Houellebecq’s Incel Prophecy: The Alienated and Intimacy-Starved
Incel: involuntarily celibate. The term entered the popular lexicon when angry, single young men began wreaking havoc under its banner. From school shootings to the recent van attack in Toronto, there’s a rising tide of resentment linked to a lack of romantic and sexual contact among some males. In 2014, Incel pioneer Elliott Rodger dreamed of creating a world where sex was illegal and he forcibly ruled over Chads (dominant, sexually successful young men). Then, in a rampage he killed six people including three women at a sorority house, and killed himself.
Of course, the vast majority of incels are entirely nonviolent, despite their frequent rhetorical excesses. They don’t go on killing sprees like Rodger or mow down random pedestrians like Alek Minassian. Most go through dark times but find ways to move on. Some do their best to transcend, some descend. Many of these online incels are caught in a vicious cycle: they can’t find fulfillment in real life so they go online to commiserate; being online then furthers their lack of real-life fulfillment.
As Rod Dreher has mused here at TAC, French writer Michel Houellebecq has in many ways been prophetic on incels. Houellebecq understands their intimacy-starved rage and its root: a visceral lack of belonging, peer validation, and social meaning. As Houellebecq’s character Bruno recalls feeling left out as a child in school in The Elementary Particles: “How could he tell them that he, too, needed love? …He started to cry with rage, yet the teacher did not come to help.”
Houellebecq also understands that incel anger over not getting sex is ultimately not about sex itself but about a desire for acceptance, tenderness, and connection. “What the boy had felt was something pure, something gentle, something that predates sex or sensual fulfillment,” he writes. “It was the simple desire to reach out and touch a loving body, to be held in loving arms. Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so difficult to give up hope.”
Houellebecq’s depressing, hilarious, disturbing, and sometimes brilliant work has focused from the start on the malady of maladjusted men (and women) struggling to survive and find meaning in a culture and sexual economy from which they are utterly alienated and in which their sexual market value (SMV) is low, at least in their own eyes. The SMV model sees sexual prospects as objectively measurable based on various factors from the physical to the social. It posits that women have inherently higher biological “sexual value” and thus rule the sexual roost, especially in modern liberal societies where they aren’t required to settle for one mate. Hypergamy—women trading up and cycling through beta providers while saving their real affections for alphas—is a common refrain in the manosphere and on incel forums. Houellebecq’s position is actually more multifaceted (and amazingly even darker) than a standard Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) cliché. Indeed, the core of Houellebecq’s thought is just as bad or worse for women as it is for men.
While certainly adept at diagnosing the ills of modernity and their effects on the male psyche and libido, Houellebecq presents scant solutions. Indeed, he has shied away from the reactionary label because, unlike those who believe the clock might be turned back to a better time, he is convinced it is too late. The train has already reached its last stop, a sprawling sexual and social dystopia. Like his protagonist in Submission who sits staring at a statue of the Virgin Mary, unable to return to devotional Christian faith, a terrifying vision of nullity, Houellebecq nihilistically presents characters trying to grapple with how to live life in a civilization that is already in steep social decline.
Houellebecq’s work, from Whatever to Submission, The Elementary Particles to Platform, often features rage against intimacy denied, mirrored by a world of female untrustworthiness and self-sabotage. He presents a neo-naturalist perspective, presenting people whose frustrated search for physical and emotional satisfaction turns to bitter revulsion as it clashes with the ineradicable hierarchies of nature. His sex-glutted characters feel despair at ever reaching anything more meaningful, while his sex-starved characters feel trapped by their omega male natures.
“The older I get, the more terrified I am of rejection. I’m just not natural enough, not enough of an animal. It’s a permanent handicap because no matter what I say or do, no matter what I buy, I can never overcome it, because it’s a natural handicap,” Houellebecq’s character rages in The Elementary Particles, in a statement that could easily have been ripped from a moment of self-doubt on incels.me. As a former communist who is no stranger to mainstream disapproval for his controversial writings on subjects from Islam to women—not to mention his graphic pornographic and sadistic descriptions—Houellebecq is unusually blunt and unapologetic. He’s expressed consistent disdain for those shocked by his work, casting it as performative outrage. He’s also shown little concern over the accusations of racism, misogyny, and insensitivity leveled against him, declaring, “I couldn’t give a damn.”
