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Broadening the field of struggle by Michel Houellebecq

August 1, 2011 15 comments

Extension du domaine de la lutte by Michel Houellebecq. English title: Whatever. 1994.

 Disclaimer : I had to translate the quotes myself, a daunting job as it isn’t easy.

Dans nos sociétés, le sexe représente bel et bien un second système de différenciation, tout à fait indépendant de l’argent ; et il se comporte comme un système de différenciation au moins aussi impitoyable. Les effets de ces deux systèmes sont d’ailleurs strictement équivalents. Tout comme le libéralisme économique sans frein, et pour des raisons analogues, le libéralisme sexuel produit des phénomènes de paupérisation absolue. Certains font l’amour tous les jours ; d’autres cinq ou six fois dans leur vie ou jamais. Certains font l’amour avec des dizaines de femmes, d’autres jamais. C’est ce qu’on appelle la « loi du marché ». Dans un système économique où le licenciement est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver sa place. Dans un système sexuel où l’adultère est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver son compagnon de lit. En système économique libéral, certains accumulent des fortunes considérables ; d’autres croupissent dans le chômage et la misère. En système sexuel parfaitement libéral, certains ont une vie érotique variée et excitante ; d’autres sont réduits à la masturbation et à la solitude. Le libéralisme économique, c’est l’extension du domaine de la lutte, son extension à tous les âges de la vie, à toutes les classes de la société. Sur le plan économique, Raphaël Tisserand appartient au camp des vainqueurs ; sur le plan sexuel à celui des vaincus. Certains gagnent sur les deux tableaux, d’autres perdent sur les deux. Les entreprises se disputent certains jeunes diplômés ; les femmes se disputent certains jeunes hommes ; les hommes se disputent certaines jeunes femmes ; le trouble et l’agitation sont considérables. In our societies, sex represents a second system of differentiation, independent from money. It behaves as a system of differentiation at least as merciless as money. The impacts of these two systems are actually equivalent. Sexual liberalism creates a phenomenon of acute pauperization, just like wild liberalism does. Some make love everyday; some five or six times in their life or never. Some make love to dozens of women, some never do. It is called “market law”. In an economic system where lay-offs are prohibited, everyone more or less finds their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, everyone more or less manages to find a bed partner. In a liberal economic system, some build huge fortunes; some endure unemployment and misery. In a perfect liberal sex system, some have a varied and exciting erotic life; some are reduced to masturbation and loneliness. Economic liberalism is broadening the field of struggle, broadening it to all the stages of life and to all social classes. On an economical point of view, Raphael Tisserand belongs to the winners; on a sexual point of view, to the losers. Some are winners on the two criteria; some are losers on the two criteria. Companies fight for some young graduates; women fight for some young men; men fight for some young women; trouble and agitation are considerable.

 This is the underlying theory of Whatever aka Extension du domaine de la lute, Houellebecq’s debut novel. The French title means ‘broadening the field of struggle’ and it is explained in the previous quote.

It’s a first person narrative by a man of 31 whose name is never told. He is Our Hero. He’s a single Parisian programmer who works for an IT company that has just won a contract with the Ministère de l’Agriculture. Now Our Hero is sent in small towns in Province to implement the software and train the users at their new working environment.

Our Hero is single, depressed and hates the world he lives in. He’s not interested in his job; he has no girl-friend or interest in women; he has no real friends to go out with. He’s cut off from human relationships. In my opinion, the book has two different parts. I thought the first half rather funny and at this point, I think it necessary to talk about French humour. In Francewe talk about l’humour au premier degré and l’humour au second degré. Like for burns, it could be translated as first-degree humour and second-degree humour. The first corresponds to funny but basic gags. The second correspond to more subtle jokes. Add to the different degrees a tendency to nasty or black humour and you have a flavour of the best – in my opinion – humorists. The perfect example was Pierre Desproges. For me, the first part of Extension du domaine de la lutte is in the same line, like in this example:

En général, je déteste les dentistes; je les tiens pour des créatures foncièrement vénales dont le seul but dans la vie est d’arracher le plus de dents possible afin de s’acheter des Mercedes à toit ouvrant. Generally speaking, I hate dentists. I think they are essentially mercenary creatures whose only goal in life is to pull out as many teeth as possible to buy Mercedes cars with sunroofs.

