“Life’s great happiness is to be convinced we are loved.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862)
Among the many types of mental fallacies, confirmation bias has got to be my favourite. Mostly because I’m so often guilty of it. Confirmation bias means the tendency to seek out information that validates your assumptions and beliefs, in the process screening out those which don’t.
As much as I’d like to think of myself as some Minister of Literary Humanism, deep down I suspect that these ‘coincidences’ are less so manifestations of an uncanny ritual, as they are simply a testament to the fact that I read a lot of humanistic fiction, which, of course, is made up of events drawn from this activity called human living.
In hindsight, it really isn’t all that ‘coincidental’ for both Character A and I to secretly wish we could eat all the doughnuts in the world and not suffer any manifest consequences, or for both Character B and I to undergo existential crises from time to time when we ask ourselves just what the hell we are doing with our lives. These are pretty standard things humans think about, but don’t often say aloud.
Spelling out this pedestrian fact, however, makes everything a tad bit less magical, and holding on to magic is a necessary counterpoint to reality, lest you habituate yourself too much to the mundane, lose that last shred of doe-eyed wonder, and officially transition from Phase Adolescence to Phase Adulthood.
Even if it’s just magic in the mind (read: naïve delusions), I urge everyone to make space for its numinous residence. Amid the confusions and anxieties and blankness and Excel spreadsheets and the he said she said and what’s for lunch and what’s for dinner, magic deserves a place.
So keep it, don’t kill it. Because we all need it.
When daily reading and daily teaching coincide: Huxley’s Brave New World & Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles as intertextual brothers
All pseudo-philosophical lyricising aside, I noticed another one of these ‘coincidences’ between my reading and living last week (reading and teaching, to be precise, seeing as I teach for a living). Basically, the book I was reading – Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, turned out to be an updated, continental ‘response’ to the book I’ve been teaching my advanced students this term – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This I was not aware of until stumbling upon an extended allusion to the latter work in the former text.
Truth be told, I’m not really a fan of Huxley’s book (verdict in a nutshell: kooky AF, although hilarious at points), but reading about it as an allusion in Houellebecq’s novel opened up so many more interpretative avenues for me to understand Elementary Particles, I actually began to enjoy teaching Brave New World a lot more afterwards.
Without giving too much of the plot away, Elementary presents a late 20th century version of Huxley’s technotopia writ large. In Huxley’s original, the world is a place where people are so pain-averse they would rather numb themselves with drugs and sex than face up to any emotional or physical unpleasantness.
There is no pain of the heart because people can no longer feel; there is no pain of the flesh because people are too drugged up to register sensation; there is no pain in the soul because people, liberated from the burden of conscience and the need for consolation from faith, have become spiritually void.
When Huxley conceived his novel in 1930, ‘Brave New World’ was the product of a futuristic imagination; seventy years down the line, Houellebecq looks back on Huxley’s world as the legacy of human history, as a series of 20th century events that have already materialised, in the form of the post-war craze for ‘social stability’, the 60s New Age counterculture that arose in reaction to fifties staidness, and the dehumanising effects brought on by technologically-induced anomie.
In essence, Houellebecq’s book is at once a reverential homage and a tragic affirmation of Huxley’s prophecy –
When Bruno arrived at [his brother’s house at] about nine o’clock, he had already had a couple of drinks and was eager to talk philosophy. “I’ve always been struck by how accurate Huxley was in Brave New World,” he began before he’d even sat down. “It’s phenomenal when you think he wrote it in 1932. Everything that’s happened since simply brings Western society closer to the social model he described. Control of reproduction is more precise and eventually will be completely disassociated from sex altogether, and procreation will take place in tightly guarded laboratories where perfect genetic conditions are ensured. Once that happens, any sense of family, of father-son bonds, will disappear. Pharmaceutical companies will break down the distinction between youth and age.
