Kathleen Stock really can write, cant she? As ever, immensely enjoyable.
My own view is though, I think there’s more behind the tide of hopelessness than it merely being a feeling: you have to ask why that feeling exists and, more crucially, why so many other people share it. I believe that there is a real external effect causing it, and I trace it back to the financial crisis and the gradual realisation that although immediate economic meltdown had been averted, the price of that avoidance was to be paid gradually over time by the large majority of people who had had no hand in causing it – ie voters, taxpayers and the middle and working classes.
It is a distraction to blame either bankers or politicians for the colossal f***up that the financial crisis represents: they were both at fault, and more to the point they were both at fault in the known, mutually shared knowledge of each other’s complicity in rigging financial markets for mutual gain. The bankers and politicians are the only ones who have not paid the price for this, and the rest of us have become aware of this via a gradual realisation that our futures were sold off in backroom deals because we were the only ones not present when the deals were done.
I have come to believe that all the nonsense we’re having to listen to these days – wokery, radical trans ideology, eco-zealotry, alt-right conspiracy theories etc – these are all reactions to the confiscation of hope by a political class that put itself before the majority it is supposed to serve.
Perhaps that external effect is not of this material world.
I am not sure what you’re referring to, but I am pretty certain that the effect is entirely of this material world, and it’s no mystery either.
Well argued there John.
Have there not been multiple varying successive shocks since the 2008 Crash? It changed our world for sure and began the atomisation of the ruling elite from the people (nod to Michel there). But the lockdown catastrophe is surely as destructive and impactful. And then there are the quieter but devastating forces of cultural change; the elevation of the progressive credos like greviance victimhood entitlement, the decline of Christianity and the spirit of enterprise?
Progressive credos like grievance victimhood entitlement which the universities seem heavily invested in serve a very useful distraction from genuine economic suffering and hopelessness. The disastrous state of the housing market depriving increasing generations of any hope of home ownership. The miserable state of the job market offering more and more zero hours gig jobs and fewer and fewer genuine jobs with permanence and decent prospects.
Whole generations apart from a lucky few have nothing to look forward to.
Instead of addressing this issue the universities have gone down a ridiculous and largely irrelevant cul de sac into which the younger ones pour all their rage and frustration thereby letting the political class off the hook.
XR, Just Stop Oil, trans rights – these are all empty distractions that play into the hands of the powerful by keeping youngsters distracted from the real issues – a broken housing system, a broken education system and a broken jobs market.
The writer incorrectly assumes that all Incels are the love market’s loser. It’s not so. There are many young men out there for whom opportunities abound, but who are tired of, even disgusted by, cheap and easy sex. Their dates are known to get red faced angry at this show or respect. “I’m not that kind of man,” wins them at least self respect.
Interesting perspective – I haven’t heard of this myself – but surely the label “incel” cannot apply to such men, because their celibacy is actually voluntary? They’d be v-cels or something like that?
Maybe this should be said too. I have read most if not all of MH’s books. Elementary Particles reveals to us two men for whom finding a woman to love is, to say the least, not so easy. Even if the perfect one is presented to them. Many have asked MH if he is not covertly Catholic. We can say too of course that the modern world is emphatically anti-Catholic. The young men I mentioned are searching for wives. The “wife”has gone out of style? Is this not the loss they feel?
We’re all that kind of man. Until we think we’re in love, of course.
Houellebecq and his characters were doing their miserable best (?) for at least a decade before the financial crisis, eg, Atomised was published in 1998.
Houellebecq’s ‘thing’ is not to do with the 2008 financial crisis.
I think you miss the point: I’m arguing that modern mass-disaffection stems from the after-effects of the financial crisis. Whatever Houellebecq wrote about a decade prior to the financial crisis isn’t causally relevant to contemporary social tensions, even if there may be obvious parallels.
You’re missing the point that after-effects don’t occur ten years before the event they are said to be an effect of.
