Houellebecq's Elementary Particles
Mark Lilla is professor of Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics will be published next spring. He originally wrote this for The New York Review of Books.
Chicago - Bruno and Michel-the main characters of The Elementary Particles-are half-brothers but did not meet until their teens. Their mother, Janine, abandoned them when they were infants, dropping them into the laps of aging grandparents. A beautiful French girl, she was too busy living her own life to be bothered with husband or children. In the late Fifties she could be seen on the Riviera running with the crowd made famous by the films of Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot. In the early Sixties she was still in the avant-garde, having abandoned St. Tropez to follow a guru to California, where she changed her name to Jane. Between their abandonment and her death the sons hardly saw her.
When we meet them in their 40s Bruno and Michel are still suffering from this trauma. Bruno, the elder one, was packed off at an early age to a French boarding school where he suffered all the humiliations of Young Torless-beatings, torture, rape-at the hands of older students; this being the Sixties, order and discipline had completely evaporated. Bruno became a sexual obsessive, overwhelmed by feelings of physical inadequacy that were only intensified in the promiscuous atmosphere of the Seventies: masturbation, prostitutes, pornography, marriage, divorce, nudist colonies, swingers' clubs. He lives in a state of sexual frenzy that fails to mask an insatiable need for love. He finally finds it one night while being fellated in a jacuzzi under the stars by a woman whose face he cannot see. They become a couple but their happiness is short-lived. The woman suffers from a degenerative bone condition and during an orgy her back breaks, leaving her a paraplegic. Within months she commits suicide and Bruno checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, never to emerge.
Michel, the younger brother, copes by checking out of the new sexual order and withdrawing into himself. He becomes a biologist working in the then young feld of genetic engineering, and although he reaches the pinnacle of professional success in Paris he derives no real pleasure from his work and eventually abandons it. He lives alone and has no one to love; the days pass, then the seasons, but nothing happens. Then, quite by chance, he runs into a woman with whom he has had a furtive adolescent relationship. At the time she loved him but he found it impossible to respond, so she eventually left. In the Seventies she got pregnant by the son of Jane's California guru, had an abortion and spent the next two decades in fruitless search for a man who would stay with her. She wants to seduce Michel and succeeds, after a fashion, but it is soon clear that both of them are shell shocked and no longer able to love. Still, she wants a child and Michel agrees to try. She does get pregnant but doctors discover she is rotten with cancer and must abort it. Unable to face the prospect of grueling radiation therapy with little hope of success, she kills herself. Michel oversees the cremation, then leaves France permanently for Ireland, where he devotes himself to quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific speculations about biology, technology and human nature. He then disappears without a trace.
As one reads a summary of Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles, one's heart sinks under the weight of deja vu. The Sixties, sex and drugs, pop culture, divorce, ephemeral love-thanks to Philip Roth, Jay McInerney, Forrest Gump and countless other writers and movies, we have had our noses rubbed in all of this many times before. Can any of it have escaped our attention? One would think not.
Yet to just about everyone's surprise, The Elementary Particles provoked an enormous storm when it was published in Paris in 1998. Michel Houellebecq had already acquired a small but devoted following among the young after the publication of his short novel Extension du domaine de la lutte ("Extension of the Domain of the Struggle," 1994), which has recently been translated under the unfortunate title Whatever. I first heard about The Elementary Particles from several French friends who had the book pressed upon them by their children, and these parents were puzzled that it struck such a deep chord with adolescents. The book quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies and the author found himself under attack as nihilistic and worse from every possible political and literary quarter, including that of former friends with whom he had started a review, Perpendiculaire, from whose board he was purged. I cannot think of another French novel over the past two decades that has generated this much interest, debate and animosity. Yet whenever the French talk about Houellebecq, I always feel certain that they mean something else.
