THE POSSIBILITY OF AN ISLAND
By Michel Houellebecq
No man is an island . . . which is a shame if you’re Michel Houellebecq and you take such a dim view of human nature and society that you like to imagine a post-human (it’s called neohuman here) future where, in fulfillment of Nietzschean prophecy, mankind has been surpassed. “I hated mankind, it’s true,” narrator Daniel says in The Possibility of an Island. A confession that most readers are likely to see as a statement of the obvious. Does such a misanthropic attitude make the world seem a lonely place? The advice Daniel/Houellebecq offers is simple: Get a dog.
Nor is this weltschmerz simply Daniel’s subjective response to his world. The whole human race and this “shipwreck of a civilization” is ready to commit suicide, disgusted as much by the thought of reproducing itself (just think of all of those “screams, dribbles, excrements, and other environmental inconveniences that usually accompany little brats”) as of growing old. Though growing old is, in fact, Daniel’s greatest anxiety. And the reason is simple: Old people don’t fuck.
It is an old complaint, especially among writers who like to equate virility with other creative output. For such as these the waning of one’s physical prowess isn’t just the main thing, it’s the only thing. Sex is all that matters, the whole purpose of one’s existence. An obvious recent example of the genre is Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. Houellebecq’s Daniel is, if anything, even more strident and less metaphorical in his insistence upon the essential phallus than Zuckerman: “All energy is of a sexual nature, not mainly, but exclusively, and when the animal is no longer good for reproducing, it is absolutely no longer good for anything.” But since nobody wants kids any more, and it’s getting harder for Daniel to have an erection, all of that energy is just dissolving into a puddle of entropy. “How simple, indeed existence was! And how devoid it was of any way out!” Or, to put it another way, “throughout my entire life I hadn’t been interested in anything other than my cock, now my cock was dead and I was in the process of following it in its deathly decline.” If only!
Not only does sexual desire not disappear, but with age it becomes even crueler, more more wrenching and insatiable – and even among those, quite rare, men who whose hormonal secretions, erections, and all associated phenomena disappear, the attraction to young female bodies does not diminish, it becomes, and this is maybe even worse, cosa mentale, the desire for desire. This is the truth, this is the evidence, this is what, tirelessly, all serious authors have constantly repeated.
What to do, what to do. Deliverance will come not through aestheticism (as Roth, on a good day, suggests) but asceticism. The neohuman revolution is a genetically-engineered Nirvana, one that has done away the “two pernicious factors” of money and sex in order to rejoin the “obvious neutrality of the real” (though the neohumans still masturbate to webcam porn out of feelings of “nostalgia”). The last in a long line of Daniel-clones gives a good summary of this post-apocalyptic sunyata:
I was, like all neohumans, immune to boredom; some limited memories, some pointless daydreams occupied my detached, floating consciousness. I was, however, a long way from joy, and even from real peace; the sole fact of existing is already a misfortune. Departing from, at my own free will, the cycle of rebirths and deaths, I was making my way toward a simple nothingness, a pure absence of content.
A lot of this, from the metaphysics to the SF plot, echoes Houellebecq’s breakout novel The Elementary Particles. The main difference here is the humour, the product, I think, of Houellebecq’s awareness that radical materialism and naturalism do not offer a realistic vision of human nature. This leads, in turn, to a pretty fantastic plot. Indeed it is made to seem even more ridiculous than necessary – a psychedelic stew complete with absurd pornographic fantasies (including the “hot young thing who can’t help falling into bed with the older intellectual” cliché) and a secret compound that plays like something straight out of an Austin Powers movie. But does he protest against the kitsch art and empty values of the counterculture too much? Might it be that Houellebecq is a closet romantic, satirizing with Sadean brio a brave new world that has no place in it for art, love or that “oceanic feeling” of selflessness?
I think such a mellowing not just possible but likely. Getting older does that to you.
Review first published online May 24, 2010.