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Michel Houellebecq: Chronicler of Our Mass Incompetence in the Art of Living

Not reading many contemporary French novels, I am not entitled to say that Michel Houellebecq is the most interesting French novelist writing today, but he is certainly very brilliant, if in a somewhat limited way. His beam is narrow but very penetrating, like that of a laser, and his theme an important, indeed a vital one: namely the vacuity of modern life in the West, its lack of transcendence, lived as it is increasingly without religious or political belief, without a worthwhile creative culture, often without deep personal attachments, and without even a struggle for survival. Into what Salman Rushdie (a much lesser writer than Houellebecq) called “a God-shaped hole” has rushed the search for sensual pleasure which, however, no more than distracts for a short while.

Something more is needed, but Western man—at least Western man at a certain level of education, intelligence and material ease—has not found it. Houellebecq’s underlying nihilism implies that it is not there to be found. The result of this lack of transcendent purpose is self-destruction not merely on a personal, but on a population, scale. Technical sophistication has been accompanied, or so it often seems, by mass incompetence in the art of living. Houellebecq is the prophet, the chronicler, of this incompetence.

Even the ironic title of his latest novel, Sérotonine, is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilizational malaise which is his unique subject. Serotonin, as by now every self-obsessed member of the middle classes must know, is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter to which is ascribed powers formerly ascribed to the Holy Ghost. All forms of undesired conduct or feeling are caused a deficit or surplus or malalignment of this chemical, so that in essence all human problems become ones of neurochemistry.  

On this view, unhappiness is a technical problem for the doctor to solve rather than a cause for reflection and perhaps even for adjustment to the way one lives. I don’t know whether in France the word malheureux has been almost completely replaced by the word déprimée, but in English unhappy has almost been replaced by depressed. In my last years of medical practice, I must have encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of depressed people, or those who called themselves such, but the only unhappy person I met was a prisoner who wanted to be moved to another prison, no doubt for reasons of safety.

Houellebecq’s one-word title captures this phenomenon (a semantic shift as a handmaiden to medicalisation) with a concision rarely equalled. And indeed, he has remarkably sensitive antennae to the zeitgeist in general, though it must be admitted that he is most sensitive to those aspects of it that are absurd, unpleasant, or dispiriting rather than to any that are positive.

Houellebecq satirises what might be called the neurochemical view of life which is little better than superstition or urban myth. The protagonist and narrator of Sérotonine, an early-middle aged agronomist whose jobs, though rewarding enough financially, have always seemed to him unsatisfactory or pointless. He suffers from the unhappiness that results from his inability to form a long-lasting relationship with a woman, instead having a series of relationships which he sabotages by his impulsive sensation-seeking behaviour. This man goes to a doctor to obtain more of his Captorix, a fictional new serotonergic anti-depressant. The doctor, without enquiring into the circumstances of his life, says to him:

What’s important is to maintain the serotonin at the correct level–then you’ll be all right–but to lower the cortisol and perhaps raise the dopamine and the endorphins would be the ideal.

This is the kind of debased scientistic language that can be heard on conversations on any bus, and reminds me strongly of Peter D Kramer’s preposterous book, Listening to Prozac, which some years back persuaded the public that we are on the verge of understanding so much neurochemistry that we shall soon be able to design our own personalities by means of self-medication.     

The novel lacks even the semblance of a plot, being more the fictional memoir of the chagrins of a man (one suspects) very much like the author himself. The protagonist, Florent-Claude (a ridiculous name that he hates) has been in love twice, but has both times ruined the relationship by a quick fling with a passing young woman. Although he has become dependent, at least psychologically, on his Captorix (incidentally, but not coincidentally, a very plausible name for a new drug), he recognises at the end of the book that he is the victim-participant of a culture in which monogamy is hardly to be expected. Speaking of the failure of his relationships, he says:

I could have made a woman happy… In fact, two; I have already told you which. Everything was obvious, extremely obvious, from the first; but we didn’t realise it. Had we surrendered to illusions of individual freedom, of the open life, the infinity of possibilities? That could be, these ideas were in the spirit of the times; we hadn’t formalised them, we hadn’t the desire to do so; we were content to conform to them, to allow ourselves to be destroyed by them.

