France’s Master Of ‘Materialist Horror’
Regular readers know that I’m enamored, in a bittersweet way, with the novels of Michel Houellebecq. Bittersweet, because Houellebecq’s novels are extraordinarily bleak, but they are also extraordinarily insightful about the way we live now. I’d call them prophetic.
Houellebecq (pronounced “well-beck”) is not a religious believer — he has described himself as atheist, but more recently as agnostic — but according to Louis Betty, a scholar of French literature and a specialist on Houellebecq’s work, the misanthropic French novelist is “a deeply and unavoidably religious writer.”
In his 2016 book Without God: Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror (Penn State), Betty calls Houellebecq’s novels “keen examinations of the lives of men and of societies that no longer lie beneath a sacred canopy.” The novels, Betty says,
represent a kind of fictional experiment in the death of God. And this experiment is best understood as a confrontation between two radically opposed domains: the materialism of modern science and the desire for transcendence and survival, which is best expressed in and through religion.
Without God is written by a scholar — Betty is an associate professor of French at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater — but is miraculously free of lit-crit jargon. It is an ideal introduction to the works of Houellebecq for the reader who is interested in religion, philosophy, and political theory.
Betty agreed to answer a few of my questions about Houellebecq via e-mail. Our interview is below.
RD: When we think of totalitarianism, our models are Nazism or Communism. Happily, the rebirth of either seems very unlikely. That said, many of the cultural and social factors that Hannah Arendt said opened the door for 20th century totalitarianism are also present today — especially radical atomization and loneliness, and the discrediting of familiar hierarchies. Unlike in the last century, liberalism seems not nearly so robust an alternative. What do most people on the left and the right today miss that Houellebecq sees?
LB: One of Houellebecq’s most remarkable qualities is his consistent anti-liberalism—“liberalism” meant here in the classical sense as an idea about human moral and
economic freedom that emerges from the Enlightenment (I’m not referring to left-liberalism in the US). On the one hand, his novels paint a gloomy portrait of the consequences for family and community of the sexual revolution; essentially, they expose the underbelly of a social movement, championed by the modern left, that fancies itself sacrosanct and morally unassailable. So, in the moral sense, and especially vis-à-vis moral concerns surrounding sexuality, his treatment of the sexual revolution has a way of shocking left-liberal sensibilities.
On the other hand, MH is no great advocate for unfettered economic freedom. His novels suggest (or even demonstrate, if that’s a proper term for describing the work fiction does) that moral and economic liberation go hand in hand, and that it’s the very ideas and conditions that allowed for human economic emancipation centuries ago that eventually gave us the sexual revolution and the moral dissolution that arguably followed it (i.e., an increase in the divorce rate, more children born outside of marriage, etc.). The modern right, which likes to sing the praises of the free market but tends also toward moral and religious conservatism, isn’t primed to appreciate this rapprochement of material and moral license.
Ultimately, Houellebecq’s fiction points to a fundamental incoherence in modern, liberal political thought. You don’t get sexual freedom without the sort of economic emancipation free markets allow (it’s hard to multiply sexual partners when, say, you’re totally beholden economically to a spouse. That is, at least not without significant danger to yourself—just read some 19th-century social novels and you’ll see what I mean!). At the same time, you don’t get economic freedom and self-determination without a loosening of the moral constraints that material necessity used to hold in place. In any case, whatever side you’re on politically, the most important thing to understand as far as reading MH is concerned is that both of these visions—human flourishing understood either as economic or moral-sexual liberation—are materialistic and reductive.
And, rather obviously, they also fail adequately to address human beings’ metaphysical needs, which liberalism is content to leave up to the individual. Religion’s purpose, as I see it, is to order collective life sub specie aeternitatis, but you don’t get that when the hard work of metaphysical consolation becomes a private affair. In the vacuum, alternatives inevitably arise, some of the most pernicious of which we see today: ethnic and racial identitarianism, religious extremism and terrorism, and a tolerance and even embrace of totalitarian rhetoric across the political spectrum. I’m synthesizing a bit on Houellebecq’s behalf, but I think this vision can help us make sense of much of the tension we’re seeing today.
RD: Though he’s not a religious man, Houellebecq believes as a matter of sociological fact that no society can endure without religion. By “religion,” let’s use a broad definition that means “metaphysical framework” — though as you point out in your book, Houellebecq believes that transcendence itself is not enough; a resilient religion also has to offer some form of immortality. Is his case persuasive to you?
