Michel Houellebecq | Depressive realism

I have never read Michel Houellebecq. He recently published a new novel, Anéantir, and around here it seems like it is the only thing everyone is talking about in literary circles. I decided to get a copy and read it for myself. I am not sure it is the right novel to start reading Houllebecq’s œuvre… to understand a little more what universe I was getting myself into, I found this short 100 pages book called Anti-matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism by Ben Jeffery. Here’s the books resume :

“Michel Houellebecq, author of five novels including Atomised and Platform, has become possibly the world’s most famous literary pessimist. His work declares that life is painful and disappointing, death is terrifying, and the human condition is a nasty sort of joke. He has been wildly successful, translated into over 25 different languages and hailed as the voice of a generation. Beginning with Houellebecq’s novels, this book explores the concept of “Depressive Realism” in literature and philosophy, the proposition that the facts of life are bleak and unkind. Ranging over work by David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag,Fredric Jameson and Margaret Atwood, Anti-Matter surveys the case for pessimism, asks how a mass culture rooted in sentimentality and trivialisation manages to produce so much cynicism and apathy, and hunts for the space that remains for serious, life-affirming art.”

I read more than half of it, I am not sure I’ll finish it now. The book is interesting but is more like a treaty on art and it’s purpose for a writer and it’s public, using Houllebecq’s novels as a basis for argumentation. Yet, I did highlight a lot of passages as they triggered interesting reflexions. Opening a chapter with this quote by David Foster Wallace gives the tone :

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.

David Foster Wallace

Later, Jeffery writes :

The contempt for art in Houellebecq’s novels is more than just an interesting logical inconsistency (how can art be anti-art?), it’s also part of what makes the books so pertinent. In lots of ways, cynicism (and by extension, pessimism) about art is not only very easy now, it’s reasonable. Some of the causes of this are relatively shallow, and some are deeply serious and complicated, but they all bend back to the elemental difficulty of finding justifications for art.

But then again, isn’t it basically superfluous to ask for a good reason for art to exist? Evidently people go on being creative and enjoying art without having well worked-out theories about why they do so, and you’d be hard pressed to deny that whatever the mechanisms of creation and aesthetic enjoyment are, they run deeper than conscious rationale. Indeed, theoretical justifications for art tend to look silly or pretentious, sooner or later, because they intellectualise what seems instinctive (possibility this is a mark of philosophy in general). What could be more natural more human than creativity? But, as Wallace says, one of the real difficulties at the moment is that we’re given so many good reasons to be guarded and self-conscious and generally wary of our instincts when it comes to aesthetics. 

And this other quote by Susan Sontag that expresses contemporary art’s irksomeness :

The principle of redundancy… is the principal affliction of modern life. … Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.

Anyhow, I should just start reading Anéantir instead of reading general essays about this type of work of art and it’s relevance. As I am still working on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Proust’s In search of lost time, and Hoffman’s Tomcat Murr, Anéantir will have to wait. But if any of you have read it already and would like to comment, or know well Houellebecq’s œuvre and would like to guide me – for example suggest which of his novels would be a good one to start reading him- I am all ears!


  1. Son roman La Carte et le Territoire (2010) est une bonne introduction, car parlant du monde de l’art et assez amusant, moins lourd que certains de ses autres textes.

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