The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq
“When it [war] was over, hideous new creepers covered the wreckage of cities, saints and morons camped in the overpasses of disused highways, and a few man-hunting machines scoured the world in search of surviving weapons.” Cordwainer Smith, War No. 81-Q (Rewritten Version) in The Rediscovery of Man (NEFSA Press, 1993), p. 19. (*)
This admittedly commonplace idea that western society (hence, the entire world in the shorter or less short term) is running out of steam, and that its social, commercial, artistic, and even technological triumphs, far from being manifestations of its youth and of its exuberance, are nothing but signs, numerous albeit misleading, of its ineluctable decline, must have some relevance, because so many minds, often exceptional ones, have given disturbing credence to it. Thus, Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island seems to be nothing but the long lament of a perfectly ordinary man, in which one may read the somber fate of our exhausted society, staving off its profound boredom (its nostalgia for a golden age?) in the temporarily amusing games of sex. It is, moreover, in this light that Daniel’s clones read his life story: as the incarnated metaphor of our discontent and our fatal wasting away, itself constitutive, according to the author, of his poetic art, inasmuch as he admits to Bernard-Henry Lévi, “I have the impression of writing a novel when I have set in place certain forces that would normally lead the text to its self-destruction, to the explosion of minds and bodies, to total chaos (but these must be natural forces that give the impression of being ineluctable, that appear as stupid as gravity or fate). My work then consists in keeping the vehicle on the road, in eventually allowing it to skirt the abyss, without allowing it to fall in” (1). Now, in The Possibility of an Island, a fine vehicle that holds the road impeccably, it is of course man who falls, and even fails, definitively, while awaiting the hypothetical birth of the Future Ones, those beings enjoying a complete ataraxy before their succession of the neo-humans, still too imbued with a humanity that must be eradicated at all costs, inasmuch as it has been the origin of profound misfortunes, perhaps even of all the evils that have devastated man but also the world he lives in as a vandal. Innumerable are the parallels that one could draw between this somber and poetic novel by Michel Houellebecq, after which this writer will doubtless no longer be able to write as he has done until now, and certain works of science fiction. However, the intimate mélange of poetry, melancholy, and the decline of a humanity returned from all of its adventures, is in my eyes nowhere better illustrated than in Cordwainer Smith’s remarkable cycle entitled The Lords of Instrumentality, which, in spite of some ridiculous novellas (such as 1962’s From Gustible’s Planet, included in the first Gallimard paperback edition) is superior to that of Robert Heinlein, the celebrated and excellent History of the Future (2). In The Dead Lady of Clown Town (op. cit., p. 274), Smith describes the humanity of the future, having survived immense wars and even the return to barbarism that has succeeded them, in a manner that Houellebecq would doubtless not have disowned in the slightest: “The street had filled full of real people, crowding together to see something which would ease the boredom of perfection and time. They all had numbers or number codes instead of names. They were handsome, well, dully happy. They even looked a good deal alike, similar in their handsomeness, their health, and their underlying boredom. Each of them had a total of four hundred years to live. None of them knew real war, even though the extreme readiness of the soldiers showed vain practice of hundreds of years.” I asserted that Michel Houellebecq, after The Possibility of an Island, would doubtless no longer be able to continue writing novels that, after a certain fashion, inscribed themselves in the logical sequence established by Extension du domaine de la lutte, in which he made this important point: “The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.” (3). Apart from betting on the publication of an improbable novel devoted to the description of the uninteresting reign of these Future Ones, I cannot see how our novelist could continue to mine the vein that has made his success: a relentless and desperate portrait of Western society confronted by the possibility of its own slow and festive wasting away. The discourse, indeed a flatter more terse and dreary one, remains to be invented, even if I am afraid that Houellebecq, in writing these words, had not rather forgotten the example of the novels (what else can one call them?) of Maurice Blanchot in which, literally, absolutely nothing happens. Hence, one must first of all not shrink from berating the multitude of imbeciles who have loudly and emphatically declared that Houellebecq’s novels were nothing of the sort (they were presumably peering at them from the perspective of the sociological essay, which of course has absolutely no bearing on any good novel, from Balzac to Broch) and that they contented themselves with describing the sheer dumbfoundedness of modern man in face of the absence of meaning. Nothing could be less true, and if any theme is quite absent from Michel Houellebecq’s novels it is assuredly and precisely that of indifference. He himself, moreover, has judiciously observed that it is to the contrary shame, that splinter that does not end by burying itself in the flesh and constitutes a kind of swollen bubo of the most toxic juices, which is the source of each of his books (4): “From the beginning there has been something in my writings that is in part connected to shame.” Michel Houellebecq, a kind of Franz Kafka without the mysterious pregnancy of a subterranean religious symbolism? Now, has our novelist not asserted that he finds it extremely difficult to live without a form of mysticism? (5) After this, one can only guess that Michel Houellebecq, an avid reader of Pascal, will ineluctably be compelled to interrogate this Christian mysticism with his dying breath, since it alone will permit him not merely to conserve that which