I hated this book. I can’t even remember who suggested it or exactly why (it must have been something to do with the work I’m doing on our culture of suspicion and alienation) – but that’s probably just as well! Michel Houellebecq’s ATOMISED came out in France in 1999, and then in English translation in 2000: and caused uproar, scorn and derision, as well as some literary plaudits and admirers. And it’s a weird, disturbing hybrid of fairly profound cultural and philosophical analysis, with vulgar, brutal, and frankly pornographic, descriptions of human relationships gone awry. So there we have it: a ringing endorsement from Q. That should send the book shooting back up the bestseller lists then! It seeks to capture the fin de siècle despair around the Millennium, to offer a bleak projection of where European society is heading. Near the book’s close, in late December 1999, we read that
All across the surface ofthe globe, a weary, exhausted humanity, filled with self-doubt and uncertain of its history, prepared itself as best it could to enter a new millennium. (p354)
In fact it is quite explicit that in a post-Christian, secular Europe, this is effectively a mass suicide. So in describing the (too) late-blossoming love between the protagonist and an old school friend, Houellebecq says, “In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear that they had no chance.” (p284) So any sane reader will question why on earth I carried on reading such a depressing and depraved book. I’m not really sure – except for the fact that I hate not finishing books, that I skipped through the worst bits, and that in between the crudity, there were flashes of extraordinary if abrasively honest insight. There’s certainly no glorying in the pornographic – so in some ways this is a sort of “Anti-50 Shades of Grey”.
Atomised could only have been written by a French writer – for who else could merge populism and high-brow philosophy except someone nurtured in the intellectual, Gitanes-smoking cafe world of Sartre and Camus. Two half brothers, (Bruno and Michel) sons of a daughter of the 60s sexual revolution, battle through the last decades of the 20th Century with despair that comes from secular freedom and a fear of scientific determinism. It’s no surprise that a number of those close to them end up committing suicide. Looming large in the background was the radical experimentation of Aldous Huxley, with his dystopian vision Brave New World clearly influential. But while the assumption is that Christianity is dead and irrecoverable, there is a mourning for its loss.
It is a fallacy that such metaphysical mutations gain ground only in weakened societies or those in decline. When Christianity appeared, the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organised, it dominated the known world. It’s technical and military prowess had no rival; nonetheless, it had no chance. When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained man and the universe; it was the basis for the government of peoples, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution of wealth; none of these was sufficient to prevent its downfall. (p4)
Speaking of the radical circles that Bruno and Michel’s mother moved in:
Although their politics were notionally left-wing, these [1970s] magazines embraced the ideals of the entertainment industry: individual freedom, the supremacy of youth over age and the destruction of Judaeo-Christian values. (p63)
Philosophy always gets personal
But when those youths grow old, their supremacy dies and they are cast off. Prevailing attitudes to life’s beginnings and ends have been transformed:
Christian doctrine, which had long been the dominant moral force in Western civilisation, accorded unconditional importance to every human life from conception to death. The significance was linked to the belief in the existence within the body of a soul – which was by definition immortal and would ultimately return to God. In the 19th and 20th centuries, advances in biology gave rise to a more determinist anthropology, radically different in its assumptions and significantly more moderate in its ethical counsel. On one hand, this change meant that the foetus, a small collection of steadily subdividingcells, was no longer recognised as a viable individual except by consensus (absence of genetic defects, parental consent). On the other hand, the new concept of human dignity meant that the elderly, a collection of steadily failing organs, had the right to life only as long as they continued to function. The ethical problems posed by the extremes of youth and age (abortion, and some decades later, euthanasia) would become the battleground for different and radically antagonistic worldviews.
The agnosticism at the heart of the French republic would facilitate the progressive, hypocritical and slightly sinister triumph of the determinist worldview. Though never overtly discussed, the question of the value of human life would nonetheless continue to preoccupy the liberal conscience. It would be true to say that in the last years of Western civilisation it contributed to a general mood of depression bordering on masochism. (p79-80)
In a closed, mechanistic universe, it is profoundly lonely:
One morning, at about eleven o’clock, [Michel] lay down on the grass beneath some indeterminate trees. He was surprised by how miserable he felt. Far removed from the Christian notions of grace and redemption, and hostile to the concepts of freedom and compassion, Michel’s world view had grown pitiless and mechanical. Once the parameters for interaction were defined, he thought, and allowing for initial conditions, actions took place in an empty, spiritless space; each inexorably predetermined. What happened was meant to happen; it could not be otherwise; no one was to blame. (p104)
The Ironies of Liberty
The characters testify to the grim iron of the chains from their liberty. Bruno spends time at a relic of the 60s, a holiday park on the Mediterranean coast dedicated to free love and hippy happiness:
Dedicated exclusively to sexual liberation and desire, the Lieu du Changement naturally became a place of depression and bitterness. Farewell to limbs entwined in a clearing under the full moon! Farewell to the quasi-Dionysian spectacle of oiled bodies glistening under the midday sun. … In 1987, the first quasi-religious workshops appeared at the Lieu. Christianity was excluded, of course, but a sufficiently nebulous mysticism – for these people were spiritually impoverished – dovetailed neatly with the cult of the body beautiful which, against all sense, they continued to promote. (p126)
And there are even crueller ironies to this new-found ‘freedom’:
It is interesting to note that the ‘sexual revolution’ is usually portrayed as a communist utopia, whereas in fact it was simply another stage in the rise of the individual. As the lovely phrase ‘hearth and home’ suggests, the couple and the family were to be the last bastion of primitive communism in a liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day. (p135)
After Bruno’s visit, Michel took to his bed for two whole weeks. How could society function without religion? He wondered. It is difficult enough for an individual human being. (p193)
Was it possible to think of Bruno as an individual? The decay of his organs was particular to him, and he would suffer his decline and death as an individual? On the other hand, his hedonistic world view and the forces that shaped his consciousness and his desires were common to an entire generation. (p212)
So a happy time was had by all. I wouldn’t recommend this book. In fact, I think I’m going to get rid of it asap. But I couldn’t help but feel the anguish of, and even admire, Houellebecq’sbrutal facing of facts. There’s no room for denial here.
And to that extent he has done a brave service.