Michel Houellebecq’s #MeToo Moment

Joséphine Haillot

Image for article: Michel Houellebecq’s #MeToo Moment
November 16, 2023
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Quelques mois dans ma vie
By Michel Houellebecq
Flammarion, 112 pages, €12.80


The philosopher Auguste Comte haunts Michel Houellebecq’s body of work. The characters in his novels are often obsessive readers of Comte, a pretext for Houellebecq to weave substantial excerpts from the 19th-century figurehead of “positivism” into his narratives. At times, the novelist doesn’t even attempt to provide diegetic justification for inserting fragments of Comte’s work into his texts, most often in the form of epigraphs, and nor should he.

Houellebecq has long sought to delve into humanity’s “metaphysical mutations,” a term he coined in the prologue of The Elementary Particles  (1998), taking inspiration from the Comte’s “metaphysical spirit”—a stage of knowledge characterized by the search for abstract causes that supersedes the earlier “theological spirit,” rooted in analogical thinking (allegory, parable).

Unlike the Comtean metaphysical spirit, which corresponds to a precise historical period (modernity), Houellebecq’s use of the expression designates all “radical and global transformations of the worldview embraced by the greatest number” over the course of history. In other words, the novelist is referring to the profound anthropological transformations that occur when the progress of knowledge destabilizes our sense of self and, consequently, “sweeps away economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments and social hierarchies.” Although Houellebecq distorts this lexicon to his own taste, he remains faithful to Comte’s thought in that, for the novelist as for the philosopher, history is punctuated by tumultuous shifts in knowledge.

It is humanity’s latest metaphysical mutation that absorbs Houellebecq’s attention and to which he devotes all his books. To date, he says, this mutation has had two major consequences. For one thing, the rise of “rationalism and individualism” has led over time to the disappearance of “love, tenderness, and fraternity” and the proliferation of solitude, individuation, competition, vanity. Second, this anthropological rupture—re-organizing subjectivities around narcissistic, self-isolating contemplation—corresponds to liberalism and acts as catalyst for a continuous process of market expansion—“desire must grow, expand, and devour the lives of men.”

For Houellebecq, this secular dynamic has turned Western polities into “erotic-advertising societies,” in which the market knows no limits, and the scope of competition has broadened to affect the most intimate aspects of life, not least love and sex. The economy progressively invades ordinary life and even the natural functions of the human subject glossed by Marx as “eating, drinking, and procreating.” In the place of class struggle, judged irrelevant and out of date, individual confronts individual in a replay of the primitive Hobbesian scene. “Economic liberalism,” writes Houellebecq, “is the extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.”

“For Houellebecq the smallest thing invites suspicion.”

The isolating effects of the free market and its “ideology of desire” manifest themselves within the most trivial phenomena or objects, and for Houellebecq, the smallest thing invites suspicion. For instance, sex toys, which take ever-more alien shapes, appear as another alarming sign of the breakdown of human bonds. Even masturbation, the solitary pleasure, has reached an unprecedented level of isolation by forsaking the human anatomy of the fantasized Other under the perverse impulsion of an adult industry that designs these toys for efficient jouissance and markets them as “self-care.”

Another case in point, according to Houellebecq, is the #MeToo movement. The latter might seem, at first glance, to signal a return to moral order and regulation of desire. But whatever the contributions of #MeToo in delivering justice and closure to victims of sexual assault and harassment, it has also fostered a generalized climate of fear. Concerns about opportunism and false accusations contribute to sexual frustration and emotional isolation by discouraging men from openly expressing their desires and pursuing relationships.

In January 2023, the Dutch art collective Keeping It Real Art Critics, or KIRAC, whose work focuses on the pervasive impact of neoliberal policies in the art world, announced the release of a pornographic film starring Houellebecq. Predictably, the announcement led to media speculation over whether the film was a publicity stunt in which Houellebecq was complicit, and whether it was authentic or faked. Some who contended that the film must be a fabrication noted that Houellebecq, in a teaser that circulated on social media, wears his dentures, whereas he is rumored to remove his false teeth during intimate encounters.

