The Brutal Pessimism of Michel Houellebecq
The French author Michel Houellebecq is one of the most virulent, petulant critics of the 20th century's legacy. His affinities with the Right are clear, but as a novelist, he nonetheless demands to be read.
“We won’t wake up, after the lockdown, in a new world,” wrote French novelist Michel Houellebecq in May 2020; “it will be the same world, but a bit worse.” This idea — the same, but worse — sums up Houellebecq’s famous pessimism. Winner of the Prix Goncourt and recipient of the Legion of Honor, Houellebecq is one of France’s most prominent and contentious writers, known for satirical novels, such as The Elementary Particles, that register his disgust with the alienation and spiritual emptiness of modern life. “I’m the writer of a nihilistic era, and of the suffering associated with nihilism,” Houellebecq says in the recently published Interventions 2020, a collection of essays, interviews, and other nonfiction, translated into English by Andrew Brown.
Early in his career, Houellebecq was often associated with the Left for his unsparing critique of neoliberal individualism, but since the turn of the century, he has become a more ambiguous figure. In 2002, a French court charged Houellebecq with inciting religious and racial hatred after he called Islam “stupid” and the Koran “badly written” (he was acquitted). More controversy came, in 2015, with the publication of Submission, about a Muslim political party turning France into an Islamic state. Houellebecq’s recent writing and statements (including his views on women) have led to some criticism from the Left. “From a young, highly lucid writer on society, Houellebecq has become a sort of cantankerous old uncle completely overwhelmed by his time,” proclaimed Les Inrockuptibles, the left-wing magazine that originally published some of the writing that appears in Interventions 2020.
Others have gone further, seeing Houellebecq as a “prophet of the far right” along the lines of Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson. While some of his comments are certainly — to use his own term — “stupid,” Houellebecq isn’t so easy to pigeonhole as a reactionary or crank, as this new collection shows. Interventions 2020 is an uneven book that nonetheless fleshes out our conception of a major contemporary writer, complicating the image of Houellebecq a right-winger and illuminating the pessimistic vision at the heart of his work.
Interventions 2020 collects a variety of texts — essays, letters, prefaces, interviews, even the script for a contemporary art installation — created between 1992 and 2020. It resembles a collection of B sides and outtakes rather than a coherent whole. The book’s most revealing moments come in the interviews and transcribed conversations, where Houellebecq benefits from having a partner to draw him out. He is not one of those novelists, like George Orwell or Virginia Woolf, whose talent lends itself to precise, lucid argument; the essays in this volume tend to be scattered and impressionistic. This can be charming, as in his brief appreciation of Neil Young (“It feels so good, sometimes, to hear a man humbly complain, in a sad little voice, about having been abandoned by a woman”). More often, however, the essays find Houellebecq making exaggerated gestures rather than arguments. “Leaving the Twentieth Century,” for instance, attacks the “committed” literature of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, clarifying Houellebecq’s own ideas by rebuking his predecessors, à la Woolf’s critique of the Edwardians in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” But while Woolf carefully analyzes the previous generation’s limits, Houellebecq offers petulant hyperbole: the twentieth century, he says, was a “crap century, one that invented nothing . . . intellectually speaking, nothing would be left of the second half of the twentieth century if it hadn’t been for science fiction.”
Many of the texts concern politics, and Houellebecq’s affinities with the Right are clear: he grumbles about “leftist scum” and expresses qualified praise for the reactionary commentator and politician Éric Zemmour. But as a whole, Interventions 2020 shows that Houellebecq doesn’t fit easily into any particular ideological frame. He speaks fondly of the Catholic past, but also of Communism: “It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t a form of anomie, it was quite cheerful. If I was into nostalgia, I’d miss it.” While he considers feminists “amiable dimwits,” he writes appreciatively about Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto, who called for, among other things, the elimination of men; Solanas, says Houellebecq, “was practically alone in her generation to have the courage to maintain a progressive and rational attitude, in accordance with the noblest aspirations of the Western project . . . with the long-term purpose of rebuilding a new nature on a foundation conforming to moral law, that is, to establish the universal kingdom of love.”
