Updated: Sep 21, 2021
The coach was a direct service to London and I sat at the back with the girl daily for a week. She went to some political institute to do an internship and I went to a newspaper in Canary Wharf to do work experience, to shadow a consumer affairs columnist in his work. I liked her very much, of course, and yet I had no idea what to do with her. One time, towards the end of the week, we talked and talked and we must have looked into each other’s eyes for a long time because I found that our faces came closer and closer; and I found my cock had grown harder and harder. We were quite deep into London now but, instead of pressing on to kiss her, I said, “Did you know you have a bit of hair on your upper lip?” She snapped back with a pained expression and, a stop early, got off the bus and left me still hard. When I stood up I found that a little damp dot had bled through my white trousers, pre-ejaculate anticipation unsatisfied.
It is events like these that Michel Houellebecq describes in his novels, particularly his best-known work Atomised (1998; translated in 2000). Houellebecq follows Schopenhauer, a man who observed that humans are like porcupines: we desperately want to gather together for warmth and yet as soon as we get close to each other we spike each other with our needles—our necessary defences. Hence life, for Houellebecq and Schopenhauer, is an ambivalent affair; we rush to be close to people, adore them, and then we inevitably injure them—if not ourselves as well. Atomised is about this ambivalence and, ultimately, it is about how man might transcend his ambivalent position once and for all; a feat that would amount to an ability to genuinely love—a surprisingly sweet sentiment to raise in connection with the harsh Houellebecq, yet true nonetheless.
I raised the above Houellebecqian anecdote because that same summer, 2002, when I was seventeen, I read Atomised for the first time; indeed, I probably read it in and around Canary Wharf—it was a time when you could watch a jet airliner disappear behind a tower and still imagine that it might have detonated and destroyed the building; in other words, it was another time. I was so struck by Atomised that I bought a second-hand French edition, Les Particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles); and I also acquired several of his other novels. At the same time, I also went into denial as regards what I had read: “It can’t be true, but it is true—and it’s awful. I think I would prefer that it was not true, so I will pretend it is not.” This was my stance as regards Houellebecq for fifteen years, until I decided to stop lying—or to lie less, anyway.
What I had to suppress about Houellebecq, even though I adored him, was his now famous description of what some call the socio-sexual hierarchy; essentially, in Atomised Houellebecq describes how sexuality was privatised in the 1960s and, with marriage gone, how the West began to engage in a savage sexual competition, sex as sport; and this situation has its Pareto distribution—its big losers, our contemporary incels—as well as being tinged, in a materialist age, with desperation as the competitors inevitably age and lose their ability to compete; eventually, even the greatest sexual athlete sags, and then they have to off themselves—directly or indirectly—in a reasonably-priced Mercure hotel just outside Cannes.
Atomised features extensive reminiscences as regards youth around seventeen, so it seems appropriate to revisit a book I read at seventeen again and look upon it with more experienced eyes. Atomised is about two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel; the former is a rather ineffective academic-bureaucrat in the French education system, while the latter is a molecular biologist destined to change humanity’s fate. One father is a plastic surgeon and their mother is a useless slut and paradigmatic 1960s hippy-dippy; essentially, both brothers are abandoned at an early age to boarding schools and relatives while their parents get on with their narcissistic, self-absorbed lives.
Atomised is partially the old story of the grandparents and the grandchildren against the parents; it is also autobiographical, Houellebecq’s parents were “children of the ‘60s” and also abandoned him to “find themselves” while Houellebecq was brought up by his Communist grandmother. Indeed, this is an important point: Houellebecq is often seen as the paradigmatic contemporary reactionary because he has made vicious remarks about Islam, seems to condemn the sexual liberation so beloved by the ‘68ers, speaks of the death of Europe, and discusses black men’s cocks—specifically, their reputed prodigious size. However, Houellebecq is really, in essence, a Communist and an ultra-materialist evangelist for science—for the most complete science, the science that will transcend the human species; and this accords with his pact with his Communist grandmother against the liberal hippy-dippy parents who abandoned him to indulge in frivolous sexual excess—and eventual self-destruction.
