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My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

I attended the press screening for “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” with the expectation that I would learn something about the controversial novelist whose name has become synonymous with Islamophobia. Fully expecting his character (he plays himself) to be a cross between Pamela Geller and Salman Rushdie, I was surprised—if not shocked—to see him rendered as a genial, self-deprecating and altogether likeable individual who wins over his kidnappers in the course of the film. Since the film is fiction, it was up to writer/director Guillaume Nicloux to imagine a writer who met his own ideals—and implicitly that of Houellebecq as well. So instead of imagining the kidnappers as jihadists anxious to take vengeance on a writer who has insulted Islam, they are instead three apolitical but physically intimidating men hired by an unidentified party on a contract basis.

Luc the ringleader is a longhaired Roma with the body of a sumo wrestler who tells Houellebecq that he trained Israeli soldiers in the martial arts including the technique needed to rip off an enemy’s ear, not the sort of person you would want to trifle with. But in a scene that epitomizes the film’s off-kilter comic sense, the tensest moment between captors and captive is over some detail in Houellebecq’s first book—a biography of the Gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Luc insists that the book describes Houellebecq purloining a sweat-stained cushion that belonged to Lovecraft from some museum, which he denies is in the book. As Luc grows increasingly angry at Houellebecq’s denial, the author follows the Falstaffian principle that discretion is the better part of valor and states that he might have forgotten what he wrote after all. Since Houellebecq has the appearance of a Bowery flophouse resident and drinks glass after glass of wine throughout the film (one suspects that it was not grape juice), we suspect that Luc had it right all along.

The only other bone of contention between Houellebecq and his captors is over his access to cigarettes since the author seems even more hopelessly addicted to tobacco than alcohol. He keeps demanding a cigarette lighter so that he does not have to summon them to his bedroom every time he wants to light up. They refuse to give him a lighter because they worry that he might set fire to the house where he is being held captive. Like everything else in the film, this conflict belongs to the realm of imagination because it becomes clear before long that the kidnapping was toothless, almost as toothless as Houellebecq himself who appears to be missing his entire upper set.

Midway through the film the author becomes much more of a guest than a captive. They accommodate his every need except the cigarette lighter. They prepare dinner parties for him, keep refilling his goblet with wine, and even hire a local prostitute to satisfy his sexual appetites. So much at home is he that by the end of the film when he is being released, he asks if he can come back on weekends.

Since I remained curious about Houellebecq after seeing the film that opened on March 25th at the Film Forum in New York, especially in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre that some attribute to the magazine’s putting him on the front cover, I decided to invest a bit of time in researching an author whose values seemed so opposed to my own, especially since the portrait of the author in the film was so endearing in its own scabrous way. (I do have a weakness for that type of writer, including Charles Bukowski.)

Before Houellebecq became persona non grata on the left, Justin Taylor hailed him in CounterPunch a decade ago for his study of H.P. Lovecraft: “Hate and fear are the elementary particles of Houellebecq’s universe. It is a brutal place, though seductive with its visceral language and compelling in its dazzling audacity. If you choose to read this book, you will be by turns impressed, disgusted, and edified.”

Although I was tempted to read this because Stephen King, the finest living writer for my money, wrote the introduction, I decided instead to bite the bullet and read a Houellebecq novel. As something of a literary reactionary, I find most fiction written after 1950 worthless. Much to my pleasure, Houellebecq’s “Whatever” was the finest novel I have read in years and particularly relevant since it was written when the author had a day job just like mine—a computer programmer. The French title was Extension du domaine de la lutte, which means “broadening of the struggle’s domain”. Notwithstanding the author’s intentions, I found the English title more descriptive of the whatevernovel’s sensibility and might have even suggested one like “Who gives a shit” or “Fuck it” if someone had asked me.

Like Charles Bukowski’s “Post Office”, this is a book about work. If sorting mail was the ultimate Fordist nightmare evoking Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, “Whatever” is a post-Fordist descent into hell as the main character accompanies his boss on training
sessions across the French countryside. Working through the Ministry of Agriculture, they are the support team for software that the farmers have little interest in.

While the job is by no means as robotic as sorting mail, it is the hero’s curse to be around people who he finds shallow, materialistic and self-centered—in other words, just like the kinds of people I worked with for 44 years until retiring in 2012. It is not just the job that is destroying his soul; the anonymous main character is alienated from a French society that has been turned into a neoliberal nightmare where competition rules, particularly the pursuit of sexual partners. He is disgusted with the pursuit of money and flesh but has no vision of an alternative. That is why he is depressed all the time and contemplates suicide. The most expressive passage in the entire novel is a standalone set piece that can be read on its own like Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” in “Brothers Karamazov”. Titled “The Chimpanzees and the Storks”, it was so powerful that I took the trouble to scan it in and post it on my blog. This will give you a feel for Houellebecq’s prose:

Friday and Saturday I didn’t do much; let’s say I meditated, if you can all it that I remember having thought of suicide, of its paradoxical usefulness. Let’s put a chimpanzee in a tiny cage fronted by concrete barn. The animal would go berserk, throw itself against the walls, rip out its hair, inflict cruel bites on itself, and in 73% of cases will actually end up killing itself. Let’s now make a breach in one of the walls, which we will place right next to a bottomless precipice. Our friendly sample quadrumane will approach the edge, he’ll look down, remain at the edge for ages, return there time and again, but generally he won’t teeter over the brink; and in all events his nervous state will be radically assuaged.

