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Wednesday, 21 January 2015 13:18

Smoking with Michel Houellebecq

By 
What is the value of something? ITCH asks French author Michel Houellebecq, in the context of his 2005 novel, The Possibility of an Island
 
ITCH
The Possibility of an Island follows two parallel narratives: Daniel1 is a comedian, living in the twenty-first century; Daniel24 and Daniel25 are Daniel1’s successors, clones or neo humans inhabiting a post-apocalyptic world in which the human species is becoming extinct. Why did you choose to structure the novel in this way?

HOUELLEBECQ
The neo humans, Daniel24 and Daniel25, are entrusted with collating the life story of Daniel1, their original ancestor. The Possibility of an Island is the story of Daniel, told through Daniel1’s autobiographical writings and then reflected on by his clones, Daniel24 and Daniel25. I juxtapose the life story of a twenty-first century human being with the story of his neo human descendants to suggest the values and behaviour that lead to the decline of humanity in the twenty-first century, and to the subsequent rise of neo humanity.

ITCH
In the first sentence of his autobiography, Daniel1 refers to his “vocation as a clown”. His comedic style is cynical and provocative. A joke: “Do you know what they call that fat stuff around the vagina?” “No” “The woman”. Why a comedian?

HOUELLEBECQ
Daniel1 is a slave in a literary carnival in which the roles of slave and master are inverted. Daniel1 transgresses all normative hierarchies in subverting his master, society. His depravity reflects the depravity of twenty-first century society. If you’ll remember, after he tells that joke, Daniel1 marvels that despite that sort of thing, he still got good reviews in Elle and Télérama

ITCH
Isabelle is Daniel1’s first love. She is the editor of a young girl’s magazine called Lolita. Is this detail intended as irony, in light of the previous question?
 
 
HOUELLEBECQ
No. Daniel1 is genuinely both intellectually and physically attracted to Isabelle. The destruction of their relationship begins with the onset of Isabelle’s sexual decline. She is forty when they marry, the age at which Daniel1 believes life ends. Magazines like Lolita promote and perpetuate society’s obsession with endless youth. Choosing to make Isabelle the editor of Lolita, I express her disgrace and inevitable withdrawal from the publication when she feels she can no longer compete with youth and aging. This, to suggest contemporary society’s support of the young and dismissal of the old. 

ITCH
There is a scene early in the marriage of Isabelle and Daniel1 in which she changes into her swimsuit in front of him and he recognizes her as “wounded in the flesh”. You use the metaphor of the human animal repeatedly in the novel.

HOUELLEBECQ
Both humans and neo humans understand humanity to be animalistic, driven by the sexual instinct to procreate. When Isabelle sees her body in decay, she becomes humiliated and loses her sexual desire. She then becomes sexually undesirable to Daniel1 and their marriage eventually collapses. 

ITCH
Are you suggesting that love between partners cannot be sustained in the absence of sexuality?

HOUELLEBECQ
Yes, I am suggesting exactly that. Because we are animals. Man is an animal in so far as that, without his sexuality, he is dead. When the sexual instinct is dead, Schopenhauer wrote, the true core of life is consumed. 

ITCH
You describe Esther, Daniel1’s second love, and twenty-five years his junior, as “a luxury animal”; “like all very pretty young girls she was basically only good for fucking”. Could you elaborate.
 
 
HOUELLEBECQ
Esther embodies society’s younger generation that I refer to in the novel as a generation of definitive kids, on a quest for fun and sex. In a capitalist-dominated culture, youth and sexuality are commodified and the consumerist and materialist values of beauty, longevity, money, wealth and sex predominate. 

ITCH
Here, Daniel1 is the “fatally wounded old animal”.

HOUELLEBECQ
Yes, Daniel1, forty-seven when he meets Esther, is obsolete. He belongs to a generation that still values love and attachment, as a reflection of sexuality. The younger generation like sex for sex’s sake. Daniel1 commits suicide because his desires can no longer be fulfilled. Esther is not interested in being in love; she rejects the exclusivity that being in love entails, and her generation rejects it with her. The younger generation is love-less in so far as they are superficially concerned with sex.

ITCH
During his marriage to Isabelle, Daniel1 is introduced to the Elohimites, a sect that worships the Elohim, extra-terrestrials believed to have created mankind and to have defeated death and dying through science. Can you explain this narrative thread?

HOUELLEBECQ
My intention in including the Elohimite sect in Daniel1’s story is to expose society’s utopian wish for eternal youth. The Elohimites reflect Esther’s generation in that they have no moral inhibitions regarding sex and they do not want to grow old. 

ITCH
Thus the sect leaders’ research into cloning?