The zero-sum Houellebecqian world presents incels as a natural byproduct of the convergence of liberal social and economic systems. According to Houellebecq, the concentration of wealth and property ownership observable as a result of the so-called “free market” (noted by distributist thinkers like Belloc and Chesterton) has now taken deep root in the sexual free market, where attractive, socially peer-validated men and women get the majority of intimacy and sex. Everyone else forms an underclass of sexual tenant laborers snatching for scraps of intimacy from the master’s table. This bitter view is encased in a conception of the West as an empty shell of former piety and order, running out its time in meaningless suffering and decline, a West where everything including one’s personal life has become a reflection of merciless market forces and insatiable egotism. Sexual and romantic value is purely a market reflection, a pale echo of what it once was in a world that’s lost any transcendent telos. According to Houellebecq, the sexual revolution removed family and religiosity as major bulwarks (“the last intermediary communities”) that separated the individual from the vicissitudes of the sexual market. This led to what we have today, a spinning sexual Samsara of emptiness and ennui, not enough sex and too much hedonistic sex, both indicative of the same civilizational decline.
One thing perhaps not noticed by critics and outrage scolds vis-à-vis Houellebecq is his disgust for modern men. He writes:
What on earth were men for, Michel wondered as he watched sunlight play across the curtains. In earlier times, when bears were more common, perhaps masculinity served a particular and irreplaceable function, but for centuries now men clearly served no useful purpose. For the most part they assuaged their boredom playing tennis, which was a lesser evil; but from time to time they felt the need to change history—which basically meant inciting revolutions or wars. Aside from the senseless suffering they caused, revolutions and wars destroyed the best of the past, forcing societies to rebuild from scratch.
Houellebecq’s character Michel goes on to heap condemnation on men for “their repulsive egotism, their irresponsibility and their violent tendencies.”
Houellebecq’s writing (and the mitochondrion of much incel rage) expresses resentment and profound rage not only at unattainable women themselves but at the unworthy men who claim them. “The terrible predicament of a beautiful girl is that only an experienced womanizer, someone cynical and without scruple, feels up to the challenge,” Houellebecq writes. “More often than not, she will lose her virginity to some filthy lowlife in what proves to be the first step in an irrevocable decline.” He also laments the fate of women who try to play the field, destroyed in their prime by the false liberty offered by modern sexual ethics. Instead of overcoming the struggles of love and marriage by pursuing sexual independence and career, “the passing of love’s torments simply left the field clear for boredom, emptiness and an anguished wait for old age and death.”
According to Houellebecq, the previous world of Christendom assigned “unconditional importance to every human life,” but the rise of materialist anthropology relegated life and love to mere subcategories of evolutionary and material realities. One wonders what world Houellebecq imagines existing prior to the Enlightenment, for it was hardly some tableau of “value” for human life. Still, Houellebecq is entirely correct that “the question of the value of human life would nonetheless continue to preoccupy people’s minds. It would be true to say that in the last years of Western civilization it contributed to a general mood of depression bordering on masochism.”
Much of the left has pinned the anger of incels on that ubiquitous bogeyman of “toxic masculinity” and accompanying ills of supposed white entitlement and anger at the loss of a formerly privileged place. Much of the right has attributed incels to a breakdown in family, faith, and established gender roles. Either men have some crazy caveman side that needs to be transformed or buried, or they are not being men enough in a positive sense. If only the matter could be so neatly wrapped up.
The truth is that unconstrained free market ideology and social liberalism and individualism have intensified what was already and always has been a harsh and sexually competitive world. Bringing a stock market boom-bust cycle to the domain of intimate relations has turned incel anomie from a small growling gremlin into an enraged dragon.
Modernity has ramped up expectations of exciting copulation and love while limiting possibilities. It has put nuts and ovaries in a romantic vise—a world of diabetics in a candy store. Even getting sex is often a side note to the real problem of the incel. A young man who might be entirely satisfied with a regular looking girl instead searches fruitlessly for an Audrey Hepburn lookalike with bigger breasts. Spoiler: that movie poster romance never comes, or at least it doesn’t last. As aforementioned, it is not only men who are victimized when the sexual marketplace is open for business: women are hurt, too, by unrealistic dreams such as those of the hippie mother in Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles.
Incels aren’t a bug of modernity; they’re a feature. Just like the new globalist-named “precariat” class who are weeks away from homelessness if a paycheck falls through and must patch work together in the gig economy, the incel is only one rejection away from despair and so patches sex and love together whenever he or she can. Economic volatility and hypergamy form an ultra-toxic Houellebecqian brew. Frustrated young men stewing in alienation and sexual frustration is nothing new: in many ways it’s a driving engine of innovation and historical change. But this very online world of abstraction and fluid expectations is new, as young men on shifting sands come face-to-face with the hydra of hypergamy in a ruthless, fast-changing economy.
Still, the individual passion(less) plays continue to play out, and something must be done. Cat ladies and gamer guys are not really so different after all. Their common denominator is loneliness, though whether the distance between them can yet be bridged is a question no pundit can answer.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.