The French fn de siecle began promptly on July 14, 1989. That day marked the bicentenary of the French Revolution, which eerily foreshadowed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The mood was upbeat across Europe, which watched by satellite the multimedia extravaganza put on by the French government that night on the Champs-Elysees. And it was fitting that François Mitterrand should serve as host. While as president he had responded slowly and ineptly to the breakdown of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, he had done more than anyone else to move France into modern Europe; he had effectively buried the French Communist Party and had made peace between the French left and liberal democracy. An important book published at the time by historians Francois Furet, Jacques Julliard and Pierre Rosanvallon made a convincing case that Mitterrand had bridged the cultural divide over the legacy of the French Revolution, making France into a stable centrist republic and ending the centuries-long "French exception.'' A new age for France, in a united Europe, seemed in the offing.
But from that day forward, nothing has gone right-or so the French seem to believe. The liberal consensus in politics and economics rubbed contrary spirits the wrong way and they began to complain of the suffocating effects of la pensee unique. The racist radical right, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, refused to disappear, indeed seemed to gain strength whenever the economy took a dive. In 1992 Mitterrand submitted the Maastricht Treaty providing for European union to the French voters, fully confident of victory by a wide margin, only to find himself in a dogfight with opponents of further European integration on the right, left and republican center. The treaty was ratified by the narrowest of margins. By 1993 unemployment reached 12 percent and the Socialists lost control of the National Assembly, forcing Mitterrand to spend the last two years of his term in "cohabitation" with the Gaullists. The stale perfume of la morosite was everywhere.
Jacques Chirac assumed the presidency in 1995, bringing into the government a moderate right-wing majority, which tried to reform the schools and trim social benefits. The response was a series of strikes throughout the public sector, including the schools, where teachers and students marched against the government arm in arm. Out of those strikes a new movement, called "the left of the left," was born. Its intellectual wing was led by the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who publishes a review and founded a small publishing house, both named Liber, to militate against "neoliberalism" (the European term for unfettered capitalism), the "media" elite and cultural Americanization.
After Mitterrand died in 1996, it became clear that whatever one thought of his shady manner of governing and his personal duplicity, the French political scene had lost its last masterful homme politique, and it was uncertain what would become of the centrist republic. Jacques Chirac has also been forced to govern in "cohabitation" with a left-wing majority in the Assembly, which helps to maintain the center but also paralyzes it. Bold government action on all the pressing issues of the day-education, social services, crime, economic integration, the Balkans-is usually impossible. The only political gesture capable of rallying the French today appears to be the bulldozing of a McDonald's by a sheep farmer.
The truth be told, the idea of a "centrist republic" was something of a myth and not a terribly popular one. Furet and his collaborators were, in my view, absolutely right to see that the myth of the eternal French Revolution had exhausted itself and was no longer adapted to the practical demands of modern liberal democracy. They were also right to proclaim the death of the Communist myth, which since 1917 had been subtly woven into the French revolutionary one. Working-class "consciousness" disappeared in the 30 years of prosperity following World War II, and France was becoming, like its European neighbors, a society of independent citizens with bourgeois aspirations. I even think Furet was right to assert that, objectively speaking, the French have adjusted to this new social and political order rather well.
But myths are not mirrors of social reality; they are projections of aspirations, which they also reshape over time. Furet hoped that a new "republican" myth would take hold in France, one in which the modest ambitions and capacities of liberal democracy would be accepted, while the centripetal forces of individualism and capitalism would be contained through a commitment to citizenship cultivated, as in the Third Republic, by the public schools.
While this aspiration is shared by many across the political spectrum, a more powerful countermyth grew up in the Nineties. It presents the French with a horrifying dystopian vision of their future in an atomized world of disconnected individuals, spinning in space without attachments to history, the nation, family or friends. It is a world dominated by relentless technological advances that threaten all that is familiar to us, from the bioengineered food we eat to the aging of our bodies. It is, above all, a world in which love and soul have been abolished. Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is the first literary monument to this myth.
