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Houellebecq’s Unfinished Critique of Liberal Modernity

by Michel Houellebecq
Flammarion, 2019, 352 pages

For a brief moment, just before the end of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Sérotonine, a ray of hope seems to galvanize its protagonist. For a short while he seems to recover his lust for life. Having languished for years without a sense of purpose, Florent-Claude resolves to end his reliance on antidepressants. Gradually something akin to a will to live begins to resurface: he notices skirts by the bar in a café, girls, facial expressions, emotion, desire, and irritation at the mind-numbing TV programs he had been watching every day. Indeed, he actually throws out his screen and begins to think again about Thomas Mann, about Proust—about the fate of our civilization.

But it doesn’t last. The sun doesn’t rise. The glow on the horizon fades—just like in the closing passage of Houellebecq’s first novel, Ex­tension du domaine de la lutte, in which the subject’s hope sim­ilarly vanishes after a delightful, optimistic afternoon in the country: “It will not take place, the sublime fusion,” he reflects, “the goal of life is missed.”1

And everything melts away into an all-encompassing void. No mercy, no comfort: the project of our civilization has come to an end.

In this sense, Sérotonine is typical of Houellebecq’s oeuvre. At some point in the course of their lives, all of Houellebecq’s characters are forced to acknowledge that their romantic ideals have be­come untenable in the modern age, since individualism has made profound, long-term relationships impossible. This simple idea forms the fundamental conviction of Houellebecq’s work. It echoes, in certain ways, Marxist Verelendungstheorie: as technological inno­vations have made jobs boring and interchangeable, and as free trade has destroyed traditional farm life and honest labor, we now pass through life as atomized wage slaves in the service of incomprehensible, unfathomable government organizations and overwhelmingly powerful multinational corporations. Erratic consumer preferences, capricious fashions, and an unpredictable herd instinct dictate the opinions (or the whims and fancies) of most of us who no longer have a family, a home, a church, and a nation to reinforce our sense of identity. Unable to chart a course for ourselves, we are floating around in an empty sea. Rudderless. All control of life—and of who we are—is lost.

In some of his books (such as La carte et le territoire), Houelle­becq allows his characters to achieve a degree of happiness in con­sumerism—as in the massive hypermarket where one can wander about endlessly in search of yet another self-indulgent pleasure—small comfort indeed. In Plateforme, the limitless supply of sex in Thailand’s coastal resorts leaves the author’s subjects on a temporary high. Yet even these delights finally fade amid the loneliness, the isolation, and the pointlessness of it all—and that is why Houelle­becq’s books generally culminate in a kind of religious vision. From disappointment (at the lack of an all-embracing cultural ideal, romantic love, meaningful social intercourse) to depression. Then, via desperate consumerism and sexual hedonism, to a futile, feeble cry for help into the cosmos.

In La possibilité d’une île (2005), that cry finally brings a new holistic world religion into being, which sublimates desire in an almost Buddhist manner. In Les particules élémentaires (1998), the pursuit of knowledge itself assumes religious proportions that raises mankind to a divine perspective through genetic manipulation. And in Soumission (2015), the West succumbs to the Muslim creed. Sérotonine, too, ends in a quasi-religious meditation. While the pro­tagonist deliberates over whether or not to jump from his apartment (and after he has just worked out the speed and duration of the fall in a dry, almost surreal calculation), suddenly there is this:

Actually, God does care about us, he thinks about us all the time, and he guides us, sometimes quite precisely. These loving impulses that enter into our hearts to the point of suffocation, these illuminations, these ecstasies which cannot be explained by simple biological nature, by our status as primates: these are extraordinarily clear signals.

So today I understand how Christ felt, his frustration at people’s hardened hearts: they have seen the signs and yet they pay no attention. Do I really need to offer up my life for these whingers? Do I really have to be so explicit?

It seems so.2

Does he then sacrifice himself and plummet to the ground in a desperate attempt to save us all? Or is it the writer who is speaking here, presenting his oeuvre as an attempt to offer salvation? Perhaps the protagonist remains lying on the sofa in his apartment, crushed, unable even to gather the strength to walk to the open balcony door and hop over the railing? It is left to the reader to decide.

