- Michel Houellebecq and the Promise of UtopiaA Tale of Progressive Disenchantment
It is probably something of a commonplace that the majority of novelists write within their century, or at the very least along its edges. Zola’s Rougon-Macquart is explicitly concerned with the social realities of France under Louis Napoléon; Camus’ La Peste, however irreducibly metaphysical in character, has something important to say about the strains of living under the Nazi occupation. At his most macabre, Maupassant channels the interest in the occult that captivated the late-nineteenth century, while Romain Gary, to give a more contemporary example, details the suffering of the poor, the orphaned, and the exploited in France’s immigrant neighborhoods. Many writers do, of course, use fiction to evoke former times. Continued interest in the Middle Ages, for instance, is partly due to efforts by romantic writers like Victor Hugo who worked to rescue the age from obscurity. But what is rare, I suspect, is for a writer to enact the values of a former time in his or her work—to use fiction as a means to choreograph the thoughts, hopes, and biases of people of a different era, as if an instant in the past could be fast-forwarded to the present without intersecting the points between.
One author whose preoccupation with former times fits this model is Michel Houellebecq, author of novels Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994), Les Particules élémentaires (1998), Plateforme (2001), La Possibilité d’une île (2005), La Carte et le territoire (2010), and, most recently, Soumission (2015). Houellebecq’s affinities with past centuries, and specifically with the nineteenth century, have been well catalogued in the scholarly and critical literature, with comparisons being drawn between figures as various as Émile Zola, Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac, Gustav Flaubert, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Auguste Comte.1 Houellebecq often evokes past luminaries in his fiction, moving from discussion of [End Page 97] Maupassant and madness in Extension du domaine de la lutte to Comte’s positivist philosophy in Plateforme, or from Schopenhauer and pessimism in La Possibilité d’une île to Fourierist utopia in La Carte et le Territoire. Indeed, one area of nineteenth-century thought that has featured prominently in Houellebecq’s fiction is its utopian strain, and my goal in this article is to track Houellebecq’s treatment of it across his novels, focusing in particular on Les Particules élémentaires and La Carte et le territoire.
Much of the critical dialogue related to Houellebecq’s utopianism has concerned its post-human dimension. Douglas Morrey (2013) has contended that Houellebecq’s work presents a unique contribution to contemporary discussions of the post-human, and other authors, such as Jean-François Chassay (2005), Laurence Dahan-Gaida (2003), Kim Doré (2002), and Jerry Varsava (2005), have offered readings that address the intersection of science and utopia in Houellebecq’s fiction. However, one aspect of Houellebecq’s utopianism that has not received adequate attention in scholarly discussions is the gradual exhaustion of utopian confidence that occurs over the course of Houellebecq’s novels, moving from the high utopian and post-human optimism of Particules, through the utopian disappointments of Possibilité, and finally on to an anti-modern and ironic utopian scenario at the finale of La Carte et le territoire. My contention is that Houellebecq’s work may be read in terms of a progressive disenchantment with nineteenth-century utopian remedies to social and existential ills, culminating in their repudiation in La Carte et le territoire in favor of a more traditional form of social order evocative of the social, spiritual, and moral values of the Old Regime: Family, Land, and Church.
Houellebecq’s enthusiasm for utopia is most apparent in what is arguably his most significant work of fiction, Les Particules élémentaires. The novel recounts the decline and fall of Western civilization from the point of view of two half brothers, Bruno and Michel, one a sex-obsessed divorcee and the other a pathologically withdrawn misanthrope. The novel makes much of the moral decadence, social atomization, and materialism that have allegedly infected France in the wake of May 1968. It also, perhaps...