by Michel Houellebecq
translated by Frank Wynne
Knopf, 2003 272 pp $25
One thing is clear from the outset. The liberation of sexual practices in the last decades of the twentieth century did reorient all of culture around sex. It was hardly unprecedented for a society to devote itself drastically to a single instinct; think of the headhunting tribe’s elevation of aggression. But the consequences were unpredictable in the advanced societies of the United States and Western Europe.
It would have been possible to foresee an etiquette by which people would partake of sex as they agreed to lunch or coffee, casually and with the same degree of politeness and duty. How grateful we could have been for such a development. A society so gentle and egalitarian would preserve access to sex for the aged and unattractive and relieve the beautiful and young of a persistent carnal burden. Certainly America and Europe after 1970 have had few newer and more urgent interests than serving an expanded eroticism. But this service took a less benign shape. The West focused its fantasies on a small spectrum of sexualized youth, age sixteen to twenty-four. Establishing the sexual superiority of the young, it created a false economy of scarcity and competition. Neo-Darwinism justified it with a discourse of evolutionary fitness, as if the whole of evolution led up to this sexual valuation of people barely past adolescence. Adult desire modeled itself on a longing for youth; not only on the wish for young bodies, but on the maintenance of a lifestyle of individual gratification. Commerce inserted the goods and services of technology into the necessities of sex, with paraphernalia, cameras, sex therapy, Viagra, enhancement surgery, and pornography. In short, it has proven our fate to inflate the meaning of sexuality wildly, within a market economy, when we could have acknowledged an equal capacity for sex in everyone and its general unimportance.
The critique of contemporary sexuality is the trademark of the novelist, essayist, and poet Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is one of the few new European writers to have caused international excitement. He is a sex novelist famous for scandal but capable of thought. The Frenchman’s range, his vocation for social prophecy, and his erratic persona (drunk, depressed, licentious) have placed him in a tradition alongside heroic figures very much unlike him, including Camus, whose work he compulsively travesties. His declarations of the spread of the market to untouched realms of private life have a long history, from Marx to Marcuse. Houellebecq uses the ideas of the left against itself, to extend a restless criticism to spheres we had believed were preserves of freedom. Marcuse seems a special object of revenge, punished for his belief that Eros could remain exempt from the dialectical progress of capitalist enlightenment....
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