Hence, in Atomised, Houellebecq notes—notes proudly, I think—that the old French Communist Party was one of the few parties to stand up against sexual liberalisation in the 1950s and the 1960s. Even today, you will occasionally meet the odd Maoist—especially online—who will fulminate against the West’s sexual decadence. “LGBT and transsexualism are Trojan horses for Western imperialism!” They always say something like that, and then they post little avatars that feature North Korean emblems. It is true; old-style Soviet leftism was masculine and puritanical—of course Puritanism can cut both ways; prurience easily slides into indulgence, from uptight Old Left to the sexually loose New Left. It is this Stakhanovite sensibility—along with a love for science—that gives Houellebecq a contempt for the New Age beliefs that replaced New Left politics in the ‘80s. His characters, just as he did, enjoy scientific comic books produced by the Communists in the 1960s—such as Pif, one of the few Western popular magazines sold in the Soviet Union—they grow up schooled in materialism and a hatred for woo. Of course, when the USSR is gone, what remains is a disdain for what could be called progressive liberalism, consumerism, the New Age, Islam, and, broadly, humanity itself.
So Houellebecq is not a reactionary. It is true that he features characters who are shut in their flats in the suburbs, terrified to go out lest the blacks and Arabs beat them up—living virtual lives through chatrooms on Minitel, France’s Internet avant la lettre. This sounds pretty reactionary, especially when mixed with an extreme disdain for Islam; yet Houellebecq pokes fun at reactionaries and the French radical right represented by the Le Pens and their now rebranded family business, the Front National. “Hard to be a queer and a Catholic and a Monarchist,” Houellebecq quips about an incidental queenly character in Atomised.
He is well aware, as will you be if you dip a toe in this water, that there are plenty of “controversial” people who express racist opinions because—as with Houellebecq’s characters in the post-‘68 sex clubs—they are bored. It is another stupid insincere game to play. “You’re a sincere racist! That’s grand, you’ve developed an idiosyncratic racism that’s entirely your own. You’re not even anti-semitic,” remarks a fashionable magazine editor as regards Bruno’s article about black men and their penises. You see, unknown to Bruno, the editor is in his “reactionary Catholic phase”, so explains Atomised’s narrator; being a racist or a traditional Catholic is another game to pass the time in a society inundated with more consumer goods than we could ever need, an extreme sport—just like snowboarding. What is funny about this episode in Atomised is that Bruno actually means his racist screed, but for the editor it is a game—a too dangerous game, as it turns out: “There are things we cannot say now. People watch me; they want my job…”
True to Schopenhauer, Houellebecq is a radical anti-humanist; it is the human race in its totality he despises—its cruel hypocrisies, relentless violence, pathetic lies, and ultimate banality. The banality is important for Houellebecq: this is a man who composed poems about visits to the hypermarket and sees the eternal rhythm in the flicker of fluorescent bulbs. In a funny way, Houellebecq is a genuine progressive. I mean a real progressive, a man who really understands how lost we are and what genuine progress would look like: a radical revamp of the entire human species so it becomes something different, so that it steps over itself—a total self-overcoming, as Nietzsche would say. Accordingly, Houellebecq—his characters in Atomised—admire Comte and his Positivist project; Comte, whose works provided Brazil’s motto, emblazoned on their flag: “Order and Progress”—false advertising as it turns out, Brazil provides neither. Well, this is not exactly a reactionary sentiment, to be for progress and order; it is more, as they say, a neo-reactionary position.
Hence Houellebecq’s outlook is not terribly reactionary. He defends the Communists, really; they thought they would use science to improve mankind, but they did not understand that to really use science to save mankind you will have to be much more anti-human than Marx’s political aspirations suggested. Unlike most reactionaries, Houellebecq has more sympathy for women than men; it is women who provide love for Houellebecq—men are only interested in competition and, in his view, are surplus to requirement in contemporary society; his characters assert that women are superior to men, as opposed to the traditional view that woman introduces corruption and lies to the world. Bruno imagines an island paradise where women and dogs frolic in innocent love and understanding. In this respect Houellebecq is dead wrong, as with many children of divorces—being raised by a woman, a grandmother in his case—he takes the woman’s side. Similarly, although he is correct that the 1960s ushered in brutal sexual competition he is still too Communist to understand this properly.
