Before he wrote any of the novels for which he would eventually become famous, Michel Houellebecq published his first book, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. At first glance, the book seems out of place in Houellebecq’s bibliography. It is literary criticism, for one, but more curious still is the content. How does an essay on an early 20th century American horror author fit into the sexually explicit and politically implicit satire that characterizes the rest of Houellebecq’s oeuvre?
Perfectly, as it turns out. Though the two authors are often segregated into different genres, their stylistic and aesthetic differences belie a deep affinity. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror involves man’s encounter with forces beyond his—or the reader’s—comprehension. The monsters of his mythos are rarely observed directly and destroy men not out of malevolence (their motivations being beyond human ken) but indifference. There is no discernible foe, no evil, only the fact of man’s ultimate loneliness in a cold, uncaring universe.
Houellebecq prefers to set his work in banal modernity, but the same rules apply. Capital, rather than Cthulhu, is Houellebecq’s idea of a weird monstrosity but its manifestation as an economic or political force accords it no more comprehensible a will or sympathetic an attitude toward man than one of Lovecraft’s tentacled Great Old Ones.
Much misunderstanding of Houellebecq’s work emerges from the assumption that his lurid, amoral, often pornographic prose is designed to shock and that his deadpan style is mere affectation. The truth is that Michel Houellebecq is a horror writer. His world terrifies us because we live in it.
Houellebecq’s ostensibly satirical exaggerations have proven prophetic. His 2015 novel, Submission, which explores the spiritual emptiness of a post-Christian West set against the backdrop of a French runoff election between the National Front and an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood (backed by the Socialists) was published on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
His latest novel, Serotonin, which was written before the rise of the gilets jaunes movement, portrays a working-class street revolt against a Neoliberal French government. That’s two for two as far as prognostications go, and it’s enough to make one wonder whether Houellebecq’s sense that the world we live in operates according to the principles of cosmic horror isn’t a better model for understanding than that proffered by any more ostensibly grounded theory.
Given this apparent knack for prophecy, when Houellebecq decided to comment on the state of American politics last month, one might have expected him to have something interesting to add to the discussion. Certainly the title of his article in Harper’s, “Donald Trump is a Good President,” indicated a novel thesis within the literary world.
But though Houellebecq’s position promised a fresh analysis, his reasoning was surprisingly mundane. He empathizes with “the shame many Americans (and not only ‘New York Intellectuals’) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader” and acknowledges that “on a personal level, [Trump] is, of course, pretty repulsive.” Still, despite conceding that a virtuous leader with the same agenda would be preferable, the agenda alone is sufficient to make Trump “one of the best American Presidents I’ve ever seen.”
Why? For Houellebecq, it is largely Trump’s attitude toward international affairs—his opposition to military interventions, renegotiation of trade agreements, skepticism toward NATO—in other words, the very positions that have so infuriated the American foreign policy establishment. Houellebecq does well to remind us that the rest of the world is not uniform in wishing for increased American involvement—often quite the opposite—but his opinions here are nothing new, however much they may contradict the Washington consensus.
What Houellebecq misses, and what he should have been in a unique position to point out, is that Trump is a distinctly Houellebecqian character himself. Houellebecq’s work is defined by its focus on the horror of man’s existence in Liberalism—his “atomization,” as the title of Houellebecq’s second novel, The Elementary Particles, suggests.
While this has led some to label Houellebecq a rightist, he is just as much influenced by Marx. His first novel, Whatever, was published in French under the title Extension du domaine de la lutte (Extension of the Domain of Struggle), and applies a Marxist critique of sexual “liberation” not merely as producing inequality but as alienating for all involved. Love in the time of capitalism, so to speak, looks impossible from Houellebecq’s perspective. Much as insanity befalls the cultists who worship Lovecraft’s gods, the unlimited freedom offered by liberalism is a cursed blessing for its adherents.
Marx believed that capitalism contained inherent contradictions which, once sufficiently exaggerated, would destroy the system from within. To that end, he prescribed libertarian policies as a means of accelerating this inevitable end: “In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.”
Houellebecq’s Submission adapted this argument to liberalism as a whole. Only once meaninglessness has driven his main character, a literature professor who enjoys prostitutes and ethnic takeout food, to the brink of suicide can the revolution occur. In the case of Submission, it is Islam that fills the void on both an individual and civilizational scale. There is no stable liberalism in Houellebecq’s work: freedom inevitably devolves into anomie, perversion, and spiritual disintegration. But it is from this very disintegration that something new can arise.
The antidote, as is so often the case, may lie in the venom itself. And this, more than any particular policy, is the Houellebecqian logic of Trump. The Left is correct to note that he makes a strange leader for conservatives, for what is Trump other than a truly liberal man? There is his sexual immorality, of course, but there is also his disregard for norms of all kinds, his domination by impulse, and above all his untempered worship of self. What is more democratic than a President who tweets his every half-formed thought? Trump’s persona was honed on reality television, the externalization of America’s stupidest, cruelest, and most appetitive psychic waste. How, then, does one explain his emergence as a champion of the right?
One can take Houellebecq’s position and say that Trump’s character flaws, however numerous, do not detract from the desirability of his policies. And indeed, that is what many conservatives do. Far more interesting, however, is to read the Trump presidency as operationalizing the themes that Houellebecq has devoted his career to exploring. Opponents of liberalism can hope that Trump, as its apotheosis, will finally strain the contradictions past their breaking point and allow for something better to be ushered in.
If nothing else, the Trump presidency has exposed certain uncomfortable truths about the system that cannot now be unseen: the existence of an independent and intractable “deep state,” a media intent on guiding the public to the correct opinions; bipartisan commitment to expanding the power of multinational corporations—rather than the individual—at the expense of the nation-state; and most of all, a politics of extinction in which differences are resolved by ignoring, ostracizing, or replacing the opposition.
While these aspects of the system remained undiscussed, Liberalism could maintain an illusion of sustainability. But the mechanisms of control that the system’s reaction to Trump reveals give the lie to Liberalism’s promise of perfect freedom and equality. As the establishment of any society is synonymous with the restriction of human freedom and the establishment of hierarchy, “Liberal society” is itself a contradiction. For conservatives who resent Liberalism’s dissolution of tradition and mediating social institutions, the volatility Trump has introduced by accelerating this contradiction presents the opportunity to attack the philosophical foundations of the system itself as ultimately incoherent. “If not by war, by surfeit die your king.”
If liberalism is the Lovecraftian entity as Houellebecq’s literature treats it (an analogy that has been drawn elsewhere), then this is entirely desirable, and supersedes particular policy goals. Houellebecq never says as much; it isn’t his place to do so. He is an artist, not a pundit. But the core of Houellebecqian cosmic horror comes with the realization that none of this is polemic in disguise. It is an unembellished portrayal of the world he sees and lives and which any one of us might suddenly find ourselves in should we by some unfortunate turn of events come face to face with the terrible, incomprehensible forces that drive our world.
If you want to learn something new, don’t read Houellebecq’s article. Read his books.