by Francois Valentin
Friday, 29
July 2022
Dispatch
15:30

Michel Houellebecq: the Left has become mean

The writer gave a rare address to monarchist group Action Française
by Francois Valentin
(Photo credit LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

Michel Houellebecq’s public interventions usually attract attention. So when one of the most-translated and best-selling French writers in the world gave a conference earlier this month to the monarchist group Action Française, it is surprising to see that it hasn’t filtered into the Anglo press.

Action Française, or “AF”, is no ordinary political group. Founded in 1899, it became the nation’s leading reactionary voice, providing the French Right of the early 20th century with prominent intellectuals. The group included the historian Jacques Bainville and most famously the virulent anti-German and antisemitic essayist turned Vichy supporter Charles Maurras. Entire generations of Right-wingers, including a young Charles de Gaulle, would read the AF’s daily newspaper, edited by Maurras. Maurras’s Vichysme cost the AF dearly after the war however, with the organisation now a shadow of its former self, and only seeing something of a revival in the past decade.

So when Houellebecq, perhaps France’s most well-known intellectual, granted a two-hour audience at the AF’s Parisian headquarters, naturally many were curious to hear what the media-shy author had to say. Houellebecq began by delivering some pugnacious zingers against the Left to the delight of the tightly packed room. For the author, “The Left feels lost, and just like an injured animal, it becomes mean. It wasn’t the case when I started writing. It now feels itself dying so it becomes mean.”

Nonetheless, he fell well short of coming out as a monarchist. Houellebecq admitted to finding most of the work of the AF disappointing, and has hardly read the AF’s Pantheon of authors. The reason for his presence? Simply his “curiosity for le royalisme”.

And yet Houellebecq, among his more literary remarks — he cares little for style, and admires authors like Balzac or Dostoyevsky who both “wrote somewhat carelessly and sacrificed a lot in the name of intensity” — did give a rare insight into his bleakly pessimistic and reactionary worldview. The French Revolution? A “disaster” for Houellebecq, who also confessed his admiration for the reactionary essayist Joseph de Maistre. The Renaissance? The start of a long decadence: “after that it’s all downhill, and it’s not over”.

He also believes that “there will be a war with Islam, we have to know that and prepare for it”. Indeed in his novel Submission (2015), Houellebecq had already imagined the democratic election of an Islamist president in the 2022 French election and predicted a relatively peaceful transition towards an Islamic society. And he still believes that “all happiness is of a religious nature, even the religion is crappy,” which makes the demographically vibrant Islam a better fit for survival in the upcoming consumerist and transhumanist era.

Houellebecq does find one source of optimism: the gilets jaunes who had rocked Emmanuel Macron’s first term. He felt “complete solidarity” with those that were “presented as hicks and beggars”, but also he saw a “real level of thought”. He believes they could come back, but in the meantime offers a populist cookbook of measures to unite a France torn by class war: referenda, the election of judges (“no reason for the judiciary to evade democracy”) and a national budget voted by citizens. Surprisingly revolutionary proposals from a man who is billed as a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary.

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Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
13 days ago

I find the article a little undercooked.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
12 days ago

I’ve flagged your other respondent W.Perez’s comment as spam, and cordially urge you and anyone else reading this to do the same.

Last edited 12 days ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
13 days ago

“Reactionary” is a Marxist buzzword, no more than a means of stigmatizing those who reject left premises. A tiresome little chap called Rachman tries the the same trick in a recent attack on “strongmen” (a category into which he throws anyone from Orban to Johnson with Putin at the bottom for added stench) for, as the reviewer in this month’s “Critic” points out, his book shows the bien pensant tendency to think democracy only functions if it elects left governments and outlaws non-left opinions.
And here, albeit in much lighter form, we find the same technique of freezing disapproval applied to Houellebecq. The implied charge sheet is composed of “authors whom no-one should now read”. And yet, is Joseph de Maistre so stupid or malign? He believes that the hangman is the foundation of social order. As crime sky rockets in the absence of proper policing, his point gains bite. Are Balzac and Dostoyevsky to be dismissed, then? Deep blue Conservatives, both of them – Catholic on the one hand, Orthodox on the other – and keen students of human life.
As for Houellebecq’s actual message, I disagree with him about the Renaissance. He’s veering into full blown neo-medieval, neo-Catholic mysticism – a religious response to the religion of “Woke”. Far better to defend the process of Enlightenment, discovery and trade – the real target of today’s left. On the left’s inner feelings of loss and despair, however, he is spot on. A diet of puritanism, self-hatred and untruth can only be swallowed for so long.