‘Twas ever thus. Which is why putting all the blame on our putative leaders is more than a little bit of a cop out. If people feel rootless and devoid of any real hope how much is that their own fault for settling for the ephemeral endless BS that’s all over the internet and mass media and not making the effort to find something with some actual depth to it?
Exactly, the Internet can’t replicate human relationships, it’s not a substitute for a walk in the mountains, or for romantic love, or the love of anything else other than oneself.
You make some good arguments, but your political / economic case goes nowhere near explaining the doom mongering and nihilism that is so fashionable in western societies. After all, the idea that we lived in some pleasant social democratic state in the 1970s say, is absurd. Maybe there has been something of an economic down turn since 2008, but people are vastly better off – and most of us really know it – than we would have been 50, 100 years ago.
Stock really is a magisterial writer.
Her essays in Unherd alone “cover the costs”.
I often think that many of Houellebecq’s detractors miss the blindingly obvious humour in his writing – viscerally repellent it often may be, but he doesn’t seem to have any favourites and I’m left with the impression that he reserves his sharpest barbs for himself.
There are also plenty of people who slate him without having read any of his work. Their loss.
A form of self-cutting with words?
Possibly. I certainly don’t think he has many illusions about himself or the society he inhabits, and biting satire may well be his way of dealing with the mess. Or, to quote from Omar Khayyam (Fitzgerald translation): “Make Game of that which makes as much of thee”.
One of my favourites!
In a word, self deprecation.
I quite agree. Maybe it’s me, but I found Atomised riotously funny a lot of the time and like a kind of deranged emetic. When he’s on a destructive rant, it’s brilliantly cathartic and entertaining.
I’ve read and enjoyed several of Michel Houellebecq’s books. There is one aspect of his self-appointed role as enfant terrible of French letters (I couldn’t resist that one) that I especially like. He tweaks the tail of the French intelligentsia by spotting the issue that they have swept under the carpet and making that issue the subject matter of his next novel, thereby ensuring notoriety, celebrity and a reputation for prescience. But it never occurred to me that his books might be shelved under “self-help”. If you think of him as an essayist, rather than a novelist, then he is a kind of anti-Montaigne, writing more to discomfort the intellectuals than to comfort the punters. I can hardly wait until his next book.
I was rather surprised when he accepted the Légion d’honneur!*
Next stop no doubt the Académie Française.
(*Despite its wonderful privileges.)
Perhaps “pour épater la nouvelle bourgeoisie?” I surely hope so.
If, on the other hand, he becomes subsumed into the élite establishment, his back catalogue will never disappoint…
Yet another dad-joke double entendre, I like it.
Well, it is Friday
Thanks – having a slow day and missed that one. Nicely done, Peter!
There is indeed something deeply gratifying about reading a brilliant enraged witty and deeply cynical pessimist – a real tonic in fact!
Management at the University of Sussex are idiots.
Management in most arenas is larded with such as those. The ones worth their salt seem to depart…
It confronts you with the purest synthesis of a despairing take on liberal society, and make you live there for a while, drinking it in. And after a while, the feelings of despair start to lose their power, and you start to realise that hopelessness is only a mood after all. It’s not the world — it’s you.
“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
You misunderstand. When there is understanding that a feeling or mood is a fleeting product of an overactive mind which is not you then you are freed. Its the opposite of what you seem to imply.
“And after a while, the feelings of despair start to lose their power, and you start to realise that hopelessness is only a mood after all. It’s not the world — it’s you.”
Up until the simply appalling COVID fiasco I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you, but not now.
Houellebecq’s deep seated pessimism about Monotheism and in particular Islam is almost certainly correct, and we should prepare for the worst, if only for our great grandchildren’s sake.
Submission is an instructional book on how a man can survive in the France of the future: throw your lot in with the Mohammedans, get a couple of young wives and become a respected elder in the new world. C’est La Vie!
The puritanical Censor strikes again.
Yes I know, ‘tongue in cheek’ really!
I forget whether he mentioned that mutilating ones p*nis was mandatory, and wasn’t it four wives not two?
