On Michel Houellebecq: Sex and the West

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Est-il possible de définir l’Orient et l’Occident en dehors de la géographie?’ 

DENIS DE ROUGEMENT, L’amour et l’occident

An elderly man, whose white beard and glasses make him look like a retired professor, sits drinking beer in a Phuket bar. Smoke machines obscure young women – nude, save for necklaces of flowers.

The man is so still he seems dead, but there are tears of happiness in his eyes. He signals to a young Thai woman in a white G-string, who comes and sits on his lap.

When Michel, the main character in Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Platform, hears the prostitute call the old man ‘Daddy’, he leaves the bar. ‘I realised that I was watching one of the old man’s final moments of joy. It was too moving and intimate,’ he says. 1

Unsuspecting readers may think that the character feels uneasy about the scene’s apparent exploitation, with its paedophiliac and incestuous overtones, but that’s not the case. It is the tenderness, or moment of grace, that makes the character wince.

Published by Flammarion in France late in 2001, Platform continues Michel Houellebecq’s brilliant if controversial career. On its publication, Houellebecq was called racist and sexist, and Flammarion soon faced a defamation charge (brought by travel publisher, Guide du Routard).2

Platform tells the story of Michel, a man in his forties who finds some relief from his bleak existence through sex with Thai prostitutes, and then in his love for a young French woman, Valérie. It tells of his transformation first through sex, then love, and then hate. The novel also puts forward the argument that sex tourism in the Third World provides the solution for the West’s social problems.

Characters in Platform express hatred for Islam, dismissing the religion as inherently violent and predisposed towards terrorism (a sentiment Houellebecq has endorsed in interviews, adding that believers in monotheistic faiths are cretins and Islam is the ‘most stupid’ religion of them all). At the end of Platform the beloved Valérie is killed by an Islamist’s bomb, planted in protest against her company’s sex tourism business.

Critics routinely note how Houellebecq revels in his role as provocateur (and how his French publisher manipulates his self-confessed ‘talent’ for causing harm to push up sales), but there is also something in the way Houellebecq writes that provokes unease.

In French, Platform can be divided into two words, ‘flat form’, which suggests a literary aesthetic of little respite, or release.3 Reading Houellebecq is unsettling because he employs a number of literary devices that alienate readers, while making them feel complicit in what they read.

In his first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, Houellebecq writes that when you meet with your new lover ‘disillusionment and disenchantment rapidly take over from the initial enthusiasm.’ For novelists today this ‘effacement of human relationships’ poses a problem: ‘How, in point of fact, would one handle the narration of those unbridled passions, stretching over many years, and at times making their effect felt on several generations?’ ‘We’re a long way from Wuthering Heights, to say the least,’ he says. ‘The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness, a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.’4

Has Houellebecq achieved this new literary discourse in Platform?

His emphasis upon detail, his use of footnotes, montage and pastiche of various types of discourse (from history, advertising, marketing, pop sociology) and references to real events make Platform appear ‘flat’ and calculating.

The difficulty lies in the fact that Houellebecq is no cool-headed ironist. Literary detachment co-exists with hatred, extreme savagery, explicit sex and the characters’ yearning for transcendence. There is little emotional engagement here, only an almost pathological numbness and Houellebecq’s overriding discourse of indifference.

One of the most famous scenes in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary takes place in a barn, overlooking a country market. A minor official’s speech about French morality and farm animals parallels the lovers’ increasing desire for each other. We laugh at this disjunction, while noting Flaubert’s gentle mockery of Emma’s love-struck delusion. A similar scene takes place in Platform with a crucial difference.

Lionel, a technician from a crime-ridden suburb in France, sits with Robert, a man who says that politically he’s ‘on the right’ in a Thai sex bar. At fifty-three, after three divorces, Robert – a former Maths teacher – spends his retirement fucking women in poor countries. ‘I am a racist,’ he says happily. ‘I have become racist. One of the first effects of travel is that it reinforces racial prejudice.’

