Houellebecq as a Hebrew Writer

אבי וולף תרגם את המאמר שפרסמתי בדצמבר 2020 ב"השילוח" שכותרתו "וולבק כסופר עברי". אני מעלה את התרגום אל הבלוג שלי.

Here is an english translation to an essay I published in Hashiloach magazine in December 2020

The translation was made by Avi Woolf

Here is a link to the original, Hebrew version

Houellebecq as a Hebrew Writer

Arik Glasner

I consider Michel Houellebecq to be one of the two or three most interesting authors in our generation, meaning the last thirty years. Houellebecq is one of that handful of interesting and important writers despite his being an author who is not as good as other writers by “professional” literary standards, sometimes much less good, as well as by central literary criteria (e.g., the description of a rich internal emotional world, or a distinct and refined style). Houellebecq is “more than an author and less than an author,” as Professor Menachem Brinker once described a common approach to Brenner, meaning someone who is in many ways a limited writer, but whose presence in the field of literature and culture in general goes far beyond the presence of a “refined writer.”

Briefly, I will say that Houellebecq is an interesting and important writer:

Because he is a radical author, who thinks in principled terms about the human condition, and one who does so – and this is an important addition – in an era when it seems that the human condition itself can be radically changed.

Because he is a “moral genius,” meaning he is driven by overpowering natural moral zeal.

Because he does not fear dealing with the most fundamental and most important things about life (aging, death, love, and sex), and dares to write about it in the simplest and clearest possible way.

Because he has a rare talent for generalizing and simplifying in analyzing contemporary society.

Because he has a powerful imagination, making him able to conceive alternative realities to our current one – and even use those alternatives to criticize how things are now.

Because he is very aware of the importance of the scientific worldview in our civilization, while also understanding its depressing, dehumanizing aspects.

Because he has a critical yet also sober and ambivalent attitude regarding the victory of capitalism in current-day civilization.

Because he restores Schopenhauer-like pessimism to the heart of our current discourse, after a century in which this pessimism was marginalized, while also at the ready to find the human potential for happiness, displaying a supreme sensitivity for the possibility of human happiness.

Because he deals with the religious question in depth, in an era in which a return of religion is a significant phenomenon.

Finally, he understands, deeper than any other writer of our time, how literature is suffering from particular distress in the present world, and he is among the most prominent of those who found an amazing way out of this problem.

I have been writing a book on Michel Houellebecq. I added a number of essays to the book which did not deal directly in analyzing his works. These essays are partly personal, dealing in issues which Houellebecq does address but not how Houellebecq himself deals with them. I don’t know when I will publish the book on Houellebecq, or even if I will. The state of Israeli publishing is not inviting for such initiatives. In any event, I understood that these “satellite” essays belong outside the future book focusing on Houellebecq himself. I therefore decided to publish them separately. I call these essays “Houellebecq-ian essays.” The essay published below is one of these, dealing with the connection between Houellebecq to a central tradition in Hebrew literature.

The Era of Sexual Classes

Hebrew literature has a storied tradition of covering male sexual frustration, and our greatest writers swam like fish in the waters of male feelings of inferiority.

YH Brenner, Yaakov Shabtai, and Hanoch Levin are among the most prominent of this tradition. I think they are the threefold strand of Hebrew literature, a strand encompassing dealing with a flawed sense of manhood, unfulfilled passion, and even depression and suicide deriving from the first two (with Levin and Shabtai maintaining ties with Brenner’s and each other’s work).

This trio stands at the heart of the canon of modern Hebrew literature, to which we should add important attachments like the masterpiece novel Urva Prach [Nonsense] by Berdichevsky and the two great novels by Gnessin – before his protagonist became desired by women and thereafter suffered from a different kind of problem – Beside, Meantime. There are many other such examples.

If we expand the definition of a “flawed sense of manliness” and “male inferiority complexes” (vis-à-vis relations between the sexes) to include male figures identified as “feminine” or afraid to be identified as such, as well as the troubles of the “sensitive” man within a male society lacking ambivalence and even feelings, we could also include other central parts of the Hebrew canon, like some of the works of Mendelei Mocher Sefarim, S. Yizhar, Yehoshua Knaz, Amos Oz and others.

It seems to me that such a concentration of canonical works dealing obsessively with the subject of flawed manliness does not exist in other canons. But why did modern Hebrew literature create this trio and its important offshoots? Perhaps because Jewish manliness was always seen as flawed, for a nation whose men were separated from the traditionally manly pursuits of working the land and military service for thousands of years? Perhaps because those Jewish men who felt the pain of this masculine deficiency felt it sevenfold in the Zionist era, when the dominant ideology – and just the reality of the Israeli-Arab conflict – led to the rise and dominance of another manly ideal, even demonstrating it in their own lives, through the ranks of pioneers and storied fighters? And perhaps there is an even deeper point here, which I will return to below.

When I learned to become acquainted with the work of Michel Houellebecq, it quickly became very close to my heart, much like how I felt towards Brenner, Shabtai, and Levin. And it became so, among other reasons, due to its dealing with these “traditionally Hebrew” subjects: male feelings of sexual inferiority and frustration.

Like the men written by Brenner, Shabtai, and Levin, Houellebecq’s protagonists (primarily in three of his six novels: Whatever, Atomised, and Serotonin, as well as the novella Lanzarote; also the central subject of some of his poems and essays) themselves feel insufficiently manly. The speaker in Houellebecq’s poem in 1996 describes the following base experience: “And what is it in my gaze that make women flee? It seems to them too fawning, too passionate, angry or deviant? I don’t know. It seems I will never know; but this is the essence of suffering my life.” “The essence of suffering in my life,” no less.

Houellebecq turned the subject of sexual inequality – the focus of his male protagonists (but also regarding women in his writings) – into one of his primary subjects. The essence of this sexual equality and its absence is presented in the following famous quote from his first novel, Whatever (1994):

Undoubtedly, I told myself, in our society, sex nicely represents a second sorting system, entirely separate from that of money; and it is considered a sorting system at least as cruel. The consequences of the two systems are entirely identical.

