by Michel Houellebecq
translated by Frank Wynne
Published by Aldred A. Knopf
272 pages, 2003
Vision of the Sensual World
Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
One imagines Michel Houellebecq insouciant, standing before a council of moralists -- or duplicitous moralists, as is more often the case today -- as a Volterian laughing spirit, much as Orpheus the poet when the latter is brought before such a tribunal in Jean Cocteau's film Orpheus. But what corrective measures -- both, moral or intellectual virtues can such moralists offer a writer who sees through the inane actions of hypocrites, opportunists and professional self-promoters? In a time of artificial and politically expedient pseudo sensitivity, Houellebecq's writing comes across as the prototype of all the evils that postmodern intellectual tyranny attempts to efface. Is this, then, Houellebecq's true target audience? Houellebecq's work assumes a posture of concrete self-autonomy when, in fact, the ideological call of the day is for an ever expanding understanding of "conditioned reflexes" and "action theory." But Michel Houellebecq does not seem to be easily fooled by empty chatter and morally devious motives. The raison d'être of his major characters is always fueled by an eagerness to point this out.
It is correct that Houellebecq's third novel, Platform, leaves very little to the imagination. But it does so from the seething wisdom that the imagination is vital to human well being, and its overwhelming absence today, Houellebecq suggests, has left man as a hollow shell. Imagination clearly cannot flourish in an impertinent and imprudent time. Houellebecq seems to hold firmly to Jacques Barzun's notion that every epoch has the level of culture that it deserves. When viewed in this Barzunian light, then perhaps Platform ought to be read as a joke and a strong indictment of our time.
Hence, taken at face value, what is the nature of Houellebecq's latest novel, Platform? The story centers around a world-weary character named Michel whose job it is to plan the finance for a modern dance company, a job that he does not care much for. Michel, a character that epitomizes postmodern loneliness and alienation leaves work nightly only to return home where even though he has "128 television channels" he cannot feel happiness. This fascination with quantity over quality gives us the illusion that the blue glow of the television set casting shadows across the room also warms the lives of the lonely. One day his life is thrown into total disarray when his father is murdered. The murderer is the brother of his young lover Aicha. Michel now begins to confront the latent desperation that he carries within him.
Beyond questions of plot construction and literary technique, Platform is a scathing and sincere look at the architecture of meaninglessness in the modern world. To his credit, when Houellebecq contrasts reality in first world countries with their third-world counterparts he does not evoke the false sentimentality of the ideologue. In fact, Houellebecq's novel spends very little time in attempting to place blame on western democracies or capitalism for an entire array of cosmic miseries. Houellebecq's central, and thus most alluring, contribution to a true understanding of this day and age is his penetrating glance into the coldly calculative condition of modern man. Ours, he argues, is a time when true creativity and originality is suffocated by ideology. Michel states: "Men live alongside one another like cattle; it is a miracle if, once in a while, they manage to share a bottle of booze."
After his father's death Michel takes a trip to Thailand, thus initiating the adventure angle of the novel. Once in Thailand, Michel finds himself dissecting the anatomy of the "tour group" as he attempts to underscore the character of the people that make up this collective touristy anomaly. He finds most of these people to be insipid. He observes: "Human groups of more than three people have a tendency, apparently spontaneous, to split into two hostile subgroups." Deflating pretenses of all kinds, then, is Houellebecq's main point in Platform. For instance, when Houellebecq attempts to describe a character named Robert he does so by referring to him as a "relativist, a position that always gives one the impression of complexity and subtlety." Here he is merely alluding to the morally liberating and socially chic appeal that relativism offers its practitioners. And when Michel describes the moral make-up of people who champion "ecological principles" he does so by noticing that modern man is ill-disposed to handle any circumstances that issue a breakdown in modern comfort. In contrast to these people, he notices that people of prior times "who had no hang-ups about enjoying modern comforts" were in fact much more resilient in their moments of despair. This statement brings to mind the world prior to air-conditioning and a time when automobiles did not come equipped with pointless navigational gadgets. Houellebecq is quick to remind the reader that life's contingencies, even in a technological age, remain more a vital and existential reality than most people care to admit. If one had to isolate a central theme in this Houellebecq novel, it would have to be his desire to expose the damage that people who refuse to be refuted by reality do to society.
