Review

The Punk-Prophet Philosophy of Michel Houellebecq

The success of France’s most famous novelist has less to do with art and knowledge than anxiety and rock ’n’ roll.

Author Michel Houellebecq smokes.
Author Michel Houellebecq smokes.
Author Michel Houellebecq makes an appearance after an awards ceremony in Berlin on Sept. 26, 2016. Michele Tantussi/Getty Images/Foreign Policy Illustration
By , professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7).

Many people, even in France, have by now forgotten a small detail of the fateful day of Jan. 7, 2015, when members of a Paris al Qaeda cell stormed the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 cartoonists, writers, and editors. A new issue of the publication had just hit the newsstands, and all over the city, on its cover, was the caricatured image of a sickly, haggard Michel Houellebecq with a pointed magician’s cap, smoking a cigarette, looking like some untouchable warlock. “Predictions of the Magus Houellebecq”, the cover read.

The occasion for this satirical treatment was Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, whose official publication date was the very day of the attacks. In it, Houellebecq imagines a France of the near future in which the citizenry, atomized and starved of meaning in their post-Christian anomie, elect a Muslim leader into power and are converted en masse for life in a French Islamic theocracy.

Of course, what Houellebecq describes has not in fact come to pass. The novel is itself a satire, not an account of future events. And this is very much in accordance with Houellebecq’s own self-conception as a writer. His role, he maintains (in speaking of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), is not to predict but to give voice to the fears of an epoch. “The writer—me, Orwell, or someone else—feels an anxiety in his contemporaries and he expresses it in a book. That’s what drives the process,” Houellebecq said in a 2015 interview included in his new collection of occasional pieces, Interventions 2020, which was published in France two years ago and will be released in English translation next month.

Author Michel Houellebecq smokes.

Author Michel Houellebecq makes an appearance after an awards ceremony in Berlin on Sept. 26, 2016. Michele Tantussi/Getty Images/Foreign Policy Illustration

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Many people, even in France, have by now forgotten a small detail of the fateful day of Jan. 7, 2015, when members of a Paris al Qaeda cell stormed the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 cartoonists, writers, and editors. A new issue of the publication had just hit the newsstands, and all over the city, on its cover, was the caricatured image of a sickly, haggard Michel Houellebecq with a pointed magician’s cap, smoking a cigarette, looking like some untouchable warlock. “Predictions of the Magus Houellebecq”, the cover read.

The occasion for this satirical treatment was Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, whose official publication date was the very day of the attacks. In it, Houellebecq imagines a France of the near future in which the citizenry, atomized and starved of meaning in their post-Christian anomie, elect a Muslim leader into power and are converted en masse for life in a French Islamic theocracy.

Book cover of Michel Houellebecq's Interventions 2020

Interventions 2020, Michel Houellebecq, translated by Andrew Brown, Polity, 314 pp., $25, May 2022

Of course, what Houellebecq describes has not in fact come to pass. The novel is itself a satire, not an account of future events. And this is very much in accordance with Houellebecq’s own self-conception as a writer. His role, he maintains (in speaking of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), is not to predict but to give voice to the fears of an epoch. “The writer—me, Orwell, or someone else—feels an anxiety in his contemporaries and he expresses it in a book. That’s what drives the process,” Houellebecq said in a 2015 interview included in his new collection of occasional pieces, Interventions 2020, which was published in France two years ago and will be released in English translation next month.

Left unstated by Houellebecq was what does not drive his process—clarity of thought or originality of style. His new volume underscores what has long been evident in his novels: that to appreciate him is hardly to think of him as a novelist or an intellectual at all. Houellebecq’s central form is public prophecy, performed in a mode that seems less inspired by French literature than American popular music.

What is a prophet? According to Baruch Spinoza (among Houellebecq’s favorite philosophers), prophecy involves no special power of intellect or reasoning. By Spinoza’s account, one would not have any good reason to think of prophets as “smart.” Rather, prophets are those who gets important things right almost in spite of themselves, as, say, Will Hunting might solve math problems without being able to tell you how he did it, and without the requisite set of background tastes and interests that, rightly or wrongly, are culturally associated with intelligence.

Houellebecq’s truth-speaking ability, similarly, has nothing to do with “cultivation,” in the French sense—with the expression of the cultural shibboleths through the mastery of which other writers might hope to jockey their way to winning the Prix Goncourt or gaining admission to the Legion of Honor. If we were to try to plot Houellebecq on the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s axis of high and low cultural tastes, he would be altogether off the charts. Houellebecq is, in his essence, a punk—the rarest of species in the French cultural ecology— and his work is imbued with a DIY spirit that occasionally comes across as a form of genius, again almost as if by mistake, but is more typically expressed as a sort of proud amateurishness.

