Michel Houellebecq 1958-
French novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Houellebecq's career through 2003.
One of France's most celebrated and notorious authors, Houellebecq attracted a firestorm of controversy for his disturbing critique of contemporary society and the future of genetic engineering in Les Particules élémentaires (1998; The Elementary Particles). In this and other novels, such as Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994; Whatever) and Plateforme: Au milieu du monde (2001; Platform), Houellebecq casts a bleak, highly cynical light upon the vacuity and alienation of Western consumer culture and sexual liberation. His sordid depictions of sex and nihilism, rendered with deadpan sociological detachment, link the deterioration of late-twentieth-century Western society to the emptiness of 1960s-era liberalism and the ideals of individualism, thus raising the ire of critics on both the left and right.
Houellebecq was born on February 26, 1958, on the French-controlled island of La Réunion, located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. His father, a mountain guide, and mother, an anesthesiologist—who were both involved in the counter-culture movement of the 1960s—eventually relinquished their parental responsibilities and, at age six, Houellebecq was sent to the Paris suburbs to live with his paternal grandmother. Houellebecq adopted his grandmother's surname and attended a boarding school near Meaux. In 1980 he earned a degree in agricultural engineering and married his first wife, with whom he had a son. After their divorce four years later, Houellebecq received treatment for depression in a psychiatric clinic and later worked for the French National Assembly. During the 1980s, he wrote poetry and befriended Michel Bulteau, editor of Nouvelle Revue de Paris, which published Houellebecq's early poems. In 1991 he published his first three books—H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie, a critical study of the acclaimed American horror writer, Rester vivant, a volume of essays and poems, and La poursuite du bonheur: poemes, a poetry collection that was awarded the Prix Tristran Tzara. In 1992 Houellebecq married Marie-Pierre Gauthier. Despite condemnation of his fiction from some critical circles, which resulted in his dismissal from the editorial board of the literary journal Perpendiculaire, Houellebecq has received several significant literary awards, including the Prix Flore for Extension du domaine de la lutte, the Prix Novembre for Les Particules élémentaires, and the Grand Prix National des Lettres Jeunes Talents for his overall body of work. Houellebecq collaborated with Philippe Harel on the screenplay for the film adaptation of Extension du domaine de la lutte, which was released in 1999. Houellebecq has also adapted and recorded his poetry to the experimental electronic music of Bertrand Burgalat, with whom he produced his first album, Présence humaine, in 2000. Houellebecq relocated to Ireland in 1999, taking residence on an island off the coast of County Cork.
Extension du domaine de la lutte is the first-person account of an unnamed thirty-year-old computer analyst who travels to conferences to teach the use of a statistical program developed by his company for the government. At work he encounters young, egocentric corporate aspirants, and at night, he frequents local bars and discos with a feckless colleague in the hope of finding female companionship. Neither is successful in his efforts to connect with others, and their futility reflects the deleterious effects of social fragmentation and isolation in contemporary society. In the end, the narrator's colleague dies in a tragic car accident, and the narrator himself suffers a nervous breakdown. After being confined to a mental institution, the narrator observes that the patients are not sick, but merely long for physical connection. Les Particules élémentaires centers upon the experiences of two half-brothers: Michel, an eminent, though emotionally stunted, molecular biologist; and Bruno, an unattractive high-school teacher whose hedonistic longings are unfulfilled. The essential emptiness of both men is traced to the failure of their free-spirited hippie mother, who selfishly abandoned them to separate grandparents as children, leaving them fatherless and without maternal nurturance. The novel, which is a largely an indictment of 1960s permissiveness and hypocrisy, is finally revealed to be a retrospective account from the year 2079. From this future vantage, it is learned that the cloning techniques pioneered by Michel have facilitated the development of genetically superior human beings who are sexless and immortal, thus eliminating two of the most troubling but distinctive features of humanity—individuality and desire. In 2000 Houellebecq published Lanzarote: et autres textes, a novella set on the volcanic island Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The story is told from an anonymous first-person narrator who, after becoming bored with his life in Paris, travels to Lanzarote with plans to indulge in his basest desires. However, after becoming involved with an eccentric cast of tourists and locals, including two lesbians from Germany, the narrator is consumed with depression and ennui fueled by the island's self-obsessed, overly commercial atmosphere. Houellebecq's next novel, Plateforme, again brings focus to the tourism industry, centering upon Michel, a disaffected forty-year-old employee of the French Ministry of Culture who travels to Thailand to escape the trauma of his father's murder. While on a package tour, he becomes enamored with Thai prostitutes and concludes that Western sexual desire and Third World economic interests are both fulfilled in sex tourism. Michel eventually helps Valerie, a sexually adventurous travel executive, develop an ambitious business plan for a sex resort in Thailand. Their scheme, as well as the intensive research and planning behind it, reveals the crassness of Western market forces and the inevitability of globalization. In the end, Islamic fundamentalists bomb the decadent Thai resort, and Valerie dies violently in the explosion. In addition to his novels, Houellebecq has composed several volumes of poetry, including La poursuite du bonheur: poemes, Le sens du combat (1996), and Poésies (2000). In 1998 Houellebecq published Interventions, an assemblage of book and film reviews, interviews, and provocative essays in which he espouses his left-conservative views on a variety of topics.
Though Extension du domaine de la lutte has been well received and respected for its unrelenting bleakness, Les Particules élémentaires has placed Houellebecq at the center of a vitriolic French national debate that became known as “L'Affaire Houellebecq.” In particular, French leftists have reacted strongly against Houellebecq's suggestion that counter-cultural liberals of the late 1960s caused a social and moral catastrophe by privileging self-gratification over the needs of family and community. Others have condemned Les Particules élémentaires for its alleged advocacy of eugenics, the pornographic elements of the novel, and Houellebecq’s apparent sympathy—or at least ambivalence—toward Stalinism in giving the novel's antihero the last name of a former Soviet official (Djerzinski). Since the novel’s first publication, Houellebecq has become a cause célèbre in France and Les Particules élémentaires has become an international best-seller, translated into more than twenty languages. In Britain and America, Les Particules élémentaires has been widely praised, with critics lauding Houellebecq's unsettling dissection of contemporary life and his incitement of French intellectuals. Houellebecq's acerbic writing, misanthropy, and alleged fascism have caused many to compare him to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a notorious French writer whose seminal novels were marred by the author's anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies. Like Céline, however, the offensiveness of Houellebecq's political incorrectness has been often outweighed by the scathing humor and incisiveness of his social critique. As a novel of ideas, Les Particules élémentaires has also been favorably compared to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, though most reviewers have found Houellebecq's book an ambitious though lesser achievement. The publication of Plateforme has further enhanced Houellebecq's reputation as a social provocateur—this time for his derogatory portrayal of Islam, a religion he had denounced as barbaric in other public statements. Nevertheless, Houellebecq's cynicism and dark satire has continued to be appreciated by reviewers, though many have argued that Plateforme has failed to match the promise of Les Particules élémentaires.
H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie (criticism) 1991
La poursuite du bonheur: poemes (poetry) 1991
Rester vivant: méthode (essays and poetry) 1991
Extension du domaine de la lutte [Whatever] (novel) 1994
Le sens du combat (poetry) 1996
Interventions (essays and interviews) 1998
Les Particules élémentaires [The Elementary Particles] (novel) 1998; published in the United Kingdom as Atomised, 2000
Extension du domaine de la lutte [Whatever; with Philippe Harel] (screenplay) 1999
Renaissance (poetry) 1999
Lanzarote: et autres textes [Lanzarote] (novella) 2000
Poésies (poetry) 2000
Plateforme: Au milieu du monde [Platform] (novel) 2001
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SOURCE: Green, Maria. Review of Extension du domaine de la lutte, by Michel Houellebecq. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 550.
[In the following review, Green comments on Houellebecq's depiction of modern alienation in Extension du domaine de la lutte.]
In his fourth novel, Michel Houellebecq deals with our modern mal du siècle, alienation. Can we still learn anything new on this worn-out topic, depicted, described, analyzed, turned inside out by the best artists, writers, philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists of our century? It seems that the author of Extension du domaine de la lutte can still display a new aspect of our modern ailment when he ushers the reader into the realm of computer science.
The narrator sets out to chart his own voyage of discovery in a novel about himself. Of course, this modern novel is a far cry from the sizzling passions of Wuthering Heights. The genre of the novel was not invented to display indifference, dehumanization, nihilism. The narrator sees clearly that while society is moving toward the goal of being perfectly informed, transparent, and in perfect communication, meaningful individual communication is simply obliterated in our private life.
The antihero-narrator is a well-paid engineer in a company that has just developed a new program to make statistics easy for government...
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Prize-Winning Novels from France.” Spectator 282, no. 8891 (2 January 1999): 35.
[In the following excerpt, Brookner discusses Houellebecq's controversial portrayal of sexual excesses and cloning in Les Particules élémentaires.]
The disgusting and depraved Les Particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq led to the author being suspended from a literary journal on grounds of offences against good taste. (The publicity did him no harm at all.) I liked this, though it is undoubtedly obscene, but, more than obscene, despairing. The sexual revolution to which the protagonist, Bruno, contributes, vigorously though unappealingly, is held responsible for the disillusionment which overtakes its adherents in middle age and beyond. The answer, says Houellebecq, or his other protagonist, Michel, is genetic modification. In future reproduction will be achieved by cloning. It was the eugenic implications of this idea which so offended the authorities, so that to have admitted this novel would be seen as an act of political incorrectness. Yet what is shocking about it is not the sexual extravagance, for which the author blames both New Age philosophies and orgiastic crypto-religious cults (not perhaps adequately documented), but the morose determinism with which he pursues both the addiction and its cure, or rather antidote. Not everyone will be able to follow this writer in...
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SOURCE: Leichter, Frédérique. Review of Les Particules élémentaires, by Michel Houellebecq. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 492.
[In the following review, Leichter praises Houellebecq's provocative depiction of contemporary alienation and sterility in Les Particules élémentaires.]
Les Particules élémentaires, the second novel by Michel Houellebecq, who stepped into the limelight in 1994 with Extension du domaine de la lutte, was the focus of much attention within Parisian literary circles last fall. Despite attacks by the media, it must be admitted that this is an original and profoundly disturbing novel whose ambition, declared almost defiantly, is to be “the chronicle of the metaphysical mutation of our occidental civilization at the dawn of the new millennium.” For the author, the feelings, thoughts, and obsessions described in the book are all symptoms of “l'air du temps.” In this way, Les Particules élémentaires defends itself from any criticism with an unassailable strategy: any attempt to contest the relevance of Houellebecq's analyses will be interpreted in terms of psychoanalytic resistance. Critics beware!
“Ce livre est avant tout l'histoire d'un homme, qui vécut la plus grande partie de sa vie en Europe occidentale, durant la seconde moitié du XXème siècle. Généralement seul, il fut cependant, de loin en...
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SOURCE: Madar, Chase. Review of Interventions, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5038 (22 October 1999): 36.
[In the following review, Madar compliments Houellebecq's tone of iconoclastic “left-conservatism” in Interventions.]
The scandal and success of Michel Houellebecq's novel Les Particules élémentaires (1998) has led the editors at Flammarion to deem their author's miscellaneous journalism worth assembling under a single binding. Interventions is a hodgepodge of book and film reviews, feuilletonistic sketches and interviews. Some items, like “Opera Bianca”, a male/female dialogue for a video installation, seem present only to fill space in this slim book, but most of the enthusiasms (for modern physics, Kant and silent film) and anathemas (against hippies, the Maastricht treaty and holidays; a lead-off essay called “Jacques Prévert est un con”) collected here are pungent and amusing. Houellebecq often expresses thoughts which seem blasphemous from a Parisian. He has no use for the practice of écriture, noting casually “Je m'intéresse moins au language qu'au monde.” Less iconoclastic, and less interesting, is his long essay “Approches du Désarroi”, which is mostly about the evil genius of consumer society, much of it second-hand from Régis Debray and Jean Baudrillard. Like many Western intellectuals, Houellebecq is fixated on...
