Wednesday, July 09, 2008

When possibilities collide

I finished the Houellebecq novel the other week — The Possibility of an Island, on which I commented previously. It was difficult, in an unpleasant, morally challenging kind of way.

The primary narrator, Daniel1, is not very likable. Yet, he is strangely compelling and in the final pages almost sympathetic. And this, I think, is because of my age.

I am at that age... I've never been one to worry about my age, or expected "accomplishments" (marriage, children, promotion) by a certain age. But I've reached that age where people, for example, tell me I look good for my age (back-handed compliment?) or ask if I worry about it.

It doesn't exactly make me feel old; it makes me feel, however, as if I ought to, as if it's my duty to fret and regret.

And as much as I believe that, finally, I am in my skin, I have grown into myself, there is a tiny, tiny, tiny part (whether innate or manufactured by society and beauty industry, I can no longer tell) that thinks my attractiveness has decreased and hence my worth is a little diminished.

So, Houellebecq, sexist pig with double standards though he may be, still manages to make a point.

The weather was changing quickly, it wasn't long before the heat settled on the south of Spain; naked young girls began to tan themselves, especially at weekends, on the beach near the residence, and I began to feel the return, albeit weak and flaccid, of something that wasn't really even desire — for the word would seem to me, despite everything, to imply a minimum belief in the possibility of its fulfilment — but the memory, the phantom of what could have been desire. I could now make out clearly the cosa mentale, the ultimate torment, and at that moment I could say at last that I had understood. Sexual pleasure was not only superior, in refinement and violence, to all the other pleasures life had to offer; it was not only the one pleasure with which there is no collateral damage to the organism, but which on the contrary contributes to maintaining it at its highest level of vitality and strength; it was in truth the sole pleasure, the sole objective of human existence, and all other pleasures — whether associated with rich food, tobacco, alcohol or drugs — were only derisory and desperate compensations, mini-suicides that did not have the courage to speak their name, attempts to speed up the destruction of a body that no longer had access to the one real pleasure.

There's something highly distasteful in the ideas Houellebecq offers, but they're made all the more so for that tiny kernel of something I recognize as maybe a little bit true.

Youth was the time for happiness, its only season; young people, leading lazy, carefree life, partially occupied by scarcely absorbing studies, were able to devote themselves unlimitedly to the liberated exultation of their bodies. They could play, dance, love and multiply their pleasure. They could leave a party, in the early hours of the morning, in the company of sexual partners they had chosen, and contemplate the dreary line of employees going to work. They were the salt of the earth, and everything was given to them, everything was permitted for them, everything was possible. Later on, having started a family, having entered the adult world, they would be introduced to worry, work, responsibility and the difficulties of existence; they would have to pay taxes, submit themselves to administrative formalities whilst ceaselessly bearing witness — powerless and shamefilled — to the irreversible degradation of their own bodies, which would be slow at first, then increasingly rapid; above all, they would have to look after children, mortal enemies, in their own homes, they would have to pamper them, feed them, worry about their illnesses, provide the means for their education and their pleasure, and unlike in the world of animals, this would last not just for a season, they would remain slaves of their offspring always, the time of joy was well and truly over for them, they would have to continue to suffer until the end, in pain and with increasing health problems, until they were no longer good for anything and were definitively thrown onto the rubbish heap, cumbersome and useless. In return, their children would not be at all grateful, on the contrary their efforts, however strenuous, would never be considered enough, they would, until the bitter end, be considered guilty because of the simple fact of being parents. From this sad life, marked by shame, all joy would be pitilessly banished. When they wanted to draw near to young people's bodies, they would be chased away, rejected, ridiculed, insulted and, more and more often nowadays, imprisoned. The physical bodies of young people, the only desirable possession the world has ever produced, were reserved for the exclusive use of the young, and the fate of the old was to work and to suffer. This was the true meaning of solidarity between generations; it was a pure and simple holocaust of each generation in favour of the one that replaced it, a cruel, prolonged holocaust that brought with it no consolation, no comfort, nor any material or emotional compensation.

It's all the uglier as a reader, to have been that youth and now to be "later on." A bit extreme, the way he puts it, but nevertheless a bit true. Let me assure you: I do not see my child as a mortal enemy, and she is year's away from being ungrateful; there is no regret, but I admit to occasional resentment, not against her exactly, but against the order of things, that it should be so.

Some interesting thoughts related to Houellebecq: here.

Why any of this is connected to Nietzsche in my head is a tricky business. Beyond my reading him concurrently, Houellebecq mentions him quite a bit, along with Schopenhauer, but I'm ill equipped to discern if he does so as homage or in criticism, and in either case whether he does so justly — does he fairly represent them or skew their ideas to suit his purpose?

(I find Houellebecq very frustrating, like a guy you meet at one those parties, who turns out to be a jerk; you see eye to eye on all manner of postulates but manage to draw exactly opposite conclusions.)

Here Nietzsche expounds on a version of the maxim, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Daniel ought to take heed.

Only great suffering; that great suffering, under which we seem to be over a fire of greenwood, the suffering that takes its time — forces us philosophers to descend into our nethermost depths, and to let go down, all mildness, all mediocrity, — on which doubt whether such suffering improve a man; but I know that it makes him deeper. . . . Supposing we learn to set our pride, our scorn, out strength of will against it, and thus resemble the Indian who, however cruelly he may be tortured, considers himself revenged on his tormentor by the bitterness of his own tongue. Supposing we withdraw from pain into nonentity, into the deaf, dumb, and rigid sphere of self-surrender, self-forgetfulness, self-effacement: one is another person when one leaves these protracted and dangerous exercises in the art of self-mastery; one has one note of interrogation the more, and above all one has the will henceforward to ask more, deeper, sterner, harder, more wicked, and more silent questions, than anyone has ever asked on earth before. . . . Trust in life has vanished; life itself has become a problem. — But let no one think that one has therefore become a spirit of gloom or a blind owl! Even love of life is still possible, — but it is a different kind of love. . . . It is the love for a woman whom we doubt. . . .

("More silent questions"!!!)

Right. Life's a problem — on this point Nietzsche and Houellebecq seem to agree — but we can get past that.

Houellebecq develops the idea of a cult of indifference. I think there's something of this in Nietzsche, too, when he criticizes Wagner's bombast as pulp for the masses. Our gluttony, our mass consumption, of goods, but of ideas and experience too, has numbed us to their true effects, disabled our capacity to recognize the genuine article.

It is age — the accumulation of experience — that jades us, then dulls us.

I'm not interested in recapturing youth, per se. I'm not interested in attending that party to leave in the early hours of the morning. But I'd love, for example, to experience a first kiss again, or see Paris as if for the first time.

How do you lift the veil of indifference that's fallen over our eyes, blurring our contact with, our appreciation of the everyday?

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