The political reforms that Houellebecq lays out in one interview — abolishing the French parliament, deciding the budget by a survey sent out to every citizen, electing a president for life, but being able to recall him or her by referendum — have more in common with the anti-politics of the Five Star Movement or the Pirate Parties than anything on the traditional Left or Right. Even one of the most provocative essays, “Donald Trump is a good president,” isn’t as straightforward as its title; Trump is a good president, Houellebecq claims, in part because his election signals the waning of free-trade hegemony and the decline of the United States’ imperial ambitions: “The Americans are giving up on us. The Americans are letting us be.”
His idiosyncrasy is most apparent when Houellebecq has a conservative interlocutor, such as Geoffroy Lejeune, editor of the right-wing magazine Valeurs actuelles. While Lejeune spouts orthodoxies about the dangers of dechristianization and relativism, Houellebecq argues that the church “should limit its interventions in areas that are not directly within its purview,” including “scientific research, the government of states, [and] human love.” “I admit to feeling real embarrassment,” he says, “when I hear different prelates protesting against the use of condoms, AIDS or not; in heaven’s name, is it any of their fucking business?”
Houellebecq, then, cannot simply be cast as a figure of the Right. His novels at times fall into a right-wing critique of neoliberalism, but also contain a more penetrating diagnosis of contemporary atomization.
The best moments of Interventions 2020 find Houellebecq reflecting on the political vision that powers his fiction. At the core of this vision is a rage at the degrading effects of neoliberalism: “We live not only in a market economy,” Houellebecq writes, “but more generally in a market society, that is to say a space of civilization where all human relations, and similarly all human relationships with the world, are mediated through simple numerical calculation.”
Of course, Houellebecq is hardly unique in his hatred of market culture. Even parts of the American right have started to turn on capitalism, since they see it dissolving “traditional values.” (They are only a century and a half or so late in coming to this realization: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away” by capitalism, wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848.) The “national conservatives” — and right-wing anti-capitalists more generally — hate the market because it undermines familiar forms of hierarchy and dominance; their solution is usually to reassert those forms of hierarchy and dominance without touching the determinative economic realities beneath them, leading to chintzy regimes like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which slap a veneer of cultural conservatism over the same old exploitation and anomie.
Houellebecq occasionally veers into this sort of facile conservative anti-capitalism. For instance, as Carole Sweeney has argued, Houellebecq’s criticism of feminism usually depends on lazy stereotypes about femininity; he attacks neoliberalism for destroying these supposedly essential characteristics and romanticizes women who retain their “natural” femininity. It’s no coincidence that Houellebecq’s treatment of women is one of the weakest parts of his fiction. His female characters are typically limited and clichéd — for instance, the innocent and submissive Thai sex workers in Platform who embody, as Sweeney says, the “natural” femininity that Western women have lost. In this aspect of his work, Houellebecq lets the voice of cultural conservatism take over, bemoaning capitalism’s destruction of natural hierarchies without questioning how much of that nature is itself the product of domination — “the scar,” as Adorno calls it, “of social mutilation.”
Often, however, Houellebecq has a more compelling vision of how capitalism structures social life. What distinguishes his work, at its strongest, is its sense of market forces as totalizing, all-controlling. There is no way to live decently under such conditions, he recognizes. “The West isn’t made for a human life,” Houellebecq says. “In fact, there’s only one thing you can really do in the West, and that’s to make money.”
One of Houellebecq’s literary heroes is Honoré de Balzac. Both writers are realists dedicated to, as Engels said of Balzac, “the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances,” particularly material circumstances. This is the source of Houellebecq’s pessimism: while Balzac observed the rise of capitalism, Houellebecq writes in the age of its total dominance. Though he began publishing poetry and essays in the mid-1980s, Houellebecq didn’t publish his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, until 1994 — it is as if his fictional vision could not begin until the end of history.
This economically determined pessimism keeps Houellebecq’s fiction from fully embracing reactionary fantasy — or really any politics at all. In the interviews in Interventions 2020, Houellebecq expresses some sympathy for the reactionary ideal of a return to Catholic monarchy, but says that “there’s little chance of this structure being recreated.” The reactionary believes that an idealized, hierarchical past can be restored; Houellebecq rejects the possibility of change entirely.
