Looking back, the National Public Radio building in midtown Manhattan felt like the centre of a dying world. I was set to appear on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where, two days before my 33rd birthday, I would join the ranks of great artists and former presidents; an occasion, it had occurred to me, that my parents could boast about to their friends. Officially, I was there to promote a new book. The date was 11 November, 2013. Veteran’s Day. I’d been home from Afghanistan for a little more than a year.
Play it cool, I thought, as I passed the guards on my way to the elevators. Upstairs, a friendly producer explained that Gross recorded from a different location before leaving me alone in the room. My friend and co-author Roy Scranton sat in a third studio, in a different city. Since getting back from Iraq in 2007, I’d been pursued by the kind of cryptic, persistent mood that can sometimes foreshadow a profound insight or a mental breakdown. I was trying to adjust the headphones, which seemed to be getting tighter, when the interview started.
Gross asked which books we took with us overseas and I mentioned Dostoevsky, a few detective novelists, and then the French writer Michel Houellebecq and his novel Atomised, published in America under the title, The Elementary Particles. Appearing in France in 1998, the book caused an immediate sensation and generated a second wave of press in 2001 when the English translation came out. Years later, I read it at night inside a corrugated metal shipping container that had been converted into what the US army calls a containerised housing unit, pronounced “choo”, where I lived on a forward operating base in Southern Iraq for roughly nine months in 2007. It was, I told Gross, “a deliriously misanthropic, very interesting novel about the dead-end of modern existence”.
For Houellebecq, life is made up of a few actual events surrounded by a glacial immensity of mitochondria and other microscopic insects, and the distant spooky action of space. Wherever consciousness and sentiment appear like gnats in the cosmos, they are likely to register in feelings of sadness, desperation, and loss.
A previous generation’s French novelist of ideas, Albert Camus, opened his 1942 book The Stranger with a line meant to illustrate the numbness and alienation at the heart of contemporary man’s existential condition: “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.” Houellebecq might have followed this with a long paragraph narrated like a nature documentary about mother’s corpse undergoing a process of cellular decomposition and how the laws of quantum physics make it impossible to determine the exact moment of her death. At which point, switching back to the protagonist’s point of view, he might consider that having never been loved by his mother, he would never feel true love himself. He would then experience a momentary impulse to weep, stifled yet impossible to ignore, before attempting to masturbate.
“I’d like to believe that the self is an illusion,” says Bruno, the older of the two half-brothers who are the protagonists of Atomised, “but if it is, it’s a pretty painful one.” It is an undignified view of life, often funnier than this passage indicates, but still utterly lacking in the qualities that allow critics to honour certain books as “humane” and “empathetic”. Yet it captured something essential about the experience of living through the end of the 20th century. The romance of Houellebecq’s writing lies in its author’s willingness to go past decency into pornographic wretchedness, where, in his character’s ultimate disappointments, he captures a convincing sentimentality.
He was already well-known when I mentioned him to Gross: both as a writer and as a provocateur who said terrible things about women, defended the patriarchy, sneered at liberalism, made drunken passes at interviewers, and launched glib insults at Muslims. Yet it was still possible in the long-ago world of the second Obama administration to comment on the literary qualities of Houellebecq’s novels without saying anything about their author’s political impact. It even seemed reasonable at the time to assume that he did not have a political impact.
That soon changed. In 2015, Houellebecq published a new novel, Submission, that depicted the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in France and remaking the republic as the centre of a new Islamic world civilisation. The book was released on the same day that jihadists murdered 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and became an instant bestseller. Its author was crowned the defining novelist of his time. A triumph, and yet, in the course of his ascension, Houellebecq has ceased to be regarded principally as a writer and come to be seen instead as a prophet. The author whose work anticipated or channelled the Bali bombings, Brexit, the alt-Right, the Gilet Jaunes, and other characteristic developments of the new millennium was assumed to be acting more as a medium than as a crafter of fiction.
Yet Houellebecq’s prophetic streak seems to be a direct result of his disinterest in politics. “The idea that political history could play any part in my own life was still disconcerting, and slightly repellent,” says the narrator of Submission. By ignoring politics and focusing instead on the intersection of sex and metaphysics in the seething inner lives of middle-class men, Houellebecq mapped out the ultimate concerns that — precisely because they had been systematically excluded from the politics of modern Western nations — ended up becoming the vectors of violent rebellion and populist revolt. Above all, he saw how despair and sexual resentment would be at the heart of any political challenge to liberal democracy.
Along with politics, Houellebecq has ignored the standard markers of literary seriousness. His books lack subtlety and roundedness. They eschew both social realism and formal inventiveness, while fixedly pursuing the stunted emotional logic of their characters. They are novels of ideas that treat history as a drama in which individuals and civilisations act out the gestalt of their age, at most half-aware of it. The rise and fall of civilisations are driven by what the narrator of Atomised calls “metaphysical mutations”. These are “radical, global transformations, such as the shift from antiquity to Christendom and from Christendom to rational materialism”. Such shifts manifest in the creation of historically representative people and institutions, such as, for instance, the writer Michel Houellebecq in France or National Public Radio in America.
While other writers have explored nihilism through the prism of violence and death, Houellebecq’s unique vision sees it as an infestation of sex and desire. Each of his books — with the exception of his most recent — dramatises a connection between unrestricted sexual freedom, the rationalistic secular worldview, and civilisational suicide.
