‘Now abideth beauty, truth, and intensity’

The thing about Michel Houellebecq is that while no author is better known for misanthropy and bitterness (which is certainly saying something) there are also none who can write such realistic depictions of human happiness. Two thirds of Platform is descriptions of a happy and loving couple. Hallucinatory flashes of tranquillity and fulfillment dance across the stories – think Bruno’s island fantasies at the end of Atomised, deranged but ultimately benign. In The Possibility of an Island, which is basically Atomised ramped up to eleven, Houellebecq expands on this with a lengthy description of an installation piece in a huge basement. ‘I am God in my basement,’ the artist says. ‘I have chosen to create a small, easy world where you only encounter happiness.’

Again it went dark, and I followed a more indistinct path, as if trekking through woods, I was surrounded by green-and-gold rustlings. Dogs were frolicking in the clearing of the angels, they were rolling around in the sun. Later, the dogs were with their masters, protecting them with loving looks, and later still they were dead, and little stelae sprouted up in the clearing to commemorate love, walks in the sunshine, and shared joy. No little dog was forgotten: their embossed photos decorated the stelae at the foot of which the masters had left their favourite toys. It was a joyful monument, from which all tears were absent.

In the distance, as if suspended from trembling curtains, some words in gilded letters took shape. There was the word ‘LOVE’, the word ‘GOODNESS’, the word ‘TENDERNESS’, the word ‘FIDELITY’, the word ‘HAPPINESS’. Coming out of the total darkness, they evolved, from nuances of matt gold through to blinding luminosity; then they fell back alternately into the night, but at the same time following one another in their rise towards the light, in such a way that they seemed, somehow, to create one another. I continued my path across the cellar, guided by the light that shone sequentially on all the corners of the room. There were other scenes, other visions, so many that I gradually lost any notion of time, and only recovered full consciousness once I had gone back upstairs, and was seated on a wicker garden bench in what could once have been a terrace or a winter garden. Night was falling on the waste-ground landscape; Vincent had lit a big lamp.

I was reminded of this while reading the Paris Review‘s indepth Art of Fiction interview. It’s well worth reading, as the whole series is. It’s full of Houellebecq’s weird insights, his absurd gender opinions and twisted and somehow Gallic stoicism. There’s good stuff on the origins of Atomised, apparently inspired by Alain Aspect’s experiments in 1982. This is interesting because it belies the title: the novel is driven by ideas of connection rather than isolation.

[The experiments] demonstrated the EPR paradox: that when particles interact, their destinies become linked. When you act on one, the effect spreads instantly to the other, even if they are great distances apart. That really struck me, to think that if two things are connected once, they will be forever. It marks a fundamental philosophical shift.

It touches on the epilogue to Possibility, one of the most devastating pieces of writing I’ve encountered: you feel after reading it that you’ve been blasted by a glimpse of what lies in the spaces between the stars. (As Don Draper says in Mad Men: ‘There is no system. The universe is indifferent.’) Yet Houellebecq describes himself as a romantic: ‘someone who believes in unlimited happiness, which is eternal and possible right away. Belief in love. Also belief in the soul, which is strangely persistent in me, even though I never stop saying the opposite.’

And then there’s this:


What do you think is the appeal of your work, in spite of its brutality?


There are too many answers. The first is that it’s well written. Another is that you sense obscurely that it’s the truth. Then there’s a third one, which is my favorite: because it’s intense. There is a need for intensity. From time to time, you have to forsake harmony. You even have to forsake truth. You have to, when you need to, energetically embrace excessive things. Now I sound like Saint Paul.


What do you mean?


‘Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ For me the sentence would be ‘Now abideth beauty, truth, and intensity; but the greatest of these is intensity.’

Update: I’ve reviewed Houellebecq’s latest poetry collection at 3:AM.

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