HOUELLEBECQ
Yes. The Elohimites intend to create a new species of the eternally young through genetic replication. Followers are required to submit a sample of their DNA to the Church. When their body grows too old to be a definitive kid any longer, they will die, usually through suicide, knowing that their genetic code will be perpetuated in a continued existence devoted to pleasure.

ITCH
You say ‘Church’. Is Elohimism intended as a religion?

HOUELLEBECQ
Elohimism is intended to replace religion, in that it feeds off a capitalist-dominated culture in which spirituality has been displaced by materialism. Elohimism even displaces consumer capitalism, promising the supremely desirable commodity – youth. 

ITCH
Defeated by the loss of Esther and recognizing that his sexual opportunities were destined to become rarer and rarer as he grew older, Daniel1 takes his life, after giving a sample of his DNA to the Elohimites. The commentary of his clones, first Daniel24 and then Daniel25, is milder in tone than the passionate writings of their predecessor, Daniel1. How does this reflect the evolution of the species you imagine?

HOUELLEBECQ
Neo humans are distinct from humans in that they feel neither joy nor sorrow, terror nor ecstasy; experience neither laughter nor tears. They live without mystery.

ITCH
You’ve eliminated the prospect of pleasure.

HOUELLEBCQ
Yes. Neo humans live in complete isolation from one another, connecting only virtually. They have a photosynthetic metabolism and so no longer eat. Their primary objective is to inscribe the life story of their human predecessor. 

ITCH
Daniel24 refers to the First Decrease and the Second Decrease, in which the number of human beings was drastically reduced through environmental disaster, and continues to decline. The remainder of the species are referred to by Daniel24 as “savages”, and are kept out of the enclosures of the neo humans by a protective fence. What are you suggesting about humanity here?

HOUELLEBECQ
I am suggesting that the spiritual and moral vacuum of the twenty-first century is responsible for society’s decline. A self-centred and hedonistic society, without love, cannot sustain itself. Neo humanity, an ostensibly more evolved humanity, regards human desire as barbaric and man as deserving of pity for his corrupted body and soul. 

ITCH
At the end of part one of the novel, the life span of Daniel24 ceases. The neo human commentary is picked up by his successor, Daniel25, in part two. Re-inhabiting the residence of his predecessor, Daniel25 finds poems scribbled by Daniel24 that suggest “a curious, disabused bitterness”, “a strangely human weariness, a sensation of vacuity”. What are you suggesting about neo humanity here?

HOUELLEBECQ
Neo humanity represents an intermediary stage, with the promise of perfection in the coming of the Future Ones, who Daniel24 hails repeatedly in his commentary. Neo humans are an imperfect species in that they show remnants of humanity. Turning away from the path of pleasure without finding an alternative, neo humans prolong the desires of humankind. Neo humans are eternally young, but they are still dissatisfied. The utopia is a failure. 

ITCH
Is that why Daniel25 defects at the close of the novel?

HOUELLEBECQ
Yes, Daniel25 leaves the neo human compound and ventures beyond the protective fence because happiness had not come. 

ITCH
Because neo humans cannot experience pleasure?
 
 
HOUELLEBECQ
No, because neo humans cannot experience love. The desires of Esther and her generation are barbaric because they are purely material. Sexuality without love is savage. Neo humans are not savage because they have eliminated sexuality in eliminating contact with the other, but they are not happy because they have simultaneously eliminated the prospect of love, the possibility of an island. There is no real happiness in the pursuit of pleasure, and there is no love in individual freedom, in independence; there is only love in union. Neo humans have no practical need for the other because the perpetuation of the self through immortality is guaranteed. But they still retain an emotional and sexual need for the other, and in this way, they are no different from Daniel1. 

ITCH
Reflecting on his experiences in love towards the end of his life, Daniel1 writes, “I had never felt with such clarity that human relations are born, evolve, and die in a totally deterministic manner”. Do you believe in the deterministic fate of man?

HOUELLEBECQ
It is suffering of being that makes seek out the other, seek love, and it is the loss of the other, the loss of love, that returns us to suffering. In a capitalist-dominated culture of fun and sex, man is fated to suffer because he loses his virility with age and with it, he loses the other. In a neo human culture of isolation and cloned immortality, (neo) man is fated to suffer because he is without the other and without love. Where there is love, there is suffering, because there is inevitably loss. There is no escape from man’s desire and his need for love, and, therefore, there is no escape from his suffering, no escape from himself. Every man has the deterministic fate of Daniel1: to need, seek, love and lose the other, and to suffer for it.

ITCH
If you could choose immortality?

HOUELLEBECQ
I wouldn’t. Love would lose its meaning. I would rather love, lose, suffer and die.
 
 
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