In the summer edition of American Affairs, Dutch politician (trigger warning, soft ones) Thierry Baudet condenses the message of French writer Michel Houellebecq’s oeuvre: our contemporary moral and political freedoms have given many choices, but they have not given us happiness–nor will they. The thrust of the piece may have been to push people toward considering why Houellebecq, with his latest work, Serotonine, comes across as more of a defeatist than as a champion of cultural renewal, especially since he has been plucking these disquieting strings for the past twenty or so years; however, such a consideration is not what I found most engaging.
Though usually aligned with the far right, given his more-than-likely views on feminism and Islam and nationalism, Houellebecq stands inconveniently outside the left-right divide. Emphasizing this a-directional stance is what I found most interesting with Baudet’s analysis. Both the left and the right, as routinely conceived, base their respective ideologies and praxeologies on that which is, usually, not questioned by either: individual autonomy/liberation of the individual. Enter the scurrilous Monsieur Houellebecq.
“So yes, the modern world brought liberation. But this liberation has not made us happy. Instead, it has left our lives empty, without purpose, and, above all, extremely lonely. Existential connections have become almost impossible since few are genuinely prepared to sacrifice short-term pleasure for the commitment required to establish a deep mutual connection. Television, internet, and pornography have replaced organic social intercourse and physical intimacy. As more options open up each day, our hearts close to the possibility of real human warmth, having been betrayed too many times–and having witnessed ourselves betraying others–for the brief moments of seductive thrills that we, as ‘liberated individuals,’ can no longer resist.”
An unwillingness to sacrifice short-term pleasures for deep mutual connections is a thread that I have seen woven into every one of Houellebecq’s novels that I have read: Whatever, The Elementary Particles, Platform, The Possibility of an Island, and Submission. While he does sneak in the autobiographical abandonment of children by parents who are more concerned with self-exploration than with parenting, his focus is liberated sexuality.
From a passage from Whatever that Baudet quotes extensively: From the amorous point of view, Veronique belonged, as we all do, to a sacrificed generation. She had certainly been capable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it, I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals that characterizes the modern era. Veronique had known too many discotheques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality, the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort.
One could have plucked this passage from a run-of-the-mill Red Pill screed; however, Houellebecq was discussing hypergamy and sexual marketplace value back in the 90s. I was surprised that anyone was expressing these sentiments that “long” (pop culture standards) ago when I first came across that same passage nearly a year ago.
Commenting, Baudet continues:
“How encouraging to finally read a modern writer who takes the problem of sex seriously! Of course, the cult of virginity lost its credibility in the Western world some time ago, today’s philosophy being that we have to experiment to find the right partner. Houellebecq, however, draws upon older intuitions which maintain that the bond which forms through sexual intimacy may reemerge once or twice, but not much more, and that we should therefore be extremely cautious in acquiring amorous experience. Sex, in short, can be a threat–and not simply an aide–to intimacy and love.”
The theme of “older intuitions” regarding sexual depletion occurs again and again in Houellebecq’s characters. Liberal or conservative, we tend to treat sexual encounters as financial transactions–ideally, both parties profit from the exchange. If one is not pleased with the product or finds it defective, one can take it back for a refund–or opt to buy a newer model. No one is committed to keep anything–or anyone–in one’s life. If one finds the product too burdensome, dismissing it is as simple as dropping a “I-don’t-really-see-this-going-anywhere” and then throwing away the instructions. It is, indeed, our right–if not our imperative–to test as many different products as we can before we prudently choose which one we plan on sticking with for the immediate future.
Houellebecq, after he takes a lugubrious puff on his cigarette, waves away such non-sense. His stories reaffirm the older intuitions: we cannot give ourselves away sexually and expect not to be affected, if not worsened. Every person to whom we give ourselves who does not become our spouse or life-long partner becomes, necessarily, another person to whom we have given a part of ourselves that we will then never be able to give to another. In other words, intimacy is not, as the sexual free market theorists would have us believe, a renewable resource. Much like with fingers or toes, intimacy, once gone, always gone. I write this to myself as much as I write this to another.
I do not care to play the numbers game: at what point has one had too many partners to be able to love another? However, my wager–and my fear–is that it is much lower than most of us would be comfortable discovering.
Yet, as entitled consumers, we continue to patronize online pornography, casual dating-site hook-ups, and sterile sex–it may be kinky, but it will not ever lead to children or a future. Are we not lucky to be living in such times as we do? How did our older generations ever find the emotional wherewithal to smile?