NYT: ‘A French Novelist Imagined Sexual Dystopia. Now It’s Arrived.’

Adam Kirsch writes for the New York Times:

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.

Kevin Michael Grace wrote in 2005:

As a once great nation lies supine at the feet of Arabic racaille, one cannot but ask, what’s happened to the French? Please spare me talk of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Unless, of course, you are willing to include among these simians Dubya (delighted to prostrate America at the feet of Mexican rabble) and Condi, who together have made the Koran and Ramadan as American as the flag pin and microwave burritos. Yes, France is effete, rootless and atomized, but of which Western nation can this not be said? Why even speak of nations? They have been replaced by global administrative units, whose leaders, quislings without qualities, have effected the great modern exchange: citizenship traded for sex, sports, shopping and scientism.

What to do as we await dhimmitude and the tender mercies of shariah? Well, we could do worse than read Whatever, The Elementary Particles and Platform, the first three novels of the Frenchman Michel Houellebecq, who proves that one doesn’t have to be drunk and disorderly to speak the truth about the way we live now, but it doesn’t hurt. I reviewed them in the November 18, 2002 issue of The Report.

Say, have you heard of this French writer Michel Houellebecq?

Michel what?

Pronounced “Well-beck.” Just acquitted of race hatred in a French court for having called Islam the “stupidest religion.” Predicted the Bali bombings, you know.

Really?

Yes, the most astonishing literary prediction since Anthony Burgess foretold John Lennon’s murder and apotheosis in Enderby Outside.

So what is he, one of those deconstructionists?

No, he’s admirably readable. Certainly gloomy, though.

Aren’t all those Frenchies gloomy?

Well, he’s gloomier than most. Consider this, from
Whatever:

“The fact is that nothing can halt the ever-increasing recurrence of those moments when your total isolation, the sensation of an all-consuming emptiness, the foreboding that your existence is nearing a painful and definitive end all combine to plunge you into a state of real suffering.”

Why doesn’t he have a drink, take a pill, get a girl?

He’s done all that. Sex addict, morphine addict, drinks like a fish.

Then he’s clinically depressed. A suitable case for treatment.

He’s had that, too. Didn’t take.

He’s just a nut, then, a crazy nut.

Michel Houellebecq believes himself sane; it’s the world that’s mad. He comes by his depression honestly. His biography on a fansite begins, 

[He] was born on the 26th of February 1958, on the French island of Réunion. His father, a mountain guide, and his mother, an anesthesiologist, soon lost all interest in his existence. A half-sister was born four years later. At the age of six, Michel was given over to the care of his paternal grandmother, a communist, whose family name he later adopted.

Houellebecq’s parents abandoned him because they were hippies. Sexual revolutionaries. The most important thing to understand about Houellebecq is that he is a reactionary, opposed to relativism in all its forms. Yet he is a child of the spirit of the age. He could sing, with Matt Johnson, “I’m just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country.”

The 1960s witnessed a revolution in consciousness as momentous as any in history. As Tom Wolfe wrote in his 1975 essay, “The Me Generation and the Third Great Awakening":

“The husband and wife who sacrifice their own ambitions and their material assets in order to provide for a "better future" for their children…the soldier who risks his life, or perhaps consciously sacrifices it, in battle…the man who devotes his life to some struggle for "his people" that cannot possibly be won in his lifetime … people (or most of them) who buy life insurance or leave wills … are people who conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream. Just as something of their ancestors lives on in them, so will something of them live on in their children … or in their people, their race, their community — for childless couples, too, conduct their lives and try to arrange their post-mortem affairs with concern for how the great stream is going to flow on. Most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, "I have only one life to live."”

If the past is another country, the past Wolfe describes is Carthage. Houellebecq is a New Regime Man. Deprived of parental affection, his mind poisoned by sex education, he is incapable of regarding women as other than erotic machines. He knows little of them and doesn’t care. His female characters are ciphers. His male characters are versions of his bifurcated personality: feckless and sensual or monomaniacal and ascetic.

In 1971 the French intellectual Jean-François Revel published Without Marx or Jesus. It would have a profound effect on France and on much of the West. In the words of Joseph R. Stromberg, it celebrates the Americans’s looming post-Christian and non-socialist society, which rested on a firm foundation of mass consumption by newly liberated individuals detached from all tradition.

Houellebecq’s mordant and often hilarious novels are Revel’s vision made flesh: a savage world of men without qualities, without love, without families, without community, deracinated and utterly alone. In Whatever, the protagonist attempts to prove himself alive by persuading his even more pathetic colleague to murder a copulating couple. He fails and goes mad, then his colleague is killed in a car crash.

In The Elementary Particles (also known by its somewhat-more-to-the-point British title Atomised), Houellebecq makes a daring advance on Revel. While he agrees that materialism destroyed Christianity (for which he has a great nostalgia), he argues that the uncertainty principle of Werner Heisenberg has destroyed materialism. God is dead, but so is progress. Consumer goods get better and better, but no one believes anymore that man gets better and better. Evolutionary theory is expiring from the effort to constrain a stochastic universe that cannot help but fly apart.
The Elementary Particles is an audacious work; it begins with two half-brothers at the end of their tethers and ends with the end of life as we know it.

Walter Pater declared, “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Today it appears that all art aspires to the condition of pornography. While Whatever is crude, and The Elementary Particles is frankly pornographic, Platform is, as they say, completely concerned with sex. Its premise is that Western men and women can no longer enjoy sex with each other and is an open endorsement of “sex tourism.” Only outside the West, Houellebecq argues, can women find men that are masculine as Western men used to be and men find women that are feminine as Women used to be. It all ends badly, in terrorism and mass murder. While there are many in the Orient grateful to exchange sex for money, there are others infuriated by this irruption of Western decadence into their societies. Violence, as Marshall McLuhan reminded us, is the quest for identity. It is the only weapon Islam has against the West’s manifestly superior and otherwise ineluctable technologies.

Houellebecq’s penchant pornographique is distressing and confounding. Pure fantasy, it seems to be an attempt to concoct a substitute religion. As Tom Wolfe writes:

Ah! At the apex of my soul is a spark of the Divine … which I perceive in the pure moment of ecstasy (which your textbooks call "the orgasm," but which I know to be heaven).

Here again Houellebecq is revealed as the child of his parents and of our age.

There are a lot of Houellebecqs about. The Elementary Particles has sold 300,000 copies in France alone. His fansite is dedicated to “all those who, deeply moved, have been transformed by a novel or a poem by Michel and who have felt the need to share their discovery of this writer with someone dear to them.”

For all his disgustingness, he is a great writer. Often compared to Louis-Ferdinand Céline, he is better compared to Blaise Pascal. Never was it truer that “The last act is bloody, however charming the rest of the play may be.” Broadband Internet and ever-improving microwave pizzas are not much of an answer to the increasingly acute problem of existence. Definitely, it’s a problem.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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