LB: Here it’s important, I think, to distinguish between religion as a human phenomenon and the specific case of Christianity in Europe. I don’t think such a thing as a “society without religion,” in the sense of having a metaphysical framework, really exists; to me, that’s akin to imagining a society without a language, or some notion of kinship, or ways of preparing food. I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems clear that any human society worthy of the adjective “human” is going to articulate some metaphysical system that makes sense of reality and offers consolation and a sense of meaning in the midst of natural vicissitude.
In the case of Christianity in Europe, I think the question to ask is something like this: can a civilization maintain its identity if it sheds its native religion? Houellebecq doesn’t think so, and neither do I. This isn’t a political or polemical point. Imagine taking as an anthropological platitude the claim that human beings will be religious and, moreover, that civilizations are built upon the metaphysical systems they create (or which are revealed to them, to give credit to the metaphysical on its own terms). It’s obvious from such an assumption that the collapse of the metaphysics entails the eventual collapse of everything else. This should be deeply alarming to anyone who cares about the West’s tradition of humanitarianism, which emerges—and it would be wonderful if we could all agree on this—out of the original Judaic notion of imago Dei and later from Christian humanism. Secular humanism has been running for quite some time on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian religious inheritance, but it’s not clear how much longer that can go on.
Honestly, it’s frightening to think what a truly post-Christian West would mean for our basic institutions. I’m not stumping for Christianity here; I just happen to have the intellectual conviction that the analysis of human society begins with religion. If you incline toward Marxian thinking, which looks at things in the diametrically opposed way, you’re going to hate what I’m saying. But that’s how I see it.
As for your question about immortality: it’s clear to me that religious systems holding out a promise of survival are going to do better than those that don’t. There are many reasons Christianity overwhelmed Greco-Roman religion in the early centuries of the first millennium, but part of it has surely to do with the relative weakness of the Stoic understanding of immortality, which involved a figurative incorporation into the cosmos, compared with the personal immortality Christianity promises. In this respect, I think Christianity will always be a powerful metaphysical player, even if the present situation in much of Europe seems to point in the opposite direction.
Mortality is too overwhelming a fear and the difficulties of life too great for whole populations to go on without remedies to them for very long. I read a few months ago that religious practice in Venezuela has increased as the country becomes more and more disordered. Perhaps all it would take in Europe is a little upheaval—not that I wish it—for young people to start, say, making a habit of going to Mass. In any event, this is just my own somewhat-less-than-scholarly speculation. Ultimately, the future is opaque.
RD: What do you mean by “the transition from a theological to an economic understanding of the human being”? Does this have to do with what you call Houellebecq’s “ontology of materialism”?
LB: Rereading that passage in my book, I realize I ought to have been a bit clearer. The way you interpreted it on your blog cleaned the imprecision up nicely. I should have used the word “materialist” rather than “economic”; my point, after all, is that a purely economic understanding of the human being, in which we are reduced to consumers and consumed, can only follow upon a deeper ontological shift from a theological (and, in the case of Houellebecq, Christian) worldview to a materialist one. If there is no soul, no inviolate and irreducible part of our identity that both escapes all material and social determination and is of equal value regardless of circumstance, the door is opened, at least in argument form, to whatever dehumanizing forces one cares to imagine.
More concretely, you don’t get white supremacy if you believe that every human being has a soul fashioned in God’s image. Neither do you get far-left racial and ethnic identitarianism. Both are symptoms of a metaphysical deficit. It’s very easy to start dividing people up into tribal categories; after all, humans vary massively in just about every imaginable quality. It’s really something of a miracle that we ever came up with a notion of common humanity at all! We have the Judeo-Christian heritage to thank for this in the West. This is something secular people ought to consider before making glib criticisms of traditional religion.
RD: I’ve been doing reading lately about what the business professor Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” Without going into detail here, her basic thesis is that Google, Facebook, Amazon and others have created an economic model based on “data mining” — that is, learning as much as possible about our private lives and personalities, and using that information to sell us things. It goes far beyond mere marketing, though, to deep behavior modification. It sounds like something from a Houellebecq novel, but it’s really happening. From a Houellebecqian perspective, can you foresee some kind of therapeutic totalitarianism emerging out of the radical atomization of society, and the commodification of every aspect of our personalities?
LB: The best novel to consult on this point is Houellebecq’s first, Whatever (a bizarre choice for a title in English—the original French version is Extension du domaine de la lutte, or Extension of the domain of the struggle), whose narrator-protagonist is a computer programmer working in the incipient digital environment of the early 1990s. The narrator has a colleague named Jean Yves-Fréhaut who is obsessed with the “connectivity” (he refers to it in terms of “degrees of freedom”) that the emerging world of the early internet offers. Here’s a key—and incredibly prescient—passage from the novel:
If human relations become progressively impossible this is due, precisely, to the multiplying of those degrees of freedom of which Jean-Yves Fréhaut declared himself the enthusiastic prophet. He himself had never known any intimate relationship, of that I’m sure; his state of freedom was extreme.