In February 2023, Houellebecq filed a lawsuit against KIRAC in a bid to halt the screening of the film, essentially conceding that it does indeed exist. The writer had supposedly discovered that, thanks to a retroactive clause in the contract he signed in Amsterdam in December 2022 on the occasion of a second recorded meeting with KIRAC, certain earlier images—showing his lovemaking with his wife and one of KIRAC’s female members during a first meeting in Paris in October 2022—could be legally used by the collective in the final cut of the film. Concerned that the Paris footage might be incorporated into KIRAC’s movie alongside the Amsterdam footage, he turned to the legal system, pleading that he had misread the contract and misunderstood its retroactive nature.

In May 2023, the French imprint Flammarion published Quelques mois dans ma vie, Octobre 2022-Mars 2023, his detailed account of the affair. The online literary journal Actualitté described the book as a “a story with no false pretense, the unvarnished truth.” This sequence of events—as well as the repeated claims made by KIRAC that the film project and the conflict now pitting the group against Houellebecq aren’t part of a ploy—prompted a number of media outlets to finally take the novelist seriously when he claimed to have been blindsided by the release of the film.

Ultimately, the question of whether it was a stunt or not holds little significance. Rather, what is at issue is the way Houellebecq stages himself and his literary double. In the book and in his recent public appearances—he gave, for the first time in seven years, a live interview on a primetime channel and held a book signing, something he hadn’t done since 2011—we witness a Houellebecq whose point of view surprisingly flirts with a form of political correctness: a Houellebecq, in other words, who doesn’t look like his usual self. As Le Monde noted in a review of Quelques mois dans ma vie: “For someone so ill-disposed toward the #MeToo movement, Michel Houellebecq demonstrates a remarkably fussy understanding of consent.”

Cancel culture lies at the heart of Houellebecq’s new book. It opens with the controversy surrounding an interview the writer granted to Michel Onfray for the magazine Front Populaire. Statements he made there about “end of the West” led to accusations of inciting hatred against Muslims, which prompted the Grand Mosque of Paris to lodge a complaint against the writer in December 2022. In Quelques mois dans ma vie, Houellebecq expresses remorse for his earlier statements, even as he blames Onfray for not affording him the opportunity to rectify his words, which he attempts to do in the book.

As for the KIRAC affair, Houellebecq asserts that it was an experience akin to a “rape.” It was the failure of his lawsuit, he says, that prompted him to speak about his ordeal and denounce it publicly by writing an autobiographical essay:

On March 28, I suffered my second defeat, before the Amsterdam court. I was seriously affected. I had no valid reason to suppose that the Dutch judges were more competent and more rigorous than their French counterparts.... There was only one thing left for me to do; the only thing I knew how to do. I began writing this account on the night of March 31.

A few lines later, Houellebecq echoes the rhetoric of the “Shame Must Change Sides!” awareness campaign launched by French feminist groups in 2010: “This porn film would never be forgotten. The shame … was to outlive me. Nothing would ever be forgotten again, and … strangely enough, I seemed to be the only one aware of it.”

Quelques mois dans ma vie thus aligns itself with the “calling-out” literary trend that emerged in France under the impetus of the #MeToo movement. Works such as Vanessa Springora’s Le Consentement (2020) and Camille Kouchner’s La Familia grande (2021) are two notable examples. Autobiographical narrative technique, an introspective quest to understand one’s own sexuality, the recurring theme of consent, the indictment of an incompetent legal system, the use of writing as a means of reclaiming personal autonomy: Houellebecq accumulates all the leitmotifs of the “calling-out” genre to the point of parody.

Yet, in contrast with the clichéd themes and stylistic conventions typically associated with the “calling-out” genre, a network of digressions interwoven within the narrative structure unveils the presence of the more familiar anti-liberal Houellebecq. Thus, the writer revisits his portrayal of the “capitalism of seduction”:

I thought I was dealing with an honest exhibitionist, that is to say, a positive or at least neutral force in the world’s economy, according to my vision of the moral law.… There’s something about a virtual prostitute who takes no risks and brings no joy, who takes advantage of the solitude of poor people who will only get solitary masturbation in front of their screen as payment for their subscription that disgusts me.… I began to realize that … my fame as an author could confer a certain market value on my organs. The idea made me very uncomfortable; my relationship with liberalism has never been easy.

