The Poetics of Despair: A Reading of Michel Houellebecq’s Configuration du dernier rivage

Rarely does a book by novelist Michel Houellebecq appear in print without begetting acrimony in the French literary press. The provocative, anti-soixante-huitard1 and curiously un-French Les particules élémentaires [Atomised/The Elementary Particles], perhaps one of the most doom-ridden and depressive novels in the history of French literature, caused so much uproar in France during the 1998 fall literary season that even The New York Times felt obligated to report on it.  In 2001, Houellebecq cheekily regurgitated for Lire magazine several of the anti-Islamic diatribes of Plateforme [Platform], leading to formal charges of inciting racial hatred and a well-timed defense of Houellebecq and his novel by Salman Rushdie in The Guardian. The publication of La Possibilité d’une île [The Possibility of An Island] in 2005 was partially marred by Eric Nalleau’s opportunistic and frankly nasty pamphlet Au secours, Houellebecq revient; and in 2010 Tahar ben Jelloun and journalist Pierre Assouline bemoaned the Goncourt jury’s awarding of France’s highest literary prize to Houellebecq for La Carte et le territoire [The Map and The Territory].  With the exception of Extension du domaine de la lutte [Whatever], the author’s first work of fiction, Houellebecq’s novels seem inevitably to lead to a circling of the wagons within the French literary establishment; some praise, others disparage, but under almost no circumstances is anyone left feeling indifferent.

So it has gone for Houellebecq and his novels, which over the years have made him the most successful French literary export since at least Romain Gary. Most of Houellebecq’s readers outside of France would be surprised, however, to learn that Houellebecq is also an accomplished poet, author of four eminently less controversial tomes of verse of which Configuration du dernier rivage, published in April 2013 by Flammarion, is the most recent. Houellebecq’s previous collections La Poursuite du bonheur (1992), Le Sens du combat (1996), and Renaissance (1999) were compiled in a single volume in 2000 modestly titled Poésies.2 Configuration du dernier rivage, divided into five brisk sections covering a neat 96 pages, thus represents Houellebecq’s first foray into poetry in well over a decade.

Like his fiction, Houellebecq’s poetry is immediately recognizable for its heavy servings of existential pessimism. Lines such as “Rien dans la vie n’est réparable / Rien ne subsiste après la mort” [Nothing in life can be repaired / Nothing remains after death], “Je suis en train de crever, c’est tout” [I’m about to snuff it, that’s all], and “tout futur est nécrologique” [every future is an obituary] 3 imbue Configuration with an aura of extinction that is often as funny as it is ominous. Some of the poems are so fantastically bleak that one almost laughs at their impossible spleen. For example:

Il n’y a pas d’amour / (Pas vraiment, pas assez) / Nous vivons sans secours / Nous mourons délaissés
L’appel à la pitié / Résonne dans le vide / Nos corps sont estropiés / Mais nos chairs sont avides
Disparues les promesses / D’un corps adolescent / Nous entrons en vieillesse / Où rien ne nous attend
Que la mémoire vaine / De nos jours disparus / Un soubresaut de haine / Et le désespoir nu

[There is no love / (Not really, not enough) / We live without relief / We die abandoned
The appeal to pity / Resonates in the void / Our bodies are maimed / But our flesh is hungry
Gone are the promises / Of a teenage body / We enter into old age / Where nothing awaits us
Except the vain memory / Of our bygone days / A jolt of hatred / And naked despair]

To be sure, these sulking evocations of lost love, wasted youth, and bitter memory harbor a kernel of romanticism. The very title of this latest collection, Configuration du dernier rivage, or (translating perhaps too literally) Configuration of the Final Shore, suggests a parallel with Lamartine’s paradigmatically romantic Le Lac [The Lake], which opens with these celebrated lines:

Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages / Dans la nuit éternelle emportés sans retour / Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l’océan des âges / Jeter l’ancre un seul jour ?

[Thus driven forth forever to new shores / Borne toward Eternal Night and never away / Sailing the Sea of Ages, can we not / Drop the anchor for one day ?]

Where Lamartine gives us the anchor as a token of love’s struggle against impermanence and entropy, Houellebecq offers “la possibilité d’une île” [the possibility of an island] as a similar image of sanctuary. The sentimental yearning Houellebecq’s laments contain expresses a notable continuity between the nineteenth-century romantic spirit and Houellebecq’s poetic sensibilities—a continuity that Aurélien Bellanger has explored in his recent monograph Houellebecq, écrivain romantique. Houellebecq’s nostalgia, also, for the adolescent body suggests a lineage with a poet as distant as the older Pierre de Ronsard, whose rather belated infatuation with Hélène de Surgères nonetheless gave the French language some of its most memorable love poetry.  Such lines as “la jeune fille qui accueille le monde (et les bites) avec confiance” [The young girl who opens herself to the world (and to cocks) with confidence] and “Mets ta langue, un peu, sur ma bite / Avant qu’il n’y ait plus rien” [Put your tongue, a little bit, on my cock / Before there’s nothing left] have the curious effect of transforming Houellebecq into a kind of pornographic Ronsard, who sees little purpose in spending sentimental affection on any but the youngest and most nubile bodies.

