Michel Houellebecq As-t-il Raison? Cette pandémie ne change rien? Enfin, probablement.

Waiting for the gradual process of “deconfinement” to occur, the polarizing French writer, Michel Houellebecq (a more hardcore enfant terrible of literature in terms of his unapologetic “white male” opinions than Bret Easton Ellis), at last decided to weigh in on the matter. The matter in particular being many people’s belief that as the world emerges slowly but surely after coronavirus, it will be an entirely new one. The few glass half-full types still left on this planet (like those living in progressive and innovative Amsterdam) would like to believe it’s a rare opportunity to reinvent the wheel of how everything is done, particularly with regard to economic systems as they affect the rapid increase of climate change. The cynics and paranoids, in contrast, are convinced the apocalypse is full-well in progress, and it doesn’t even have the courtesy to be quite quick about it. Dragging the inevitable demise of humanity out with this smoldering pandemic. 

Houellebecq, in contrast, negates both theories with his latest “open letter,” of sorts, assuring his French brethren and beyond that things will go back to just the way they were, only much worse. The same way 9/11 forever altered the intensity and vigilance of security checks at airports and the extent to which the government monitored its civilians, COVID-19 will make everything more annoying and cumbersome–from continued border restrictions to long lines extended out of various retail stores, with each person waiting their turn to enter so as not to overflow the space. And then, of course, there is the enforcement of the human version of a muzzle that is a face mask, which, no matter how many haute couture brands try to make it “fashion,” will never be. In point of fact, it could cause an evolution of the average physiognomy if we’re made to wear them long enough (then again, that’s showcasing maybe too much optimism about how much longer we’ll be around in “human” form). Not to mention how the presence of these masks is just one of the many things that have altered the potential for a single person to meet someone new. Because, honestly, how is anyone supposed to judge attraction with the obstruction of most of the visage (granted, men have frequently been just fine with “butter faces”)? 

It’s just another addition to the confluence of circumstances that have conspired to make all human interaction in the future completely impersonal. For even if there is a miraculous “solution” for how to handle the subsequent pandemics that will invariably arise–along with a vaccine–there will still remain the trauma of mistrust in fellow humans (would-be “superspreaders” or refusal to wear mask types) that grew in 2020, not to mention the anti-vaxxers determined to leave the population vulnerable, content with the hooey surrounding herd immunity. Which so many are still banking on to save us from corona before a vaccine does, not taking into account that many will needlessly die in order to go about the business of spreading without care, of actually hoping to get it so that one has the antibodies (which is starting to veer toward being as coveted as wealth). The “natural” infection being the variety that anti-vaxxers prefer, not seeming to fathom that it can also bring about the most natural thing in the world: death. 

This is the topic Houellebecq would like to remind you has always been rampant in the world, and, to boot, always concealed and swept under the rug for the sake of the delicate sensibilities of the living. Even in the present pandemic state, it appears as though governments can’t even bring themselves to count the “hidden” at-home deaths in their statistics. Don’t talk about the pervasiveness of death, it will make the living too aware of their own mortality. In the time of coronavirus, however, the morbid fascination with tracking the escalation of cases and fatalities has, as Houellebecq points out, lent a new kind of abstract denial to humans’ unavoidable dance with the reaper. 

Elsewhere, Houellebecq expresses contempt over society’s free pass for ageism, deciding which lives have more value than others based on “antiquity.” The obsolescence of a human life once it hits a certain number of years seems to have been at its most glaring in Italy, where the once robust elderly population took a hit like never before. And yes, the government is probably relieved they’ll at least have a bit more money freed up among their endless debts without having to pay as many pensions. As Houellebecq crystallizes it, “Another figure will become very important… that of the age of the sick. Until when should they be resuscitated and treated? 70, 75, 80 years old? It depends, apparently, on the region of the world where we live; but never in any case has it been expressed with such calm shamelessness that everyone’s life does not have the same value; that from a certain age, it’s a bit like you’re already dead.”

To be sure, for the elderly marooned in nursing homes have been among the most overt casualties of war (that’s what Macron is calling it, after all)–neglected and written off as being “old already,” so what does it matter if they end up being sacrificed to corona? They’ve lived long enough, maybe too long, some Logan’s Run enthusiasts would argue. Tellingly, too, at the outset of COVID-19’s rage, it was believed that the disease could only affect older generations (hence being called “boomer remover,” as the internet, in all its unfeeling glory, meme-ified). Never has it been more evident that no one cares about “olds.” Not just because they’re too unsightly a reminder of one’s future, but because they are no longer “useful” in the way society has brainwashed us all to understand; that the definition of this word entails having the vigor of youth that enables one to work “blithely” in the face of the same doomed fate as the horse in Animal Farm. While these grotesque revelations about age and social class as they relate to being “worth saving” become more apparent, will corona end up toppling the capitalist system? No, probably not anywhere except Amsterdam. 

As the author of a novel that people have drawn the most parallels to regarding the present, La possi­bilité d’une île (2005), Houellebecq has eye-rollingly conceded, sure, the present is like that. His “science fiction” narrative about the total stamping out of human emotion not a future prospect but an au courant one as we all sit in the isolation pods that are our apartments (or, for some rich assholes, houses with pools). In the book, the protagonist’s future clones look back on their predecessor as animalistic, primitive. In short, not highly evolved at all. Particularly apropos of his sexual lust. Who needs that getting in the way of their “functionality”? Whereas many of us still see this disappearance of emotion as the true devolution, the end of humanity altogether, as it were. Houellebecq’s infamously long sex scene in  La possi­bilité d’une île is telling of a man convinced that lustfulness is one of the most fundamental aspects of being human. To that end, it’s no wonder he seethes at one point in the Letter on Corona’s Banality that it has “vague characteristics, sometimes benign, sometimes deadly, not even sexually transmitted: in short, a virus without qualities.” Is he describing corona or humanity in the twenty-first century? On a side note regarding his ire for the disease not even being sexually transmittable, it has been revealed that the virus can be detected in men’s semen, so there you go–at least there’s that one form of “bad assery.” 

But as to whether the world will fundamentally change “after” corona (the effects of which will not disintegrate but remain ubiquitous), the answer is that it was always, quite frankly, this terrible. Arguably solidifying in a permanent downward spiral of terribleness since the extermination of six million Jews. The virus has merely served as a blacklight on the hollowness of existence without the distractions we once used–chiefly, for Americans, shopping and plastic surgery–to numb. And even still, with regard to our acceptance of death, we are trying to numb in looking at the daily tally as a sign of progress or failure, not lives lost. Houellebecq concludes, “All of these trends, I said, already existed before the coronavirus; they only manifested themselves with new evidence. We will not wake up, after confinement, to a new world; it will be the same, only a little worse.” And that’s if we’re lucky. The truth is, it could become goddamn near unbearable as the scant freedoms once enjoyed as a means of diversion continue to mutate and diminish.

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