Houellebecq claims that old-fashioned marriage was “primitive communism”, whereas what came after—the destruction of marriage—was analogous to the way Anglo-Saxon ideas about free markets were introduced to French industry in the 1980s and afflicted the French working class. It is the “eternal Anglo” at it again, much to snooty French chagrin. Actually, old-fashioned marriage was property ownership, not primitive communism; the woman was owned by the man. What happened in the 1960s was that women were socialised, not privatised; and everything that has happened since—the considerable despair and sterility described by Houellebecq, terminating in squalid sex clubs—results from socialisation, from a tragedy of the commons. As a natural resource, women are wasted in the contemporary West; nobody owns them.
In a similar vein, though he otherwise loathes the ‘68ers, Houellebecq has a Jewish housemaster at an abusive boarding school be one of the few decent characters in the novel; and this is really a very ‘68er notion, to have the Jewish character as the only decent one—Houellebecq is not as controversial as all that. Indeed, there is a case to be made that Europe’s anti-Muslim sentiment is sublimated anti-semitism; a Jew can, technically, pray in a mosque—the same cannot be said for a church. What is forbidden after 1945 can be expressed in hatred for Muslim immigrants, since the religions are so similar; and so, paradoxically, many people call rightists—particularly neoconservatives—who cheerlead for Israel anti-semitic. “And just what is your problem with this faith that doesn’t let people eat pigs?” Which faith is that, eh?
In his racist screed, Bruno favourably compares the Jews to the blacks; they are a race with a highly developed sense of shame, he avers; and so black anti-semitism is linked to the fact that blacks lack self-effacement and self-restraint—they envy Jewish moral superiority. Here Houellebecq is more in line with post-war liberalism than not, no matter what his detractors say. Although he has a reputation as a transgressive writer, a genuinely transgressive novel would cast a Jew as a villain who oversees the torture at the boarding school; this is the real taboo, but then again it would never be published.
Despite being slightly too far left to fully grasp our sexual malaise, Houellebecq managed to anticipate the contemporary incel phenomenon by about twenty years. His character Bruno represents every man who is on the wrong side of the Pareto socio-sexual distribution; a man who is rather ugly—as is Houellebecq himself—and finds it difficult to become physically strong, to be what women want in a sexual free-for-all: a bully. Bruno’s entire life becomes an attempt to make up for his missed window; his chance, from fourteen to twenty-six, to indulge in taut sexual adventure. It is this obsession that eventually leads him to expose his penis to a fifteen year-old Arab student he has become infatuated with, an event that sees him whisked off to a psychiatric clinic for teachers—although, eventually, through a sexualised nudist colony, he finds true love at last. Houellebecq perfectly understands the incel: his ugliness; his body odour; his plastic bags of cigarettes and whiskey from Monoprix; his chat room pseudo-relationships; his furtive moments outside the Thai massage parlour, trying to pluck up the courage to ask for a “happy ending”—his self-loathing and acute consciousness that other people are winning in the constant sexual sport contest that characterises the contemporary West.
A fairly common trope in a Houellebecq novel is for the characters to find their love only to have it taken away from them in a sudden and violent twist. This happens in Platform (2001), where the main character establishes a sex tourist business in Asia with his lover, only to have her blown up—along with the business—by Islamist terrorists. “The bearded bastards just couldn’t let beautiful people cum in peace with soft gentle Asian girls,” as a Houellebecqian character might observe. So, after many sordid and squalid adventures, both Bruno and Michel acquire women they can truly be said to be in love with—but then Bruno’s lover has her spine eaten away by a degenerative illness; she is left in a wheelchair, stuck in a suburban flat surrounded by immigrant thugs and trapped with her teenage son (“He’s mixed up with bad people, neo-Nazis and Islamists,” she says in a too true comment as to how contemporary deracinated white youths can as easily end up in ISIS as National Action). She kills herself; her life with Bruno is mainly about sexual pleasure, anyway—it is in a sex club where she is penetrated by multiple men that her spine finally gives out. With this gone, why live? Similarly, Michel reconnects with his teenage crush, but at the moment they decide to conceive a child together a pap smear reveals she has cancer; the surgeons eviscerate her reproductive system and she kills herself in despair, since she has been left sterile.