Modernity’s Joyless Liberation

Sérotonine tells the story of Florent-Claude, who grows up somewhere near Paris, trains as an agriculturalist, finds a job with Mon­santo, and later works in Normandy’s cheese industry before ending up in the French Ministry of Agriculture. He has a series of relationships, all of which ultimately fail. When he finds out that his current Japanese girlfriend has been going to orgies behind his back, where she has serviced not only groups of other men but even three dogs (a pit bull, a boxer, and a terrier, as he specifies rather precisely), he resolves to disappear without a trace. Quitting his job, he leaves their joint apartment without a word and decides to carry on anony­m­ously for as long as his savings will allow. He takes antidepressants, launches into a kind of farewell tour of his exes—some of whom he actually speaks to, while others he watches from a distance (and he notices with some satisfaction that they, too, have ended up unhappy).

Subsequently, he experiences up close how rural life is collapsing as a consequence of free trade and unfair competition from Third World countries. Milk, grain, and meat from massive tillages in South America are dumped onto the French market, effectively seal­ing the fate of the farmers of France. His best friend from college days, a man of aristocratic ancestry currently running the family château near Caen in Normandy, organizes a short-lived protest movement of farmers against free trade—but even this attempt to finally do something meaningful, to resist the slash and burn of modern existence, proves ineffectual. In desperation, the resistance leader commits suicide at a demonstration not unlike today’s gilets jaunes protests. When Florent-Claude realizes soon after that his sav­ings account is about to run dry, the short religious meditation I quoted earlier concludes the calculations about leaping from his apartment to the ground.

So yes, the modern world brought liberation. But this liberation has not made us happy. Instead, it has left our lives empty, without purpose, and, above all, extremely lonely. Existential connections have become almost impossible since few are genuinely prepared to sacrifice short-term pleasure for the commitment required to estab­lish a deep mutual connection. Television, internet, and pornography have replaced organic social intercourse and physical intimacy. As more options open up each day, our hearts close to the possibility of real human warmth, having been betrayed too many times—and having witnessed ourselves betraying others—for the brief mo­ments of seductive thrills that we, as “liberated individuals,” can no longer resist.

Now this fundamental point which Houellebecq makes time and again deserves further reflection, because it challenges the very fun­damentals of both the contemporary “Left” and the “Right.” It challenges modern anthropology as such. Both the social-dem­ocratic and the liberal wing of the modern political spectrum (re­spectively advocating the welfare state and the free market) wish to maximize individual autonomy. Liberalism and socialism differ when it comes to the most effective way to achieve that objective, but they do not differ in the objective itself. They are both liberation movements; they both want the complete emancipation of the indi­vidual.

And both base their vision of society on the (unfounded but supposedly “self-evident”) principle that every individual enjoys certain “inalienable rights,” which by definition eclipse all other claims, and to which all other ties, loyalties, and connections must ultimately be subordinated. Over time, all such institutions that the individual requires to fully actualize a meaningful existence—such as a family and a connection to generations past and future, a nation, a tradition, perhaps a church—will weaken and eventually disappear. Today, even new life (in the womb) may be extinguished to avoid disturbing the individual’s freedom. In the Netherlands (where I live), suicide is facilitated to ensure that here, too, no constraints—such as the duty to care for your parents—are placed on the indi­vidual.

It is this fundamental assumption of the modern age—that individual autonomy (be it through free markets or welfarism) leads to happiness—which Michel Houellebecq challenges. He questions the sacred trinity of the modern worldview. As we once worshipped the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we today venerate liberty, equality, and fraternity. And Houellebecq proposes that this new trinity falls short—that the very idea that we should be trying to pursue individual happiness is itself flawed. Getting what we want does not make us happy; it actually makes us unhappy. Constantly enticed by the promise of relief, which in the end never really re­lieves, we keep hopelessly searching for the thing that “truly” makes us, as “individuals,” “be ourselves.” In Houellebecq’s view, the very philosophical concept of “the individual self” is wrong. For without the ability to define ourselves in an unbreakable connection with our surroundings, there is nothing for us to derive meaning from and we end up depressed. Thus, the freest people who have ever lived have also come to live the least meaningful lives. The more we “liberate” ourselves from our social ties, the more we become the slaves of our own distorted self-image.

