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The Prophetic Houellebecq

The French novelist can be hard to read, but nobody has a better read on the maladies of our time
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I’ve been saying for some time that the misanthropic French novelist Michel Houllebecq is a prophet. You can’t read the man’s disturbing novels without concluding that he understands something critically important about what it means to live today. Writing in today’s New York Times, Adam Kirsch says the same thing, though focusing on Houellebecq as prophet of the incels:

The novel’s French title, which translates literally as “Extension of the Domain of Struggle,” encapsulates Houellebecq’s theory of sexuality (he is typically French in his love of abstraction and theory). The sexual revolution of the 1960s, widely seen as a liberation movement, is better understood as the intrusion of capitalist values into the previously sacrosanct realm of intimate life. “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism … sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization,” he writes. “Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never.” The latter group — the losers — are represented in “Whatever” by Raphaël Tisserand, who is so repulsive that he has never had sex with a woman, despite strenuous efforts to seduce one. He is a proto-incel, and his story builds to a disturbing scene in which the narrator urges him to murder a woman who has rejected him.

In the end, however, Raphaël doesn’t go through with it: “Blood changes nothing,” he observes fatalistically. And this is a key difference between Houellebecq’s characters and criminals like Rodger and Minassian: They recognize that violence will not change their situation. They are victims of generational trends that Houellebecq believes have plunged the West, particularly France, into incurable misery. Houellebecq’s second (and best) book, “The Elementary Particles,” reiterates his case against “sexual liberalism,” while adding a host of new culprits, from New Age spirituality and women’s magazines to social atomization and the decline of Christianity. “In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear they had no chance,” he writes of the characters in the novel, in what could be a slogan for all his fiction.

Back in May, I posted something here about Houellebecq and incels. I quoted a passage from Louis Betty’s terrific study of Houellebecq as diagnostician of the maladies of the post-Christian, post-religious West. Here is Prof. Betty:

However, the causality I propose, which does justice to the totality of the Houllebecquian worldview, is one in which materialism – conceived of as a generalized belief in matter, which in its political manifestations contributes to the rise of ideologies as diverse as communism, fascism, and liberalism – represents the true menace to human relationships and sexuality in Houellebecq’s novels. From this point of view, the gradual erosion of the theological conception of the human being, which began with the scientific revolution and reached its apex in the twentieth century, has given rise to a social order in which the value of human life is restricted to the parameters of economic exchange – that is, the human being is understood in essentially economic terms. One’s attractiveness and even lovability are determined by indisputable criteria of market value, as if the human being were no different, in principle, from any other consumer product. The economic reduction of human value is fed by the materialism of modern science, which dismisses the possibility of free will and reduces the human being to a haphazard, fleeting collection of elementary particles. Humanism, which attempts to assign people rights in the absence of a deity capable of legitimating the moral order, does not stand a chance in these conditions.

Houellebecq may be an agnostic (he used to claim to be an atheist, but more recently, he’s been wavering), but his books are saturated by theological and philosophical ideas. By all accounts he is an unpleasant, marginal person, but this seems to have given him a great vantage point from which to analyze the world.

Betty’s book is called Without God: Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror. He’s a professor of French literature, but the book is very readable, not at all burdened by lit-crit jargon. Here’s more from the book:

The unbinding of humanity from God lies at the heart of the historical narrative the reader encounters in Houellebecq’s work: lacking a set of moral principles legitimated by a higher power and unable to find meaningful answers to existential questions, human beings descend into selfishness and narcissism and can only stymie their mortal terror by recourse to the carnal distractions of sexuality. Modern capitalism is the mode of social organization best suited to, and best suited to maintain, such a worldview. Materialism — that is, the limiting of all that is real to the physical, which rules out the existence of God, soul, and spirit and with them any transcendent meaning to human life — thus produces and environment in which consumption becomes the norm. such is the historical narrative that Houellebecq’s fiction enacts, with modern economic liberalism emerging as the last, devastating consequence of humanity’s despiritualization.

“Materialist horror” is the term most appropriate to describe this worldview, for what readers discover throughout Houellebecq’s fiction are societies and persons in which the terminal social and psychological consequences of materialism are being played out. It is little wonder, then, that these texts are so often apocalyptic in tone.

Here is a vital quote from Betty’s book — vital, that is, to understanding The Benedict Option:

Houellebecq’s novels suggest that once religion becomes definable as religion — that is, once its symbols no longer address themselves to society at large as representative of discipline and moral authority, but rather address only the individual as motivators of religious “moods and motivations” — it is already doomed. Religion must do more than provide a space for the individual to enter, à la [anthropologist Clifford] Geertz, into the “religious perspective.” This is simply not enough for modern people; the symbols therein are too weak, too uncoupled from ordinary existence to give serious motivation. Religion must set a disciplinary canopy over the head of humankind, must order its acts and its moral commitments, must furnish ultimate explanations capable of determining the remainder of social life; otherwise, religion loses itself in the morass of competing perspectives (scientific, commonsense, political, etc.) This is precisely what has happened in the West… .

