Colby Cosh: Doing ‘Houelle’ in isolation France’s sage transmits to the world – National Post

Posted: May 10, 2020 at 6:53 pm


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The celebrated novelist Michel Houellebecq wrote a short essay about living through pandemic disease and lockdown that was broadcast on French radio Monday. Reporters were quick to crib what they thought were the best bits of Houellebecqs missive. They relished the gloomy artistry of his opening, in which he dismisses the virus as banal and not even sexually transmitted, and they appreciated his closing, in which he testified to his conviction that We will not re-emerge from confinement into a new world: it will be the same, only a little worse.

The translation here is mine, a privilege I am claiming because it was just a little hard to locate the full text of Houellebecqs essay for the France Inter network (analogous to CBC Radio One, more or less). As usual, Houellebecq is playing the role of the outsider, the bad-tempered, mangy stray dog who must never indicate a desire for affection and a place by the fireside. His essay is in the form of agreeable responses to fellow crivains, but he cannot resist nipping at some of them for the country comfort in which they are fighting the isolation battle.

The author tells us that the greatest inconvenience of the harsh French lockdown is not having the freedom to take long walks

He suggests that the coronavirus is hastening all the deplorable trends of depersonalization and atomization that he has documented in his novels. Modern man allegedly does not even have the cultural energy to resent his condition, but anyone who believes Netflix, Amazon and contactless payments are somehow inhuman must crave micro-intimacy awfully deeply: here is someone with a thwarted craving for breathing shared air in a cinema and passing a grimy physical banknote to a hot barista. At one point Houellebecq approvingly quotes a tract against medically assisted reproduction, having to admit he would never have encountered the document if not for that impersonal, sterile internet. I never said it was all bad.

Well, there would be no Houellebecq if he had had an ordinary mother. The author tells us that the greatest inconvenience of the harsh French lockdown is not having the freedom to take long walks. He synthesizes an alleged argument between Flaubert and Nietzsche who knows if anything of the kind really happened; it would be missing the point to check about the role of walking in the life of the writer.

It is not, as Nietzsche suggested, to generate new ideas, but to allow the concepts and feelings which emerge at the desk to float leaflike into a pleasing arrangement. Flaubert, apparently, was a weld the arse to the chair man. Old Fred believed, in Houellebecqs words, tout ce qui nest pas conu dans la marche est nul. Google translates this rather idiosyncratically: everything that is not conceived in walking sucks. If we are becoming less human, at least the machines are developing a sense of humour.

But no one can deny the sensitivity and power of Houellebecqs nose for inhumanity, and, lest it be underestimated, I conclude with a passage which permits no mitigation of its bitterness:

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May 10th, 2020 at 6:53 pm

Posted in Nietzsche