To call Houellebecq’s work misanthropic seems inadequate, as his characters seem to hold human beings, including themselves, to be beneath contempt. His international breakthrough, The Elementary Particles (1998) — published as Atomized in Britain — goes so far as to posit the end of the human race, put out of its misery by fortuitous discoveries about cloning. One of the novel’s post-human scientists remarks that “it has been surprising to note the meekness, resignation, perhaps even secret relief with which humans have consented to their own passing.” But even representing humanity as eager for extinction is insufficiently hopeless for Houellebecq; in The Possibility of an Island (2005) he returns to his neohuman species to describe their terminal psychosexual miseries as well.
Houellebecq’s indiscriminate cynicism is not especially hard to get a handle on. He seems to operate on the assumption that the more mercilessly pessimistic or debasing an observation, the more titillatingly truthful readers will take it to be. He yearns to sound transgressive but more often than not comes across as petty and self-parodic.
Ben Jeffery, in a book-length essay recently published by Zero Books, fittingly labels Houellebecq’s caustic literary approach “depressive realism,” likening his narrative style to the cognitive deadlock that can characterize clinical depression. His protagonists accept that their problems are meaningless in the cosmic scheme of things yet cannot stop mulling them over. Though they believe that a cure for their malaise is impossible, they are compelled to continually refine their self-diagnoses. They appear determined, or consigned, to have no illusions about themselves, even though a certain amount of illusions may be necessary for staving off paralyzing solipsism. Stringing one’s experiences into a coherent narrative, positing an ability to sympathize with others, developing a sense of personal identity — these are ultimately faith-based notions after all. We have to get past our own insignificance to regard anything else as worthy of contemplation and connection. “Depression is the pathological frontier of individualism,” Jeffery writes, “the point at which the whole world is eaten up by the self.” Houellebecq’s work inhabits that frontier and attempts to present it as the universal truth of the human condition.
Houellebecq operates under the fallacy that if hopelessness is the truth of our condition, then we must be made to feel hopeless in order to see it. So his books often seem to make it their purpose to talk us out of living. But if they were merely the contemptuous mutterings of a kind of cut-rate Schopenhauer, bullying us endlessly with rants about the humiliation of sex and the unendurability of life, they wouldn’t warrant much serious attention. Jeffery makes the case that Houellebecq’s porno-dystopias merit careful consideration, dubbing them “perhaps the literary product from the underbelly of the liberal-capitalist End of History.” Contradictions inherent in consumer capitalism, Jeffery suggests, provide the conditions for Houellebecq’s novels, which function as art about the uselessness of art, soulful cries of our craven soullessness. “Consciously or not, Houellebecq’s writing exhibits the schizophrenic pull of consumption culture,” Jeffery writes, “how unreal it seems and yet how enmeshed in it we remain.”
Houellebecq’s characters are notable for how completely they embrace the consumerist ethos: believing that youth is society’s primary index of value, that sex is the only pleasure and is eminently commodifiable, that disposability is natural, that quality is ultimately reducible to quantity, that the quest for novelty is our only genuine tradition, that secular materialism has triumphed once and for all over atavistic spirituality. Jeffery notes that despite their cynicism (or perhaps as an expression of it), the protagonists wholeheartedly buy into consumerism’s flattened fantasies of the good life, even as they complain continually of their harmfulness. Because consumerism “exists only with our complicity,” Jeffery points out, it “has already turned our imagination against us and taught us to distrust it.” Houellebecq’s novels, then, are ostensibly protests against this at the level of tone; they are “works of imagination against the imagination,” Jeffery writes. “They hate themselves.”
Self-hatred thus appears as a mode of self-protection from the allure of consumerism, which threatens to take our propensity to daydream and use it to trap us on the hedonic treadmill, chasing after goods that always fail to satisfy. Houellebecq works to instill in readers a healthy revulsion toward their explicit desires, the ones that advertising magnifies in their consciousnesses. Repudiating those wants could potentially open the space for other, less conscious desires — yearnings that can’t be articulated in words or encapsulated in products — to flourish. These inarticulate desires, Jeffery suggests, drawing on Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” among other texts, are the eternal preserve of art, but changing historical conditions require artists to keep coming up with new ways to protect desire from co-optation, vulgarization. Depressive realism, arguably, is a currently viable strategy.
The point of life, like the point of art, is only graspable indirectly. The inescapability of death immediately calls any direct attempt to frame life’s meaning into question. Jeffery credits Houellebecq for being willing to confront directly the fear of death that most culture, in his opinion, works to distract us from. “Death is the terrifying, singular fact consciousness tries to suppress,” Jeffery writes, “although it can never do this completely.” But by foregrounding death, by reveling in its obscenity, Houellebecq paradoxically manages to neuter it. The self-refuting aspects of his extreme pessimism and his art against art ultimately reassure us that we are always left with some modicum of faith, “even if it’s only a faith in your own hard-eyed veracity.” Such faith, Jeffery suggests, can redeem life in the face of death. By expressing the limits of what can be expressed, depressive realism, unlike actual depression, posits something beyond the recursive loops of despair. No matter how viciously he debunks our dreams, reading Houellebecq’s novels presents us with an unlikely gift — the realization that life can’t possibly be as bad as he makes it sound.