What follows is a rave straight out of nineteenth-century treatises, or unedited National Front comics, spouting from Robert’s well-educated mouth. He dissects women’s bodies, saying that non-white women have nice cunts that are supple and muscular. His rant turns into a quasi-theoretical polemic about how, in the wake of colonialism, white men see black men as superior to themselves. This is, he says, a form of ‘benevolent racism’.

What makes the scene shocking is not the character’s invective, but a concurrent line of action. While Robert is holding forth, Houellebecq’s hero, Michel, makes eyes at a Thai prostitute. Robert announces that racial masochism will result in massacres. Michel notes a passing feeling of excitement as he gestures to a waiter. ‘I need a girl,’ he says in a thin voice. The Thai man slowly understands. The prostitutes are naked except for bibs with numbers around their necks. Get me that girl, Michel says, get me that girl, number forty-seven.

Whereas Flaubert’s sympathy for Emma is self-evident, Houellebecq’s view here is anybody’s guess. For Pierre Varrod, Houellebecq’s naming of his male characters after himself enacts a form of wish fulfillment, in line with William Faulkner’s claim that an author’s books make manifest his ‘secret life’ and act as his ‘dark twin’.5 If this is the case, Houellebecq’s lack of moral engagement is disturbing. My view is that it is through the counterpoint with Michel that we find a critique of Robert’s hate (but this is open to debate, as critics who have called Platform racist have argued that the author and his character Michel are the same).

In his essay ‘Un racisme chic et tendance’, Abdel-Lillah Salhi argues that Houellebecq’s descriptions of French Muslims as ‘stupid’ and like ‘sheep’ genetically programmed to commit acts of violence (including the murder of Michel’s father), are based on prejudice.6

Houellebecq’s fiction is bile-filled and the evocation of a grieving Michel feeling a frisson of excitement every time he saw a ‘Palestinian terrorist, child, or pregnant woman gunned down on the Gaza strip’ is not pleasant. Similarly, Michel’s lust for his recently dead father’s lover Aïcha, is crude to the point of offensiveness.

Houellebecq’s ambiguous morality creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. There is no escape, only the words on the page. The decision to make his characters so extreme, so blind to the world around them is both brave and radical in that it threatens the motor of fictional narrative – that is, the author’s manipulation of a reader’s sympathy.

One of the reasons why Houellebecq is hard to place, or take, is his contrary intellectual status. He veers to the left in his critique of globalisation, but also argues that 60s radicalism, with its unchecked individualism has dissolved social institutions, such as marriage and the family (the only things, Houellebecq argues, that can act as a buffer against capitalism’s excesses). And while members of the French Catholic media have applauded Houellebecq’s anti-abortion stance, they would not have been so enthusiastic about the excessive libertinism of his characters, nor the recent porno film starring his wife.

To understand the Houellebecq phenomenon – his novels sell by the hundreds of thousands in France and have been published in twenty-five countries – it is important to move away from the media stunts and inebriated interviews to look at his number one obsession.

As the novelist and critic Frédéric Grolleau has noted, the freshest aspect of Houellebecq’s work is the sex:

In Michel Houellebecq’s world, the only obsession, the only intention of characters is to have fun, to have sexual fun. What is amazing in this text is that for the first time, sexuality is like a character among others in a book. Sexuality in Platform has a special value, and this value is one that you can realise yourself more in all the sexual positions, than in a way of life that refers to some normality. I’d like to say that Platform is a book beyond the rules, beyond the laws.7

Houellebecq teases his critics with this emphasis. Platform, he says, is a ‘dirty book’ (un livre porno) that has as its core ‘the little bit of latex’. But in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, he claimed that Platform was above all a love story, where love ‘literally falls’ on the central character, Michel.

Michel is a ‘houellebecquian type’ who, like most men in Houellebecq’s world, is ‘frightened of human contact, refuses passion and is resigned to a life without great happiness, or unhappiness.’8 Victims of economic shifts from the 1980s onwards, with mass unemployment the norm in France, such men inhabit a netherworld of non-feeling, unable to register any positive emotions; passive to their own lives.

