Michel Houellebecq in Berlin

houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq

logo_caesar_35pxThe important thing about Michel Houellebecq is his part in liberating French intellectuals from the New Terror of the socialist media and, since 2012, the governing Parti socialiste: that is, those intellectuals who wished to be freed. What they can practically do with their new freedom remains to be seen, as demographic change in Europe continues to bulldoze nice philosophical categories, precisely as outlined in Houellebecq’s novel, Submission.

Houellebecq was recently in Berlin to receive a literary prize. His acceptance speech was delivered in French, but The Europeans, having been unable to locate a transcript, has provided here a translation from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung‘s German version. In other words, the text — an abridged version of the speech — has been laundered twice: with what result, the reader will judge. We learn most, of course, when authors speak for themselves, outside of their writerly personæ, and that is why the present labour has been undertaken.

Submission was, and is, important because it was not to much launched, as detonated. It still reverberates throughout French intellectual and media circles, with little fumaroles of outrage appearing here and there in the landscape. What fun it must have been, to crack so many heads.


Europe Is Contemplating Suicide

The French writer Michel Houellebecq is in Berlin to receive the Frank Schirrmacher Prize. In his acceptance speech, he diagnoses Western fatigue and foresees Europe’s ruin. He has, says Houellebecq, given French intellectuals a sense of relief with his transgression of boundaries. Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Submission, appeared in January 2015, on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In it, he describes the slow takeover of power in France by moderate Islam.

Michel Houellebecq: It was always customary in France — as I should expect in almost all countries — never to speak ill of the recently deceased. I still remember how this dam broke in 2005, when Guillaume Dustan died. The hatred that was visited on him by militant members of “Act Up” (a group of AIDS-activists) didn’t end with his death, and certain people didn’t hesitate just one day after his demise to attack him in the press. The same phenomenon repeated itself this year with Maurice Dantec. And in my case, I can confidently predict that still worse is on its way.

There are many French journalists who will be delighted by the news of my death. For my own part, I do not give up hope that while I live, I may contribute to the collapse of certain newspapers. That is becoming very difficult, because in France, newspapers are supported by the state — to my mind, by the way, one of the least justifiable, actually most scandalous public subventions of that country. It’s no surprise to me that newspapers there have lost so many readers over the last few years. All the leftist media — that is, almost all of the French media — find themselves in a difficult position. They’re short of readers. Broadly speaking, the Left in France has the look of death about it; a decline that has accelerated since François Hollande took office. For this reason more than any, the Left has become ever more aggressive and malicious. It’s similar to the classic case of the cornered animal that feels the lick of death and becomes dangerous.

I think it’s useful, in this place, to state more precisely what it is that my existence and the success of my books bring into danger, so much so that people really wish for my death. Very often the term used to cover this is “political correctness”, but instead of that I would like to introduce a somewhat different concept, which I should like to call “the new progressivism”.

The “new progressivism” found its perfect and complete expression in a publication of 2002 — a slim volume of little more than seventy pages by Daniel Lindenberg, with the title “Call for Silence” [Aufruf zur Ordnung], and the subtitle “Investigation into The New Reactionaries” [Untersuchung über die neuen Reaktionäre]. I was one of the principal defendants, one of the most prominent in the ranks of the New Reactionaries. In those days, the subtitle  had a somewhat bizarre effect on me. It gave the impression that the author meant that it was the new reactionaries who were guilty of calling for silence. Actually, being one of them, the calling for silence should rather have been: “Attention, you have forgotten to attack the Left, but there’s still time to correct that.”

The New Reactionaries

At the beginning of 2016, a reprint of the little book appeared. On the cover was now added in red, “The Forecast”; and there is an unpublished afterword of the author’s, from which I’ll read an extract to show you the extent of his self-satisfaction. “In 2002, an unimaginable furore attended the appearance of what some contemptuously dismissed as a pamphlet. Since then, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. The propositions that I then put forward, to general scepticism, are today regarded as seminal. Those who dismissed me as an inquisitor or a fantasist are now the first to pop the champagne corks to celebrate their victory in the war of ideas.”

