Category Archives: Houellebecq, Michel

Houellebecq the seer

Michel Houellebecq, writes Dalrymple,

is a pornographer. Once you’ve read a few of his books, you recognise what are almost certainly his sexual fantasies.

He notes that Houellebecq is also

a visionary. Houellebecq predicted the rise of Islamic terrorism in France, and his new book predicted the eruption of mass protest in provincial France known as the gilets jaunes.

Dalrymple explains that Houellebecq’s theme is

the lack of transcendent purpose in Western consumer society, especially among the middle classes and the educated. According to him, they are exhausted and disabused pleasure-seekers with no purpose but short-term enjoyment or sensation-seeking, pleasure and sensation becoming themselves ever more fleeting and ever less rewarding. In a society with little religious faith, little respect for tradition, and no collective political goal, everything becomes superficial, even sexual relations (as his pornographic passages are supposed to illustrate). And no one is sharper than Houellebecq in observations of the absurdity of modern life.

The novelist with his wife Qianyum Lysis Li

Gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation

Dalrymple writes that the ironic title alone of Michel Houellebecq’s Sérotonine is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilisational malaise which is his subject.

Houellebecq

satirises what might be called the neurochemical view of life, which is little better than superstition or urban myth.

Abattoir for sacred cows

For Dalrymple the pleasure of reading Houellebecq

is not in the plot, still less in the characterisation, which is thin because the protagonist-narrator is so egotistical that he has little interest in anyone else (a trait which is widespread or even dominant in the modern world). It is in the mordant observations that Houellebecq makes on consumerism and its emptiness.

Dalrymple points out that Houellebecq’s observations

make many people extremely uncomfortable, not because they are inaccurate, but because they are only too accurate and could conceivably lead to unpleasant conclusions, or at least thoughts. They therefore reject the whole: it is the easiest way to deny what one knows to be true.

Dalrymple notes that Houellebecq’s work

is filled with disgust, as was Swift’s: but it is the kind of disgust that can only emerge from deep disappointment, and one is not disappointed by what one does not care about.

Western incompetence in the art of living

Dalrymple writes:

Not reading many contemporary French novels, I am not entitled to say that Michel Houellebecq is the most interesting French novelist writing today, but he is certainly very brilliant, if in a somewhat limited way. His beam is narrow but very penetrating, like a laser.

Houellebecq’s theme, says Dalrymple, is

an important, indeed a vital one: the vacuity of modern life in the West, its lack of transcendence, lived as it is increasingly without religious or political belief, without a worthwhile creative culture, often without deep personal attachments, and without even a struggle for survival. Into what Salman Rushdie (a much lesser writer) called ‘a God-shaped hole’ has rushed the search for sensual pleasure which, however, no more than distracts.

Something more is needed, but

Western man—at least Western man at a certain level of education, intelligence and material ease—has not found it. Houellebecq’s underlying nihilism implies that it is not there to be found.

The result of this lack of transcendent purpose is

self-destruction not merely on a personal, but on a population, scale. Technical sophistication has been accompanied by mass incompetence in the art of living. Houellebecq is the prophet, the chronicler, of this incompetence.

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.

A religion of peace

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 08.21.04It’s just that Muslims choose strange ways of showing it

At Sousse, 38 people — 25 of them British — were murdered by a Mohammedan fundamentalist gunman at an hotel (in an atrocity prefigured in the 2001 Michel Houellebecq novel Plateforme).

The attack possessed, writes Dalrymple, logic from the Islamo-Leninist ‘the worse the better’ point of view. Tourists

like sun, sea and sites, but not at the cost of their lives. Tourism can survive a dictatorship such as that of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but not a democratically elected government that cannot guarantee security.

After the attacks, David Cameron

made a statement in which he reiterated, among other things, that Islam was a religion of peace. He was under no pressure, except that of his own pusillanimity, to say any such thing, which is in flat contradiction both to history and to the state of the world today. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt would not have said anything as stupid or as cowardly.

Leadership, says Dalrymple, should not

propound blatant untruths. It is true that most Muslims are peaceful and want to get on with their lives; the same is true of almost everyone, including Marxists. It is blatantly obvious that not all terrorists are Muslim; but when they are Muslim, their religious ideas are a necessary precondition of their acts.

Growing might of Hindustan and Cathay

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 22.16.44Public life in the corrupt and decaying societies of the West, writes Dalrymple,

is frivolous without gaiety, earnest without seriousness.

Western economies such as Britain’s

cannot compete with India and China in cost of labour, of course.

But the success of India and China is based not just on cheap labour but on

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 22.27.21a powerful combination of cheap labour and an educational system that is far more serious than Britain’s.

While the British

are so obsessed with supposed social justice that they are prepared to tolerate any degree of mediocrity, India and China foster talent in a very Darwinian fashion, in the hope and expectation that everyone will benefit in the long run.

Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires (1998) in English translation

Michel Houellebecq‘s Les Particules élémentaires (1998) in English translation

The stage has been reached where there is practically

nothing that the British can do better than the Indians and Chinese [other than binge-drinking].

At the same time Westerners, and especially Western Europeans,

have destroyed all forms of social solidarity other than handouts from the state.

Westerners are left with

an atomised society in which no one feels he has any duty to anyone else. Widespread social, or rather antisocial, disturbances are the result.

Houellebeckian auguries

Michel Houellebecq: 'looks like a man who has crawled out of a giant ashtray after a prolonged alcoholic binge in clothes that have not been washed for weeks. This does not mean he approves of the world he inhabits: it is simply that he can conceive of no other, at least for Western man, and if anyone thinks otherwise he is deceiving himself. Grunge is reality; everything else is veneer.

Michel Houellebecq: ‘looks like a man who has crawled out of a giant ashtray after a prolonged alcoholic binge in clothes that have not been washed for weeks. This does not mean he approves of the world he inhabits: it is simply that he can conceive of no other, at least for Western man, and if anyone thinks otherwise he is deceiving himself. Grunge is reality; everything else is veneer’

Whatever is wrong with us, Islam is not the solution

Michel Houellebecq: 'looks like a man who has crawled out of an ashtray after a prolonged alcoholic binge in clothes that have not been washed for weeks. This does not mean he approves of the world he inhabits: it is that he can conceive of no other, at least for Western man, and if anyone thinks otherwise he is deceiving himself. Grunge is reality; everything else is veneer'

Michel Houellebecq: ‘looks like a man who has crawled out of an ashtray after a prolonged alcoholic binge in clothes that have not been washed for weeks. This does not mean he approves of the world he inhabits: it is that he can conceive of no other, at least for Western man, and if anyone thinks otherwise he is deceiving himself. Grunge is reality; everything else is veneer’

Fundamentalist Mohammedanism has nothing of any value to say to the inhabitants of the 21st century

The 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 in which, thanks to material abundance and social security, there is no real struggle for existence that might give meaning.

Arduous vacuity

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, whether voluntary or involuntary. 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 emptiness.

For Houellebecq,

intellectual or cultural activity becomes soap opera for the more intelligent and educated rather than something of intrinsic importance or value.

The Houellebeckian mood

An economics lecturer character

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 23.19.47

Joris-Karl Huysmans: the novelist of pessimism and decadence became ‘desperate to escape his nihilistic condition’ and ‘returned to Catholicism later in life and became an oblate’

So brilliantly

does Houellebecq describe the arduous vacuity of the life of his protagonists that one suspects (or knows?) that his books are strongly autobiographical.

The very success of the Enlightenment project, says Dalrymple,

is the root of its failure. Having eliminated myth and magic from human life, it has crushed belief even in itself out of society. Bravery and excitement have given way to comfort and convenience; degeneration is the inevitable and unavoidable result.

The protagonist and narrator of Soumission

is a teacher of French literature in a Parisian university, a specialist in the work of Joris-Karl Huysmans. This was a clever choice on the part of Houellebecq, for Huysmans returned to Catholicism later in life and became an oblate, his last book being Les foules de Lourdes. Huysmans followed the path that the protagonist, in desperate need to escape his nihilistic condition, will follow; but Catholicism having lost its faith and becoming, under Pope Francis, little more than transcendental social work to the hosannas of the right-thinking, there is no living faith in France except Islam for him to convert to. It is Islam, faute de mieux. The subtlety of Houellebecq’s book consists of demonstrating that the spiritual need of the protagonist can be made to coincide with his material interest.

Islamism: 'intellectually nugatory'

Islamism: ‘intellectually nugatory’

Houellebecq

does not feel it necessary to point out that the protagonist, having converted, will not be free to apostatise should he subsequently decide that he has made a mistake; Islam is like a vein, it has an built-in mechanism of preventing backflow, so that conversions flow in one direction only. Free enquiry on many subjects will henceforth be denied him, and eventually even the subject of his scholarship is likely to be prohibited.

Soumission is far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic, says Dalrymple.

It is rather a meditation, admittedly using all the author’s habitual tropes which fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, are susceptible to an infinite number of bitterly amusing variations, on the state of Western civilisation and what makes that civilisation vulnerable to attack from so intellectually nugatory a force as Islamism which, by all reasonable standards, has nothing of any value whatever to say to the inhabitants of the 21st century.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 22.42.14Houellebecq’s novel

is an invitation to us to look inwards, to think of what is wrong with us rather than with them. Whether we or they will read it like this, I rather doubt. As to a solution, it is hardly the place of a novel to supply it. But whatever it might be, Islam is certainly not it.