For me the pleasure of reading Houellebecq is not in the plot, still less in the characterisation which is thin because the protagonist-narrator is so egotistical that he has little interest in anyone else (a trait which we are clearly intended to believe is widespread or even dominant in the modern world). It is rather in the mordant observations that Houellebecq makes on consumerism and its emptiness. Here, for example, Florent-Claude meets Yuku, his former Japanese girlfriend living in Paris, at an airport in Spain where he is temporarily living:

I knew her luggage very well, it was a famous brand that I had forgotten, Zadig and Voltaire or perhaps Pascal and Blaise, whose concept had been to reproduce on its material one of those Renaissance maps in which the landmass was represented very approximately, with a vintage legend reading something like ‘Here be tygers’, anyway it was chic luggage, its exclusivity reinforced by its lack of the little wheels that the vulgar Samsonite cases middle managers have, so it was necessary to wrestle with it, just like with the elegant trunks of the Victorian era.

He continues:

Like all the other countries of Western Europe, Spain was engaged on the mortal struggle to increase productivity and had suppressed all the unskilled jobs that formerly helped to make life a little less disagreeable, at the same time condemning the greater part of its population to mass unemployment. Luggage like this, whether it was Zadig and Voltaire or Pascal and Blaise, only had sense in a society in which porters still existed.

In this passage, with typical economy, Houellebecq skewers both the shallowness of a culture in which people obtain their sense of themselves from the visible labels or brands of their possessions, and the absurd but intractable contradictions of our political economy. He of course proposes no solution (perhaps there is none), but it is not the purpose of books such as his to propose solutions. It is enough if he opens our eyes to the problem.

His mordant observations make many people extremely uncomfortable, not because they are inaccurate, but because they are only too accurate and could conceivably lead to unpleasant conclusions, or at least thoughts. They therefore reject the whole: it is the easiest way to deny what one knows to be true. In the following passage, for example, the protagonist (or Houellebecq) describes the owner of a bar in Northern France who has just spent his time—of which there was much—in minutely reading the local newspaper:

The owner had finished Paris-Normandie [the local newspaper] and had launched on just as close a reading of France Football, it was a very thorough reading, such reading exists, I have known people like that who are not satisfied by reading just the headlines, the statements of Édouard Philippe [the current Prime Minister of France] or the amount of Neymar’s transfer fee [Neymar is a famous Brazilian footballer], but want to get the bottom of things; they are the foundation of enlightened opinion, the pillar of representative democracy.

Houellebecq runs an abattoir for sacred cows.

What can be said against his misanthropic, completely disabused view of the modern world? His sex scenes, which for those who have read several of his books now seem like a tic or the public confession of his own deepest fantasies, imply that sex is (and can be) nothing but the brief satisfaction of an urgent desire, as mechanical in its operation as that of a cement mixer. More importantly, it might be said that he concentrates only on the worst aspects of modernity, its spiritual emptiness for example, without acknowledgement of the ways in which life has improved. But this is like objecting to Gulliver’s Travels on the same grounds.   

His work, not least Sérotonine, is filled with disgust, as was Swift’s: but it is the kind of disgust that can only emerge from deep disappointment, and one is not disappointed by what one does not care about. There is gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation.

Reader Discussion

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on February 28, 2019 at 10:17:58 am

"Technical sophistication has been accompanied...by mass incompetence in the art of living."

Well, a reflection: no human being can come into this world without increasing or diminishing the sum total of human happiness, not only of the present but every subsequent age of humanity. No one can detach himself from this connection. There is no sequestered spot in the universe, no dark niche along the disc of non-existence, to which he/she can retreat from his relations to others...

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Image of Anthony
Anthony
on February 28, 2019 at 11:12:43 am

[…] Theodore Dalrymple reviews Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel: […]

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Image of ‘All human problems become ones of neurochemistry’ – Tom Shakely
‘All human problems become ones of neurochemistry’ – Tom Shakely
on February 28, 2019 at 14:12:45 pm

Of course, Theodore Dalrymple is usually on target with his commentary. His review of Houellebecq's narrative was interesting, to me, especially so because he spares me the chore of reading it for myself. Which I would do only under duress because I find most fiction boring and I think I would have found his book not only boring but a torment to read.

Dalrymple's review goes beyond the point of the book. He identifies exactly what is missing from modern civilzation: humble recognitiomn of a just and merciful Higher Power who created the Universe, governs it by His laws, holds us accountable for our actions, and gives us a code of moral law that shows the way to happiness here and in the hereafter. If a society chooses to live by these laws, they will have peace, prosperity, liberty and happiness as a consequence.

Nowadays, people are taught that Reality is Relative and there is no such thing as absolute Truth. It is always fun to point out that if there is no such thing as absolute Truth, then Reality cannot be relative.