This passage resonates with Houellebecq’s prior writings, which depict a voracious capitalist system that, by constantly seeking growth and new market openings, has transformed human beings into mere commodities. Similarly, by placing the criticized excerpts from his interview with Front Populaire side-by-side with their revised versions, Houellebecq brings into focus the discursive duplicity that runs through Quelques mois dans ma vie. It is as if two distinct versions of Houellebecq coexist in the text—the politically correct one masking the one who remains true to his reactionary beliefs.

By exploring the creeping presence of political correctness in his own writings, Houellebecq attempts to unravel how the first symptoms of pensée unique appear in an individual’s psyche. This was already his concern in 2003, when he was interviewed by Christian Authier after the publication of Platform:

The problem is that humanity is born with bad thoughts. If I’m politically correct, what will I gain from it?… They just promise they’ll keep pissing me off, they promise I’ll be able to buy Ralph Lauren polo shirts.… It can become difficult to fight self-censorship. We must mobilize a growing force.

In Houellebecq’s account, political correctness, and its descendants—cancel culture, woke-ism—mingled with neoliberalism to give birth to a form of progressive capitalism. The resulting moral consensus sought to ward off “bad thoughts” and dissident voices. By doing so, it duped people to align themselves with advocates of the market economy (“I’ll be able to buy Ralph Lauren polo shirts”); thus, leaving that economic system unquestioned and unchanged (“they’ll keep pissing me off”).

With Quelques mois dans ma vie, the writer is attempting not only to reiterate the diagnosis he outlined in his interview with Authier, but also to find a cure. In one of his numerous digressions, he recounts how his need to write his as-yet-untranslated 2022 novel, Anéantir (Annihilation), arose from the fear of developing tongue cancer and from his search for a remedy. His new book takes its roots in a comparable sickly feeling, this time prompted by KIRAC, which he describes as embodying “un Mal moderne générationnel.” (The word “mal” crucially holds a dual meaning, signifying both “evil” and “disease.”)

For Houellebecq, the present-day Mal moderne characterizes a new stage of capitalism that succeeds the late-stage capitalism described by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho (1991), which itself was successor to the era of industrial and financial capitalism depicted in its early developments by the likes of Honoré de Balzac and Fyodor Dostoevsky in the 19th century. Those affected by it take on the face of the “blackmailer” with “a mania for recording everything,” showing no capacity for “innovation” and displaying “the characteristic modernity of the hopelessly flat area that is the heart of the so-called ‘Europe of Brussels.’” Moral pressure exerted via technology (social media) to coerce conformity, a postmodern knack for pastiche, the intensification of all the above by globalization: All this is how Houellebecq clarifies his assessment of the pathologies of progressive capitalism, now a fully developed stage of capitalism, much as he had intuited almost a decade earlier.

“The treatment proves to be almost more insidious than the malady itself.”

In typical Houellebecq fashion, the treatment proves to be almost more insidious than the malady itself. The author astutely observes that composing Anéantir didn’t have the “effect of an exorcism,” but instead fortified his hypochondriac dread. Indeed, his apprehension of tongue cancer ultimately deterred him from proceeding further with the “project” he had embarked upon with KIRAC, since, in the process of writing Anéantir, he had learned that this type of cancer could be caused by HPV, a common sexually transmitted disease. His preoccupation with his health prevented him from compromising himself—physically, intellectually, and morally—any further with KIRAC. In Houellebecq’s view, therefore, hypochondria and, by extension, paranoia and suspicion appear as beneficial and salutary attributes. But unlike the earlier “masters of suspicion”—Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud—he offers no better future: neither the rise of the Overman, nor advent of Communism, nor the successful termination of therapy. For Houellebecq, there is no horizon beyond paranoia, a manifestation of the Mal moderne that is also our only method of resistance against it.