Facing man’s guilt for killing God, Nietzsche asked: “How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?” Houellebecq’s answer is that individuals in the throes of deterministic, rationalist materialism become pleasure-maximising objects by dissolving all human bonds. The most desirable reward themselves with orgies while the rest seek consolation in whatever kinds of sex they can get until those dry up, at which point there’s no more reason to live. In the name of freedom and self-realisation, mothers abandon their children (according to legend, this is the very tragedy that spawned the writing career of Houellebecq). Ordinary people who would once have raised families in the state of mild contentment that sustained generations before them instead waste their years pursuing novel sexual techniques that end in the most appalling sterility. The blitzed-out flower child was good marketing material for the generation of 1968, but when the mask is ripped off, the true face of free love is revealed to be the Manson family painting the walls with blood.
The death of God ends up clearing the field for the conquest of the marketplace. Starting with his first novel, 1994’s Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (“extension of the domain of the struggle”, but translated as Whatever), Houellebecq attacked unfettered capitalism: “In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate 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.” Once the early promises of globalisation were crushed, he would later write: “Whole social classes fell through the net and joined the ranks of the unemployed. But the savage sexual competition did not abate as a result — quite the reverse.”
The combined attack on liberal social values and the subjugation of interpersonal relations to market forces led many to label Houellebecq a reactionary. There are various ways to be a political reactionary but all share the belief that we live in a fallen period caused by some terrible human invention and that there was a better time when people lived by the right laws of God or nature, or both.
But reactionaries face an unresolvable problem. It is never clear how much of modernity has to be rejected to restore the world to its rightful order. A moderate conservative who starts by wanting to roll back the excesses of sixth-wave gender-ideology feminism finds that, upon inspection, the first wave is equally incompatible with their interpretation of the Bible. The temptation is always to go further in search of the lost innocence — behind the French Revolution lies the invention of fire — and is thus always prone to seeing the world’s complete undoing as the only means to its redemption.
Houellebecq often seems to fall into this trap. In one book, he rails against the dehumanising wages of neoliberalism, then in his next the problem seems to go deeper, back into the heart of the Enlightenment, before finally it is Christianity itself, which, the narrator of Submission, echoing Nietzsche, says is, “at the end of the day, a feminine religion”. The next step would seem to be to look to nature itself and worship in pagan fashion what the poet Wallace Stevens called that “old chaos of the sun”. But Houellebecq is not really a common reactionary, and he despises nature even more intensely than he does hippies. “All in all, nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust — and man’s mission on earth was probably to do just that,” observes Bruno’s younger half-brother Michel.
“We could perhaps attack the sun, deprive the universe of it, or use it to set fire to the world — those would be real crimes,” wrote the imprisoned Marquis de Sade in the mid-18th century. For de Sade, according to Camus’s study of him in The Rebel, “nature is sex; his logic leads him to a lawless universe where the only master is the inordinate energy of desire.” The opposite has been true for Houellebecq, who once wrote that: “The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles… And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles.” Unlike de Sade, who exalted in crime as the only true freedom, Houellebecq is too much of a moralist to enjoy being a libertine. If human actions are free, as he once claimed, then he knows this is only because they are meaningless.
Where does that leave Houellebecq? Like the man standing in the back of the line at the brothel who howls about the immorality of it all while waiting for his turn and then weeps when it is over. He comes to see religion as the only workable answer to modernity. But try as he might, he cannot imagine actually believing in the stuff. Religion may be essential to preserving what little grace life is capable of offering, but that is not the same as believing the commandments of God are true. As Micah Meadowcroft noted in an insightful essay on Houellebecq: “The shared preoccupation of author and characters with sex is revealed upon reflection to not be the dreary gratification of a pervert novelist but the heart of the matter. In the absence of a voice speaking loudly to this world of the next in words comprehensible to those who live here, this-world satisfaction re-emerges as the only motive force giving coherence to life.” Nearly destroyed by secularism, only a God can rescue the holy power of sex.
More like a God-haunted nihilist than a believer, Houellebecq talks a great deal about religion but sees it only through abstractions. Thus, for instance, there is nothing made in his work of the fact that the Hebrew Bible already covered much of the same ground when God destroyed humanity with the flood, in what the great Medieval rabbinic scholar Rashi judged to be a punishment for rampant sexual immorality.
Rather than worry about the flood, Houellebecq dreams of metaphysical mutations, the only means through which he can imagine the world changing. In the Nineties, when he was writing Atomised, he found Western civilisation so thoroughly exhausted that its salvation could only come through transhumanist genetic technologies. Twenty years later in Submission, still consumed by the sexual apocalypse, he offered the Islamic takeover of France as an ironic solution to Western decadence. In the end, the novel’s protagonist, who has lost all pleasure in sex and thus his will to live, submits to Islam because it promises a harem. Polygamy is as close as he can get to the possibility of having a normal loving family life, which is what he really wants in spite of himself.
More recently, Houellebecq has appeared caught between religious and romantic impulses. In Serotonin, published in 2019, the world is as bleak as ever, yet the author is beginning to believe that there may be something more to the universe than atoms and chance. In the book’s final chapter, its protagonist reflects on, “those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away — those illuminations, those ecstasies, inexplicable if we consider our biological nature”. The 19th-century Romantic movement, which birthed the modern belief in love as an overpowering passion began as a movement of religious reawakening emphasising man’s personal relationship to God. In his own unhurried way, Houellebecq is retracing those steps, starting with the personal tragedy of sexual disappointment and finding its ultimate source in the loss of the sacred.
Only a few months before my appearance on the radio, I met my wife. Now that I have children, I hardly think about the end of the world anymore. Houellebecq, who once imagined that love, even familial love, had been so thoroughly desecrated by modernity that the only escape was to reengineer human nature at the molecular level, was reportedly married for the third time in 2018 at the age of 62. It is not too late for him to put down the books and start a family.
Order your copy of UnHerd’s first print edition here.