I was going to rant that Michel Houellebecq should read Will Wilkinson and stop whining about the existential worries that will supposedly lead to the downfall of Western civilisation as we know it. But on further thought it is not so clear that Houellebecq thinks people in capitalist societies are any unhappier than poorer people. I’d always assumed that he does, since he is caustic in his assessment of capitalism’s impact on Western civilisation, and he often compares Western individualism unfavourably to traditional Asian values. But he doesn’t portray non-Western people as any happier. In particular, he heaps scorn on fundamentalist Muslim values. I suspect he would think they are just unhappy in different ways.
At any rate, the second half of The Possibility of an Island is much better than the juvenile first half. He has much more interesting insights into human nature there, enough that I’m willing to grant it a status beyond amateur sci-fi. A sample passage, which, though not very profound, was a refreshing summary of the particular human behaviour involved:
It is under the influence of an ancient animal sense of belonging that people have so many conversations about meteorology and the climate, influenced by a primitivie memory, inscribed in the sense organs, and linked to the conditions of survival in the prehistoric era. These circumscribed, cliched conversations are, however, the symptom of a real issue: eveen when we live in apartments, in conditions of thermal stability guaranteed by reliable and well-honed technology, it remains impossible for us to rid ourselves of this animal atavism; it is thus that a full awareness of our ignominy and misfortune, and of their complete and definitive nature, can only manifest itself in sufficiently favourable climactic conditions.
Part of the reason why that caught my eye was that I regard complaints about the weather by people who don’t spend more than half an hour a day actually outdoors (being in a heated vehicle doesn’t count) ridiculous. If I’m not careful, I tell these people my true opinions about bad weather: I love the harsh winters here because I am less gripped by existential anxieties when I’m being pummelled by sleet and have to watch my every step to avoid slipping on icy patches of pavement. They, of course, cannot understand this.
Tangentially related to this is a recent conversation with someone who didn’t understand the picnicking mentality. Why eat outside at all, she asked. While I do understand the desirability of having an outdoor “atmosphere” for doing anything, I concur in the ridiculousness of picnicking in a park where there are picnickers every metre or so. In the first place, the park is manifestly a fake outdoors environment. In the second place, when the population of picnickers gets that dense, what possible sense of being outdoors could one possibly have?
The same goes for people who “swim” in a cordoned off lagoon in the lake where you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone. And sunbathers on the crowded beach, of course. Except that sunbathers can at least claim they are trying to advance their social/financial status by improving their physical appearance.
Back to Houellebecq. I suspect I like the second half better also because that is when Daniel1 stops going on about love and sex and his own ignorant sociological theories, and sinks into a state of numb day-to-day subsistence. He is much more tolerable that way, and, of course, nowadays I latch on to any character, fictional or real, who shares my current mental state of “just going on”.