’s complaint about sexuality in an Americanized Western Europe. The liberalization of sexuality is simply the next step in the evolution of capitalism: as soon as the market enshrined the individual as the basic economic unit of society, it was only a matter of time before the logic of competition was extended from the economic to the affective sphere, thus creating a new domain of struggle where a minimum of sexual satisfaction is no more guaranteed than a minimum of material comfort. In a much-cited example, the narrator of Whatever, having not made love for two years, laments the commodification of eroticism and the phenomenon of sexual pauperization that it has produced:
In societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as “the law of the market.” (2011, 99)
Houellebecq’s dour treatment of American liberalism closely accompanies his portrayal of contemporary sexual practices. Individualism and free choice, the ideological cornerstones of liberal economics, have produced a generation of Westerners who are so focused on their own individual needs and rights that they no longer know how to give pleasure to others. Unable to experience sexual gratification, men and women in Houellebecq’s fiction turn to sadomasochism or the humiliations of group sex, or, as in Platform, they abandon Europe to seek physical gratification among the prostitutes of Southeast Asia: “Offering your body as an object of pleasure, giving pleasure unselfishly: that’s what Westerners don’t know how to do anymore [ . . . ]. We have become cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights. [ . . . ] we want to avoid alienation and dependence; on top of that, we’re obsessed with health and hygiene. These are hardly ideal conditions in which to make love” (2002, 174–75). The liberal American model has not simply created an unjust economic system. Sexuality, too, has succumbed to radical individualism and an ensuing narcissism with the result that sexual satisfaction, which is dependent on intimacy, sharing, and a feeling of dependence, has become, to again evoke Whatever’s narrator, progressively impossible.
As compelling as this interpretation may seem, it would no doubt be simplistic to assume that the Houellebecquian critique of liberalism begins and ends with a treatment and subsequent repudiation of American liberal economics. At least superficially, Houellebecq’s depiction of the miseries of “liberated” sexuality (that is, sexuality subject to the laws of the market) suggests a causal scenario in which the commodification of eroticism brought about by Europe’s Americanization post-1968 has led to the “materialist horror” of a completely liberal sexual economy, where both currency and flesh are traded on the open market. In other words, a burgeoning materialism, especially in the domain of the erotic, would seem to follow on the heels of liberalism. Houellebecq often indicates as much, as this passage from Interventions II demonstrates:
In terms of romantic relationships, the parameters of sexual exchange had also for a long time stemmed from a hardly reliable system of lyrical, impressionistic description. It was once again from the United States that the first serious attempt at defining standards was to come. Based on simple, objectively verifiable criteria (age, height, weight, waist-to-hip-to-chest ratio for women; age, height, weight, size of erect penis for men), it was first popularized by the porno industry and quickly adopted by women’s magazines. If simplified economic hierarchy was for a long time the object of sporadic opposition [ . . . ] it’s to be noted that erotic hierarchy, perceived as more natural, was rapidly internalized and became straightaway a matter of broad consensus. (30, my translation)
However, the causality I propose, which does justice to the totality of the Houellebecquian worldview, is one in which materialism—conceived of as a generalized belief in matter, which in its political manifestations contributes to the rise of ideologies as diverse as communism, fascism, and liberalism—represents the true menace to human relationships and sexuality in Houellebecq’s novels. From this point of view, the gradual erosion of the theological conception of the human being, which began with the scientific revolution and reached its apex in the twentieth century, has given rise to a social order in which the value of human life is restricted to the parameters of economic exchange—that is, the human being is understood in essentially economic terms. One’s attractiveness and even lovability are determined by indisputable criteria of market value, as if the human being were no different, in principle, from any other consumer product. This economic reduction of human value is fed by the materialism of modern science, which dismisses the possibility of free will and reduces the human being to a haphazard, fleeting collection of elementary particles. Humanism, which attempts to assign people rights in the absence of a deity capable of legitimating the moral order, does not stand a chance in these conditions. In the epilogue to The Elementary Particles, the novel’s clone narrator laments the impotence of atheistic humanism: “It is important to remember how central the notions of ‘personal freedom,’ ‘human dignity’ and ‘progress’ were to people in the age of materialism [ . . . ]. The confused and arbitrary nature of these ideas meant, of course, that they had little practical or social function—which might explain why human history from the fifteenth to the twentieth century was characterized by progressive decline and disintegration” (258–59).
Aside from modern liberalism, all humanistic attempts to organize society according to nontheological principles (Marxism, socialism, communism, etc.) have been failures, and if the liberal model has succeeded, this is only because it is the most natural form of social organization, and thus the worst (see Houellebecq 2011, 124–25). The unbinding of humanity from God lies at the heart of the historical narrative the reader encounters in Houellebecq’s work: lacking a set of moral principles legitimated by a higher power and unable to find meaningful answers to existential questions, human beings descend into selfishness and narcissism and can only stymie their mortal terror by recourse to the carnal distractions of sexuality. Modern capitalism is the mode of social organization best suited to, and best suited to maintain, such a worldview. Materialism—that is, the limiting of all that is real to the physical, which rules out the existence of God, soul, and spirit and with them any transcendent meaning to human life—thus produces an environment in which consumption becomes the norm. Such is the historical narrative that Houellebecq’s fiction enacts, with modern economic liberalism emerging as the last, devastating consequence of humanity’s despiritualization.
