Liberte, Egalite, Systeme

By Chris Darke and Tom McCarthy, 10 September 2000

French novelist Michel Houellebecq has shoved a twisted mirror in the current age’s face, and the current age doesn’t like what it sees.

His first novel, L’Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (‘The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle’), features a nameless functionary who, charged with instituting a nationwide network of agronomic accounting software, rails with increasing violence against the networked systems that govern all our lives. Published in France in 1994, it appeared in English in 1998 under the lazy title Whatever.

1998 also saw the publication of Les Particules Elémentaires (which was translated last year as the only slightly less lazily titled Atomised), a broad-canvassed portrait of a society that’s been left metaphysically bankrupt by the sexual liberalism of the sixties and the economic liberalism of the nineties. Its orphaned protagonists Michel, a geneticist, and his half-brother Bruno, a perverted misfit, together form a character severely split, malfunctional and miserable – and yet, like the narrator of Whatever, determinedly refusing to be streamlined into compliance with the world around them.

This month sees the British release of Philippe Harel’s film adaptation of Whatever. British discussion of Houellebecq has generally been reductive and misguided: shocked by his fierce anti-liberalism, critics have accused him of being conservative, misogynistic and racist. In reality his work bears down on the contemporary world with violent compassion, moving through zones of science, belief, identity and love in search of a coherent vision.

Chris Darke and Tom McCarthy caught up with him in London.

TMcC: In your novels, most of the characters work in the field of science – in information technology or biology – and at the same time they write: Whatever’s hero pens animal allegories, and Bruno in Atomised also pursues a literary career. But what about you? Is your background in arts or science?

MH: I studied as an agricultural engineer, then worked in IT. I’ve got no artistic or literary education. I started to write poems when I was nineteen or so, independently.

CD: You were part of the Perpendiculaire review. There’s a big history in France of little reviews – Tel Quel, l’Infini, Cahiers du Cinéma and so on – which became very important. And they were often run by a group of friends. Was that the case with Perpendiculaire?

MH: Yes. But with Perpendiculaire the others were friends and I was an outsider, brought in because of my notoriety after Whatever. I served to draw attention to the review, and to attract lots of submissions.

TMcC: But they kicked you out after Whatever was published.

MH: No, after Atomised.

TMcC: What was their reason?

MH: I was too politically dangerous.

CD: I’ve heard they wanted to plough a ‘68, leftist furrow.

MH: It got progressively that way. To my great regret. I didn’t want to have a political programme. I wasn’t proactive in founding the review, though. I agreed to participate because Whatever had had a massive impact in France, and I was getting sent loads of manuscripts, and needed somewhere to put them all, so the review was perfect. Reviews are a really good forum: the texts in them don’t have to have a particular format. Less and less formats are accepted now. Novels, yes, but no novellas; no one’s interested. And nobody reads poetry any more. Only novels and essays.

CD: In your novels you use bureaucratic language. Are you consciously playing with these codes?

MH: I love publicity prospectuses, and PR texts in general. In Atomised there are various sources: a Christian prospectus, extracts from encyclopaedias about animal behaviour, things like that. Bureaucratic and commercial discourse is more present in Whatever. I’m interested in all texts that aren’t literary.

TMcC: In Whatever you attack info-tech and consumerist systems, and the control they exert on our lives. In that sense you’re like the English Romantics who attacked the systematisation of life by technology and industry. And Novalis and the Germans –

MH: Yes, I’m more au fait with the German Romantics than the English –

TMcC: There’s a pastoralism in both. Nature’s seen as ‘pathetic’, in other words empathetic with the human spirit, opposing urbanism and control. You do the same, but ultimately refuse to enact pathetic transcendence.

MH: Yes. It doesn’t work. But moments of happiness in my books are linked to moments of calm. When no more information is circulating. When movement ceases.

TMcC: You’ve said that there’s too much information in cities, and they run at too fast a speed. But you also present nature as cruel.

MH: Yes, I don’t like the countryside either. I like the seaside. There’s permanent movement, but it’s not formed from information. I was born on an island.

TMcC: Ireland, where you live now, is pretty rural; but it’s also where Microsoft and Roche and all those people are based, as Walcott points out to Michel in Atomised. Why do you live there?

MH: That’s complicated. But Ireland’s a place of permutation. The landscapes of the West suit me perfectly. I drive through them very badly, though.

CD: Both your essays and novels return often to these moments of peace. What are your methods for finding peace? You seem calm. In a digital age that’s difficult.

MH: The Little Book of Buddhist Meditation that’s cited in Whatever isn’t an invention: it really exists and it isn’t all that bad; it works quite well. When I was younger I had a technique which consisted of trying not to move my eyes, looking at a scene in movement but without trying to fix on a point in space. I’ve stopped that now. But it’s about suppression of desire, fixing something down. Then you can always cut the telephone. It’s true that sometimes you have to disconnect entirely.

CD: As a writer you have to find a speed that’s totally different from the pace everything else moves at. Literature is becoming more and more of an endangered space.

MH: For sure. To write you need hours of calm in front of you. Also you should try not to think of the mediatic repercussions of what you write. I like Saint-Simon, who wouldn’t let his work be published till after his death. That gave him total liberty. I try to think that each book is my last, that I’ll die immediately after finishing it. Alcohol helps too.TMcC: To write?

MH: No: to become irresponsible. You need to lose your sense of responsibility to write.

CD: In Atomised you write that “as a teenager Michel believed that suffering conferred dignity on a person. Now he had to admit that he had been wrong: what conferred dignity on people was television.” In your essays too you talk about suffering, and you say that “structure is the only way to escape suicide”. Could one say that television is also a way? To escape suffering through mediatisation. In your novels there’s a sense that it’s harder and harder to look horror in the face.