Like the unrestrained economic liberalism, and for identical reasons, sexual liberalism creates phenomena of absolute poverty. Some make love every day; others five or six times in their lives, or never. There are those who make love with dozens of women; and others not with even one.

This is what is called the “law of the market.” In an economic system where firing is illegal, everyone more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where infidelity is illegal, everyone more or less finds a partner in their bed. In an entirely liberal economic system, there are those who make an enormous fortune; others are mired in unemployment and poverty. In an entirely liberal sexual system, there are those with a diverse and exciting erotic life; other suffice with masturbation and isolation. Economic liberalism is expanding the field of struggle, its expansion at all ages and all social classes. At the economic level, Raphael Tisserand [one of the characters in the novel] is on the winning side; at the sexual level, he is among the losers.

Some benefit from all worlds, others lose in one, others lose in both. Companies compete for a few professional young people; women compete for a few young men; men compete for a few young women; much ado and much excitement.

This passage is key to understanding Houellebecq and it has many consequences, more than might first appear. I discuss these at length in the manuscript of my aforementioned book. For our purposes, I will say the following: There are people for whom sexual inequality and its results seem a marginal matter, or something which only worries people for a brief period in their life followed by their “growing up.”

But there are other kinds of people, and Houellebecq and the three Hebrew authors I mentioned belong to this sort. In The Possibility of an Island, his novel from 2005, the protagonist Daniel describes a meeting of his with a spiritual man, interested in the original theological teachings of a philosopher, scientist and priest Teilhard de Chardin. Daniel is frustrated with his thought, indifferent as it is to passion and the torment of sexual desire:

After just a few pages [of de Chardin’s work] I started to scream, screams of despair […] [de Chardin] had an illusion, shared by all leftist Christians who lean to the center, meaning Christians who had clung since the Revolution to the progressive idea which considered sexual passion to be something lowly, unimportant, and not worthy enough to divert man from redemption […] Pascal, for instance, would never be tempted to such nonsense: You could sense in his writings that the desire of the flesh was not foreign to him, that he could live a life of revelry, and if he chose Jesus and not infidelity or a life of deviance, this was not done due to lack of thought or ability, but because Jesus seemed to him to be “high dope”; in short, he was a serious writer.

And Brenner’s protagonist, in a quote I will deal with later, is aware that not everyone shares his view that the issues bothering him are central:

There are more things in the world […] aside from questions of sick erotica and religious collapse. Here people sit and talk – and none of them would think to mention the troubles of sexual weakness and sexual envy in conversation, the troubles of the weakening of the pillars of good and evil, troubles which for subjects like him are everything.

For people like Houellebecq and Brenner (via their protagonists), the sexual questions are “everything” and “the essence of suffering.” A writer who does not address them is not “serious.”

But the above quote from Whatever contains a number of other significant statements, beyond the argument that there are sexual classes; in this, it is also relevant for people who do not consider the sexual issue to be that important in itself.

First, Houellebecq conducts a comparative of great significance (which I cannot fully flesh out here) between economic competition and sexual competition, with both phenomena running alongside each other and even informing each other, and characterizing western society in the last few decades of the twentieth centuries.

And second, this quote also hints at the two central values of western society at the end of the twentieth century being economic efficiency and the level of an individual’s sexual attractiveness. This quote hints at what Houellebecq calls the “simplification” of western existence, stripped of other values, to those two values alone. Here’s what he writes in Atomised (1998):

We live in an utterly simplistic world. For de Gramont [a character in Proust’s novel] there are fewer bills than Snoop Doggy Dogg. Snoop Doggy Dogg has fewer bills than Bill Gates, but he turns on the girls more. Two parameters, no more.

And here is a formulation of this insight in The Possibility of an Island (2005):

We have so simplified, exaggerated, shattered sacred cows, false hopes, fake ambitions; we are left with so little, really. Socially, there were rich and there were poor, and a rickety bridges between them – the social ladder, a subject commonly mocked; a more reasonable possibility was bankruptcy. Sexually, there was a division between those who arouse desire and those who don’t at all: A fairly simple mechanism, with some possible complications (homosexuality, &c), but which is easily possible to summarize in terms of narcissistic pride and competition, which the great French moralists successfully defined three hundred years before.

And again, with crushing simplicity, in Houellebecq’s early collection of essays on science fiction writer HP Lovecraft (1991): “The value of a man is measured today in terms of his economic efficiency and his erotic potential.” Such that this insight, on the sexual classes, is just a starting point for a much more comprehensive worldview and cultural critique, one which does not suffice with merely pointing to their existence. Later, we will see how this issue, of sexual inequality, is surprisingly connected to the religious issue.

But going back to the central line of discussion: When I read Houellebecq and saw just how central the sense of deficient masculinity was in his work, I suddenly thought that he is actually a Hebrew writer. He is the great successor to Brenner, Shabtai, and Levin. This thought sounds very eccentric, if not absurd. But I insist on it. I will try to develop it below by comparing him to Shabtai and Brenner (as an aside, I love Shabtai and Brenner, while I only appreciate Levin; this is since I think he made pain into a tool, which he enjoyed using to hurt others, his readers and the audience for his plays).

Houellebecq and Shabtai: The Decline of the Body in a World Without Spirit

There is a strong connection between the work of Yaakov Shabtai and that of Michel Houellebecq, even though as an author per se Shabtai beats out Houellebecq, to the extent I can judge with my limited French.

Shabtai, like Houellebecq in the famous above quote from Whatever, is very focused on male-to-male sexual comparisons (although he does not paint this issue with the thoroughness of Houellebecq; here lies the great advantage of the French author). Thus Meir, hero of Sof Davar [In The End]:

He unwillingly remembered the interview with Simenon, published years before in one of the papers and engraved in his memory, in which he discovered that he had slept with ten thousand women, this was the only detail he remembered from the interview and due to which it remained stuck like a thorn in his memory, and again he was wrapped up in feelings of pitifulness and defeat, he could never reach that number.

