Monday, October 15, 2007

“The Moral Tedium of Immortality”: Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island Part 1

This was originally one post, but it is already way too long; so, in the interest of legibility, I'm breaking it up into separate posts (admittedly, some of which remain to be written.) Anyways, this part is introductory and diegetical; the next one(s) will be more analytical. Anyways, here goes:

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Michel Houellebecq is not a nice man or a particularly cheerful author. It is not incumbent on authors to conduct their personal lives with particular aplomb, but the fixity of Houellebecq’s obsessions lead, Siren-like, to perils of psycho-biographical speculation. Certainly, since the well-known warnings provided by Barthes and Foucault, speculating on the man behind the book(s) is tantamount to committing a cardinal hermeneutical error, so let’s not go there. For those who want to, there’s this.

On the other hand, Barthes in particular warned of translating a collection of texts into an overarching oeuvre, especially one signified by a proper name. This is a harder temptation to avoid, given that there does seem to be an underlying trajectory that moves from Whatever, Elementary Particles, Platform to his most recent The Possibility of an Island. If the first novel consolidated the affectless, misanthropic (misogynistic and racist to boot) in a spirited ventriloquism of Camus’s L’Étranger, the next two novels would set in motion the philosophical preoccupation that find a kind of culmination in Island: “the suicide of the west.”
Diegetically, Island has two (possibly three) narrative threads centred on the monologues of two (or three, or actually one) characters: “Daniel1” (or Daniel) is the archetypal Houellebecq character - he (it is always a he) is alienated from his family, regards his career with a mixture of disdain and horror, views most women (the younger the better) as contemptible sex objects, is prone to fits of apocalyptic despair and abstract musings on the biochemical foundations of contemporary society, itself viewed as alternating between sexual orgy and arid loneliness. His story is, until the epilogue, the vehicle for which the other two (actually one) narrative serve as tenors. These narratives / this narrative is / are told by “Daniel24” and “Daniel25,” Daniel1’s clones three thousand years in the future; Daniel24 breaking off his narrative as his “present incarnation” deteriorates beyond repair, to be taken up again by Daniel25, who more or less begins where 24 left off.*

As I mentioned before, Daniel1’s narrative follows a similar arc as that followed by the protagonists of Elementary Particles and Platform. Daniel1 is a “comedian” who becomes celebrated and wealthy for his scabrous, frequently racist and misogynist. He becomes very well-known as a cutting observe of contemporary reality” and (a little far-fetched this bit) a “humanist,” although he admits that his humanism is “built on very thin foundations: a vague outburst against tobacconists, an allusion to the corpses of negro clandestines [sic] cast up on the Spanish coasts” which gain him a further “reputation as a lefty and a defender of human rights.” Daniel1 is sufficiently self-aware, or cynical, to hold all of this at arm’s length. He engages in a love affair of sorts with a woman named Isabella, a successful editor of Lolita, a magazine that skirts pedophilic imagery with its unquestioning (and deeply creepy) celebration of Youth at the expense of Age. (This will be a recurrent theme in the novel.) They move to Spain, have a child and Daniel1 falls out of love with her, disenchanted by the inevitable ravages of time on her body. They part, and Daniel1 takes part in a seminar held by the Church of Elohim (Elohimites, or the “Very Healthy Ones”, as he puts it.)** As a celebrity (a minor one, he keeps insisting), Daniel1 is treated as a VIP, along with a Parisian artist Vincent Greilsamer, and is introduced to the inner circle of the Elohimites. Disappointed by the lack of sexual activity, Daniel1 returns to Spain, meets Vincent in Pairs who bewilders Daniel1 with a phantasmagorical display of happiness in his basement, and plans a fake snuff film which he suspects he will never finish. Reviewing actresses in Spain, he comes across Esther (whom he creepily nicknames “Belle”, although never to her face). She is half his age and seemingly without inhibition or affect. Pages and pages and pages of sex take place. (I admit to skimming over the endless details of blowjobs etc. Fellatio seems to have a particular place of status in the Houellebecq Imaginary.) Daniel1 admits to feeling love for Esther, but, after awhile, signs on for another course with the Elohimites. The quasi-hippy encampment is gone, replaced by machine-gun toting guards and twelve young Brides of the Prophet, one of whom performs fellatio (enough already!) on the Prophet, whose fear of aging is palpable. Daniel1 is once again accompanied by Vincent, who has fallen in love with Sarah, one of the Brides. Various rituals are enacted, and Daniel1 is shown the great secret of the Elohim Church - scientific experiments (under the direction of “Knowall” as the narrator calls him) into cloning and the transfer of psychological data (memory, personality) into the cloned body in order to preserve life infinitely. Daniel1 is inducted into even stranger matters till: the Prophet, whose sexual appetites are not confined to the Brides, is killed in a fit of jealousy by one of his followers, who commits suicide. The Plot is hatched: Vincent, who reveals that he is the Prophet’s son from an earlier dalliance in footloose 1960’s California (Houellebecq’s Patient Zero, if you like), suggests that he take the Prophet’s place as “proof” that Knowall’s experiments are successful. Murders are committed, bodies dispatched, and, with the world’s media assembled, the Hoax begins. Without any great display of moral outrage, a stunned Daniel1 returns to Spain and, he thinks, to Esther. He has also left the Church with a sample of his DNA in order to ensure his silence.