In Huxley’s world, a sixty-year old man is as healthy as a man of twenty, looks as young and has the same desires. When we get to the point that life can’t be prolonged any further, we’ll be killed off by voluntary euthanasia; quick, discreet, emotionless. The society Huxley describes in Brave New World is happy; tragedy and extremes of human emotion have disappeared. Sexual liberation is total – nothing stands in the way of instant gratification. Oh, there are little moments of depression, of sadness or doubt, but they’re easily dealt with using advances in antidepressants and tranquilizers. ‘One cubic centimetre cures ten gloomy sentiments.’
This is exactly the sort of world we’re trying to create, the world we want to live in.
(p. 130, Vintage edition)
For me, the link between Huxley and Houellebecq’s novels is especially significant because I found them to be exceptionally challenging to read and/or to teach. After all, both authors have very little reservations about laying bare the rawest, most unpleasant, most awkward facets of human nature for us to see.
Houellebecq’s style in Elementary Particles isn’t ‘difficult (at least not in the Joycean sense), but the content and descriptions could be so emotionally taxing I’d sometimes have to stop for a while before returning to the book.
This is why, for today’s post, I’d like to invite you all to read The Elementary Particles with me, so that you, dear reader, can be your own judge of this book’s literary merit.
How to read a book in which no one is likeable: empathy, ‘happiness’ & judgment in The Elementary Particles
A quick Google search will tell you that Michel Houellebecq is known for being a powder keg in the contemporary literati, someone who has been branded a misogynist, an Islamophobe, a racist, and perhaps most damning of all (!), a pornographic writer whose works are “insolent”, “deeply repugnant” and cheap attempts at “café existentialism”. I was first introduced to his works by a fellow bibliophile who has read Houellebecq’s entire oeuvre and had spent over an hour trying to convince me that this French polemic may just be Sartre reincarnate.
Made curious by his impassioned literary advocacy and the novelty of me being on the receiving end of bibliographic evangelism, I decided to take the plunge and read The Elementary Particles, one of Houellebecq’s most famous works.
My verdict: It was one hell of a read, but Houellebecq is definitely not everyone’s cuppa, so be warned.
You know how there are books that have garnered so many reviews, you feel as though there’s not much else you can add to its already saturated commentarial landscape without sounding trite? Well, Elementary isn’t one of these books. Despite its status as a literary cause celebre, I actually disagree with Houellebecq’s critics on so many levels I’m not quite sure where to start.
A lot of readers consider the novel to be a really depressing portrait of modern humanity and a rant against the failure of Western capitalistic values, given the overwhelmingly unhappy lives of the half-brother protagonists, Bruno and Michel. I, on the other hand, see Houellebecq’s book more as a case study of ill-managed cultural expectations, presented with an impressively minimal amount of judgment or demagoguery in tow.
As a non-White and non-male reader, I can’t claim to empathise with Bruno’s sexual frustrations and the attendant unrestraint with which he fulfils them on a personal level, but the end goal that he’s striving to achieve throughout the novel – to find happiness through human intimacy – is a universal enough concern for me to at least see where he’s coming from.
I guess it’s the classic ‘Updikean’ syndrome of feeling bad for a dickhead because you know he’s only human, and as such is just as flawed as you are, warts and all, despite in very different ways.
Still, I feel like this haloisation of ‘Happiness’ as the end all and be all of human existence is a largely Western delusion construct, evidenced from as far back as Epicurus’ idea of virtue as a means to achieve happiness down to the American Declaration of Independence’s promise of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Growing up in a traditional Chinese household, I was never instilled with the notion that somehow life owes anyone happiness, or that ‘happiness’ is some god-given right each human being deserves to have.
Sure, happiness is worth striving for, but it’s never granted, and just because you don’t get it at any point in time doesn’t mean you’ve failed at life or that fate has it out for you. It probably just means you’re about as normal as the next person you see on the street.
And I feel that a lot of the characters in the book are miserable because they can’t wrap their heads around this awareness.
Notwithstanding the book’s pornographic excess and explicitness (most of which I think serves a legitimate purpose), I find it hard to read mostly because I don’t know whose ‘side’ to take without feeling a bit weird or bad about myself. No one is especially likeable in this story; everyone is just awkward and confused and scared shitless about where their lives are going because they don’t know what’s in store for tomorrow. Which sounds exactly like the stuff of human living, but magnified and condensed in 260 pages for shock impact.