“Materialist horror” is the term most appropriate to describe this worldview, for what readers discover throughout Houellebecq’s fiction are societies and persons in which the terminal social and psychological consequences of materialism are being played out. It is little wonder, then, that these texts are so often apocalyptic in tone. The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island, for example, depict the outright disappearance of a depressive and morally derelict human race. Desplechin, Djerzinski’s colleague in Particles, says of the decline of Western civilization at the turn of the twenty-first century: “There is no power in the world—economic, political, religious or social—that can compete with rational certainty. The West has sacrificed everything to this need: religion, happiness, hope—and, finally, its own life. You have to remember that when passing judgment on Western civilization” (221). Similarly, in The Map and the Territory, Jed’s final art project throws a veil of extinction not just on Western civilization but on humanity in general:
The work that occupied the last years of Jed Martin’s life can be seen [ . . . ] as a nostalgic meditation on the end of the industrial age in Europe, and, more generally, on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry. This interpretation is, however, inadequate when one tries to make sense of the unease that grips us on seeing those pathetic Playmobil-type figurines, lost in the middle of an abstract and immense futurist city, a city which itself crumbles and falls apart then seems gradually to be scattered across the immense vegetation [ . . . ]. The feeling of desolation, too [ . . . ] as the portraits of the human beings who had accompanied Jed through his earthly life fall apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming [ . . . ] to make themselves the symbols of the generalized extinction of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total. (2012, 269)
The Map and the Territory is in many respects the culmination of an evolution that begins with the posthuman, utopian ambitions of The Elementary Particles and ends in this novel with a repudiation of utopian dreams in favor of a premodern and traditionalist solution to contemporary existential malaise. As I argue in chapter 3, the evolution across the span of Houellebecq’s novels can be best understood as a progressive disenchantment with utopianism, accompanied by an ever-increasing sense of the oppressiveness of matter. The result of this evolution, as it is somewhat tentatively expressed in The Map and the Territory but then much more radically in Submission, is a wholesale abandonment of liberalism as a guiding principle for the organization of human social and economic life.
Before moving on, I should also say something about Houellebecq’s reception in the United States, since this monograph is (to my knowledge) the first American attempt at a book-length study of Houellebecq’s work. Houellebecq’s novels have enjoyed broad success in the United Kingdom, a fact that no doubt explains the proliferation of studies on the author by British scholars. In the United States, however, much of the engagement with Houellebecq’s work has come from reviewers who have generally been so repulsed by his fiction that they have had difficulty concealing their contempt. In his review of The Possibility of an Island, John Updike (2006, n.p.) writes that Houellebecq’s “will to generalize smothers the real world under a blanket condemnation,” and “the sensations that [he] gives us are not nutritive.” Janet Maslin in the New York Times (2003) has described Platform as a “polarizing, audacious document rather than a viable novel,” while Michiko Kakutani, also in the New York Times, says of The Elementary Particles, “As a piece of writing, [it] feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read” (2000, n.p.). These reviews overlook much of the aesthetically and intellectually noteworthy qualities of Houellebecq’s work and may bespeak, at least at some level, a typically American, perhaps even puritanical, response to a literary exercise steeped in irony, cynicism, and decadent excess. Even so, it remains true that few authors working today demonstrate the consistent ability to displease that Houellebecq has mastered, not to mention his eagerness to flout the benchmarks of political correctness.
Houellebecq’s novels engage delicate social and political issues head on—Islam, sexual liberalism, technology, posthumanism, immigration, and violence in the banlieue, to name but a few—and in their treatment of those issues these texts often manifest a bullying lack of concern for the presumed political sensitivities of their audience. Indeed, it is difficult not to feel a certain ideological discomfort when Daniel says of Esther in Possibility of an Island that “[l]ike all very pretty young girls she was basically only good for fucking” (2007, 152), or when the openly racist character Robert in Platform praises the “elasticity” of certain components of Thai women’s anatomy (2002, 80). Similarly, when, in The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq describes a West African housekeeper as “cantankerous and nasty” (2012, 8) and suggests that she “most probably stole from the shopping allowance” (8), the ideological censor in all of us cannot help registering some degree of alarm.
The atmosphere of sanctimony and recrimination that has surrounded the publication of Houellebecq’s novels is remarkable, and even the critics most engaged with his work have been careful to issue the requisite condemnation of the author’s seemingly egregious neglect of political decency. Murielle Lucie Clément, for example, writes in her article “Le héros houellebecquien,” “The day has come to realize that what we may take to be hilarious witticisms is none other than an ideology deeply rooted in xenophobia, racism, and misogyny” (2006, 97, my translation). Little good is accomplished by trying to defend Houellebecq against such accusations. I only suggest that the sexism, racism, xenophobia, and perhaps homophobia that somewhat more than intermittently crop up in Houellebecq’s novels ought to be subsumed under a general misanthropy; the real interest of his writing lies elsewhere.
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