Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

Misanthropic User Manual

Stay alive
ESSAYS / Is the truth scandalous? Michel Houellebecq hides behind masks, and in the end the masks are stuck to his face: He has become his own self-representation.


Michel Houllebecq is in many ways the spokesperson of the lonely and angry incel generation. But to accuse him of being a misogynist would be too silly, since that's what he so obviously is – with one side of himself.

The modern suffering exists without any measure.

But he is also the modern one disorderns spokesperson. The modern disorder is not like the old one. The old, romantic suffering had something grand about it. It had one opinion. It does not have the modern disorder. The modern suffering exists without any measure. It is grey, chewy and bitter. It is this suffering that Houllebecq describes in his books. It is the suffering that makes you refrain from having children. Which makes you refuse to make yourself for other people. Which makes you refuse to fill your life with all sorts of knick-knacks, and which hardly makes you a good girlfriend. He is a navel-gazer – but the navel is sometimes both funny and interesting for other people to look at

Houllebecq is funny in a sad and intelligent way. These essays are from an early youth, from before the enfant terrible of French literature became what he is today. It is a kind of misanthropic user manual for a young writer trying to survive. He never expresses anger, rather a kind of laconic self-deprecating sadness. On the other hand: if in Houllebecq's life there is an obligation towards something, it is the obligation to articulate something.

The will and ability of articulation

In the title essay, he describes how his personality takes shape, and how he slowly begins to understand the miserable life conditions of love in our time. He describes how this insight turns into self-hatred. "Dive into the deepest depths of longing for love," he writes. “Cultivate self-hatred. Self-hatred, human contempt. Misanthropy, self-loathing. Mix everything together, create a whole. Always be the loser in life's tumble.”

But you have to articulate it. Without the will and ability of articulation, you are finished before you have begun. Then the suffering will eat you up from the inside. You have to stay alive, because you can't write when you're dead. If nothing else: Stay alive to write about it. But how to stay alive? Jo: If possible, by being one parasite: "The schemes for social assistance (unemployment benefits, etc.) should be used to the full, the same with the financial support from more prosperous friends. Don't feel overly guilty about this. The poet is a holy parasite.”

An intelligent life coach for disillusioned and life-weary people.

This essay is one of the best in the book. As an intelligent life coach for disillusioned and life-weary people, he writes about how to acquire the necessary life experience: "A certain professional participation can give you some knowledge about how society works, which could possibly come in handy in a later work. But a period outside, where one indulges in the outsider, will give other insights. The ideal is to alternate.”


Aristocratic pessimism

One of the funny things about Houllebecq is that you become a little unsure of who he really is: Is he the lonely sovereign who feels better than others, or is he plagued by feelings of inferiority and self-hatred that make him ashamed to be with others human beings? As a reader, I'm never quite sure which of these people he really is. Perhaps he is a mixture of several. The literary persona retains its power of fascination. This creates a dynamic in his texts that makes them very readable. There are definitely traces of some kind of aristocratic pessimism in the lyrics, only mixed with a modern distaste for anything that smacks of sociality.

"Why are you here" is a text about a visit to a porn fair. The experiences he gets during this fair are so dull that he concludes: "For the first time, I'm beginning to feel a vague sympathy for American feminists."


Initially, this author would not have been attributed shyness. All the funnier that he actually reveals that he is a shy person. Houllebecq is funny precisely because of the unexpected contradictions in his personality. You don't quite know what to believe: Who is this person? He hides behind masks, and in the end the masks are stuck to his face: He has become his own self-representation. One should not think that it was neither possible nor desirable to "accumulate one's grievances against life". Not if it's real. But what is really real, and what is a lie? "Prejudice is the necessary condition for all true artistic creation", he writes. "One must always have it within reach, even if one chooses not to express it."

He approaches a kind of literary program when he writes: "The truth is scandalous […] just tell the truth, nothing more and nothing less."

Houllebecq has an honest mask. That is perhaps the best thing that can be said about him. Probably the mask is far more honest than the face that hides behind it. Therefore: If you want to get to know this author, examine the mask, not the face. Because as Oscar Wilde wrote: "What makes people interesting is the mask each of them wears."

Henning Næs
Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.

You may also like