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SOURCE: Besser, Gretchen Rous. Review of Les Particules élémentaires, by Michel Houellebecq. French Review 73, no. 4 (March 2000): 763-64.
[In the following review, Besser lauds Les Particules élémentaires as a “major tour de force,” akin to the works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.]
What could partake more of millennial fever than the apocalyptic vision encountered in Houellebecq's compelling and unsettling Particules élémentaires? As in the best of suspense fiction, the key to the novel's mystery—a celebratory poem inserted at the beginning—is not revealed until the “Epilogue.” Only at the end do we realize the temporal perspective from which the novel's events (beginning in July 1998, proceeding in fits and starts, with prognostications of the future and flashbacks to the past) are to be viewed—the year 2079.
Until this ultimate revelation, we assume we have been reading, in antipodal counterpoint, the life stories of the eminent physicist Michel Djerzinski and his half-brother Bruno. Diametrically different in temperament, interests, and ultimate achievement, the brothers share certain similarities of background and accident: from broken homes, solitary, unloved, and fatherless, each loses the woman of his life to suicide.
Determinism marks the future of society and individual. When in his forties, Bruno reflects:...
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SOURCE: Harkin, James. Review of Atomised, by Michel Houellebecq. New Statesman 129, no. 4487 (22 May 2000): 57.
[In the following review, Harkin commends Houellebecq's sense of foreboding, grand themes, and cynicism in Atomised.]
Released to a fanfare of outraged publicity in Paris nearly two years ago, Les Particules élémentaires quickly became a bestseller and made a minor celebrity of its author, Michel Houellebecq. Already translated into 22 languages, it is at last available in English under the title Atomised.
It is not hard to see why Paris was so offended. Atomised is a hugely ambitious novel of ideas—or, more accurately, a novel about the lack of ideas and morale in contemporary French society. It interweaves the disparate biographies of two half-brothers as they face up to their respective mid-life crises.
Bruno is a teacher whose hopes of becoming a writer have turned sour, and whose opportunistic enthusiasm for free love is never quite matched by his success with the opposite sex. Michel, on the other hand, is an other-worldly scientist who has devoted his life to a lonely programme of research into molecular biology, but who is now on leave and reconsidering his vocation. Both their predicaments, it is implied, can be traced in part to the influence of their hippy mother, Janine, now in a hospice, whose faddish experiments...
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SOURCE: Madar, Chase. Review of Atomised, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5513 (23 June 2000): 33.
[In the following review, Madar commends the disturbing realism, dark humor, and occasional tenderness of Atomised.]
Published in France two years ago as Les Particules élémentaires, [Atomised] won the Prix Novembre, and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies throughout Europe; it has also provoked charges of nearly every prejudice imaginable and fervid denunciations from readers across several generations.
Atomised tells the story of two half-brothers, each an exemplary loser: Bruno, a high school teacher, is an undersexed hedonist, while Michel is a brilliant but emotionally desiccated biochemist. Abandoned by their hippie mother when they were small, neither has ever properly recovered; all their attempts at the pursuit of happiness, whether through marriage, the study of philosophy or the consumption of pornography, merely lead to loneliness and frustration. This despair is meant to characterize not just post-war French society, but the human race in general; at the end of the novel we learn that a breed of genetically modified humanoids, designed by Michel, has supplanted a terminally unhappy human race.
As this indicates, Atomised is an ambitious novel of ideas, in which the characters casually comment on...
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SOURCE: Abecassis, Jack I. “The Eclipse of Desire: L'Affaire Houellebecq.” MLN 115, no. 4 (September 2000): 801-26.
[In the following essay, Abecassis contends that the outpouring of critical controversy surrounding Les Particules élémentaires stemmed from Houellebecq's iconoclastic assault on Western ideological, moral, and metaphysical ideals surrounding sexuality and the rights of individual self-fulfillment.]
Sous l'être humain, il y a la brute Configurée en profondeur Mais au fond de sa vie sans but, L'homme attend le deuxième sauveur.(1)
Paris, October 1998. The routine of la rentrée littéraire breaks. Instead of the usual quarrels limited to a small circle of literati, there erupts a serious and sustained public debate in literary reviews, newspapers, radio and television. After a pause of many years, perhaps dating back to the publication of Voyage au bout de la nuit and L'Etranger, Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires becomes the focal point of a national public debate.2 On this point Le Monde's Van Renterghem is categorical: “Rarement un roman aura fait couler autant d'encre, suscité tant de passions, d'emballements ou de détestations, de gonflements incontrolés en débats et en polémiques.”3 At its heart, l'Affaire Houellebecq has little to do with literary value per se; it concerns, rather, the desecration of the regime of desire, our last idol.
Having triumphed on the economic and political level, post-1945 liberal democracy sought to expand the range of rights (and implicit duties) consistent with its underlying logic: the exponential increase in individual autonomy in all domains, including the most private and intimate. For the first time ever, the possibilities of desire availed themselves to the citizens of democracies. With its refrain—the Rolling Stones' “I Can't Get No Satisfaction”—sexual gratification became almost a form of civic duty. In this new cultural regime, rights were no longer exclusively limited to the political and economic. Libidinal potential (love, sex, orgasms), first postulated as a possible social state by Margaret Mead, then scientifically described and explained by Master and Johnson, and finally consecrated as personal epiphany in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, now donned an urgent imperative aura. This urgency simply meant that orgasms, both in quantity and variety, were to become the focal point of a cultural project. Orgasms became a must. Obviously, except for doing away with legal barriers (i.e. laws regarding privacy), one cannot grant desire on the formally legal and political level. That is, the law may, for example, stipulate minimum wages, but the law cannot guarantee minimum sexual satisfaction. Desire nevertheless did attain the level of an implicit promise, integral to any form of genuine self-enactment. Such was, and still is perhaps, the cultural project of the post-1945 period. Yet Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires deflates desire in all its permutations, from a cultural and political project on the grand conceptual level, to the minute details of contemporary daily life on the phenomenological level. In short, Houellebecq postulates the impossibility of desire as a generalized cultural project. This polemical roman à thèse describes and analyzes the implosion of the sexual babble. By now we, as Westerners, have a huge investment in our libidinal and desiring selves: we cherish this libidinal babble, as demonstrated by the vehement polemics detonated by the deflationary Les Particules élémentaires. Houellebecq's fictional-essayistic grinder minces through our most cherished beliefs—that happiness equals sexual and romantic satisfaction, that Being equals desiring and becoming the object of desire.4 As a genre, the novel accomplishes its principle task of grinding down to a pulp the very grains of ideological self-understanding to which its readers cling with comic tenacity.5
The Affaire Houellebecq swept through the Parisian cultural landscape. The novel was the best seller of the rentrée and well beyond (250,000 copies sold by June 99 in France and translations by important publishing houses in all major languages). Not only was the novel wide-ranging in its devastating critique of cherished idols, but its ideological grounding was also disorienting. A critique from the right; a critique from the left—these are moves that cultural players understand and therefore discount accordingly. But a player who seemingly mines and undermines all premises at the same time; a player who derides the very sacred grounds upon which all other players carry out their ideological rituals—that constitutes true transgression. And all the more so in France, where the worn discourses of the classical right and left still dominate most public debate. Again, Le Monde's Van Rentherghem, described best this ideological ambiguity:
Inclassable, Houellebecq dérange, divise. Quelle est la “position” de cet écrivain venu de la gauche qui rend hommage tour à tour à Staline et à la “compassion,” aux “cathos traditionalistes” et à l'eugénisme? On lui reproche d'être nihiliste, “déprimiste,” “antihumaniste,” pessimiste. A gauche, on le voit “communiste utopique” (Les Inrockuptibles) ou au contraire “flou,” proche de la pensée d'Alain de Benoist et encensé par la “lepénisation des esprits” (Perpendiculaire). A droite, le livre embarrasse, comme en témoigne le feuilleton contradictoire paru en divers épisodes dans le Figaro: d'abord dénoncé comme “interminable porno-misère,” puis réhabilité comme victime d'un terrorisme intellectuel de gauche.6
To understand the Houellebecq phenomenon requires thinking in fluid and unconventional categories. Inasmuch as their moves are entirely predictable, the awkward pronouncements from left and right pro et contra Houellebecq offer little insight. Yet at least two serious French intellectuals, Alain Finkielkraut and Philippe Sollers, recognized in Les Particules élémentaires a conceptual and esthetic turning point of real value.7 Another article in Le Monde, this time by Frédéric Badré, singles out Houellebecq's novel as being a prime representative of a new tendency in the French novel. The common theme of all these authors (Houellebecq, Darrieussecq, Gran—and I would add Masséra) is the deflation of the regime of desire in a style which is “sans esthétisme, sans pudeur, sans séduction particulièrement artiste.”8 In what follows I will take my cues from Finkielkraut, Sollers and Bardé, leave aside the trivial and purely sectarian aspects of the Affaire, and concentrate on Les Particules élémentaires as a polemical roman à thèse, thereby fleshing out the deeper fracture lines which were at the origin of this polemic. I will proceed from history to metaphysics. That is, from the exterior contingency (the world of objects, sex and public/private selves) to the interior permanence of a given consciousness (ahistorical metaphysics and idiosyncratic religious temperament). I show why and how Houellebecq's combination of cultural critique, science fiction, moral metaphysics and narrative was so potent, to the point of detonating a major Affaire. Beyond that, I suggest that this novel articulates, if awkwardly, a discontinuity in contemporary French fiction. Taken in the context of authors cited above, a new pattern of fiction writing is emerging, and Houellebecq is, if not its best writer, certainly its clearest thinker and therefore its most polemical advocate.
The Houellebecqian inferno of the present is the allegorical story of Michel and Bruno, exemplars of late twentieth-century nihilism and despair played in a minor key—that of the lives of French state functionaries. But, unlike his peers (Darrieuessecq, Gran, Maséra), Houellebecq does not restrict himself to a description, as devastating as it might be, of the inferno of desire. He goes much further in that he puts into motion a Kierkegaardian dialectic whose only outcome could result in the ontological erasure of Homo sapiens and the birth of post-human clones. Structured as a hagiography (the birth, struggle, temptation and finally conversion of a Savior) recounted by a clone-narrator living in 2079 CE, the novel acquires a quasi-religious aura. Simply put, this is a novel about the erasure of humanity as we know it and the creation of a new race of immortal and asexual clones, Homo cybernicus. In Houellebecq, the seventeenth-century French Moraliste meets the nano-cyber-molecular engineer—and the human disappears. But these hagiographic-futuristic-science-fictional elements constitute only the frame within which a concrete phenomenology of the world of French suburban functionaries weaves itself. Though formally a science fictional novel, science fiction plays a very minor role in the narrative itself. Yet the juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime (and really eminent) science fiction can be jarring and therefore effective. Indeed, this combination of phenomenology of the daily, eschatological metaphysics and science fiction is the secret to the success of the narrative.
