Houellebecq & Huymans

In Standpoint, Jeremy Jennings asks “Is France As Doomed As Houellebecq Thinks?“:

Ten years ago I was living just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris’s fashionable Seventh arrondissement. Late one Friday afternoon I decided to go for a walk. I left the building and turned right into the Rue de Grenelle. For the past week or more the riot police had been preventing demonstrators from entering the narrow streets near to the Prime Minister’s residence, about a five-minute walk away, but today things were different. There was a strange smell in the air. It came from a succession of burnt-out cars, left smouldering in the side streets. As I neared the golden dome beneath which lies the tomb of the Emperor Napoleon I saw that all the parked cars — hundreds of them — had had their windows smashed. By now the demonstrators had been corralled onto the Esplanade des Invalides, the police waiting for the cold of night to disperse the assembled mob, but later, when I watched the evening news on television, it was as if the country had descended had descended into near civil war. Trains were not running because demonstrators had blocked the tracks; schools and universities across the country were closed; and Paris’s infamous banlieues had become a no-go zone for the forces of law and order. The cause of all this mayhem was a government proposal to introduce nothing more than a minor change in employment legislation.

From this anecdote, Jennings summarizes Houellebecq’s latest novel Submission,

Where Houellebecq stands in all this is almost impossible to say. He denies that he is simply an agent provocateur but it is hard not to conclude that he is throwing as many bombs at the French cultural and political establishment as he possibly can. It is as if he is saying that a corrupt and materialist France is so beyond reform, so beyond redemption, that it deserves whatever it gets, even if that amounts to political or religious extremism. More than that, Submission reads as a sustained piece of authorial self-loathing. But does Houellebecq offer any more than a retreat into misogynist bile? Is Submission a work of prophecy? Does it have a political message? If so, it is a message that few could take comfort from, as it would challenge our very understanding of human liberty and human dignity. Rather, Houellebecq seems to want to ask a more fundamental question: upon what spiritual foundation will those who come after us live? As he has Rediger remark, without Christianity the nations of Europe have become “bodies without souls — zombies”.

In the novel, the protagonist, a 44-year old heterosexual white male academic exhibiting the usual moral relativism of that social milieu, is an academic scholar on the 19th century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Jennings aptly points to the hidden and sublimated role of Huysmans in Houellebecq’s novel:

And this is why Houellebecq’s constant reference to Huymans is more than a playful literary allusion. À Rebours ends with a damning critique of the imbecility and depravity of a decayed nobility and is no less sneering in its denunciation of a bourgeoisie whose rise to power has meant “the suppression of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the destruction of all true art”. Could it be, Des Esseintes asks, that “this slime would go on spreading until it covered with its pestilential filth this old world where now only seeds of iniquity sprang up and only harvests of shame were gathered?” “Lord,” he concludes, “take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope.” Is this dark vision of France, “the eldest daughter of the Church”, finally becoming reality?

I’m reminded here of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s sustained writings on how the depravity of countercultural bohemian elites engenders a reversal of values that, when such values spread to the lower classes, themselves ill equipped and unable to afford, say, nannies and/or expensive drug addiction treatments, things get… well… f*cked up.

When the counterculture becomes the mainstream culture, the center cannot hold and things fall apart.

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