Lindenberg is right when he says that his book was badly received in 2002. He was accused of having muddled everything up, and under the label of “New Reactionaries” of having thrown together people whose opinions had little in common. There, paradoxically, I must defend him. It’s true that he subsumes people whose ideas have nothing to do with it. But when the new reactionaries differ from each other, literally have nothing in common, this is because their opponents, the new progressivists, are a more and more narrowly defined, extremely small and extremely discriminatory circle.

“The most curious thing is that the New Reactionaries are not regarded as fully intellectuals.”

For the first time it’s possible for example, according to Lindeberg’s book, to be reactionary not because you’re of the Right, but too far to the Left. A communist, or anyone, who opposes the laws of the market economy as the final goal, is a reactionary. A supporter of national sovereignty, or anyone, who is strictly against the incorporation of his country into a federal European space, is a reactionary. Anyone who defends the use of the French language in France, or any of the other national languages in their respective countries, and opposes the universal use of English, is a reactionary. Anyone who mistrusts parliamentary democracy and the party system, anyone who conceives of this system other than as the ultima ratio of political organisation, anyone who would like to see the people now and then given a say, is a reactionary. Anyone who has little use for the internet and smartphones, is a reactionary. Anyone who has little taste for the pleasures of the masses, such as organised tourism, is a reactionary. All considered, the new concept of progressivism, as Lindenberg develops it, is not in the nature of an innovation that can be put to good use, but the characteristic of the innovator himself. The progressivist’s belief, as Lindenberg puts it, is that we live in the best of all epochs, and that its innovations surpass those of all previous epochs. The most curious thing about Lindenberg’s writing is that the chief defendants, the most often and extensively quoted “New Reactionaries”, are not regarded as fully intellectuals. This is about Maurice Dantec, Philippe Muray, and me.

I have the impression that neither Maurice Dantec nor Philippe Muray is well known in the German-speaking countries. I regret that, but will nevertheless speak about them because they are an excellent choice of Lindenberg’s. The ideas of Muray and Dantec deserve to be spread around far more than those of most intellectuals, and also more than mine. That is not modesty; I know what I’m worth as an author, I’ve never been shy and I have no use for modesty. The truth is rather that I see it as intellectually facile.

To begin with: who in France would be described as an intellectual? Sociologically speaking, it’s quite a precise question. It’s someone who has studied hard, preferably at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but at least at a university, in the Faculty of Literature or the Humanities. It’s someone who from time to time publishes essays. Who occupies a position on a sufficiently important journal dedicated to intellectual debate. And whose name regularly appears in opinion-pieces on intellectual debates, or in the corresponding columns of the daily newspapers.

Neither Dantec nor Muray, or I, fulfils even one of these criteria. We were formerly to be described as writers, which is one of several sociological categories. In reality, there is precious little connection between intellectuals and writers. Before the appearance of Lindenberg’s book, I knew none of the quoted intellectuals personally, I had never had the opportunity to meet them. On the other hand, I knew Muray and Dantec very well. I will attempt to put together what these three writers — who are regarded as the most important inspiration of the “Neoreactionary Movement”, supposedly the centre of French intellectual life today — actually thought, and what they imagined for the future. At times, I’ll appear as a sort of prophet, although it’s obvious to me that my prophetic faculties are far less trained than those of my two comrades. This illusion arises because there are sometimes strange coincidences between the appearance of my books and other, far more dramatic events.

It’s true, ‘Submission’ [Soumission] appeared in France on the day of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Less known, is that I had given an interview to the New York Times on Platforme — an interview in which, by the way, the journalist found that I probably exaggerated the islamist danger. Now, this interview appeared in the New York Times edition of 11th September, 2001. In short, it seems that God (or Fate or some other cruel deity) was pleased to use my books to contrive tragic coincidences.

“Here you rediscover that natural French aptitude for collaboration.”

But when you look at the bigger picture, what exactly had I prophesied? First of all — and this applies to several of my books — the emergence of transhumanism. This is taking place right now, albeit slowly; but it is indeed possible that this movement will gain momentum. Then, in Submission, the seizing of power by a moderate Islam, to which decadent Europe, whose values basically no longer suited it, would submit.

