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If you accept that loneliness is the great existential terror that we all, in our different ways, try to escape, it isn’t hard to apprehend the fraught relationship that this gives us to our own bodies, because it’s our bodies that keep us so basically and dreadfully apart. It’s interesting to note how often words used to express the value of literature (or art more generally) conjure up kinds of immaterialism: ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ ‘being transported’, forging a ‘psychic connection’ with the author, ‘losing yourself’ in a book – all of these are expressions that run against what seems to be the brute material truth: that we are locked inside our skulls.

There was a time there where I could not have a conversation about books with a stranger at a party say, without them launching into a speech about how amazing Atomised by Michel Houellebecq was. This became increasingly annoying for me because these ‘fans’ seemed unable to describe exactly what the appeal of the book was. They were astonished by the sense of shock that the writer had elicited and sometimes a conspiratorial feeling of belonging to a fellow-traveler – yes that is how the world really is – but both of these reactions seemed entirely self-directed. My conversational partners were unable to enlighten me as to why I should read the book too. I suspect fans of Portnoy’s Complaint were similarly cultish back in the day, but that was another time and polite conversation so firmly stratified, that the risk Roth-fans ran of offending was far greater. By the late nineties this was less of a concern.

Ben Jeffery tackles the meaning behind Houellebecq’s writings head on, placing the fictional exertions of the French literary enfant terrible within a far broader context  in order to draw out exactly what the egotism of the author is aiming at. In effect, he has done a massive service to a writer occasionally dismissed as being a reactionary whose deconstruction of modern society as being nothing more than a series of sexual power exchanges lies somewhere between Foucault and a depressing Carry On.

Instead Jeffery runs the gamut from Schopenhauer to David Foster Wallace to properly situate the likes of Atomised and The Possibility of an Island, revealing that Houellebecq is investigating the relevance of any literary action at all. Engaging in fiction is in and of itself an ephemeral act, itself an echo of how we attempt to escape our own sense of mortality. What is most worthwhile about Anti-Matter is that Jeffery does not fall victim to the typical trap of Houellebecq critics. This is an intellectual salvage operation, that avoids rampant speculation about the personal life of the headline-bating writer, not to mention the rancorous testimonies of the author’s own mother.

What I am saying is I am grateful someone finally took the time to try and explain the point of Houellebecq to me. I have not had an easy time with the writer’s work myself. I thought his essay on Lovecraft bitterly disappointing for one, but Jeffery cites it prominently in Anti-Matter. The New England fantasist’s own ‘depressive realism’* is tied into Houellebecq’s, both arguing that life is essentially pointless. The latter’s own jaunts into sf utopias demonstrates his continuing interest in using imaginary worlds to illustrate how incomplete, fleeting and immaterial the engagement humans have with reality is. Fiction/fantasy are decadent acts that in Houellebecq’s assessment squander what is vital about life itself – hence his obsession with sex – but Jeffery’s astute addendum is that whatever sense of truth, or engagement with our existence that we enjoy is equally a ‘lie’. Realism is concerned primarily with seeming real and Houellebecq’s pessimism punches through the nadir point to the ‘truth’ – we need the lies.

Ben Jeffery has produced not only an excellent critical assessment of Houellebecq’s writings, but a fantastic think-piece in and of itself, refining the intentions of his subject, as well as opening up this erudite discussion of art to the act of living in the world.

With thanks to Zero Books for my review copy.

*Excepting your occasional ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn – of course.

Anti-matter: Michel Houllebecq and Depressive Realism

The point here is that I think this is one part of what the liberal arts mantra of “teaching me how to think” is really supposed to mean: to be just a little less arrogant, to have some “critical awareness” about myself and my certainties…because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

Some weeks ago a friend took me around the well-stocked aisles of Kinokuniya – an excellent book store in Sydney – pointing out several authors that he recommended I read. One of them was David Foster Wallace. I had heard of the Infinite Jest, but had not as yet tackled it. It is unlikely that I will try for the purpose of this blog.

So I tracked down this much smaller work to get a taste for Wallace’s writing.

This book presents a speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. Opening with a typically gnomic fable about fishes swimming in water – this he confesses is the very stuff of graduation speeches – he expands upon the themes hinted at by his simple parable, addressing the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education.

Wallace introduces a corrective of pragmatic philosophy to the ‘reach for the stars’, clichés of college commencement speeches. College education is often described as having the purpose of teaching students how to think. Wallace argues that what you choose to think is more important. He presents examples of day-to-day challenges that will face these graduates once they enter the work force. The daily grind of worklife stress, compounded by domestic responsibilities, the rushed journey to the supermarket to buy essential groceries, only to be trapped in a frustrating traffic queue.

Individuals are literally selfish, the centre of their own perspectival universe. Wallace has a wonderful phrase later in the speech – “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms”. The danger is that over-educated, privileged middle class graduates might feel a certain sense of frustrated entitlement, a resentment of these other people preventing them from finding their foodstuff of choice in perfect time when they rush into the supermarket; or trapping them behind the rear of a gas-guzzling SUV. Even that white-collar post-university profession could become the cause of unremitting resentment, a burden for the martyred solipsist.

What truth Wallace has to offer is that individuals remain free to choose how to think about their circumstances. That one’s thoughts should never be allowed to enslave one. These mental chains are the result of unconscious processes, beliefs, prejudices that we as adults fall into a pattern of living by. While he does not advance any one moral philosophy, or preferred belief system, he does insist upon the importance of belief. Especially the need to believe in something beyond oneself. These are simple truths he is relating and yet his essential message is one that has been confused over time by mealy mouthed metaphors.

The elephant in the room when discussing Wallace is of course his own suicide in 2008. I do not know enough about the man to discuss that. However, his speech to the class of Kenyon College was poured over for suggestions of depression, or suicidal tendencies in the wake of his death and yes, he does mention suicide. Interestingly in relation to the burden of individuality:

“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…the head.”

What he is addressing in that quote is suicide as a rejection of self, or the individual’s existence as a thinking entity. A gun blast to the head annihilates the very seat of consciousness. I do not know if that relates to Wallace’s own suicide in any particular way that could be said to be relevant.

What remains of the man written here is a soul concerned with compassion and practical intelligence. His speech to the graduates eschews miserabilism, advocating the importance of choosing to think about life as a sequence of opportunities. What interests him is the practical advantages of being ‘truthful’. As individuals we should be true to ourselves, but we must also acknowledge the value of others in our lives also – that they are also important, the kings and queens of their own skulls.

This edition of This Is Water presents each paragraph of the speech as a single page epigram of condensed wisdom. Recommended.

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