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Book Review: French Nihilism

French Nihilism: The Novels of Michel Houellebecq

By Casey Dorman


The Elementary Particles. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

The Possibility of an Island. Translated from the French by Gavin Bowd. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

The Map and the Territory. Translated from the French by Gavin Bowd. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.


Each of our lives is an instance, an example of the particularity of existence, in this time, in this place, within this moment of the universe.  With some exceptions, our significance is confined to our impact upon those with whom we interact, either directly or indirectly and has no transcendent meaning.

Existential writers, especially Jean Paul Sartre, have accepted these assumptions and used them to develop philosophies which yield purpose, responsibility and meaning to life. Michel Houellebecq has embraced the same assumptions and arrived at nihilism, a conclusion that life is meaningless and one should seek what makes him or her most happy, keeping in mind that a great deal of life’s enjoyments are most fully experienced only by the young, and perhaps only by the handsome, beautiful, well-off and competitive young. The rest of us are left with fading hopes and memories, increasing pain and discomfort as we grow older, and either a frantic effort to prolong the enjoyments of our youth or an ever deepening melancholia. Or, in the normative style of our recent and remote ancestors, we refuse to face these realities and instead invent fictions about the satisfactions of old age, the wisdom of the elderly, and a future life after death where all of the pains of this world are erased and we live as if youth were regained, in eternal bliss, earned either by our good works during our lives or by our faith in a certain version of God.

In two of his best known novels, The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq amply fulfills his reputation as a nihilist, but just as importantly, he fulfills his own goal of rejecting the fictions most people live by and writing as a realist—or, as he said in a Paris Review interview: “I think of myself as a realist who exaggerates a little.” In Public Enemies, his back and forth letters with Bernard Henri-Levy, he laments the “Christ-like” suffering he endures “for portraying the world as it is and not how people would like it to be.”

Reviewers have not always seen him as he sees himself.

In reviewing The Elementary Particles, Anthony Quinn in the New York Times Book Review complained that “the tone lurches unpleasantly between the salacious and the psychotic…. One can only assume that France's literary scene must have been suffering a profound torpor if it responded with such outrage to this bilious, hysterical and oddly juvenile book.”

In the same newspaper, Michiko Kakutani described the book as something that “feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read.” She went on to say, “This is the vision not only of someone who despairs of the human condition, but also, the reader of this repellent book is reminded, of someone who wants us to believe that the psychotic Bruno is a ‘pretty typical’ human being.”

These reviewers may be reacting either to Houellebecq’s “realism”­––his acceptance of the particularity of life and the impossibility of transcending it––or to the choices his characters make in reaction to this reality: self-centeredness, sexual profligacy, almost autistic asociality and suicide.

The Elementary Particles tells the story of two half-brothers, one Michel, who is an isolated, almost autistic boy who relates to only a childhood girlfriend but becomes a brilliant theoretical microbiologist who discovers the principles that will eventually lead to improving the genetic stock of humans and lead to longer lifespans. His half-brother Bruno, who shares the mother who abandoned both boys to become a sixties-era hippie, is sexually obsessed, but almost equally alienated from the society around him. Michel pursues his isolated quest for genetic discoveries that will change the human species forever, although his zeal is for genetic perfection as an abstract principle, rather than as an improvement on the human condition (another concession to a materialistic vision, noting that there is nothing “perfect” about human design; even nature can be improved upon by human tinkering). His brother is more sensitive to the culture around him, which in his view is becoming increasingly pointless and self-consuming.

The Possibility of an Island is an account given by three narrators, one of them from the immediate future and the other two his genetically cloned (but altered) descendants from the distant future, twenty-four and twenty-five generations later. Daniel I is the chronicler of the social context that spawns the beginning of the future of genetically engineered humans (presumably based on the theoretical breakthroughs of Michel from the first novel, although the two novels are never explicitly connected). He shares much of the point of view of Bruno from the earlier novel, but is interested in the development of what begins as a cult and later becomes a cultural paradigm shift to embrace the genetic changes that will eliminate sexuality, eating and elimination, aging and, at least metaphorically, death (although people continue to die, their genetic material is passed on and their successors absorb their memories, which have been passed along through written narratives). Daniel 25, the last narrator, finds himself longing for a more fulfilling life than the one he and his genetically improved humans live, which is without direct social contact or significant emotional engagement. He finally leaves the safety of his engineered habitat and strikes out into the primitive post-apocalyptic world still inhabited by genetically unchanged humans in search of a mythical island where genetically altered beings engage with one other. In the end, he is content to wander, free of his sheltered life, but still alone.

