Hugh Graham concludes his exploration of Houellebecq’s dessicated terrain with the Stoic imperative to “bear up and do without”.
PART THREE: THE INDIVIDUAL
Every revival of philosophy begins with the individual. Today the individual, lulled by pop wisdom and popular culture, has little awareness of what it means to be one’s self outside of cultural identity and politics; even less of what it means to be a single individual faced with a deteriorating planet. Stoicism, precisely a code of individual conduct in the world, and as part of the world, grew in the wreckage of the city state. Self understanding, then as now, begins in solitude. The Hermetic cult that brought Platonism to Egypt emphasized the individual over society. Hermeticism in turn influenced the solitary, Gnostic followers of the Gospel of Thomas, those who could support neither the nationalist message of the Jewish Christians or the international ideology of Paul. Indeed, their lonely insight of the presence of Heaven inside man gave them invisible strength.
In Gnostic terms, every person is odd, eccentric. People are reluctant to be themselves, says Nietzsche, because they are cowardly or lazy. “Liken yourselves to foreigners,” urges the Gospel of Thomas. Identity and difference are not to be found in race, culture or religion, but in the single personality with its traumas, extravagances, defects and obsessions, the very things the right-thinking, therapeutic modern world would purge. Meanwhile, it is the injunction to freedom that is paramount: Dostoevsky’s underground man asks, “Advantage, what is advantage?” and reserves the right to desire what is bad for himself while the Gospel of Philip stresses the urgency: “Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error; they must receive the resurrection while they live”.
In the Gnostic tradition, there are two ways of being free, of defying the Demiurge. One is the internal, ascetic way, through renunciation, the utopia lamented by Houellebecq in The Possibility of an Island: “The disappearance of social life was the way forward, teaches the Supreme Sister. It is no less the case that the disappearance of all physical contact between neo-humans has been able to have […] the character of an asceticism”. The other way is external, that of the libertine, a conscious indulgence of evil, the honest “evil aware of itself” celebrated by Baudelaire in The Irremediable. This is the very principle upon which Nietzsche turns against Wagner: “being honest in evil is still better than losing oneself to the morality of tradition, that a free human being can be good as well as evil, but that the unfree human being is still a blemish upon nature”. At almost the same historical moment, Dostoevsky’s underground man declares a desire “not only to do but to feel ugly things, such that […] Well, in short, actions that all, perhaps, commit; but which, as though purposely, occurred to me at the very time I was most conscious that they ought not to be committed. The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was ‘good and beautiful’, the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more readily I was to sink in it altogether”.
Gnostic thought holds that the real danger is not so much evil as unconsciousness, indifference to good and evil themselves, in short, nihilism – what Baudelaire calls Ennui. Nihilism and ennui are the condition of the morally unconscious world in which the pneuma is extinguished, the deity lost and gone forever. For Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Houellebecq the indifference is technological, positivist and materialist, the Demiurge triumphant. Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles discloses the dead world contemplated by a psychopath: “David quickly realized that the most advanced Satanists didn’t believe in Satan at all. Like him, they were pure materialists”. In Platform, a practicing sadist blandly professes, “I don’t believe we have a ‘dark side’ because I don’t believe in any form of damnation, or in benediction for that matter”. The transhumanist paradise of The Possibility of an Island is similarly devoid of emotion. As Baudelaire knows, it’s through entropy that the Demiurge conquers: “Thus does he lead me, far from the sight of God / Broken and gasping, out into the broad / And wasted plains of Ennui, deep and still”. For Houellebecq, however, both the radical ascetic and radical libertine ways lead, in the end, to insensibility, while man, a creature of love and emotion, is bereft and abandoned.