From the first page, the sinister air of an apocalyptic crisis colors the narrative. Michel, the hero of the novel, leads a life of quiet despair. “Il vécut en des temps malheureux et troublés. … Les sentiments d'amour, de tendresse et de fraternité humaine avaient dans une large mesure disparu; dans leurs rapports mutuels ses contemporains faisaient le plus souvent preuve d'indifférence, voire de cruauté” (PE [Les Particules élémentaires], 9). An impending radical mutation awaits, as if living in the late 1990s the reader belongs to the end of an era, hoping for an insight into a future in which he will have no part. Indeed, from the narrator's point of view, the end of the twentieth century is already the distant past. For the novel tells quite literally the story of the erasure of those miserable and sinful Homo sapiens—us—and our replacement by post-human sentient beings, free of all misery, free of original sin.
To hook his readers, Houellebecq paints disturbing portraits of Michel and Bruno. They are half-brothers, both abandoned by their egotistic and hedonistic mother (a sixties “hippie” of sorts), neglected by their fathers (too absorbed in pleasure and greed); one is brought up by a kind grandmother (Michel), the other in a brutal boarding school (Bruno). For obvious psychological reasons, Michel and Bruno, abandoned sons, are destined for psychological misery. In a partially autobiographical synthesis, Houellebecq repeatedly links the affective misery of their childhood to their respective sense of permanent inadequacy (this psychological determinism is perhaps the weakest part of the novel). Moreover, the perceived duty to exercise the newly-won right of being productive in the libidinal economy could only exacerbate the brothers underlying misery. The gift of sexual liberation bequeathed to Michel and Bruno by their (absent but liberated) parents is for them particularly poisonous.
The space of Les Particules élémentaires is most immediately palpable as the space of the consumer object. This shared familiarity among author-reader-critic resides in the mutual recognition of a universe of objects familiar to all. This explains in part the instant appeal of the novel. The reader takes an almost sadistic pleasure in the minute, yet detached, description of suburban daily routines. Strangely, these neuter descriptions, which avoid the common pitfall of facile lampooning, remind me of the popular Internet phenomena known as the Jennicam, where a permanent hidden camera records all the actions of a perfectly ordinary young woman.9 What are these Internet surfers watching and why are they watching? The answer might be the same for some aspects of Les Particules élémentaires as for the Jennicam. In these banal objects and gestures, the reader of the novel as well as the Internet surfer contemplates his own universe in its objectal nudity. There, in the space between the eye and the spectacle of the absolute banal, we can locate the impulse of the initial identification and transference between the reader and the text, spectator and image. But, again, why is this so fascinating? Perhaps because the contemplation of repetition qua repetition is our latest spectacle! The object per se is the linchpin here—the one secured point of contact between the author, the reader and the text, their sole indubitably shared experience. In the case of Les Particules élémentaires, this fascination resides in the absolute symmetry between the reader and the fictional character. No longer a space of the heroic or the exploratory, the difference between the reader and the fictional character has been reduced to a contemplation of the same by the same. After all, this aesthetic seems to obey a mimetic necessity. If, in fact, we live in a space of the pure consumer object, then let objects—in their shuddering banality—be our privileged objects of identification and transference, mirrors of our refractive egos.
Put differently, Houellebecq's objet banal represents constricted mimetic desire. Instead of a multiplicity of sites where different mimetic possibilities may exist, resulting in many varied experiences of subjectivity, here we come to the ultimate constriction of a mimetic field embodied in global name-brand consumerism. Nike shoes are desired for the same reasons everywhere. Through marketing, global celebrities (e.g. Michael Jordan) become icons for and of collective transference and fantasy, and the objects these celebrities promote become vehicles of collective desire. Without any regard to geographical location or historical experience, all desiring consumers are operating within the same logic, within the same constricted and carefully engineered global mimetic field. It is within this universe that the most easily accessible dimension of the half-brothers' story unfolds.
Michel and Bruno spend their lives in a world where personal space organizes itself around objects bought in various discount outlets: frozen ravioli dinners, cheap wine in six-pack promotions, vacation equipment, gadgets, etc. Each object is precisely described with its price and place of purchase: “[M]ichel sortit de sa poche un appareil photo Canon Prima Mini (zoom rétractable 38-105mm, 1 290 à la FNAC)” (PE, 318); “Juste avant de partir [Bruno] avait acheté une tente igloo à la Samaritaine (fabriquée en Chine populaire, 2 à 3 places, 449 F)” (PE, 123). Then comes the sorting out of junk mail where cruise ships are described as floating utopia (PE, 282-83), followed by the saccharine text of the catalogue 3 Suisses. It reads: “Optimisme, générosité, complicité, harmonie font avancer le monde. DEMAIN SERA FEMININ” (PE, 153).
Though impressive, these detailed descriptions of the quotidian could not in themselves explain the force of the novel. For at least the past thirty-five years descriptions of various Systèmes des objets (Barthes, Baudrillard, Pop Art) abound.10 Yet Houellebecq's consumer objects figure as background components of a violent critique of what he believes to constitute our ultimate myths of liberation and individuation: the myth of love, desire, seduction, writ large, available to all. Or more precisely, the false belief that these erotic experiences can become common, a thread in the fabric of the daily, another conquered territory in the march toward freedom. To the democratic man, so goes the myth, the great orgasm can be as commonly consumed and experienced as a can of Campbell's Soup. Here the narrative moves from the derisive to the disturbing; here the reader's facile identification and transference cease and the anxiety mounts; here the complicit smile turns into a blank stare. This is in fact also where the bonfire of our last hopes—the everlasting increase in the consumption of objects in order to augment our individuality, our desire and ultimately our orgasms—burns down to their elemental particles.
What makes Houellebecq's universe more disturbing than Warhol's or Baudrillard's is above all the lack of any alibi for consumption. Once the motive of an ever-increasing individuation through desire is absent or becomes debunked, all alibis for frenetic individuation disappear. Desire no longer justifies. That is precisely the origin of Houellebecq's disturbing effect on his readers and critics. Having this very alibi pulled from under our feet, we become unhinged. Take Michel, for instance. Floating in his life capsule, consumer objects do not justify themselves in any regime of sense. No longer a means to attain an end (as instruments in the maximization of freedom, individuation, and pleasure) these objects obey their own nihilistic logic, namely, being what they are for no other purpose except that of their consumption and disposal. These floating objects are not inscribed in Michel's life in any narrative which transcends their pure banality. Michel lives alone, experiences no erotic desire, exists purely as a thinking and consuming monad. His only social interactions are with his brother, occasionally, and with the local Monoprix checkout clerks. When he is alone, he drinks himself into oblivion. An internationally recognized molecular biologist, this forty-year-old lives only in his work, forsaking all forms of community, save for strictly cordial relations with his laboratory colleagues, his caged white canary who greets him every night and for daily forays into scientific Internet sites. Michel embodies in fact the archetypal hero described in Houellebecq's first published essay: “Les héros [of a certain fantastic genre] se dépouillent de toute vie, renoncent à toute joie humaine, deviennent purs intellects, purs esprits tendus vers un seul but: la recherche de la connaissance.”11
The clone who narrates this hagiography is categorical about Michel's sexuality: in the libidinal economy, he is unemployed—worse, he is homeless and so chronically depressed that, save for a passing fantasy, he has lost all desire. In Houellebecqian terms Michel forms part of the permanent sexual underclass: “sa bite lui servait à pisser, et c'est tout” (PE, 28). With Michel we know that we are definitively at the end of an era. Don Quixote and to a lesser extent Madame Bovary lived in a fictional world where every sign and object was highly invested with individuating potential. Functioning as the dynamos of the narrative, asymmetries abound between perception, imagination and desire. But in Les Particules élémentaires, we have the story of the Last Man who desires nothing except his own ontological erasure. Michel's life before his conversion experience is perhaps a representation of that zero through which being must pass to mutate itself; Michel's life embodies that almost completely neutral zero value through which one must pass from the negative to the positive.12 With Michel as an allegory, a regime of sense and desire ends, and there emerges the possibility of a new post-human regime.
If Michel gives up on individuation through desire and satisfaction, his brother Bruno seems to have invested himself completely in individuation through sex. Thus, Houellebecq plays Michel off Bruno, opposing the monk to the satyr, which allows him a great deal of tonal staccato in the narrative. But this latter-day satyr is anything but an alpha male, a Don Juan, a satisfied lover. Though a satyr in his behavior and fantasies, Bruno is driven by this quest for satisfaction to clinical insanity. Abandoned by his mother, frozen in his relations to his father, sexually abused in the most vicious manner by roommates in his high school dormitories, obsessed by the modest size of his penis, Bruno is also a loser in the libidinal economy. His destiny is masturbation; his fantasies are masochistic; his hopes for true satisfaction nil. Houellebecq describes this high school teacher masturbating throughout his life, in all places, always with the secret hope of being discovered and humiliated. The fantasy of shame and abasement plays itself out endlessly. In one of the more comic and disturbing chapters in the novel, Bruno takes a two-week vacation at a New Age camping site. There he spends his time at various workshops such as “sensitive gestalmassage, libération de la voix et rebirth en eau chaude, etc.” (PE, 141, italics in original), but he is really most interested in peeping at showering thirteen-year-old girls.
De retour à sa tente il se servit un whisky et se branla doucement en feuilletant Swing Magazine, “le droit au plaisir”; … Il n'envisageait pas réellement de répondre à ces différentes annonces; il ne se sentait pas à la hauteur d'un gang bang ou une douche de sperme. … Pour réellement parvenir à s'infiltrer dans le réseau porno, il avait une trop petite queue.
Unlike his liberated mother and father, Bruno experiences the rituals of sexual liberation not as a participant, but as a voyeur hoping to be humiliated and punished. To the chagrin of some of his readers and critics, Houellebecq paints a graphic and repetitive picture of Bruno's obsessive masturbation at every stage in his life and in a variety of public places. The biographical and psychological etiology of Bruno's psychopathology are of little importance in the context of this analysis. What is important, however, is the opportunity that this theme offers Houellebecq to undermine the modern dream of integrating sexuality into the regime of liberty. For Houellebecq, sexuality remains resistant to the logic of marketing redistribution (i.e. democratization), operating within the logic of a liberalized libidinal economy. In sum, economic and political freedom cannot be extended to sexuality.
Such was indeed the principle theme of L'Extension du domaine de la lutte, Houellebecq's earlier novel which was turned into a movie in 1999.13 A parody of 1980s French corporate culture recounting the utter social and sexual misery of a software engineer, this modest work has already attained in France the rank of a cult novel—“L'Etranger for the information generation” hails the cover of the English translation of the novel. Houellebecq's main thesis in this novel is the disturbing analogy between classical liberal economics and contemporary sexuality:
Tout comme le libéralisme économique … le libéralisme sexuel produit des effets de paupérisation absolue. Certains font l'amour tous les jours; d'autre cinq ou six fois dans leur vie, ou jamais. Certains font l'amour avec des dizaines de femmes; d'autres avec aucune. C'est ce qu'on appelle la “loi du marché.” Dans un système économique où le licenciement est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver sa place. Dans un système sexuel où l'adultère est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver son compagnon de lit. En système économique parfaitement libéral, certains accumulent des fortunes considérables; d'autres croupissent dans le chômage et la misère. En système sexuel parfaitement libéral, certains ont une vie érotique variée et excitante; d'autres sont réduits à la masturbation et la solitude.14
In short, the extension of liberty to sexuality is poisonous, for the more you extend liberty, the more you risk and eventually lose. At a certain point you must limit its extension. Within the idiosyncratic brew of Colbertiste, Gallic and Marxist understanding of (Anglo-Saxon) economic and social liberalism, liberty must necessarily lead to fundamentally agonistic modes of interaction; it creates few winners and many losers. This first novel then contains the Houellebecqian sociohistorical argument in its embryonic state: (1) liberty equals increased competition, (2) when extended to sexuality, competition equals increasing violence, (3) violence equals accelerated differentiation among winners and losers—to the detriment of the great majority. In economics as in sex, free competition (“libéralisme”) must thus necessarily bring about the pauperization and alienation of the majority. Consequently, “libéralisme sexuel” returns the late twentieth century to the baboon state: it is the winner-take-all world of the alpha male, which in Houellebecq's world is the Dionysian male rock and roll star. Furthermore, the underlying question implicitly reiterated in virtually every page of L'Extension du domaine de la lutte is this: is there any limit to the diminished returns (to the sexual majority) in the extension of liberty? In the apparent absence of such a limitation, all we can look forward to is the acceleration of agon, accomplished by the fleshing out of areas at present free of market competition (family, religion, leisure, etc.). According to Houellebecq, this infinite extension of economic logic to the private domain, heretofore immune from it, has already brought about the erasure of all zones of private activities free from the violence of economic and consumer logic. There can no longer be two parallel arenas of individuation, the one economic and public, the other, affective and private. “Libéralisme,” therefore, brings back to human life the all-pervasive agonistic modality of the natural state, of ambient violence; it is in harmony with nature qua aggression (that is, individuation through aggression), whence, perhaps, its power and appeal. Violent and evolutionarily rational, the end of history would resemble, then, its violent beginning. Beginnings and endings telescope into each other in the figure of the hierarchical baboon (cave man to Mick Jagger—and back). The circle is fully drawn; an impasse dawns. To advance, only a radical rupture will suffice.