Last edited 13 days ago by Simon Denis
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
13 days ago
Reply to  Selwyn Jones

I do wonder though if Christianity, Catholic or otherwise, is an antidote to the madness of dysfunctional cultures like those contained within wokeism. I understand your point about defending Enlightenment values, but they’ve proven too weak to stand against the Armies of Woke.

Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
13 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Again, an offending word – in itself quite innocent but containing another word, perhaps the most explosive in the modern lexicon. I wonder if you can guess at what it was? It is a cognate term for “to laugh”, begins with an S and suggests suppressed mirth… a casualty of our treading-on-eggshells world.

Last edited 13 days ago by Simon Denis
Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
13 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

There is much truth in what you say – Enlightenment views cannot, by themselves, support society or ensure their own dissemination. A religious foundation is necessary – as Voltaire very well knew. Even Hume had little actual hostility to religious institutions. But the glory of thirty-plus years ago – perhaps the defining quality of any society in a process of Renaissance to Enlightenment – was precisely that our religion was both tolerant and confident, whilst the educated class retained the old fashioned sceptic’s humility and cultural traditionalism. We had the best of both worlds. An ability to chortle gently over cocktails at this or that dogma combined with a perfectly happy attendance at mass or morning prayer. It was perhaps unsustainable, but to those who knew and lived this moment it offers a glimpse of civility and good sense to which the current generation is a stranger.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
13 days ago
Reply to  Selwyn Jones

I’d argue that far from forming the basis of a society, religion (any religion) is a surefire means of undermining it, and history is littered with examples of this occurrence. When the foundation of a religion become challenged, that means the whole basis of the society loses it’s foundation.
Much better to continue the process of weaning ourselves off the teat of religion to ensure that our society can engineer a different kind of foundation for the future. If history teaches us anything, this is one of it’s fundamental lessons.

Paula G
Paula G
12 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

What about giving yourself at least a year of Bible study, prayer, and watching You Tube videos for further religious education to see if You can find he truth and beauty of ordering yourself to virtue, in the hope of ascending to Heaven?

The study will stretch you, if not convert you. This “teat” of religion is probably pseudo intellectual, sophomoric posturing, or knowing God only from children’s Bible stories.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
12 days ago
Reply to  Paula G

What about studying the last 2000 years of history? It’s not religious education that’s needed, but individuals to simply make themselves accountable to each other for their actions, which will render all religion redundant.
Furthermore, if some kind of god was shown to exist, i’d want nothing to do with it.
I’m tired of people proselytising on this forum with regard to religion. Have your own beliefs if you must, but the insistence of religions on trying to convert everyone to their limited way of thinking is the cause of so much misery. That’s what studying history, and more importantly, studying humanity, will teach you.
In short, religion is the problem, not the answer.

Last edited 12 days ago by Steve Murray
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
12 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The Nazis, the Soviets, and the Chinese communists all engineered a different kind of foundation for the future. Uncountable millions dead, and we’re still suffering under those who plan to reimplement that hideous legacy.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
12 days ago

Edited.

Last edited 12 days ago by Steve Murray
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
12 days ago

But those systems were engineered on the kind of collectivist belief systems that religion had begun to vacate as its foundations were undermined. They were (and continue to be) just another form of authoritarian belief, to which the antidote isn’t individualism (as many seem to claim) but rather inidividual responsibility.

Last edited 12 days ago by Steve Murray
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
12 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Individual responsibility seems to be foremost a Christian ideal. It was the first religion that asserted that heaven/salvation was possible for everyone through good works and love for your fellow man or woman. As religions go it is also the most inclusive as it preaches loving over hating the Other.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convert you. It’s just that judging by what’s happening today, it seems that if we don’t have a cogent belief system to help structure our lives, we fall prey to whacky and corrupt ideologies like fasc*sm, communism, and now wokeism.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
12 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

My point is that when a religion (such as Christianity) is founded on a belief in a god who simply doesn’t exist, that undermines the entire belief system. Much better to accept personal responsibility, or to “Grow Up” as another Unherd article has it, than to continue with fallacious belief systems, all of which are eventually undermined leaving those societies floundering. Hence my assertion that religion is the problem, not the solution.