Demanding acute, deliberate consciousness and bearing the message of divinity trapped in an animal nature, the underground stream of Gnosticism winds through history surfacing briefly in Pascal’s realization that science has given this half-divine being a godless universe: “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which knew me not, I am frightened”, Baudelaire later observing that “Pascal had his gulf, moving where he moved. / Alas! All is abyss – all action, dream / Desire, speech! And many a time I feel / My hair stand up, brushed by the wind of Fear”. The stream emerges finally, during the century after Baudelaire, in secular form – with Existentialism, the modern philosophy of individual existence. It is the same world in which, for Beckett’s Malone, “Words and images run riot in my head, pursuing, flying, clashing, merging endlessly. But beyond this tumult there is a great calm, and a great indifference”. As Hans Jonas states in The Gnostic Religion, meaning and value, no longer innate, are voluntarily imposed: “Will replaces vision”. This is the blind, heedless will which, for Schopenhauer, informs the universe, the dangerous moral wilderness which Nietzsche declared to be Nihilism. In Gnostic Philosophy, Tobias Churton describes the contemporary world, in Gnostic terms, very much a fallen world: “The widespread grasping for sources of immediate gratification; the despair of daily satisfaction; and rush toward either personal oblivion or fundamentalist redemptive figures”. It’s the very no-man’s land at the extremes of which Houellebecq’s heroes search for happiness. There is, essentially, no consensus, no authority.
In the age of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, the rudderless liberal rationalism of the Enlightenment resembles a dead shell; everything must start again with man’s isolation in the universe. Nature is no longer Descartes’ res extensa, an extension of man’s own body for his own use. Rather, by dominating it, he has separated himself from it, and today it is in his separation from the natural world that he finds his capacity to destroy it or save it. Faced with a deteriorating planet, the individual recognizes that she is incomplete, not yet made for the new situation. It is this very open-endedness that is celebrated by Nietzsche and Baudelaire. By contrast, Houellbecq quotes the Elohim on their closed, transhumanist utopia: “Closing the brackets on becoming, we are from now on in unlimited, indefinite stasis”.
As long as one is defined, there is no gnosis. The gnosis that lies at the heart of Existentialism and its predecessor, Gnosticism is freedom in knowledge, more specifically realization. The realization is always an image of man: in Gnosticism the appearance of the Anthropos in the pneuma, the sharp and urgent sense that the individual, as a manifestation of the Anthropos, wields a solitary freedom not-of-this-world. For Nietzsche it is the awaited ”new man”, the Übermensch, a “half saint, half genius” whose misrepresentation as a tyrannical Nordic superman he himself predicted. For Baudelaire it is the individual living in a residual divinity, poised between heaven and hell. In the works of Beckett it is, especially in his climactic novel, The Unnameable, the introverted realization that the individual is the cosmos that oppresses him. Here is responsibility, utter and final.
Houellebecq’s particular gnosis, described in Platform, is the fleeting existence of “one of those radiant creatures who are capable of devoting their lives to someone else’s happiness, or making that alone, their goal”. Mortal as she is exceptional, it is the protagonist’s partner, Valerie, later murdered by religious fanatics. The ideal of present society, however, is not as heavenly; in The Possibility of an Island the elimination of suffering entails the elimination of sex; hence, the logical conclusion of man in a technological, materialist civilization is the immortal, denatured being that knows neither joy nor suffering.
The gnosis of man on a dying planet lies in the Gnostic insight that man is exceptional, divine, a creature of love. The world into which he has been thrown from another realm, is a world with which he must find a way to live. His very half-divine alienness to the natural world means, more than ever, that he must live in symbiosis with it. In other words, the paradox of freedom in submission. This is what was so well understood by the old ideals of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Since both were philosophies of pleasure and pain, both were about universal laws of limit and that is why Stoicism especially, as a direct ancestor of Gnosticism and Existentialism, may be the only philosophy for today: precisely because it is the concept of a free being in an unfree world.
