Theater of Cruelty

Fuck autonomy! 

Houellebecq's French dystopia coincides with Arne Garborg's Norwegian decadence. Both write ironic development novels with solutions they themselves do not believe in.


Arne Garborg:
Tired Men (1891)

Michel Houellebecq:
Submission (2015)

Garborg's Decadence Novel Tired Men came out nearly 125 years before Houellebecqs Submission. Where Houellebecq's protagonist is described as flat and unsympathetic, Garborg's Gabriel Gram is far richer in psychological nuances. But both novels describe a development from decay to salvation. A novel of salvation can be seductive. Therefore, it is important to look at the background of the conversion.

The individual's decay is proportional to the decline of the whole era. The decay is not just individual. IN Tired Men one place is linked to the downfall of the Roman Empire: "When ancient Rome began to rot, people were also allowed to run after Miracle Magicians and Mysteries." lack of meaning in life. They are action-paralyzed brain heroes who reflect on their depressing existence. But even though the main characters are decaying, they also test out the outer limits of existence. Like stars that flare up just before they go out, these novel characters shed light on the basic conditions of life.

The poet Arne Garborg. Photo: SCANPIX Archive.
The poet Arne Garborg.
Photo: SCANPIX Archive.

Disillusionment. The main character François in Houellebecq's novel Submission has a doctorate on the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, who wrote the decadence novel Against the stream (1884). Huysmans describes the protagonist's path from decadence to a cry for help from religion. He converted to 1892, and saw himself, 20 years later in a preface to the novel, this as a prophecy of his own development. Garborgs Tired Men reminiscent of Huysman's novel when it comes to religious conversion. There is disagreement as to whether Garborg was directly affected by Huysmans.

The decadence sets the agenda again – it shows Houellebecq's success. In Norway there are two books on the phenomenon: Per Thomas Andersens Decadence in Nordic literature 1880 – 1900 and Per Buvik's decadence, which is based on the German (Nietzsche) and the French (Bourget, Huysmans) traditions respectively. (Buvik has also written about Huysmans and Houellebecq in the 2-2015 window.)

Michel Houellebecq. AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA
Michel Houellebecq. AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA

Houellebecq envisions a post-democratic, post-feminist society on 2022. The ideas of freedom and equality are shattered by the Muslim Brotherhood. The doubt of progress and "growth" has an objective basis: The planet's resources cannot withstand these ideals being realized by everyone. The ideal of information about the boundless improvement of humanity's conditions has reached a saturation point. Right-wing populist and authoritarian movements get wind of the sails. A similar disillusionment to the progress is being carried on by Garborg's main character Gabriel Gram i Tired Men. He is tired of the modern breakthrough's progressive optimism, and experiments with, among other things, Buddhism, Schopenhauer's pessimism, natural romance and bohemian ideology. Finally, he repents to Christianity to fill life with meaning.

Houellebecq envisions a post-democratic, post-feminist society on 2022. The ideas of freedom and equality are shattered by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many therefore mistakenly believed that Garborg had converted to Christianity. The protagonist Gabriel Gram becomes religious, while his counterpart, progress optimist Georg Jonathan, claims that only the weary go to the priest. Where did Garborg himself stand? He was ambivalent and directed a meeting between two tendencies in himself and in time, and shaped them as the novelists Gabriel Gram and Georg Jonathan.

Something similar can be said about the main character in Submission. No one suspects Houellebecq for supporting a Muslim takeover in France after François converted to Islam for very different reasons. For that, the irony is too thick.

Gram needs a surrogate for her unhappy love for Fanny, while François loses his Myriam because she emigrates to Israel. In the end, Houellebecq's protagonist is spotted with multiple gasps and access to a small harem of young women. The selfish motives behind the conversion become clear.

A depressed person can find Jesus or Allah and his prophet without saying much about crises or epochs in society. The novel was deliberately apolitical in relation to the protagonist's parent generation, the sixties. Repentance must also reflect a shift in mentality over time. Both Garborg and Houllebecq make such connections between individuals and general tendencies. But not only. You get little compassion for François' and his problems: He is a rather unsympathetic character. Not necessarily because he eats ready-made food, watches online porn and considers women as sex objects – but because his privacy is almost optional consists of these ingredients. He is dissatisfied, but the reasons for his dissatisfaction are poorly psychologically justified. Here, Garborg's portrayal of Gabriel Gram goes much deeper.