A sketch of this monument can be found in Houellebecq's Extension du domaine de la lutte, which is a tighter work of fiction and more successfully realized. It concerns a computer programmer who works in a Dilbert-style office, as it might have been painted by Edvard Munch. Alienated workers stick to their cubicles except for lunch and office parties, where the conviviality is forced and everyone leaves depressed. The unnamed protagonist spends his weekends and evenings alone in his spartan apartment, a brutal modernist bunker surrounded by threatening public spaces. The firm is self-consciously "dynamic": its directors speak the cheerful langue du bois of management schools while cutting one another's throats on the way to the top. The protagonist is not the competitive type and is therefore hopelessly out of sync with his times. So he is shipped off with another employee, a fat, ugly poseur who is also failing badly in the corporate jungle, and together they make client calls in dreary provincial towns.
The protagonist is obsessed with a former girlfriend, an adept of recreational psychotherapy, who has abandoned him. He sees her as part of the "sacrificed generation" of the sexual revolution, a woman who has had so many "sexual partners" that she is incapable of love and secretly fears becoming old, ugly and alone. He has come to hate her, but even more the sexual revolution that spawned her. So while visiting a disco in Rouen on Christmas Eve with his porcine coworker he decides to take his revenge. He persuades the frustrated young man, who gets nowhere with women, to kill a black man who just left the disco with a hot young (white) thing who has given them both the brushoff. The fool follows them to the beach, where we expect him to perform un acte gratuit modeled on Camus' The Stranger, but nothing happens. He watches the girl perform fellatio, masturbate, and then leaves. That night he dies in a car crash.
Houellebecq has a discerning eye for detail. In his best passages he reminds one of Georges Perec, especially the Perec of the masterful short novel Les choses (1965), which describes in exhaustive thoroughness the consumption habits of a young couple in the Sixties. Houellebecq is just as meticulous, evoking the deserted pedestrian zones in small towns at night, the stench of the fast-food stands, the repulsive tan of the well-coiffed manager on the rise, the banality of corporate slogans, the comical French obsession with vacations. But he also appears to feel that the sum of such details falls short of capturing the vertigo many of the French feel in the empty vortex of their modern lives. "This progressive effacement of human relationships is not without certain problems for the novel," he remarks in an aside. "We're a long way from Wuthering Heights, to say the least. The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreamy discourse would need to be invented."
Perec was mocking the hollowness of the new consumer society before the sexual revolution. For Houellebecq, it is sex-or, more precisely, the new relationship between economic and sexual competition-that reveals what we are today, not our consumption patterns. The irony of the title, Extension du domaine de la lutte, may be lost on American readers. In French it sounds like a propaganda slogan put out by radical students in 1968: Take it to the streets! But the struggle Houellebecq has in mind is not the class struggle, it is the new war of all against all that has broken out of the economic sphere and invaded every other. A long passage from the novel sums up his Big Idea:
It's a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It's what's known as "the law of the market." In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find his place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society....Certain people win on both levels; others lose on both. Businesses fight over certain young professionals; women fight over certain young men; men fight over certain young women; the trouble and strife are considerable.
The Elementary Particles is a reworking of this idea, especially through the character of Bruno. What got it more attention than the early novel was Houellebecq's wicked sendup of the soixante-huitards, the student rebels of 1968 who raged against the machine of capitalism and dug up "the beach below the pavement," but who turned out to be more radical individualists than their parents and bosses. Houellebecq shares a common French interpretation of the Sixties, quite different from our own and quite refreshing. While many Americans see the Sixties as a step in the steady march of democracy-the extension of the domain of struggle, so to speak-many Frenchmen have come to see the events of 1968 as marking the triumph of a new social ideal of individualism, and the snapping of the last attachments of solidarity binding French society together. The family, the Church, the republican schools, even the Communist Party suffered a crisis of legitimacy, from which they have not recovered, in the name of the individual's right to self-determination, a right that has become the sole measure of social legitimacy. Such individualism lies at the heart of Americans' self-understanding as a people but it is a new idea in Europe and it makes the French particularly uneasy.