Quelques mois dans ma vie isn’t the first time Houellebecq has fashioned a literary alter ego. The main character of Platform, named Michel, who sets up a sex-tourism enterprise in Thailand with his lover Valérie, shares the author’s worldview as well as his name. For both of them, globalization and market logic have contributed to the development of a culture of narcissism among Westerners, which has turned sex into a market-driven phenomenon—something that is no longer natural and innocent. Similarly, in The Map and the Territory (2010), there is a character named Michel Houellebecq—a writer with whom the protagonist, the painter Jed Martin, develops a profound intellectual connection. This fictional Houellebecq is found brutally murdered in his peaceful Loiret abode where he had settled upon returning from Ireland. Apart from the assassination, these biographical elements seamlessly reflect the life of the real Houellebecq.

“Michel Houellebecq” has even been the protagonist of works not written by Michel Houellebecq. In 2011, Houellebecq’s Brazilian translator, Machado Da Silva, published En Patagonie avec Houellebecq, a fictionalized account of his expedition, in the writer’s company, to Ushuaïa. More recently, Emmanuel Godo’s Conversation avenue de France, Paris 13e, entre Michel Houellebecq, écrivain et Evagre le pontique, moine du désert (2019) depicts a transhistorical chance encounter, on a public bench near the Avenue de France, between Houellebecq and Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century hermit. Meanwhile, in collaboration with film director Guillaume Nicloux, Houellebecq, playing himself, is abducted by a trio of clumsy kidnappers in L'Enlèvement de Michel Houellebecq (2014)—a film based on rumors surrounding the writer’s disappearance after his absence from a scheduled event in Belgium.

In Quelques mois dans ma vie, by means of his newfound alter ego who dabbles in political correctness, Houellebecq exposes KIRAC as a nihilistic entity that encapsulates contemporary spiritual decay: the erosion of beliefs and disintegration of values brought about by the “rationalized conciliation of egoisms” that has permeated Western thought since the Enlightenment and that led human relations, in the realm of sexuality among others, to bow to the diktats of consumerism.

“Human beings stand at the threshold of complete and irreversible isolation.”

The macabre unveiling doesn’t stop here. If, in response to this nihilism, political correctness seems, at first, to compensate for the lack of spirituality by instilling moral rigor, it soon reveals itself as merely another facet of the Mal moderne. For Houellebecq, KIRAC and political correctness are two sides of the same coin. They both contribute—one through the “exaltation of the phallus” and overabundance, the other through castration and scarcity—to “this immense movement toward asexuality which characterizes the beginning of the 21st century.” It’s the ultimate stage of individualism: Human beings stand at the threshold of complete and irreversible isolation, reduced to “elementary particles.”

Through the staging of his literary double, ensnared by KIRAC and enticed by the relieving effect of political correctness, Houellebecq’s work regains a social relevance lost in Anéantir, in which the writer let himself be engulfed in the depths of a “religious delirium.” In fact, in the final chapter of Quelques mois dans ma vie, the novelist expresses his detachment from Catholicism and reaffirms the Comtean perspective of his early career: “I remained, to be clear, a positivist—of the Comtean type.” In this regard, his portrayal of KIRAC, as well as of his own contamination by the Mal moderne, echo Comte’s depiction of the spiritual decay accompanying the rise of modernity. According to Comte, the “Western malady” stems from the replacement of Christian values with individualistic ideals, such as liberty and equality, resulting in the prioritization of individual interests over collective ones and the erosion of social bonds.

Comte’s periodization of history posits the progression of human knowledge as the decisive and propelling factor of historical development. Houellebecq offers his own periodizations, such as the aforementioned chronological list of literary corpuses that capture the mutations of capitalism (Balzac and Dostoyevsky, Ellis, himself). With Quelques mois dans ma vie, Houellebecq rediscovers the realist vocation that had him crowned Balzac’s successor. Yet he is still unable to free himself from the grip of “capitalist realism”—the rampant sense that it is impossible to envision systemic alternatives to the decayed social world he depicts. The book ends on a pessimistic note: “The appeal hearing will take place in two days’ time. My chances of success are slim.” There is no hope of a cure for the Mal moderne. This is where Comte and Houellebecq part ways. For the latter, the coming of a positivist stage of knowledge is elusive, and the advent of an altruistic religion—the “Religion of Humanity” supposed to restore humanity’s high position within the cosmos—seems ever more unattainable. The writer forfeits the utopian horizon of Comtean positivism and emerges as a cynical, somewhat perverse advocate of the existing order, which he despises—yet finally cannot overcome.