At the moment in Europe, we can’t say how moderate Islam is playing out. That being the case, I could be taken for a prophet of doom. But there are already these little signs that are slowly becoming noticeable. First of all — and just as in my book — there is the pliable backbone of European universities, in particular the French, the ease with which they make indiscriminate concessions as soon as big money from the Gulf monarchies comes into play. Here you rediscover that natural French aptitude for collaboration.

Then there is the tendency of young women in many suburbs to refrain from dressing in a  sexy or provocative manner, in order to be left in peace. The fact is, and this occurred to me again recently, that young women are much less attractively dressed now than in my day. Whether that’s a bad thing or not is, by the way, an ambivalent question for me. It seems to me that you could draw radically opposing conclusions from my books, with equal plausibility. In short, you could say that I’m a prophet in half the sense of the word, a prophet whose predictions are realised only very slowly. But now to Maurice Dantec. What did he predict?

“You could say that I’m a prophet in half the sense of the word, one whose predictions are realised only very slowly.”

First of all, like me, the emergence of transhumanism. At this point, we find ourselves in agreement, except that for me the genetic aspect is paramount, for him the mental hybridisation of man and machine. As we say, we complement each other. And there we come to the same verdict: it’s beginning to happen, gradually.

The Rise of Jihadism

Then — and here his prophesying is really brilliant, because he saw it coming before anyone else: the rise of jihadism. The reappearance of an aggressive and violent Islam, driven on by plans for world domination, of an Islam that carries out attacks and imposes civil war on the whole world. What had put Dantec in a position to develop this incredible intuition? Without question, it was that during the Balkan war he went to Bosnia — to Bosnia, one of the first countries in which international jihadism trained its people. That was it: Maurice Dantec travelled to Bosnia, and he understood what had just happened there. He was the only one.

But the most fascinating thing is, the position that Maurice Dantec took up as a result. The stance of our governments, especially the French, roughly sketched, was this: “We’re going to win, because our values are the strongest: the separation of Church and State, democracy, liberalism, human rights, etc. ” And on top of that (but not mentioned), we’re better armed.

Dantec said something quite different. And here, curiously, I must set him beside Philippe Muray. Their writings could be very different, but here they meet and reinforce each other. There is a little known text of Philippe Muray’s, which was published under the title of “Dear Jihadists” in 2002, and which is soaked in the darkest irony. Let me read an excerpt from it for you: “Dear Jihadists! Quake before the wrath of the man in Bermuda shorts! Fear the rage of consumers, of travellers, of tourists, of holiday-makers, who rise from their caravans! Imagine yourselves like us, as we wallow in the joy and luxury that have weakened us.” At other points, he chuckles at Salman Rushdie’s quip about the islamists, “…they want to take all the good things of life from us: ham sandwiches, miniskirts…

“Dear Jihadists! Quake before the wrath of the man in Bermuda shorts! Fear the rage of consumers, of travellers…”

Further on, he describes Le Monde as the “Daily Genuflexion” (révérence instead of référence) or as the “Daily Deference”. I believe that these examples will help acquaint you with Philippe Muray’s style. I should, incidentally, recommend you to read his œuvre, in almost all of which there is value.

Maurice Dantec defines himself as a “devout warrior of Zionism”. He calls on us in the West to become again the Crucified, in the jihadists’ mistaken formula. Only a spiritual power like Christianity or Judaism was, in his opinion, capable of fighting another spiritual power, such as Islam.

At this point, I’m tempted to take a step back because I’m reading at the moment Lamartine’s “History of the Girondins”, which is really a history of the French Revolution. Above all else, it amazes one to find in this book the faith that animated the French revolutionaries; a faith that let them carry out absurd acts of heroism, and allowed them to defeat militarily a united Europe, while in the country itself, several civil wars broke out. Do we today, we other liberal democrats at the beginning of the 21st century, have the same republican spirit? To ask the question is already to have answered it.

But the monstrous cruelty of the French revolutionaries is also astonishing. One can well understand how Joseph de Maistre could see the French Revolution as a completely satanic event. On all sides, Lamartine saw severed heads impaled on lances being carried around. And all these disgusting stories, without cease: the most famous being that of the princess of Lamballe, whose lifeless body was dissected by a rabble-rouser […].

