Saturday, June 03, 2006


Jean Baudrillard worries that the man of the future "will be a corrected, rectified human. He will be from the outset what he should have been ideally. He will never, therefore become what he is." Yet what for Baudrillard is clearly a problem is for Michel Houellebecq nothing less than the solution: "The revolution will not be mental, but genetic." Mental it certainly is!

For the first hundred or so pages I was thinking that Atomised was a better, funnier novel than Platform, but then I started to get the impression that the plot and characters had become totally subservient to the author's delusional masterplan for the human race - a kind of porno Paolo Coelho if you like.

Still, I found much to enjoy here...unlike the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani who wrote:
"The reader of the newly translated English version can only conclude that controversy -- over the book's right-wing politics and willfully pornographic passages -- accounts for the novel's high profile. As a piece of writing, 'The Elementary Particles' feels like a bad, self-conscious pastiche of Camus, Foucault and Bret Easton Ellis. And as a philosophical tract, it evinces a fiercely nihilistic, anti-humanistic vision built upon gross generalizations and ridiculously phony logic. It is a deeply repugnant read."

Many standing outside of continental Europe's intellectual culture just don't get why its glass is permanently (at least) half empty - what Houellebecq describes here as "a general mood of depression bordering on masochism." After Nietzsche there are those that accepted the passing of the Deity, those that didn't, and those that never even heard the news. It is the blessing/curse of the Anglo-Saxon that he is usually blind to the void.

At the very least we British tend to look at tragedy with a sense of irony. Houellebecq scoffs at this: "Irony won't save you from the end life always breaks your heart...Some people live to be 70, sometimes 80 years old, believing that there is always something new just around the corner, as they say; in the end they practically have to be killed or at least reduced to a state of serious incapacity to get them to see reason."

Houellebecq specifically reminds me of my pal Baksheesh, who has the same knack for packaging cynicism as idealism. In my friend's case the charm of it derives from the fact that its clearly not rooted in either small-mindedness or hatred. You can't be so sure with Houellebecq. All of his pet hates are present here, such as the "sex and shopping society" where "the seasons were all commercial ones" and features "the ideals of the entertainment industry, individual freedom, the supremacy of youth over age and the destruction of Judaeo-Christian values." It marshals our desire so that "people have to want more until it fills their lives completely and finally devours them" and "a world in which the young have no respect eventually devours everyone."

Then there is his parents' generation: "Liberated from the constraints of ordinary morality [we] turn our attentions to the wider pleasures of cruelty. The serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the sixties."

And how he loves to be rude about other countries. You can't even say indirectly, as his characters are such poorly-disguised ciphers for his own personal issues. Norway and Japan are "those sinister countries where middle-aged people commit suicide en mass", while Brazil is "a shitheap full of morons obsessed with football and formula one. It was the ne plus ultra of violence, corruption and misery. If ever a country were loathsome, that country, specifically, was Brazil."

Houellebecq sees the half-empty side of TV Nature documentaries too: "Graceful animals like gazelles and the antelopes spent their days in abject terror while lions and panthers lived out their lives in listless imbecility punctuated by explosive bursts of cruelty...All in all, Nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust and Man's mission on Earth was probably to do just that."

The title itself signals the author's willingness, like many Postmodern French thinkers (Baudrillard included), to couch his metaphors in the concepts of contemporary Science: "Now particle, now wave - so Bruno could be seen as an individual or as passively caught up in the sweep of history."

And quantum physics, Houellebecq suggests, has instigated the "suicide of the West" by undermining the materialism that had itself put paid to traditional religious faith in Europe. As Baudrillard puts it, God was the "first barrier", and after that had been breached, Man "no longer needed God, nor even the idea of underlying reality."

Noting the words of St Paul, that "if Christ did not rise from the dead then our faith is vain" Houellebecq insists that the apparent unavailability of an afterlife will thwart all efforts to fashion an upbeat society, at least while we remain in our present biological state: "Contemporary consciousness is no longer equipped to deal with our mortality."

Kakutani summarises: "The remedy for suffering, this book implies, does not lie in anything as old-fashioned as human love, kindness or faith -- emotions Mr. Houellebecq discounts as being purely illusory -- but in the evolution of humanity into a superior, rational species: clones devoid of individuality, a race of ''gods'' carefully engineered by scientists to lack the egotistical and quarrelsome qualities of human beings."

Over the final few pages one of Houellebecq's monads is summarising the state of its own post-human society, and comes up with a line that I found ironic, but perhaps the author himself didn't:
"Without the stimulus of personal vanity, the pursuit of Truth and Beauty has taken on a less urgent aspect."

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