Category Archives: consumer society

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

Social-climbing cretins

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 05.06.50The novelist Michel Houellebecq’s theme, writes Dalrymple, is

the emptiness of human existence in a consumer society devoid of religious belief, political project, or cultural continuity.

Thanks to material abundance and social security,

there is no struggle for existence that might give meaning to the life of millions. Such a society will not allow you to go hungry or to live in the abject poverty that would once have been the reward of idleness. This lends an inspissated pointlessness to all human activity, which becomes nothing more than a scramble for unnecessary consumer goods that confer no happiness or (at best) a distraction from that very emptiness.

For Houellebecq,

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 05.07.42

Michel Houellebecq

intellectual or cultural activity becomes mere soap opera for the more intelligent and educated rather than something of intrinsic importance or value. That is why a university teacher of economics in one of his books describes his work as the teaching of obvious untruths to careerist morons, rather than as, say, the awakening of young minds to the fascinating task of reducing the complexity of social interactions to general principles.

Dalrymple is referring here to the character Hélène in Houellebecq’s 2010 novel La Carte et le Territoire. Here is a passage from the English-language edition (tr. Gavin Bowd):

On the whole, young people no longer interested Hélène much. Her students were at such a terrifyingly low intellectual level that, sometimes, you had to wonder what had pushed them into studying in the first place. The only reply, she knew in her heart of hearts, was that they wanted to make money, as much money as possible; aside from a few short-term humanitarian fads, that was the only thing that really got them going. Her professional life could thus be summarised as teaching contradictory absurdities to social-climbing cretins.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 05.15.19Obvious untruths (Dalrymple); contradictory absurdities (Houellebecq). Dalrymple has stated:

I say, throw economics to the dogs; I’ll have none of it.

Houellebecq’s Hélène is no less disillusioned than Dalrymple:

Her interest in economics had waned over the years. More and more, the theories which tried to explain economic phenomena, to predict their developments, appeared almost equally inconsistent and random. She was more and more tempted to liken them to pure and simple charlatanism; it was even surprising, she occasionally thought, that they gave a Nobel prize for economics, as if this discipline could boast the methodological seriousness, the intellectual rigour, of chemistry or physics.

Dalrymple’s twin laws of political economy

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 08.54.52The existential problem of indebtedness

To restate the Dalrympian laws of public and private finance, they are:

Memories are short and lessons are never learned.

and

Sufficient unto the day is the credit thereof.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 08.23.03Dalrymple writes that

a profound change in culture and character has taken place in my lifetime. People not very much older than myself prided themselves that, poor as they were, at least they were not in debt; not to be indebted was for them a matter of pride and self-respect. What they could not buy outright, they were content to do without. Whether or not this was a good thing for the economy as a whole I cannot say; but I think it was good for the character. It encouraged self-control and also a probity that is now uncommon.

Governments

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 09.15.54are under political pressure to indebt themselves

while ordinary people

are under some other type of pressure or compulsion that is internal to them and resistible but not resisted. They judge themselves and others by their modes and quantities of consumption, which give meaning to life in the absence of any other meaning. Spending, whether or not they can afford it, is affirmation that their life has a purpose.

Indebtedness

is an existential problem. Spendthrifts hope, if they give any thought to the matter at all, that the economics will take care of themselves. Sufficient unto the day is the credit thereof. At least until the next credit crunch.

 

 

Deeply meaningful drivel

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Dalrymple draws attention to the slogan ‘I would prefer not to’ on a T-shirt worn by Slavoj Žižek as the Slovenian charlatan-philosopher delivers what is, to put it most kindly, a rambling and daft speech on the subject of ‘freedom’. The T-shirt, writes Dalrymple, covers Žižek’s

capacious trunk, the bulk of which indicates that if he is opposed to the consumer society on ideological grounds he is nevertheless no ascetic.

The slogan sported by Žižek is of the same genre as the 1970s London railway-line graffito ‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere’, which Michael Wharton used as the title of one of his collections of ‘Peter Simple’ columns.

Screen Shot 2014-12-27 at 15.20.34Screen Shot 2014-12-27 at 15.23.54

 

 

If Žižek did not exist, says Dalrymple,

it would be necessary to invent him. He is deliciously, archetypally intellectual; he incarnates the satirist’s idea of what an intellectual should be. His Central European accent is perfect: it would be impossible to say anything in it that was superficial. He understands the workings of the universe so well that he has no time or energy left over to look other than a mess.