Michel Houellebecq Was Right About Covid
Walking down the street in a U.S. city for the first time in a long while, I absentmindedly took my hands out of my pocket while gripping a coin. I found Abraham Lincoln’s thoughtfully stern countenance looking up at me from one side of a dollar coin. What would good old Abe make of it all, I could only think.
When Covid-19 was breaking out across the world—and when I flew back to the U.K. from Texas and subsequently got stuck there due to the U.S. travel ban—and everyone was trying to work out what was happening and how long it would all last, one of the pithiest predictions came from the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq. He said of the world after Covid-19, “it will be the same, just a bit worse.”
Unfortunately, it appears this is currently being borne out in the U.S., at odds with the initially encouraging trajectory of its post-pandemic recovery. The American Conservative and its writers cover the issues underpinning this all the time—inequality, rising costs, the demise of civility, the lack of soul, even. What I can offer here is the perspective of an outsider returning to the U.S. after 18 months and a first-person account of his daily encounters with the Houellebecq Factor here in America.
It is worth noting first that travel ban hasn’t been lifted yet. I had to apply to the U.S. embassy in London for a National Interest Exemption and argue why it was in the interest of the U.S. for me to return. This article is written in that vein: These issues are very much in the interest of the country. The fact the travel ban has been left in place so long in itself speaks to much of the callous mismanagement and overreactions to Covid-19.
This article is also written for those who, though they may not be familiar with Houellebecq’s point, have been thinking along similar lines. It is not just you; things really are getting worse and will continue to get worse if there is no collective pushback to all the little impositions that are making life gradually more difficult.
“I just don’t know what is happening to America,” remarked the lady behind me in the queue for the pre-TSA screening security check in LaGuardia airport, as she pulled her mask away for a brief respite of oxygen flow. “I don’t care if you are not vaccinated, as long as I am vaccinated, then what’s the problem?”
Life can be worse, even without the rise of a full-on police state implementing bio-security checks, as some have warned about who may yet be proved right. Conditions of decline can be achieved through minor, seemingly insignificant measures, which gradually accrue until what we knew and valued dies by a thousand cuts.
So here are some small examples of the Houellebecq Factor from these past few weeks back in the Land of Liberty.
At hostels, kitchens still don’t have utensils for cooking, “because of Covid”; this is a minor episode in continual encounters with reductions in service “because of Covid.” A seven-hour Amtrak ride from Washington, D.C., to Boston was particularly grim, masked the whole way. I found the “tickets out and make sure your mask is covering your nose and mouth” from the ticket inspector particularly unsettling. “How did you get to this, America?” bounced around in my head, adding to a worsening mask-included headache. Studies in the U.K. indicate the chances of contracting the virus while travelling by train are extremely low, even when people are not wearing face coverings.
In Boston, the Harvard University campus was a joy; my heart soared amid its leafy grounds. But it’s a ludicrously expensive mirage enjoyed by few. Near my hostel, for the length of a whole block, you could smell urine while sidestepping soaked and soiled clothes dumped in random heaps. If it wasn’t the smell of urine in the morning, it was the smell of marijuana.
Often, the small signs point to much larger issues, like heading out for a burger and a few beers and finding myself $40 down afterward. It was Washington, D.C., admittedly, but when fast food washed down with mediocre booze increasingly feels like a luxury act, and is priced accordingly, something is really off. It’s like Prohibition by other means, while Big Dope gets a big thumbs up. And of course, it’s not just alcohol prices. Gas prices have jumped across the nation as oil prices reach a 7-year high, leaving only eight states with prices under $3 per gallon. September food prices were 4.6 percent higher than a year ago, according to the Labor Department. Prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs were up by 10.5 percent from September 2020, according to the monthly Consumer Price Index report. All the while, concerns linger about what inflation is doing—the annual U.S. inflation rate stood at 5.4 percent in September.