The fear of aging and death, the decline of the body and the attractiveness of the body, are very much the focus of both authors. Both are obsessive over the sexual issue, and not just in the comparative context. The fear of aging and death (accompanied by that sexual obsession) is the great subject of Sof Davar (opened with the unforgettable words, one of the greatest openings in the history of literature: “At the age of forty and two, a little after Sukkot, Meir was struck with fear of death, and this after he recognized that death is a tangible part of his life, which had already passed its peak and are now rolling down the hill” &c):

Somehow he saw this disease […] as a shameful personal failure and a flaw in his manhood, and all this joined together and became a line in the sand and a clear mark that he is no longer young, and will never be again, and the only path open before him, and towards which he is being pushed, is the path to old age, which has also touched him, and to death.

And that fear of aging is also the great subject of Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island: “In the modern world you can be bisexual, a transvestite, a zoophile, a swinger, a lover of BDSM – but you must not be old.”

Shabtai’s heroes cannot accept death. Goldman, for instance, the protagonist of Zichron Dvraim [A Memory/Recording of Things], wishes to live for a thousand years and “refused to make peace with the knowledge that life comes but once and that death is final.” Meanwhile the Houellebecq-ian utopias (Atomised, The Possibility of an Island, and Lanzarote) similarly deal obsessively with this issue and try to offer a way out through speculative use of scientific developments, like the use of genetic cloning giving a person eternal life.

Shabtai and Houellebecq deal with the question of how much their protagonists can actually love. Thus, in the following cruel passage from Sof Davar:

And he continued with Gordon and thought to himself, that he would give everything for his mother to return to life, and even for a day, and immediately, the very thought made a tremor of happiness pass through him, as though it was already happening […] And afterward, as the happiness of the meeting was thumping in his chest, he asked himself if he would give ten years of his life, and he said “yes,” and a repressed hesitation momentarily shook in him, and then he asked himself if he would give fifteen years of his life for it, he felt this question should not be asked […] and a feeling of panic and misery took over him, as suddenly, and so unexpectedly, it became clear to him that his love for his mother was not as unconditional and unrestrained as he thought.

Meanwhile Bruno, one of the protagonists of Atomised, concludes that “Like his parents before him, he was also not able to love.”

For Shabtai, the experience of birth, described at the famous end of Sof Davar, is traumatic and accompanied by a “bitter weeping.” Compare it to Houellebecq’s statement in The Possibility of an Island:

Terror, true terror in the face of this ongoing nightmare that is human existence. If the human infant is the only one in the whole animal kingdom who immediately demonstrates its presence in the world with unending screams of pain, this is of course because he suffers, and this suffering is intolerable. Perhaps the loss of the plumage led the skin to be so sensitive to temperature differences without protecting it from an attack of parasites; perhaps it’s unique nervous sensitivity, some flaw in the production. Every impartial observer will see, clearly, that the human creature cannot be happy, that he is in no way built for happiness, and that the only possible destiny for him is spreading pain around and making the life of others intolerable just like his own life.

In the last radio interview he gave in his life (1981), Shabtai spoke of a “process of separation” – climaxing in death – characterizing existence, and which he wanted to express in the novel Zichron Dvarim. “Life itself is entirely a process of separation,” Shabtai told his interviewer Ilana Tzuckerman, even insisting, when she proposes the word “deterioration,” on the word “separation.” “This is a dominant feeling for me,” Shabtai adds.

Shabtai here repeats the words of Uncle Lazar from Zichron Dvarim – a character who expresses the philosophical essence of the novel, as I will suggest below – “What worries him is the inevitable process of separation with death as its absolute and final expression.” There is a wonderful similarity here with the definition given by Houellebecq in a 1995 interview as to the basis of his own work: “Before everything, I believe, the intuition is that the universe is based on separation, on suffering and on evil.”

To an extent, Houellebecq was continuing where Shabtai left off, from the dead end the latter found himself in with his understanding of existence (I do not mean “influence” here, of course, so much as a deeper closeness).

Zichron Dvarim and Sof Davar are in my interpretation anti-utopian novels. The characters in Zichron Dvarim strive for redemption in various forms. In the fathers’ generation, redemption moves in the direction of socialism, Zionism, communism, and anarchism. In the sons’ generation, especially in the form of the character of Goldman, they are much more private efforts at redemption. But all these efforts, general and private, come to grief in the novel. And Uncle Lazar expresses what can be called the novel’s “position” on this issue with the following lines:

And he said that one should avoid to great expectations, and afterward said that there is something which he calls the “redemptive inclination,” but his life experience taught him that there is no action in public or private life, no matter how correct or revolutionary, which can bring redemption, in the sense that from a particular point onward a new era will begin where everything will be utterly good and sort itself out as we wish […] And Uncle Lazar said that it was hard for him to adopt this recognition in a way that would become a natural part of his thought and feeling, as, for too many years he was subject to the rule of the knowledge that there is one deed which is the redemptive act, which in his case was communism and anarchism.

Similarly, the following words of Posner from Sof Davar can be considered the despairing credo of Shabtai’s second novel:

And he added that life itself has no moral content or purpose in themselves, what we can say of them with a degree of certainty is that they are organic matter moving in space and changing with time […] He once wanted and tried to know what (life is) and direct them to the goals and the achievements, which seemed to him particularly exalted, he wanted to redeem the world and write books of eternal value, but it’s a waste of time, there’s no point in trying to direct them, better to let go of the reins.