In short-form or long, fiction or nonfiction, few would say Houellebecq is a dazzling writer. He does not plunge to the depths of language, nor does he appear to have much of an internal thesaurus. There would certainly be no reason to learn French if reading Houellebecq were your only purpose in doing so. A translation, such as Andrew Brown’s translation of Interventions 2020, will generally do the job just as well. Houellebecq himself likes to cite Arthur Schopenhauer’s observation that “[t]he first—and practically the only—condition of good style is having something to say.”

Consistently faithful to this theory of style, he sets for himself a standard as a writer that is at once too low and too high: too low, because it absolves him of any need to “work on language,” which many other writers take to be the primary task of their craft; and too high, because, at the moments when his lucidity of thought escapes him, it can be difficult to recall why he should be read at all.

This thin volume of almost 30 years’ worth of short journalistic pieces, interviews, correspondence, some sort of libretto, and various other texts, made up of material mostly unworthy of anthologizing, testifies to these deficiencies. Yet at scattered moments it also reminds us of the author has a rare power: the ability to predict at least the general form of the future.


The newspaper Charlie Hebdo featuring a caricature of Houellebecq

A person reads the Jan. 7, 2015, edition of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, featuring a caricature of Houellebecq, in Paris. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images

I often like Houellebecq when he is hopped up on enough anxiety to discern some general truth about the world. When he is instead sharing his enthusiasms, the things of which he positively approves, the author generally appears as an unashamed amateur, remarkably consistent across the decades, with virtually no clear markers of any transition from juvenilia to late style (which is almost certainly the phase he is in now). The present volume is made up, like some cotton-polyester blend, from 55 percent of the same material that was published in the previous edition of Houellebecq’s Interventions, in 2009, while the remaining 45 percent come from after that year.

If the “polyester” component dates from his earliest output in the 1990s, this is in part because much of his writing at the time was for the iconic French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, likely on topics assigned to him and subsequently synthesized into standard-fare journalism by unnamed editors. In these pieces we get a good view of Houellebecq’s scrappy origins and of what remains in some respects his true identity: He is, at bottom, a rock journalist, even if his later work indeed blossoms into something rather more expansive than what is typically found in this modest genre.

Houellebecq is, at bottom, a rock journalist, even if his later work indeed blossoms into something rather more expansive than what is typically found in this modest genre.

One of Houellebecq’s more endearing juvenile enthusiasms is his passion for quantum mechanics, his admiration for the physicist Niels Bohr, and his belief that culture has not yet caught up with the mind-blowing implications of 20th-century theoretical physics. In a typical 1995 interview with Jean-Yves Jouannais and Christophe Duchâtelet, the author warns: “We’re moving towards disaster, guided by a false image of the world; and no one realizes.” The problem, Houellebecq thinks, is that “we’re stuck in a mechanistic and individualistic view of the world,” as a result of which, he predicts, “we will die.”

Of course, many physicists and philosophers of science have themselves grappled with the problem of how to preserve what is sometimes called “the manifest image” of the world, while also accepting the reality of such puzzling phenomena as quantum superposition. Many believe our minds are simply so evolved as to keep us constantly convinced of the reality of midsized physical objects, of individual humans and animals, of all that is “manifest,” even if our best theory tells us it’s all in fact a lot more complicated than that. If failure to think in consistently quantum-theoretical terms leads to death, one would want to ask Houellebecq what it’s like to pass one’s time in a state of such profound enlightenment that even Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger only dipped into it as their work required. But of course Houellebecq is in no such state. He is not living each moment in full light of the implications of quantum theory, and his insistence that we must do so reminds us more of the common than of the exceptional quality of his mind.

In an essay in Les Inrocks published the same year as this interview, Houellebecq discusses a classic work of the theorist Jean Cohen titled Structure du langage poétique (The Structure of Poetic Language, 1966). (The magazine is roughly France’s equivalent to Rolling Stone, but France being France naturally it features some rather more high-brow topics than you might expect to find in the homologous American publication.) Poetry, Cohen believes, “leads to a general dissolution of reference points: object, subject, world merge into the same affective and lyrical atmosphere.” Houellebecq contrasts this cognitive-emotional state with the atomism of an influential pre-Socratic philosopher: “The metaphysics of Democritus,” he writes, “brings these two distinctions to their maximum clarity (a blinding clarity, the dazzle of the sun on white stones, on an August afternoon: ‘It’s nothing but atoms and the void’).” But because Democritean atomism is, as Houellebecq puts it, “wrong,” society is in turn wrong to condemn poetry as “the attractive residue of a prelogical mentality, that of the primitive or the child.”