Houellebecq knows exactly how to play off this discomfort by insinuating the existence of a world-historical process that is smashing the complex molecules of human existence into smaller and smaller particles spinning in space. That process, he seems to believe, reached its final stage in the Sixties. In one of his unguarded essays in the collection Rester vivant, he recounts what it was like being a 10-year-old in 1968 and thinking something important might be happening. But he now sees that "afterward, the social machine began to turn even more rapidly, pitilessly, and May '68 only served to break the few moral rules that still served to brake its voracious operation." In this machine, everything is coordinated. The forces of neoliberal economics have succeeded in breaking down the last barriers to unfettered global competition-unions, labor laws, tariffs, subsidies, national preferences, even national currencies. (Houellebecq publicly opposed the Maastricht Treaty.)
The sexual revolution has done its part by opening the couple to permanent, relentless sexual competition, aided by feminism, which has encouraged young women to enter this and every other market, while offering solace to resentful older women made redundant. Men have reveled in their new freedom but also felt the sting of competition in the new sexual marketplace, becoming obsessed with their bodies and regressing to the oral stage of sexual development. Children now grow up with parents too selfish and harried to care for them and are abandoned in the sexual jungle to look for love at an early age. Those who succeed as adolescents become slaves as adults to a regime of dieting, exercise, antidepressants, breast augmentation, penile enhancement and liposuction, in a vain effort to maintain their competitive edge. Those who fail are given boxes of condoms in school and told to keep their chins up. You can see them in any classroom: their hair dyed, their bodies pierced to enhance their ugliness. They are lonely, depressed, self-loathing.
Had Houellebecq merely wanted to exploit all France's unconscious fears in the Nineties, he could hardly have done better than writing these two novels. But when one looks to his journalism, interviews and even poetry, it becomes apparent that he sees the world much as his characters do. This has led to some confusion in France because it makes him difficult to place politically. The literary group he helped form, and which excommunicated him, Perpendiculaire, had left-wing proclivities, and Houellebecq was a frequent contributor to Les Inrockuptibles, a slick, generation-X magazine whose political line follows that of Pierre Bourdieu. Extension du domaine de la lutte could be admired in those circles but The Elementary Particles could not. The veterans of 1968 found his mocking caricatures of them unforgivable and there are passages on race in the book that made people wince. As Bruno slides into madness he begins writing Celine-like rants about how "we envy and admire the Negro because we long to regress, like him, to our animal selves; to be animals with big cocks and small reptilian brains..." Houellebecq then, in a brilliant touch, has Bruno submit these pamphlets to Philippe Sollers, a slick former Maoist turned literary mandarin who makes and breaks careers in France. Sollers reads them and announces warmly, "Vous avez du talent."
Houellebecq can appear obsessed with miscegenation. Both novels feature black sexual athletes who provoke envious rage in white men, and many of his characters have foreign-sounding names: Janine's maiden name is Ceccaldi, Michel's father is Djerzinsky, the guru is di Meola. Is France becoming a mongrel nation? Many Frenchmen fear so, but it is this fear, not race itself, that is Houellebecq's real subject. In 1991, before he turned to writing novels, he published a short study of the American master of the gothic story, H.P. Lovecraft. Like many of Lovecraft's admirers Houellebecq considers him to be a literary genius but, unlike them, he makes no attempt to hide the fact that Lovecraft was a self-avowed racist who, for a time, supported Hitler. Houellebecq surmises that it was Lovecraft's move from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City that transformed his genteel WASP racism into "the brutal hate of a trapped animal forced to share his cage with animals of a different, threatening species." Lovecraft, like Bruno in The Elementary Particles, is a racist out of misanthropic fear, a fear generated by the "machine" of modern life that knows no rules but competition and the survival of the fittest. It is thanks to the triumph of neoliberalism-economic, political, cultural, sexual-that we are all racists now.