is slowly destroying itself before his and our very eyes, but also to rediscover it without needing to postulate the benefits of a reactionary politics to which he is in any case indifferent (6). To suppose the contrary, to think that Houellebecq will content himself with bringing back to light some modest pearls of wisdom, would be to admit that reality is catching up with fiction, as is often the case when it has been proclaimed by literature: a life that crawls along, that of a poor Bartleby who would prefer not to, a sad old age that is always beginning and never ending, a state of declining health, the usual funeral procession of afflictions that blossom with senescence, the ever-less-frenzied saraband of profiteers of every stripe circling around the weary writer, a suicide perhaps, solely for the sake of imitating Daniel, sheepishly reported by a decerebrated press that will milk the funeral for all they’re worth in the attempt to wrest some pious relics from a cold, dead corpse that it will pretend it never drove to this fatal gesture. In short: nothing particularly romantic, nothing more than the pathetic and ridiculous fate of the “blasé, washed-out intellectocrat” or BWOI whose strange mental and spiritual confusion Serge Rivron has diagnosed in The Flesh… In Michel Houellebecq’s continuing and relentless of reading of Baudelaire, and in his consequent learning of Baudelaire’s profound lesson, his authentic and profoundly equivocal (7) Christianity, there may be something with panache of an indisputably literary character, precisely because, as our novelist affirms, the religious dimension of a society is perhaps indeed one of its most fragile aspects (8), because, moreover, literature, which is without doubt an enormous number of things, is first and foremost, a testimony, our author would say an homage (9), to the suffering of a mankind that believes itself abandoned by God. Notes (*) Translator’s note: This edition differs in pagination and contents from the Gallimard edition alluded to below. (1) Bernard-Henri Lévy/Michel Houellebecq, Ennemis publics (Grasset/Flammarion, 2008), pp. 230–1. (2) Composed, however, of some at times quite remarkable novellas such as the one included in the fourth volume of the cycle, entitled Orphans of the Sky (published first in 1941 and again in 1963; in Future History, 4 Gallimard, coll. Folio SF, 2005), describing a population of men and women (some horribly deformed by radiation, others shielding themselves from the latter, in a division of humanity that one finds recurring in Houellebecq’s novel) living in a immense ship built by their distant ancestors and who have forgotten [even] their original mission (to conquer other worlds) and who retain no memory of the fact that they are on the inside of a ship! Obviously, in such an environment, books are held in very low regard: “I caught the man on watch feeding it [the Converter] with the last of a set of Encyclopaedia Terrestriana-priceless books. The idiot had never been taught to read! Some rule must be instituted concerning books.” Robert A. Heinlein, Orphans of the Sky (Baen, 2001), p. 81. (3) Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte, translated by Paul Hammond, Serpent’s Tail, 1999), p. 40. (4) Ennemis publics, op. cit., p. 240. Cf. Platform (Plateforme, translated by Frank Wynne, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), p. 258: “To the end, I will remain a child of Europe, of worry and of shame. I have no message of hope to deliver. For the west, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it.” (5) Ennemis publics, op cit., pp. 272–273, the novelist emphasizes, “[…] I have trouble renouncing the idea that there exists in some sense a unity, an identity of a superior order. Since, in a word, I have trouble doing without a form of mysticism.” (6) “To someone who is so persuaded of the ineluctable character of all decline, of total loss, the idea of political reaction cannot even occur. If such an individual will never be a reactionary, he will be, on the other hand, and quite naturally, a conservative. He will always believe that it is better to conserve that which exists, and which functions after a fashion, rather than embrace a new experience,” in ibid., p. 119. (7) I have certainly not forgotten that Baudelaire’s Christianity has been the subject of numerous and often fascinating arguments at least since Georges Blin’s article entitled Recours de Baudelaire à la sorcellerie, included in Le Sadisme de Baudelaire (José Corti, 1948). (8) The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d’une île, translated by Gavin Bowd, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. 245: “In countries like Spain, Poland, and Ireland, social life and all behavior had been structured by a deeply rooted, unanimous, and immense Catholicism for centuries, it determined morality as well as familial relations, conditioned all cultural and artistic productions, social hierarchies, conventions, and rules for living. In the space of a few years, in less than a generation, in an incredibly brief period of time, all this had disappeared, had evaporated into thin air. In these countries today no one believed in God anymore, or took account of him, or even remember that they had once believed; and this had been achieved without difficulty, without conflict, without any kind of violence or protest, without even a real discussion, as easily as a heavy object, held back for some time by an external obstacle, returns as soon as you release it, to its position of equilibrium. Human spiritual beliefs were perhaps far from being the massive, solid irrefutable block we usually imagined; on the contrary, perhaps they were what was most fleeting and fragile in man, the thing most ready to be born and to die.” (9) The Elementary Particles (Les particules élémentaires, translated by Frank Wynne, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), p. 264: “As the last members of this race are extinguished, we think it just to render this last tribute to humanity, an homage which itself will one day disappear, buried beneath the sands of time. It is necessary that this tribute be made, if only for once. This book is dedicated to mankind.”
Originally published at www.juanasensio.com on January 27, 2009.