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Broadening the field of struggle by Michel Houellebecq

August 1, 2011 15 comments

Extension du domaine de la lutte by Michel Houellebecq. English title: Whatever. 1994.

 Disclaimer : I had to translate the quotes myself, a daunting job as it isn’t easy.

Dans nos sociétés, le sexe représente bel et bien un second système de différenciation, tout à fait indépendant de l’argent ; et il se comporte comme un système de différenciation au moins aussi impitoyable. Les effets de ces deux systèmes sont d’ailleurs strictement équivalents. Tout comme le libéralisme économique sans frein, et pour des raisons analogues, le libéralisme sexuel produit des phénomènes de paupérisation absolue. Certains font l’amour tous les jours ; d’autres cinq ou six fois dans leur vie ou jamais. Certains font l’amour avec des dizaines de femmes, d’autres jamais. C’est ce qu’on appelle la « loi du marché ». Dans un système économique où le licenciement est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver sa place. Dans un système sexuel où l’adultère est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver son compagnon de lit. En système économique libéral, certains accumulent des fortunes considérables ; d’autres croupissent dans le chômage et la misère. En système sexuel parfaitement libéral, certains ont une vie érotique variée et excitante ; d’autres sont réduits à la masturbation et à la solitude. Le libéralisme économique, c’est l’extension du domaine de la lutte, son extension à tous les âges de la vie, à toutes les classes de la société. Sur le plan économique, Raphaël Tisserand appartient au camp des vainqueurs ; sur le plan sexuel à celui des vaincus. Certains gagnent sur les deux tableaux, d’autres perdent sur les deux. Les entreprises se disputent certains jeunes diplômés ; les femmes se disputent certains jeunes hommes ; les hommes se disputent certaines jeunes femmes ; le trouble et l’agitation sont considérables. In our societies, sex represents a second system of differentiation, independent from money. It behaves as a system of differentiation at least as merciless as money. The impacts of these two systems are actually equivalent. Sexual liberalism creates a phenomenon of acute pauperization, just like wild liberalism does. Some make love everyday; some five or six times in their life or never. Some make love to dozens of women, some never do. It is called “market law”. In an economic system where lay-offs are prohibited, everyone more or less finds their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, everyone more or less manages to find a bed partner. In a liberal economic system, some build huge fortunes; some endure unemployment and misery. In a perfect liberal sex system, some have a varied and exciting erotic life; some are reduced to masturbation and loneliness. Economic liberalism is broadening the field of struggle, broadening it to all the stages of life and to all social classes. On an economical point of view, Raphael Tisserand belongs to the winners; on a sexual point of view, to the losers. Some are winners on the two criteria; some are losers on the two criteria. Companies fight for some young graduates; women fight for some young men; men fight for some young women; trouble and agitation are considerable.

 This is the underlying theory of Whatever aka Extension du domaine de la lute, Houellebecq’s debut novel. The French title means ‘broadening the field of struggle’ and it is explained in the previous quote.

It’s a first person narrative by a man of 31 whose name is never told. He is Our Hero. He’s a single Parisian programmer who works for an IT company that has just won a contract with the Ministère de l’Agriculture. Now Our Hero is sent in small towns in Province to implement the software and train the users at their new working environment.

Our Hero is single, depressed and hates the world he lives in. He’s not interested in his job; he has no girl-friend or interest in women; he has no real friends to go out with. He’s cut off from human relationships. In my opinion, the book has two different parts. I thought the first half rather funny and at this point, I think it necessary to talk about French humour. In Francewe talk about l’humour au premier degré and l’humour au second degré. Like for burns, it could be translated as first-degree humour and second-degree humour. The first corresponds to funny but basic gags. The second correspond to more subtle jokes. Add to the different degrees a tendency to nasty or black humour and you have a flavour of the best – in my opinion – humorists. The perfect example was Pierre Desproges. For me, the first part of Extension du domaine de la lutte is in the same line, like in this example:

En général, je déteste les dentistes; je les tiens pour des créatures foncièrement vénales dont le seul but dans la vie est d’arracher le plus de dents possible afin de s’acheter des Mercedes à toit ouvrant. Generally speaking, I hate dentists. I think they are essentially mercenary creatures whose only goal in life is to pull out as many teeth as possible to buy Mercedes cars with sunroofs.

He points out the absurdity of our society, its pointless struggles. It is full of caustic remarks intertwined with more or less serious sociologic analysis. I suspect Houellebecq mocks the intellectuals who take themselves too seriously. It’s provocative and I don’t think it really represents Houellebecq’s thoughts. It is meant to shock For sure, Houellebecq doesn’t know the concept of political correctness. And I have to say it’s refreshing. I’m far from agreeing with everything Our Hero says. It’s nasty, it’s absurd and it’s ridiculous. But god, it’s funny and sometimes spot on  

The second part is more serious as Our Hero’s depression deepens. I didn’t want to laugh anymore. He gasps for air, cries at work and feels empty. I watched him sink into despair, letting his life fall apart. I’ve never experienced depression myself but it felt real and well described. I can’t help thinking that Houellebecq put something of himself in Our Hero. After all, he was born at the same time and also worked as an IT programmer. He doesn’t sound like a joyful fellow. Our Hero isn’t a very nice man. He’s supposed to be an example to illustrate the theory summed up in the first quote. I can’t say that I don’t agree with his analysis. But it’s easy to criticize without proposing any alternative. Communist systems have proved to be an economical failure and who would want to go back to the 19thC when divorce didn’t exist? Not me. Yes we have more freedom and more freedom doesn’t mean automatically more happiness.

Houellebecq is a scientist and the two books I’ve read include scientific theories applied to everyday life and especially comparison between physics (elementary particles) and our information society. It’s partly beyond my reach so I can’t explain it and certainly not in English. Extension du domaine de la lutte was written in 1994 when Internet was barely emerging. He saw it coming though. That’s one of the reasons why I think he’s worth reading, he seems to have a clear vision of society’s trends. There’s good material in his books if you push aside his tendency to provoke and to take advantage of our capitalist world while criticizing it.  

About the style. I was disappointed by Houellebecq’s style in Les Particules Elémentaires especially because he’s so praised. But the topic was special and I thought maybe he had adapted his style for the occasion. Now I know he didn’t. It lacks something but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s too clinical, not personal enough. I can’t hear his literary voice. I’m not ready to read La Carte et le Territoire right now to find out if he improved. The good point is that I feel less guilty for my lousy translation of Houellebecq than I feel for other writers. Houellebecq’s style doesn’t convey much, even in French. It has no magic or poetry or play-on-words which are, in my opinion, the translator’s nightmare.

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