Magazine | August 15, 2016, Issue

Transcendence Commodified

Michel Houellebecq’s Platform offers a troubling vision of Islam and capitalism

Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel made a stir, partly as a matter of circumstance. On the publication date of Submission, which describes the ascendancy of a Muslim party in France in the year 2022, the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo put Houellebecq on its cover in the form of a chain-smoking sorcerer conjuring New Year’s predictions (“In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I celebrate Ramadan!”), and the Kouachi brothers attacked the magazine’s Paris headquarters and murdered twelve people. When Submission finally arrived in the United States in English translation ten months later, France seemingly had settled into a tense calm. Then Islamic State terrorists attacked Paris again, killing 130 people — including 89 at the Bataclan concert hall — and wounding several hundred more.

Now comes another attack. In July, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian living in France, drove a cargo truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, a resort town on France’s southern coast. The attack killed 84 people from more than a dozen countries and wounded 300 others.

Since its publication in 2015, literary-minded observers have suggested that Submission is likely to prove prophetic — and, indeed, neither the devolution of France into a low-level civil war nor the rise of a politics devoted to France’s large and unassimilated Muslim population is an unthinkable prospect. But it’s an earlier book in Houellebecq’s oeuvre that deserves a second look in our current situation.

Platform, Houellebecq’s third novel, was published early in 2001, a few months before al-Qaeda attacked the United States and Islamist terrorism became a central force in global affairs. The story of Michel Renault, a middle-aged bureaucrat who joins a group tour to Thailand after the murder of his estranged father, is bookended by Islam. Michel’s father is having a fling with his 25-year-old housekeeper, a North African of secular inclinations named Aïcha; it’s her pious brother, offended for his sister’s honor, who bashes in the elder Renault’s skull. The book ends with a gruesome attack on a Thailand sex club by Islamist gunmen. (Fifteen years on, it’s difficult to ignore an eerie resemblance to Omar Mateen’s recent massacre of patrons at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.)

Neither Platform nor Submission is “about” Islam. Houellebecq’s books are (uniformly) meditations on the sterility of modern life, the hallmark of which is an unyielding pessimism about the future of human existence. His merit is his ability to see how the boredom of modern life and Islam intersect.

All of Houellebecq’s protagonists are light variations on the same figure: a middle-aged male with an acute case of ennui who is trying to find some reason to continue living. Michel, the narrator of Platform, describes his own situation as follows:

I was living in a country distinguished by a placid socialism, where ownership of material possessions was guaranteed by strict legislation, where the banking system was surrounded by powerful state guarantees. Unless I were to venture beyond what was lawful, I ran no risk of embezzlement or fraudulent bankruptcy. All in all, I needn’t worry anymore. In fact, I never really had.

He finds no particular comfort in this. After a short recounting of his unremarkable résumé, he wonders aloud: “Why had I never shown any real passion in my life?”

For most of Houellebecq’s characters, the reason for living, if it comes at all, takes the form of a woman’s pelvis. This goes double in Platform, whose central characters are promoters of, and enthusiastic participants in, the sex-tourism industry. But Houellebecq is interested in more than a simplistic “clash of values”: arch-conservative Muslims versus libertine Westerners. Sex tourism is presented as a final frontier of commodification. Sexual pleasure is the only experience left in our dull, safe world that might yield what, in an earlier age, was called transcendence. But sex tourism brings even this under the purview of the market. The executives of leisure-hotel chains are happy to trade on the romanticism of the Third World, and exploit its poverty, to meet bored Westerners’ desire for escape.

In Platform, it is the success of these efforts that occasions the clash with Islam. A Jordanian banker whom Michel meets offers an explanation to which Michel is content to subscribe:

The problem with Muslims, he told me, was that the paradise promised by the Prophet already existed here on earth. There were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred meters of our hotel. These places were easily accessible. To gain admission, there was absolutely no need to fulfill the seven duties of a Muslim, nor to engage in holy war; all you had to do was pay a couple of dollars.

That is, the success of the free market has undercut Islam: What use is there for God when global capitalism has succeeded in immanentizing the eschaton? The violence of many Muslims, this Jordanian says, is “no more than a sign of impotent jealousy.”

This is too reductive to be entirely persuasive, but the implicit indictment of the market is suggestive. Houellebecq clearly sees the market, unchecked by non-economic considerations, as a metastatic force. In time, everything will be subordinated to the impulse to buy and sell. Money is the measure of all things, and everything is convertible to coin. About the newest generation of business-school graduates, Michel remarks that they “had thrown themselves headlong into market speculation without ever considering looking for paid employment. . . . The goal of each and every one was extraordinarily simple: to become billionaires before they turned thirty.” He notes, too, that France has abandoned its historical imprecations against usury as its traditional Catholicism has eroded.

It follows from all of this that the market will, in time, “own” the routes to transcendence. God and sex become available for purchase; they’re just the latest commodities. “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” Mussolini declared. In Platform, the hallmark of modern life is everything within and nothing outside the market.

Michel’s desire for increasingly intense sexual experiences — the bulk of Platform’s narrative — is one reaction to this. Islamist violence is another. But both prove futile. The market has dragged everything down to earth. There is nothing left to transcend to. “We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live,” Michel concludes, “and what’s more, we continue to export it.”

Houellebecq, like his characters, approaches this situation with sociological equanimity. The triumph of Homo economicus is a fact; perhaps it was inevitable, perhaps not, but it’s our reality now. Still, he cannot avoid wondering whether we can escape this unlivable system — and, if so, how.

Unsentimental Houellebecq goes in for an age-old answer: “Love sanctifies,” says Michel, in passing. “In the absence of love, nothing can be sanctified.” Sanctifying love is what Michel finds, albeit only temporarily, with a young woman named Valérie: “She was one of those creatures who are capable of devoting their lives to someone else’s happiness, of making that alone their goal. The phenomenon is a mystery. Happiness, simplicity, and joy lie within them, but I still do not know how or why it occurs.”

Put another way, this is a relationship that exists entirely outside the market. Its hallmark is a lack of self-interest. The “economy” of this relationship is one not of quid pro quo trades, but of gifts.

This is a marked counterpoint to the rapaciousness of the executives who blithely turn sexual intimacy into a multinational enterprise. In Houellebecq’s accounting, global capitalism has exported material wealth and spiritual poverty. The emptying out of the West’s spiritual and cultural resources in pursuit of sheer economic might has made everyone richer and their lives more luxurious — but also increasingly inhumane. Part of the solution to the twilight struggle against Islamism will be reducing the stranglehold of the market in order to make room for the older, non-economic concerns that gave life fullness and meaning. And if there is any chance of restricting the market’s power, of dismantling the bureaucratic apparatus that has grown up around it, and of making possible true joy, it is in the charism of the human being for giving without demanding.

Perhaps, 15 years after Platform, it’s worth listening — before the only alternative is Submission.

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