Until we reach that stage of development, we’ll just continue with the same old cycle. Now’s as good a time to start as any; indeed, the current cultural ructions are an opportunity. Time to do away with ALL belief systems and start acting like adults.

Easier said than done, of course.

Last edited 12 days ago by Steve Murray
cynthia callahan
cynthia callahan
10 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

If Calvinism * Christianity* places our entire human life immediately before God, then it follows that all men or women, rich or poor, weak or strong, dull or talented, as creatures of God, and as lost sinners, have no claim whatsoever to lord over one another, and that we stand as equals before God, and consequently equal as man to man.
Abraham Kuyper – Lectures on Calvinism – Princeton University in 1898
under auspices of the
L. P. Stone Foundation.

harry storm
harry storm
11 days ago

Indeed. And it was a secular West that opposed them. I agree with Steve. The excesses, abuses and irrationality of religion far outweigh its benefits

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
12 days ago
Reply to  Selwyn Jones

Humanism,under whatever sincerely meant aegis – whether ‘Enlightenment, discovery [or] trade’ – cannot sustain a civilized order of life.
The reason is that those values do not infuse supernatural courage in human beings. And that degree of courage we need.
If they did, then (as the Apostle St Paul has written) ‘Christ died in vain’ (i.e. ‘if righteousness comes by the Law’ [= the moral law]).
If getting people to be reasonable and behave well could be done by argument, the great sages centuries before Christ – Confucius, Plato to take but two examples – would have turned nearly the whole human race into model citizens millenia ago.
In their own strength human beings have very little power to resist very strong temptation. And courage is the name of all the virtues when they are put to the test.
Only with a belief in this world as a testing-place followed by an afterlife which rewards those who have been good and punishes those who have been bad are the overwhelming majority of us (and do mean 99.999%) going to be strengthened to resist bribery and corruption, sexual infidelity, political jiggery-pokery &c. (A few natural saints perhaps are willing to suffer death by hideous torture for a good principle, while simultaneously having no hope of its being noticed by the Universe or anyone else; but they are very few.)
One large element in Jesus’ sacrifice for us – lifelong and then on the Cross – is that he there supernaturally bound up the power of badness and, for those who give themselves to the Christ, God arranges an itinerary through this world, partly purgation, partly encouragement, wherein the individual loses all his weakness and folly and misdirection and becomes radiantly strong (and inwardly happy).
To be fair, the Ancient Greeks in a shadowy way, the Ancient Egyptians more explicitly and systematically, are but two peoples who had such belief as regards the afterlife; likewise the Native American tribes. Yet, with cultures economically based on slavery and very much structured according to a tough caste system, I am doubtful that they qualify as enlightened in the sense of genuinely humanitarian, i.e.wanting to give a fair shake to all human beings simply as such.

harry storm
harry storm
11 days ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

You say if humans were able to be persuaded by argument Confucious or Plato would have done so. Well the exact same thing could be said about Christianity or any other religion. At no time after Moses, Christ or Mohamed was humanity composed of model citizens. Do not unto others is the only religious edict that could ever produce model citizens, and one doesn’t need religion to follow it.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
11 days ago
Reply to  harry storm

You are missing my point about courage.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
12 days ago

The Left has always been mean.
The French Revolution was encapsulated, at the time, by Chamfort’s gloss on its “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” slogan. He aphorized this as ‘Be my brother or I will kill you’.
He started off as a supporter of the Revolution but, fatally for himself, saw through the ‘humitarianism’ of the Left.
His joke had him promptly arrested. The humanitarians were in charge.

John Riordan
John Riordan
12 days ago

When has the Left ever not been mean?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
11 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Never.

Selwyn Jones
Selwyn Jones
13 days ago

I identified and removed the offending word – not in itself an obscene or offensive word but one susceptible of offensive use.

Last edited 13 days ago by Simon Denis