Online Edition: Fall 2005

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H. P. Lovecraft

Against the World, Against Life

Michel Houellebecq

McSweeney’s Books ($18)

by Joel Turnipseed

Michel Houellebecq’s novels have had a violent reception—his last, Platform, landed him in court for inciting racial hatred. Even his supporters have praised him at an uneasy distance, praising his work as caustic satire. Céline’s name comes up a lot. Now, with the translation of his first prose work, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, we have one more turn of the ophthalmologist’s gauge to determine whether Houellebecq’s cynicism reflects a clear but dark hilarity or a kind of sinister, as yet unmeasured, revulsion.

His choice of subject in H.P. Lovecraft certainly raises the stakes in considering the latter, and though Houellebecq calls the book “a kind of novel,” it is more a kind of proxy blueprint for his later work—as when he writes of Lovecraft’s sensibility:

The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. This is what will finally prevail…. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure “Victorian fictions.” All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact and radiant.

As an appreciation (and Lovecraft is certainly due an appreciation, with Dorna Khazeni’s translation of Houellebecq more-or-less coincident with the Library of America’s superb selection of Lovecraft’s Tales), this is somewhat fantastic, but as literary appropriation it is indispensable. Throughout, one notes that maybe only Vargos Llosa’s Perpetual Orgy is as good as both art and homage.

After reading Houellebecq reading Lovecraft, you come to see not only the affinities, but the degree to which Houellebecq has prepared Lovecraft for us, making him available to us as readers of Houellebecq, so much so that certain sentences seem as though they could come from either man’s work:

… free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. The liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.

If this hadn’t come from Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulu,” you wouldn’t have been surprised to find it in Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles. What Houellebecq detests in refried hippies and the veiled, violent inhabitants of Parisian suburbs is the same thing Lovecraft found in the Jazz Age flappers and multi-colored immigrants crowding the streets of Brooklyn. If humanity at its most liberated, wildest diversity is all this, perhaps the only rational reaction is horror—and a retreat from realism into mythology.

In both Houellebecq’s and Lovecraft’s case, however, this mythology is not a dippy sugar-coated paean to our better natures, but rather a further, more scientifically dissected and refined presentation of the state of things as they already are—archaic in their ruthlessness and scientific in their presentation of what lies between our conscious moments, unable as these are to fully realize the complete (and immanently strange) dimensions in which they (and we) exist. Where Lovecraft has created a world of Cthulu and the Necronomicon, Houellebecq has turned the same naturalistic exactitude to the even more terrifying (if only because more banal and recognizable) horrors of our near absolute reduction to outputs of the functions of sex and money. Houellebecq doesn’t achieve the parallel (and infinitely expanding) world of Lovecraft, but their methods (exposed in a wonderful stretch of Houellebecq’s Lovecraft entitled “Technical Assault”) are the same.

There’s great stuff here, and any writer will marvel at the care with which Houellebecq has broken down Lovecraft. Still, neither writers’ characters are thick in the ribs with humanity, but rather gaunt with disgust, and Houllebecq’s apologies (either for Lovecraft or himself, as he put it in Whatever: “clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight…always seemed pure bullshit to me, I’m sorry to say”) are not always convincing. Lovecraft is certainly fascinating, and Houellebecq does a good job of showing how he is both the Bingham of our most exotic fears and the Agassiz of our wildest dreams (as well as a creator of algorithmic worlds that can take the pages of The National Geographic and Nature and reflect them back to us as an endless catalogue of horrors), but at some point, the work of both men seems as much an evasion of humanity as it does a rejection of it.

They are, both of them, writers who can be easy to detest (they detest back), while being equally hard to put down. If their moods, whether registered as fantastic horror or clinically-diagnosed disgust, seem too-confined to a limited register of possibility, it may well be out of an admirable artistic purity. Then again, depending on how the lenses shift, it may well be out of human failure. That Houellebecq and Lovecraft have fully-embraced both purity and failure there’s no doubt; there’s only the question of whether these have been twined into art—and a lot to wonder about how far we should follow them. Whatever your view, Lovecraft’s tales and Houellebecq’s appreciation are endlessly fascinating prisms of fear and loathing.

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