The subtle ironies of Houellebecq's work can never be undermined. But this is perhaps where most of his critics have gone wrong. Considering that Platform is an ingenious work of satire, one must then consider what readers will be most offended by a work such as this. When Swift published a Modest Proposal in 1729, the strongest ire came from those who defended English hegemony over Ireland and not from those who clearly embodied familial care for their children. Equally true in Platform, Houellebecq's critique is intended for those who, like Thrasymachus the ancient Greek sophist denounce injustice because they are afraid of suffering wrong, but who have no moral qualms about practicing it. Houellebecq's novel will not offend people who practice genuine virtues, but rather the false moralizers who pretend to practice values that they clearly do not intend to defend in their daily actions. Thus, it goes without saying that Platform is a novel that is not suited for all readers due to its desire to shock and its graphic use of sex. However, Platform is a fine example of how libertinism has exhausted the limits of meaning and nihilism with its incessant and sophomoric desire for shock value. But this is precisely the point that Houellebecq has made in all of his novels. He views postmodern reality as consisting of a sensual world where the necessary preconditions for truth have effectively been vanquished by ideology.
Michel's travels in Thailand bring him into close proximity with some of the most noticeable prototypes of the human condition. In a world that ferments ever-greater ingenuine values, especially in the shameless promulgation of hollow public clichés of seeming to care for the other, Houellebecq refuses to look the other way. Michel's repudiation of such false moralizing has him say: "When people talk about 'human rights,' I usually get the impression that they're being sarcastic." There, then, is an example of that Volterian grimace surfacing, once again.
Platform's pace is very animated for a novel of ideas. Houellebecq rarely moralizes; instead he simply pokes fun at post-modernity, its hypocrisy and cold objectivity that have resulted in a cynical and sinister world. But what Houellebecq's novels seem most concerned with is the aberrant and irresolvable contradictions that post-modernity has begin birth to. For instance, he observes that today the serious novel has given way to an anemic sort of writing that is merely politically correct. In part, Platform's audacity seems to be motivated as a reaction to this reality. This is, incidentally, why Platform's plot has such a strong tinge of libertinism. Yet Houellebecq's more profound commentary acts as a counterpoint to the emptiness of his characters. For instance, his enlightening analysis of the current state of the novel is skillfully contrasted with those of Arthur Conan Doyle's, especially Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie's. He commends Christie for her sense of wonder when he writes of The Hollow: "Agatha Christie achieves something beautiful, a sort of Dickensian sense of wonder."
Michel's exploits in Thailand allow him to arrive nonchalantly at the idea that sex tourism is the logical conclusion of the heightened and fashionable level of cynicism of post-modernity. Houellebecq has an uncanny ability to penetrate through the many guises that contribute to this postmodern stratification of contradictions. But perhaps his greatest gift is that of deciphering the inner make-up of this Felliniesque ensemble where politics rule over all aspects of the arts.
Michel reflects, "For the manipulative masochists, it is not enough that he is unhappy; everyone else must be unhappy too." This easily brings to mind Albert Camus when he said that Parisian intellectuals were a nasty bunch, and that the best way to make them upset was to show them that one was truly happy. Regardless of the level of truth of Houellebecq's observations on the human condition or comedy depending on one's perspective, his work is not all of a Teutonic tone. His novels are equally hilariously comic as well, often pointing out what only a disinterested party will observe. But Michel's laughter and sense of irony is always directed inward, in a quiet soliloquy that is not meant for public consumption. He observes: "An elderly German was sitting in front of a Carlsberg at the table on my left: big belly, white beard, glasses, he looked like nothing so much as a retired university professor. He stared at the bodies moving before his eyes, completely hypnotized; he was so still that for a moment I thought he was dead." Houellebecq tantalizingly plants the seed of the question: Who is this man who must resort to such cheap thrills? Even though his strongest ire is reserved for human beings and situations, Houellebecq, however, does an admirable job of pinpointing the many places where the postmodern condition has constrained human existence. Particularly comical is his very detailed description of air travel in an inhospitable age. Michel observes: "Crammed into a ridiculously tiny space from which it's impossible to move without disturbing an entire row of fellow passengers, you are greeted from the outset with a series of privations announced by stewardesses sporting fake smiles." At this point, Michel is correct to point out; the self-defeating neuroses of modern man seem to gather force to do the passengers in. Michel later continues, "The unremitting sense of danger, fueled by mental images of plane crashes, the enforced immobility in a cramped space, provokes a feeling of stress so powerful that a number of passengers have reportedly died of heart attacks while on long-haul flights." Of course, this scene is rife with images of Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati's 1967 comic film, Playtime where Hulot fumbles along in a maze of postmodern gadgetry and the seemingly unnecessary complexities that they beget.