The number of wives depends on the man’s wealth according to the novel.
I read Soumission more as a satire of cynical Sorbonne hipsterism.
Islam, I beleive, is the biggest threat to Western culture and in particular to the liberty of women and girls. I’m not at all surpised that France isn’t helping us stop the boats, we are fools to even think they would do that!
I recommend “Prey” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her book is well argued with clear data as to difficulties Muslim men, above all other religious men, find it difficut to take on 21st century Western liberal values. She has a chapter on the Pakistani so called ‘grooming’ gangs and their raping activities across the UK. These men currently engaged in this sickening practice are third generation British Muslims. So patient Guardian readers please note, no integration forethcoming there.
My personal response to woke fascism in the legacy publishing industry is that I only read novels by White men. Apart from Edward St Aubyn, Houellebecq is pretty much the only living novelist I read, and as a sub-fluent French speaker I’ve read almost his entire oeuvre in the original. Professor Stock is an excellent literary critic – certainly vastly superior to Terry bloody Eagleton – and I broadly agree with her assessment of Houellebecq’s writing, although I see him more as a social conservative satirist of liberalism and neoliberalism than as a flat-out pessimist. Underneath the bleakness of “Serotonine”, there is as RMParker below points out a mordant humour.
How very interesting.
St Aubyn? Was that the chap who claimed he was b*ggered by his father, a former Cavalry Officer as I recall.
Does he write well?
Yes.The Patrick Melrose novels are well worth a read.
Yes it was, and yes he most certainly does.
Thank you, I’m off to Cornwall shortly so will follow your recommendation.
Excellent point re. Houellebecq’s social conservatism: you succinctly identify something that always struck me as well. I think his work often has the subtext of a lament for historical, and much more human social structures which have been engineered out of existence by successive generations of ideologues. What remains to us is terminally jejune and without foundation – and deep down, I think that’s what’s eating Michel.
Houellebeqc’s mother was clearly the inspiration for Patsy Stone’s:”I name the child Eurydice Colette Clytemnestra Dido Bathsheba Rabelais Patricia Cocteau Stone. Now take it away, and bring me another lover!”
Some significant portion of men publicly self-identify as incels? (I’ve known some who are involuntarily celibate—but as a matter of fact, not identity.)
Sex is for marriage, is better in marriage, by all self-reporting. And so why not frame the problem as such to yourself?
Become a deeply attractive person. The key to attractiveness and marriageability is not finding the right person but being the right person. Not the sh*tty Andrew-Tate-wannabe alpha male, but someone who has goals, cares about people, especially those closest to him, serves others, contributes, acts like he has something to learn, takes cares of himself and his stuff….
So much about the modern world puzzles me—It’s all so… disordered!—probably because as as a Christian, I’m a total anachronism.
That’s the Jordan Peterson solution.
Joy Division does it for me.
It’s strange. I worshipped Joy Division but when I returned to it recently I found it was pretentious, unlistenable rubbish. I suspect I was rather more influenced by the NME than I care to admit
or it’s like the writing of William Burroughs – great at first but tedious when you go back to it. And what’s with the centipedes?
Agreed. I stopped reading ‘Naked Lunch’ when I got to the part where Burroughs and his friend pay two young Egyptian boys to b****r each other. Ugly, nihilistic garbage. And what’s with the fascination with junkies? There’s nothing ‘edgy’ about them, all they do is live for their next fix.
Your analysis is incorrect.
I don’t wish to offend you – but is there the smallest chance that it is your good self who may have become a tad pretentious in your middle age : ) “I’m above all that now, I listen to jazz” lol.
At heart, pretension is dishonesty – deliberate exaggeration and conceit and swaggering preening, etc.
None of that remotely applied to Joy Division, or to Ian Curtis.
