Michel Houellebecq’s satirical depictions of modern biological personhood and mental health

‘Houellebecq does not just portray depression, he makes the reader experience what it feels like’, writes Henri Astier in the Times Literally Supplement about Serotine, the latest book of the French author.[1] Indeed, as Astier comments, all books of Houellebecq are ‘arguably depictions of depressions’, often caused by social-cultural processes as rising individualisation and often, depending on the interpretation of irony, worsened or solved, by biotechnological interventions. Thus, in his 1998 work ‘Elementary Particles’ the story revolves around the history of two depressed brothers who both witness and experience at first hand the effects of the process of individualization and secularization in Western societies since the 1960’s. At the same time, one of the brothers, Michél, is a successful biochemist who in the later stages of the book uses genetical engineering to create a new, ‘perfect’, human as a solution to individualism. Similarly, his 2005 work ‘the possibility of an island’ centres around three male and arguably depressed characters; Daniel1 and Daniel24 and 25, two of his clones. Whereas human cloning – the biotechnological intervention in this book – is portrait to have ‘abolished desire, natural human production and suffering’, it becomes quite clear throughout the novel that the latter certainly has not disappeared.[2] As Jos de Mul has argued this ‘tragic humanism’ of Houellebecq novels make clear that it is ‘precisely in (post)modern (bio)technologies that we experience the rebirth of the tragic’.[3] Although the tragic has since antiquity been a way to satirically criticize society, in the case of Houellebecq it remains vague what part is actually a satirical critique and what is not.

            At first sight Serotine seems to be a clear satirical critique of the current societal obsession with biochemical interventions as solutions for deeper social-cultural problems.[4] This obsessive trend is usually described by historians and social scientists as the result of a new, often typed as neoliberal, conception of the human individual as one that can be explained primarily by its ‘nature’; be it chemical reactions in the brain or in the DNA. Social scientist Nickolas Rose (2003) typed this conception of human beings as our ‘neurochemical selves’, and other scholars have similarly worded it as the ‘cerebral subject’ (Ehrenberg, 2004), the ‘homo cerebralis’ (Hagner, 2008) and ‘Brainhood’ (Vidal, 2010).[5] Mental illnesses as depression and PTSD as a consequence of this conception became seen as solely caused by ‘imbalances in the brain’, and solutions are, accordingly as well, believed to be exclusively found in ‘rebalancing the chemicals’ of the brain.

Thus when Labrouste, the main character in Serotine, goes to find a cure for his depression the doctor does not ‘enquire into the circumstances of his life’ and simply subscribes him Captorix, a fictional anti-depressant.[6] As the doctor explains to Labrouste, it is only ‘important to maintain the serotonin at the correct level’ and then ‘you’ll be all right’. Obviously, as the book further highlights, he will not become ‘all right’; Labrouste’s libido drops, he is constantly regretful of decisions made in the past, he becomes even more excluded from society and alone; making him all but happy or satisfied with life. According to Madsen and Brinkmann Houellebecq’s  book Whatever (Extension du domaine de la lutte, 1994) in a similar way offers a clear critique on psychologization and individualization of mental health problems.[7] When the main character in Whatever for instance receives therapeutic treatment by a psychiatrist and psychologist he is ‘forced to accepts that his problems are psychological, and can be [only] stated in psychological terms’.[8]  As the psychologist explains to the main character: ‘in speaking of society all the time you create a barrier behind which you can hide; it‘s up to me to break down this barrier so that we can work on your personal problems’. As Madsen and Brinkmann note the ‘the narrator of the novel tries to resist such psychologisation’ and, arguably ‘in line with the author’, does prefer a ‘sociological or cultural anthropological perspective on his problems’.[9] As Madsen and Brinkmann summarize:

‘Human problems, such as depression, arise, according to Houellebecq, not from individual psychodynamics as such, but from the wholly marketised consumer society, saturated as it is with demands for new, unique, and passionate experiences that few people can live up to. Ultimately, we learn from Houellebecq, living in this society leads to exhaustion, bitterness and hopelessness. In this kind of society, psychology is simply part of the entertainment industry, selling self-development to consumers who crave new experiences and evermore intense relationships, particularly concerning sex. In other words, psychology is presented as a symptom of society‘s problems, rather than as part of their solutions’.[10]

Although Whatever thus seems as a clear cynical critique on psychologisation of the individual his or her wider societal problems and Serotine appears a critique on what Fernando Vidal and Ortega call the ideology of ‘brainhood’, this might be too simple. As the Dutch translator, and close friend of Houellebeq, Martin de Haan noted in a recent blog, finding the ‘correct interpretation’ of the sometimes ‘double ironies’ of Houellebecq is as difficult as the interpreting a ‘pointing finger’. Do we ‘look to the finger as a cat does, or do we follow the imaginary line’?[11] Especially Serotine therefore might not be entirely the simple satirical sketches that many of its reviewers hold it to be.

