- Houellebecq and the Death of Europe
A review of Houellebecq’s newest novel Seratonin, by John Waters
Europe is old, decrepit, and suffering from fatigue, as though conscious that its life is drawing to a close. Europeans are having fewer children, burdened by shame, guilt, fear. At its root, this is a spiritual malaise, a melancholy of the soul in a time when the soul is scarcely believed in.
Almost everybody seems to feel we are heading for some cliff edge. We may not agree upon what we mean by that, but we sense a catastrophe of some kind—existential, ecological, demographic, or arising from some uncertain bellicosity—is just around the corner. And we sense that, when it comes, this catastrophe will have the mien of willful self-destruction.
The defining characteristic of the present age is the desire to subvert and destroy the institutions, traditions, and beliefs that converged to become a Western civilization. This iconoclasm is carried out in the name of freedom but accompanied by an unconscious relinquishing of the life-force. The great mass of Western humanity seems content to abandon the ideas that constituted the heart of its civilization from the beginning.
In a January Harper’s article entitled “Donald Trump is a Good President,” French novelist Michel Houellebecq wrote:
It’s my belief that we in Europe have neither a common language, nor common values, nor common interests, that, in a word, Europe doesn’t exist, and that it will never constitute a people or support a possible democracy (see the etymology of the term), simply because it doesn’t want to constitute a people. In short, Europe is just a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we shall eventually wake up.
By “Europe” here Houellebecq clearly means “the E.U.,” but he is also saying something else: A successful civilization does not necessarily equate to a successful democracy or “people.” Europe has been the source of the greatest civilization the world has seen, but that doesn’t guarantee that its far-flung elements can be politically united—and trying to force this to happen can undo everything. This is Houellebecq’s subject, more or less: the strange death of a Europe that never really existed. A civilization dies, says Florent-Claude Labrouste, the protagonist of Houellebecq’s latest novel, Serotonin, “without worries or danger or drama and with very little carnage; a civilization just dies of weariness, of self-disgust.”