Despite comparisons with Albert Camus (whom he has dismissed as a writer of lesser ambition), Houellebecq is no existentialist; as for his characters, freedom is not based on the exercise of individual will. Houellebecq has said that there is no such thing as individual freedom. In a world of mass-market desire, human beings make up an atomised foule, defined only by their ability to compete in the sexual arena.

His first novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte, with its mock- revolutionary title, explored this theme. Michel, a sexless analyst- programmer dreaming of his ex-girlfriend, and Raphaël Tisserand, a repulsive would-be sex-fiend, go to a provincial nightclub.

Michel sees a beautiful girl of about seventeen whom he calls ‘pseudo-Véronique’ after his ex. Tisserand tries to pick up a variety of women, but with no luck. Face it, Michel says, you will never be the object of ‘a young girl’s erotic dream’, so your only chance of sex is through violence. They follow this pseudo-Véronique and her ‘half- caste’ boyfriend to the beach. Tisserand takes a knife. He watches the young couple make love. Unable to go through with the girl’s murder, Tisserand masturbates in the dunes.

When Michel learns of Tisserand’s death in a car crash on his return to Paris, he is relieved: ‘Right to the end, and despite repeated failure, he’ll have looked for love. Squashed flat in the bodywork of his 205 GTI on the most deserted highway, all bloody in his black suit and gold tie, I know that in his heart there was still the struggle, the desire and the will to struggle.’9

Houellebecq has said that when writing Extension he hoped to upset this ‘system of sexual hierarchy’ by drawing attention to its negative aspects. In his Le Figaro interview he described himself as ‘the writer of ordinary suffering’. Being jilted, or left out in the sexual market is a mundane tragedy suffered primarily by the less powerful and the poor. Ultimately, in the scheme of things, this kind of suffering seems pretty trivial. But despite his caustic attacks on consumer society, Houellebecq is sincere when writing about this pain, and this vulnerability gives his work a certain depth.

The extreme responses to Michel Houellebecq (the denunciations and expulsions on one side, and claims he is a prophet on the other) show up in his particular brand of class-consciousness. Houellebecq was once, like the grandmother who raised him, a communist and his anti-capital critique derives from this ideological inheritance.

The other side of this is Houellebecq’s interest in ordinary people, rather than those on the extremes. ‘My characters are not rich, or famous, the most marginalised, delinquent or violent,’ Houellebecq has said. In his ‘banal universe’ you find ‘secretaries, technicians, office workers, middle managers; people who do ordinary things, something that’s not usually seen to be attractive from a novelist’s point of view.’13

This interest in ordinary people, their lives and desires has two effects: it makes readers feel close to the writer and his work and deflects criticism. If like a scientist, or disciple of Auguste Comte, he is merely describing the world, it is hard to condemn him.

Not unlike a populist politician, Houellebecq is only saying out loud what others think privately, to quote Jean-Marie Le Pen. For Houellebecq, Le Pen’s success in the recent presidential elections didn’t come as a shock:

'What happened on Sunday didn’t surprise me so much because there is such a gap between the elites and the rest of the population in France. Before you used to have the intellectuals (often communists) and ‘the people’ together on one side and then those in government. Today, the intellectuals and those in charge politically are on one side and the people are on the other.'14

As Emily Eakin noted in the New York Times, Houellebecq’s success was taken as an ‘affront’ in a country where ‘writers are overwhelmingly upper class and products of the grandes écoles.’ Houellebecq was a provincial petit bourgeois with a trade-school degree. Her analysis is crude and if it were not for Houellebecq’s sarcastic self-acknowledged status as a spokesman for the masses who frequent Monoprix, it would be better to steer clear of it, yet there is certainly a class-based, or elite-based, resentment in his work.

Analysis of the scandal greeting the publication of Atomised in 1999 highlights Houellebecq’s thesis that post-60s narcissism has created a generation of emotional misfits. France’s intellectual and economic elite, he argues, has allowed a society to develop that denies their children any emotional or financial security.