The Void of Atomization

The remedy for this collapse of the modern promise is clear. Al­though Houellebecq, a poet more than a philosopher, shies away from laying out a detailed political manifesto, he tells us on every page that we need to rediscover a territorial, social, and historical connection with others around us, a connection which transcends individual choice, momentary whims, and instrumental interests. This naturally implies a powerful nation-state that protects the social fabric, along with a high degree of skepticism towards immigration and free trade. But this in itself is not enough. To recreate embeddedness in society, the individual himself has to be embedded again. He has to be deliberalized. Indeed, apart from implying the indispensability of a strong national state, Houellebecq indicates that two much more fundamental challenges must be overcome: our sexual and spiritual liberation.

To start with sex, in Extension du domaine de la lutte Houelle­becq writes:

From the amorous point of view, Véronique belonged, as we all do, to a sacrificed generation. She had certainly been ca­pable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it, I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals that characterizes the modern era. Véronique had known too many discothèques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immo­rality, and never two. In reality, the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and ro­mantic sort.3

How encouraging to finally read a modern writer who takes the problem of sex seriously! Of course, the cult of virginity lost its credibility in the Western world some time ago, today’s philosophy being that we have to experiment to find the right partner. Houelle­becq, however, draws upon older intuitions which maintain that the bond which forms through sexual intimacy may reemerge once or twice, but not much more, and that we should therefore be extremely cautious in acquiring amorous experience. Sex, in short, can be a threat—and not simply an aide—to intimacy and love.

Now this may be true, or partly true, or there may at least be some truth to it. But whatever the case, it is not easy to see how we could possibly constrain the forces that we have unleashed. In this age of instant hookups and online pornography, renewed chastity seems very far off.

Then, religion: Houellebecq argues that we will always conceive of ourselves in terms of a metaphysical purpose. Those who believe that the heavens above us are devoid of a divine presence will invar­iably meet their existential needs in other ways: first with the super­ficial pleasure of a libertine lifestyle, and, in due course, with barely secularized heresies—such as naïve humanitarianism and one-worldism. This desperate moralism opens the doors to massive num­bers of immigrants, undermines real political communities, and makes distinctive national and civilizational aspirations impossible.

Again, all this may be true, or partly true: the comforting convic­tion that we are not alone, the idea that we are part of a greater plan and that a fatherly figure is watching over us, may well be necessary to accept the existential shortcomings of ourselves and those around us. Yet to recommit ourselves to the embedded life rests on a leap of faith which, according to Houellebecq, simply is no longer tenable in today’s scientific age. This is the tragedy that has befallen us.

Take, for example, the protagonist of Soumission, who tries with all his might to convert to Christianity in the legendary cliffside city of Rocamadour:

The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the car park.4

Any reader, in my view, will be hard-pressed to deny that Houelle­becq has identified—in passages such as this one—a crisis we all recognize. A crisis of atomization. We are free, and we are glad we are free. Yet we are also sad, fundamentally uprooted, always wan­dering, never at home, never safe—exiled, in effect, from the garden we still vaguely remember having once inhabited.

So the paradox is this: the freedom we desire eventually makes us unfree and unhappy, while the constraints that we reject eventually make us happy and free. We are profoundly incapable of defining ourselves as individuals (although we think we can). We constantly overestimate our own abilities to create a world on our own.

If you allow yourself a brief moment to view the world from Houellebecq’s perspective, his philosophy is validated all around us. Consider the emancipation of women and the feminist ideology that underpins it (a favorite topic in Houellebecq’s work). The “liber­ated” status of women is usually celebrated as one of the great triumphs of late-liberal society. Today women, from an early age, are encouraged to pursue a career and be financially independent. They are expected to reject the traditional role of supporting a husband and strive instead for an “equal” relationship in which “gender roles” are interchangeable.

But how has this really been working out for them? What hap­pens when they hit thirty? If they continue to work full hours, building a family becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. This is why women in the Western world increasingly tend to have fewer children—if they even have them at all. Work and children then often limit the time available for the maintenance of a committed relationship, and rare are the lovers that both work full hours, rear children, and invest sufficiently in each other for the marriage to remain healthy over time. An inevitable result of all this is the demographic decline of Europe. Another outcome is constant con­flict, constant competition—and in the end, fighting, divorce, and social isolation—and a new generation of boys and girls growing up in such disfigured settings.

