Waugh, not awe for Houellebecq

James Warner’s review essay of Houellebecq prompts the author to try to simplify Houellebecq - more an old-fashioned satirist and moralist than a tired witness to the end of humanity
Jerome di Costanzo
15 February 2012

The critics have definitely missed something in Michel Houellebecq.

Firstly, it is funny how mesmerised they are by the person of the author of Atomised. He is a phenomenon: they ask constant questions about his sexuality, his politics or his views about Islam. It seems that critics are more interested by the artistic character, the cultural entertainer, of the writer rather than his book.

Secondly, Houellebecq is problematic for the critic who wants to put an ideological brand on the author: the book is good, or bad, if it confirms the ideology of its readers; this book is good because it confirms Marx; or even if the author is a member of the same golf club – it’s certainly a very inspired novel! This was my problem with James Warner’s review, which I felt was slightly too focused on the humanist question in Houellebecq’s books.

And then thirdly, Anglo-Saxons in general panic a bit too much in front of French literature, “the” literature for Anthony Burgess – a monument! This encourages you to make an elaborate interpretation, a total extrapolation, and a global Extention du Domaine de la Lutte, a 'broadening of the field of struggle’. Whatever!

La Carte et le Territoire, “The Map and the Territory” is an exploration - and a sharp critique -  of the art world. It is a fictional historical biography of the artist Jed Martin, who becomes rich and famous for his photography of Michelin maps. He looks a bit like Iggy Pop. His biographer, the narrator, is not very talented, quite repetitive and adept at copying and pasting from Wikipedia. Martin isn’t an idiot, but he can’t love. Love for Houellebecq isn’t just a sweet feeling, the word must be understood in the large and historic sense of caritas, like Dante’s love: “Even as a wheel that equally is moved, The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” Martin is not connected and isn’t bothered to be part of anything. Houellebecq’s characters seem to be alone, miserable, sentimentally, and sometimes sexually, inconsequential. Whether God exists or not, they are not bothered. They are small and mortal. Death isn’t the end of the life, but it is part of it. In The Map and the Territory, it appears in the suicide of Jed’s Mother, the sickness of the father and the murder of the character Houellebecq and his dog.

Is this a White Mischief or a Diablerie?

His concept of death is definitely baroque, where morbidity is used to depict the vanity of human life, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. Is Captain Charles Ryder a Houellebecquian character? Jed and Charles are both painters. Can I say that Houellebecq is a satirist like Waugh? All the glories and idols of our time will pass in front of the vitriolic look of Houellebecq: Jeff Koons is a “Mormon pornographer”; Jed’s father the architect “a bird cage builder”; Picasso and Le Corbusier through lack of talent sold their artistic souls to Communism to gain recognition; the country is just a fashionable plaything for Russian and Chinese tourists; his self-portrait, the depiction of Beigbeder, the presenter Julien Lepers and the newsreader Jean-Pierre Pernaut are part of Houellebecq’s own Vanity Fair; and vanity of vanities, his Russian girlfriend Olga’s bottom now sags under the weight of years: all is vanity! His angle of analysis of our society is the satire, a ‘danse macabre’: a Dance of Death comparable to Waugh’s morbid The Loved One. In this context graves and cemeteries become signs of humanity and a return to humility. This explains the rage of Jed when he learns that the ashes of his father, who chose assisted suicide, had been thrown into a lake. No grave, no humanity!

The Map and the Territory is also comparable to Death on Credit by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, in its mixing of sexuality and nausea; nausea being the disposition which punctuates the artistic life of Jed Martin. Céline, whose secretary and collaborator Marie Canavaggia was the French translator of Waugh, influences Houellebecq. This is the key to appreciating the distance between the author and his book correctly. Houellebecq is not a preacher or a pamphleteer; he’s free and he frees his reader too: his book shows how everything, eventually, will become possible.

Houellebecq describes himself as a conservative, but that doesn’t mean that he is a Tory, and his conservatism should be widely defined. In Le Figaro’s article “Conservatisme comme source de progres”, written with a humour reminiscent for an Anglo-Saxon public of G.K Chesterton, the author concludes with an interesting point: ‘Contrary to the reactionary, the conservative needs neither heroes or martyrs; if he doesn’t save anyone, neither does he make a victim. As a result, he is not particularly heroic; but he will be, and this is one of his charms, an individual of little danger’.


It is a mischievous comment, as Houellebecq defines himself as a conservative and not a guilty reactionary. He clearly supports a sort of conservatism of humanity. Here he breaks down the indignation and vitriol of his critics. Houellebecq is a reader of Tocqueville. Improperly classified as a liberal thinker, the author of the Democracy in America was in fact a post-revolutionary and not a counter-revolutionary. He questioned freedom of liberal society, which pushes the individual to choose between conformism or alienation. The Map and the Territory must be read from a Tocquevillian point of view.

The Houellebecq conversion in The Map and the Territory is merely anecdotal. Houellebecq is an agnostic, rather than a “right wing catholic” like Bernanos or an “anarchist catholic” like Graham Greene. The narrator describes the portrait of Houellebecq by Jed as though it were an act of voodoo. In fact the author identified himself as a spiritualist who tries to talk with dead bodies, with the intercession, sometimes, of Vile Bodies.

There is no distinct religious feeling in Houellebecq’s books because there is no love, no connection and no link between human and non-human things. Chesterton, in an article named “The suicide of Thought”, said: “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” In Houellebecq the Elementary Particles are atomised and individuals “wandering alone” are disconnected from each other. In this context the Christian origin isn’t important. In fact the Particles are not particularly bothered by their origin, they are just silence or a white page.

It is here, in this paradigm of freedom, that the dynamic of Houellebecq’s style renders his universe “possible”. As in Greek tragedy, the characters are free at each moment. They are free to make good or bad choices in the map and the territory of the Gods. Satire and Tragedy are connected. Aristotle in his Poetic affirms that at the beginning tragedy, during the celebration of the cult of Dionysus, a dying God, was fun and light and was preceded by Satire. For the Greek philosopher this ceremony was the origin of poetry. There are satirical, tragic and poetic elements in the books of Houellebecq. He is a classicist.

There is no “Long Haul solitary death” or “panegyric preached over an empty coffin” (Preface of the re-issued “Brideshead Revisited” of 1959). The author isn’t tempted by this conservative lament. Houellebecq comes back to original Tragedy, a sacred rite, with Baroque Vanities.

 His quest is poetic. Rediscovering the links we make in our world renders possible the rediscovery of love; and maybe this Island, this paradise, isn’t completely lost. Like the moralist tales of Henry Fielding, at the end of The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq describes the triumph of the realm of plants, in all their variety. It is the act of celebration after Jed’s death: Houellebecq is first an old-fashioned moralist.



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