In the second of three parts, Hugh Graham examines the theme of atomization in Houellebecq’s novels, finding bad conscience in good intentions and fatal contradictions in the biometrics of happiness.
PART TWO: THE PRESENT AUGUSTAN AGE
A desert landscape flattened by positivism, by the belief that everything begins and ends in mechanics, forces and particles, can acquire meaning only with questions about eternity, the fall, entrapment and the individual’s perverse capacity to conceive of something better. But this is not the spirit of the age. The utilitarianism of the internet and of the market runs in everyone’s blood like a virus. “The reach of liberal capitalism has extended over minds,” writes Houellebecq; “in step and in hand with it are mercantilism, publicity, the absurd and sneering cult of economic efficiency, the exclusive and immoderate appetite for material riches… The value of a human being today is measured in terms of economic efficiency and erotic potential.”
Here, surely, is the kingdom of the Demiurge, a twilight world in which the sleep of bland acceptance discourages protest? That is why Houellebecq hates literary realism the way Baudelaire despised the 19th century idealization of nature; literary realism, like love of creation, takes our condition for granted, describing everything and questioning nothing as if it were all somehow good and suffering a consequence of occasional error. This is the triumph of Western culture, what passes today for ‘world culture’. As Houellebecq suggests in Platform: “For the west, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great created system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it”.
A discourse of hard science along with the media’s tidy packaging of ideas comprise what the esoteric tradition would recognize as cosmic entrapment; a dead end where, in Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, “the world is equal to the sum of the information we have about it” or, in Beckett’s Molloy, “a place devoid of mystery, deserted by magic”. Mundane Reason strengthens its grip as number, epitomized in the vogue for metrics in health, in dating profiles and indices for happiness and customer satisfaction. The immeasurable becomes quantifiable. Rating replaces discrimination. Technology and wealth, increasing hand in hand, outstrip ideas, causing a spectacular flowering of mediocrity as museums and art galleries are directed by CEOs and marketed like movies. The atomization of taste and discernment in the multiplicity of product choice provides a fake democracy in which anything can wear the mask of distinction simply by posing as an alternative. Here we have the idolatry not of knowledge but of information, facts rather than understanding, a carnival midway where everything from medical diagnostic manuals to best seller lists is dispensed with the breathlessness of the Learning Channel, even as many of those nodding off at their computers and plasma screens hope, vaguely, to find The Answer.
The desperate search for some sort of revelation in the last reaches of matter has stopped, perhaps in exhaustion, at the fad for biology, the handmaiden of metrics. If Houellebecq himself speaks the language of biology it is because he is attacking the very positivist materialism it supports. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with its biotechnological solutions to happiness, is, according to Houellebecq, being taken to heart, with or without its irony. Here, happiness is merely arithmetic: the stark remainder after suffering has been subtracted. Houellebecq quotes Lovecraft: “All rationalism tends to minimalize the allure and importance of life, and to decrease the sum total of human happiness.” This is the heir to Christian rationalism, in the words of Hannah Arendt: “the calculus of pleasure of the puritan moral bookkeeping of merits and transgressions to arrive at some illusory mathematical certainty of happiness or salvation”. The same rationalism that supports hard science leads Houellebecq’s characters to a dead end, while Nietzsche warns that it will ignore man’s need for the irregular and the perverse: “It is only all-too-naive people who can believe that the nature of man can be changed into a purely logical one; but if there were degrees of proximity to this goal, how many things would not have to be lost on this course!” In the inimitable words of Dostoevsky’s underground man: “All human actions, of course, will have to be worked out by those laws (of nature) mathematically, like a table of logarithms, and entered in the almanac; or better still, there will appear orthodox publications, something like our encyclopaedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and plotted that there will no longer be any individual deeds or adventures left in the world”.
The rationalizing thrall of the Demiurge has penetrated the body itself: the fitness craze that began in the 1970s and measures life in kilos shows no sign of ending. Even holistic sciences become ends in themselves, serving success or survival in an unquestioned world. Having occupied the body, the alien power of the Demiurge has breached the last bastion as it rationalizes the personality. Quirks, eccentricities, charm, individuality, vulnerability are medicalized as curable deficiencies. The relentless detection of pathology, the rage to nurture perfect babies and high-scoring children, the empty concept of the psychologically ‘whole’ person not to mention the ‘healthy, loving relationship’ run directly counter to what Gnostic ideas valued in the individual, in the rebel: her very distinction from the world in which she lived, that cosmic defiance which Baudelaire understood as character.