Serious yes, pretentious not at all. Curtis had severe and worsening epilepsy, a chaotic personal life, and cripplingly-low self-esteem, as the lyrics from “Isolation” make clear:
“I’m doing the best that I can
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through
I’m ashamed of the person I am”
There are countless pretentious artists – bands, writers – who feign, and exaggerate, emotions to sell records. Gothic fakers aspire to the cultural kudos of despair (they think it denotes depth), but they’re usually faking it, and are thinly-disguised cheery chappies aping miserabilism.
I’ve listened to various covers of Joy Division’s songs by other artists, and such covers invariably are pretentious and deeply irritating. They’re faking it, and their insincerity grates to the point where I’d punch them if I met them.
Not so for Curtis’ Joy Division, he and they were 100% authentic. He hanged himself aged 23, for heaven’s sake. Unless you reckon that he killed himself merely to perpetuate an image.
Obviously, as a happy and successful middle-aged person, you may find such youthful despair frankly irritating, and you of course are not obliged to endorse such an absolutist youthful stance, but to call it “pretentious” misses the point spectacularly.
The film about the band, Control, is a riveting watch, for non-fans and fans alike.
It’s certainly possible, although I can’t stand jazz and have never been able to listen to it. I think the issue is rather the other way, I’ve become far less pretentious. I couldn’t give a shit about listening to the “right” music now and I’m happy to admit I love cheesy pop or anything with a decent melody.
That’s a shame. I think they’ve stood the test of time. New Order not so much.
Shadowplay still sends shivers down my spine to this day.
I saw Joy Division aged about 15 at a Rock Against Racism gig in the Rainbow at Finsbury Park, about 6 weeks before Ian Curtis’s death.
Larkin does it for me.
“Touching as it is to see the keenness of the academic to reconcile the demands of his two perennial masters — a love of edgy transgression, and the desire to write only what a Guardian reader might approve of —…” Chapeau, Professor Stock, another absolute gem from you.
Christ, what a miserable bunch of losers they all sound. Listen, it’s Saturday tomorrow. Go to the football; have some beer on the pub lawn afterwards. Flirt with the girls l.
Get a life, why don’t you?
I’ve read him. He writes well, and he probably has a point about the mad mullahs.
But, intelligence and wordplay aside, god he has such a shrivelled heart.
The works of e.g. Beckett, Camus, Peter Handke et al are hardly a bundle of laughs either, but you somehow sense the disappointment in that they wished for more.
And they’re better writers too.
There is something paradoxically ennobling in Beckett’s degradations.
H’becq by contrast seems to revel in his own self-limiting bourgeois shit.
Can’t stand his stuff.
As for the incel wankers, I guess reading anytthing otuside their w**k-bubble would help them, but I favour national service for those mummy’s boys
All these questions have been answered much more succinctly:
You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Life is a sad
Life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do
And you do it well
I’d do it for you honey baby
Can’t you tell?
Can’t believe people still take that huckster fraud seriously.
“…In ordinary life, it’s easy to confuse a temporary mood with a fact about the world, and vice versa…”
Indeed. Doomsaying per se is a mood, a shimmer, a mirage, a chimera, and “…feelings of despair start to lose their power…” when you shift perspectives. But you can’t argue with a bunch of mathematical equations. The consequences of for example, Bayesian Inference, will play out regardless of whether any given human is a doomer or not – moods don’t come into it.
It’s not the world, it’s me, and the only question to decide is, if I am staring at “a fact about the world” or a “temporary mood”. I am an outright, machine intelligence doomer. At one level, I have not in fact, changed my views on this – as in, I have believed for a long time that *if* human sentience is algorithmic, and human-like sentience is replicable on computers, then the machines will supercede us (once we create machine intelligence significantly smarter than us). But the reality of the resolution of this question in the positive, seemed far away all these years, notwithstanding that I was obsessively engaged with the nature of cognition and intelligence since my early twenties; also notwithstanding that every trendline about technological advance that I know of, has been screaming at me for decades that we, as in this generation of humanity, is going to be right on the precipice of a resolution one way or the other, right about now. Even now, I am not absolutely certain that I’m beginning to see what I think I’m seeing, but what I absolutely don’t want to do, is ignore evidence piling up in front of my eyes, although if what I think is evidence, is in fact what I think it is, is moot. (And congratulations if you managed to make head or tail of that sentence). But that’s all a bit like imagining your own extreme old age and declining cognitive and physical powers when you are in your mid twenties – possible in the theoretical sure, but very difficult to project as your own eventual reality (unless you are a Shakespeare), until it actually starts to happen, and even then you are not too sure that you are seeing what you think you are seeing, but then the evidence begins to stack up more and more, and there is no denying what is happening, assuming you are still by then capable of denying.