While in Thailand Michel meets Valerie, a young Parisian woman who is a member of his tour group. But it is not until they both return to Paris that they get together, fall in love and establish something that resembles a genuine relationship, albeit one that is now, after three novels, best understood as standard Houllebecqian novelistic fare. After some careful consideration and because of Valerie's work in the tourist industry the two decide to attempt to establish a sex tourism resort in Thailand. The second part of the novel acts as a demarcation point for Houellebecq's treatment of love, but it also serves as a study on the nature of mass tourism.
Michel is essentially an empty character. He lives his life constrained by the exigencies of a debilitating cynicism. But where Michel goes wrong, Houellebecq seems to suggest, so to does post-modernity. The ironic entailment here is that Michel is a product of the very same cold and calculative way of life that people will criticize in Houellebecq's characters. Yet for all of the criticism that Houellebecq has received he does nevertheless manage to place human existence on a vital plain. For instance, when Michel says, " I now know for certain that the spirit is not born, that it needs to be brought forth, and that this birth is difficult, something of which we now have only a dangerously vague idea" he is perhaps also begging the question as to how many people are capable of realizing this neo-Platonic conviction. From statements such as the aforementioned, one gets the sound impression that Houellebecq is presenting a vision of the sensual world that acts as nothing less than an obstacle to the spirit.
The second part of the novel has Michel and Valerie return to Thailand where they have opened a resort that is called "Eldorador Aphrodite." At that stage in the novel Michel seems to discover an inner tranquility that none of Houellebecq's previous characters ever managed to attain. Michel says, "With the exception of the sexual act, there are few moments in life in which the body exults in the simple pleasure of being alive, filled with joy at the simple fact of its presence in the world." But perhaps, most indicative of the crass nihilism of this age that Houellebecq criticizes is the quote by Auguste Comte that opens chapter 15: "If love, then, cannot triumph, how can the spirit reign? All practical supremacy belongs to action."
Houellebecq's contention seems to be that in a world devoid of transcendent values, people must continuously occupy themselves with menial tasks in order not to become suffocated by their latent emptiness. This lack of an axiological center is very characteristic of Michel's character. But despite this, Michel is not totally ignorant of what is missing from his life. When he decides to leave Paris and move to the new resort in Thailand he bemoans the lack of a vital culture in the French capital. He says, "Culture seemed to me to be a necessary compensation for the misery of our lives. It was possible to imagine a different sort of culture, one bound up with celebration and lyricism, something that sprang from a state of happiness."
Part three of Platform offers a much more sensitive and humane portrayal of Michel. The last 17 pages of the novel serve to elevate it beyond the vulgarity that is such a prevalent part of this work. One night while Michel and Valerie are dining at a restaurant, three terrorists wearing turbans begin to fire at the guest. Valerie is killed instantly in a massacre that totaled 117 dead. At this point Michel returns to Paris to receive treatment for his wounds and for depression. After his release from the hospital Michel decides to return to Thailand to write a book about his life. His final thoughts of Valerie are: "She was one of those creatures who are capable of devoting their lives to someone else's happiness, of making that alone their goal. This phenomenon is a mystery. Happiness, simplicity, and joy lie within them, but I still do not know how or why it occurs. And if I haven't understood love, what use is it to me to have understood the rest?"
Houellebecq is undoubtedly a courageous writer, especially in today's milieu of intellectual terrorism. If one is forced to say what other writer he might resemble, then we can make the case that he is somewhat like Celine. But this comparison goes as far as a Quixotian example of human courage is concerned. Houellebecq's themes and situations are much too vulgar and pedestrian to engender any lasting literary value. The strength of Houellebecq's novels is the desire to ground literature in firm and vital ground once again. However, the overemphasis on too many sexual situations negates any higher intention that this writer may possess. Yet Platform is without the slightest doubt a product of this age and at such it fits in quite inauspiciously with today's general moral implosion. Perhaps his lasting legacy will be to offer writers and thinkers an example of the kind of dignity that refuses to be silenced by tyrannical ideologues. It is conceivable that Platform will force some readers to come to the realization that no one ever benefits by living in a world where writers are censored and thinkers cannot reflect. All of Houellebecq's work addresses the deplorable moral status quo that the postmodern totalitarian impulse has generated. This may very well be Houellebecq's lasting legacy. | November 2003
Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.