What’s more, readers get VIP pass into the most private recesses of the characters’ bodies and bodily activities, which isn’t exactly a voyeuristic treat under Houellebecq’s callous (and at times, crass) pen.
I mean, how does one begin to sympathise with a sex-starved loser when one probably wouldn’t in real life? And does being repulsed by gauche characters make me a close-minded reader (or worse, a judgmental person)?
You see, then, just how hard it is to make up my mind about this book.
Diamonds in the rough: different women, same kind of tragedy
Still, for all the moral dilemma and mental discomfort that Houellebecq puts his readers through, there are some incredible, incredible moments in the novel: some painful, others touching, but all beautiful vignettes of human struggle coming together in a dappled narrative constellation. Among the many times I found myself having to put the book down for a few minutes before picking it up again, there are two scenes that I still think about from time to time. For me, they are also two of the saddest moments in Elementary, and are portraits of women cast in their most vulnerable pose, as they cling onto their last chance for love only to be thwarted once again by their inner demons.
The two women, Annick and Annabelle, are Bruno and Michel’s first loves, but here they are shown long after their relationship with the brothers had ended, now at the nadir of their disappointment with life, men and themselves.
The first scene below is a description of the suicide of Annick, an ugly village girl who Bruno lost his virginity to and bumped into by chance years later in Paris. The second scene hones in on the frustrations of Annabelle, who, having reconnected with Michel also as a result of a chance encounter in Paris, confesses to her fear of losing Michel again for a second time.
I realise that these are going to be slightly longer excerpts than usual, but I promise you they are well worth the time. After you give each a read, let me know which one you find more emotionally impactful (tragic/harrowing/upsetting/troubling) and why!
(1) Bruno & Annick
One evening [Bruno] ran into Annick as he came out of the Tunisian bakery. He hadn’t seen her since their brief meeting in the summer of ’74. She was uglier now, practically obese. She wore thick, square glasses with heavy black frames that made her brown eyes seem smaller and accentuated the sickly pallor of her skin. They had coffee together, both of them distinctly uneasy. She was also studying literature, at the Sorbonne; she had a studio apartment nearby, with a view of the boulevard Saint-Michel. She gave him her telephone number when they parted.
In the weeks that followed he went to see her several times. She was too ashamed of her body to get undressed, though she did offer to give him a blow-job the first night. She didn’t say it had anything to do with her body, rather that it was because she wasn’t on the pill. “Really, I prefer it…” She stayed in every night, never went out. She drank herbal tea, tried dieting, yet nothing seemed to work. Several times Bruno tried to take off her trousers, but she just curled up and pushed him away fiercely, without a word. He gave up and took out his penis. She would suck him off quickly, a little brutally, and he would come in her mouth. Sometimes they talked about their studies, but not often; he usually left quickly. True, she wasn’t very pretty and he would have been embarrassed to be seen with her on the street, in a restaurant or a movie line. He’d stuff himself with Tunisian pastries until he felt sick and then go to see her, get a blow-job and leave. It was probably best that way.
It was a mild night, the night Annick died. Though the end of March, already it felt like a spring evening. In the patisserie Bruno bought an almond turnover, then walked down along the banks of the Seine. The commentary from the loudspeakers of a bateau-mouche filled the air, echoing off the walls of Notre-Dame. He chewed his way through the sticky, honey-covered pastry, only to feel more disgusted with himself than ever. He thought perhaps he should try it right here, in the center of Paris, in the middle of everyone and everything. He closed his eyes, brought his feet together and folded his arms across his chest. Slowly, carefully, with complete concentration, he began to count. When he reached the magic sixteen he opened his eyes, lifted his head. The bateau-mouche had disappeared, the riverbank was deserted, the air as mild as before.