Houellebecq sounds a hoot by the way, but having rather gone off froggie pessimism (about the only one I can still bring myself to read these days is Camus), I think I will stick with Frayn.
Hollubeq is a nihilist and the Buddhist death meditation approach to his writings is the wisest course for remedying the misery which our information overloaded brains and egos inflict upon us. What Stock is describing is the “ witnessing state” or the Buddha’s “ right mindfulness” where the seeker cultivates the ability to view all thought and feelings as a passive witness and thereby dissolves the ego leading to a tranquil form of joy. In such a state Judeo Christian values are unnecessarily and concupiscence is transcended. If everyone sought this path the world would be a far better place.
I ground my way through his novels and found them miserable and soulless. I wish I had spent the time reading something else.
I remember reading Les Particules Élémentaires at the time, and thought it was a pretentious waste of time. Maybe I didn’t get it and still don’t get it, but the experience (reinforced by appearances on talk shows) has not inspired me to try any more Houellebecq.
What a miserable looking, and sounding, individual he is.
I would fault Houellebecq for producing anti-literature on occasions i.e. brutally perfunctory prose to serve the thesis of certain novels. Elsewhere, there are more poignant elements to his writing in capturing the postmodern human conditions. “The Map and the Territory” even resembles a classical European novel which is why he won the Prix Goncourt for it.
However, the above is just a terse and disappointing exercise in misandry focused on adolescent readings of the MH canon. If anything, his most recent translated book Serotonin (and by far worst put-together) is a focused portrait of male malaise at this point in time. So he covers all the bases relating to this currently fashionable inflection of the culture wars.
As far the critic goes, I really think the tide is starting to turn away from feminists in the trans debate now. ‘Gender’ is their concept, after all, and while we have sympathy for confused young women who are forced by cynical surgeons and psych ideologues into sex reassignment surgery, their number is small and largely concentrated in very privileged corners of American society
I love Doc Stock lolz. Houellebecq the reluctant pornstar, becoming a character in his novels, is up there with Dostoyevsky on the gallows.
This sounds like critique for the sake of critique. Read Huellebecq and enjoy.
Life is all about context.
I see from La Wik that Houellebecq’s personal life has been pretty grim, including parents “that lost interest in [his] existence pretty quickly.”
But maybe that’s par for the course in the upper echelons of the educated class.
You know I think the UK equivalent to Atomised is the horrific film Kidulthood (2006) – who’s plot is every Daily Mail headline rolled into one. Compelling and appalling for being so on the nail.
His best line; ‘In order to pass the time I told him the story of the German who ate the other German whom he’d met on the Internet.’
Great writing. Every time I see Kathleen’s name I know I’m in for a good read.
No mention of France though. Surely part of the Houelbecq story is a particularly French malaise, depression and disillusionment post war. The French have been living off their brand for some time. But they are no longer the cultural or political powerhouse they once were, and deep down they know this.
It’s a while since I read the novel, but one of the themes I picked up on was the failure of French intellectuals to come to terms with science (Chomsky and others have realised that France is essentially pre Darwinian), while clinging to outmoded ways of thinking. It’s a backwater – secretly it knows it – and Houelbecq is in part a response to that.
Recently read The map and the territory and found it ‘grimly peaceful and reassuring’ – many thanks for your perception, please keep writing
I finished Platform one evening and woke up the next morning to the Bali bombing. So he was pretty prescient back in the day.
But with Serotonin, Houellebecq’s schtick kinda ran out.