Esther has kept herself busy and, while still engaging Daniel1 in sexual trysts (mercifully brief descriptions this time around), has clearly developed a life of her own. Daniel1 longs to be a part:

I remember an evening, it could have been 10 p.m., there were a dozen or so of us in a car and everyone was talking with great animation about the merits of various clubs, the ones that were more house, the others more trance. For ten minutes, I was dying to say to them that I, too, wanted to enter this world, to have fun with them, to stay up all night; I was ready to beg them to take me. The, by accident, I saw my reflection in a window, and I understood. I looked my forty something years; my face was careworn, stiff, marked by the experience of life, by responsibilities and sorrows; I didn’t look at all look someone you could imagine having fun; I was condemned.

In desperation, Daniel1 returns to Paris, where he meets Vincent (the new Prophet) again, who is slowly developing a more corporate atmosphere (in contrast to the self-indulgently hippy commune of the previous Prophet) for the Church. He returns again to Spain, where he learns that Esther has been given a part in a movie to be shot in America. A party is arranged that swiftly becomes an orgy; Daniel1 is rejected over and over again and sinks into alcoholic misery. He leaves and, with Vincent’s recommendation, begins writing his “life story,” including the events at the Church of Elohim. He re-unites with Isabella and both of them, for a time, commiserate with each other on wasted opportunities and the increasing approach of their own deaths. Daniel1 expounds on the Elohimites’ promise of immortality and she agrees to give the Church a sample of her DNA as well as her estate after she dies: “’Immortality then…,’ she said. ‘It would be like a second chance.’”

At this point, Daniel1’s narration becomes abstract, trying to pass over years over the Church’s steady rise to prominence, eclipsing Christianity and Islam. (Houellebecq does not resist the temptation to make some nasty remarks about the latter.) All of this is due to Vincent’s deft combination of corporate savvy and a strong sense of what J. G. Ballard described as the “spinal landscape”; by providing Western Civilization with the dreams it needs, the Church’s rise to power is, with careful administration, inevitable. Isabella, in the mean time, has killed herself following her mother’s death. Daniel1, now completely without meaningful human contact, drifts around Spain and France and more and more into Vincent’s spell, as the promise of immortality provides him with what he feels he signally lacks - hope. He tries to contact Esther again, who rebuffs him and, as we learn indirectly, commits suicide.

