The analysis of art is often considered, with some justification, a completely subjective undertaking. It is, therefore, a rare but reassuring pleasure to have an artistic hypothesis verified as fact. I experienced this pleasure several weeks ago after coming across the book Thomas Ruff: Works 1979-2011 while browsing the photography section of a bookstore in Midtown.
I had never heard of Thomas Ruff, but something about his aesthetic struck me as strangely familiar. The range and character of the subject matter, from expressionless faces to internet sex acts, rectilinear architecture, curves generated by mathematical formulae, the rings of Saturn and the surface of Mars; the treatment, heavy on digital and mechanical processing according to clear and explicit formulae, logical, deadpan but also uncannily lyrical; for all its diversity there was a remarkable coherence to this oeuvre, an artistic personality I might have sworn actually belonged to a French writer whose latest novel is about a photographer: Michel Houellebecq.
Thomas Ruff and Michel Houellebecq are not the same person. However, a quick Google search revealed that a connection between them did actually exist in the world outside my brain: in 2003, Houellebecq contributed a text to Thomas Ruff’s book Nudes.
Houellebecq’s text for Nudes, while very brief, is vintage Houellebecq. In it, the novelist describes a series of visits with his wife, Marie-Pierre, to the Cléopâtre, a swingers club in the Cap d’Agde. He frames these outings as a scientific study of social change. “It is impossible to completely rule out the element of chance,” he writes, “though I have tried to minimise it by strictly defining the methodology” — one visit per year, the first Saturday in August, from 1997 to 1999. Houellebecq is of course aware that no sociologist would accept his study as “scientific,” for in no way is it rigorously objective. But the framework is not merely a joke. In every facet of his work, Houellebecq reveals a genuine commitment to seeking “a description of the facts that is as far as possible complete and as far as possible economical of thought” (this is how Erwin Schrödinger summarized Kirchoff and Mach’s definition of the task of science: Schrödinger: Life and Thought, 19). The problem is that the ultimate object of his search — happiness — cannot really be described analytically, but only lyrically. And lyricism can only exist in a temporary void of objectivity.
I can think of no better way to frame a brief introduction to Houellebecq’s work (still largely unfamiliar to Americans) than to structure it around this tension between analysis and lyricism. Here I am following Houellebecq himself, who in an early interview describes his literary methodology with a reference to the great Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr’s idea of complementarity: “In literature, I feel strongly the necessity of two complementary approaches: the pathetic and the clinical. On one side dissection, cold analysis, humor; on the other, emotional and lyrical involvement — an immediate lyricism.”
As an analyst — or, if you prefer, a “realist” — Houellebecq is rightly compared to Balzac and Zola, on the one hand, and to Huxley and Orwell, on the other. Like the former, he sets his novels predominantly in the present. He references real people (and consumer products) by their real names, and often includes them as minor characters. His conflicts are also typical of the present (more on this shortly). But he always has at least one eye on the future. The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island, his second and fourth novels, respectively, turn out to have been written in the quite distant future by some new form of human. The 19th century French realists also tried to predict social change; in the 20th century, however, the rate and scope of change increased so sharply that new literary methods became necessary to keep ahead of the curve.
For the novelist, as for the sociologist, the principal object of analysis is conflict. The challenge is to identify one specific but general conflict (or at most, a few) that can unify a wide variety of particulars. The conflict Houellebecq identifies as structuring our world, and which in a sense generates his oeuvre, is one between two different approaches to the problem of living, of life: naturism — liberation via animal instinct, orgasm, the whole sixties ideology — and techno-capitalism. Animality vs. technology: in a sense this conflict stems from, and supersedes, the Age of Industry’s “labor vs. capital” (it is also the subject of Rousseau’s famous Discourse on the Arts and Sciences — the Academy of Dijon was prescient). Among contemporary novelists, perhaps only Coetzee is as clear as Houellebecq that these are, apparently, our only fundamental choices: animality or technology; orgasm or shopping.