This pessimism is the key to his most controversial and misunderstood book, Submission, which imagines an Islamist party winning the 2022 French presidential election. Though undoubtedly Islamophobic in its framing, Submission is not the Camp of the Saints-style warning against “Eurabia” that some took it to be. “You can’t really say that there’s a depiction of Islam in Submission,” Houellebecq says in Interventions 2020. “That’s what’s so terrible about this book, most of the characters aren’t actually Muslims. . . . Even the Muslim president — we don’t feel that he’s very pious. . . . He’s an ambitious man who’s used Islam as a tactic.” Submission’s Islamist party is Muslim in name only, operating under the same market logic as the secular parties that preceded it: Mohammed Ben Abbes, the Muslim president, is careful to take a “moderate line” and avoid the “the anticapitalist left,” embarking instead on a Macron-like program of austerity and privatization. “He understood,” says the novel’s narrator, “that the pro-growth right had won the ‘war of ideas,’ that young people today had become entrepreneurs, and that no one saw any alternative to the free market.” Beneath the apparently momentous change, Houellebecq insists, is simply more of the same: the misery-generating machine at the heart of society is untouched. Like Orbán and his imitators, the Islamist party of Submission is only neoliberalism with a different face. In other words, neither the reactionaries’ ideal (a revival of traditional values) nor their nightmare (a Muslim takeover) can overcome the individualistic anomie of market society.
An Art of the Negative?
Houellebecq is no less critical of the utopian liberalism that rose to dominance in the 1960s, which sought to undermine capitalism by freeing the individual to pursue his or her desires. “We’ve been splashing about in the ‘icy water of egotistical calculation’ since our earliest childhood,” Houellebecq writes in Interventions 2020, quoting The Communist Manifesto. “We can live with this situation, we can try to survive it; we can also just let ourselves sink. But what’s impossible to imagine is that freeing the powers of desire alone is likely to melt the ice.”
If the world can’t be changed, it can at least be refused; this, Houellebecq says, is the point of fiction — “the radical rejection of the world as it is.” Several times in Interventions 2020, interviewers press Houellebecq for an alternative or solution, but he insists the goal of his novels is to embody pure negativity:
Writing involves taking upon oneself the negative, all the negative in the world, and depicting it, so that the reader can be relieved by having seen this negative part expressed. The author, who takes it upon himself to express it, obviously runs the risk of being identified with this negative part of the world. That’s what makes writing an at times difficult activity: taking on all the negative.
This sounds grim, and Houellebecq’s novels are often disturbing, but they are never vitiating: the reader, as he says, is “relieved.”
How does a purely negative art produce such a reaction? Houellebecq is sometimes described as a misanthrope; this is wrong. His “radical rejection of the world as it is” comes from a love for humans and a rage at what the market has reduced us to. Present in all Houellebecq’s best work is something that, like a black hole, is invisible but warps everything by its gravity: “the universal kingdom of love,” as he puts it in the Solanas essay — that is, another, better world, against which the present one compares so poorly.
And the universality of that kingdom makes Houellebecq a truer Christian — in the New Testament sense — than many of his conservative and reactionary admirers who see Christianity as a particular civilizational hierarchy to be upheld against the refugee-barbarians at the gates. “Animal and human societies,” Houellebecq says in Interventions 2020,
set up different systems of hierarchical differentiation, which can be based on birth (the aristocratic system), wealth, beauty, physical strength, intelligence, talent, and so on. Actually, all these systems seem to me to be almost equally contemptible; the only superiority I recognize is kindness.
This may be naive, but it is the naivety of Christ and of Saint Paul, who declares that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” Its kingdom is not of this world — and certainly not of the reactionaries’ brutal fantasies.
Houellebecq wants to show us the better world by rubbing our faces in the worse. One of the interviewers in Interventions 2020 asks Houellebecq if he is a Catholic writer. “Not just Catholic,” Houellebecq replies, “Jewish too!” He describes meeting one of his readers who decided to become a rabbi because of his novels; Houellebecq is pleased that his books have inspired someone to “recoil in horror” from the world as it is and “escape this nihilism.” This is how art like Houellebecq’s can free us from what Lauren Berlant called “cruel optimism”: its negativity shocks us out of the depressing illusion that market society and its institutions can provide what we need, and reveals, in what it cannot depict, what we might be.