My meditation on chimpanzees prolonged late into the night of Saturday and Sunday, and I finished up laying the foundations for an animal story called Dialogues Between a Chimpanzee and a Stork, which in fact constituted a political pamphlet of rare violence. Taken prisoner by a tribe of storks, the chimpanzee was at first self-preoccupied, his thoughts fur away. One morning, summoning up his courage, he demanded to see the eldest of the storks. Immediately brought betray the bird, he raised his arms dramatically to the sky before pronouncing this despairing discourse:

‘Of all economic and social systems, capitalism is unquestionably the most natural. This already suffices to show that it is bound to be the worst. Once this conclusion is drawn it only remains to develop a workable and consistent set of concepts, that is, one whose mechanical functioning will permit, proceeding from facts introduced by chalice, the generation of multiple proofs which reinforce the predetermined judgment, the way that bars of graphite can reinforce the structure of a nuclear reactor. That in a simple task, worthy of a very young monkey; however I would like to disregard it.’

I’ve heard repeated comparisons between Houellebecq and Celine, another French novelist with reactionary politics but whom Leon Trotsky hailed as entering into great literature “as other men walk into their own homes.” Despite Celine’s fascist politics, his “power lies in that through supreme effort he divests himself of all canons, transgresses all conventions. He not only undresses life’s model, but rips her skin off.”

By the same token, Karl Marx was a big fan of the royalist Balzac and even intended to write a study of “The Human Comedy”, a massive collection of novels, short stories and articles about the greed, corruption and power of the bourgeoisie but hardly a paean to the common man. His partner Engels also admired Balzac, telling London radical Margaret Harkness in 1888 that his politics were less important than his ability to tell the truth about bourgeois society. He learned more about France between 1816 and 1848 from Balzac than “all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.”

While I doubt that I will read any other novels by Houellebecq (“Whatever” is regarded by some as his finest), there are some political questions that have to be addressed, starting with his animosity toward the soixante-huitards who built barricades in the streets in 1968. Since I was a comrade of Trotskyist and student leader Alain Krivine, this constituted a challenge to my core belief that we were fighting for a better world. For Houellebecq, who was ten years old when the May-June events took place, the student revolt was nothing but a prelude to the grubby “me first” France that followed in its footsteps, as if barricades and Club Med had something in common. I do have to wonder, however, if Houellebecq’s rage is directed more at some of the soixante-huitards who became part of the establishment, like Bernard Kouchner or Bernard-Henri Levy who received this pithy letter from Houellebecq in 2011 (their correspondence was collected in a volume titled “Public Enemies”).  It begins:

Dear Bernard-Henri Lévy,

Everything, they say, separates us—with the exception of one fundamental point: we are both rather despicable individuals.

A specialist in cheap shots and slapstick mediabaiting, you disgrace yourself down to the white shirts you wear. A confidant of the powerful, languishing since childhood in obscene wealth, you are emblematic of what certain down-market magazines like Marianne consider the “limousine left” and what German periodicals more gracefully dub the Toskana-Fraktion. Philosopher without thought but not without connections, you are withal the author of the most ridiculous film in the history of cinema.

Turning to the big question facing France today, should Houellebecq’s latest novel “Soumission” be categorized with Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”? Since it depicts the election of a Muslim in 2022, it seems at first blush to be catering to the nativism and bigotry that makes women afraid to appear in public with a veil. I would urge those under such an impression to read Adam Shatz’s review in the London Review of Books. Shatz, who brought an acute literary and political sense as a former literary editor at The Nation magazine, is a careful reader if nothing else. In his view, the novel is deeply reactionary but not Islamophobic.

There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation.

For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values.

In seeking a Golden Age that probably never existed, Houellebecq bears some similarity to an earlier romantic thinker who felt a certain nostalgia for feudalism as well as hatred for capitalist modernity. I speak of William Morris, the author of “How I Became a Socialist” as well as translations of various medieval legends and songs. In Houellebecq’s 2012 “The Map and the Territory”, you can find several mini-essays on William Morris that are vehicles of his critique of technology and consumerism.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, many pundits called for a “new Enlightenment”, something that would supposedly help the Muslim rabble adjust to French society. How would have Houellebecq stood on this given his appearance on the cover of the issue of the magazine that supposedly triggered the killings (of course, it should be understood that the cover cartoon showed a drunken Houellebecq masturbating, hardly a flattering image)?

In an interview with “The Paris Review” before the attack took place, he differentiates himself from those who urge a “new Enlightenment” in France.

My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.

Despite his longing for a more structured world resting on scriptural foundations—either Catholic or Muslim—Houellebecq is a non-believer. He might be hostile to capitalist modernity but he probably knows in the core of his being that you cannot turn the clock back. Caught between present and past, he sees no way out—hence the nonstop intake of tobacco and alcohol.

Unlike most CounterPunch readers with their quixotic belief that a better world is possible, Michel Houellebecq will struggle to define himself artistically and ideologically in a world that he sees as hopeless. In longing for a world where a benign authority sets the rules and the family is reconstituted as a pillar of strength, he remains even more quixotic than the left.

Perhaps that is what “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” is about ultimately. Being held captive by all-powerful but a benign triumvirate of kidnappers is the closest he will ever come to a Holy Trinity that is losing its authority everywhere one looks. The fact that the Holy Father has to defend himself against charges that he is a Marxist should indicate the direction history is moving, its final destination a world where true civilization will finally come into being.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

 

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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