In The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq’s tone is less pessimistic, but his characters are no more interested in positive human relationships. Instead, he elevates what he considers man’s only real positive attributes—his technological expertise and his resultant ability to create and build—to the level of ideology. In fact, Houellebecq stretches his admiration for these human characteristics to the level of reverence. His protagonist, Martin, becomes a great photographer by taking pictures of Michelin road maps and, later, a great artist by painting a series of portraits of the various people who populate the jobs and professions in the world around him, thus celebrating the social network of workers who keep the system moving forward. Martin’s rewards remain within the economic system and Houellebecq celebrates the virtues of capitalism no less than the wonders of technological achievement.

In some sense, The Map and the Territory is more hopeful than Houellebecq’s earlier novels, but only because the central figure, Martin, is less aware of himself and his situation than either Bruno or Daniel I. He lives a passive, bland existence, capturing the symbols of his technological era in his photography or his painting, but remaining an observer and recorder. For the first time, Houellebecq implies that there should be more to life, but he gives no hint as to what it would be.

Houellebecq’s “reality” is bleak, but that does not necessarily make it less real. But like all realities, it is a point of view. Is it one that captures a generation’s consciousness or is it, in the words of the critic, “a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic,” which is shared by almost no one else?

David Brooks recently wrote a column in the New York Times in which he discussed a thesis written by one of the students in his course at Yale. The student described the current generation of American college students, disillusioned by 9/11 and Bush’s crusading wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the global recession, as non-actionists who distrust ideology-based actions, which they see as the misguided ethos of their parents’ generation, and demand proof, evidence and data before embarking on an action. Furthermore, they are focused on self-improvement, fearful that failing to “maintain a priority of self” can lead to a competitive disadvantage in a system in which only the very best rise above the large mass of floundering middle class citizens. Brooks described the generation as “The Empirical Kids.”

The difference between the young adults described by Brooks’ student and Houellebecq’s protagonists, particularly Bruno, in The Elementary Particles and Daniel I in The Possibility of an Island  is that the American students are optimistic, while Bruno and Daniel I are so deeply pessimistic about the human condition that they view its only virtue as the brief enjoyment of youth and sexuality, both of which, even as they are being enjoyed, are permeated by the knowledge that with every day, the process of aging is eating away at this only source of happiness.

The new generation of Americans, at least that of the educated elite, is different from the people portrayed by Houellebecq because they are not pessimistic about themselves, only about the system around them and its promise to lead to a more positive life simply by believing and participating in it without question. But they are guided by a moral philosophy no more than are Houellebecq’s characters. Their answer to their particularity, ironically, is also Houellebecq’s solution, that is, enthrallment with and mastery of technology, as achieved by Martin in The Map and the Territory. In this, Martin resembles the young Americans, who define their worth in terms of the money they can earn relative to their peers.

Brook’s student’s peers, if she is correct about them, distrust the ideologies of their elders and of their leaders, but accept one of self-interest without question.  Their critical thinking is confined to the pursuit of worldly goals and the efficient use of technology and data to achieve them. They idolize competition as the means of measuring one’s worth. While they are young, they cannot sympathize with Bruno, nor Daniel I. But if Houellebecq is truly presenting us with reality, then the American students will someday face the same conclusions as his protagonists have faced and react as Bruno and Daniel have done: with dismay—either that, or as generations before them have done, accept the fictions that soften this reality or distort it completely, perhaps even embracing the ideologies which they have rejected in their elders (and no doubt regarding Houellebecq, should they read him, as presenting a repugnant “fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision”).

Houellebecq is a realist and the American college students described by Brooks are short-sighted, even though they no doubt see themselves as realists. What Houellebecq does is present us with a reality that reminds us that life is inherently meaningless— a conclusion not (or not yet) faced by young Americans. The question Houellebecq’s fiction raises—one that is outside of the consciousness of young Americans—is whether it is possible to fashion an alternative to this lack of meaning. He is either pessimistic about such a possibility or has simply not yet found what it might be

Where Houellebecq’s reality falls short of the real thing is in its total omission of the sense of human community that provides a sense of meaning to most peoples’ lives. Philosophers, novelists and those suffering from depression may realize the particularity of their own existence and despair over it, but many people, particularly those raised in Eastern, community-based societies, rather than the individualistic societies of the West, find themselves fitting into a ready-made social structure which gives their own existence the perspective of fulfilling a role within a larger framework, even a role that values aging and minimizes the finality of death because the larger cultural milieu continues onward. Houellebecq acknowledges such a perspective among the masses but, since he sees it as a denial of reality, he minimizes its value, although each of his characters misses, in his own way a sense of connection with others.

Huoellebecq’s anomie is a Western intellectual’s problem. That Houellebecq’s dilemma is a Western one does not make it any less real, but it does relegate it to a culturally determined difficulty. Even so, it is not a problem that has been satisfactorily solved for the current generation and that is why Houellebecq strikes a resonant chord within many Western readers.

Michel Houellebecq is taking the reality accepted by Sartre and Camus and fashioning a nihilistic response to it. It remains to be seen whether, in the future, he or other writers can accept that same reality and arrive at a different, more positive conclusion.









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