Monday, August 18, 2008

Book Notes: "Platforme" by: Michel Houellebecq

Some novelists are spiritual physicians: they try to diagnose what's wrong with the modern way of life by cataloguing its more painful symptoms. They poke and prod; they expose tumors and cysts to the light. Ultimately, they try to pinpoint what's wrong with us by telling us where it hurts them.

The type is certainly well-known in France, a nation whose writers first diagnosed the mal du siècle and popularized ennui. Musset, Rimbaud, Céline, Baudelaire, and now Houellebecq all attempted to map out a world that they could hardly stand living in. Reading their work is often uncomfortable or irritating; we ignore it at our peril. The greatest novelists exhibit all of the flaws of humanity; but they imitate God in being omniscient and pitiless. They are immoral scourges.

Scourges can be a pain in the ass. Very few people want to hear what's wrong with their behavior, and absolutely none want to know what's wrong with their soul. Scourges can be so impassive that we think they are racist when they tell us about racists, perverts when they discuss perversion, psychopaths when they discuss psychopathology. Often they actually are vivisecting themselves in their work and this leads to charges of hypocrisy: how can they criticize sins they engage in? Hypocrisy is the most insufferable sin for us: we can tolerate nearly any vice in others provided they're consistent in it. Houellebecq can come off as a sexual libertine who describes the spiritual emptiness of sexual libertines, a pornographer who can't stand pornography.

Platforme is a novel that pissed off more than a few people when released in 2001. Their main problem was that Houellebecq- or his narrator- doesn't seem to have much respect for the Islamic faith, and we like our public figures to at least pretend to respect Islam. Most westerners are not interested in, or particularly impressed by the religion, and it seems weird that a novelist who portrays the west as we live today would not deal with that. But we expect decorum to be maintained.

The secondary problem- and incorrect in my opinion- was that some believed that the novel celebrates sex tourism. Essentially, Platforme deals with an uncomfortable problem in the west- a young professional class that talks all the time about sex, but who have basically stopped screwing. Or, at least, stopped enjoying it and continue to do so out of some sort of social commitment. Houellebecq seems to agree with conservatives that this problem has cultural roots, and with the left that it has to do with the intrusion of capitalism into all aspects of life: thus he pisses off everyone. He also sees a clear-cut solution: the demand of Westerners for sexual pleasure met by the supply of third world men and women who have only their bodies to offer. Donc voilà! mass-marketed sex tourism.

It goes badly.

And, in fact, according to Houellebecq, it could not go any other way. What critics seem to miss is his insistence (which he isn't exactly subtle about) that capitalism increasingly makes human connection destructive, if not impossible; and in a world without affect, we can't expect any sort of cultural understanding, much less an end to enmity and violence. Westerners may or may not respect Muslims, but they do not really respect people who live in poor countries as individuals, and their desperate attempts to do so are painfully false. Houellebecq isn't so much celebrating sex tourism as mocking the self-righteousness that sees sex tourism as off-limits while all other sorts of exploitation are good to go.

In many ways, he's actually a moralist, but his morals are rooted in empathy and lust instead of in moral precepts. For instance, the two main characters: a sour middle-aged bureaucrat and a travel company mastermind: are deeply and passionately in love with each other, and express that love in a variety of ways, including group sex in swinger clubs. At one point, they fuck a couple whose marriage is falling apart and who are using group sex to hurt each other. Houellebecq's point is clear: the act itself is not enriching or destructive, but neutral; among people who love one another, it's loving; among people who don't, it's destructive. In fact, this love between them sanctifies the entire book.

One suspects that Houellebecq sees love as the only thing that will save our souls from capitalism. What he bemoans (and his characters frequently express that they do not like the modern world) is the death of genuine loving connection. Young professionals work too much for money that bores them in jobs that fill their lives with stress, so it's no wonder that they barely fuck anymore. And their culture has no answer for this. Houellebecq sees love as a door out of hell, but one that is closed both by the religious fundamentalism of other cultures as well as by the nihilistic turbo-capitalism of our own.

It goes without saying that his point of view is gloomy. He sees no escape left.



The Pagan Temple said...

Wow. I hope he has bodyguards. Sounds like a good book, and he sounds like a good writer, and a damn brave one. I don't know about the French as a people or culture, of course, but looking at it from an American cultural perspective, I think most American readers are still at the pablum stage when it comes to arts and entertainment.

We expect our novels, movies, etc., to present clearly defined characters who express clearly defined viewpoints.

Any scene depicting sex tourism, to use this example, should automatically be portrayed with s no-holds barred denunciation of the act, otherwise we assume the writer tacitly approves of it, or maybe is outright promoting it.

I think television is a big part of the problem, but certainly not the only one, just the most obvious. Mass marketed movies and to some extent even music shares some of the blame. And then of course there are always your Dobsons on the right and others on the left who perpetuate what amounts to hysteria, and they end up demanding a ransom that is paid by the purveyors of popular culture.

True art as always remains a hostage.

Rufus said...

Oh yeah, he went through a Salman Rushdie phase in France and was eventually brought up on charges of "provoking racial hatred". The judges found him not guilty and decided that he was making legitimate criticisms of religion. So, it ended well. But, it's a bit annoying to live in a country where speech is restricted- as it is in France and Canada, for that matter.

The Pagan Temple said...

I know, that's one of the reasons I'm so strongly against multi-lateral international treaties with them. It's really scary to think that you could be brought up on charges for expressing a viewpoint, controversial or otherwise. What if they decide to prosecute you for reading it, or writing a favorable review of it? I guess you should really be careful who you loan your books to.

Who decides this stuff, and on what criterion? They could have as easily found him guilty. I remember once reading that The Ten Commandments, the movie by DeMille, was at one time on the Vatican's blacklist, but never heard or understood why.

The only thing I could figure out was the movie actually portrayed Seti I as a thinking, feeling human being as opposed to some evil incarnate, monstrous caricature. I guess the fact the actor that portrayed Joshua was obviously wearing dentures didn't help much.

rufus said...

In general the French lean more towards secularism, so they tend to find in favor of the accused, but it's still irritating that people can be "charged" for speech in the first place. It's the same in Canada- people usually get off after being accused of "inciting hatred", but they still have to pay their own legal fees. So, if you don't like someone, you can bankrupt them by filing a complaint against them with the human rights commission. And, if I'm not mistaken, the accuser does *not* have to pay, or even show up for the hearing. It's a recipe for abuse. Happily, I think a lot of people are picking up on that in Canada, especially after McLean's (sort of our Newsweek) got accused of hate speech.

The good side of it, I guess, is that people tend to calm down after the person gets brought up on charges and found not guilty. The bad side of it is that these commissions undercut any ideas we might have of free speech in the western world. So, I guess I'm not what you'd call a supporter.