The problem is that it is not really a choice. In a poem (Quand on ne bande plus — “when one no longer gets hard”) from his 2013 collection Configuration du dernier rivage, Houellebecq writes:
Neither the diversity of organic life,
nor the vicissitudes of the orgasm,
nor the brutality of the spasm,
will be able to spoil the consummation of technicity.
Houellebecq is often accused of being fanatically opposed to the ideals of the sixties. In a sense, he is — but he is no more optimistic about “the consummation of technicity.” His first novel, for example, is about a computer programmer tasked with helping to digitize the French Ministry of Agriculture. He despises this job (l’informatique me fait vomir — “computer science makes me vomit”), sees the spread of the global network as “quite a bad thing—a useless burdening of the neurons” (Extension du domaine de la lutte, 83; all translations here are my own), tries to escape into the mountains, but fails: “the sublime fusion will not take place; the goal of life has been missed” (156). The neo-human narrator of The Possibility of an Island has a similar experience: having tired of an affectless existence in which communication occurs only via computer screen, he leaves his sealed community, but finds himself unable to connect, or even to want to connect, with the “savages” who have not been biotechnically altered.
In 1998, the Cléopâtre went high-tech and introduced pornography into its ambience. This did not improve the experience: “Everyone sits stupefied on the banquettes staring at the monitors (big tits, big cocks, stunning girls and guys); they are completely passive […] We leave pretty quickly.”
The lyrical element in Houellebecq is of an almost unbelievable intensity. The reason for this, I suspect, is related to his power as an analyst. Every lyric moment hits you in the gut with the force of an undeniable truth. His irony is brilliant and often hilarious, but it always rests on a deeply felt, even pathetic yearning; “false feeling” is nowhere to be found.
Rather than wax lyrical about Houellebecq’s lyricism, let me offer just two examples, both from The Elementary Particles. The first will also clarify the problem Houellebecq has with the sixties. The “mom” here is a hippie; beautiful people are always hanging around her house, naked; Bruno is an overweight adolescent (60–61):
After his first stay at his mom’s place, Bruno realized that he would never be accepted by the hippies; he was not, he would never be a handsome animal. At night, he dreamed of open vulvas. Around the same time, he started to read Kafka. Immediately he felt an icy sensation, an insidious chill; a few hours after finishing The Trial he still felt numb, cottony. He knew immediately that this leaden universe laden with shame, in which sentient beings cross paths in a sidereal void, no rapport between them ever seeming possible, corresponded exactly to his own mental universe. The universe was slow and cold. There was, however, something warm, the thing women had between their legs; but to this thing he had no access.
Bruno’s brother Michel, the subject of the following paragraph, is a molecular biologist; when the novel begins, Michel is quitting his job. I find it hard to imagine writing better about the utopian desire — which is, after all, essentially no more and no less than the desire for happiness (22):
Returning home, Michel undressed completely before lying down. During the three weeks that followed, his movements were extremely reduced. One can imagine that a fish, poking his head from time to time out of water into air, might perceive for a few seconds an aerial world, completely different—paradisiacal. Naturally, he must then return to his universe of algae, where fish devour each other. But for a few seconds he would have had the intuition of a completely different world, a perfect world—ours.
Guide to Reading
Houellebecq is very famous in Europe but almost unknown in the United States. When I tell people about his work, they often ask, “Where should I start?” Here is what I recommend. Start with the first novel, Whatever (apparently the publisher felt it necessary to dumb down the French title, Extension du domaine de la lutte — Extension of the Domain of Struggle — for Anglophone audiences), or with the most recent, The Map and the Territory (readers of Hyperallergic may be particularly interested in this one as the main character, Jed Martin, is a photographer and painter). After those, read The Elementary Particles, Platform, and The Possibility of an Island. While reading the novels, dip into the poetry; the first two collections are available in translation in a single volume (published in 2012), The Art of Struggle. Again, the first collection (Rester Vivant — Staying Alive) and the most recent (Configuration du dernier rivage, unfortunately not yet translated) are good starting points. The interviews and criticism are also excellent; H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, Houellebecq’s first published book, is especially notable.