In a letter the following year, published in the magazine 20 Ans, Houellebecq provides a clearer accounting than before for his rather extreme view that an inadequate folk physics condemns us as a civilization. The problem, he thinks, is that dogmatic adherence to mechanism or atomism (terms Houellebecq uses interchangeably) leaves poetry nowhere solid to rest and compels it to dwell, homeless and impotent, between our untenable classical-mechanical dogmas concerning “reality” on the one hand, and irresponsible New Age zealotry on the other. “If, the minute it tries to speak of the world, poetry sees itself so easily accused of metaphysical or mystical tendencies, this is for one simple reason: between mechanistic reductionism and New Age silliness, there’s nothing left. Nothing. A terrifying intellectual nothingness, a total desert,” he writes.

While we might doubt that improved science literacy is the solution, Houellebecq is at least right to discern that in the contemporary world there is no place for poetry.

While we might doubt that improved science literacy is the solution, Houellebecq is at least right to discern that in the contemporary world there is no place for poetry. His account of why this is so is a slightly disguised but in the end fairly common romanticism. Poetry discloses truths that everyday prosaic speech, including science, is “not ready to hear.” One might still wonder however what a fully “quantized” poetry would look like or what its effect would be. If the wonder of poetry is that it collapses the subject-object-world distinction even without a physical or metaphysical theory that would justify doing this, isn’t the lesson sooner that poetry does not need quantum mechanics in order to apprehend the world as it is, rather than that it does need it?

Lest we think the quantum rabbit hole was only a phase in Houellebecq’s development as a thinker, it is important to emphasize that well into the 2010s the author remains happy to indulge in pure philosophical improvisation on the slightest pretext, particularly when invited to make a straw man of René Descartes. Thus in an interview with Marin de Viry and Valérie Toranian in 2015, his interlocutors ask: “This dissociation between the cogito and the ‘I am’ in everyone, is it serious, and is it new?” to which Houellebecq replies, incongruously: “The word ‘anomie’ would work here. It’s serious, in the sense that it makes everyone miserable. And it’s a question of age, not of background. … Up to a certain age, when we flit from this to that, variety can be distracting. Then fatigue intervenes, along with a reduction in the possibilities of life.” This is not, to say the least, much of an answer to a question about the fate of Descartes’s argument for certain self-knowledge. But it shows at least that the author is still at it; nor has he done much in the intervening 20 years to come up with any sharper analysis of the complexities of modern philosophy and metaphysics.

It may be that it is this self-taught and amateur quality of Houellebecq’s intellectualism, more than anything he actually believes, that makes him such a natural hero of the Anglophone “post-left” and of the “doomer” right and right-adjacent scenes on social media. Houellebecq doesn’t get better, but he just keeps getting, to adopt the terminology of social apps, “back on his bullshit.” And “we love to see it.”


Michel Houellebecq stands next to an X-ray of his skull

Houellebecq stands next to an X-ray of his skull at an exhibition at Manifesta 11, the roving European biennial of contemporary art, in Zurich on June 10, 2016. Houellebecq showed X-rays and other visual references to his head and body in an exhibition titled “Is Michel Houellebecq OK?” FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Again, Houellebecq is often endearing when he’s on his quantum-theory high; it’s when he turns his attention from matters of theory to matters of taste that a fuller view of Houellebecq’s limits starts to emerge, and one begins to wonder what qualities his occasional pieces possess that a typical anonymous blog post lacks. This question grows from a whisper to an internal shout while reading Interventions when we come to the entry Houellebecq wrote for Neil Young in the Dictionnaire du rock of 2000. The musician’s most beautiful records, Houellebecq writes, “are undoubtedly those that oscillate between sadness, loneliness, daydreaming and peaceful happiness. … Neil Young’s songs are made for those who are often unhappy, lonely, approaching the gateways of despair—but who continue to believe that happiness is possible.” If many of Houellebecq’s pieces for Les Inrocks seem scarcely more anthology-worthy than your typical Rolling Stone article, this entry on Neil Young would not be out of place among the comments beneath a video of Young performing “Heart of Gold” on YouTube.

It does invite us, at least, to reflect for a moment on what it means for a French littérateur to like Young. From the very beginning, France has had a peculiar relationship to rock music. In the golden age between, say, 1968 and 1972, when krautrock was incipient in Germany and when other European countries had their own idiosyncratic strains of guitar-based rebellion, with the exception of a few high-concept art-rock ensembles like Magma, the youth of Paris remained enthralled mostly by the indigenous legacy of chanson, alongside mostly imported jazz. When popular French musicians such as Johnny Hallyday went rock ’n’ roll, this was really just a vein of commercial kitsch Americana, often fetishizing the American Southwest in particular, largely sharing the same aesthetic as a cologne ad featuring Johnny Depp glowering in the desert.