"Liberty is a power to do as we would be done by."
John Adams, 1819

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Image of Karen Renfro
Karen Renfro
on February 28, 2019 at 16:04:19 pm

[…] French novelist writing today, but he is certainly very brilliant, if in a somewhat limited way. His beam is narrow but very penetrating, like a […]

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Image of Western incompetence in the art of living | Fans of Theodore Dalrymple
Western incompetence in the art of living | Fans of Theodore Dalrymple
on February 28, 2019 at 18:20:48 pm

[…] writes that the ironic title alone of Michel Houellebecq’s Sérotonine is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilisational malaise which is his […]

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Image of Gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation | Fans of Theodore Dalrymple
Gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation | Fans of Theodore Dalrymple
on March 03, 2019 at 06:57:34 am

Nice. I agree Karen.

Many people have made this same diagnosis as to what ails us, but i have yet to hear of a satisfactory treatment. Too much freedombut every time the right brain finds a solution, a savior, the left brain rejects it. There’s booze and consumerism and carnality, but they are only temporary and can have serious side effects. Join a cult? Find God? Another soma pill? Get lost in your work?

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Image of Frank
Frank
on March 04, 2019 at 16:16:14 pm

Like the way you put this. I guess it is what the Golden Rule is all about.

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Image of Karen Renfro
Karen Renfro
on March 05, 2019 at 06:07:14 am

[…] since the construction of the “rational state” (John Marini’s term), both Democratic and Republican Presidents have employed its power to achieve various conservative […]

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Image of State-Based Conservatism­­­­­­­­: A Response to Daniel McCarthy’s “New Conservative Agenda”
State-Based Conservatism­­­­­­­­: A Response to Daniel McCarthy’s “New Conservative Agenda”
on May 08, 2019 at 06:34:48 am

[…] [6] Dalrymple, T., ‘Michel Houellebecq: Chronicler of Our Mass Incompetence in the Art of Living’, in: law and liberty (February 2009). https://www.lawliberty.org/2019/02/28/michel-houellebecq-serotonine-review/ […]

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Image of The meaning of satire in Michel Houellebecq’s depictions of modern biological personhood and mental health |
The meaning of satire in Michel Houellebecq’s depictions of modern biological personhood and mental health |
on October 06, 2019 at 05:56:55 am

The Japanese girlfriends name was Yuzu, not Yuku. An abominable woman who was into any & every sexual activity.

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Image of Martin Pinder
Martin Pinder
on October 07, 2019 at 15:28:05 pm

Frank: Finding God is not equivalent to a soma pill, joining a cult or becoming a workaholic. If a person uses religion as a crutch or an excuse to persecute others, they are not finding God.

The Founders and their generation has the most enlightened view of Liberty. First, they believed that God created the Universe and the laws that govern it. They believed God made mankind and the laws that govern us. They believed God gave us Liberty so we could seek Him, and find Him, and enjoy the blessings of Liberty which He wants to have so we can be happy. They believed He gave us the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule & Sermon on the Mount so we could live in such a way that we will be able to be free and independent. Liberty and Justice are impossible if we don't.

If we live by His laws, and order our civil laws in a manner consistent with them, we will be able to get and keep Liberty. To find Happiness, we are advised by the Founders to seek Wisdom and Virtue. These are taught in the Holy Bible and used to be taught in America's churches and schools and social organizations. The traditional message is that Wisdom and Virtue come from Morality, Morality comes from Religion, Religion teaches us about our duty to God (to trust and obey His Commandments) and our fellow Man (do good to our neighbor), and by doing so we begin to have faith in Him, in His faithfulness to us, in the connection between obedience to His commandments and the blessings which accumulate and accrue. Faith, Obedience, Blessing.

In times past people didn't believe that "man is the measure of all things". They believed man is one of God's creatures, not in control of the Universe, cannot prevail against God's will, and that everyone is equally accountable to His laws--the Laws of God and Nature. Ten Commandments, Golden Rule, Sermon on the Mount, Cause & Effect (Newton's Laws & mathematical laws).

It's simple. Follow the Ten Commandments and Golden Rule. Teach your children by example, then rote. This is not about being an autocrat. It is about being a grown-up and being responsible for yourself and fulfilling your duties to those who depend upon you (your spouse, your children, your parents, your boss, your employees, your co-workers, your neighbors and friends, your fellow citizens, etc.). Freedom is not the absence of responsibility. It is the condition necessary for exercising it fully. Slaves are unable to do that.

People, true religion is liberating. It teaches us how to let go of the things of this world, none of which can bring us true happiness, and replace them with the only thing that can bring us happiness.

If we really want to have Liberty and Happiness as the Founders wished us to have, we will live our lives as if we deserved to be free.

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Standing Fast

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.