“Economists, investors and everyday folks believe inflation is primed for rapid growth as trillions in federal stimulus spending is layered on top of the Federal Reserve’s rock-bottom rates, a nascent economic recovery and hordes of newly vaccinated shoppers who are eager to spend,” Forbes reported earlier this year.
Especially for the lone visitor keen to meet others, there is a notable loss of spontaneity because of masks and Covid-19 restrictions. One of the savings graces about the U.S., especially for someone coming from a more buttoned-up country like the U.K., has always been the openness, affability, and willingness of Americans to engage strangers. If there was an index report for that ability, based on what I have experienced in masked America it would be showing a dramatic drop.
“What’s the big deal, it’s not a big imposition, and it is doing some good,” has been the general assessment regarding face masks from younger Americans spoken to; I ended up in an argument with a bunch of them on the New York subway at around 1 a.m.—in a nearly empty train car—after trying to suggest it might not be that simple. They got off at a stop before me, laughing through their facemasks at my apparent lunacy. The government needn’t worry about them harboring a rebellious streak in the future.
Ultimately, this all coalesces in a general loss of enjoyment and meaning that used to attend being in the U.S. as an honored guest. Sure, the place is generally the same, but just a little bit more shit, as Houellebecq warned. I suspect that many a resident is suffering and noticing the differences as much as the visitor.
Houellebecq has been described as a misanthrope by his detractors, and he certainly wasn’t more upbeat before Covid-19 came along.
“I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world, you understand,” says the troubled narrator of his first novel Extension du domaine de la lute—An extension of the domain of the struggle—that was a smash hit in France in 1994 and translated as Whatever in 1998. “There’s a system based on domination, money and fear—a somewhat masculine system, let’s call it Mars; there’s a feminine system based on seduction and sex, Venus let’s says. And that’s it. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?”
In that, and the idea expanded alongside it that sexuality in the capitalist age has become a “system of social hierarchy” whereby “just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization,” Houellebecq was well ahead of the emergence of contemporary sexual politics. He was also ahead of the curve that has increasingly made sexual morality simply an issue of consent and left it unmoored from “the truth of our nature as male or female, made for communion, for marriage, for family, for the common good, for God,” says Chad Pecknold, a professor at the Catholic University of America.
Houellebecq makes another point in Whatever that is even more prescient in relation to Covid-19: “This notion of aging and death is unsupportable for the individual being; in the kind of civilization we live in it develops in a sovereign and unconditional manner, it gradually occupies the whole field of consciousness, it allows nothing else to subsist.”
Sound familiar? Those daily Covid-19 death counts, so rarely set against recovery numbers; the never-ending media drip feed of death and fear to occupy society’s whole horizon and which those wonderful face masks now offer a daily reminder of, too.
“What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning,” Carl Jung wrote in Man and His Symbols. “It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us…Thus a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning.”
Masks symbolize unending threat, that each human is a pathogen-bearing risk, that you shouldn’t question the response, that you are gagged. They also symbolize death. It is as if the state is trying to beat the Catholic Church at its own game, mandating everyone to display an image of the crucified Christ, which is ironic given how critical modern society is of even small displays of this apparent Catholic obsession.
What is the result of this fixation on death without any mode of mediation? According to Houellebecq’s narrator: “In this way, and little by little, knowledge of the world’s constraints is established. Desire itself disappears; only bitterness, jealousy and fear remain. Above all there remains bitterness; an immense and inconceivable bitterness.”
To this visitor, America vibrates with bitterness at the moment. It has always been a land of black and white polarities and has never been great at doing nuance. But now it seems like there is a determined effort to even vaccinate against nuance. Houellebecq was right; things are worse, but still largely the same. Which means, for now, there is a way back. But it needs that collective pushback, otherwise the juggernaut of despair continues.
“No civilization, no epoch has been capable of developing such a quantity of bitterness in its subjects,” Houellebecq’s narrator says. “In that sense we are living through unprecedented times. If it was necessary to sum up the contemporary mental state in a word, that’s the one I’d undoubtedly choose: bitterness.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the US, the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: https://jamesjeffreyjournalism.com/ .