Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Declinism, Nihilism and Conflict Avoidance in the Novels of Michel Houellebecq

Academic journal article Essays in French Literature and Culture

Declinism, Nihilism and Conflict Avoidance in the Novels of Michel Houellebecq

Article excerpt

Michel Houellebecq's novels are known for their negative outcomes. While the plots of his six novels differ, his characters are depressed misfits who struggle to negotiate the society in which they live and ultimately find themselves not merely alone, but lonely. For all the dissatisfaction, however, there is a disconcerting lack of conflict in the Houellebecquian universe. Despite occasional attempts to improve their situation, such as work on personal appearance or efforts to be more social, Houellebecq's characters rarely engage in conflict. While this may seem preferable - the term conflict often having negative connotations -, I suggest this absence is symptomatic of a certain malaise in society. Thomas Berstene, writing on the relationship between change and conflict, states that "the word 'conflict' is synonymous with struggle and discomfort for most people" (Berstene, 2004, 5). However, while conflict is often viewed as a negative and destructive force, it also offers an opportunity for change. Berstene acknowledges this: "[c]onflict can be used to spur and shape change when it is viewed as an opportunity to learn" (ibid); concluding "[c]hange is a byproduct of conflict" (ibid, 9).

Rarely are Houellebecq's apathetic characters seen fighting for change which could lead to the alleviation of their suffering. Situating Houellebecq's novels within the context of declinism, a pessimistic mouvance in certain western societies, which has been linked to nihilism (Hazareesingh, 2015, 297), and drawing parallels with Nietzsche's brand of nihilism, this article will offer a new reading of this apathy and the resulting lack of conflict which prevents Houellebecq's characters from altering their circumstances. After defining the phenomenon of declinism and situating Houellebecq within declinist discourse, parallels between nihilism and declinism will be drawn in order to highlight the relationship between the two schools of thought and their respective adherents. Three specific examples from the novels Plateforme and La Possibilité d'une île will be used to illustrate the declinist realisations which confront Houellebecq's characters - variants of Nietzsche's death of God -, and the passive responses with which they react. It has already been suggested by Bülent Diken1 that Houellebecq's novels display passive nihilism; I build on this theory by demonstrating the ongoing use of a nihilist juncture which traps Houellebecq's characters in a state of apathy, explaining the absence of conflict in his decaying world.

Throughout Houellebecq's novels, characters find themselves in situations where they have the option to respond with either apathy or action, inevitably choosing the former. These situations reinforce the theme of decline which permeates his corpus, engaging with issues Houellebecq identifies as prevalent in his vision of decaying western society. These include ageing, a biological inevitability which, in Houellebecq's writing, is treated as an aggression towards the body and represents a literal manifestation of decline; physical violence that highlights wide-spread acceptance of societal decline; and religion, which calls into question the prevailing ideologies which shape the value system of developed society. Confronted with the decline of their bodies, their beliefs and their society, the people who populate Houellebecq's decaying universe react in a manner which avoids conflict, averting resistance but also the possibility for change.

Such is the reaction of one married couple, Isabelle and Daniel in La Possibilité d'une île, when faced with the visible deterioration of Isabelle's ageing body. In this novel, which tackles the increasing sexual alienation of the ageing in contemporary society, Houellebecq's insistence on moral decay in society is mirrored by the degradation of his characters' bodies as they grow old, while increasingly negative attitudes towards the aged and the ageing are singled out as a symptom of this degenerating society. …

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