Shabtai – who is nevertheless driven by deep utopian drives, just like Houellebecq – arrived at the conclusion which Houellebecq puts thusly in Platform (2001): “There is no doubt that man was not meant for happiness. To truly earn the practical possibility of being happy, man undoubtedly had to change – change physically.” But Houellebecq, unlike Shabtai, writes in an era where such physical transformations seem possible, such that the opening for a utopian vision is recreated. And this is the meaning of the scientific utopias present in Atomised and The Possibility of an Island. It is from this interest in utopias that we get the specific dealing in both with Fourier, the nineteenth century utopian (including sexually). Houellebecq deals with him explicitly, and Shabtai mentions him in notes he wrote to himself while writing Sof Davar.

But the deeper closeness between Shabtai and Houellebecq can be seen in other, more secondary details – which perhaps makes them more amazing. Take, for instance, the interest both have in the experience of tourism as a mini-utopian one. By my interpretation, Houellebecq’s extensive interest in tourism – one present in all his work, including poetry, but which is particularly prominent in Lanzarote and Platform – derives from his utopian drive, the sense that a vacation is or tries to be like a utopia in microcosm.

Thus, in Platform: “The aim of the tourism company is to make people happy, for a certain price, for a certain period.” Meanwhile in the novella Lanzarote (2000), Houellebecq writes as follows on the utopian character of tourism:

The dialogue between the tourist and the travel agent tends to generally go beyond the framework of commercial relations. Unless, more secretly, it reveals, while negotiating that dream-creating material called a “journey,” the real gamble – mysterious, human in every facet and almost mystical – of all commercial relations […] [It is on the travel agency] that your happiness depends – or at least the conditions for creating your happiness – for those few weeks.

The third chapter of Sof Davar, devoted to the tourist experience of Meir, the novel’s protagonist, derives in my view from a similar approach (to be more precise, the desire to effectively examine it). But as anyone who read the Shabtai-ite novel, Meir’s tourist experience in Amsterdam becomes Sisyphean and nightmarish. And Meir concludes that “There is an enormous amount of deceit in the whole matter of tourism.”

There's even a slightly surprising theme revealing a deep closeness between Shabtai and Houellebecq. Houellebecq, throughout his work, deals obsessively with Islam and Muslim migrants in France and Europe. Submission, his novel from 2015, is entirely devoted to the possible rise of a future Muslim regime in France. He has a strong attraction to the subject, which is also related to his marketing skills, in that it allows him to be a provocateur (e.g., by smearing Islam, which led him to being tried and acquitted on the grounds of “freedom of speech,” although he distinguished between that and smearing Muslims themselves), and in general to make use of a sensitive social issue.

Houellebecq is fully aware of his flirtation with xenophobic trends (although he, as we noted, draws an important line between hating people and hating worldviews). In his early book on Lovecraft, Houellebecq analyzes the racism and antisemitism of this sci-fi writer, a son of the first half of the twentieth century, as deriving from fear and the fear of competitors, including a fear of sexual competitors. Compare this to the attitude of Meir in Sof Davar to the foreigners in Amsterdam in general and its Arab and African migrants in particular:

[The cafes] were mobbed with men, most of the Arabs and Africans, those in any event were prominent, who sat there and drank and made love before the passersby with complete indifference with women who appeared to largely be prostitutes or drugged drifters.

And here, with true bluntness, is another thing that shows Shabtai to be close to Houellebecq, as can be seen in the latter’s extensive interest in the “decline of the west”:

And he said to himself what he repeated to himself a number of times throughout the day, that beneath the façade of almost rural pleasantry and peace of this city is a violence ready to break out, whose main subject is the foreign rabble of those coming from the third world, Arabs and negros and Asiatics, he also added to this the two Israelis with the thin girl from the afternoon, but he removed himself from this group, who are an abscess spreading in the body and spirit of Europe, who due to feelings of guilt and cowardice, and perhaps simply short-sightedness, lets’ them do whatever they want, until they will ultimately collapse and inherit it, like as the Hun or barbarian tribes inherited Rome.

Lifting off from the details to the bird’s eye view:

The comparison between Houellebecq and Shabtai is fundamental. These are two authors who take a sharp and principled look at the secular western society at the end of the twentieth century (despite the fierce love for Tel Aviv, Shabtai almost entirely avoids directly “Jewish” or “Israeli” issues like the Shoah or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his work is existential-universal in character).

This perspective is cruel and pessimistic: The despair at the fear of aging and death in societies without metaphysical succor; the central (and frustrating) place which sexuality has in lieu of the abolished metaphysical layer. Accordingly, the religious issue is central for both. Its presence for Houellebecq will be discussed later in the article. Meanwhile, Zichron Dvarim is full of comments on the necessity of religion, the serious consequences of heresy – but also the impossibility of believing; comments such as this one:

A memory of a time when [Goldman] tried with excited effort, accompanied by many hopes, to return to the embrace of Judaism and reach religion and for a year he believed that he did succeed in that, but it was a religion without purpose, which declined, since it was a religiosity without faith, which despite his desire and efforts, Goldman failed to acquire except in the form of outside recognition of the necessity of faith and the benefit of God’s existence, and still this was perhaps not far from Manfred’s view […] (who) told Goldman that he does not believe in the complete autonomy of man, that he creates himself and that the world creates itself, and that rejecting the existence of God is understood only when one sees positively the unlimited rule of the drives and without values, and after a brief silence, he added “And we’ve already seen what came of that.”

Alongside the pessimism towards secular western existence, both feel a messianic drive beat within them for another kind of existence. For Shabtai this urge is defeated by reality; its only realization lies, perhaps, in fantasy (for those who interpret the final, fantastical chapter of Sof Davar optimistically; my pessimistic interpretation is different); for Houellebecq, this drive is encouraged by the hope of futuristic and “messianic” scientific developments.