He points out the absurdity of our society, its pointless struggles. It is full of caustic remarks intertwined with more or less serious sociologic analysis. I suspect Houellebecq mocks the intellectuals who take themselves too seriously. It’s provocative and I don’t think it really represents Houellebecq’s thoughts. It is meant to shock For sure, Houellebecq doesn’t know the concept of political correctness. And I have to say it’s refreshing. I’m far from agreeing with everything Our Hero says. It’s nasty, it’s absurd and it’s ridiculous. But god, it’s funny and sometimes spot on  

The second part is more serious as Our Hero’s depression deepens. I didn’t want to laugh anymore. He gasps for air, cries at work and feels empty. I watched him sink into despair, letting his life fall apart. I’ve never experienced depression myself but it felt real and well described. I can’t help thinking that Houellebecq put something of himself in Our Hero. After all, he was born at the same time and also worked as an IT programmer. He doesn’t sound like a joyful fellow. Our Hero isn’t a very nice man. He’s supposed to be an example to illustrate the theory summed up in the first quote. I can’t say that I don’t agree with his analysis. But it’s easy to criticize without proposing any alternative. Communist systems have proved to be an economical failure and who would want to go back to the 19thC when divorce didn’t exist? Not me. Yes we have more freedom and more freedom doesn’t mean automatically more happiness.

Houellebecq is a scientist and the two books I’ve read include scientific theories applied to everyday life and especially comparison between physics (elementary particles) and our information society. It’s partly beyond my reach so I can’t explain it and certainly not in English. Extension du domaine de la lutte was written in 1994 when Internet was barely emerging. He saw it coming though. That’s one of the reasons why I think he’s worth reading, he seems to have a clear vision of society’s trends. There’s good material in his books if you push aside his tendency to provoke and to take advantage of our capitalist world while criticizing it.  

About the style. I was disappointed by Houellebecq’s style in Les Particules Elémentaires especially because he’s so praised. But the topic was special and I thought maybe he had adapted his style for the occasion. Now I know he didn’t. It lacks something but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s too clinical, not personal enough. I can’t hear his literary voice. I’m not ready to read La Carte et le Territoire right now to find out if he improved. The good point is that I feel less guilty for my lousy translation of Houellebecq than I feel for other writers. Houellebecq’s style doesn’t convey much, even in French. It has no magic or poetry or play-on-words which are, in my opinion, the translator’s nightmare.

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

July 17, 2011 21 comments

Les particules élémentaires by Michel Houellebecq. 1998. 316 pages.  British title: Atomised US title: The Elementary Particles.

Ce livre est avant tout l’histoire d’un homme qui vécut la plus grande partie de sa vie en Europe occidentale, durant la seconde moitié du XXème siècle. Généralement seul, il fut cependant, de loin en loin, en relation avec d’autres hommes. Il vécut dans des temps malheureux et troublés. Le pays qui lui avait donné naissance basculait lentement, mais inéluctablement, dans la zone économique des pays moyens-pauvres ; fréquemment guettés par la misère, les hommes de sa génération passèrent en outre leur vie dans la solitude et l’amertume. Les sentiments d’amour, de tendresse et de fraternité humaine avaient dans une large mesure disparu ; dans leurs rapports mutuels, ses contemporains faisaient le plus souvent preuve d’indifférence, voire de cruauté. This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.

Michel Houellebecq is often described as a genius. At least, that’s what international journalists claimed when his last novel, La Carte et le Territoire was published in 2010. (How they knew that when the book hasn’t been translated into English so far is a mystery to me. There are really a lot of fluent French speakers out there.) It won him the Prix Goncourt. I thought it was high time for me to try one of his books and I bought Les Particules élémentaires. Published in 1998, it is Houellebecq’s second novel. It relates the parallel lives of Michel (the ‘he’ of the previous quote) and Bruno, two half brothers who have the same mother, Janine.

Bruno was born in 1956 and Michel in 1958, like Houellebecq himself, btw. Janine was a dismissive mother who never took care of her children, not even seeing them. Bruno was raised by his motherly grand-mother, first inAlgeria and then in France near Paris. After her death, he was sent to a boarding school where he was relentlessly and violently harassed by older pupils. He used to spend his week-ends with his father who was totally at loss at how to create a healthy and solid relationship with his son.

Michel was raised by his fatherly grand-mother, first in the Yonne department and then near Paris, not far from Bruno. He was always a solitary and silent child, interested in scientific reviews and science TV programs. When they were teenagers, the adults decided they should meet.

At the beginning of the book, they are fortyish adults, both dysfunctional in their own way. Michel is an acclaimed researcher in biology, particularly interested in the human DNA. When the book opens, he’s leaving his research unit to think and then work on his own. Bruno was a French literature teacher but had to quit due to psychiatric problems.

Michel is all superego. He has no sex life, no sexual impulse even as a teenager and doesn’t know how to create bonds with other people. He was born an adult. He is all mind, his body tolerated only as the biological vector of his thoughts. He sublimates his personal needs into a higher goal, his research. He’s a failure as a person, but he’s useful to the society through his work. I should have felt admiration for him but I didn’t.

