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The long haul of solitary death: Michel Houellebecq and the decline of western sexuality

A prophet-provacateur faithful to French traditions of lucidity, sensuality, and alienation, Houellebecq believes we are all doomed. The Map and the Territory continues his great project of exposing the limits of individualism.

Michel Houellebecq condemns the soullessness of our consumer society, yet paradoxically he reserves his worst contempt for those endeavors one might naturally suggest as an antidote or palliative. The possibility of having children is generally treated with derision in his work, and it's the same with any kind of humanitarian project. Houellebecq is especially scathing about “human rights” – in any of his novels, a character using this term is immediately identified as an idiot.

His novel Atomised (called The Elementary Particles in the U.S. translation) disparages the “sexual revolution” --

“As the lovely word 'household' suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.”

(In French the word in quotes is “ménage,” a more beautiful word than “household,” with connotations of order and human scale.)

In Atomised, the grandmother of Michel and Bruno is selflessly devoted to her family, while their mother, an apostle of the sexual revolution, is horrendously self-centered. Michel and Bruno themselves both prove incapable of committing to the most important women in their lives, and Michel goes on to pave the way for a future where sexual reproduction is abandoned in favor of cloning. Houellebecq denies that a society can be run according to secular humanist ideals – a passage in Atomised sweepingly blames the notions of “personal freedom,” “human dignity,” and “progress” for the alleged fact that “human history from the fifteenth to the twentieth century was characterized by progressive decline and disintegration.”

Yet he is not a reactionary, he tells Bernard-Henri Lévy in the letter collection Public Enemies, because he believes in the “absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay once they have begun.” All that is left for his characters is the search for sexual gratification, in a society whose decline and fall is irrevocably determined – or, for those more theoretically inclined, the hastening of a post-reproductive future.

Houellebecq apparently regrets not having experienced a more traditional upbringing himself, and the narrator of his novel Platform laments his own lack of a civic sense --

“I suddenly realized to my embarrassment that I considered the society I lived in more or less as a natural environment – like a savannah, or a jungle – whose laws I had to adapt to. The notion that I was in any way in solidarity with this environment had never occurred to me. It was like an atrophy in me, an emptiness. It was far from certain that society could continue to survive for long with individuals like me.”

Although he expresses contempt for radical Islamists, the narrator of Platform occasionally sounds like one --

“For the west, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what's more, we continue to export it.”

Houellebecq's latest novel, The Map and the Territory, opens with a description of an oil painting depicting Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, a work by the fictional character Jed Martin. Imagining Hirst and Koons painted in oils invests them with a Lovecraftian and monstrous aura, obsessive figures fighting intricate battles for domination. Is a novel about contemporary man as incongruous as an oil painting of Koons? What earlier era could have produced a novel in which the hero drifts apart from the heroine largely because of apathy – as Jed loses touch with the novel's main female character, Michelin PR representative Olga Sheremoyova?

The Map and the Territory shows a France in demographic decline, more dependent on tourism than industry, where most of a priest's job is to conduct funerals. Houellebecq's nostalgia for lost glory comes across in his evident shock that as culturally authoritative a French institution as Michelin is now largely owned by foreign institutional investors. A fascination with Michelin maps crops up throughout Houellebecq's work, and is shared by Jed, whose lifework Houellebecq envisages as “a homage to human labor.”

When Michelin posts Olga back to Russia, Jed stops exhibiting and selling photographs of maps and starts making oil paintings of contemporary professional figures. Unable to finish the painting of Jeff Koons – “it was as difficult as painting a Mormon pornographer” – Jed decides instead to work on Michel Houellebecq – “a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies: it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog.” And Houellebecq is certainly easier to visualize as an oil painting than is Koons, the resulting painting inspiring one of the book's most Lovecraftian sentences – “The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics' view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.”