It’s not just by means of reason but through illusion pure and simple, the Gnostics suggest, that the Demiurge hides from us the knowledge of the divine fire that makes us unique and our situation dramatic. Illusion renders the fallen world tolerable and dull. Indeed, it is has almost won the day: “Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition?” Nietzsche writes, “Gods too decompose”. In proliferating best sellers and documentaries, the corpse of God reeks in the words ‘secret’, ‘mystery’, ‘lost’ and ‘unlocking’ – in which pop archaeology provides a counterfeit spirituality with easy answers. Postmodern and post colonial studies along with the lingering mania for deconstruction are almost as comforting. Much as the age of the city state and its divine mysteries decayed into the splintering nominalism of a hundred philosophies, the problem of existence is anaesthetized by a thousand national, cultural and gendered identities. Today, the Augustan wasteland remains occupied by Postmodernism which itself is a wilderness of solipsisms.
A consummate illusionist, the Demiurge masks the emptiness with euphemisms and buzz-words. The term ‘community,’ in the sense of residential proximity and close acquaintance, is nearly obsolete. Now it’s any agglomeration of people, whatever the purpose – the ‘policing community’, the ‘dot com community’. The colder and more impersonal the world, the greater the illusion of intimacy. The same forced sense of closeness has arrived with the death of rhetoric and speech and their replacement by the casual ‘living room’ friendliness of all forms of public address, a tone that assumes, somehow, that we are all neighbours, as reasonable and nice as the news anchor. Yet another palliative is the masochistic self-consciousness that soothes moral inadequacy. Self-satire and knowing references litter the art world, not to mention television. Innocent spontaneity, awe and grandeur are killed by irony. This is the groping, navel-gazing civilization that is supposed to give backbone to human rights. Here, surely, is the feeble residue of Christianity, what Nietzsche called bad conscience. It is Nietzsche who tells us, in Beyond Good and Evil that in a nobler time, actions were judged by their consequences and it was a sign of inward-looking decadence when they came to be judged by their intentions. Here we have Afghanistan, indeed the penultimate graveyard of those same good intentions.
Awareness of the pneuma, the shock of Gnosis, is best avoided through narcissism; that is, to look the other way and see one’s ego as an embodiment of the social ideal and conversely, the social ideal as an embodiment of one’s ego, whose watchwords remain autonomy, transience, convenience. In contrast, Houellebecq’s conception of sexual love suggests pneuma as union with the divine fire: abandon, dependency, selflessness. But tragically, “we have become cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights; more than anything we want to avoid alienation and dependence.” The narcotic of self-absorption has many faces. Therapy as an end in itself is one. Work as careerism, where salary and position trump conviction or genuine interest is another, blinding one to the pneuma not so much as ego but as uniqueness. As Nietzsche puts it: “Behind the glorification of ‘work’ and the tireless talk of the ‘blessings of work’ I find the same thought behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual”.
One of the Demiurge’s most effective weapons against a proper sense of self is the false collectivity of ideology. Houellebecq, though vulgarly called “right wing” has infuriated both the right and the left precisely because he recognizes that the political cosmos is itself left and right; his repudiation of multiculturalism along with movements of personal liberation, indeed his political incorrectness, are deemed ‘right’ while his compassion for women, children and the elderly, like his anti-capitalism, are deemed ‘left’. Left and right, of course are dying ideologies and they leave in their wake a no man’s land, where the last piety is lukewarm belief in a democracy still run by elites. And yet this narcotic may itself be the biggest obstacle not just to the taming and rebuilding of failed states but to a coordinated attempt to deal with the deterioration of the planet. In the end, the exiled individual looks up and asks, who is responsible? It might appear to be the United States or perhaps the West. And yet, with the creep of a global culture, it becomes impossible to attribute authority or responsibility. This is the Demiurge’s finest trick of all. It’s what is meant by the term ‘Alien Power’.