The atrocities of the Revolution

There are the severed heads, falling like nine-pins; the children who had to dig their parents’ graves. Repeated scenes in which the executioner’s assistant retrieves a head fallen from the guillotine, only to box its ears to the clamour of the crowd’s accusations. Next to the French revolutionaries, the gentlemen of the Islamic State appear almost civilised.

At this point, I entertain a doubt that I should like to share with you; a Pascalian, sinister doubt that paradoxically might reveal a glimmer of hope. The conventional idea is, admittedly, that human nature can be capable of both heroism and atrocity because it is animated by belief: mostly religious, occasionally revolutionary. The Pascalian doubt means that from time to time men, drunken with power, are moved to cruelty and to unleash bloodbaths, then turn to some arbitrary belief — frequently religious — as an excuse with which to justify their deeds. In this way, cruelty and bloodbath propagate and exhaust the country. Then, at a stroke, it all stops. Why did the French Revolution come to an end? Why did the revolutionaries, at a stroke, tire of these blood-orgies? We have no idea. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, they just stopped doing it and the bloodlust disappeared. And perhaps it’s just that, for no real reason, in a shambolic way, and without fanfare, the Islamic State will also come to an end. Philippe Muray says very little about this cruel, violent world of machismo. He died too early to witness properly its reappearance. What he did narrate for us was the exhaustion of a softened and anxious Western world; and in that, astonishingly, his predictions have been accurately borne out.

But before I talk about Philippe Muray, I would like to read for you a famous piece by Tocqueville, just for the sheer pleasure of it, because it is always a pleasure to see so much intelligence allied with such stylistic elegance.

I want to imagine to myself in what new guises could despotism arise in the world: I catch sight of a crowd of equals, in constant restless motion, seeking small and ordinary pleasures with which to satisfy their minds.

Each stands isolated from the fate of all strangers: his children and his personal friends embody for him the whole of humankind. The occasional fellow citizens are none of his business, he stands next to them but he doesn’t see them; he touches them and feels nothing; he is only in himself and available to himself alone; and if he still has a family, then at least you could say that he has a Fatherland in that.

“A huge, imposing power arises from this; one that worries only about securing its comforts and guarding its fate. It is sovereign, and peers into everything; it’s regular, provident, and mild. It would be the image of fatherly concern if it pursued the goal of preparing people for ripe old age; but instead of that, it seeks merely to keep them irrevocably in a state of childhood; citizens are entitled to their pleasures, provided that they have nothing else in mind than their own amusement. It’s happy to work for the welfare of others: for whom, however, it insists on being the exclusive patron and sole judge; it looks to its security, gauges and secures its needs, facilitates its pleasures; it conducts its most important affairs, directs its industry, plans its succession, shares its estate; could it not also wholly remove the care of thought and the effort of living?”

“Whereas Tocqueville’s individual still has friends and a family, I no longer have either.”

That was published in 1840, in the second part of Tocqueville’s masterwork, On American Democracy. That is staggering. The ideas touched on in this passage contain practically the whole of my written work. I have only one thing to add, and that is that whereas Tocqueville’s individual still has friends and a family, I no longer have either. The process of isolation is concluded.

What these ideas touch on contains practically all of Philippe Muray’s writings also. Philippe had nothing to add but clarification: that this power is no patriarchal power, but in reality is nothing other than maternal. Along with the new epoch announced by Philippe Muray, comes quite simply the return of the Matriarchate in novel form: the State. Citizens are kept in a state of permanent childhood, and the number one enemy that our Western society tries to destroy is the manly age, in fact manliness itself.

In this sense, the development of French society since Philippe Muray’s death, and particularly since the return to power of the Parti socialiste, has confirmed his prophecies in breathtaking measure, and with a tremendous speed that would, I believe, have astonished him. The fact that France, after Sweden, could become the second country in the world to penalise the clients of prostitutes: that, I think, even Philippe Muray would have had difficulty believing. He would have recoiled horrified at the thought. Not so soon. Not so fast. Not in France.

