- Houellebecq’s Priapism:The Failure of Sexual Liberation in Michel Houellebecq’s Novels and Essays
The truth is scandalous. But nothing is worth anything without it.(Rester vivant 27)
Jed had never had such an erection; it was truly painful.(The Map and the Territory 51; translation modified)
In the following, I will argue that Michel Houellebecq’s essays and novels give voice to what I would label priapism. Houellebecq’s dire analysis of postmodern societies and the malaise of the Western instinctual structure, and his vehement critique of the sexual liberation of the sixties as well as of Western individualism and liberalism are well known and well documented.1 However, here I want to draw special attention to the way his texts embody an unusually bizarre and latently self-contradictory position of priapism. Priapism is a notion extremely well suited to the ways in which Houellebecq’s novels and essays portray an involuntary desire or libido that is ordered from outside the subject, and thus is unfree. Priapism is a medical diagnosis for chronic erection not caused by physical, psychological, or erotic stimuli. It is potentially a harmful state, often quite painful. Untreated, the prognosis is impotence. For an outside party, the condition seems to designate lust for life, excitation, and pleasure, but the patient feels the opposite: pain, humiliation, and despair. Presenting a vision of a post-industrial neoliberal consumer society obsessed with pleasure and desire, dictating how the individual must desire and enjoy, Houellebecq’s art discloses how Western societies’ instinctual structure entails an alienated, stressed, and frustrated libido. The notion of priapism thus helps us appreciate Houellebecq’s originality in spelling out this paradox in which his characters find themselves compelled to desire against their own will. He shows how the citizens of neoliberal market societies are constantly confronted with insisting and flirtatious offers of self-realization [End Page 477] and enjoyment. His characters cannot opt out of looking for pleasure; they are not freely disposed to seek it; they must strive to honour it. Houellebecq claims that today we are enslaved by an obligation to enjoy: capitalist advertising and the market society dictate that we must enjoy sex, work, family, leisure, food, and other things. If one fails to comply with this pleasure imperative, one is stigmatized, for in that case something must be wrong. Such a breach of the pleasure imperative prompts guilt, shame, and alienation, as is shown in the case of his characters.
In addition, the concept of priapism also signifies how the author’s work is structurally animated by a sharply drawn and highly unstable dynamics of intensely contradictory forces. His prose is marked by a distinctly unstable undercurrent orchestrated by a desire that takes pleasure in and is absorbed by what it fiercely censures.2 Though, for example, he adamantly criticizes pornography, he clearly takes great delight in painting scenarios in his prose scripted from pornographic phantasmagoria. Therefore, even though one might say that Houellebecq’s sociological and moral critique runs parallel with traditional puritan and conservative attacks on postmodern society, the critical difference consists in the fact that the author himself is an active participant in what he condemns, describing himself as “terribly susceptible to the world surrounding me” (Houellebecq, Interventions 111). Thus, he takes a unique position as a kind of Buddhist libertine or voluptuary ascetic who bitterly dissociates himself from society’s hedonistic pressure. The notion of priapism is therefore not only suggestive of the intellectual content of his novels and essays, but also of their aesthetic structure and form.
I. “A Sacrificed Generation”
The scandalous French author Michel Houellebecq (1958-) has made the cynical analysis of contemporary sexual culture his artistic watermark.3 His examination of sex tourism, swinger clubs, S&M, prostitution, and pornography is well known. Houellebecq portrays the sexual Lumpenproletariat of post-industrial capitalist society, and in novels such as Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994, trans. as Whatever by Paul Hammond in 1998), Les Particules élémentaires (1998, trans. as Atomised by Frank Wynne in 2000; published in the US as The Elementary Particles), Plateforme (2001, trans. as Platform by Frank Wynne in 2002), and La Possibilit...