This argument can seem all too familiar, having currency within the discourses of both progressive and conservative points of view in that both certain conservatives and liberals suggest that libidinal global capitalism (from Benetton to hard-core pornography) represents moral threats of various kinds. Yet Houellebecq's narrative explores these ideas in a more metaphysical and provocative mode, thereby going well beyond standard historical and sociological arguments. As we shall now see, the narrative collapses the distinction between private and public selves; it establishes a necessary link between sexual liberation and violence; it locates the root of the problem in human nature.
THE SINGLE DOMAIN
Repeatedly Houellebecq makes the claim that the distinction between public and private selves no longer holds, and that in this new érotico-publicitaire economy, where the desire of every agent is engineered by Eros-driven marketing, private and public selves could hardly constitute distinct universes with distinguishable logics. On the one hand, market economics, ruled by supply/demand equations, “attractiveness, novelty and price/quality ratios” form the dominant logic underlying virtually all public and economic transactions.15 On the other, an affective system, independent of the public and economic market, as it were, operating according to private and intimate individual taste, idiosyncratic and hence apparently free of determinism, constitutes the private and erotic self. These two fields of action, however, are not insulated compartments. If purely objective criteria, operating within a competitive environment, form the economic sphere, then these same criteria and this same environment also sooner or later percolates down to the personal. This is the case since every detail of the private and personal occupies a place within an erotico-consumer sphere: shape of the body, smell of the body; each detail is labeled and thus the whole fabric of the personal becomes integrated into the generalized economy driven by erotic marketing. Collapsing in this manner the productive self and the romantic self into a single category, Houellebecq telescopes all activities into a single field of action, all obeying more or less the same rules.
Actuellement, nous nous déplaçons dans un système à deux dimensions: l'attractivité érotique et l'argent. Le reste, le bonheur et le malheur des gens, en découle. … nous vivons dans une société simple, dont ces quelques phrases suffisent à donner une description complète.16
The individual self, which in modernity has always been distinct from the collective, becomes here generic and serial, oscillating exclusively between eroticism and money. No longer in opposition to the world, it is continuous with it since the dialectic between the interior and the exterior, between the individual and the collective, slowly disappears. As if dialed into the ruthless digital economy, to the érotico-publicitaire machine which devours him, the self has once and for all lost the tension between being and appearance. The fate of the subject in the érotico-publicitaire society is to identify with the ideal that devours him. Once capitalism and globalization have done away with religion, family and nation, there no longer remains a space where counter-practices could successfully survive. The only grounding for Being and being, to use the Heideggerian distinction here, is the market—the capital market as well as the flesh market.
This telescoping of the private and public places Les Particules élémentaires outside the logic of the romanesque comedy of the authentic and the inauthentic, still the dynamo of most romanesque production up to the romantic and existential novels. To understand this environment, which Houellebecq aptly names the post-1968 érotico-publicitaire, is to recognize underneath its sleek appearance the thinly disguised baboon-like hierarchies and symbolic violence. Beneath the cool and democratic surface there awaits for all desiring subjects a cruel battlefield where, by definition, the vast majority is reduced either to the role of spectators (celebrity cult) and/or to the role of permanent paupers. It is a winner-take-all world, inhabited by a few alpha winners and a multitude of omega losers. Indeed, Michel and Bruno, the two paupers in the libidinal economy, two omega losers in the world of desire and satisfaction, clearly recognize their omega status. But their recognition takes different forms. While Michel completely withdraws from the libidinal, Bruno glues himself to the libidinal, only to reconfirm repeatedly its refractive and ultimately resistant nature.
If the libidinal has proven to be so resistant to conquest and long-lasting possession, it is because in it—in the erotic and the sexual—the Western will has found its most unnerving opponent. Put simply, the classical metaphysics of the scientific and democratic project revolve around a set of assumptions about the relationship between knowledge and action. To know is to take hold of something, and once a known thing is held, it yields to the will of the thinking subject.17 Thomas Mann's rationalist, Settembrini, formulated this perfectly: “Human reason needs only to will more strongly than fate, and it is fate” (italics in the original).18 Knowing, handling, controlling, explaining, predicting: all these concepts have been extremely productive in the conquest of nature, except for sexuality. The idea that once the scientist lifts the veil of ignorance from the face of Eros, its secrets will reveal themselves, and, therefore, erotic experience could become common currency—this was indeed the modern delusion concerning sexuality.19 Armed with method and knowledge (i.e, psychoanalysis, the Masters and Johnson report), the individual would free himself from prior constraint, would no longer be “superstitious,” “neurotic.” Beyond the horizon of knowledge lay the promised land of orgasmic bliss. Here, we come to the heart of Houellebecq's critique of the “mechanical” understanding of liberty, especially where liberty's dominion extends to sexuality, where desire becomes another step in the (almost finalized) march toward complete autonomy.
La croyance, fondement naturel de la démocratie, d'une détermination libre et raisonnée des actions humaines, et en particulier d'une détermination libre et raisonnée des choix politiques individuels, était probablement le résultat d'une confusion entre liberté et imprévisibilité. Les turbulences d'un flot liquide au voisinage d'une pile de pont sont structurellement imprévisibles; nul n'aurait songé pour autant à les qualifier de libres.
(PE, 280, my emphasis)
Considering the problem of sexuality, the democratic-scientific fallacy consisted in making a categorical mistake, based on false analogy: “Dernier mythe de l'occident, le sexe était une chose à faire; une chose possible, une chose à faire” (PE, 164), which would have been analogous to “la géometrie était une chose à faire,” or “le système monétaire sera une chose à faire.” Whereas a democratic conception of liberty in almost all other domains would be compatible with the “knowing-seizing-controlling” model of knowledge, with sexuality, Houellebecq argues that the idea of complete freedom based on knowledge and dominion is illusory. The implicit analogies between the knowledge of natural phenomena and the knowledge of sexuality were a categorical delusion to which, curiously enough, our contemporaries still cling with great, and perhaps comic, tenacity.20 Even if one knows everything about sexuality, this knowledge does not translate into mastery. Sexuality can never be mastered. Its boundaries may be mapped, its possibilities enumerated, its field, as it were, outlined, but never shall it escape the gravitational pull of human constraints—hierarchies, domination, submission, violent differentiation, symbolic negotiations.
Houellebecq's example of the movement of water molecules at a given time-space instance is indeed illuminating, for it points toward a different conception of liberty. Within a well-defined set of possibilities, certain movements may occur; they are neither strictly predictable, nor are they free from constraint. They are neither self-determining, nor self-enacting, nor autonomous. But also, and most importantly, they are also not strictly determined. The molecules are “free” to move about randomly within a certain time-space configuration, but they cannot take off to the moon. Similarly, sexuality and eroticism inhabit a field whose boundaries are marked by hierarchies, domination, submission, violent differentiation, symbolic negotiations. And within this field there is much room for variety. Yet its boundaries form a constraint that the thinking will cannot overcome. It is not simply the ideational overcoming of the Fear of Flying which will liberate you from the gravity of the sexual (inhibitions and taboos motivated by evolution), in the way that science defeats gravity. There is something intransitive in the relation between mechanical and quantum logics, and the resulting confusion is a categorical mistake of dire consequences. In other words, sex is and is not at the same time a function of the will (an aspect of nurturing); it is knowable and mysterious, simultaneously. This is how and why sexuality became entangled with the “mechanical” metaphysics of the democratic will.
The crisis of desire points us toward the limit of the will. The democratic right cannot be extended to the realm of desire. Economic and political drives are amenable to legal and social mechanisms that can keep them in check. Yet this liberal logic is not transferable to sexuality. Once sex becomes “'accessible and right,” pursued for its own ends without any legal or medical danger, the violent dialectic that it unleashes is not easily amenable to constraints. Whereas liberalism was and is successful in creating wealth exponentially over a long period of time, the sexual revolution did not create an exponential increase in orgasms. In fact, it only exacerbated the underlying misery which sexuality represents for most people. This is why Houellebecq contends that the tragic onset of AIDS can be viewed as a relief, at least to the heterosexual and homosexual paupers, since the fear of AIDS gave one the perfect rational alibi to exit the unbearable regime of desire. Circa 1985, not being a libidinal success all of a sudden loses its stigma and becomes a tacit, but real, norm.21
THE GROSS MISCALCULATION OF THE BRAVE NEW WORLD
If indeed the late nineties represents a period of a grand ideological malaise, it is because the successive sexual liberations of the post WWII period have exacted a frightful price. Certainly, there is today much more formal liberty in virtually all domains, but Houellebecq insists that these liberties just bring into relief our generalized anxiety and feeling of inadequacy, at least for the omega majority. After all, liberal freedom means the freedom to fail, including failing at sex—an altogether unacceptable proposition for Houellebecq. This prognosis lies at the heart of Houellebecq's systematic derision of the sexual liberation of the last three decades. We surely possess at present more sexual freedom than ever before, but, paradoxically, we also endure proportionally more sexual misery than ever. Misery is a function of freedom (to fail), a function of the very thought that happiness is at hand, yet never quite realized. Michel and Bruno, as well as most characters in the novel, are formally free to participate in the great orgy, except that they are all too neurotic, too small, too poor or too old to ever be invited. Their liberation exists mostly in the domain of the formally possible and permissible, not in the domain of practice. In fact, the alpha's apparent liberation only serves to highlight the omega's hopelessness. Confronted by the possibility of fulfillment, the “inadequate” suffer from the absence of sustained libidinal fulfillment (the érotico-publicitaire ideal). For most, then, sexual liberation does not lead to satisfaction, but rather to a more acute consciousness of inadequacy. “Notre malheur n'atteint son plus haut point que lorsque a été envisagé, suffisamment proche, la possibilité pratique du bonheur” (PE, 306). This is a feature of most liberations: scientific atheism led to an acute awareness of the obscurity and the absence of god (Pascal, Sade) rather than to a metaphysical reconciliation with the world. In other words, “liberations” rarely create a positive space. Instead, rather than having been exorcised once and for all, the archaic demons lurk in the background, repressed and latent, only to resurface sporadically as symptoms. The resurfacing of repressed material is a form of hysteria which germinates at the revolution's heart.
