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The prophets of pessimism

Why are doom-mongers like Michel Houellebecq, author of the nihilistic novel-turned-movie Atomised, considered to be so profound?

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

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The 2001 paperback version of Atomised, a gloomy offering by French author Michel Houellebecq, is splattered with praise. ‘Sheer brilliance…totally mesmerising, energising, infuriating and moving’, says Time Out. ‘Compelling…wrenchingly terrible…. Unhealthy and haunting’, claims the Independent. Now the release in the UK of a film of the book, directed in German with English subtitles, shows that Houellebecq has lost none of his attraction.

A star-struck fan who authors a website in Houellebecq’s honour calls him ‘a sort of prophet’ (1). If he is a sort of prophet, he could be called one of the new prophets of pessimism: dark men who darkly intone on the pointlessness of human existence and the likely probability of our doom sometime soon. (British examples of this breed might include philosopher John Gray and novelist Will Self, though Self has dismissed Houellebecq as ‘a little guy who can’t get enough sex’.)

Their books are, apparently, ‘serious’, and the more pessimistic they are the more serious they are supposed to be. Because as every black-t-shirt-wearing teenager can tell you, depressing is, like, profound, right?

Houellebecq’s subject is alienation, a time-honoured literary theme that is perhaps more acutely relevant now than ever before. But the way that he deals with it is flat. It’s a deadpan statement to the effect that human lives are pointless and shit.

Half-brothers Bruno and Michel are each doomed to their own estranged way of living: Michel is cerebral and distant, unable to talk to or feel deeply for others; Bruno is obsessed with sex, which he sees as the sole confirmation of himself and his relationship to others. The human capacities for intellectual abstraction and for physical feeling get taken to extremes in two different people, and so become inhuman.

The characters don’t seem to reflect or consider; instead they declare. ‘The universe was cold and sluggish’, Bruno announces. Michel’s world was ‘pitiless and mechanical. Once the parameters of action were defined, he thought, and allowing for initial conditions, actions took place in an empty, spiritless space; each inexorably determined’. The narrator bangs the message home at regular intervals, with statements such as: ‘Water follows the path of least resistance. Human behaviour is predetermined in principle in almost all of its actions and offers few choices, of which fewer still are taken.’

The problem is not that this is pessimistic; much of the best literature and poetry has been deeply pessimistic. The problem is that there is little tension in these characters, little sense of a thwarted humanity, dashed hopes, or promises of redemption. It is this tension that makes the experience of alienation meaningful and distressing. For if there were no humanity being thwarted then there would be no suffering: instead it is like a pebble being carried along by a river. And because the characters in Atomised are like pebbles getting carried down a river you don’t care particularly what happens to them. Their tragedies are verging on funny, rather like the over-gloomy teenager’s statements of total doom.

Houellebecq would clearly like to place his work in a line of tormented figures. Bruno reads Franz Kafka’s The Trial and concludes that it exactly mirrors his mental state. But the difference between Kafka and Houellebecq is that Kafka has something to say about the dilemmas of human existence. In ‘Metamorphosis’, a young man turns into a giant beetle, but throughout he remains a man trapped in an animal’s body. At first he continues to make his plans and calculations in surreal denial of his fate. He then becomes depressed but is roused by his sister’s violin playing: ‘Was he an animal, that music could move him so?’

Kafka was accused of being too gloomy. Too ‘painful’, his agent complained (to which Kafka replied, ‘These are painful times’). But the point is that he communicates the tragedy of a man with hopes and dreams that go unrealised. In ‘A Fasting Artist’, the story of a man who starves himself to death, the artist character explained that he fasted ‘because I could never find the nourishment I liked’.

Or take Fyodor Dostoevsky’s piece, ‘Notes from Underground’, an account of ‘that cold, abominable half despair, half belief, in that conscious burying oneself alive for grief in the underworld for forty years’. He takes pleasure in taking himself as low as he can go, yet captures the twists and turns of a consciousness that ‘is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction’. He trumpets ‘hurrah for the underground!’, but then turns on himself: ‘Oh, but even now I am lying! I am lying because I know myself that it is not underground that is better, but something different, quite different, for which I am thirsting, but which I cannot find! Damn underground!’

It’s not obvious that Houellebecq’s characters are thirsting for anything much. They find a temporary solace in their respective partners, but on a bigger level they only find a resolution through escaping their humanity. Michel, the cerebral scientist, concludes that post-human is the only way to go – a serene species without sex and without conflict. Bruno chooses the way of the body. ‘What will I do now?’ he asks a psychiatrist, in the film. ‘Take your tablets’, comes the reply. In this chemical-induced unconsciousness, Bruno finds his resolution and is reported to be ‘happy’, now that ‘he expected nothing…of the progression of days’. The book is narrated from the point of a post-human species looking back, which concludes of us: ‘We do not feel their joys, neither do we feel their suffering.’

But people going to the cinema want to feel joys and suffering. Alienation is not a numb thing, accepted resignedly, but painful precisely because it is not right. People continue to dream, even if it is about stupid things. As I settled down to watch Atomised, all the ads spoke to this: ‘When life calls, don’t miss it’ (Vodafone); ‘Awaken your senses’ (VW). People want life to call and their senses to be awakened, even if that isn’t really achievable through a mobile phone or a car.

The film of Atomised is better, in some ways, than the book. Bruno and Michel have qualities they lacked in the text: an endearing boyishness in Bruno, and a tenderness in Michel. The characters search each other’s faces, looking for the recognition they crave, even if, in the last instance, it eludes them. There are sensitive plot changes, too. When one of the characters commits suicide in the book, she does so by throwing herself down some stairs in a wheelchair; in the film, she dresses herself up and puts on makeup before throwing herself off a balcony. So in a sense, her suicide has the quality of a sacrifice: she is renouncing a life that she still values; there is a sense of loss.

So let us bow down no longer to these prophets of pessimism. They tell us little about the world or ourselves. Even when man feels like a beetle, he remains a man – and it is the tensions and conflicts in this experience that make literature worth reading.

(1) Michel Houellebecq fansite

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