It is still somewhat surprising to be reminded of that small minority of French people who really are rock ’n’ roll in their deepest identity.

It is thus still somewhat surprising to be reminded of that small minority of French people who really are rock ’n’ roll in their deepest identity: Like French Protestants, French libertarians, or French analytic philosophers, they are adopting something strongly associated with Anglo-Saxon culture and history, and making it much more their own than it ever could be for someone who is simply born into it. Houellebecq is a rock ’n’ roll writer in a way that Hallyday is not, or was not, a rock ’n’ roll musician.

This is a dimension of Houellebecq’s personality that puzzles his countryman and fellow writer Frédéric Beigbeder, who offers one of the most delightful interludes in the volume, a 2014 dialogue with Houellebecq in Lui (the iconic French magazine with a bare-breasted woman on every issue’s cover). Early in their free-floating conversation, Houellebecq quantifies his smoking habit: “I’m on four packs a day right now. I don’t think I could write without nicotine. That’s why I can’t slow down right now.” To which Beigbeder replies: “Can we talk about your dental problem?”

Houellebecq seems to be at his prime in this conversation, and it is touching to see how he comes alive under the spell of what appears to be a real friendship with Beigbeder. He is happy to talk about his teeth, though he is somewhat less happy to be compared to Serge Gainsbourg, as the model of a specific sort of genius French wastrel. Houellebecq insists that being compared to Gainsbourg annoys him, and if this disavowal is at all convincing, it is surely because he is never more sincere than when speaking of his love of real rock ’n’ roll, not simply as in a Gainsbourgian paean to Ford Mustangs or to Bonnie and Clyde (barely a cut above what Hallyday could conjure in his own American lyricism), but in telling us bluntly and honestly that discovering Iggy Pop and the Stooges remains “one of the greatest joys of my life.”

One of the funniest moments in Houellebecq’s 2001 novel Platform comes early on, when the 40-something protagonist, about to depart for a sex-tourism jaunt in Thailand, pulls a Radiohead T-shirt over his fat gut and briefly contemplates his own absurdity. This is a situation in which no Gainsbourg, no Léo Ferré, no adept of French chanson would ever find himself. The great stars of chanson are, in their essence, old—or, rather, as they age they grow ever more into what they truly are. Rock ’n’ roll is a good deal less kind to its children as they grow up, as their bodies change and they appear increasingly out of place in its attire and its milieux. Chanson, the French popular genre par excellence, excels at producing dirty old men, who have, at least traditionally, lived their lives unapologetically, inhabiting their roles as the éminences grises of music the way Dominique Strauss-Kahn inhabited his spot at the top of a decadent and libertine elite, at least until he was brought low by a sudden change in the cultural winds. For Houellebecq the aging punk, by contrast, aging is a problem—which is to say both that he is a master at problematizing it in his literary work and that, in his real life, he is quite plainly not aging well. Just look at him.


Michel Houellebecq’s face appears on a screen at a rock concert

Singer Jean-Louis Aubert (bottom) performs at a tribute concert to Houellebecq in Lille, France, on Nov. 29, 2014. Helene Pambrun/Paris Match via Getty Images

In the actual content of his political statements, though he is beloved by edgy Anglophones, Houellebecq often sounds less like an edgy Twitter insult artist than like a conservative Facebook uncle. There is a wariness of collective projects that runs through many of these pieces, with roots in an intellectual conservatism extending back to Edmund Burke. Thus he says plainly in the 2015 interview with de Viry and Toranian: “It’s true that I’m not a revolutionary. The very term ‘collective happiness’ provokes a kind of terror in me. The idea that society wants to take care of my happiness doesn’t inspire me with friendly feelings.” But the high-minded Burkean wariness often gives way, in the face of concrete social phenomena like feminism or political correctness, to a predictable and cranky reaction. Thus in a 2000 essay (“Humanity, the Second Stage”): “I’ve always considered feminists to be amiable dimwits [d’aimables connes].” And in a 2002 interview with Christian Authier: “The terrible thing is the extent to which you can’t say anything anymore. … Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Spinoza wouldn’t be accepted today. Political correctness, in its current form, makes almost all of Western philosophy unacceptable.” Our uncle on Facebook, too, would fail to note that Spinoza was hardly accepted in his day, either, and that in general it has always been dangerous to be a philosopher. Yet even on the tired subject of political correctness Houellebecq occasionally allows a sort of lucidity to shine right through the fatigue: “People get tired of saying bad things about a thing, but the thing doesn’t get tired of existing.”