And this repressed material is the potential violence that is latent in sexuality, and especially in a sexual liberation. This is precisely what a sexual liberation prophet like Aldous Huxley did not recognize in the dialectic of emancipation. Naïve and optimistic, Huxley grossly miscalculated the dialectic between sex, individuation and narcissism. In an intense conversation with Bruno about Huxley, Michel asserts the following:
L'erreur d'Huxley est d'avoir mal évalué le rapport de forces entre ces deux conséquences. Spécifiquement, son erreur est d'avoir sous-estimé l'augmentation de l'individualisme produite par une conscience accrue de la mort. De l'individualisme naissent la liberté, la sensation du moi, le besoin de se distinguer et d'être supérieur aux autres. … Huxley oublie de tenir compte de l'individualisme. Il n'a pas su comprendre que le sexe, une fois dissocié de la procréation, subsiste moins comme principe de plaisir que comme principe de différenciation narcissique; il en est de même du désir de richesse.
Huxley's naiveté consists in believing that liberation depends on clearing out, by some smart social engineering, obstacles such as family neurosis and religious taboos. Once identified, these purely constructed and contingent obstacles become known, and therefore subject to modification or erasure, clearing the way to emancipation and happiness. For Houellebecq, on the other hand, the world of sexuality, taboos and transgression belongs to a given and almost immutable human nature which resists the “knowing-seizing-controlling” model of knowledge and action. You cannot know and modify sexuality in the way that you know and modify other natural phenomena.
But there is much more here. When sexuality is at stake, the combination of knowledge and its individuating potential, otherwise known as liberty, often degenerates into pure violence. Houellebecq here is obviously a keen reader of Sade. He understands that individualism, fueled by the consciousness of death, gives birth to erotic liberty, the space of narcissistic monstrosity. That is, erotic liberty leads to an exponential increase in the opportunity to individuate along narcissistic lines with violence always lurking at the end of the road. “[Huxley] n'a pas su comprendre que le sexe, une fois dissocié de la procréation, subsiste moins comme principe de plaisir que comme principe de différentiation narcissique; il en est de même du désir de richesse” (PE, 200). The insurmountable obstacle of any Utopia is the Ego, the Will to Power, fallen appetites. At the heart of desire, the Augustinian would say, is always the will to dominate and eventually harm, the libido dominandi; even for the young infant, let alone for the mature adult.22 Since what is ultimately sought in pure desire is not pleasure but narcissistic domination, naked aggression emerges as taboos fall away and transgression becomes the norm.
Un basculement subtil et définitif s'était produit dans la société occidentale en 1974-1975, se dit Bruno. … Ces années … les sociétés occidentales basculaient vers quelque chose de sombre. En cet été 1976, il était déjà évident que tout cela allait très mal finir. La violence physique, manifestation la plus parfaite de l'individuation, allait réapparaître en Occident à la suite du désir.
(PE, 192, my emphasis)
The culture of desire becomes violent as the Summer of Love degenerates into a Sadean orgy; the wisp of love vanishing in the crack of the whip. As the threshold for pleasure elevates and the thirst for power though pleasure, and pleasure through power, deepens, Eros cedes to Thanatos—such is the ruthless logic of hyper-individuation. It was true for Sade; it is true for Houellebecq. Such is also the reiterated lesson we are to take away from one of the major subplots of the novel concerning the allegorical biography of the di Meola family.
Francisco di Meola is a leader of the flower children in California; late in life he decides to die in France. A beautiful physical specimen, this son of an Italian immigrant becomes a guru to the Beat generation, the Hippies and then the so-called New Age. His singular claim to fame is a short meeting with the dying Aldous Huxley. Di Meola seduces Catherine (a plastic surgeon), who also happens to be Michel and Bruno's mother. She promptly divorces, abandons her sons and moves into De Meola's Big Sur compound. To be sure, Di Meola comes off as charming enough. He is a handsome charlatan, mostly limiting himself to endless drug use, the seduction of East Coast teenage puritans in search of “IT.” His son, David di Meola, is also physically perfect, rich and virile. Like his father, David seduces women in droves, including Anabelle, who is Michel's high school sweetheart, a virgin up to that point and Michel's first, last and only amorous interest. David's desires soon expand beyond conventional sexual gratification. He moves to Southern California and becomes involved in heavy sadomasochism, thinly veiled as “satanic” ritual. Things degenerate quickly. Soon sadomasochism transgresses fantasy play, and David di Meola finally realizes his celluloid dream; only it is not as a Hollywood actor-rock-star, but as the sadistic protagonist of snuff movies. By the time the state of California indicts him for multiple murders and torture, he has produced and acted in a number of these films in which multiple victims bleed to death on camera. David has made sure his face figures prominently at the worst moments of the video. At last, he too is a star, of sorts.
As the Di Meolas's story illustrates, liberation of the libido devours its own protagonists, even in the case of the most dominant and violent of the alpha males. Accelerated differentiation within the parameters of desire's truth brings about a pagan holocaust of being. Again, this was all in Sade, but Houellebecq succeeds in an historical reiteration of the Sadean algorithm. The Sadean “truth of desire” weaves itself now within the sinuous discourse of the liberal and democratic érotico-publicitaire, rather than within the deconstruction of the discourse of Enlightenment.23 The net results, however, remain the same.
If the di Meola subplot brings into relief the “hard” version of post-1945 libido, its “softer” version, experienced by the average reader and critic, might perhaps be more disturbing. “Le désir sexuel se porte essentiellement sur les corps jeunes, et l'investissement progressif du champ de la séduction par les très jeunes filles ne fut au fond qu'un retour à la normale, un retour à la vérité du désir analogue à ce retour à la vérité des prix qui suit une surchauffe boursière anormale” (PE, 133). If you create a cult of the body, of its strength, beauty, suppleness; if the body constitutes your ultimate measure, time condemns you to self-loathing. “Dans un monde qui ne respecte que la jeunesse, les êtres sont peu à peu dévorés” (PE, 139). Devoured are the beings who worship the body, for the flesh ages, regardless of the efforts of plastic surgeons (Michel's parents). To accentuate the scorn visited upon older women, Houellebecq draws minute physiological descriptions of the subdermal tissue degradation of the vagina and the breasts. The pedophilic Bruno genuinely wants to love Christianne; but at the view of her aging vagina, his contempt and loathing are unmistakable. Satiated after a number of encounters in the same evening, Christianne tells Bruno: “J'ai bien vu tout à l'heure que tu n'étais pas vraiment attiré par ma chatte; c'est déjà un peu la chatte d'une vieille femme” (PE, 199). Christianne, this forty-five-year-old teacher, can never measure up to the adolescents Bruno has been ogling in the public showers. Taken to its ultimate aesthetic and logical consequence, desire reverts naturally to pedophilia, witness the Calvin Klein advertising campaigns. To the middle-aged single woman only a destiny of masturbation and loneliness and self-loathing remains. Christianne says, “A partir d'un certain age, une femme a toujours la possibilité de se frotter contre des bites; mais elle n'a plus jamais la possibilité d'être aimée. Les hommes sont ainsi, voilà tout” (PE, 176). Time necessarily marches on, and all that ages becomes its victim. Such is the fate of the cult of youth. Moreover, even winners in the youth culture, like Michel's first love Anabelle, are shortly condemned to the same miserable fate, not of death which is inscribed in our nature, but of increasing despair over sexual invisibility. And for us, late twentieth-century consumers, sexual and ontological invisibility are one, for to be is to be seen and desired. The cult of youth is a pitiless cul de sac: you lose, you lose; you win, you eventually lose. Such is the truth of the body through time, if its sole value resides in youth and beauty. In the final analysis, the will cannot defeat time.
What is common to both the hard and soft versions of Desire is their affinity to natural categories. Aggression in the hard version finds its home in the pure instinct of the animal, in the logic of primate survival through domination or submission. Youth and beauty, in the softer version, are natural traits, markers for reproductive fitness. Houellebecq exhibits a double, ambivalent attitude toward the natural: he describes it perfectly well in the manner of hard-core materialist anthropology and, at the same time, he openly disdains nature in the manner of classical Christian anthropology.
But let us return to the fate of desire. What a perplexing and disturbing turn of phrase—“La vérité du désir”! Houellebecq's analogy with the stock market overheating and then returning to a “truer” valuation may prove effective. The “overheating” is the rhetorical promise of a Huxley or a Mead, that once liberated, the knowledge and exercise of pure desire would cure generalized neurosis! (Notice that Freud never shared such optimism.24) At this point in the cycle, investors heavily discount the promised returns on “happiness and health”; it is the cycle's “bloom on the flower” moment. But once the rhetorical bubble deflates and the promised happiness and health do not materialize, desire's true value reveals itself. Left freely to its own dynamic, pure desire concentrates on adolescents and is exercised by the powerful in an increasingly savage manner. Such is the slide from Saul to David; from Augustus to Tiberius to Caligula; such is the slide from Rousseau's “sentiment” and soft masochism to Sade's derision and inversion of it.25 Should some doubts linger about this “truth of desire,” a quick study of current exotic sexual tourism, for example, would cure all illusions and willful delusions. The only difference from ancient times (i.e. Tiberius in Capri) is that, like most other activities, sexual tourism has become democratic, accessible to all Western tourists in poor countries.
Faced with this truth of desire, we cannot but confront, once and for all, the most disturbing of Houellebecq's deconstructions. That we live in a world of object—that we can somehow accept and neutralize in our minds; that all mimetic desire is constrained within the parameters of “le système des objets”—idem; but that the entire regime of desire be emptied of its salvatory teleology—the last hope for individual secular salvation!—that is simply unacceptable sacrilege. Considering our massive investment in the Romance, not merely the Romance as a literary construct, but as a serious theology of the daily, as the supposed fabric of life, it is easy to understand the resistance to Les Particules élémentaires.26 All our modern narratives bespeak of this desire of desire. Houellebecq does to post-industrial urban desire what Flaubert did to the desire of the wide-eyed bored country housewife. And its deflation is precisely the scandal. If desire no longer justifies being, then the last transcendental grounding of the modern individual has been pulled out from under his feet. Within the logic of the regime of desire, the alibi for action is univocal: I undertake such and such action because I want to be happy, that is, to be desired and desiring. The deflationary power of the novel consists precisely in undermining this often unquestioned grounding for action.
This undermining of the ideology of desire in Houellebecq takes a decisive metaphysical turn. His arguments reach well beyond the standard parameters of cultural criticism. I suppose that this also explains the appeal of Houellebecq for the French reading public and the reason why his particular form of criticism became such a subject of public debate. In reading Houellebecq, you know that you are, at heart, in the presence of a Moraliste of the French Augustinian variety (Arnault, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld). His is the infernal lucidity of a thinker who has thought through his subject, and who cannot shake off his insights, for better or worse. A close reading of Houellebecq's first book on H. P. Lovecraft, the early twentieth century American mystery/horror writer, [H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie] places the polemics and the tone of Les Particules élémentaires in their proper universe of metaphysical affinities. This critical essay reveals Houellebecq's modality of radical negation, if not outright contempt and hatred for the world. These “phobies Lovecraftiennes,” phobias of everything but his most intimate family space, constitute indeed the background radiation, as it were, to the Houellebecqian world view:
Aujourd'hui plus que jamais, nous pouvons faire notre cette déclaration de principe qui ouvre Arthur Jermyn: “La vie est une chose hideuse; et à l'arrière-plan, derrière ce que nous en savons, apparaissent les lueurs d'une vérité démoniaque qui nous la rendent mille fois plus hideuse.
