Houellebecq’s protest against nihilism and cynicism

A salutary though uncomfortable writer

A salutary though uncomfortable writer

Michel Houellebecq, writes Dalrymple, draws our attention to our own weaknesses. His theme is

the emptiness of modern life in consumer society, an emptiness which he describes with an unparalleled acuteness. He puts his finger precisely on the sore points of our existence, or at least on those points that seem merely anæsthetised until someone like him presses on them.

In Houellebecq’s world, Dalrymple explains, people

  • buy without need
  • want without real desire
  • distract themselves without enjoyment

Their shallow personal relations reflect this.

No one is prepared to sacrifice his or her freedom, which is conceived of as the ability to seek the next distraction without let or hindrance from obligation to others. They are committed to nothing, and in such a world even art or cultural activity is distraction on a marginally higher plane – though it is a natural law in this kind of society that the planes grow ever more compressed.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 21.49.28For Houellebecq, the institution that best captures the nature of modern existence is the supermarket, in which

people wander between stacked shelves making choices without discrimination or any real consequences, to the sound of banal but inescapable music. This music is like the leprous distilment that Claudius pours into the ear of Hamlet père as he sleeps in his garden once of an afternoon. The shoppers in the supermarket are sleepwalking, or behaving as quasi-automata. Most of them don’t even have a list of what they need, or think they need. The drivelling music makes sure that they do not awake from their semi-slumber.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 22.00.34The whole of modern life is an existential supermarket,

in which everyone makes life choices as if the choices were between very similar products, between Bonne Maman jam, say, and the supermarket’s own brand (probably made by the same manufacturer), in the belief that if they make the wrong choice it can simply be righted tomorrow by another choice. Life is but a series of moments and people are elementary particles (the title of a book by Houellebecq).

One knows what Houellebecq means, says Dalrymple, who observes that

  • children are now adults and adults children
  • once-serious newspapers review cartoon strips with the same solemnity as works of scholarship
  • rock music is reviewed far more than any other, even though the average age of the population has risen and there are as many geriatrics as infants
  • relationships between human beings are analysed for their ingredients as if they were ready-made salad dressings

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 21.52.23If, says Dalrymple, you watch crowds shopping in any consumer society,

you cannot help but think that they represent the sated in search of the superfluous. I once spent an afternoon watching shoppers – mainly women – in Beverly Hills, who almost certainly had all the possessions anyone could reasonably desire, and who exuded a kind of bored dissatisfaction with everything that they no doubt mistook for sophistication. They had not that connoisseurship that is the only justification for searching for yet more possessions when one is already overloaded with them, for connoisseurship requires discipline and knowledge and not just the exercise of whim to ward off boredom.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 21.56.12The decline of the West into narcissistic consumerist nihilism

is, according to Houellebecq, not of recent date, if by recent date one means a decade or two. For example, the novel Plateforme begins with the narrator and protagonist in the flat of his recently dead father who was in his seventies when he died:

In the kitchen cupboards I found mainly Weight Watchers’ individual packet meals, tins of flavoured protein, and energy bars.

This disgusting diet was, of course, in pursuit of fitness and longevity, futile in the event, and a very undignified way of dealing with Man’s mortality.

Finding in another room his deceased father’s exercise and bodybuilding machine, the narrator says:

I rapidly saw in my mind’s eye a cretin in shorts – with a wrinkled face, in other respects very like mine – swelling his pectorals with a hopeless energy.

This, writes Dalrymple,

is a succinct and painfully exact delineation of a generation that refused to believe that it would ever age, which believed in nothing but sensual pleasure and laughed at religious consolation. In a few very painful lines, the author portrays the dénouement of such a life.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 22.05.25

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