Jaco Barnard-Naude
Jaco Barnard-Naude

Michel Houellebecq and the dialectics of nihilism

Michel Houellebecq’s monumental novel, Atomised, is one of the most honest, brutal and haunting books of the 21st century when it comes to a consideration of the destructive dialectics of society. Through the main characters, Bruno and Michel, Houellebecq makes his argument that humanity today has arrived at the edge of the abyss, that there is very little to be done about it and that we effectively deserve to perish.

The novel situates its characters in the so-called permissive society of the late 20th and early 21st century. Bruno and Michel are half-brothers and the impact this destructive, suicidal society leaves on them represents two sides of the same coin. Bruno, on the one hand, is a depressed, sex-obsessed individual who seems to be unable to form any kind of lasting human relationship – until he eventually meets Christiane – a sexually liberated woman who pleases him by accepting him for who and what he is – and vice versa. But the relationship does not represent, in Houellebecq’s account, a catharsis or turning point in the lives of either one of the subjects. It is as if the novel wants to say that it is too late, that whatever potentiality may have been, was lost in advance. Instead and ironically, then, the relationship between Bruno and Christiane, signifies the beginning of both of their demises. For Christiane it is physical, for Bruno, psychical.

Michel Djerzinski, on the other hand, and for different reasons, is also incapable of love. He chooses rationality, logic and science as his escape. He “feels nothing” when the woman who loves him, Annabelle, holds his hand or tells him that she is in love with him. The relationship with Annabelle, like that of Bruno with Christiane, is doomed in advance. Again, in both cases, this is not merely an effect of their inter-personal circumstances. Houellebecq makes it clear that this is an effect of the utterly cold and vengeful society they live in: ‘[i]n the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear that they had no chance.’

In the course of his scientific work, Michel makes a great discovery – a discovery that Houellebecq uses as the critical point in the novel, although structurally it comes, like almost everything in the book, too late. And one wonders whether this is a deliberate technique that contributes to the overwhelming sense of a ‘too late-ness’ throughout the narrative.

Without giving too much away for those who are intrigued, Houellebecq employs the character and life of Michel to argue that it is “too late” for humanity, that we have already lost everything that makes us human and that this loss was, from the very beginning, destined to be … and is perhaps not such a bad thing.

Houellebecq does not believe (nor do I) that we can overcome the current state of our loveless and nihilistic world. For Houellebecq ‘overcoming’ this state of affairs would signify the emergence of a new species-being (to use Marx’s term): “humanity must disappear, […] would give way to a new species which was asexual and immortal, a species which has outgrown individuality, individuation and progress”.

I read this novel while preparing for a series of lectures on the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy’s, text entitled Church, State, Resistance. In another text (Being Singular Plural (2000)) that clarifies his philosophical project, Nancy writes as follows:

“This is the ‘earth’ we are supposed to ‘inhabit’ today, the earth … this is us, we who are supposed to say we as if we know what we are saying and who we are talking about. This earth is anything but a sharing of humanity. It is a world that does not even manage to constitute a world; it is a world lacking in world, and lacking in the meaning of world. It is an enumeration that brings to light the sheer number and proliferation of these various poles of attraction and repulsion. It is an endless list, and everything happens in such a way that one is reduced to keeping accounts but never taking the final toll. It is a litany, a prayer of pure sorrow and pure loss, the plea that falls from the lips of millions of refugees every day: whether they be deportees, people besieged, those who are mutilated, people who starve, who are raped, ostracized, excluded, exiled, expelled. What I am talking about here is compassion, but not compassion as a pity that feels sorry for itself and feeds on itself. Compassion is the contagion, the contact of being with one another in this turmoil. Compassion is not altruism, nor is it identification; it is the disturbance of violent relatedness.”

And this appeal, this hope for the survival of what is and was the most valuable thing that humanity once contributed to the Earth, is echoed in Houellebecq: “[Michel] Djerzinski’s great leap was […] that he was able  […] to restore the possibility of love. It is important here to evoke once more the image of Annabelle: though he had not known love himself, through Annabelle, Djerzinski had succeeded in forming an image of it. He was capable of realising that love, in some way, through some obscure process, was possible.”

Atomised, as one of the reviewers puts it, is “destined to become a cult book”. But it is more than that. It is a mirror. The kind of mirror that is held up to human society only once in its lifetime, a mirror that urgently asks us to stop and think (as Arendt would have put it) as a matter of necessity, because not doing so is destined to amount to a peril that will be final and from which it will be impossible to recover.

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