Insecurity is the word of the moment in France. Conservative politicians call for an increased police presence in the ‘hot’ suburbs surrounding major French cities (and increasingly, too, in country areas). Watching French TV news is an assault, with its constant emphasis on street violence enacted by French youths. But as Mark Lilla argues in his essay on Houellebecq in the New York Review of Books, these anxieties are nothing new. Lilla traces the start of the fin de siècle mood that provides the backdrop to Houellebecq’s work to the bicentennial celebrations of the French revolution in 1989. From that day on, he says, the French feel ‘nothing has gone right.’15

The radical right in France has refused to disappear. Unemployment has remained in double digits in the past two decades, reaching epidemic proportions in certain areas. Mitterrand’s death in 1996 opened up scandals that continue to this day with investigations of the current French president, Jacques Chirac. Lilla writes that the dominant self-perception in 1990s France was a ‘horrifying dystopian vision [of an] atomised world of disconnected individuals, spinning in space without attachments to history, family or friends.’

Welcome to Houellebecq’s world, where rampant individualism allows people to engage in sex in a kind of masochistic frenzy, unaware of the cost. His female characters drop like flies. In Atomised, Christiane commits suicide after becoming paralysed from injuries sustained from violent, anonymous sex. Annabelle kills herself after getting uterine cancer.

Extension du domaine de la lutte opens Houellebecq’s signature diatribe about sex in the West which he continues in Atomised (Les particules élémentaires) and Platform.

‘Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as the “law of the market”,’ Houellebecq writes in one of Extension’s sociological asides.

‘In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find a place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate’ – but there is no such social structure in France today. Supermarkets are ‘modern paradises’ and nightclubs are locales of despair, where men compete with other men for attractive, young women and vice versa. Human societies have systems of hierarchical differentiation based on birth (as in the aristocratic system), wealth, beauty, strength, intelligence, talent, but in the West, only two things matter: physical attractiveness and money.10

Raphaël Tisserand was a victor on the economic plane, Houellebecq writes, but on the sexual side, he was one of the vanquished. Houellebecq despises sexual ‘fantasies’ programmed by the market, found in advertisements, and this motivates, he says, the explicit sex in his work.11

The French scandal surrounding Atomised is largely agonistic. Lilla first heard about Houellebecq from ‘French friends who had the book pressed upon them by their children, and these parents were puzzled that it struck a deep chord with adolescents.’ ‘Suddenly it was a question of agreeing with Les particules the same way one had to agree, or disagree with Picasso’s Guernica,’ Le Monde has said.16

In Atomised the real issue for Houellebecq is the difficulty people have associating sex, or pleasure, with love and commitment. At a New Age sex camp, Bruno meets Christiane (who, according to one critic, strangely resembles Houellebecq’s despised, hippy mother who abandoned him as a child), but aside from a great sex life they are unable to sustain any real happiness together.

The post-war generation, that of Houellebecq’s parents, was the most optimistic in history: ‘They believed in progress, the consumer society, sexual happiness and they were naïve and wrong to believe in such things. This generation is different because it knows that pleasure is not the same as happiness, that pleasure is the opposite of happiness. That to me is an unassailable moral position.’17

The much-loved French writer Jacques Prévert is an idiot (un con), Houellebecq writes, for the same reason. With his stupid post-war faith in the future, Prévert’s writing embodies the same mentality that encouraged the development of vast housing estates, public banks and the ‘baby boom’. On the face of it, Houellebecq notes, with his tongue firmly placed in his cheek, his own (more cynical) generation is much more intelligent.18

In his essay on Platform Pierre Varrod writes that whereas Extension had love without sex, and Atomised sex without love, Houellebecq’s third novel finally combines the two in the grand passion of Michel and Valérie.19

In interview, Houellebecq repeatedly returns to the character of Valérie, saying that she is the key to understanding Platform, that he almost fell in love with her and had great difficulty killing her off. Valérie is at the novel’s heart, but remains an ambiguous presence. She is more of an ideal than a fully formed human being. In her purity, she resembles a virtuous, nineteenth-century Russian heroine. For Houellebecq, her generous, free sexuality embodies everything Western society lacks.

