© 2020 RJ Smith.
  • RJ Smith

I Emailed Michel Houellebecq and He Replied

Michel Houellebecq is sometimes described as a prophet. This may be an exaggeration, but there is an eery connection between what he says, what is said about him and real world events.

In a 2001 New York Times review of his novel Platform he was described as a provocateur, and quoted describing Islam as "a dangerous religion." Later that day a group of terrorists flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

In 2015, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicted him as a kind of phoney prophet, and panned his recently published book Submission in which he envisions France becoming an Islamic state. Later that day, 12 of the magazine's employees were slaughtered in an attack carried out by radical Islamic terrorists.

And his latest novel, Sérotonine depicts a disaffected rural worker who becomes swept up in a social movement bearing a striking resemblance to the Gilets Jaunes.

The cover of Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, the day 12 of its employees were killed in a terrorist attack.

One may question the merits of Houellebecq's work. But no one can question the fact that he is a significant artist, one who sees society for what it is with such acuity that his observations often seem more like portents.

But in fact the unifying theme of Houellebecq's work has very little to do with politics. Instead his novels all explore life as a man with little appeal in a society in which sex (like everything else) has been commoditised.

His protagonists are single males in their 30s or early 40s seeking sexual pleasure to give meaning to their otherwise meaningless lives.

Above all his work is funny. Is there anything more humorous than an impish, middle-aged man willing to do anything to get laid?

Houellebecq’s worldview was shaped by the events of May 1968, a revolution which failed politically but achieved some of its social aims.

This was the year sexual freedom replaced the old organising social principles of religion and the family unit.

His work is therefore strongly Nietzschean, and has strong undercurrents of Nietzsche’s principal inspiration, Schopenhauer.

Another philosopher who influenced Houellebecq is Auguste Comte, whose work was the basis of my recent essay on Quillette.

Houellebecq was inspired by Comte's law of three stages theory, the idea that societies naturally progress from a state of mysticism and superstition towards reason.

In his novels he explores the tension that arises when societies at different stages of development exist in parallel, and the risks that attend progressing to the third, positive stage in which markets develop, winners installed at the society's core while large swathes of losers are cast out to the peripheries, atomised.

Anything can happen in life, especially nothing.

- Michel Houellebecq, Atomised.

Despite making millions from the sale of his books, Houellebecq lives in a neighbourhood similar to mine, i.e. not a very nice one, close to the city limits, or Périphérique of Paris.

I tracked down his email address and sent him a message referring him to my piece on Comte, and asked him whether he’d read any of my other favourite writers whose influence I have detected in his work.

He replied a few days later saying that he would find it difficult to read my piece, as his level of English has fallen away in recent years (he lived for many years in Ireland as a tax exile, but by all accounts had little human contact during this period).

He said, however, that he's read a few Australian books recently, and that he'd very much enjoyed the resentment Australian writers display towards the country's lifestyle and values, a self-analysis which he said is lacking among American writers.

He added that the "easy suburban" Australian life was very exotic to the French, and that the equivalents here have proven sociological catastrophes.

It is a nice feeling to live in the same city, indeed in similar conditions, to the writer I believe to be the most important and entertaining working today, and that a few slices of his trenchant worldview found their way into my inbox.