It’s time for me to get back to some Houellebecq discussions… I took a little breather from him for a few days; he is, if anything, an intense reading experience. The last piece I wrote about was his essay on Lovecraft, so moving forward from that, let me write today about a collection he published in 1991 entitled Rester Vivant. It doesn’t appear to have been translated into English yet, but perhaps now that he’s won the Goncourt, all of his work will slowly find a home in the Anglophone world.
This collection includes eight pieces – I am only going to talk about the first piece here, which is where the collection takes its title. It is an essay, with a little subtitle: Méthode. So let’s say the title could be translated as Stay alive: a method or How to Stay Alive. One little note on this title: he could have written survivre (survive) but he uses the word vivant (alive) instead. For Houellebecq, I think we can read that as an optimistic choice.
The essay is very serious, in an “it-wholeheartedly-sucks-to-be-a-writer-with-a-vision” way, and this does make it a teeny bit melodramatic. But there is a thin and underhanded vein of satire running through the whole thing, and this, of course, is what saves it. Rester Vivant is serious, wholeheartedly serious—I don’t want to deny or argue against that, but the bleakness of his message becomes a kind of exasperated comedy at one point. And this makes it palatable. I wasn’t expecting humor in Houellebecq, but I see now how it fits him. His is a macabre humor, though, a dark and helpless irony.
A small aside: when I discussed La Carte et Le Territoire with my book group a few months ago, I was the only one who suspected that Houellebecq had a sense of humor. There is a scene in that book, where Houellebecq the character, who has been brutally murdered, is finally interred. When the coffin comes out of the hearse and gets carried to the plot, the onlookers can see that it’s a child-size coffin. Because of the way Houellebecq was murdered, there wasn’t much left of him to put in the ground, and the funeral home appears to have selected an economical, if not ecological way of burying him.
Now, I laughed out loud when I read this scene. It has a certain pathos, yes, but I found it more tongue-in-cheek. Also, planting this sly joke in the midst of an otherwise serious book knocked Houellebecq up a few notches for me.
Now back to Rester Vivant.
The essay addresses the reader directly, and that reader is meant to be a fledgling writer, someone who has figured out that this writing business is going to be pretty tough, but also that this life business may in fact be worse. Houellebecq begins with an assertion that life involves inescapable suffering. Then he tells his reader to revel in that suffering. There is no way around it, so embrace it. Love your suffering; cultivate and explore it, and eventually:
Lorsque vous susciterez chez les autres un mélange de pitié effrayée et de mépris, vous saurez que vous êtes sur la bonne voie. Vous pourrez commencer à écrire. [As soon as you provoke a mixture of frightened pity and contempt from other people, you are on the right path. You may now start to write.]
Then you must learn to express your suffering. If you cannot do this, you will die. He urges his reader to write at all costs, finding solace in already existing forms and not losing heart when your suffering takes over, preventing you from writing.
Au paroxysme de la souffrance, vous ne pourrez plus écrire. Si vous vous en sentez la force, essayez tout de même. Le résultat sera probablement mauvais ; probablement, mais pas certainement. [At the height of your suffering, you will not be able to write. If you feel strong enough, try anyway. The result will most likely be bad; most likely, but not certainly.]
Both excerpts have a little tremor of humor, feeble and self-deprecating, but humor none the less.
One of the key phrases of the essay is: Un poète mort n’écrit plus. D’où l’importance de rester vivant. [A dead poet no longer writes. This is why it is important to stay alive.]
Followed soon after by this:
Vous ne connaîtrez jamais exactement cette part de vous-même qui vous pousse à écrire. Vous ne la connaîtrez que sous des formes approchées, et contradictoires. Égoïsme ou dévouement ? Cruauté ou compassion ? Tout pourrait se soutenir. Preuve que, finalement, vous ne savez rien ; alors ne vous comportez pas comme si vous saviez. Devant votre ignorance, devant cette part mystérieuse de vous-même, restez honnête et humble. [You will never know exactly what part of you pushes you to write. You will only know it through approximations and contradictions. Egotism or devotion? Cruelty or compassion? All are possibilities. This is proof that, ultimately, you know nothing; so do not behave as if you knew. Before your ignorance, before this mysterious part of yourself, remain honest and humble.]
The essay ends with the claim that a writer’s calling is to fight back at the society whose single goal is to destroy him*/her. Hit where it hurts, do not spare anyone, not even yourself. This final section has a number of interesting points, which I think I’ll have to get to in a second post.
But I want to spend a second on his tortured artist perspective. At first read, I love this kind of emotional appeal. I’m a sucker for an impassioned soul. And I also can’t help but agree with the thought that if you open yourself up completely to the injustices and horrors of the world we live in, you will eventually get trapped beneath the great mountain of them and probably suffocate. Most people build barriers or pick their battles or find a way to cope; writers and artists tend to get locked in a continual struggle to negotiate how much barrier is needed for self-protection and how little is needed to work in an atmosphere of emotional honesty.
On the other hand, the tortured artist perspective has always irked me just a little bit. I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of the mad genius, that insanely talented or intelligent individual that is completely beyond the rest of society. Many highly intelligent and creative individuals are healthy, functioning people as well.
This is where Houellebecq’s minuscule touch of irony saves the essay for me. Without it, I think I would get stuck at suspicious and annoyed. Instead, I can see that although he is deathly serious about a writer’s position vis-à-vis society, he is also quite conscious of the melodrama it perpetuates. So the only solution for the writer is to camp up that tragic gravity, as subtly or as provocatively as need be. That’s a solution I can get along with just fine.
*The fledgling writer addressed in the essay is a man, no doubt about it, and most likely a man named Michel Houellebecq. He is always somehow writing about himself.