Valérie and Michel have remarkable sex together which Michel calls a ‘sacred love’. Throughout Platform, Michel expresses disbelief at his luck in finding her and this love transforms him to such an extent that his colleagues remark on the change in his demeanour.

The two lovers decide to settle in Asia, leaving behind the materialistic West, with Michel supporting Valérie in her role as a tourism executive with the possibility that in the future they will create a family. All this falls apart, of course, when the bomb explodes and Valérie is killed.

Before his relationship with Valérie kicks in, Michel has sex with a range of Thai prostitutes. Descriptions of the Thai women, when compared to Houellebecq’s usual super-macho style, are generally sympathetic, if a little patronising. Houellebecq has celebrated the generosity and gentleness of Thai prostitutes, suggesting that they embody an alternative, almost Edenic sexuality far removed from that offered by the jaded, self-obsessed women of the West.

For ordinary men coming from the grim housing estates of France, encountering such women is a life-changing experience, Houellebecq suggests, especially for those men destined to fail in the competitive sexual marketplace at home. Here, in essence, is the defence of sexual tourism that caused such a fuss in France when Platform was published (though many of his opponents wrongly presumed Houellebecq was endorsing sex tourism with Thai children, something he refutes in the novel and in interviews).

What is striking in Platform is the total absence of economic critique, or any consideration of the socio-political structures in the developing world that prop up the local sex industries. Unlike sinister, bureaucratic France, Thailand is a paradise, where wounded Europeans can become whole. (Though as Gerry Feehily notes, a more truthful writer might have conceded that ‘a quarter of all Thai prostitutes will die from AIDS in the next decade.’)20

At the end of Platform Michel emerges from the shock of his lover’s violent death unable to speak. He is transferred to a hospital, not knowing the reason why. Meanwhile, the French media froth over the bombing, in which Valérie is killed, claiming Islamic extremists targeted the bar to express their opposition to sex tourism. The French President, Jacques Chirac condemns the violence, while criticising the ‘inappropriate behaviour’ of his compatriots.

Michel is sent to Paris – to three months in a psychiatric hospital – then returns to Thailand, numb to everything. Six months later, holed up at Naklua Road, Michel still misses Valérie. His life is permanently affected by her absence. He feels an overriding sense of failure. He goes to massage parlours, can get an erection, even ejaculate, but there’s no pleasure in it.

Having intentionally suppressed his emotional life, Michel’s only human contact is with shopkeepers, but this is limited as he does not speak Thai and has only a little English. ‘It’s possible that I don’t understand Asia, but that doesn’t matter,’ he thinks to himself. ‘It’s possible to live in this world without understanding it, all that matters is the ability to feed yourself, human caresses and love. As for love, it is difficult for me to talk about it, but it’s obvious to me that Valérie was a glorious exception.’

She was one of those rare beings able to dedicate their lives to the happiness of others, totally focussed on this aim. This talent is a mystery. It’s here that you find happiness, simplicity and joy, but I don’t know how, or why, it is like this. And if I don’t understand love, how can I understand anything else?

Until the end I remain a child of Europe, full of anxiety and shame; with no message of hope to deliver. For the West, I have nothing but hate, an incredible contempt. I only know that we rot from egotism, masochism and death. We have created a system in which it’s impossible to live, then export it [overseas].21

Looking out into the Thai dusk, Michel sees the multi-coloured fairy lights of the beer bars and old German men with young companions on their knees. More than any other people, the Germans know shame, Michel thinks, but still understand the need for soft flesh. More than any others, they understand that sexual desire counteracts denial of the world (anéantissement).

The scene is a strange one. The writer sits on the TV platform, the interviewer facing him. The writer sits in a conservative checked shirt that looks starched. The writer chain-smokes cigarettes between the middle and index finger, just like Serge Gainsbourg.