Gram is in many ways a victim of the double morality of the Victorian era – he swears for "the pure woman" while seeking prostitutes. He is mentally and physically destroyed through his own ambivalence. But couldn't he have lived happily ever after? Although Gabriel Gram lives in a transitional period and is on a historical tilt between realism and neo-romance, his problems cannot be explained simply from that. In the same way, the connection between the protagonist's meaningless life and the necessity of Muslim takeover of Houellebecq is far from obvious.

The escape from freedom. Both main characters have right-wing tendencies and despise democracy. Gram wants to be an aristocrat and thinks Norway has decayed:

"Now, this once lies such an aristocratic and legendary Land and operates as a lousy, democratic Flat Barge, fulfilled by the Divorce Policy, Stavanger Gods Fear, Blaastrumpoedpyd and Skafsskaffer formation."

François notes that women under Islamic rule "have the opportunity to remain children virtually their entire lives". 'Of course, they lost their autonomy, though fuck autonomy"I had to admit, for my own part, that I had relinquished all responsibility of a professional and intellectual nature with ease, and with genuine relief."

When one denies freedom, submission becomes an ideal. The new rector at Sorbonne draws the parallel between man's submission to God and woman's submission to man in the masochistic classic The story of O. The rewards are triple salary and several younger wives. The parallel of Nietzsche's Christian critique with Islam is an ironic highlight of Houellebecq. The idea of ​​Christ's divinity is portrayed as the fundamental mistake that led to the devastating ideas of humanism and human rights, highlights the new Islamic rector at Sorbonne.

Freedom is no longer a good thing, but a problem. One can get lost in freedom: All the possibilities can lead to paralysis. Some would say that freedom is a luxury problem. But if freedom is thrown overboard, the air also goes out of political engagement. Freedom has many limitations, so much is we mustn't do: We must have sleep, food, roof over our heads, and therefore we must work. How do we still manage the little freedom we have? As the culture becomes more refined, needs are created beyond the need. More freedom also offers the opportunity to enslave oneself in new ways.

In the past, we had a more authoritarian society believing in the nation's honor, the king and the tradition. Now we are held in place by the market. And it seems strong enough, but also means that we are ruled by a whimsical ruler. I weakness has increased, and Norwegians' self-esteem fluctuates with the price of oil.

We get a lot of agitation around freedom when threatened, like when the limits of freedom of expression are challenged. Managing freedom in a positive way is something you have to learn yourself. Gram's mistake is that he has not learned to use his freedom. He suffers more and more bodily ailments that curtail his room of action. In the second part of the novel, they take on psychosomatic disorders. And Houellebecq's novel character also already has a number of bodily ailments, even though he is only at the beginning of the 40 years.

Even Deletion. We also know the totalitarian idea "fuck autonomy" from Arild Asnes in Dag Solstad's novel from 1971: Imagine if Arild Asnes could escape freedom! "Guess if Arild Asnes had his legs on the neck then!" Arild Asnes chose the simple and authoritarian as a response to human dissolution in roles and attitudes. He found authenticity in Mao's China.

Good novels describe how a person develops in the course of life, is characterized by experiences and handles challenges. Freedom is thematized by describing possible actions. Most novels give poor answers on how to live life – it would be an old-fashioned development novel. Something like that is hopelessly passé, of course. But depression and need for salvation do the trick! Both Garborg and Houellebecq have written ironic development novels with solutions the authors themselves do not believe in.

Gabriel Gram is in many ways a victim of the double morality of the Victorian era – he swears for "the pure woman" while seeking prostitutes.

At a time when irrationalism is thriving, it is useless to cultivate enlightenment unilaterally. Man consists not only of reason, but also of feeling, of will and of irrational inclinations. Unilateral focus on reason drives a reversal to the contrary. We saw it both in the transition from the 1700 century to the romance, and from naturalism to the new romance around 1890. And we see it now. What is the medicine? IN The discomfort in the culture quoted Freud Goethe: Those who have science and art also have religion. But the one who lacks both, he need religion.

If science and art fail, the lemma march against God becomes a fact. Solstad Arild Asnes 1970, Garborgs Tired Men and Houellebecqs Submission shows that self-contempt opens up to either totalitarian political ideologies, self-surrender in religion or a combination of these forms of self-destruction. A self-respecting person can be used for anything. That is why it is important to build autonomy. Fuck submission!

Tjønneland has written extensions to a new edition of Garborgs Tired Men, which has just come out on Orkana Forlag.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author.

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