Houellebecq’s basic narrative stance throughout his novels is like a Frenchman looking at a piece of shit; and the piece of shit is the world and life in general: his narrative voice is set in a permanent rictus, permanent disgust. He is a complete nihilist: there is only matter; men are apes who bash each other about—smear shit in the mouths of weaker boys at boarding school—and sexual pleasure is the highest and most absolute goal for man. When you die you are dead and that is that. Houellebecq writes extremely sexual scenes that remind me of another cold observer of the world, J.G. Ballard—particularly his Crash (1973). Just as with Ballard, Houellebecq includes eponymous characters in his novels—“Ballard” and “Michel” crop up again and again, novel as biography.
As a teenager, I member that I found the sex scenes titillating—although, both with Ballard and Houellebecq, do we really have to go for the anus? So unsexy I thought; and still do—but as an adult I found Houellebecq’s sex scenes a bit trying. I tended to think, “Oh well, here we go again.” Even as a teenager, having been exposed to endless spread legs courtesy the Internet from about thirteen, I found Houellebecq’s pornography a bit passé—I mean, c’mon Michel, I saw worse than this the first time we got dial-up…Rather like Houellebecq’s own characters my palate had already been spoilt by the full erotic splurge on pipe in every bedroom; a sexy-time deluge that only serves to remind the incel that he is very definitely not invited to the orgy.
<<Tant pis. You don’t like my sex scenes because, like my character Bruno, you’re pushing 40 and your libido is going. Your hair has thinned out. You’re rotting inside, decaying daily. It’s getting pretty close now. You can fool yourself writing essays on your blog and reading about Zen bullshit—you don’t believe it anyway, just like that magic you always talk about. You can fool yourself for so long, but it’s coming. The young people are out fucking; nobody’s interested in you, never was. It was your one chance and you missed it. That’s it. At best, you can sit in the park and surreptitiously wank over some sixteen-year-old girl in hot pants; but she’ll probably see you and scream and scream. If I were you, I’d get to Thailand as soon as possible and get some fresh Asian pussy before the feminists have it classified as paedophilia.>> This is how I imagine Houellebecq might respond to the above, and he may well be right. Anyway, this is Houellebecq and sex; just like Ballard he has an eye for how banal consumer activities and products—cars, clothes catalogues, and the like—are intertwined with this crazy sexual competition and at the same time overlaid with sentimental and sickly confections plucked from Eastern religions.
Wow, this Houellebecq is such a miserable bastard; he just thinks everything is so bleak. He thinks the hippies became so jaded with sex that, just like de Sade, they went into violence; in Atomised, the son of soppy hippie cult leader—a figure like Alan Watts or Osho—becomes a narcissistic would-be pop star and eventually, funded by the über Boomer asset, a property portfolio, turns to snuff movie production. The logic: when you become bored with every sexual possibility you turn to children, to rape and torture and murder—to chopping a man’s penis off with a chainsaw. In Houellebecq’s world, Charles Manson was the final and logical outcome of the hippie project; once you let everything hang out there comes a point when you become bored; you have to take it further. “It is forbidden to forbid,” they wrote on Parisian walls in ’68; well, why not pull someone’s eyeballs out then? “Papa, I’m so bored.”
Yes, Houellebecq is bleak; he walks around like a human scarecrow: he smokes (“Fucking health freaks!”); he drinks (his characters are very wine-conscious); and he has an Asian wife (tight Asian pussy, ‘nuff said). Here is the kicker: Houellebecq is a spiritual guy. Yes, as with Žižek, he is merciless in his contempt for the narcissists from the ‘60s who mouth Zen platitudes they do not really believe at corporate workshops and retreats—“Tarot and the art of CRM”. And yet..Atomised is a spiritual work; it is also science fiction, although it does not read like science fiction—except in the epilogue. Indeed, the epilogue changes the novel’s entire genre to make it suitable for those aspiring young scientists raised on Pif and its complementary “free gadget”.