This frustration is expressed directly by the character Christiane in Les particules élémentaires:

Never could stand feminists. . . . always going on about washing dishes and the division of labor; they could never shut up about the dishes. Oh, sometimes they’d talk about cooking or vacuuming, but their favorite topic was washing dishes. In a few short years, they managed to turn every man they knew into an impotent, whining neurotic. Once they’d done that, it was always the same story—they started going on about how there were no real men anymore. They usually ended up ditching their boyfriends for a quick fuck with some macho Latin idiot. . . . Anyway, they fuck their way through two or three, maybe more if they’re really pretty, and wind up with a kid. Then they start making jam from Marie Claire recipe cards. . . .

. . . I know what the veterans of ’68 are like when they hit forty. I’m practically one myself. . . . They feel the presence of the Angel or the flower blossoming within but then the work­shop’s over and they’re still ugly, aging and alone. So they have crying fits. . . . Especially after the Zen workshops. They don’t have much choice, really—most of them have money problems too.5

Liberation, once again, hardly liberates.

Brave New World?

In Les particules élémentaires, probably his most theoretical book, Houellebecq attempts to formulate the explanation for today’s specious anthropology. Where does this liberal view of man, which has ushered in the rapid decline of Western civilization, originate? When did we go astray?

Metaphysical mutations—that is to say radical, global transfor­mations in the values to which the majority subscribe—are rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example. Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen, it tends to move inexorably toward its logical conclusion.6

The “metaphysical mutation” that prescribes maximum individual pleasure and materialistic gain reached its logical conclusion, Houelle­becq explains, in the liberal vision of mankind found in Al­dous Huxley’s Brave New World. Here, people can experience instant pleasure but duties—the care of children and elders—are avoided. Houellebecq blames the Flower Power generation that spawned the revolution of 1968 for bringing that vision to fruition. But has this been an autonomous process? Or has it been manufactured? Houellebecq does not really reach a conclusion. In a way his vision reminds me of something my PhD supervisor, the British philosopher Roger Scruton, once (jokingly) told me, that “the discovery of fossil fuels is the greatest tragedy in the history of man.” Whatever he really meant by that (he certainly wasn’t referring to that other modern heresy, the quasi-religion of “climate change”), he seemed to suggest that we have unleashed forces which we are unable to control. We fly towards the light like moths; we are constantly drawn by its maddening attraction—and yet we are never fulfilled by the thing we pursue.

But, having said all this, is there any hope in Houellebecq’s oeuvre? If, as in his view, the modern world is based on a fundamentally flawed anthropology—and has, as a consequence, produced a completely dysfunctional society—then it cannot continue to exist for very long. Individualism has reached its final stage and cannot develop any further. It has started to consume itself.

We are now at the point where we must begin to think about what comes after—and this will necessarily be some form of tra­ditionalism. Because individualism makes our societies so weak (re­sulting, as we have seen, in an unwillingness to defend our civilization, to resist mass immigration, and even to reproduce, among other things), our society shall either regress and regenerate, or it will be replaced.

In most of his books, Houellebecq refers to some form of identitarian movement, of nationalists and populists, or, as in Séroto­nine, a popular uprising à la today’s gilets jaunes. Indeed, Soumission even involves a paramilitary resistance group led by the fascinat­ing Godefroy l’Empereur, who incidentally appears to serve the finest pear liqueur in all of France. In all these movements, Houellebecq sees (correctly, in my view) an attempt to preserve traditional European culture or indeed to reestablish it: a world in which the family is once again at the center, in which nations are restored, maybe even a form of Christianity is reinstated.

In contrast to such movements stands the alternative: the con­quest or replacement of our civilization by a new “metaphysical mutation.” Such a metaphysical mutation also conforms, though in a different way, to some traditionalist standard and involves the sacri­fice of the individual’s desires and liberation in favor of the group. This is most concretely seen in the strong internal loyalties of Ara­bic, African, and Turkish immigrants who follow Islam, which Houellebecq describes in Soumission.

As things stand today, this second scenario clearly represents the most likely future for Europe. And in a famous 2015 interview in the Paris Review, Houellebecq in fact commented: “I accelerate history, I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.” He added: “The Koran turns out to be much better than I thought. I feel, rather, that we can make arrangements. The feminists will not be able to, if we’re being completely honest. But I and lots of other people will.”7

Are the cards then dealt? Or do we still—despite the Herculean challenge of overcoming modern individualism—have the option of revitalizing our civilization?

