Laughing laureate of Western decline

Please take Michel Houellebecq’s mocking critiques of our debased modern world seriously

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This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It is too easy to think of authors in terms of stereotypes. Michel Houellebecq, for example, is a sex-mad poet of cultural decline. Well, yes, he is. There is often truth in stereotypes. But what else is he, and why does it matter? The French novelist is eminently caricaturable. His books explore similar themes of boning and bemoaning, and his goblin-like appearance and prolific chain-smoking enhance his image as a sort of clever, twisted uncle of European letters.

Serotonin, published in 2019, was a slightly formulaic novel which encouraged the domestication of the great man. That year, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. It is strange to think that two decades before he was being dismissed by critics as a purveyor of the “salacious and the psychotic” and was set to go on trial on charges of racial hatred.

In a posthumous tribute to JG Ballard, the English cultural critic Mark Fisher wrote, “far better for Ballard still to be condemned as evil than that he is smugly assimilated into Britlit”. Far better, similarly, for Houellebecq still to face serious criticism on the grounds of perversion and nihilism than for him to be accepted as a mere provocateur.

Houellebecq’s characters are miserably adrift on waves of marketisation and desacralisation

Houellebecq is worth taking seriously because of his prescience. He has stayed in the news because he has so often been ahead of it. Whatever, published in 1994, investigated the phenomenon we now know as “incels”, or involuntary celibates. Platform, published in 2001, dealt with Jihadism and the conflict between the East and West. Submission, much of which explored Islam in Europe, was published on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Houellebecq’s literary interest in transhumanism, meanwhile, which he considered in Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, is still ahead of the news.

What he says about these subjects, though, and how he says it, is far more important than the mere fact that he writes about them. Houellebecq’s characters are miserably adrift on waves of marketisation and desacralisation. The sexual revolution, contemptibly embodied by an awful hippie mother in Atomised — who was based on Houellebecq’s own — has reduced romance and sex to products, breeding inequality and instability. 

The spiritual deflation of the West has exposed it to the energetic and empowered forces of Islam. Transhumanism, waiting in the wings, promises dehumanisation, leaving Daniel, in The Possibility of an Island, feeling “nothing other than a slightly obscure and nutritive sensation”. Well, this is the stuff of robust right-wing polemic. What sets Houellebecq apart is his simultaneous delight in and aversion to his subjects, allied with his flair for irony and his attentiveness to morbid detail.

His first book was a study of the American horror writer HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft, famously, was a bone-deep racialist — but one who seemed to really relish his own racialism. In The Horror at Red Hook, multi-ethnic New York makes Lovecraft explore his own revulsion like a child picking a scab:

Here cosmic sin had entered, and festered by unhallowed rites had commenced the grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding.

Similarly, Houellebecq’s analysis of cultural decline is not mournful and parochial, but obsessive and engaged. While Lovecraft authentically hated multi-ethnic society, Houellebecq appears to enjoy failure, foolishness and perversion because he finds it entertaining. Anita Brookner once described Houellebecq as “entirely humourless” but I disagree. As his characters trip between catastrophes, one hears his laughter crackling on the page. The tell here is that Brookner cannot hear her own world being comically treated. Houellbecq sees her but she does not see him, because she can’t really see herself.

“I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit,” J.G. Ballard said of his novel Crash. At times, it seems like Houellebecq wants to rub the human face in his. Wade through the vile, ebulliently-written scene in Serotonin where the main character unearths footage of his Japanese girlfriend having sex with dogs — “I couldn’t conceal the fact that for a Japanese girl sleeping with a Westerner wasn’t far off copulating with an animal” — and your interest might drown when he catches an active paedophile, does nothing and appears to forget the whole affair. 

Never has the male sexual urge been so acutely, remorselessly satirised

At times like this, even a dedicated fan might ask themselves why they are inside reading a miserable book on a summer day. Yet Houellebecqian wit is always dancing in the background. Take, for example, a scene in Atomised in which the loveless Bruno is fellated by a random woman at a sex party. They have never spoken, and cannot see one another. “He howled as he came; he had never felt such fulfilment in his life.” Never has the male sexual urge been so acutely, remorselessly satirised.

Houellebecq’s subversiveness is an unsettling force. Submission, in which Islamists end up ruling France, could have been little more than a lightly novelised explication of right-wing “Eurabia” fears. What sets the book apart is how Houellebecq — who once called Islam “the most stupid religion” — seems quite equanimous about this state of affairs. Most people would muddle through. At least a man could have two wives. I don’t think he means it. I think it is a challenge to the reader. 

It’s certainly an engagement with the present which seems entirely beyond most other contemporary novelists. For there is neither leaden, unwitting defence of the status quo (habitually made by kabuki ‘attacks’ on it). Nor is there is clunking right wing assault on modernity. What there is, is an undeceived eye. One that notices, and in response to what it sees, opts for comedy. 

What exactly has Houllebecq seen? Or to put that another way, quite how deep does his pessimism go? His men are chronically depressed, and generally motivated only by the prospect of cheap sex. His women tend to be licentious or delusional, though some them are kinder and more grounded than the men. His books include love, of a kind, but it is almost always torn apart by more or less random tragedy — paralysis and suicide in Atomised and terrorist attacks in Platform.

There is a sense in which we should hate his work for what it reflects about us

Houellebecq told Paris Review that he is a “romantic” who believes in “unlimited happiness, which is eternal and possible.” He recently published an essay in which he denounced euthanasia as essentially uncivilised. Is this just a Schopenhauerian will-to-live? Douglas Morrey, in his interesting study of Houellebecq, quotes the austere German philosopher as saying, “Though there is no state of the world we will to achieve, we wish there was such a state of affairs.” Perhaps, though Houellebecq remarrying in his sixties — and even getting dressed up for it — suggests that he is sincere about being a romantic.

But what Houellebecq’s work says about him is less interesting than what it says about us. I return to how grimly fascinating it is that Houellebecq has been so assimilated into high culture. He tells us that the West is enervated and debased, riven with conflict and directed towards man’s redundancy, and we say very interesting and compelling points.

There is at least a sense in which we should hate Houellebecq’s work, for what it reflects about us and our societies. John Updike complained, in a review of The Possibility of an Island, about the tendency for pessimists like Houellebecq to be valued for their brutal honesty. “How honest, really,” he asked:

… is a world picture that excludes the pleasures of parenting, the comforts of communal belonging, the exercise of daily curiosity, and the widely met moral responsibility to make the best of each stage of life, including the last? The island possible to this airless, oppressive imagination has too few resources.

It is interesting that Updike is best known for poeticising sexual liberation while Houellebecq is best known for critiquing and deriding it. Nonetheless, one must admit that the author of Couples and the Rabbit books had a point: Houellebecq’s perceptive gifts dwell on what is morbid and perverse rather than what is beautiful and enlivening. 

But Houellebecq offers us an image of a world in which relationships are fracturing, childlessness is omnipresent, people are divided, boredom has smothered curiosity and stages of life have blurred messily into one another. If this sounds nothing like the world we live in now you are a cheerier soul than me. But one should not wallow in cultural pessimism. One should use it as fuel to seek what is of worth — or else lie back and try to feel nothing but a slightly obscure, nutritive sensation.

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