I am not usually given over to extensive plot summaries, but this main narrative is importantly supplemented by the narrative of Daniel24/25. This narrative is simple enough, until the very end: Daniel24, deteriorating, communicates to Marie22 in “code” (actually, rather bad poetry that I can only hope is a translation problem rather than anything else) until Marie22 is replaced by Marie 23. Daniel24 dies and is replaced by Daniel25 who continues his task of providing “commentary” on Daniel1’s “life story.” Marie23 leaves the protective enclosure in which the “neohumans” reside and, after awhile so does Daniel25. He attempts to travel to what was once Lanzarote (site of the original Church of Elohim) where a colony of neohumans is rumored to exist. He encounters humans and is repelled by their social habits (including, inevitably, a description of the their mating behaviour) until he reaches what was once the Mediterranean. Able to survive on the mineral salts provided by the seawater, Daniel25 estimates that he will live for another sixty years before ceasing to exist forever.
At one point, Daniel25 gives a description of what the neohumans believe, worth citing in full as it contains the germ of the entire novel:

In the beginning was created the Supreme Sister, who is the first. Then were created the Seven Founders, who created the Central City. If the teachings of the Supreme Sister are the basis of our philosophical theories, the political organization of the neohuman communities owes almost everything to the Seven Founders; but it was only, by its own true admission, an inessential parameter, conditioned by biological evolutions, which had increased the functional autonomy of the neohumans, as much as by historical shifts, already widely begun in previous societies, that led to to the withering away of relationship functions. The reasons that led to a radical separation between neohumans have nothing absolute about them, and everything indicates that this took place only in a gradual manner, probably over the course of several generations. To tell the truth, total physical separation constitutes a possible social configuration, comparable with the teachings of the Supreme Sister, and generally along the same lines as them, rather than being a consequence of them in the strict sense of the word.

The disappearance of contact was followed by that of desire. I had felt no physical attraction to Marie23 - no more naturally than I hadn’t felt for Esther31 [Esther’s clone], who had, anyway, passed the age of arousing those kind of manifestations. I was convinced that neither Marie23, despite her departure, nor Marie22, despite the strange episode preceding her end, related to by my predecessor, had known desire either. [Before ending, Marie23 requested Daniel24 to tune his webcam onto his penis.] On the other hand what they had known, and in a singular painful way, was the nostalgia for desire, the wish to experience it again, to be irradiated like their distant ancestors with that force that seemed so powerful. Although Daniel1 shows himself, on this theme of nostalgia for desire, particularly eloquent, I have for my part been spared the phenomenon up until now, and it is with the greatest calm that I discuss with Esther31 the detail of the relations between our respective predecessors; on her part, she displays a coolness that is at least equivalent to mine, and it is without regret, without distress, that we leave one another at the end of our occasional intermediations, and return to our calm, contemplative lives, which would probable have appeared, to humans of the classical age, unbelievably boring.

The existence of residual mental activity, detached from all everyday concerns and oriented toward pure knowledge, constitutes on of the key points of the teachings of the Supreme Sister; up until now nothing has allowed its existence to be put into doubt.

A limited calendar, punctuated by sufficient episodes of mini-grace (such as are offered by the sun slipping across the shutters, or the sudden retreat, under the violent wind from the north, of a threatening cloud formation) organizes my existence, the precise duration of which is an indifferent parameter. Identical to Daniel24, I know that I will have, in Daniel26, an equivalent successor; the limited, respectable memories we keep of existences that have identical contours do not have any pregnancy that would be necessary for an individual fiction to take hold. The life of each man, in its broad brushstrokes, is similar, and this secret truth, hidden throughout the historical periods, was able to find expression only in the neohumans. Rejecting the incomplete paradigm of form, we aspire to rejoin the universe of countless potentialities. Closing the brackets on becoming, we are from now on in unlimited, indefinite stasis.


The implications of this passage will be taken up in a following (soon!) in the light of Jameson’s work on (anti)Utopias.

* Writing about clones presents rather cumbersome grammatical difficulties; for the purposes of expediency and clarity, I’m going to cut the they/he palaver and treat Daniel24 and Daniel25 as “one person,” which, in a very particular sense, they are.

** This “Church” has some similarity to the Raëlians in the south of France who claimed, in 2002, to have successfully cloned a human being on instructions from super-intelligent extraterrestrials. Apparently, Houellebecq spent time at a Raël retreat, and the Raëlians praised Possibility for its sympathetic treatment of their…um “beliefs”, although given what happens, I really can’t imagine why.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, I am almost 100% in agreement with you