Again and again throughout the volume, there seems to be a paradoxically inverse correlation between the possession of knowledge and the speaking of truth.

More endearing still than Houellebecq’s half-informed convictions are his admissions of ignorance. The sharp 2019 essay, “Donald Trump Is a Good President,” which previously appeared in Harper’s in English translation, makes the bland adjective “good” (bon) do a remarkable amount of ironic labor. But it’s Houellebecq’s early admission in the piece that he has no idea, for example, whether John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson bears relatively more blame for the war in Vietnam that makes him come across as such a lucid reader of American agency in the world. Again and again throughout the volume, there seems to be a paradoxically inverse correlation between the possession of knowledge and the speaking of truth, so that when Houellebecq gets something profoundly right one still has the impression of a simple mistake, and often his most clear-sighted prognostications are adorned with straightforward factual errors.

Thus in one remarkable passage of the 2015 interview already cited, Houellebecq says of Russia: “[T]hey don’t produce much. They’re patriots, they really love their president. It’s a bit strange. In general, you stop being a patriot when your country has overstepped the mark. In France, it took a war. In Germany, it took two to stop them being patriots. In Russia, they only got one. They shed a lot of blood. Maybe it would take a second war for them to stop being patriots.” Houellebecq has a strange way of counting wars; as far as I know all three of the countries mentioned went through both world wars, and all three preserved at least some patriotism after the first one. And yet, in his half-ignorance, in his non-rigor, Houellebecq is saying something joltingly true: about Russia, and war, and the tragedy of misplaced patriotism.


Michel Houellebecq smokes

Houellebecq participates in the 35th edition of the Francofolies music festival in La Rochelle, France, on July 13, 2019. XAVIER LEOTY/AFP via Getty Images

Brown’s translation is generally very good—again, Houellebecq does not use the French language in a way that might be expected to pose significant difficulty to a translator—though a few occasions on which Houellebecq rises to a pithiness almost reminiscent of the moralist François de La Rochefoucauld are simply missed in Brown’s English rendering. Thus in a 1996 article about parties in 20 Ans, Houellebecq writes: “En résumé, il suffit d’avoir prévu de s’amuser pour être certain de s’emmerder,” which I would (also somewhat inadequately) translate as: “In sum, it’s enough to anticipate having fun to end up being bored as hell,” but which Brown renders as: “In short, all you need do is plan to have fun; that way, you can be sure you’ll get bored.” Houellebecq, however, is not advising you on how to end up bored but rather the contrary: “Don’t plan, lest you end up bored,” rather than “Plan, so that you may end up bored.” Neither sounds great in English, but in translation we are often faced with a choice between elegance and accuracy, and here Brown seems to have rejected both together.

Because this volume of Interventions brings us into 2020, we are able to see toward the end of it Houellebecq’s reactions to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and of France’s first nationwide lockdown. In a letter read on the France Inter radio channel on May 4, 2020, the author speaks of “[a] banal virus, unglamorously related to obscure influenza viruses, with poorly understood survival conditions and unclear characteristics, sometimes benign, sometimes fatal, not even sexually transmitted: in short, a virus without qualities.” So far, respectable enough, as early pandemic commentary goes—nearly all of which has turned out in hindsight to have been at best unnecessary and at worst actively harmful. But then Houellebecq proceeds to say something unforgettable, because it’s exactly right about where we have ended up two years down the line: “We won’t wake up, after lockdown, in a new world,” he writes. “[I]t will be the same world, but a bit worse.”

Forget the high satire of Submission or the low and common ethnic prejudices that underlie it; forget the Facebook uncle adorning what he says with the predictable complaint that he “can’t” say it; forget the run-of-the-mill fandoms Houellebecq has professed for Bohr or Young or Pop. Think of our world and how it turned out to be in spite of all the mad predictions that both wildly underestimated and overestimated its transformation by COVID-19. This is the same world as before, but a bit worse, and it took a resolute romantic pessimist to feel the world’s fear and to distill it, as if spontaneously, into something as unexpected as it is true.

The best prophets, it may be, are mediocre people; some of them may write literature, but that is incidental, and it’s fairly disconnected from any question of what it is that makes literature good. Houellebecq’s occasional pieces are a valuable guide for thinking through the complex relationship between his ultimate mediocrity and his power, which comes and goes, to say things so true as to shake you.

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7).

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