(Lovecraft [H. P. Lovecraft: contre le monde, contre la vie], 16)
Thus aggressively and openly Houellebecq appropriates Lovecraft's principle: life is hateful, and at the edge of what we perceive there lies the dark and hollow vortex of evil, the progressive consciousness of which renders life exponentially more hideous. Uncovering and representing this “vérité démoniaque” which lies on the surface of the banal, quotidian, here and now—such is also the ambition of Les Particules élémentaires. Beneath the appearance of normalcy lies a horror story; not the bone-chilling tale of the fantastic genre in Lovecraft, but, instead, the horror and absolute anguish of the here and now.
In fact, all the leitmotifs which are evident in Houellebecq's subsequent novels, interviews and poetry (the misery and comedy of sex, the evilness of existence per se, a generalized eschatology, the apocalyptic desire to destroy in order to purify), already exist in his first published critical essay on Lovecraft (1991). Houellebecq's essay is clear about the extent to which this tragic negation authorizes the narrative, grounds virtually all the arguments, generates the very mood of his subsequent novels, poetry and essays. “Une âme lasse de la vie”—this is the subjective, temperamental point of departure; perhaps independent of any particular historical circumstance.27
In his more recent collection of essays and interviews, Houellebecq echoes his tragic view of life:
Avant tout, je crois, l'intuition que l'univers est basé sur la séparation, la souffrance et le mal; la décision de décrire cet état de choses, et peut-être de le dépasser. … L'acte initial c'est le refus radical du monde tel quel; c'est aussi l'adhésion aux notions du bien et du mal.28
Notice that no historical argument makes sense of this statement. Nor is it explicable in psychological terms. “La séparation, la souffrance et le mal” here do not correspond in tone to the infantile drama of being separated from the mother, forced to individuate by an authoritarian father (Proust). It is, rather—to use the standard existentialist vocabulary—a statement about the relationship between being and existence; the experience of being thrown into the world and despising it. A negation across the board of all aspects of the human mess—such is the primary postulate generating the whole logic and narrative of the novel. To negate experience per se is to become “phobic” about it, precisely the vocabulary Houellebecq employs when describing Lovecraft's misanthropic phobias. The phobic vomits the world. Not a world, but the world.
Furthermore, Houellebecq's affinities with Lovecraft go even deeper than the generic penchant toward the negation of phenomena by pure thought. They share, in fact, the same modality of negation, the identical thematic transposition, as it were. Without ever naming itself, their contemptus mundi coupled with apocalyptic teleologies flow from a common Christian source. In a flash of introspective insight, Houellebecq comments on one of Lovecraft's apocalyptic passages: “Ce texte n'est rien d'autre qu'une effrayante paraphrase de saint Paul” (Lovecraft, 122). Why not assert the same transposition about Houellebecq?
I would contend that, with their latent Pauline themes, the writings of Houellebecq constitute an extended commentary on Pascal's assertion “Que le Moi est haïssable.” What we have here, then, is a very sophisticated grafting of the Pauline and Pascalian anthropology onto the social and cultural fabric of late twentieth-century France. This must surely be one reason why Houellebecq resonates so strongly with many readers, even if they cannot consciously articulate the connection between his latent metaphysics, Christian thematics and the reader's partial affinity to this type of Augustinian contemptus mundi. The Moralistes constitute, after all, one of the most important pillars of the French intellectual and literary tradition.
Put simply, there are but two alternatives. Either you bear your sinfulness and live in full consciousness of it by assuming the full consequences of “la séparation, la souffrance et le mal” (Pascalian option) or you negate it by pure volition (Sadian option). Abstain or destroy (and be destroyed, enslave and be enslaved). Houellebecq's logic, in the final analysis, resembles the broken dialectic of the Either/Or variety.29
If this Either/Or is true, then we are condemned to choose between two bleak options: repression (the Pauline regime) or self-destruction (the Sadean regime) and nothing in between. To the extent that Michel abstains from sex and triumphs as a scientist while Bruno destroys and self-destructs in the vortex of late twentieth-century desire, the two main protagonists in Les Particules élémentaires embody and then play out these options. I suppose that at some level Houellebecq recognizes that this Kierkegaardian dialectic is simply unsustainable, if for no other reason than that without faith (which Houellebecq lacks) this dialectic becomes truly broken, infernal. In other words, we face here a hard impasse, rendered all the more difficult by Houellebecq's denial both of a possibility of recovering an “unbroken” past and his denial of the possibility of constructing an ameliorated future. Regressive nostalgia or progressive utopias no longer exist as viable options. These discourses and metaphysics have entirely exhausted themselves. If there is to be a breakthrough, it will be apocalyptic or not at all. Incorrigible Homo sapiens will have to cede to a race of man-made clones, the Homines cybernici.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
True to the universal archetype of the savior narrative, Michel will go to the desert (a remote scientific laboratory in Ireland), purify himself, recognize and know the truth, and return to save the world. Literally the Angel (of science), Michael will bring about “l'élément le plus nécessaire à la reconstruction d'une humanité réconciliée” (PE, 390). Product of a totally artificial, and therefore stable, cyber-genetic engineering, the Homo cybernicus represents a radical discontinuity in history. The clones, which we can already envisage today (e.g. nano technology), will replace their makers—us. Homo sapiens will become dispensable and then extinct (The Matrix). Like Christians breaking away from pagans, and like Renaissance Materialists breaking away from Christians, this science-fictional new breed will supercede all previous forms of humanity. This new life will be free from the infantile obsession with ontology (“Le besoin d'ontologie était-il une maladie infantile de l'esprit humain?” [PE, 373]) and free from the moi haïssable of the aggressively narcissistic Homo sapiens. The following poem, near the end of the novel, describes the state of mind of the embedded narrator, a Homo cybernicus, living in the true Brave New World, circa 2075 CE. Comparing himself to the early Christians and the Materialists of the modern era, he proclaims:
De même, nous pouvons aujourd'hui écouter cette Histoire de l'ère matérialiste Comme une vieille histoire humaine. C'est une histoire triste, et pourtant nous ne serons Même pas réellement tristes Car nous ne ressemblons plus à ces hommes. Nés de leur chair et de leurs désirs, nous avons Rejeté leurs catégories et leurs appartenances Nous ne connaissons pas leurs joies, nous ne Connaissons pas non plus leurs souffrances, Nous avons écarté Avec indifférence Et sans aucun effort Leur univers de mort.
Thus, the morbid broken dialectic of the Materialists results in the annihilation of misery and the creation of the reconciled Homo cybernicus—perhaps a God-like incarnation. After having mercilessly debunked desire, modernity's last foray into autonomy, Les Particules élémentaires postulates the seemingly unthinkable. Such is the perennial flavor of eschatology, for it foresees the erasure of its bearer as well as his witnesses.
To understand the impact of Les Particules élémentaires in France it would be best to analogize this novel to a number of American films. Within a single narrative, Les Particules élémentaires encapsulates the disturbing post-1968 chilling horror of A Clockwork Orange, the porno-violence of 8mm, the nihilism and despair of American Beauty and the horrifying science fiction of The Matrix. All these threads are woven into a gripping psychological novel, a social critique and a disturbing science fiction, laced throughout with the language of a classical French Moraliste. Regardless of how receptive or hostile its readers and critics were, such a lethal brew necessarily had to detonate the theatrical Gallic Affaire—L'Affaire Houellebecq.
If anything, Houellebecq clearly articulates the syntax, that is, the generalized articulation, of a consciousness already implicit in a number of contemporary French fiction authors. The novel represents a moment where what is already in the air finds its crystallization in a single narrative. The texts of his contemporaries, a Darrieussecq or a Gran, consist of minutely working through the semantics of this rupture.30 Shying away from all polemical abstraction, and limiting themselves to a fantastic phenomenology of the banal and the private, they articulate in a more poetically and fictionally convincing manner the Houellebecquian inferno of the present. But syntax is more menacing than semantics. And that is why it was Houellebecq and not Darrieussecq or Gran who unnerved a cultural scene that has become all too comfortable with its own ideology, with peripheral Ciceronian skirmishes within a little contested doxa.
Michel Houellebecq, Renaissance (Paris: Flammarion, 1999), 56.
Michel Houellebecq, Les Particules élémentaires (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), henceforth PE.
Marion Van Renterghem, “Le Procès Houellebecq,” Le Monde, Sunday, 8 Nov. 1998. A complete and up-to-date bibliography of Houellebecq criticism can be found at Le Site des Amis de Michel Houellebecq.
This same point, that happiness equals sexual satisfaction, especially within Freudian thought, is made clear in a recent extensive review essay by John Updike, about David Allyn's Make Love not War, The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (New York: Little, Brown, 2000), in The New Yorker, Feb. 21-28 2000, 280-290.
I am thinking here in particular about Robert Alter's concept of the novel in “The Mirror of Knighthood and the World of Mirrors,” reprinted in Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (New York: A Norton Critical Edition, 1981), 955-974.
Marion Van Renterghem, “Le Procès Houellebecq.”
Alan Finkielkraut, weekly radio program, Répliques, France Culture, Nov. 1998 and Sept 1999. Philippe Sollers's position on Houellebecq is discussed during the November, 1998 program.
Badré, Frédéric, “Une Nouvelle Tendance en littérature,” Le Monde, 3 Oct. 1998.
I am thinking in particular about: Roland Barthes, Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1966); Jean Baudrillard, Système des objets (Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1968); Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (New York: Harvest, 1975).
Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1991), 119.
See Robert Kaplan, The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), in particular pp. 68-79.
Michel Houellebecq, L'Extension du domaine de la lutte (Paris: Maurice Nadeau, J'ai Lu, 1994).
Michel Houellebecq, L'Extension du domaine, 98.
Michel Houellebecq, Interventions (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), 63.
Michel Houellebecq, Interventions, 41.
For a concise discussion of this “knowing-seizing-controlling” model of knowledge and power, see Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethique comme philosophie première (Paris: Editions Payot & Rivages, 1992 ), 67-83.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (New York: Vintage, 1995 ), 374.
I am using the notion of the “idol” here for obvious purposes, but also for a concrete image that I cannot shake off—the image of La Vénus d'Ile, of Prosper Mérimée.
One of the great scientific feuds in the past twenty years concerns the work of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was perhaps the first serious academic champion of the democratization of sex. She based her assertion on her field work in Western Samoa. Mead's field work was later challenged by Derek Freeman whose criticism of Mead created one of the most important debates within academia in the past thirty years. For a succinct account of this debate see Hal Hellman, Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 177-193.
On this relationship between the onset of AIDS and the end of the sexual revolution, see John Updike, “Make Love not War.”
Augustine. Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), trans. Henry Chadwick. “So the feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant's mind. I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother's milk. … [b]ut it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing richly and abundantly” Book I, 9.
See in particular Marquis de Sade, La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Paris: PML, 1994 ).
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: Norton, 1961 ).
See on the Sade/Rousseau “slide” Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 230-247.
I am obviously thinking here about Denis de Rougement's L'Amour en l'Occident (Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, 1939).
Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft, 17.
Michel Houellebecq, Interventions, 39.
See Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987 ), Ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.
I am thinking here in particular about Marie Darrieussecq, Truismes (Paris: P.O.L, 1996); and Iegor Gran, Ipso Facto (Paris: P.O.L., 1998).
SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Cartoon Hell.” New Statesman 129, no. 4502 (4 September 2000): 33.
[In the following review, Romney discusses the depiction of cynical disaffection in the novel Extension du domaine de la lutte and its film adaptation.]