Love verse aside, however, in conjuring up the image of a “final shore” Houellebecq indulges in a moroseness that belongs less to the spirit of romantic or courtly poetry and more to that of the postmodern, post-ideological 21st-century France that he inhabits. Much of this morbidity is linked to Houellebecq’s image of a contemporary Europe won over by atheism and incredulity. We read on page 10:

Disparue la croyance / Qui permet d’édifier / D’être ou de sanctifier / Nous habitons l’absence

[Gone is the belief / That allows us to edify / To be or to sanctify / We dwell in the absence]

And on page 75:

Où est le paradis ? /  Où sont passés les dieux ?

[Where is paradise? / Where have the gods gone?]

In other places, Houellebecq exposes the sentimental illusions of sexuality to a withering naturalist critique:

Tu te cherches un sex-friend / Vieille cougar fatiguée / You’re approaching the end / Vieil oiseau mazouté

[You’re looking for a sex friend / Tired old cougar / You’re approaching the end / Oily old bird]

And, more pornographically:

Les hommes cherchent uniquement à se faire / sucer la queue / Autant d’heures dans la journée que possible / Par autant de jolies filles que possible
En dehors de cela, ils s’intéressent aux problèmes / techniques
Est-ce suffisamment clair ?

[Men only want to get their cocks sucked / As many hours of the day as possible / By as many pretty young girls as possible / Beyond this, they’re only interested in technical problems / Is that clear enough ?]

This emphatic, sociologizing (not to mention obscene) verse arouses questions about the relationship of author to text.  As a collection of nostalgic laments upon lost youth, physical decline, and erotic regret, Configuration at its best expresses its author’s unique aptitude for personal emotional candor. And yet, as with his novels, Houellebecq is too often guilty in this latest effort of indulging sociological penchants that transform many of his poems into dubious commentary on contemporary culture. Europe, for example, is by no means a spiritual wasteland; even in France, where state secularism is arguably at its apogee, polling shows that nearly two-thirds of the country still believe in God or a higher power, and this despite the Catholic mass’s having long ago ceased to attract the great majority of French men and women.4 Secondly, the erotic forlornness Houellebecq describes fails to bear scrutiny. Men are certainly interested in more than being fellated by as many pretty young girls as possible; and the suggestion that middle-aged women are “oily old birds” unable to find sex speaks less to experience and more to Houellebecq’s seeming disgust for the quadragenarian female body.

Houellebecq has claimed elsewhere that his novels amount to so many “contes matérialistes d’épouvante”—materialist horror stories—and one can see how his poems might yield to a similar description.5 With its overwrought morbidity and sentimental desolation, Configuration reads less like a sincere emotional statement and more like a clever exercise in horror, in which Houellebecq the poet— “le Ténébreux, —le Veuf , —l’Inconsolé,” to evoke another equally splenetic figure in the history of French verse—figures as the main character. What the emotional life of Michel Thomas—the man born on Reunion Island in 1956 who began publishing poetry in the late 1980s and changed his last name to Houellebecq soon afterward—maybe we cannot know.  What is clear, however, is that the morose, depressive, and generally despondent Houellebecq of the media and popular imagination must be, at least to some degree, the poet’s own pretense.

Houellebecq’s saving grace has always been his willingness to embrace those very same existential concerns that his writing so often inflates: the problem of godlessness, the terror of physical decline and death, humanity’s place in an indifferent universe, and the moral dilemmas that sexuality poses. At his best, Houellebecq is a formidable philosophical writer who echoes in scope and quality of insight such behemoths as Dostoyevsky, Camus, Sartre, and Thomas Mann. Nonetheless, one cannot help feeling that this latest effort is tainted by Houellebecq’s seemingly total inability to move beyond the dreadful conclusions that his work has insisted on since the beginning. We should recall the opening line of Houellebecq’s 1991 pamphlet, Rester vivant: “Le monde est une souffrance déployée” [The world is suffering unfurled]. Such expressions of pessimism are appropriate for a young writer trying to make his way, as Houellebecq was in the early 1990s. But for a poet in his position to rehash them this late in an illustrious career should strike careful readers as disingenuous:

[…] Ma vie se poursuivra / Pendant quelques années encore / En compagnie de mon petit chien / Et des joies (de plus en plus brèves) / Et de l’augmentation régulière des souffrances / En ces années qui précèdent immédiatement la mort

[My life will continue / For a few years still / In the company of my little dog / And joys that will grow briefer and briefer / And the steady increase in suffering / In the years that immediately precede death]

If Houellebecq has found solutions to the existential crises of his youth, he certainly appears unwilling to share them.

1“Soixante-huitard” refers here to the values of the French 60s generation.

2A volume of many of these poems in English translation was published by Herla in 2010 (Michel Houellebecq, The Art of Struggle, Richmond, UK: Herla, 2010)

3All translations of Houellebecq’s verse are my own.

4See my article “Classical Secularization Theory in Contemporary Literature: The Curious Case of Michel Houellebecq” (Literature and Theology 27.1 (2013), 98-115) for a discussion.

5Ennemis publics, Paris, Flammarion/Grasset, 2008, p. 294.

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