Cynical, Middle-Aged, Oversexed, and Alone After the Sexual Revolution: On Michel Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” – Part I

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Many cultural critics and artists have taken to the subject of what has happened to American culture (and Western culture) in the wake of the sexual and feminist revolution of the 1960s.   One of the most interesting – and recent – encounters with this topic can be found in a piece by A.O. Scott for The New York Times Magazine entitled the “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.”   In that essay, Scott suggests that, with the sexual and feminist revolution of the sixties, American men have, over time, lost a sense of how to engage in a mature relationship with women.  While women have become more powerful and have many role models, male sexuality has been diminished.  Male ideals and norms have been effaced, as evidenced by shows like Madmen, The Sopranos, and even, as Scott argues, Breaking Bad.   In the wake of this destruction of masculinity, there is a new phenomenon which Scott calls “perpetual adolescence.” Scott finds abundant evidence. Why, after all, are films by and starring Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler so popular today? Why are a large majority of people who read Harry Potter readers between the ages of 30 and 50? Scott sees the ascendance of what I would call a schlemiel as an “unintended consequence” of the sexual and feminist revolution.  With this in mind, Scott ends his essay in a cynical manner; namely, be calling for an end to this kind of culture that perpetuates childhood rather than calling for a new kind of maturity. He cynically tells the perpetual adolescents to “get off his lawn.”

While Scott may appear cynical, he is not by any means as despondent as Michel Houellebecq, in his novel The Elementary Particles.  Written in 2000, this novel is deeply interested in what has happened in the wake of the sexual and feminist revolution.   One could argue that Houellebecq’s novel is a kind of antidote to all of the Apatow and Rogen films we see year after year. However, the pill Houellebecq is asking his readers to swallow may be too bitter for the American reader.   It may prompt the reader to think about the “other” unintended consequences which will, inevitably, give birth to an increased sense of cynicism.

There are two primary characters in Houellebecq’s novel. They are brothers from the same mother but a different father.   Both are completely different from each other, too.   Their mother is a product of the sexual revolution. She is a good looking woman who decides to leave her children behind and run off to California to join the revolution.   She eventually returns but as a middle aged woman. One of her sons, Michel, is a microbiologist. He is good looking and has sexual opportunities as a child, but he turns them down. He is more interested in science and less interested in emotions. Michel’s interest in the body is more scientific that sexual. In contrast, Bruno is not good looking, has not had a healthy experience with sexuality, and is obsessed with sex.

Although we see Bruno age and change over time, we see that he, too, is a kind of (to use A.O. Scott’s term) “perpetual adolescent.” But of all the ages we could focus on, Houellebecq chooses to focus on Bruno in his 40s. And he does this for good reason: he portrays Bruno as middle aged, cynical, and oversexed so as to give us a negative sense of what has happened in the wake of the sexual revolution.    But he does this within the context of a retreat center which has taken the values of the 60s and capitalized on them.

One of the longest chapters in the book situates Bruno at Lieu du Changment, a resort for New Agers and people interested in exploring the body, spirituality, and sexuality.   As a cynic, Bruno sticks out in this new age establishment. He doesn’t go for spiritual reasons; he goes there because he is alone and sexually desperate.

Houellebecq, using a cynical and sharp narrator, points out how Lieu du Changement went from being a hippie kind of commune to a money making operation in order to survive in the 90s. It, like Bruno, “ran into the problem of aging.”

There were theater workshops and message therapy, but it was basically a campsite; the accommodations and facilities were not up to resort standards. Apart from that the anarchic spirit of the place made it difficult to control access and collect payments; its finances, which were precarious, became even more problematic. (85)

For this reason, they have a “business meeting” and decide that it was a business and a part of the “leisure industry.”

Why not invest that experience (of Zen meditation, Gestalt Therapy, TM, yoga, etc) in developing a series of residential courses aimed at businesses? After fierce debate, the proposal was adopted….The founders organized an extensive mailing list, targeting human resources directors at multinational companies. Some of the more left wing founders found this transition difficult to accept. (86)

Bruno decides to visit the new and corporately improved Lieu du Changement. Because of his sexual drive, age, and cynicism, he doesn’t fit in:

Bruno woke up with a crippling headache and no illusions. He had heard about the place from a secretary who had been on a “Personal Development – Positive Thinking” course at five thousand francs a day….Friendly, open-minded, liberal; he got the picture. But one statistic at the bottom of the page (of a brochure he saw) attracted his attention: in July-August of the previous year, sixty-three percent of the visitors to the Lieu du Changement were female.   That was almost two women to every man. (86)

He decides to go, fantasizing that he, a middle aged man, will find a young woman and have sex. But he is too cynical to completely buy in to this fantasy; but, in the end, he does: “Of course, he could guess what sort of women went there: deranged old lefties who were probably HIV-positive. But still, with two women to every man, he stood a chance; if he worked it properly, he might even bag two”(86).

The narration that ensues is pretty gross and pornographic, but it gets across the point that Bruno loves to masturbate and fantasize about women he will never talk to or address. He has all the makings of a pervert:

He lifted himself on his elbow and poured himself his first whiskey. The copy of Swing was still open at the same page. A guy who kept his socks on – his name was Herve – was thrusting his cock toward the camera with visible effort.   Not my thing, thought Bruno, not at all. He put on a pair of boxer shorts and walked toward the shower block….Bruno had always liked jerking off between a girl’s tits, but whores didn’t really go for it. Was it the fact that you came in their faces and that turned them off?….He arrived at the shower block, Body Space 8. He had more or less resigned himself to the women being old and decrepit and was taken aback to see teenagers. (87)

Nothing happens in this encounter save for him, in the end, feeling old and sexually despondent. The narrator reflects on the world which has resulted in the wake of the sexual revolution – twenty years later; it has no fantasies about sex at any age; it emulates youth while despising aging. For the middle-aged men and women at the retreat, one can expect only cynical things:

Dedicated exclusively to sexual liberation and the expression of desire, the Lieu du Changement naturally became a place of depression and bitterness. Farewell to limbs entwined in a clearly under the full moon! Farewell to the quasi-Dionysian spectacle of oiled bodies glistening under the midday sun. That, at least, is what the forty-somethings muttered as they regarded their flaccid pricks and rolls of fat. (90)

The closest American correlate to Bruno’s kind of character and his cynical predicament can be found in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance – as Allan – in Happiness (1998).  I’ll end on this cynical, sexual note.   To be continued…..

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