MH: True. In that passage I’m not talking about dignity; I’m talking about suffering as a way of writing. Dignity is supplementary. I’ve the impression that human dignity is a televisual concept. I’ve never asked for human dignity personally, and I’m always uneasy when I hear the term. I ask not to suffer, but I ask it like an animal.

CD: But you’re talking in effect about the becoming-spectacle of suffering.

MH: I’ve never had any respect for war photographs. I’m completely indifferent to suffering I see on TV. I’ve never seen it as other than a spectacle. I’ve never really understood the notion of reportage. I never believed in the war in Kosovo, for example, or any other war on television. But I’m very comfortable with television, because I completely don’t care. I had tv younger than most.

CD: At times in your books you play with the codes of pornography. The sequence with Bruno and Christianne in Atomised, for example: their meeting is described in very pornographic terms, as a phantasmisation of desire. But then they get all intimate. Perhaps you’re approaching love through the pornographic. Détourning the spectacular.

MH: That scene’s divided into two sexual moments – one in the jacuzzi, the other in the caravan – between which there’s a conversation. In a normal porno film – or an erotic sequence in a normal film – the sexual moment comes at the summit. But here there’s a summit, then it drops, then it mounts again. So the sexual encounter sets up the emotional encounter. It works fine. Sexuality is threatened in general.

CD: By pornography?

MH: Certainly.

CD: But you must have met people who said of your books: ‘This isn’t literature, it’s porn!’

MH: Yes. But that changes from country to country. The Germans and Dutch have no problems; the French aren’t so sure. At first I wrote those passages because I can’t stand pornographic literature. I wanted to do something realist. I’m making an erotic film later this year.

TMcC: Let’s talk about the political reception of Atomised: The Left hated your book because of its lack of respect for their sacred cows – its refusal to be ‘safely’ pro-feminist, for example, or the scorn with which it treats the ‘68 generation – and the Right hated it because of its attack on free-market liberalism. But can you distinguish between left and right in the new economy?

MH: It’s become confused. There’s a global erosion of the sense of political participation. In America hardly anyone votes. In France more people vote, but their numbers are still dwindling. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just acknowledging it. Left-right battles are useful because they catch the popular imagination. Unleashing polemics grabs people’s interest, gets them voting. When people get angry at each other, it makes good tv. The same applies to newspapers: a polemical title gets the circulation going. That’s my reading of the reactionary/progressive set-up: it’s like a big department store that occasionally mounts super-sales.

TMcC: Michel says in Atomised that the notion of democracy is a mistake: we’re confusing it with unpredictability.

MH: It’s true. In classical philosophy, if you can predict someone’s behaviour you’re less inclined to see them as free. Liberty is a problem central to that book. There are moments of liberty in it.

TMcC: It’s a very determinist book, though. Attraction between two people is described in biological terms, memory and identity in terms of data chains. Then you say that there are moments when the possibility of grace appears, when there’s a rupture in the frequency of electric waves. Is the ‘struggle’, in both novels, the struggle for grace – which fails in both cases?

MH: No, you can’t even say that. I’m very much within the Christian tradition. You don’t need to struggle to accede to moments of grace: they’re given. For me, it’s not God who gives them, it’s I don’t know what. There are moments of liberty, of grace, where life offers you a chance of bifurcation.

TMcC: But your heroes never take these moments.

MH: No. Of all the scientific content of the second novel, that’s what’s the most inscrutable. We know very little about the brain. We don’t even have a clear notion of individual consciousness – whether it’s linked to an area of the brain, where it’s grounded and so on. It’s a phenomenon that remains completely mysterious – more so than everything that’s governed by genetic code.

TMcC: In Michel’s ‘Meditation on Networks’, the document he produces at the end of Atomised, he writes that free will doesn’t exist, that everything is system, and that love is possible, but only when it’s not linked to desire. You believe that?

MH: He says there are no separate objects in the world. He’s a scientist, fundamentally, and scientists can’t think about free will. The very idea implies a non-materialism which is the limit of science. You find this played out in Spinoza: he says that when you throw a stone into a pool, if the stone could think it would consider itself free.

CD: I think one of the reasons the books came out and got attention fast is the form you’ve found. They’re novels of ideas, and find a way of talking about science and religious faith at the same time.

MH: I’ve written that one of the problems of the novel is that nowadays everyone believes more and more in a neurochemical explanation of human behaviour. It’s become more difficult to presuppose the idea of a mystery in each person, which gets unravelled slowly. That’s why the novel has to be aware of the state of science.

CD: So the Chekhovian idea of character is finished?

MH: Yes, I think so.

CD: Is that why you construct characters from a sociological rather than a psychological perspective?

MH: I use several parallel and complimentary approaches. I think it’s necessary to have several explicatory systems running at the same time. The behaviour of Michel and Bruno is sometimes explained in terms that could be borrowed from a work of animal physiology, or dropped in from The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour. There are also sociological explanations. Then there’s a third zone, the mysterious, where moments of liberty appear. Psychoanalysis disappears, though, as a system for explaining things.

TMcC: Was it you who wrote the screenplay for the film of Whatever?

MH: Yes, with the director. What’s impossible to do in cinema, or at least very difficult, is to brutally switch perspectives between characters. So we couldn’t include the animal tales that the hero of Whatever writes. But it’s possible nevertheless to transmit ideas in a film, as well as in a novel.

TMcC: You use the interior voice in the film.

MH: Yes, there are two voices-off: that of a kind of narrator and that of the hero. I enjoyed the experience of writing the screenplay; I like cinema very much. I’m going to adapt Atomised for the cinema.

TMcC/CD: Good luck.

Chris Darke <chris AT>Tom McCarthy <tom AT>

Also see 'Like a Future which has Already Happened'