The Western Abyss

Reviewed by Benjamin Kerstein

The Possibility of an Island
by Michael Houellebecq
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 352 pages.

Michel Houellebecq is the most hated writer in Europe, which alone ought to be proof of his importance: In an age in which the word is tyrannized by the image, accolades must be paid to a writer effective enough to be loathed.

To date, Houellebecq has won the lucrative Irish impac and French Prix Novembre prizes, been brought to trial on charges of racist defamation, and made himself the most reviled writer in the francophone world. But Houellebecq is more than a clever pusher of politically incorrect buttons. His work constitutes a dissident manifesto, a caustic and openly despairing portrait of Europe and the West. Obsessed by money, sex, youth, and beauty, contemptuous of love in all its forms, dislocated, fragmented, and increasingly unhinged, Houellebecq’s West teeters on the edge of the abyss. It is a billion unhappy souls, wandering indifferently toward self-extermination. The mere presence of a Houellebecq, it may be said, exposes the malaise that underlies the utopian pretensions of the New Europe.

For the anti-Houellebecqians, the author’s scorched-earth criticism of immigration, feminism, psychiatry, globalization, and nearly everything grouped under the amorphous heading “politically correct” adds up, albeit unintentionally, to something like an ideology-one perceived as a threat by both the Left and the Right.

It is Houellebecq’s luridly detailed descriptions of sexual acrobatics, his aggrandizement of prostitution, and his celebration of the biological imperative (usually in the form of middle-aged men pursuing extremely young women) that have aroused the accusation of pornography among his more strident critics. Against this accusation there can be no defense, if pornography is defined as the detailed examination of that which is normally unspoken and unseen. In any event, judging by his international sales, the audience for pornographic social commentary is far larger than the European finger waggers may imagine. Clearly, a disturbing number of Westerners hear in Houellebecq an echo of their own confusion, resentment, and disillusionment.

This collective bad mood, according to Houellebecq, has its roots in the 1960s, when revolutionaries across the West tore down social and moral constraints in the pursuit of hedonistic freedom. In France, this upheaval was consummated by the soixante-huitards, or ’68ers, students who led the national civil disobedience movement against government malfeasance. For Houellebecq, the ’68ers gave birth to a world in which people are unfettered by consequences or obligations, and enjoy not only freedom to, but freedom from-marriage, family, children, and love, to name a few. Modern life, charges Houellebecq, has become an impossible race toward conscienceless pleasure. For the majority of humanity, the result is an existence that is desperate, alienated, hopeless, and inhuman.

Houellebecq’s autobiography, aspects of which appear constantly in his books, reads like a legacy of the 1960s in microcosm, the cost of social revolution encapsulated in a single life. Born in 1958 on the island of Reunion, an East African possession of the dying French empire, Houellebecq was abandoned at the age of three by parents determined to live the life of ideological hedonism. Raised by his grandmother, educated in the elite French system, then career-tracked into an undemanding job debugging computers for the Agriculture Ministry, for most of his life Houellebecq was, in every way, a mediocre scion of the French white-collar elite. He suffered periodic bouts of depression, however, for which he was eventually hospitalized. He married, unsuccessfully, and fathered a son from whom he is now as estranged as he is from his own parents. By the time he reached his thirties, Houellebecq was mired in the lonely, unhappy life he catalogs in his work. It was at this point, however, that Houellebecq turned himself from victim into witness, and then into rebel. In short, he began to write.

His first book-length work, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, little noticed outside France and only recently published in English, reads like a coalescent moment before the full eruption. The seeds of Houellebecq’s later works are all there, in Against the World’s amniotic prose; single sentences soon evolved into full novels. Even the strange expression “the elementary particles”—later the title of the novel that made him famous—appears for a brief moment, almost as an afterthought.

The subject of Against the World, the American pulp horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, was a reclusive, puritanical, unapologetically racist spinner of “weird tales” who wrote of terrifying encounters with ancient and otherworldly creatures in a deliberately archaic, phantasmagoric style. Writing in the 1920s and 1930s, Lovecraft died young, unknown, and nearly penniless, but has since spawned a cult of readers and imitators, including some of the best genre writers of the twentieth century. Indeed, Against the World may well be the first and last essay by a French intellectual to open with an introduction (and not a bad one) by Stephen King.

We should not be unduly surprised: Ever since Baudelaire first lionized Poe, the French have always displayed a talent for uncovering the esoteric virtues of American genre fiction. In the hands of Houellebecq, Lovecraft becomes not merely a master of the horror tale, but the architect of a new metaphysic, one based on the total and uncompromising rejection of life and the world. “The world sickened [Lovecraft],” writes Houellebecq, “and he saw no reason to believe that by looking at things better they might appear differently.” For Houellebecq, this refusal to avert one’s eyes from the horror that is life is the source of Lovecraft’s greatness.

Yet if Houellebecq identifies with Lovecraft’s horror of the world, he does not abide by the latter’s abandonment of it. “Speaking for myself,” Houellebecq writes in the essay’s preface, “I have not adhered to Lovecraft’s hatred of all forms of realism and his appalled rejection of all subjects relating to money or sex….” This much is true. Houellebecq’s great virtue is his rejection of the French literary tendency toward interior psychology and his embrace of the actual world as a worthy subject of fiction. But Against the World reveals something beyond the dualism of realism and fantasy: The horror of Lovecraft’s fantasy is the horror of Houellebecq’s realism; the relationship between the two is that of prophet and journalist. Whatever the trappings of realism in Houellebecq’s books, they are still tales of horror. His work makes a terrifying assertion: A mere sixty years of human progress has brought us to the point where the unspeakable has become reportage.

Indeed, if we take Houellebecq’s work as a whole, we see an unrelenting progression toward the annihilation of realism through realism. We see, in fact, Houellebecq becoming Lovecraft. Not by eschewing realism, however, but by progressively demolishing it, and transforming it from a principle into a process. In other words, we watch as Houellebecq destroys the world.

The first chapter in this processional cataclysm was published in France in 1994 under the title Whatever, an unfortunate substitute for Houellebecq’s cumbersome original, Extension du domaine de la lutte (“The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle”). A scathingly funny and finally terrifying tale of a government bureaucrat, a computer programmer named—what else?—Michel, sinking into a semi-psychotic depression while on a business trip to the French countryside, Houellebecq’s novella erupts with loathing and horror toward life. Observing his goodhearted but ugly co-worker fail again and again at the art of seduction, Michel formulates Houellebecq’s assault on Western civilization:

It’s a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly…. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as “the law of the market”.… In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.… Businesses fight over certain young professionals; women fight over certain young men; men fight over certain young women; the trouble and strife are considerable.

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