Houellebecq, in the end, does not really answer the question. And, to be honest, I am a little disappointed that Sérotonine has not explored this greatest question of our age any further. Soumission ended in a vague conditional tense, like a dream, with a distant vision of an Islamized Europe. The final struggle between Godefroy l’Empereur and the Islamists remained undescribed—and in our world, too, the future remains undecided and our vision is often warped by the frame of liberal individualism. But, given the aston­ishing rise of populists and nationalists in Europe and beyond, the question cannot be avoided.

Why, then, has Houellebecq, for his latest book, chosen a pro­tagonist who belongs to the nihilistic 1990s rather than the asser­tive 2010s? Why has he returned to the old theme of an exhausted mid­lifer who watches it all happening but is powerless to intervene? While reading, I was struck by the thought that Sérotonine may per­haps have been based on an older manuscript (from the period of Plateforme and La possibilité d’une île) which Houellebecq still wanted to finish.

Or perhaps he finds himself as an author unable to rid himself of that sense of defeat which characterizes his generation (Houellebecq was born in 1956—the truly lost generation). If that is true, we must wait not just for his next book, but for the next generation of authors to pick up the challenge and run with it a little further: and to help us express, and even revive, the Western will to live.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 2 (Summer 2019): 213–24.


1 “Elle n’aura pas lieu, la fusion sublime; le but de la vie est manqué.” Quoted from Michel Houellebecq, Whatever, trans. Paul Hammond (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2011), 155.

2 “Dieu s’occupe de nous en réalité, il pense à nous à chaque instant, et il nous donne des directives parfois très précises. Ces élans d’amour qui affluent dans nos poitrines jusqu’à nous couper le souffle, ces illuminations, ces extases, inexplicables si l’on considère notre nature biologique, notre statut de simples primates, sont des signes extrêmement clairs. Et je comprends, aujourd’hui, le point de vue du Christ, son agacement répété devant l’endurcissement des coeurs: ils ont tous les signes, et ils n’en tiennent pas le compte. Est-ce qu’il faut vraiment, en supplément, que je donne ma vie pour ces minables? Est-ce qu’il faut vraiment être, à ce point, explicite? Il semblerait que oui.” Houellebecq, Sérotonine (Paris: Flammarion, 2019), 347 (my translation). Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish a translation by Shaun Whiteside in September 2019.

3 “Du point de vue amoureux Véronique appartenait, comme nous tous, à une génération sacrifiée. Elle avait certainement été capable d’amour; elle aurait souhaité en être encore capable, je lui rends ce témoinage; mais cela n’était plus possible. Phénomène rare, artificiel et tardif, l’amour ne peut s’épanouir que dans des conditions mentales spéciales, rarement réunies, en tous points opposées à la liberté de moeurs qui caractérise l’époque modern. Véronique avait connu trop de discothèques et d’amants; un tel mode de vie appauvrit l’être humain, lui infligeant des dommages parfois graves et toujours irréversibles. L’amour comme innocence et comme capacité d’illusion, comme aptitude à résumer l’ensemble de l’autre sexe à un seul être aimé, résiste rarement à une année de vagabondage sexuel, jamais à deux. En réalité, les expériences sexuelles successives accumulées au cours de l’adolescence minent et détruisent rapidement toute possibilité de projection d’ordre sentimental et romanesque.Quoted from Houellebecq, Whatever, 112.

4 “La Vierge attendait dans l’ombre, calme et immarcescible. Elle possédait la suzeraineté, elle possédait la puissance, mais peu à peu je sentais que je perdais le contact, qu’elle s’éloignait dans l’espace et dans les siècles tandis que je me tassais sur mon banc, ratatiné, restreint. Au bout d’une demi-heure je me relevai, définitivement déserté par l’Esprit, réduit à mon corps endommagé, périssable, et je redescendis tristement les marches en direction du parking. Quoted from Michel Houellebecq, Submission, trans. Lorin Stein (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 139.

5 Quoted from Michel Houellebecq, Atomised, trans. Frank Wynne (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 121–22.

6 “Les mutations métaphysiques—c’est-à-dire les transformations radicales et globales de la vision du monde adoptée par le plus grand nombre—sont rares dans l’histoire de l’humanité. Par exemple, on peut citer l’apparition du christianisme. Dès lors qu’une mutation métaphysique s’est produite, elle se développe sans rencontrer de résistance jusqu’à ses conséquences ultimes.Quoted from Houellebecq, Atomised, 4.

7 Sylvain Bourmeau, “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book,” Paris Review, January 2, 2015.

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