The central concept of Stoicism is Virtue, the knowledge of how to live. Stoicism begins with the fact that the world is one, that it is living and that it is intelligent. It maintains its intelligence through Reason, a system of limits. The limits are enforced by a universal principle or law, the logos. The pneuma, or divine breath, that runs throughout nature, is concentrated logos. For the Stoic it’s a share of divinity, for the Gnostic, fire from the absent God. In Stoicism, the end of every living thing is its own survival. Since that also means the survival of the world in which it lives, it must limit exploitation of that world and strive for self-sufficiency or autarchia. Autarchia as self-sufficiency, is life lived in harmony with nature. Here is the core of Stoicism’s message for the present world: sustine et absine: “bear up and do without”.
The freedom and clarity gained by dependence on less was lived as a talent among the ancients. But it is lost to us, as Nietzsche knew all too well:
Are you accomplices in the present madness of nations which desire above all to produce as much as possible, and to be as rich as possible? […] But where is your internal value when you no longer know what it is to breathe freely; when you have scarcely any command over your own selves […] when you look enviously at your wealthy neighbour, made covetous by the rapid rise and fall of power, money and opinions; when you no longer believe in philosophy in rags, or in the freedom of spirit of a man who as few needs; when a voluntary and idyllic poverty without profession or marriage, such as should suit the more intellectual one among you, had become for you, an object of derision?
The truest philosophies remain the oldest; as Nietzsche says, “For the courageous and the creative, pleasure and pain are never ultimate values – they are epiphenomena”. Health, wealth and the communal good are natural pursuits, say the Stoics, but not ends in themselves. The ultimate value is the existence of the entire entity. This is the symbiosis of pleasure with a modicum of pain, the realistic sort of human happiness that Houellebecq seems to imply.
In the face of a wasting planet, stoic freedom is contingent: like fate, “it draws the willing, drags the reluctant”. A universe from which god has receded leaves man, in the words of Jonas, “characterized solely by will and power – the will for power, the will to will”. Will is the way, not only to Stoic virtue but also to a planetary equilibrium in which each individual, acting as the whole, accepts a degree of self-imposed sacrifice, without coercion. As Nietzsche warns: “if our honesty should grow weary one day and sigh and stretch its limbs and find us too hard, and would like to have things better, easier, tenderer, like an agreeable vice – let us remain hard we last Stoics! And let us dispatch to her assistance whatever we have in us of devilry: our disgust with what is clumsy and approximate […] our adventurous courage”.
If the words have an aristocratic ring, it’s because they invoke a code of ethics and honour maintained among free individuals without coercion; there is no other way to a world of reduced consumption. In all societies, aristocrats were the first who could afford to develop and toughen their individuality, their stamina, their resistance; for Nietzsche “their predominance did not lie mainly in physical strength but in strength of the soul – they were more whole human beings”, as were the aristocratic Greek philosophers and Stoics and the aristocratic Buddha. The model, of course, is not the familiar decadent aristocrat of the modern age (which happens also to be the model for the bourgeoisie); it is rather, ancient aristocracy at the height of its integrity. This aristocrat is the prototype of what George Woodcock calls the “anarchist’s cult of the natural, the spontaneous, the individual (set) against the whole highly organized structure of modern industrial and statist society”. As Woodcock argues, “In reality, the idea of anarchism, far from being democracy carried to its logical end, is much nearer to aristocracy universalized and purified. The spiral of history here has turned full circle, and where aristocracy […] called for the freedom of noble men, anarchism has always called for the nobility of free men”. In the valuable formulation of Ortega y Gasset, nobility is not a class but the capacity for struggle; precisely what distinguishes the noble man from mass man.
This, then, is the Gnostic injunction: that every individual be an aristocrat. “Ye higher men, away from the marketplace”, counsels Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. The ultimate expression of the aristocratic ethic, faced with a wasting natural world, is stoic renunciation, not in obedience, but in freedom. For the individual aware of her pneuma, her divinity – money, conformity, and the crowd form the cosmos of the Demiurge, the bane of Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche; the inauthentic world reviled by the existentialists. An heir to all of them is Houellebecq and it‘s no coincidence that his last novel reaches its conclusion on the surface of a desiccated planet. That there are people who still think in the Gnostic line of descent, there at least is a possible beginning.