The title of this post is ambiguous. For instance, is Michel Houellebecq refusing someone or something, or is he the one who is being refused by someone or something? Those readers who are familiar with what the French referred to as “L’affaire Houellebecq”, after the publication of and controversy that ensued from the publication of Houellebecq’s novel, Les Particules élémentaires (Atomised), will probably say that “the refusal of Michel Houellebecq”, refers to the French reading public’s refusal of the ideas and arguments contained in Atomised. As Jack Abecassis (2000) points out, “a serious and sustained public debate in literary reviews, newspapers, radio and television” erupted in October 1998 when the French intelligentsia woke up to the radical writing perpetrated in this book. But what was it in Atomised that caused such an outcry? Abecassis argues that it had little to do with the style of writing or the literary value per se. Rather, it was the book’s “desecration of the regime of desire”, that stirred such passion. And why would the devastation of the regime of desire upset so many? Because, as Abecassis correctly points out, desire is our “last idol”.

It was raised to such status in the post-1945 liberal democratic era when the exponential expansion of the principle of individual autonomy (gratification) reached the level of the most private and intimate and took the form of a civic duty. Simply put: “orgasms became a must“, whatever the cost. And against this backdrop, Houellebecq’s novel postulated the impossibility of desire as a cultural project / imperative. In short, Atomised refused the imperative of desire by radically doubting “our most cherished beliefs — that happiness equals sexual and romantic satisfaction, that Being equals desiring and becoming the object of desire”. And it was precisely because this refusal of Houellebecq’s struck at the heart of the most powerful ideology of self-understanding, that it triggered, among readers, the naïve but violent refusal of Michel Houellebecq, the writer-polemicist.

Atomised tells the story of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel who each stand for the different extremes that make-up late twentieth century nihilism as the subject’s inevitable collapse from the torture of the impossible demands of the libidinal economy: the imperative to seek and achieve (impossible) satisfaction, at any and all cost. On the one hand, we have Bruno, a depressed sex-addict whose inability to “give way” to his desire (as Lacan put it) finally drives him into permanent psychosis and confinement to a mental institution where he dies. Bruno simply cannot give way to his desire in the sense of accepting that it can never be satisfied — he keeps chasing, in vein, the Ultimate Orgasm. Michel, on the other hand, is emotionally and physically / sexually numb. He lives alone, “feels nothing” when the woman who loves him, Annabelle, holds his hand or tells him that she is in love with him. Michel literally does not give way to his desire: he is so chronically depressed that, save for a passing fantasy, he has lost all desire. In the libidinal economy he is literally unemployed.

Michel’s psychosis is more “ordinary” than that of his brother Bruno, whose psychotic state arises from a hysterical longing to be the object of the Other’s desire. Houellebecq finds in Michel’s psychotic detachment or life of “quiet despair” and withdrawal into a life exclusively devoted to the hard work of science, a novelistic space for a prophecy that would see humanity finally crushed under the unbearable weight of desire and the eventual erasure of the human kind — an erasure that would mark the emergence of an immortal and asexual race of clones or neo-humans. “Michel’s life embodies that almost completely neutral zero value through which one must pass from the negative to the positive. With Michel as an allegory, a regime of sense and desire ends, and there emerges the possibility of a new post-human regime.” And it is precisely here where the sacrilege of Atomised lies: it totally deflates the redemption that the devotion to desire promised. “If desire no longer justifies being, then the last transcendental grounding of the modern individual has been pulled out from under his feet. Within the logic of the regime of desire, the alibi for action is univocal: I undertake such and such action because I want to be happy, that is, to be desired and desiring. The deflationary power of the novel consists precisely in undermining this often unquestioned grounding for action.”

And yet, Abecassis misses a theme in Houellebecq that is consistent throughout his writing, namely, his refusal to give up on what lies beyond desire: love and its enormous transformative power. In Atomised it is Michel Djerzinski’s great scientific leap “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. This was probably his guiding thought in the last months of his theoretical work.” It is as if Houellebecq is saying in this part of the novel that love somehow holds the potential to overcome the horrific devastations of the regime of desire. That it is love that “binds, and it binds forever”, while it is the compulsion of excessive autonomous desire that separates and drives apart. In La possibilité d’une île, the clone Daniel 1, has an experience with a character named Esther who gives him back “that taste for living life”. And this is an experience of love: “I could only, like so many who had finally been defeated despite their sniggers and their grimaces, bow down: immense and admirable, undoubtedly, was the power of love.” It turns out then, that the refusal of Michel Houellebecq, is unequivocally the refusal to give up on love.


  • Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy's Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town.


Jaco Barnard-Naude

Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British...

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