This is a pretty damning critique of social media culture, all the more so since it comes from a time when AOL chatrooms were barely getting off the ground. As far as I’ve been able to discover, living a fulfilled life means finding a balance between one’s emancipatory instincts and the need for embedding ourselves in communities and institutions, which give us a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. This is a question of simple maturity. If our culture is dimwitted enough to imagine happiness in Fréhaut’s adolescent terms, then we will have merited our descent into what you call therapeutic totalitarianism.
RD: You write in Without God that for Houellebecq, “the decline of Christianity [is] the central even of Western modernity.” Relatedly, you say that Houellebecq is often denounced as “reactionary,” but perhaps, in your words, “the true reactionary has all along been Enlightenment culture, which insists on an unsustainable assortment of freedom largely inimical to human happiness.” Explain.
The crushing majority of human history has been religious and dualistic (in the metaphysical sense) in one way or another. Most of the world today is very religious. It’s only Western Europe and, increasingly, the secular geographical bookends of the US that depart from the human norm. Enlightenment thinking of the more materialistic, philosophe sort, of which the West is the principal inheritor, represents, from this perspective, a striking deviation. By using the term “reactionary,” I wanted to highlight the objective strangeness, in the scope of human history, of the secular westerner. Of course, I don’t advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater—I’m not some kind of medievalist!
As to the point about freedom, here’s a passage from a peer-reviewed article I published this January in Modern and Contemporary France that should hit the nail on the head:
From a Houellebecquian perspective, today’s partisans of continued emancipation—in whatever context one discovers them—are simply reacting against the unfulfilled promises of previous progressive causes. Freedom has not produced the expected results, and thus one must seek to imbibe it in greater and greater quantities, lest the emancipatory quest reveals itself for what it truly is: not a moral mission but an existential addiction, which can only be cured by recourse to religion.
Today’s ever-multiplying demands for individual recognition—our current “obsession” with identity—are obviously useful to the capitalist enterprise, but they strike me more deeply as the search for an apotheosis for liberalism as well as, paradoxically, an unconscious rejection of it. If we can just achieve one more liberation, the implicit thinking goes, if we can take one last step down the glorious road to total emancipation, then perhaps, finally, the New Jerusalem will descend from the heavens. The trouble is that we moderns no longer really believe this is true, and what we seem really to want is to escape ourselves and our oppressive individuality. This is what many of Houellebecq’s protagonists are after in their mad quests for ego-annihilating sex—there’s a reason the French refer to orgasm as la petite mort [the little death — RD]!
Similarly, the contemporary appeal of various forms of identitarianism speaks to a broader exhaustion with the false promise of salvation through liberation. The modern emancipatory process isolates the individual just as it affirms it—and because it affirms it. I remember hearing a sermon at Mass when I was a teenager in which the priest told the congregation that Hell isn’t lakes of fire but rather eternal separation from God and from others. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to equate late-liberalism with a journey into perdition, but, at least from a psychological point of view, the parallel is strong enough to be alarming.
The solution, I suppose, is to find forms of collectivity that suit the greatest number and properly balance the tension between freedom and tradition. For you, Rod, that’s Christianity. For others, it’s social justice or some other political movement. As the French say, c’est de bonne guerre.
Louis Betty’s book is Without God: Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror (Penn State University Press, 2016). For newcomers to Houellebecq, I recommend starting with either The Elementary Particles (2000) or Submission (2015).
Readers should be aware that Houellebecq writes very frankly about sex, because sex without love is central to his philosophical concerns. Some have described Houellebecq’s work as “pornographic,” but that word is imprecise and misleading. Yes, there are detailed descriptions of sexual acts in his books — much more so in The Elementary Particles than in Submission, by the way — but they are in no way presented as erotically exciting. Houellebecq’s characters experience sex in a soulless, desolate way, as a futile means of escape from meaninglessness. Houellebecq is certainly not a prude, but the very last thing a Houellebecq reader would take away from his novels is the idea that “sexual liberation” is attractive, or offers a viable way of living.
I bring the topic up here because religious and culturally conservative readers coming to Houellebecq for the first time should know what they’re in for. Houellebecq is one of the most important novelists of our time, and I believe he’s vital reading for cultural conservatives, including religious ones, who want to understand the crisis of our time. But his writing is not to everyone’s taste.