Houellebecq and Brenner: Facing Nietzsche’s Challenge

The comparison between Brenner and Houellebecq is entirely natural and obvious. Just to weaken the eyebrow muscles for those raising it in light of this ostensibly absurd statement (obviously, I speak here of an analogy and not “influence”), I will remind that –

Both authors consider Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to be central sources of influence. Moreover, and more specifically, as we will see, both Houellebecq and Brenner struggled with the amorality of Nietzsche’s teaching;

They have both been accused of having sloppy style – and what Houellebecq responded to this could have also been said by Brenner. Houellebecq responded with the clever idiom of Schopenhauer: “The secret to refined literary style is that you have something to say.” And indeed, both these authors fiercely opposed sterile aestheticism and formalism in literature;

Both these authors wrote works whose main protagonists were autobiographical embodiments of themselves;

Both authors are clear moralists;

The wound tormenting the heroes of Brenner’s tales is the sense of not being loved by women. “The heroes of Brenner see themselves as unworthy and incapable of love,” wrote critic Baruch Kurtzweill in the wake of many statements by the Brenner-ite protagonists themselves. And as noted, Houellebecq describes a similar base experience in his poetry: “And what is it in my gaze that make women flee? It seems to them too fawning, too passionate, angry or deviant? I don’t know. It seems I will never know; but this is the essence of suffering my life.”

A more focused look at the great closeness between Brenner and Houellebecq can be found by looking at Brenner’s Shchol Vekishalon [Bereavement and Failure] (1920). Shchol Vekishalon, Brenner’s great and final novel (he was soon killed during the 1921 riots), deals in no small part in the character and thoughts of Yehezkel Hefetz. Hefetz, a worker among those who came in the second Aliyah, suffers physically, with a disease whose nature is not entirely clear but which seems to be related to a deficiency in the genitalia, removes himself to Jerusalem and then suffers mentally and is even hospitalized for a time in a mental hospital.

He rejects, with great torment on his part, the love of his homely cousin Esther, and vainly desires the love of her comely sister Miriam. Jerusalem also witnesses the arrival of Hamilin, a good-looking and successful man, who already stole a woman meant to marry Hefetz from him and who has now captivated Miriam. The novel deals clearly with the issue of the sexual classes. Hefetz is “a guy […] who does not know to walk with young girls at all and who [in turn] will not cast their charm over him.” He sees himself and Esther, who is pained “that they, the men, do not think her a young girl, a woman, do not desire her,” of equal status compared to the “healthy and beautiful people.” This issue, central for Brenner in Shchol Vekishalon, is obviously close to Houellebecq, who also focuses on the issue.

But this proximity is much more principled. Shchol Vekishalon is a novel of ideas, and Hefetz a philosophical hero. The question of sexual classes is wrapped in metaphysical garb for him. He distinguishes between “the real Hamilin,” a man who is not particularly interesting, and the “metaphysical Hamilin.” Even “his [sexual] wound took on a strange form in his eyes and became a metaphysical object.”

What is this “metaphysical” challenge Hefetz speaks of?

At first glance, this challenge derives from the adjustments Hefetz makes to Nietzsche’s famous attack on Judeo-Christian morality within the context of the sexual classes. Nietzsche famously argued that Judeo-Christian morality is that of “slaves,” meaning expressing the fear of the weak in society towards the strong, the effort of the weak to bind and restrain those more powerful than them. The great conventional moral values (love of others, contempt for the external and material wealth, humility and the prohibition on lording things over your fellow, &c) are simply a plot, an act of deceit by the weak, the “slaves.” In general, there is no “objective” morality according to Nietzsche, only efforts by people to use force as much as they can – sometimes by persuading others that there is something like morality.

Brenner, in a highly original move, conducts an adjustment of the Nietzschean thesis to the question of sexual classes (even though Nietzsche – with central, clear influence on Brenner, is nevertheless not mentioned in the novel!). One of the things tormenting Hefetz is the knowledge that he cannot take solace in any moral superiority over Hamlin and he has no legitimate way to critique the Hamilinite world, a world responsible among other things to his being repressed and trod upon. Hefetz, in his delusions, puts these words in Hamilin’s mouth:

Suddenly Hamilin opened and said, for instance, that he admits of no moral values, that what matters is the burst of emotions and satisfying the different desires, that he only gives value to the strong, enjoyable impressions, that he loves beauty, power, love […] How he despises the sick! How detested are the sick, the weak! All these healthy people take revenge on the healthy, the strong. All their moral theories – one great vengeance, the vengeance of the lowly, crawling and every bad defect. In their ugliness, they take pride in their defects, they proudly present their flaws, to embitter the lives of the healthy and the beautiful, who they hate.

What response can be given to the victory of the strong and the beautiful, Hefetz tortures himself with cruel honesty, if we accept Nietzsche’s analysis that there is no objective morality and indeed, that the morality which ostensibly holds the strong and the beautiful in contempt is the invention of the weak themselves?

Beyond this, if the values of beauty and strength cannot be condemned in principle, if these are the important values in life, what justifies the existence of the weak, the ugly, and the sickly?

This clear Nietzschean motif is clearly expressed in Hefetz’s thoughts on Jesus (Christianity was the focus of Nietzsche’s critique). For instance, in his thoughts on the “Galilean yeshivah student, who with the innocence of his delusions and foolish pride believed, that he could cure what ails the stricken and the afflicted.” And thus (again, in Hefetz’s mind): “’Blessed are the meek, blessed are the oppressed, blessed are the poor’ – said a meek, oppressed, and poor person, one engaging in inaction, lacking the ability to take real action, who for all his love of life did not rest and did not remain silent until he tried raise his pitifulness and idleness to the heights.”

Space does not allow me to analyze all the nuances of Hefetz’s thoughts in Shchol Vekishalon, as well as the full breadth of the beauty, depth, sensitivity, nobility, and grandeur Brenner manages to extract from the broken stance of his protagonist. I will only say that Hefetz makes some strong arguments against Nietzsche (in his version, adapted, for the issue of sexual inferiority). Hefetz, who is simply a good man, argues that morality is a kind of instinct for some people. As it is such, whose who follow Nietzsche who supports the superiority of instincts (or a variant thereof; this is not the place to discuss how much this position is representative of Nietzsche’s thought in its entirety) must recognize its validity. Moreover, Hefetz also argues that instinctive existence is the lot of the “weak” no less than the “strong,” and therefore the value of their existence is substantial and not marginal. “Strong impressions? – but everything in existence makes a strong impression on those prepared to be impressed, and the weak know how to be impressed and therefore live an intensive life.”