Some critics of the Benedict Option say it is too weak, that it amounts to backing away from the aspirational attempt to set a Christian disciplinary canopy (in the sense Betty means; that is, a social order) over the head of humankind (by, according to some utopians, working to establish a Catholic integralist form of government). To which I say: Most Catholics and other Christians in this civilization don’t see the religion they profess as a disciplinary canopy over their own lives, but rather see it as a psychological adjunct to life, a buffer to the harshness of the materialistic, individualistic lives they actually want to lead. This is the whole point of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Before we have any hope of re-Christianizing the West, we ought to first try to re-Christianize the Christians of the West. I’m not being glib; I mean it.

Adam Kirsch no doubt reads Michel Houellebecq with different eyes than a Christian like me, but we agree that Michel Houllebecq needs to be read by those who want to understand the times in which we live.

The novel to start with is The Elementary Particles. Be aware that the text can be harsh, and is very descriptive in its depiction of sex. But it’s not sexy. In the novel, sex is what characters who are desperate for a human connection of any sort engage in. It’s not pornographic, if pornography exists to excite its consumer about sex. It’s hard to imagine anybody reading this novel and becoming sexually excited. Still, I need to warn you that there’s a fair amount of sex in the book, but it’s not gratuitous, as it’s there to make the author’s point about the emptiness of sex in a world that has exiled spirituality.

UPDATE: Eric Mader writes:

Re: Post-’68 French Thought, “Liberation”, and Our Impoverishment

There’s much European writing, particularly French writing, that points to many of the same dynamics Houellebecq takes up in his novels. Somewhat interesting is the fact that many of the most trenchant of those writings come from that same crowd of post-’68, post-structuralist thinkers that provide much of the theoretical basis on which our SJW identity politics now run rampant. These are largely thinkers on the left, of course, but as with their liberatory poetics (Julia Kristeva, Derrida, etc.) so with their liberatory cultural and sexual politics–none of it leads to anything that manages to escape the ongoing commodification of the human. And so, as Houellebecq sees, the “revolution” just turns out to be another marketing scam, where individuals are led to whore themselves out to this or that liberatory discourse, only to be left emptier in the end.

The ongoing impoverishment of the human, as a result of ’68 and capitalism sharing the stage together, is tangible. And both actors on stage can be blamed. Yes, my theoretically savvy friends will argue that invoking the “human” against them in this way is itself a shabby ideological trick, one they debunked long ago. But I’m not convinced. That none of their discourses or political movements can break the dynamic I see, that “the left”, their left, is helpless in the face of it, has become painfully obvious. Besides, all of them have credit cards and iPhones, so who are they to talk? If one wants a general term to signify what is being lost, sorry, but the human is more evocative than anything they have on offer.

As long as capitalism and liberalism (as Deneen has recently described it) continue to function, I don’t see this impoverishment slowing down. Which is why, regardless of the spiritual yearning everywhere, most self-described religious people will remain largely in the gyre. Because, as Rod points out, they use religion as “a psychological adjunct to life, a buffer to the harshness of the materialistic, individualistic lives they actually want to lead.”

And: “This is the whole point of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Before we have any hope of re-Christianizing the West, we ought to first try to re-Christianize the Christians of the West. I’m not being glib; I mean it.”

Agreed, sure. But any of us writing here, and you too, Rod, we’re also in this gyre to some large degree, and to the extent that we are, we’re going to have little effect on others. Have we dared take up our cross?

If I allude above to the truly trenchant analyses of many of the French left writers that people like, say, Jordan Peterson abhor, it’s because of the paradox of their ineffectiveness actually to liberate. I don’t think Peterson has really delved into the “postmodernism” he rails against, though I do think, interestingly, that his relatively clunky philosophy stands more chance of liberating people than the work of thinkers greater than him. Which is odd, because they really were masters of liberation. This was not a Marxist liberation as much as an epistemological/linguistic/Freudian liberation. So I’m not speaking here of the failure of Marxism. In any case, the paradox should maybe help us see, finally, the inescapable virtue of something both Peterson and Christianity maintain, and that much of the French left did not: a kind of humanism; an acceptance of the human itself as a set phenomenon characterized by certain laws. Looking at this, one might conclude there is some degree of natural law thinking underpinning anything that is helpful for us in the 21st century; and vice versa, that any radical departures from natural law thinking, whether in service to Progress or Liberation or Science, are only bound to sink us further in that Houellebecquian impoverishment. Because, finally, postmodernity and capitalism, especially the two together, can do nothing but bring more of the same.