Abolishing prostitution means kicking away one of the pillars of the social order. It means making marriage impossible. Prostitution serves as a corrective to marriage, and without it, marriage will go under — along with the family and the whole of society. Abolishing prostitution: for European societies, that’s just suicide. […]

So yes, for this oldest of late mediæval institutions, that of Salafist Islam redux, we can predict a great future. Therefore, yes, I stand by my prophecy, even when current events appear to falsify them. Jihadism will come to an end, because human nature becomes weary of atrocities and victims. But the forward rush of Islam has only just begun, because demography is on its side; and Europe, which has given up having children, has committed itself to suicidal decline. And it’s not really a slow suicide. Once you arrive at a birthrate of 1.3 or 1.4, then in reality the thing goes quickly.

Under these circumstances, the various debates led by French intellectuals on the separation of Church and State, Islam etc., are of absolutely no interest, because they take no account of the single most relevant factor: the state of couples and of the family. And so it cannot come as a surprise that during the course of the last twenty years, the only people to have led an interesting and meaningful discussion on the state of society, were not the career intellectuals, but people who took an interest in real life: namely, the writers.

“The only people to have led an interesting and meaningful discussion on the state of society, were not the career intellectuals, but people who took an interest in real life: namely, the writers.”

I had the great fortune to know Philippe Muray and Maurice Dantec personally, and so to have had direct access to their thinking at the time of its highest development. Today they are dead, and I have nothing more to say. That doesn’t mean that I’m finished. Ideas are not essential in a novel, still less in a poem. And to take the case of a brilliant novelist for whom ideas play a leading role, you still cannot say that The Brothers Karamazov in comparison to Demons, carries more ideas. You could say, with only a little exaggeration, that all of Dostoyevsky’s ideas were already contained in Crime and Punishment.

Nevertheless, most critics agree that The Brothers Karamazov represents the pinnacle of Dostoyevsky’s œuvre. Personally, I must confess that I have a certain weakness for Demons, but perhaps I’m wrong, and also that’s another debate.

In any case, it can be asserted that at my age it is hardly likely that fundamentally new ideas will find expression in my future works. And so I find myself in a strange situation here before you, in that my only truthful interlocutors have died. There are still in France gifted writers; there are still in France estimable intellectuals, but it’s not what it was with Muray or Dantec. Today, it interests me what other people are writing, but it doesn’t really fascinate me.

Free men

It occurs to me to ask myself why I’m still alive. Is that a question confined to the literary consciousness? Yes, of course that’s part of it, but at bottom it’s not essential. Muray and Dantec possessed great literary gifts, a rare talent, but what is still rarer is that they wrote without ever considering the proprieties or the consequences. They didn’t give a damn whether this or that newspaper turned them away; if necessary, they were prepared to see themselves standing completely alone. They wrote simply — and solely for their readers, without ever thinking about the limitations and anxieties that affiliation to a social milieu might involve. In other words, they were free men.

And their freedom was liberating. Thanks to them, French intellectuals are today in a new position, so new that they still have not quite taken the measure of it: they are free. They’re free because they have been freed from the straight-jacket of the Left. And they are again free because they suffer no more — or certainly suffer less from the sort of fascination and holy magic that was practised on their predecessors through the alleged great thinkers of the foregoing centuries. In other words, the holy cows are dead. The first to vanish from this seemingly inescapable thought-horizon, was Marx. Some time later, Freud was to follow him into the grave. That is still absolutely not the case with Nietzsche, but I’m hopeful that this will happen in the not too distant future. (As to Nietzsche, I must be honest on this point and emphasise that I was not in agreement with my comrades, who right to the end paid great respect to Nietzsche. That is far from the case with me.)

One cannot say, and I insist on it, that the French intellectuals “had freed themselves”. The truth is, we were the ones who freed them, we have broken with what hemmed them in; and I am quite proud, by the side of Philippe Muray and Maurice Dantec, to have played my part in that. In my view, none of us three is after being what one would call a great thinker: we were perhaps too much the artists for that, but we have set thought free. Now it’s for the intellectuals to set themselves thinking, and if they can bring out a new thought, then good luck to them. ◼︎

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