Bruno is the id. Horny is his normal state of mind. Sex is the only thing he’s interested in. He finds solace in food. He’s immature. At 42, he still reads Les six compagnons (1) and compares his lover Christiane to Claude, one of the characters of the Famous Five by Enid Blyton. Very mature indeed, something he admits to himself. Bruno never grew up and screwed up his life because he can’t grow up. He’s pathetic, a personal failure, useless to the society and even a parasite in a way. I should have felt compassion for him but I couldn’t. Pleasure is his aim but according to him, he’s not the only one:

Les individus que Bruno eut l’occasion de fréquenter au cours de sa vie étaient pour la plupart mus par la recherche du plaisir – si bien entendu on inclut dans la notion de plaisir les gratifications d’ordre narcissique, si liées à l’estime ou à l’admiration d’autrui. Ainsi se mettaient en place différentes stratégies, qualifiées de vies humaines. The people Bruno happened to meet during his life were mostly driven by the research of pleasure, that is, if one includes in the notion of pleasure the gratifications of a narcissist kind, linked to other people’s regard or admiration. Thus were put into place different strategies, called human lives.

This quote sums up the sour taste of the Elementary Particles. It is written in a detached tone. I thought about the even voice of a commentator to a documentary on a specific animal, the Western European man. It’s the tone of a scientist/god observing the humans from above, as if they were ants bustling around their anthill. The book is full of sociologic insight and philosophical analysis. Michel Houellebecq is a pessimist. He judges the Western civilization is doomed and seems to present Bruno as its typical decadent offspring. I agree with some of his observations, like the one on the indestructible core of one’s personality.

Cela faisait maintenant vingt-cinq ans que Bruno connaissait Michel. Durant cet intervalle de temps effrayant, il avait l’impression d’avoir à peine changé ; l’hypothèse d’un noyau d’identité personnelle, d’un noyau inamovible dans ses caractéristiques majeures, lui apparaissait comme une évidence. Bruno had known Michel for twenty-five years now. During this dreadful span, he was under the impression he had barely moved on. The hypothesis of a core of personal identity, of a permanent core in its main characteristics seemed obvious to him.

Conventions and social rules build layers around it, that all. However, I refuse to take Bruno as the template of our Western species. Most of us have had loving parents, weren’t harassed in school and became adults. It’s something Michel Houellebecq acknowledges but mocks:

Après quelques années de travail le désir sexuel disparaît, les gens se recentrent sur la gastronomie et les vins ; certains de ses collègues, beaucoup plus jeunes que lui, avaient déjà commencé à se constituer une cave. After a few years as a worker, sexual desire vanishes; people concentrate on gastronomy and wines. Some of his colleagues a lot younger than him, had already started their wine cellar.

Oh dear, I had never guessed that boring business lunches about food and wine stem from the end of sexual desire of the male participants. Please gentlemen, mend this so that we can talk about something else.

The Elementary Particles conveys a pessimistic vision of humanity. Men are more challenged than women in this work. Houellebecq grants them goodness and disinterested love and denies it to men. I disagree with him on that point. Just thinking about dictators’ wives is enough to reject that thought.

It’s a disturbing book and I was fascinated, bored, bothered, annoyed, entertained and never indifferent. I got lost in the scientific bits and in some of the metaphysic reasoning: I lack the academic background. Anyway, I understood what I could. It’s been a while since I last read such a disturbing French book. Parts reminded me of Sade, alternating sex descriptions and intellectual thinking, always provocative. It also reminded me of Martin Amis. On the one hand, there’s the criticism of our materialist society like in Money. Bruno is as pathetic as John Self and has the same flaws. On the other hand, Bruno’s unquenchable thirst for sex at any cost recalled sex in Dead Babies, i.e. pleasure without love and in collective settings. I was rather bored by descriptions of orgies and swinger night-clubs.

I wasn’t blown away by The Elementary Particles but I’m really glad I read it. I think Michel Houellebecq has a unique place in nowadays literature. The ending surprised me and was well brought up. I need to read another of his novels to figure out his style. Here, the style serves the story, nothing can tell me if it’s his real literary voice or if it’s a fabricated one for the occasion. I’m tempted by Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever in its English translation) or La possibilité d’une île. La Carte et le Territoire is said to be less provocative, toned down to win the Prix Goncourt. I’m more inclined to read thought provoking books written as the author wanted them than self-censored books designed to win a literary prize.  

This book was part of Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s challenge hosted by Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile), category “Seek out a book by an author who has earned ostracism by being so good that any further novel could surely never measure up…?”

It’s also one of my contributions to July in Paris, hosted by Thyme for Tea and Bookbath.

PS: M. Houellebecq, Bruno can’t eat at McDonald’s in Paris in 1975. The first MacDonald’s was opened in 1979 in Strasbourg. I checked because 1975 sounded early.

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 (1) Les six companions is a French series for children. It takes place in Lyon in the popular neighbourhood of La Croix Rousse. The six friends solve mysteries, like the Famous Five.  

Translations: The first quote comes from the sample I downloaded on my kindle. I translated the others and I did my best but I can feel it remains clumsy.

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