‘If you had been alive during the Occupation, would you have collaborated?’ The writer hesitates, then answers quickly. ‘I guess so, like the majority of French people, I would have.’ Asked about his writing’s apparent lack of morality, the writer says that he is only an observer. Je regarde – c’est tout.

‘What do you say about people saying you are racist?’ ‘Well, in this book [Platform], I make a strong distinction between Arabs and Muslims. There are even Thai Muslims, so if there is a book that can distinguish between Arabs and Muslims it would have to be this one.’

Behind the writer and interviewer (who has long hair and smiles a lot), there are phrases from the novel superimposed on the screen. One reads: ‘sex tourism is the future of the world.’ The writer says that since the Americans love sex tourism, it will spread. Besides, the women in Thailand earn enough money to support their families in rural villages. For them, it is a choice and a good one.

The writer moves to a central table, where there are two other French writers (who ask and accuse). He moves again, to another table, where there is a series of critics from leading literary magazines. The critics smile and speak fast. Most believe that the writer is tricky, provocative, but most (with one exception from a left-leaning magazine) agree that the novel is good. They say it may even be the first novel ever written about globalisation.

The writer stutters, groans and chain-smokes cigarettes. ‘When I finish writing,’ he says, ‘I no longer have any fear.’

On 17 September 2002 Michel Houellebecq appeared in a Parisian court charged with inciting religious hatred through his comments on Islam, in particular, his statement that it was the ‘most stupid religion of all.’ Houllebecq is being sued by four Muslim groups and a French human-rights organisation. A decision is due to be handed down on 22 October 2002.

1 Author’s translations from the French Plateforme (Paris: Flammarion, 2001). The English edition is publishes by Heinemann in the UK. 2 Houellebecq referred to the editors of the Guide du Routard Thailand guide as ‘dumb [connard], humanitarian protestants. The kind of people who adopt a young, rebellious attitude, but are in the end, completely conventional.’ Cited in ‘La polémique Houellebecq’ in La Dépêche du Midi, 2 September 2001.

3 Other explanations for the title are that it refers to a political platform, or TV platform. For Frédéric Grolleau (interview with the author, Books and Writing, ABC Radio National, 14 July 2002), it suggests an offshore oil plat- form exploiting natural resources of the developing world, or in this context, sex. In the novel Michel remembers climbing up to the top of a platform on an electric power-line as a twelve-year-old, surveying the mountains in the far distance and feeling an incredible sense of freedom high above the world.

4 Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte), trans. Paul Hammond (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), p.40. First published in French, Editions Nadeau, 1994. 5 Pierre Varrod, ‘Plateforme, pour l’échange des misères mondiales’, Esprit, November, 2001.

6 Libération, 4 September 2001. 7 Grolleau, Books and Writing, 14 July 2002. 8 Houellebecq, ‘Je suis l’écrivain de la souffrance ordinaire’, Dominque Guiou, Le Figaro, 4 September 2001. 9 Whatever, 120. 10 Michel Houellebecq, Interventions (Paris: Flammarion, 1998), pp.41-42. 11 Le Figaro, 4 September 2001. 12 Quoted by Emily Eakin, ‘Le Provocateur’, New York Times, 10 September 2000. 13 ‘Le fabuleux destin de Michel H.’, L’Express, http://membres/lycos.fr/houelle- becq/fr/pages/express.htm 14 Houellebecq, ‘Les écrivains chevènemistes atterrés’, Le Monde, 25 April 2002. 15 Mark Lilla, ‘Night Thoughts’, New York Review of Books, 30 September 2000. 16 Quoted by Eakin, New York Times, 10 September 2000. 17 Houellebecq quoted by Joshua Winter, ‘France: Into the Void’, New Statesman, 5 June 2002. 18 Houellebecq, Interventions, 12-13. 19 Esprit, November 2001. 20 ‘The provocateur from another planet’, Financial Review, 9 August 2002. 21 Plateforme, 368.