After all it is good to remember, as Madsen and Brinkmann note,  that Houellebecq is a self-described Comtean who just as the 19th century French positivist on many occasions argued for the necessity of a radical reshaping and progressive transformation of human kind.[12] As Gouldthorp however rightly notes Houellebecq ‘diverges from Comte in one vital way’; where Comte believed that this could be achieved through ‘applied sociological science’, Houellebecq seems to be convinced that a ‘fundamental solution is impossible unless biological human nature is modified’.[13] Despite the fact that Serotine for instance satirically criticize the rise of antidepressants and thus appear similar as the scientific critiques of Vidal, Rose and others, the French author could simply imply that these antidepressants are mere bandages on a large open wound. A wound that needs more fundamental, biotechnological, changes to human kind in order to be fixed. In other words: Houellebecq might criticise the rise of easily prescribed anti-depressants, because he does not believe that these methods are able to fundamentally solve the problem.

What Houellebecq indeed seems to believe is that ‘salvation through science’ is possible and as De Mul highlights, this seems to be more than ‘yet another cynical provocation’.[14] The fact that there is an possibility of a resolution in his worldview – most clearly expressed in The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island – makes Houellebecq thus go ‘spectacularly beyond nihilism’, as De Mul argues.[15] In an interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC in 2005, Houellebecq for instance argued for cloning as a way to create a better human.[16] Similarly, in the foreword of the book Scum Manifesto by feminist Valerie Solanas, he praised that Solanas ‘had the courage’ to ‘take a stance in line with the most noble aspirations of the Western project: to ensure that mankind will get full technical control over nature, including its own biological nature and evolution’.[17] More recently in his book on Schopenhauer Houellebecq notes that he with an ‘kind of sobering enthusiasm’ has fully become invested in Comte’s creed of Positivism and scientific progress.[18] What Houellebecq envisions this ‘salvation through science’ to look like, might be clearest expressed in Elementary Particles where Houellebecq, as the narrator of the story, describes how biotechnological modifications to the human DNA could remove some of the ‘characteristics that are responsible for the inherent suffering’ of human kind.[19] Indeed, Bruno, one of the characters praises Aldous Huxley in a page long monologue in which he, arguably, almost begins to ‘sound’ as Houellebecq himself:

‘The society Huxley describes in Brave New World is happy; tragedy and extremes of human emotion have disappeared. Sexual liberation is total—nothing stands in the way of instant gratification. Oh, there are little moments of depression, of sadness or doubt, but they’re easily dealt with using advances in anti-depressants and tranquilizers. ‘Once cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.’ This is exactly the sort of world we’re trying to create, the world we want to live in. [..] Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried—and so far failed—to create.’

[1] https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/serotonine-michel-houellebecq-review/

[2] y Peter Gouldthorp

[3] Jos de Mul (2014). “Destiny Domesticated. The Rebirth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Technology”, Albany: State University of New York Press.

[4] As I have argued before, Houellebecq traces these social-cultural problems as individualism, absolute hedonism and secularization to the Enlightenment that he sees as the ultimate irreversible beginning of decay of Western societies. Thus, in an interview with the Paris Review in 2015 he explained that he believes ‘Enlightenment philosophy can produce nothing, just emptiness, and unhappiness.’

[5] Hagner, M., Borck, C., ‘Mindful Practices. On the Neurosciences in the Twentieth Century’, in Science in Context, vol. 14, no. 4 (2001) 507-510.

[6] Dalrymple, T., ‘Michel Houellebecq: Chronicler of Our Mass Incompetence in the Art of Living’, in: law and liberty (February 2009). https://www.lawliberty.org/2019/02/28/michel-houellebecq-serotonine-review/

[7] Madsen, O.J., Brinkmann, S., ‘The Disappearance of psychologisation?’, in: Annual Review of Critical Psychology 8 (2010) 179-199, 183.

[8] Houellebecq, M., Whatever (Paris 1998) 145.

[9] Madsen, O.J., Brinkmann, S., ‘The Disappearance of psychologisation?’, 184.

[10] Madsen, O.J., Brinkmann, S., ‘The Disappearance of psychologisation?’, 183-186.

[11] De Haan, M., ‘Boze witte man’, (2-05-2019) http://www.houellebecq.nl/8801/boze-witte-man/

[12]Madsen, O.J. &Brinkmann, S. (2010) ‗The Disappearance of psychologisation?‘ Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 8, pp. 179-199,  190.

[13] Gouldthorp, T.P., ‘Solutions to the Problems of Western Civilisation in the Novels of Michel. Houellebecq’, A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at. The University of Queensland (2017) 71.

[14] Sreenan, N., ‘Universal, acid. Houellebecq’s clones and the evolution of humanity’, in: Modern & Contemporary France 27:1 (2019) 77-93.

[15] De Mul, J., The possibility of an island. Michel Houellebecq’s tragic humanism. Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, Vol. 1 (2014), Issue 1, pp. 91–110.De Mul, J., Destiny Domesticated. The Rebirth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Technology (New York 2014).

[16] Moerland, R., ‘Ik ben een Romanticus’. Interview met Michel Houellebecq’, in: NRC Handelsblad, (September 23, 2005) 27.

[17] Houellebecq, M., “Préface: L’humanité, second stade.” In V. Solanas (ed.) Scum Manifesto, pp. 63-69 (Paris: Éditions Mille et une nuit, 1998).

[18] https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2018/08/30/houellebecq-ziet-zichzelf-nu-als-een-positivist-a1614727

[19] Jos de Mul, The possibility of an island. Michel Houellebecq’s tragic humanism. Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, Vol. 1 (2014), Issue 1, pp. 91–110.

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