Michel, the somewhat more useful brother, retreats to Ireland—as did Houellebecq himself—to work on a bold genetics project after his lover dies. While there, he develops a new insight into human genetics that eventually, after his disappearance, leads to the realisation that the human genetic code can be altered in such a way as to avoid sexual reproduction; essentially, a new species can be developed that is individual yet identical—it is cloned, every member of this new race is like an identical twin genetically, and every clone is individual in the same way identical twins have slightly different personalities due to residual environmental factors. This new species—like man but not—realises Schopenhauer’s aspiration that man should overcome desire, and it does it through material science. Schopenhauer, essentially a Buddhist, observed that man is trapped in a desire-satiation cycle; we want something, achieve it, and then feel hollow and want something else; this is samsara, the Buddhist wheel of suffering. Houellebecq observes in Atomised that our modern consumer societies exist to intensify our desire in order to sell us goods, including sex—and so amount to a kind of torture machine. For Schopenhauer and the Buddha, the key to liberation was to be without desire; this is nirvana.
For Houellebecq in Atomised, sexual love—along with masculine egotism—is the major contributor to this wheel of suffering; the book is really about the pain that the eternal itch that is sex causes people; and how, as with the aforementioned porcupines, it draws us together only to hurt each other. For Michel, the solution is to abolish the human race; in Atomised’s epilogue it is revealed that the book was written by our successor species, created thanks to Michel’s breakthrough in genetics, as a testament to their creator and to mankind—an entirely egotistical, cruel, and stupid species that, nevertheless, never stopped, even residually, in its quest for love. The new species, being basically cloned, has transcended egotism and sexual desire; it is effectively enlightened; and so it pursues truth, science, and beauty in a gentle way—there is no reproductive stake in what they do, no rush; after all, they are essentially immortal. The new species has begun to replace man, who is slowly dying out and, in the main, regards the newcomers as gods; after all, they live without the egotistical torment humans endure, they are born Buddhas; their enlightenment is in their very genetic constitution.
Houellebecq notes that the Abrahamic religions were horrified and resisted this new species; only the Buddhists welcomed it, since they understood that enlightenment could be achieved technologically—as those cringey New Agers say: “Buddhism is a very scientific religion, y’know.” Further, although it is likely that Michel committed suicide, it is suggested that his disappearance from Ireland meant that he had vanished to Tibet. The significance here esoterically is as follows: Ireland is hugely important for Indo-Aryan esoteric belife’s, it is the most Western isle—and its people are said to be connected directly to the ancient gods who once walked the earth. Michel goes to this place—Houellebecq comments on its Catholicism and magical qualities—and is inspired in his work by the Book of Kells; his notes based on the Book of Kells are later mistaken for mandalas. The suggestion is that Michel is an enlightened one, hence his presumed disappearance to Tibet.
In short, Atomised—its cynical satire, sexual explicitness, and fag-bitten harshness aside—is actually a parable about how the Indo-Aryan techno-scientific approach to knowledge, essentially Gnostic, could eventually lead us to transcend our botched human form and step over ourselves to form a new species that can genuinely love, being free from egotism in its very DNA. This in turn accords with the older Indo-Aryan beliefs—such as Buddhism and Hindooism—that were covered over by the Abrahamic faiths. Houellebecq loathes the Abrahamic faiths—perhaps retaining some sympathy for Catholicism, being French, but particularly hating Islam—because they hold back the scientific advances that will eventually allow man to destroy himself and become a new god-like species; he writes about the Promethean urge to make ourselves gods, to raise ourselves up.
In this sense, Atomised is a primordial work that appeals to archaic ideas about Ireland as a sacred place of light—associated with Avalon and Thule—and also with Buddhism itself. Houellebecq might mock the ‘68ers with their crystals and tarot cards, but he is more amenable to this view than you might think; except his view, in line with those materialist science comics he and his characters enjoyed as youths, retains a scientific sensibility and does not give way to self-serving sentimentality.
Houellebecq thinks there is a way to express genuine love: it is just we will have to exterminate the human race—transcend our nature through science—to do so. In his anti-humanism, faith in genuine science, and residual Marxist conceit Houellebecq resembles Nick Land and his neo-reactionary school of thought, a school that manages to remain mystical and scientific at the same time; as with the neo-reactionaries, Houellebecq also venerates H.P. Lovecraft—having written about him before Atomised in Against the World, Against Life (1991). So for all his pornography, cynicism, squalor, and misanthropy Houellebecq really holds out—at core—for a cold salvation, to step over man and fulfil the ancient aspirations of the Buddha through science and technology. Yet this can be no sentimental salvation, for man will have to go to the wall if we are ever to know true love.