The proximity to Houellebecq is incredible. That major dilemma of Hefetz – what right has he to criticize the natural state of affairs, whence his grounds for legitimately criticizing the handsome and successful Hamilin, for after all “his hatred for him was not purely spiritual, the hatred of a moral person for the reprobate; his hatred for him was much more the child of unending jealousy” – has interested Houellebecq a great deal, and it is only the ideological overcoming of this dilemma paved a path for him to make the issue of the physical classes, and the criticism of the physical classes, into something so central in his writing. And this was also done by Houellebecq overcoming Nietzsche.

According to Houellebecq, society at the end of the twentieth century is “Nietzschean,” an amoral society in which individuals compete with one another in terms of attractiveness and material wealth. In Atomised, for instance, he says particularly sharp things against Nietzsche. Houellebecq does not hesitate to connect Nietzsche to Nazism: “The use the Nazis made of Nietzsche’s teaching was not at all inconceivable; in placing man above the law, in rejecting compassion, in erecting will and its authority, Nietzsche’s thinking led naturally to Nazism.”

But it’s not just Nazism that Houellebecq considers to be “Nietzschean", but also – and this is the focus of our discussion – western society at the end of the twentieth century, with admiration of youth and beauty. For instance, Daniel in The Possibility of an Island wonders about the worship of youth in the American films of Larry Clark and Harmony Corin:

One can judge every culture by how it treats the weaker, those who are no longer productive or desired; in short, Larry Clark and his repulsive partner, Harmony Corin, were just two creatures of the most exhausting – and artistically pathetic – type of bullies in the style of Nietzsche who have flourished in the cultural field for too long.

Leaving western society and setting out for utopia in Atomised therefore requires the support of anti-Nietzschean intellectuals:

In this struggle, [one of the architects of the utopia] received the valuable support of a number of neo-Kantians, who while using the general decline of worldviews drawing inspiration from Nietzsche’s thought, took control of key positions of the intellectual and academic world, and the press.

But is there a moral Archimedean point from which this Nietzschean world can be critiqued, where everyone tries their luck “based on the cards they were dealt”? For Houellebecq, overcoming Nietzsche became possible through an encounter with the thought of Schopenhauer. In a small book he published in 2017 on Schopenhauer, Houellebecq wrote that until he became acquainted with Schopenhauer thought in the eighties, Nietzsche’s philosophy seemed to him unbeatable. It disgusted him with its immorality, he wanted to destroy its foundations, but it seemed to him intellectually impeccable. One of the things which Schopenhauer allowed him to do is recognized that compassion and morality are indeed instinctive, not just a fiction compensating for weakness as Nietszche believed. This recognition led him to the following characteristic statement, in an interview from 1995 he chose to include in his collection of essays, Interventions 2:

Societies of animals and people are based on various systems of hierarchy. These can be systems of origin (aristocratic system), capital, beauty, physical strength, intelligence, talent … All these systems seem to me to be almost equally contemptible; I refuse them; the only supremacy I recognize is that of good-heartedness.

This is very close to the position which Brenner develops in Shchol Vekishalon (without Schopenhauer’s aid).

This recognition, of compassion as a human instinct, is present alongside other principles which Houellebecq received from Schopenhauer. The intellectual path I am hinting at, which led to Houellebecq’s thought maturing and allowing him to critique contemporary society, is only partially revealed in his writings.

Houellebecq, in my view, adopted many tools allowing him to go on the offensive against the “Nietzschean” stance; for instance (aside from what I noted on viewing compassion as an instinct), the recognition that one can “leave” this world and occupy a moral Archimedean point from which to criticize it, and this is made possible by an idea developed by Schopenhauer regarding the human ability to break free of the tyrannical “will” which drives the whole universe to continue to exist and whose climax, according to Schopenhauer, is sexual desire.

Schopenhauer speaks of the ability of the “I” to be present before existence  in a perspective of observation and critique, a position characteristic of artists, scientists, and saints. The image of the saint-scientist Dzerzhinski, architect of the futuristic utopian society, in Atomised, is, for instance, an embodiment of this Schopenhauerite idea. I discuss this effort in the aforementioned manuscript, and space does not allow me to do so in depth here. For our purposes, suffice to say that the encounter with Schopenhauer paved the way for Houellebecq’s writing in general, writing which includes a critique of western society in the final decades of the twentieth century in general and of the rigid sexual hierarchy operating within it in particular.

Back to our discussion’s central line of thought. The closeness I identify with Brenner, put succinctly, is this: Both give center stage to the issue of sexual classes. Both deal with the ostensible inability to critique this issue; first, because sexual classes are “from nature,” and one can ostensibly say nothing against “nature” – and second, more specifically, because of the amoral Nietzschean values and the censorship imposed by Nietzsche’s philosophy on Judeo-Christian morality: Nietzschean values and censorship which both Brenner and Houellebecq see as applying to the sexual issue. The closeness continues in that a deep sense of morality is what drives both of them to fight this “Nietzscheanism” and in that both found a similar way to overcome this approach: Moral behavior can also be an instinct, and is not a cover for other interests.

But the closeness between Houellebecq and Brenner also has to do with another central element, this being the connection both make between the sexual issue and the religious issue. Shchol Vekishalon contains an intensive theological discussion alongside the discussion of sexual classes and the validity of morality mentioned above. There are torments, but unlike Job, he has no-one to complain to. “I have no God,” Hefetz thinks to himself. This dealing in faith and heresy is comprehensive, and in one place is even directly attached to the sexual issue, which we will present immediately.

