De Groene Amsterdammer, 2023-03-15

Decadent en anti-modern

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

Decadent and anti-modern

The far-right or radicalization of Michel Houellebecq is more complex than it seems at first glance. Where does the novel end and reality begin?

A depressed white man of a certain age indulges in sex with young women in an Amsterdam hotel. At his suggestion, he has himself filmed by a controversial artists’ collective. The end result will be posted on YouTube.

It could easily be a scene from a novel by Michel Houellebecq. Ever since his debut, The World as Market and Struggle, in 1994, the French bestselling author has used morose and sex-starved wretches, adrift in a world structured by ruthless neoliberalism.

Only, in this particular case, the man in question is not a fictional character, but 67-year-old Houellebecq himself.

In France, at the end of January, people reacted first with disbelief and then with mock laughter to reports that the country’s most famous writer would be appearing in a “porn film” by the Dutch artists’ collective KIRAC (“Keeping It Real Art Critics”). The accompanying trailer left much to the imagination, yet not everything. On display was a half-naked Houellebecq in the arms of a young woman.

Another scene showed Houellebecq’s own wife, Qianyun Lysis Li, in the back seat of an Amsterdam cab. Meanwhile, a voice-over makes mention of a canceled “honeytrip” to Morocco, and of Lysis Li, who “had been working from Paris for a month to arrange the prostitutes in advance. KIRAC offered a solution. Plenty of girls could be found in Amsterdam who ‘would go to bed with the famous writer out of curiosity.’

What devil had entered Houellebecq? In France they are used to a few things from him. Moreover, he has played in films more often than not. In these, he staged his own kidnapping; underwent saltwater therapy with actor Gerard Depardieu, hoisted himself into cycling gear and performed with rock legend Iggy Pop. He had not been seen in a sex scene before. Talk shows made fun of it; Houellebecq’s friend, star philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, interfered.

And then suddenly there was a lawyer’s letter claiming that the Houellebecq couple’s privacy had been violated. There followed summary proceedings, in which the French court declined jurisdiction, and another summary proceedings, this time in Amsterdam, which took place on Tuesday, March 14. Houellebecq made a big point that the trailer says his wife spent ‘a month’ arranging sex workers.

“You don’t do that a month in advance,” he grumbled on German radio last week, “you arrange something like that on the day itself.

Houellebecq is known to be enormously obstructive when it comes to facts of his private life. For example, he once had a run-in with a journalist from Le Monde when the latter approached friends of his to collaborate on a six-part summer profile (the fine Les six vies de Michel Houellebecq). That too became a lawsuit, which Houellebecq lost.

Houellebecq’s motivation for starring in a sex scene remains unclear. Initially, he was to cut a ribbon last fall at the request of KIRAC in honor of his oeuvre. To find out what the collective was up to, Houellebecq and his wife watched Honeypot, an earlier KIRAC film, also featuring explicit sex scenes – this time with conservative opinion maker Sid Lukassen on camera. ‘I want him in a porn film,’ Lysis Li will say in front of a revolving camera on Nov. 1, 2022. ‘That’s better than cutting a ribbon. Porn is always a good idea. I want him to stop being depressed and regain hope, if only for a moment.’

The film was actually supposed to be released on March 14, but has been postponed. All the fuss and media attention that this generates will not be unwelcome to Houellebecq, as it puts another riot of which he is the subject to the back burner. In the magazine Front Populaire, founded by the far-left pop philosopher and frequent writer Michel Onfray, Houellebecq warned late last year of a civil war of immigrants against white Frenchmen, said that Muslims who didn’t obey the law had better leave, and marveled at those who believed that the Grand Remplacement was a theory. This notion, in which the original white European population is “replaced” by immigrants from Africa and/or the Islamic world, grew into an article of faith of radical right-wingers around the world in a few years. According to Houellebecq, not a theory, but “a fact.

Under threat of trial from Paris’ Grand Mosque, Houellebecq shrugged off the sharpest edges of his statements. But they are still welcome ammunition for those who argue that Houellebecq has shifted to the dark side of the identitarian and Catholic right, a trend that is said to have begun after the Islamist-inspired attacks of 2015, first the one on the weekly Charlie Hebdo, which killed one of Houellebecq’s closest friends, and later the one on dance temple Bataclan and surrounding cafes. Is there indeed a derailment? Has Houellebecq been radicalized?

This week sees the publication of the long-awaited translation of Anéantir – Vernietigen in Dutch – Houellebecq’s latest published novel, at over seven hundred pages by far the thickest yet. The story revolves around Paul Raison, working as a top official at the French Ministry of Finance. He lives in peaceful coexistence with his wife, Prudence, herself a top civil servant, in a condominium overlooking Parc de Bercy – a stone’s throw from the ministry. Their marriage is childless. They haven’t had sex for years.

The novel switches between Paul’s inner world, dominated as it is by increasingly violent dreams; family troubles in the Burgundy region, where Paul’s father, a former homeland security analyst, ends up in a nursing home after a stroke; high politics with a Machiavellian president, overtly modeled on Macron, trying to secure his re-election, and finally a series of mysterious attacks.

