Book Review: Whatever by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq created quite a stir in France with his first novel, Whatever. He was seen as the coming of a new Sartre or Camus and rightfully so.
Free from the baggage of History, Houellebecq takes French Existentialism to new, disgusting, heights with the character of his unnamed narrator who is at once comfortable with his stifling boredom and with unspeakable acts of depravity. What distinguishes this new existentialism from the old is the level of consciousness. There is no longer a random act of violence on a lonely beach but a premeditated crime, with full faculties and knowledge of internal pathologies and consequences.
Our man works for a computer company and somehow manages to survive by writing what he calls ‘animal stories’, a device that allows philosophical debate in the realm of parody. Cows and dogs speak and have the insights of the sages.
“Let us first consider the Breton cow: all year round she thinks of nothing but grazing, her glossy muzzle ascends and descends with impressive regularity, and no shudder of anguish comes to trouble the wistful gaze of her light-brown eyes. All that is as it ought to be, and even appears to indicate a profound existential oneness, a decidedly enviable identity between her being-in-the-world and her being-in-itself. Alas, in this instance the philosopher is found wanting, and his conclusions, while based on a correct and profound intuition, will be rendered invalid if he has not previously taken the trouble of gathering documentary evidence from the naturalist. In fact the Breton cow’s nature is duplicitous.”
In that Houellebecq covers vast theoretical ground from the Idealist to the Phenomenologists to the Materialists etc…and ultimately brings it all down to a modernly base level and settles the whole issue with simply, “the cow just wants to get stuffed.”
But he can’t hide behind his base nihilism for long. When trying to explain his unhappiness to his doctor after a psychological meltdown he patient explains:
“Early on certain individuals experience the frightening impossibility of living by themselves; basically they cannot bear to see their own life before them, to see it in its entirety without substance. Their existence is I admit an exception to the laws of nature, not only because this fracture of basic maladjustment is produced outside of any genetic finality but also by dint of the excessive lucidity it presupposes, an obviously transcendent lucidity in relation to the perceptual schemas of ordinary existence. It is sometimes enough to place another individual before them, providing he is taken to be as pure, as transparent as they are themselves, for this insupportable fracture to resolve itself as a luminous, tense and permanent aspiration towards the absolutely inaccessible. Thus, while day after day a mirror only returns the same desperate image, two parallel mirrors elaborate and edify a clear and dense system which draws the eye into an infinite, unbounded trajectory, infinite in its geometrical purity, beyond all suffering and beyond the world.”
It’s marvelous. Ordinary and extraordinary stuff happens in a peculiarly novelistic fashion but then you have to be able to get past the nauseating debauchery in order to embrace the transcendence of a genuine spiritual awakening. But whatever, Whatever is a good read.