Second-rate Nietzsche

It’s perhaps easiest to introduce Michel Houellebecq, the controversial French writer whose new novel The Map and the Territory recently won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, by offering a couple of representative quotations from his previous work. Here is one, taken from his first novel, Whatever: “I don’t like this world. I definitely don’t like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke” (this coming from a computer programmer). Here is another, from The Elementary Particles: “Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, and the progressive influx of ever-younger girls onto the field of seduction was simply a return to the norm; a restoration of the true nature of desire, comparable to the return of stock prices.” And here is another, from the same novel: “All in all, nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust—and man’s mission on earth was probably to do just that.”

These passages aren’t extreme by Houellebecq’s standards; I haven’t included any of his passionless, pornographic sex scenes, for instance, or his characters’ regular Islamophobic asides. Life in a Houellebecq novel is short, nasty, and brutish, not to mention misogynistic and vile. His characters are materialists who hate their material embodiment; they see sex as both the only pleasure worth pursuing and a pursuit that leads less to pleasure than to hatred of self and other; they loathe youth culture but find getting old to be the worst fate imaginable, since “the physical bodies of young people, the only desirable possession the world has ever produced, were reserved for the exclusive use of the young, and the fate of the old was to work and suffer.” In Houellebecq’s nihilistic vision, existence is sheer nullity punctuated by wild sex. 

Houellebecq is a terrible creator of characters (his men are all embittered losers and his women all pornographic fantasies) and an even worse plotter. At best, in both the original French and in translation, his prose is simple and unadorned; at worst, it’s flat and boring. Houellebecq just doesn’t seem to care much about the traditional armature of the realist novel. Instead, he cares about ideas, and his novels pursue, with relentless energy, one central idea: that the merciless logic of capitalism has overrun and deformed all areas of life, but especially the world of sex. This idea, that the erotic life is now a matter of impersonal supply and demand, is expressed most clearly in Whatever:

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization.... In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle.

Strange as it may sound, Houellebecq is, at root, a moralist. All of his novels attempt to isolate, analyze, and criticize modernity’s changing conceptions of goodness and value. It’s just that we now live in a world where value means price in the market and goodness means success. As a result, one character complains, “no one knew how to live anymore.” The first time you read a Houellebecq novel, these claims are startling, even occasionally powerful; by the second or third work, though, it all seems—to quote a character from The Elementary Particles—“pretty second-rate Nietzsche.”

If it’s taken me a long time getting to the novel under review here, that’s because part of the power—and relief—of The Map and the Territory is just how different it is from Houellebecq’s earlier fiction. His previous novels have focused on male misfits, those who “stagnate in unemployment and misery” and rage, loudly and luridly, against this stagnation. The main character of The Map and the Territory, on the other hand, is a successful, self-effacing French artist named Jed Martin. The novel contains little sex and even less sexual obsession: Jed briefly finds happiness with a cartoonish “Slavic beauty” named Olga, but he isn’t too broken up when she has to relocate to Russia for work.

The Map and the Territory is a traditional Künstlerroman, telling the story of how Jed becomes a world-renowned artist. We follow his progress from childhood drawings to his first serious project at the Beaux-Arts de Paris: “the systematic photography of the world’s manufactured objects.” Martin soon moves from taking pictures of the alienated products of our labor—“suspension files, handguns, diaries, printer cartridges, forks”—to painting the actual producers of these objects. Jed’s most famous collection of paintings, the “Series of Simple Professions,” surveys “the productive conditions of the society of his times” by portraying “no less than forty-two typical professions,” ranging from butcher to architect to venture capitalist. The collection wins him fame and fortune; eventually, Jed’s paintings go for as much as €12 million a piece. Where Houellebecq previously has focused on the colonization of sex by economic liberalism, he now delights in revealing the marketization of art: the novel opens with Jed painting Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, and Houellebecq reminds us that these two are numbers one and two on “the ArtPrice ranking of the richest artists.”

Despite the increasing corruption of the art world by money, Jed remains unchanged by wealth: he lives in a dingy apartment, devoting himself to his work in monkish isolation. (In fact, a critic compares Jed’s art to the “difficult and clear constructions of ‘the silent bull,’” Thomas Aquinas.) Jed says at one point that “to be an artist…was above all to be someone submissive,” both to the discipline of the craft and to the seemingly unprovoked moments of inspiration that enable it to work in the first place. This is a remarkable turn for Houellebecq, whose previous characters refused to submit either to the dictates of the neoliberal order or to the demands of the aging body.

The Map and the Territory is a novel about work—about Jed’s artistic work, for sure, but also about the place of work and labor within modern society. At one point, Jed considers the relationship between a person’s identity and his or her job:

What defines a man? What’s the question you first ask a man, when you want to find out about him? In some societies, you ask him first if he’s married, if he has children; in our society, you ask first what his profession is. It’s his place in the productive process, and not his status as reproducer, that above all defines Western man.

These are the kinds of socio-philosophical questions that Houellebecq always asks in his fiction, and, in this passage and many others, Jed seems a proxy for his creator. Jed’s first major art exhibit, which consists of a series of photographs of Michelin road maps, is called “the map is more interesting than the territory.” For Jed as for Houellebecq, abstraction and analysis are more interesting than that which is abstracted and analyzed, and art is less about creating something beautiful than about laying bare the structures that underwrite our world.

This conflation of Jed and Houellebecq is complicated by a metafictional twist midway through the novel. After Jed fails to complete his painting of Hirst and Koons, he decides to take as his subject another representative artist: the French writer and controversialist named (you guessed it) Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq-the-character is misanthropic and perhaps insane, but somehow this doesn’t bother Jed all that much, and a kind of affection grows between the two. The reader is brought up short. Could we be seeing a meaningful relationship in a Houellebecq novel that doesn’t involve sex?

Of course not. Soon after Houellebecq-the-character is introduced, we get to the nastiness we’ve been expecting, though this time it’s not sexual in nature: Houellebecq is murdered in brutal fashion, his body carefully dismembered so that the blood and flesh scattered throughout the room make the murder scene look “like a Pollock, but a Pollock who would have worked almost in monochrome.” There’s the Houellebecq we know.

After this bizarre intrusion of the demonic, the novel becomes a police procedural. The psychopath murderer is eventually caught, and the novel moves toward its ending. Shaken by the murder, Jed retires from human contact. He embarks on a new video project, using a time-lapse technique to show the quickened decomposition of man-made objects. Computer memory cards are swallowed up by vegetation; photographs of dead acquaintances quickly crumple and fade. These videos are taken to be “symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species,” and the novel leaves us with the complete evacuation of the human from the world. The last sentence reads, “The triumph of vegetation is total.”

Houellebecq often ends his works with visions of a post-human world, but this conclusion, like so much in the novel, seems different, less angry and more resigned. The novel’s epigraph comes from the poet Charles d’Orléans: “The world is weary of me, / And I am weary of it.” The Map and the Territory seems a new direction for Houellebecq; he heavy-handedly literalizes the end of the old Houellebecq by killing himself off in the course of the narrative. Where will he go from here? Can this “second-rate Nietzsche” move beyond weariness and recover his ability to wound and sting? The Map and the Territory suggests that if he is to do so, it will require traditional, decidedly un-Houellebecqian virtues: discipline, submissiveness, and self-sacrifice.

Published in the 2012-06-01 issue: 
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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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