For some modern writers and artists, the cultivation of solitude and alienation are worthwhile pursuits. They would claim that one should dedicate one’s writing to this project because it makes the modern writer unique. But it also makes us look at things that, in their view, are more definitive than the commonplace celebrations of progress and the joys of modernity. These writers are world-weary and cultivate what the Germans call Weltschmerz in order to produce literature and art that is repulsive and repulsing. To keep one’s mind focused on such disgust is, for them, to be honest, authentic, and modern. The bitter artist is better off than the smug one.
In one of his journal entries, the famed Parisian “father of symbolism,” Charles Baudelaire, notes that he “will have conquered solitude” when he has “inspired universal horror and disgust” by way of his poetry and prose. Michel Houellebecq – who often includes Baudelaire’s name in his fiction – has taken to Baudelaire’s advice. And, unlike many fiction writers today, I have noticed that Michel Houellebecq’s narrators and plots are consistently bitter. He, like Baudelaire, makes use of cynicism and melancholy.
As with Baudelaire’s poetry and prose (see Paris Spleen), the literary technique employed by Houellebecq is effective because it prompts the reader to distance him or herself from narrators, characters, and language so as to ask him or herself whether such a take on life is valid or necessary. Moreover, Houellebecq turns his reader to think not just about plots, language, etc but to the world itself. And this prompts many questions. Is it as bad as it seems? What is going on in the world? Do we have the right framework or, as Houellebecq suggests in the title of his 2001 book, platform?
To be sure, a platform has two divergent meanings. It can be read as a medium or as a ground through which one articulates one’s views on this or that subject. A medium is a means, a ground is an end in itself. With this in mind, and with Houellebecq’s other novels in view, I wonder if this book’s platform will be cynicism. But how can groundlessness be a ground? After all, cynicism looks to eliminate the philosophical notion of a ground or founding truth. The platform must be cynicism as a medium or, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might say, a “groundless ground.” Either way, one needs to consistently ask oneself what the platform of Houellebecq’s novel is. Cynicism may be a general platform but there are others such as the sex industry, late-capitalism, pornography, globalization, and terrorism which can be found throughout the novel. In each of these platforms, however, happiness and bitterness alternate.
The epigram of the novel, which comes from Honre de Balzac, sets out a framework for the novel which shares much with Baudelaire:
The more contemptible his life, the more a man clings to it; it thus becomes a protest, a retribution for every moment.
In other words, the contempt with one’s life is actually redemptive because in protesting it one becomes free of the world, solitary. And this, for Balzac, is life itself. But how can this be?
The novel starts off with the death of the main character’s father. The main character and narrator, Michel, reflects on it but it is his vulgarity and contempt for his life and his father’s that gives him a kind of distance from it:
As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. “You had kids, you fucker,” I said spiritedly. “You shoved your fate cock in my mother’s cunt.” I was a bit tense, I have to admit. It’s not every day you have a death in the family. I’d refused to see the corpse. I’m forty, I’ve already had plenty of opportunity to see corpses. Nowadays, I prefer to avoid them. (3)
Michel wants to rethink his life in the wake of his father’s death. He wonders whether happiness is possible for someone as bitter as himself…at 40. He his bitter about life but now that he has money (from his inheritance) he imagines that going to another place, far away from Europe (his platform), he can perhaps find happiness. But the search is already determined in advance since he sees sexuality as offering the only avenue for possible happiness. But even this is put into quotation marks since we learn that his father was murdered because of a sexual relationship.
When the detective comes, he learns more about what may have happened. And what he learns suggests the crossing of themes: sexuality, travel, globalization, and Islam. Since the last person to see the father was the Islamic cleaning lady and she discusses her “crazy” brothers and how they get when they drink – regarding their faith – the reader wonders if there is a connection. But instead of pursuing this link, the narrator (and the detective) leaves it untouched. This comes back at the end of the novel like what Freud would call “the returned of the repressed.”
More important at this point, for the narrator, is not to solve the murder mystery around the father but to leave France for a little while and explore another world (Thailand) and the possibility of (sexual) happiness. The fascinating thing, however, is how this desire for departure and the need for sex and happiness (via travel), feed on one aspect of bitterness that is particular to the narrator.
As the novel progresses, we realize that there are other platforms for bitterness which interrupt his personal journey. It reminds us that bitterness has many dimensions and the world we are distant from, as a result of the narrator’s bitterness, is not singular but plural. It comes back to bite him and it puts his freedom into question. It also puts the reader’s judgment into question since the reader must decide what it means when one world crashes into another. Do we share the same world? Are we free to leave it? Does our “contempt” for the crashing of one world into another enable us to be free despite the fact that such a crash destroys our world? These are questions that Houellebecq’s novel poses to the reader.
….to be continued