The subtle irony that characterizes many of Houellebecq’s other novels, which sometimes leads readers astray, as in Topics, is missing. The relentless and caustic that earlier Houellebecq books carry, especially early works such as Elementary particles and Platform, is considerably toned down in Destroy. The text is spherical, however, and overflows with compassion, especially toward the end, when the protagonist is diagnosed with cancer. ‘You could see this as a dark and pessimistic Houellebecq,’ said a French radio host a day after its release, on Jan. 7 last year. ‘But no. Many characters are trying to do the right thing, and the book’s message could read, ‘Love Saves.'”

At the same time, Destroy is nevertheless a “real Houellebecq” and inveterate fans will certainly get their money’s worth. However, the pace is slow, very slow, and while reading I involuntarily thought of a television appearance in which Houellebecq stated a few years ago that he hopes to one day end his career with “a thick book full of boring passages à la Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. French criticism was mostly positive, although reaction on the left was sharply divided. Le Monde and Libération were wildly enthusiastic. L’Obs, Les Inrockubtibles and Médiapart definitely dropped out, describing the book as a reactionary tract.

The setting of Destroy is familiar: we see a France shaken loose from its Christian anchors and which has been slowly but surely heading for the abyss ever since. We are writing in late 2026. Democracy is more authoritarian; the country is turning into a “post-democracy. Decisions are not driven by ideology nor clear political orientation. At the same time, the gap between the political establishment and the people is wider than ever, especially in the provinces. The yellow shirts were just a taste of what social unrest awaited the country. Racial hatred was unprecedented, as it was elsewhere in Europe, which had become a distant province of the United States, “aging, depressed and slightly ridiculous.

In fact, only the family and the marriage covenant stood as social principles. Almighty liberalism denied “this problem,” insisting that profit could replace every other human motivation. Wrongly, Paul knows, and it seems obvious to him that at some point the system will collapse. This puts him in a precarious position: on the one hand, he works diligently for a minister who sets himself up as a herald of free trade. At the same time, he is convinced that this system is doomed.

Paul’s two years younger sister Cécile and her husband Hervé have never believed in the system at all and vote wholeheartedly for Marine Le Pen’s radical-right Rassemblement National. Hervé, whom Paul suspects joined the far-right Bloc Identitaire in his youth, is an unconditional fan of the film trilogy The Lord of the Rings, based on Tolkien’s books. Hervé would see in this an allegory of the heroic battle the West would later wage against Muslim invaders, Paul thought. In 2001, when the first volume of The Lord of the Rings came out, “the Reconquista of Europe had not yet begun, but there was already the movie, that’s how he would see it.

During his visits to his father in Burgundy, Paul was struck by the presence of large groups of Arabs, an “innovation” in the wine region, indeed in all of France. In the nursing home where Paul’s father spent his last days, there were none at all, and that too said something about contemporary France, because the North African population would never bring their parents to such an institution, they saw it as a dishonor. They would take them in, – at least that was what Paul had read about it here and there in the magazines.

It is another aspect of supposed Western decadence that Houellebecq likes to highlight in his novels: dealing with the elderly as a mirror of a society that has cut its ties with the past, that is without roots. Muslim immigrants – whatever else he thought of them – emphatically did have those roots.

A plan gradually emerges within the family to kidnap Paul’s father from the nursing home and care for him in the countryside. The action is prepared by extreme-right youth friends of Hervé, and their leader, one Brian, tells Paul that the nursing home, and certainly a phenomenon like euthanasia, are symptoms of a deep crisis of modernity. The past, however heroic, no longer meant anything. All that mattered was a “projection into an unclearly defined future. In this, the elderly were not important, or more strongly, preferred to get rid of them as soon as possible. This echoes Houellebecq’s fierce public interventions against the right to euthanasia. Two years ago, for example, he declared in newspaper Le Figaro that a civilization that legalized euthanasia “would lose any right to respect. Not a bad word otherwise about Hervé’s dark friends in Destroy.

Possibly because Paul’s attention is claimed by a series of mysterious attacks. It begins with a series of cyberattacks and an edited video of the beheading of Paul’s boss. Then, off the Spanish coast, a Chinese container ship is attacked and sunk. There is also an attack on a Danish sperm bank and, finally, a migrant ship is torpedoed resulting in five hundred deaths. All those on board perish. Who is behind these attacks remains guesswork, even for Paul, but clearly globalization, shaped by free trade and cultural liberalism, is targeted. A panorama of action groups and ideologues pass in review, some more deranged than others. “The worst part was that if the goal of the terrorists was to destroy the world as he knew it, to destroy the modern world, Paul could not prove them entirely wrong.

Since the publication of Subjected in 2015, Houellebecq has been increasingly emphatically hoisted on the shield of the radical right. This novel focuses on the democratic takeover of France by the Muslim Brotherhood. The writer puts up with this and is interviewed and feted by publications that are emphatically right of center, such as the monthly magazine Causeur, or the right-identitarian weekly Valeurs actuelles, which crowned him “our national writer” in 2019. Houellebecq shines at right-wing country days in Paris’ beaux quartiers, but with his grubby appearance and eternal green parka, he detonates with the shiny hair and expensive suits of the people who attend such events.