Two policemen were trying to disperse a small crowd gathered outside Annick’s building. Bruno went a little closer. The girl’s body lay smashed and strangely twisted on the sidewalk. Her shattered arms seemed to form two strange limbs around her head. Her face, or what was left of it, lay in a pool of blood. She obviously had brought her hands up to her face in a last, desperate reflex to protect herself from the impact. “Jumped from the seventh floor,” said a nearby woman, with odd satisfaction, “killed stone dead.” At that moment an ambulance arrived and two men got out carrying a stretcher. As they lifted her body he saw her shattered skull and turned away. The ambulance drove off in a howl of sirens. So ended Bruno’s first love.
All this, relayed in a sort of poetic matter-of-factness that forces one to grapple with the insignificance of an insignificant person’s death. What I find most upsetting, though, is the jarring combination of the almond turnover detail and the clinical coldness with which Bruno and the “nearby woman” examined Annick’s cadaver.
The take-away? Sweetness is transient, if not deceptive; cruelty, on the other hand, you can always count on as a ‘core competency’ in human nature.
(2) Michel & Annabelle
He had dinner at Annabelle’s the following evening and explained clearly and precisely why he had to move to Ireland. His research had been mapped out, everything was coming together. The important thing was not to become fixated on DNA, but to look at the living being as its own self-replicating system.
At first Annabelle didn’t say anything, though she couldn’t keep the corners of her mouth from turning down. Then she poured him another glass of wine; she’d cooked fish that evening, and more than ever her little studio seemed like a ship’s cabin.
“You weren’t planning to take me with you…” Her words resounded in the silence; the silence continued. “It didn’t even occur to you,” she said, her voice a mixture of surprise and childish petulance; then she burst into tears. He didn’t move, and if he’d made a gesture at that moment she would certainly have pushed him away; you have to let people cry, it’s the only way. “It’s strange,” she said through her sobs. “We got along well when we were twelve…”
She looked up at him. Her face was pure and extraordinarily beautiful. She was talking without thinking: “I want to have your child. I need someone to be close to me. You don’t have to help raise him or look after him, you don’t even have to acknowledge him. I’m not asking you to love him, or even to love me; I just want you to give me a baby. I know I’m forty, but so what? I’m prepared to take the risk. This is my last chance. Sometimes I regret having the abortions [I had in the past], even though the first guy who got me pregnant was a shit and the second was an irresponsible fool. When I was seventeen, I never imagined that life would be so constrained, that there would be so few opportunities.”
Michel lit a cigarette to give himself time to think. “It’s a strange idea…” he said between his teeth. “It’s a curious idea to reproduce when you don’t even like life.”
Annabelle stood up and began to take off her clothes. “Let’s make love anyway,” she said. “It must be more than a month since we made love. I stopped taking the pill a couple of weeks ago; I’ll be fertile about now.” She put her hands on her stomach and moved them up to her breasts, parted her thighs slightly. She was beautiful, desirable, loving: why then did he feel nothing? It was inexplicable. He lit another cigarette, then suddenly realised that thinking about it would get him nowhere. You make a baby, or you don’t; it’s not a decision one can make rationally. He stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray and murmured: “All right.”
As a woman, I find Annabelle’s plight to be so, so tragic. There’s not much you can do if you’re in love with someone who happens to be emotionally detached from love, or if your youth is long past and what you yearn more than anything in the world is the time lost for you to relive your youth.
Ironically, Michel has finally come to realise that so many years of “thinking” has “got him nowhere”, whereas Annabelle, regretful of the reckless abandon that was the modus operandi of her wild young self, could have turned out a lot happier if she exercised a bit of ‘thinking’ back then.
Does Annabelle now want a baby so desperately because she sees it as a final chance for her to live out, albeit vicariously, a ‘new’ life cleansed of all past regrets? As such, is it courageous for a woman ‘past her prime’ to seek procreation even at the risk of her health, or is it selfish to “want” and to “need” the presence of life anew as a bulwark against the spectre of a life lived – but thought to be wasted?
* * *
I’ve already asked too many questions in this post, so I’m going to stop here and perhaps revisit them five, ten, or even thirty years down the line. Hopefully, I have convinced you that this book is at the very least worth looking into, and if you do end up reading it, please let me know your thoughts!🙂