The first time I saw Extension du domaine de la lutte (aka Whatever), a French film marketing officer tried to persuade me that it wasn't worth seeing. “He's such a horrible man,” she said, and visibly shuddered. I asked her who she meant. Was it the director Philippe Harel, who also plays the lead role, or the character himself (referred to in the voice-over as “Our Hero”)? Or did she mean Michel Houellebecq, the author of the novel on which the film is based, and whom Harel is manifestly impersonating—greasy, combed-over hair, gingerly held cigarette and all? She shrugged, as if to say that they were all pretty much of a muchness. Indeed, in Harel's film, they effectively are—at least, in the sense that Harel's, Houellebecq's and Our Hero's personae unsettlingly blur together in the story of a man with a world-class identity crisis.
Houellebecq, who collaborated with Harel on the screenplay, is a cult figure in France, especially among younger readers. Thanks, in particular, to his bestselling second novel, Les Particules élémentaires (published in Britain as Atomised), he has been...
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SOURCE: Cloonan, William. “Literary Scandal, Fin du Siècle, and the Novel in 1999.” French Review 74, no. 1 (October 2000): 14-30.
[In the following essay, Cloonan examines the public controversy surrounding Les Particules élémentaires, Houellebecq's literary celebrity and artistic merit, and how “L'Affaire Houellebecq” sheds light on the state of French letters, culture, and intellectual debate at the end of the twentieth century.]
In Paris this summer an editor at the Editions du Seuil complained that the rentrée of 1998 had been dominated, and to a degree spoiled by the attention given to one novel. She was referring, of course, to Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires, which was mentioned in last year's French Review essay. In the ensuing months a controversy emerged, provoked in large measure by Houellebecq's former collaborators at the review Perpendiculaire, that was rapidly christened l'Affaire Houellebecq. The very name given the scandal points to its central ambiguity: was the novel problematic, or was it rather the man who wrote it? Of course, probably nobody would take a literary scandal seriously if it did not have strong personal elements. The Perpendiculaire group obliged by offering a particularly faint form of praise when they somewhat begrudgingly allowed that Houellebecq “n'est pas nazi; il n'est même...
(The entire section is 7992 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Lee. “Otherwise Engaged.” Artforum 39, no. 2 (October 2000): 45.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses the opposing philosophical perspectives of Houellebecq and Jean-Paul Sartre and the negative reaction of leftist French intellectuals to The Elementary Particles, which was regarded as an assault on the ideals of individual freedom.]
One of the more telling recent developments in French cultural life has been the sudden nostalgia for Jean-Paul Sartre coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of his death this year. No one really misses Sartre's ideas about “Being” or the Communist International, but a reconsideration of the place he filled in French culture has signaled a genuine EU-era cultural identity crisis. He was the last in a long line of engaged and very public intellectuals, a tradition that included, in the twentieth century alone, Zola, Malraux, Camus; if France is no longer turning out Voltaire-quality men of letters, then what is France? Or, put another way, why has the most gifted French writer in several generations, forty-one-year-old Michel Houellebecq, just come out with a pop CD?
Houellebecq is the author of the 1998 novel Les Particules élémentaires, a controversial bestseller in France, Germany, and Holland—scheduled to be published this month by Knopf as The Elementary Particles—that highlighted a cultural fault...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “A Perfect Genetic Future.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 240 (2 November 2000): 21.
[In the following review, Rubin asserts that The Elementary Particles functions as a provocative “jeremiad” but finds flaws in its implausible premise and dialogue.]
A literary sensation in France, hailed as a great novel by critics in the rest of Europe, Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is an odd mixture of penetrating insight and old-fashioned ineptitude.
Although critics have compared its author to Balzac, Beckett, and Camus, it is no more a literary masterpiece than Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Like Huxley's social prophecy, this is a novel that tackles big, life-changing ideas. But unlike Huxley's masterfully conceived vision of a prosperous, blandly hedonistic world governed by genetic and social engineering, the vision of the future that Houellebecq presents is poorly conceived: so full of holes, you could drive several small planets through them.
The unknown narrator tells the story from the perspective of a transcendently different “new world order” that has come about in the 21st century: “What men considered a dream, perfect but remote, / We take for granted as the simplest of things,” declares an unidentified poet in the book's prologue. In this respect, Houellebecq's approach is rather like...
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SOURCE: Berman, Paul. “Depressive Lucidity.” New Republic 223, no. 21 (20 November 2000): 25-9.
[In the following review, Berman explores Houellebecq's dark, unsavory cynicism and social criticism in The Elementary Particles, noting similarities with Honoré de Balzac's reactionary perspective.]
The narrator of Michel Houellebecq's first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, or Extension of the Field of Struggle, visits a shrink, who diagnoses him with a grim-sounding condition called “depressive lucidity.” In Houellebecq's second novel, The Elementary Particles—the book that has aroused all kinds of controversies in France in the last couple of years, and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and is bound to arouse its share of American controversies, too—a main character likewise visits a shrink. The same diagnosis is proposed: “depressive lucidity.” There is a pattern here. Now that I have read three volumes of Houellebecq's poetry, too, plus a collection of essays and prose poems, and have listened to his CD and his rock band, I feel confident in diagnosing “depressive lucidity” as the dominant condition afflicting whole aspects of this man's very strange writings and commentaries.
Depression does not make for an attractive or even a natural theme for a novel. The narrator of Extension du domaine de la lutte is a...
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SOURCE: Shechner, Mark. “The Great Emetic Novel.” New Leader 83, no. 5 (November-December 2000): 50-1.
[In the following review, Shechner contends that The Elementary Particles effectively scorns and satirizes, rather than merely moralizes, the nauseating depravity it describes.]
Two years ago Michel Houellebecq, a seasoned provocateur, became the scourge of French literary circles with the publication of his second novel, The Elementary Particles. “In France,” Emily Eakin wrote this past September 10 in the New York Times Magazine, “Houellebecq is infamous for giving Michel, his biologist antihero, the same last name—Djerzinski—as a high-ranking Stalinist official and then defending the gesture by saying Stalin wasn't such a bad guy. After all, Houellebecq told a French magazine … Stalin ‘killed a lot of anarchists.’ His antipathy for democracy (‘Liberty is equivalent to suffering,’ he said on French television) has caused much hand-wringing among the intelligentsia.” What are the chances of a similar succès de scandale in the United States? French and American readers do not usually rise to the same bait, even when a literary Stalinist is chumming the waters.
The Elementary Particles is a tale of two brothers, Bruno and Michel, who occupy opposing ends of the erotic spectrum—the stalker and the celibate, respectively. It...
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SOURCE: Lilla, Mark. “Houellebecq's Elementary Particles.” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 2001): 53-60.
[In the following essay, Lilla discusses the French critical reaction to The Elementary Particles and how it relates to the era of the fin de siecle.]
Bruno and Michel—the main characters of The Elementary Particles—are half-brothers but did not meet until their teens. Their mother, Janine, abandoned them when they were infants, dropping them into the laps of aging grandparents. A beautiful French girl, she was too busy living her own life to be bothered with husband or children. In the late Fifties she could be seen on the Riviera running with the crowd made famous by the films of Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. In the early Sixties she was still in the avant-garde, having abandoned St. Tropez to follow a guru to California, where she changed her name to Jane. Between their abandonment and her death the sons hardly saw her.
When we meet them in their 40s Bruno and Michel are still suffering from this trauma. Bruno, the elder one, was packed off at an early age to a French boarding school where he suffered all the humiliations of Young Torless—beatings, torture, rape—at the hands of older students; this being the Sixties, order and discipline had completely evaporated. Bruno became a sexual obsessive, overwhelmed by feelings of...
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SOURCE: Gardels, Nathan. “Cloning: Central Planning of the 21st Century?” NPQ: New Perspectives Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 2001): 56.
[In the following review, Gardels examines Houellebecq's depiction of global capitalism and social anomie as a precursor to genetic engineering in The Elementary Particles.]
French novelist Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is a book of brutal truths about the cultural upheaval that spread across Europe and America from the 1960s through the 1970s. Unlike memoirs of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China that focus on the horrors of the time, this novel is about the personal and social consequences decades later of what we might call the Great Western Cultural Revolution.
Through the lenses of his characters Bruno and Michel, half-brothers whose mother left them to live unencumbered in California, Houellebecq ponders how liberation, sexual and otherwise, smashed not only authority and a sense of responsibility, but love itself. In the name of throwing off oppressive tradition, the protracted revolt of the 60s generation as it marched through society's institutions acted as a battering ram for the unrestrained freedom of market-mediated self-interest.
As Houellebecq sees it, by dismantling any meaningful commitment to community and others the liberatory movements of the later decades of the 20th century...
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SOURCE: Moore, Steven. “Getting Physical.” Washington Post Book World 31, no. 3 (21-27 January 2001): 7.
[In the following review, Moore judges The Elementary Particles to be a “fascinating and repugnant” novel.]
A little over a hundred years ago, Tolstoy shocked the reading public with his novella The Kreutzer Sonata, a brutally frank denunciation of the mating habits of the upper classes. Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, which at one point features a character reading The Kreutzer Sonata, sent similar shock waves through Europe after its publication two years ago. Though undoubtedly provocative and intriguing, it is unlikely to have the same effect here. In Europe public literary controversies still exist, whereas here a novel will make the news only if there are some political ramifications (as with Rushdie's Satanic Verses) or a tantalizing question of authorship (as with Primary Colors). The Elementary Particles has the added disadvantage of being so extreme in its views that it will be repugnant to most readers.
The novel is an account of two half-brothers coming of age in the '70s and finding a world that has lost its sense of community, morality and purpose. Instead of regarding the '60s as a time of liberation, of the rejection of hypocrisy, repression and conformity, Houellebecq—like many reactionaries here...
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SOURCE: Feehily, Gerry. “A World on the Brink of Collapse.” New Statesman 130, no. 4542 (18 June 2001): 56-8.
[In the following essay, Feehily discusses Houellebecq's literary celebrity, personal life, and controversy surrounding Atomised.]
In the tunnels of the Parisian metro, the poster seems innocuous at first: “Stop talking about it. Read it.” However, the talking point in question, a well-known novel entitled Les Particules élémentaires, is already three years old, and has been read by almost a million people. This is a remarkable figure for a literary novel that is not without difficulty; but its French publishers are clearly expecting an even greater yield, and have chosen a front cover depicting its author, Michel Houellebecq, in relaxed mode, a plastic shopping bag about his wrist. It is difficult to imagine anything quite like this happening to a British author. But Houellebecq's book—translated into English as Atomised—is a cultural artefact all of a piece with its chain-smoking, dishevelled author, who somewhat mockingly surmises the swell of evening commuters.
Atomised is a tortured, often demented book, concerned with the fate of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel—victims, or case histories, of the sexual revolution. Abandoned by their mother, Janine, as the Sixties start to swing, the boys are raised separately, unaware of each...
(The entire section is 1500 words.)
SOURCE: Feehily, Gerry. “Sex Tourism.” New Statesman 130, no. 4554 (10 September 2001): 54.
[In the following review, Feehily argues that Plateforme is a disturbing, if somewhat flawed, novel whose satire and absurdity is lost on Houellebecq's detractors.]
Michel Houellebecq is back, and his new novel, Plateforme, has already come under vehement attack. Since the publication of Atomised in 1998, Houellebecq has been not only the most prominent of French authors, but also the most controversial, not least for his unconventional opinions on the sexual revolution. Often overlooked, however, is how he grants his fictional characters the freedom to contradict his own pet theories, finding fulfilment as they do in the type of sexual liberalism he seems to denounce. Full of such novelistic contradictions, Plateforme (not available in English until September next year) is a baffling study of sex tourism and a moral examination of the consequences of globalisation.
A 40-year-old administrator at the Ministry of Culture, Michel, our narrator, is a loser in the sex wars, “more or less resigned to a boring life”. He spends sozzled evenings at peep-shows, or alone at home mesmerised by cable TV, but his luck begins to turn after the death of his philandering father, whom he buries with the words “you old bastard”. With a sizeable inheritance, he leaves for...