When Houellebecq received the 2018 Oswald Spengler Prize in Brussels, named after the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, he endorsed the verdict of the jury, which praised him as a chronicler of the decay of the West, but added that the word “decay” was too weakly expressed and substituted “suicide” for it, meanwhile pointing to the European Union.

In our country, it is Thierry Baudet who sings Houellebecq’s praises, a few years ago with a much-discussed essay; most recently in the book The Gideon Gang, where he calls him no less than “the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of our time” and “the first great dissident who dared to expose the dystopian reality of the prevailing ideology. Baudet calls him “an ideological teacher,” a “conservative mentor if you will.

Houellebecq certainly surfed along on the far-right trend that took place in France, and beyond, in recent decades. He also depicted this in his novels, and in doing so he also gave shape to this far-right movement.

But anyone who thinks Houellebecq was progressive at first and has now suddenly become reactionary has not been paying attention. He has been railing against progressivism, the legacy of ’68, modern individualism or economic liberalism for decades. In Ennemis Publics, the book he made with Bernard-Henri Lévy in 2008, Houellebecq himself answered the question of whether he was a reactionary. ‘You have to be able to agree on the meaning of words,’ he wrote there. ‘A reactionary is someone who longs for an older type of society, would prefer to return to it, and is committed to it. But if there is one idea, a single one, that is present in all my novels, to the point of obsession, it is the notion of the irreversibility of any process of decay once it has begun. That decay can involve a friendship, a family, a couple, a community, a society; in my books there is no return, no second chance; everything that is lost is, forever. In someone so imbued with this thought, the idea of reaction doesn’t even occur to him.

Houellebecq has also been railing against Islam since 2001 (even before the 9/11 attacks). At the same time, one can also read Onderworpen as a paean to Islam, for now that Catholicism “proved unable to resist the encroachment of good morals any longer, Islam offered an unsuspected opportunity for the moral arming of Europe. Unlike Catholicism, according to Houellebecq, Islam had retained its spiritual power, and as he learned from Auguste Comte, an author he has fallen under the spell of over the past few years, religion is a prerequisite for any society.

The occasion for writing Subjugated was a failed conversion to Catholicism. Houellebecq once said he considered converting to Islam, yet was too attached to Christianity for “sentimental reasons. French esotherapist René Guénon, who plays a role in Subjected and whose La crise du Monde moderne (1927) figures prominently on Forum for Democracy’s reading lists, emphatically did go that route.

Onderworpen (the working title was initially La Conversion) is a book that the radical right did see as a kind of prophecy, as a terrifying vision of the future. Conversely, the then center-left Prime Minister Valls portrayed Houellebecq as a hate-monger. Notably, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Valls said France “is not a subjugation, it is not Michel Houellebecq. Totally irresponsible when you consider that the writer was under police surveillance at the time for fear that he too might be targeted.

At the time, I myself read Soumission rather as a play on the existential fears that lie dormant deep within Western society, and particularly among the radical right. Fear of decay, of “popular replacement,” of the softening of the male or of a feminist power grab. Therein lies Houellebecq’s merit as a writer, for he shows that you could make fun of something in a novel, while outside it you might emphatically believe in it.

Where does the novel end and reality begin? Or is everything novel? Or just everything reality? Houellebecq himself does not seem to make any effort to clearly mark or choose that border, and the sheer freedom he allows himself in doing so means that he cannot be politically appropriated.

Besides: he lives the decadence that the radical right fears and condemns so much; his shameless performance in a KIRAC film is just one of many examples of this.

It makes him hard to imagine him as a role model for the Catholic Right, which is all too happy to embrace him in other areas, such as the fight against euthanasia. It also gives him something elusive. Houellebecq constantly adds small nuances, argues Vincent Berthelier, author of Le style réactionaire, a book published last year that analyzes the language used by a number of French writers known as reactionary. ‘This still allows him to remain freischwebend, even at times when he cloaks himself in the guise of ideologue.’

If anything, Houellebecq is anti-modern, an intellectual tradition that begins with the Savoyard lawyer and diplomat Joseph de Maistre (1753-1822) and runs through Baudelaire and Guénon to Cioran. De Maistre is known as a counter-revolutionary thinker, a reactionary, but if he was convinced of anything, it was that the French Revolution, for that is what we are talking about, could never be undone. That would be “like trying to pour Lake Geneva into a milk bottle,” he once wrote.

Anti-moderns are anti-modern in spite of themselves, torn, resigned, disgusted with their time, but at the same time condemned to it, and ultimately simply belonging to it. Paul Raison, the protagonist of Destroy, summed it up pithily, “No matter how much you despise, or even hate, your generation and your time, you belong. The big question then, of course, is what you do next. Michel Houellebecq knows. The answer to that question lies in a hotel room in Amsterdam.