Literary critic Baruch Kurtzweill tried to connect the sexual issue to the religious one when discussing Brenner. He does so in his essay “The Essence of Suffering and Life in the Stories of YH Brenner.” Writes Kurtzweill: “The stories of Brenner do not leave doubt as to the interesting connection between the certainty of religious collapse […] and the problem of eros.” Kurtzwell dwells on a scene in Shchol Vekishalon in which Yehezkel Hefetz bitterly ponders the following thoughts in a synagogue of all places (the place I aimed for at the end of the previous passage):

There are other things in the world […] aside from the question of sick eroticism and religions collapse. Here are people sitting and talking – and none of them would think to mention the distress of sexual weakness and sexual envy, the troubles of the weakening pillars of good and evil, troubles which for subjects like him were everything, after all.

And Kurtzweill writes on this:

The text raises the existing relationship in Brenner’s stories between ‘sick eroticism’ and ‘religious collapse,’ between sexual weakness and envy,’ and the ‘weakening pillars of good and evil,’ between the ‘erotomania and heresy’ […] It is therefore natural to conclude a very close relationship in Brenner’s stories between the unique character of the problem of eros and religious collapse.

But what is the essence of this relationship between the sexual and religious issues? One central one, hinted at by Kurtzweill and also by Brenner himself, is this: the issue of suffering. Sexual inequality causes a great deal of suffering and is seen as a great injustice. In a world without God, the pain increases exponentially: This is a pain for whom no-one is responsible or from whom to demand compensation, it is a pain which cannot ostensibly be judged an “injustice,” for in a world without God there is no “good” or “evil,” and finally, and this is the most focused point – it is a pain which comes directly from “nature” – and nature, in a world without supernatural presence, cannot (ostensibly) be protested.

Kurtzweill makes another explicit connection between the two. The relationship with others increases in importance when the relationship with God is sealed off. Man who no longer believes places his trust in the other. This is the “curse of modern man,” writes Kurtzweill –

Who has lost his connection with divinity, to wander about the world without shelter, and in his suffering places his trust in others, in the “you,” who becomes a kind of substitute of the Absolute. The question is how much the woman, the eros in its limited, specific sense, can bear the heavy burden imposed by the “I.”

In other words, in addition to the heretic seeking consolation and love, he also seeks to find love to find a way out of the “I” trap, just as the believer seeks to break free of his isolation by appealing to God and effectively to merge with Him. Hence the importance of eros increases when God clears the stage.

But this effort to seek consolation in love by the heretic and the striving to use it to break free of isolation – will fail. “Eros cannot free the I from itself,” writes Kurtzweill, and “Eros shrinks into a sexual hunger.” And why? “Because the protagonists of Brenner, lacking faith in the transcendental meaning of eros, because their world has no knowledge of transcendence at all, since they assume the final collapse of all religious faith.”

This is another, different connection made by Kurtzweill between the religious and the sexual issue: Love requires faith. So Brenner writes in Mikan Umikan [From Here and From Here] (the speaker is “at wit’s end” protagonist who is quite similar to the author): “I could never love. Love requires faith in it.” Kurtzweill expands the Brenner-ite argument and interprets it as relating to belief in God and argues “Without faith there is also no love; this is known by all of Brenner’s protagonists. Love, like religion, creates ritual: (hence the quote from Mikan Umikan) ‘Love requires faith in it, growth and cultivation … And I – my attitude to the woman was really always naked, monochrome.”

What does he mean that “Without faith, there is no love”? Is there but a solely loose connection here, meaning pointing to the fact that to love one person powerfully and think that they are exceptional and irreplaceable, one must think somewhat irrationally and “have faith”?

Kurtzweill does address this possibility. But there is an even stronger possibility. With the help of a quote from Plato’s Symposium, Kurtzweill argues that in ancient times, and in different cultures, eros is seen as something not of this world; but for modern man, “who believes only in himself and his reason, the wellsprings of eros have dried up.” After accepting the scientific worldview, according to which sex is but an evolutionary trick, one can no longer sanctify erotic relations. Those who no longer believe can also no longer believe in love. Modern man, writes Kurtzweill, cannot “break free of the cursed circle of his self.” “’There is I’ and there is no God – this is the assumption of modern literature. But when all begin with ‘there is I’ (Kurtzweill is quoting Brenner here), then the ‘connections' between man and others ‘exist only in our minds’; then ‘we are alone in the world' [here he quotes from Proust]. But then eros is nature’s deception.”

In other words, the connection between religion and sex is this: With the loss of religious faith, love is also stripped of its mystery – for one must “believe” in love, and this relies on viewing eros as something mysterious, not of this world – while we are left with naked sex.

*

Like Brenner’s work, Houellebecq’s oeuvre includes an obsessive focus on sex alongside an obsessive focus on religion.

In a range of references, he repeatedly argues that a society without religion is condemned to die. He took this idea from August Comte, one of the founders of sociology in the nineteenth century. In an article on Comte from 2003, Houellebecq wrote that Comte’s great subject was religion; we can define man according to Comte – and in this, he is innovative and relevant until today – as a “social animal of the religious type.”

Until Comte, religion was considered a way of explaining the world. Comte, who was among the first to understand that this religious approach has played itself out and become irrelevant and replaced by science, considered religion as formative of society, with its important role being to connect people and arrange their relationships. Therefore, he thought, there was need for a new religion – including a new calendar, rituals – and specifically a secular, humanistic religion. But Houellebecq says that Comte did not understand the drive for immortality driving people. Therefore, only the promise of immortality through technology allows the formation of such a new religion.

Even New Age, a phenomenon he considers dubious, points to society needing a religion, and that nature cannot tolerate a vacuum:

Beyond the detested mixing of basic ecology, an attraction to traditional concepts and the “sacred” which he inherited from his connection to the hippie movement and the view of Esalen, New Age discovered a real desire to break loose of the twentieth century, from the corruption of virtues, from individualism, and from its libertarian and anti-social aspects; out of a sense of malaise, he noted that no society maintains itself without the unifying axis of some religion. ("Atomised")

But what exactly is the connection between sex and religion, per Houellebecq? Is there such a thing? Houellebecq does not explicitly answer this. I deal with this in my book, and I will summarize some of my arguments here.