For Houellebecq, Lovecraft is a "case." But he is also something of a visionary. His creepy stories typically revolve around a decadent, deracinated Anglo-Saxon family and its encounter with inhuman forces from another dimension that can only be entered with inhuman forces from another dimension accessed through the magic arts. Science, rather than revealing the danger, blinds us to it. His famous story "The Call of Cthulhu" begins like this:
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
To which Houellebecq remarks:
Humans of the 20th century now ending, this hopeless cosmos is absolutely ours. This abject universe, where fear ripples in concentric circles out to the unnamable revelation, this universe where our only imaginable destiny is to be crushed and devoured-we recognize this absolutely as our mental universe.
There is a great deal of bogus science in The Elementary Particles, most of it connected to Michel's work in genetics. What Houellebecq seems to be suggesting here is that there is a subtle connection between the rise of individualism and the rise of biotechnology, the first fueling the second as we seek to reshape our natures in order better to control them. The result, though, could be a Lovecraftian horror story in which we actually succeed and are forced to encounter some horrible truth about ourselves. That seems to be the point of the prologue to the novel, which speaks of a "great metaphysical mutation" taking place, and the epilogue, a dystopian fantasy about how Michel's research finally makes possible in the 21st century the decoupling of sexuality and reproduction, preparing the way for the breeding of a perfectly satisfied, posthuman species without egos or souls.
Or is it dystopian? One of the most curious scenes in Houellebecq's curious book is a conversation between Bruno and Michel about Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. After a few drinks Bruno insists that it actually describes a utopia and is an accurate representation of our collective unconscious wishes:
Everyone says that Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that's hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world we have tried-and so far failed-to create.
In the end, Houellebecq leaves us hanging about our future -not about its shape but about its goodness. Here, too, he is playing with an important French myth, this time that of the "end of history" and the "last man," recently revived by Francis Fukuyama. In the 1930s the Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve taught a famous seminar on Hegel in Paris, in which he explained how Hegel's discovery of the motor of history-the struggle for equal recognition among individuals-led to the discovery that history was about to end in what Kojeve called the "homogeneous universal state." At the political level, this state would be a set of global administrative and economic institutions run by technically competent bureaucrats free from the traditional conflicts of politics. But at the social level it would mean the disappearance of most of the human characteristics that drove history hitherto, and the cultivation of perfectly satisfied individuals living for little more than consumption, erotic satisfaction and sports.
This haunting image harks back to Nietzsche, who in Thus Spoke Zarathustra heaped contempt on the modern, enlightened European, calling him "the last man": a hollow-chested, thoroughly domesticated being "who makes everything small." Kojeve's syncretic vision of our post-human fate was highly inžuential-his students included Andre Breton, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Raymond Queneau, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and even Raymond Aron-and it continues to make up part of the mental furniture of French intellectual life. But, as a French wag remarked to me about The Elementary Particles, it's not only about the "last man," it seems to have been written by one. Houellebecq has made the mistake of granting numerous interviews about his latest book and the more he tries to explain his ideas the less coherent they become. He has also taken to the road with a band that backs him while he reads his flat-sounding poetry, and recordings of these performances can be purchased on CD. There is now the obligatory Houellebecq website (www.multimania.com/houellebecq/) and a film based on The Elementary Particles is said to be underway. (The film of Extension du domaine de la lutte has already appeared in France.)
All this conventional self-promotion seems unfortunate. Clotted with confused theoretical speculations, The Elementary Particles is not a distinguished literary work; but it is a very knowing evocation of the night thoughts disturbing the slumber of the French centrist republic today. It will be interesting to see what sort of echo it has in the United States. Individualism, the collapse of authority, the breakdown of the family, pop-culture decadence, globalization, the flexible workplace, genetic engineering-we have different ways of conceiving and worrying about these problems. The American left objects to some of them, the right anguishes about others, but no one sees them all connected in the way Houellebecq does, certainly no American novelist. That may reflect our equanimity and common sense. Or it may mean that Houellebecq is on to something.
back to index