In Houellebecq's version of history, “free-market economics redrew the geography of the world in terms of the expectations of the clientele.” He captures a village in the Loiret with this juxtaposition – “The multipurpose cultural center offered a permanent exhibition on local crafts. For a long time there had probably been only second homes here.” The place strikes a visiting detective as “a fake village recreated from a television series,” with a church that has been “pitilessly restored.” The provinces become what the metropolis wants them to be, as France itself is repackaged for overseas visitors – Houellebecq's prediction in Public Enemies, that the economic future of France is as “a sort of tourist brothel,” starts to become realized within the timeline of The Map and The Territory (some of which takes place in the 2020s, in a future where the French birth rate has begun to decline again). In another scene, at a party thrown by French television personality Jean-Pierre Pernault – a man nationally famous for his advocacy of regionalism -- musicians of Breton and Corsican, Savoyard and Basque origin perform, sometimes simultaneously, in a cacophony of localisms that is absurdly Parisian.

Other French public intellectuals appear as characters, including the novelist Frédéric Beigbeder, who gains sympathy points for being the only character who tries to get Jed and Olga to reunite, in vain – Olga's primary purpose in the novel seems to be to demonstrate the impossibility of love in our time. In general Houellebecq shows a willingness, romantic in its own way, to extrapolate from any single failed affair the “decline of Western sexuality” – the phrase comes from Platform. Romantic love is like many other traditions for Houellebecq, in that he thinks it's important yet cannot make himself believe in it. He told the Paris Review that love may no longer exist because of “the materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.” Seemingly he would endorse the statement of another provacateur, the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that “liberalism is that cluster of theories about society that are based on the presumption that we must finally each die alone.”

Houellebecq fears the work ethic is likewise doomed. Jed's father, an architect, defends the vision of Charles Fourier – “Fourier had lived under the Ancien Régime, and he was conscious that, well before the appearance of capitalism, scientific research and technical progress had taken place, and that people worked hard, sometimes very hard, without being pushed by the lure of profit but by something, in the eyes of modern man, much vaguer; the love of God, in the case of monks, or more simply the honour of the function.”

(“L'honneur de la fonction” is another phrase that sounds better in French.)

A phrase halfway through the book summarizes Jed's life – “he had produced a body of work, as they say, without ever encountering, or even contemplating, happiness.” Yet Jed's solitary old age is encapsulated in the gently apocalyptic vision of him shopping at the local Carrefour on Tuesday mornings when it is least crowded – “He sometimes had the supermarket all to himself – which seemed to him to be quite a good approximation of happiness.” His last works are montages of electronic components superimposed on vegetation, suggestive of the world our species will leave behind. According to Jed, “everyone in Western Europe seemed persuaded that capitalism was doomed, and even doomed in the short term, that it was living through its very last years, without, however, the ultra-left parties managing to attract anyone beyond their usual clientele of spiteful masochists. A veil of ashes seemed to have spread over people's minds.” Sackcloth suits Houellebecq well -- “I feel only a faint sense of solidarity with the human species,” the character Houellebecq tells Jed, the author portraying himself over-playing himself with admirable theatricality.

Adept at balancing the lyrical with the clinical, and the confessional with the socio-analytical, Houellebecq wrestles with many ideas in this novel without letting them overwhelm it. Occasional flashes of prose lifted from Wikipedia foreshadow the eventual victory of the hive mind and “death of the author.” In The Map and The Territory this death is enacted literally, since the character Houellebecq is viciously murdered – an exercise the author Houellebecq must surely have found therapeutic.

Houellebecq's rejection of all political developments since the fifteenth century and palpable sense of living in a fallen world, together with such claims as that “all the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors,” might seem to presage a conversion to a right-wing form of Catholicism. The character Houellebecq, before being murdered, does in fact mysteriously get himself baptized. Certainly Houellebecq seems temperamentally ripe for some kind of conversion, were his will to believe only stronger.

His anti-heroes, although affable and not unkind, seem incapable of love or even friendship – generally the most intense thing they can feel is sexual infatuation. These are men who blame societal decadence for their own lack of any self-sacrificial motivation or capacity for true love – perhaps what makes them sympathetic is that it's a lack they genuinely regret, if with a certain detachment.

Houellebecq's big moral insight is that self-obsession individuates us less than self-sacrifice does, that ties to a community restrict us less than the absence of such ties, that consumer freedom may turn us into clones. He is capable of sensing something admirable about community-spiritedness, without to date having been able to work up any actual enthusiasm for it – but perhaps there remains the possibility that, after his symbolic murder in The Map and The Territory, he will be reborn from the ashes with the seeds of a more committed vision.

About the author

James Warner is the author of All Her Father's Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here

His openDemocracy column is Standing Perpendicular

 


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