In my analysis, there is one kind of connection deriving from the concept of “individualism” in Houellebecq’s world. Religion, according to Comte and Houellebecq, is what allows the formation of society, thus eliminating the danger of individualism. Meanwhile sex has become so central – as has the competitiveness of our society – due to that same individualism. Such that religion, first of all, can take the sting out of sex by offering a shared social project.

In addition, the decline of religion does not just presage the rise of individualism, but also the general decline of the spirit – including related terms like “soul,” “inner self,” and even “love” – and the rise of the flesh, meaning sex, in its place.

The religious concept of the “soul” granted inalienable value to the individual, value which derives not from the market or a system of exchange, meaning it is the antidote for a condition Houellebecq analyzes in his work, per which the value of the human creature is measured by his attractiveness and economic efficiency. Thus, religion and sex are opposites – and thus also related – in this sense, as well.

On the third hand, in the practical sense, the decline of religious morals in sexual matters had made sex free (i.e., unhindered by marriage), therefore leading to the skyrocketing of sexuality in importance while also escalating the inequality of the sexual market which is now “free.”

And on the fourth hand, the religion Houellebecq thinks of in some cases appeals directly to human hedonistic desire, the desire for eternal life. A religion which does not promise an eternal life will not survive, Houellebecq writes in another reference in Public Enemies. Religion contains an element no less utopian than sex. Houellebecq’s interest in religion is like his interest in sex – both derive from a utopian and messianic impulse.

Either way, for our purposes, the direct connection made by Brenner and Houellebecq between the religious and the sexual issue makes them authors who are very close in spirit.

Moreover, and more specifically, Houellebecq also (unknowingly, of course) reconstructs some of Kurtzweill’s arguments about Brenner (or which he hints and aims at). When he says in an interview that the issue of the possibility of love in our time is the equivalent of the “damned questions” of God’s existence in the time of Dostoevsky, when he writes about Daniel in The Possibility of an Island who is the “Zarathustra of the middle class” as he declares the death of love just as Nietzsche declared the death of God –he  is very close to the stance of Kurtzweill in analyzing Brenner: Love, like faith in God, means breaking out of the individualist trap, and it requires a “leap of faith,” a sense of the transcendent, which Brenner’s protagonists understand they cannot achieve because of the loss of their faith in God. And when Houellebecq speaks of how “Love is a rare phenomenon, artificial and late, which can only flourish in unique emotional conditions, which rarely exist together, and which are in all respects contrary to the moral freedom characteristic of the modern period,” he is very close to the position of Brenner that “Love requires faith in it, growth and cultivation.” Meanwhile the viewing of individualism as the root of all evil, its being seen as the product of the rise of the scientific worldview and the crushing of the religious worldview, the viewing of individualism as not enabling love – is identical by Kurtzweill’s interpretation of Brenner and by Houellebecq.

Beyond Nature: The Jewish Houellebecq

But beyond all the specific parallels between Houellebecq and Brenner or Houellebecq and Shabtai, at the broader level, Houellebecq, in my view, is closer to the great Hebrew tradition for two decisive reasons: his morality and his messianic drive.

Houellebecq, as we said, is a clearly moralist writer (and his clear moralism is present alongside misanthropy, fatalism, and apathy, both authentic and inauthentic). And Houellebecq’s morality is based on opposition to nature, as well as our right to judge nature and protest against it.

This is also one of the great contributions of Judaism to humanity: The concept of the monotheistic God as being beyond nature is what allows us to oppose nature and its hierarchies. This basic Jewish principle comes to earth-shaking fruition in two adjoining portions (and not by coincidence, to my mind) in Samuel 1 regarding David (ch. 16-17): The one where God tells Shmuel not to pay heed to the impressive outward appearance of Eliav (“Do not look to his looks and his height”) – and the story of Goliath, whose physical size and superior weapons do not deter David: “And David said to the Philistine: You came to me with sword and spear and lance, and I came to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of the Camps of Israel who you have blasphemed.”

"I have always received particular admiration from among the Jews,” Houellebecq told Bernard Henry-Levi in Public Enemies. And elsewhere he notes in correspondence that Judaism opposes ecology (a negative concept in Houellebecq’s view, an ideology which places nature above man or at least makes it equal to him) and pantheism:

This movement [“ecological fundamentalism,” as he called it somewhat before] aims to tie man to the world and grant him a place in the ‘natural balance’ (and most of all – command him to stay there); on the other hand, it doesn’t have much to say about what can bind people to each other. It is in effect a new form of pantheism. There is comfort in knowing the Jews will be here to oppose that.

The ability to morally rebel against nature – one of the central elements in Houellebecq’s work – is possible only if people place themselves on an Archimedean point outside it. Houellebecq himself identifies this view with Judaism. And indeed, to my mind, this is one of the great contributions of monotheism (which can be relied on even without faith; this is because I think monotheism simply revealed an element which effectively exists in the human experience itself, which can make itself outside and beyond nature, even if for a few moments).

To sharpen this point, I return to what arose from our above analysis: Houellebecq’s project is, in many ways, an anti-Nietzschean effort. Nietzsche, according to Houellebecq, is one of the godfathers of western society at the end of the twentieth century, and Houellebecq condemns his anti-moral teachings. And after all, Nietzsche’s project was itself against Judeo-Christian morality, the “slave morality,” which ostensibly harmed the rights which “the strong” were entitled to from nature itself. Such that the argument regarding the deep connection between Houellebecq and Judaism relies on a central component of Houellebecq’s worldview: its anti-Nietzscheanism.

The second proof of Houellebecq’s closeness to the great Jewish tradition is this: Houellebecq is a utopian, messianic author, seeking a Garden of Eden in this world. And the messianic idea is also Judaism’s contribution to the world.

Such that Houellebecq, without really knowing it, is a kind of Hebrew author.

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