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Sexual Tourism a Go-Go.” Spectator 287, no. 9034 (29 September 2001): 40-1.
[In the following review, Brookner finds shortcomings in the ambivalence and underlying complicity of Houellebecq's indictment of global tourism and capitalism in Plateforme.]
Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Les Particules élémentaires (translated as Atomised) raised such delighted shock waves in 1998, is no stranger to controversy. Plateforme has already provoked protests in mainstream French newspapers, not for its obscenity but for certain slighting remarks directed against Islam. Thus Houellebecq ploughs a lonely furrow of political incorrectness which will enrage the incorruptibles and delight his publishers, who have rewarded him with an initial print run of 200,000 copies. Whether they will reap the rewards of their largesse is open to question, since Plateforme is an altogether more ambivalent book which may raise expectations that are not entirely fulfilled.
In Les Particules élémentaires it was Houellebecq's contention, perfectly valid in itself, that we live in an age of sexual tourism, and that fidelity is a norm left over from prelapsarian times before Philip Larkin's watershed of 1963. Houellebecq, a fairly glum, and by all accounts, indeed his own, an unalluring man, seemed to be at one with his protagonist in undertaking an...
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SOURCE: Tahourdin, Adrian. Review of Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5141 (12 October 2001): 11.
[In the following review, Tahourdin commends Houellebecq's bleak prose and penchant for provoking critics but concludes that Plateforme does not match the success of Les Particules élémentaires.]
L'affaire Houellebecq strikes again. Michel Houellebecq is in danger of making a name for himself in the history of publicity. The appearance of his third novel, Plateforme, at the end of August was surrounded by as much controversy as its predecessor, Les Particules élémentaires, had been. The earlier book was notable for the force with which its author challenged the liberal orthodoxies of the generation of soixante-huitards who now make up the Parisian literary and cultural establishment. Houellebecq was denounced as, among other things, a fascist, a crypto-Stalinist and an eugenicist, yet his novel struck a chord with the reading public, and rapidly became a bestseller. His new book, unsurprisingly, sold over 250,000 in its first three weeks.
Houellebecq's publishers Flammarion must have been prepared for difficulties this time; within days of publication, they apologized to the Rector of the Paris Mosque for some offensive remarks in the novel about Islam (the author was unrepentant, and used his now customary ploy...
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SOURCE: Winter, Joshua. “France: Into the Void.” New Statesman 131, no. 4586 (6 May 2002): 25-7.
[In the following excerpt, Winter examines Houellebecq's notoriety, political perspective, and contemptuous depiction of liberal amorality in Atomised and Plateforme.]
The great chronicler of the moral and cultural emptiness of modern France is Michel Houellebecq, perhaps the most talented and contrary writer in Europe today. Many contemporary French writers play with the idea of nihilism; Houellebecq means it, both in his life and work. In person, Houellebecq, who is in his mid-forties, is a dissolute presence, sickened by a life dedicated to cigarettes, alcohol and trips to bizarre, anarchic sex camps in the Paris suburbs, which he satirises ruthlessly in his marvellous novel Les Particules élémentaires (published in Britain two years ago as Atomised).
Gerry Feehily, an Irish literary critic based in Paris, met Houellebecq at a party last year. “He was surrounded by all these glamorous publishing women and journalists, but he looked utterly wasted and dishevelled,” he told me. “When I spoke to him, he seemed to be shaking; there was this distant, faraway look in his eyes as if he wasn't quite there. But at the same time you could see that he was utterly contemptuous of everything and everyone around him. Sometimes you have the feeling that he really hates...
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SOURCE: Daniell, Steven. Review of Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq. World Literature Today 76, nos. 3-4 (summer-autumn 2002): 110.
[In the following review, Daniell offers a positive assessment of Plateforme, which he finds “entertaining and insightful” despite its offensiveness.]
Michel Houellebecq's third novel, Plateforme, looks at a society that is becoming devoid of meaning. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that this emptiness threatens not only materialistic Westerners but also the anticapitalist forces desperately trying to forestall globalization, especially in the name of religious or political ideology.
The novel centers around Michel, a forty-year-old exhibits agent for the French Ministry of Culture. In the opening chapter, he must deal with his father's murder by the brother of Aïcha, the father's young Muslim girlfriend. The facts surrounding the murder seem a curiosity at the time; however, the two primary motifs for the text sex and violence, emerge from the crime.
Though Michel was not close to his father, he still needs the break afforded by a tour package to Thailand. During the tour, he meets Valérie, a travel agent with whom he eventually forms intimate social and business relations.
The couple, along with a colleague in the travel industry, develops the idea of replacing some of the company's...
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SOURCE: Houellebecq, Michel, and Gerry Feehily. “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” New Statesman 131, no. 4599 (5 August 2002): 36-7.
[In the following interview, Houellebecq discusses his literary celebrity, his controversial statements about Islam, and the inspirations behind Plateforme.]
I first met Michel Houellebecq at a party held in Paris, in early September last year, to celebrate the French launch of his third novel, Plateforme. A wan, stooped figure wearing a large yellow anorak, baggy jeans and a pair of fluorescent Nike trainers, he wandered in the midst of the black-clad literati of Paris like a stranger to his own fame. Cigarette in hand, he retired to a corner of the room, attended to by a duo of skimpily dressed press agents, with helmet-like haircuts, who collected his empty glasses as he drained them of champagne and who hung on his every word. “I'm not in the right place,” he confessed to me, in his soft, faintly lisping voice. “I really should be working. In fact, I'm going right now.”
And so he fled the room.
But he was already in trouble. An interview with Lire, the literary monthly, had recently appeared, in which, among other things, he described a negative revelation he had experienced on Mount Sinai. “There, where Moses received the Ten Commandments … I said to myself that the act of believing in a single God was the...
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SOURCE: Hussey, Andrew. “The Pornographer's Manifesto.” New Statesman 131, no. 4601 (19 August 2002): 34-5.
[In the following review, Hussey explores the controversy over the pornographic and anti-Islamic elements of Platform, contending that Houellebecq's apparent viciousness and intolerance stems from a perverse compassion.]
Along with Catherine Millet and Michel Houellebecq, one of the bestselling authors in France this past year has been Ovidie, a 21-year-old porn actress. Pierced and dressed in black leather, Ovidie manages to look winsome, cute and sexy all at once (“She makes Catherine Millet look like a bad-tempered primary school teacher,” commented one rather overexcited observer). She is a veteran of more than 40 porn films, and describes herself as a feminist, an artist and a philosopher, “un intello du porno” (“an intellectual of porn”). In her book, Porno Manifesto, Ovidie proudly recalls how she discovered pornography in early adolescence and says that it came to her as a revelation at the same tender age that mere physical events could be the source of so much delight and anguish. Pornography, she believes, is about nothing more than the promise of human happiness. The physical and economic exploitation that are undeniably involved in the sex industry, she says, are wrong only because they are a betrayal of this original, quite innocent trust....
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SOURCE: Dillon, Brian. Review of Platform, by Michel Houellebecq. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5194 (18 October 2002): 24.
[In the following review, Dillon finds Platform to be a tedious, schematic work that is further marred by its English translator.]
Despite his latest narrator's protest that “I had never known boredom”, boredom is the most fascinating thing about Michel Houellebecq's three novels. With Platform he has written a book even more mired in tedium—in a blank, implacable, cosseting dullness: not at all the ache of metaphysical ennui—than his earlier works, Extension du domaine de la lutte and Les Particules élémentaires (translated, suitably dully, as Whatever and Atomised). The author no longer seems willing to allow his readers to orient themselves to all this boredom of their own accord; apparently afraid that they will simply switch off, Houellebecq has written a novel at once intriguingly dull and tediously excited about its own significance.
Platform (which was published in France in 2001 and reviewed in the TLS of October 12 that year) is mostly narrated by Michel, a minor functionary in the French Ministry of Culture. While “not actively hostile” to art, he concedes that it “cannot change lives. At least not mine.” The life in question is grimly circumscribed: “In most...
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SOURCE: Besser, Gretchen Rous. Review of Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq. French Review 76, no. 3 (February 2003): 640-41.
[In the following review, Besser praises Houellebecq's provocative depiction of cynicism and amorality in Plateforme.]
Our favorite iconoclast—the one we love to hate—is back with another pageturner that we can neither admit to savoring nor put down. Not as apocalyptic as his previous Particules élémentaires (FR 73.4, 763-64), Houellebecq's “novel” [Plateforme] is nonetheless provocative to an expected degree. The premise that Western civilization is corrupt, egocentric, and doomed is complemented by an apologetic for instituting sex-for-barter with developing countries. The author's cynical world view comes across most potently in the attitude and actions of his porte-parole narrator Michel, whose outlook is summed up in a simple philosophy: “S'il n'y avait pas, de temps à autre, un peu de sexe, en quoi consisterait la vie?” (220-21). Michel voices (the author's?) jaded and subversive aphorisms: “La volonté de puissance existe, et se manifeste sous forme d'histoire; elle est en elle-même radicalement improductive” (87); “C'est dans le rapport à autrui qu'on prend conscience de soi; c'est bien ce qui rend le rapport à autrui insupportable” (94); “On peut caractériser la vie comme un processus d'immobilisation,...
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SOURCE: Liddle, Rod. “Jamais la Politesse.” Spectator 292, no. 9125 (28 June 2003): 41-2.
[In the following review, Liddle praises the “transparent beauty” of Houellebecq's prose in Lanzarote but criticizes the novella's impact as “slight.”]
‘Slight’, I think, is the adjective I'm looking for here. I started reading Lanzarote as the train pulled out of Waterloo and finished it before Woking. At £9.99 that makes it about as good value, mile for mile, as South West Trains. But, oh, believe me, much more fun.
Houellebecq is celebrated or reviled, depending upon your point of view, as one of those French controversialists who are thrown up every decade or so to discomfort and annoy us. He has been charged, in his homeland, with inciting racial hatred, having allegedly described Islam as a ‘stupid’ religion—an appraisal he amends in Lanzarote to merely ‘absurd’. These days he's a virtual recluse, holed up on an island off the coast of Ireland, every bit as puzzled, tormented, unrepentant and probably drunk as the best French novelists are supposed to be. This latest work is terrible value for money and little more than a blueprint for last year's brilliant Platform; but all that notwithstanding, you would not wish to miss it.
Because what gets forgotten, when people rail against Houellebecq for being a racist,...
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Harris, Michael. “A Look at Causes of Human Unhappiness.” Los Angeles Times (31 October 2000): E3.
Harris applauds the honesty, humor, and tenderness of The Elementary Particles, though notes that the novel is often one-dimensional and unsubtle.
Karwowski, Michael. “Michel Houellebecq: French Novelist for Our Times.” Contemporary Review 282, no. 1650 (July 2003): 40-7.
Karwowski examines the accusations of racism brought against Houellebecq and compliments his consistent tone of impartiality in Platform.
Marr, Andrew. “We're All Doomed (Middle-aged French Philosophers Excepted).” Observer (21 May 2000): 12.
Marr admires Houellebecq's ability to make his objectionable subject matter appealing in Atomised, noting that the work is “a novel of ideas which comes close to working.”
Masson, Sophie. “The Strange Case of Michel Houellebecq.” Quadrant 47, no. 6 (June 2003): 52-6.
Masson explores Houellebecq's controversial career, focusing on the reaction to his negative remarks concerning Islam in Platform.
Nehring, Cristina. “Love in the Time of Hedonism: Michel Houellebecq's New Novel.” Harper's 307, no. 1839 (August 2003): 75-81.
Nehring praises the scope of...
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