May 12 2016

The Prose of Paris: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” versus Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”

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The Prose of Paris: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” versus Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”

“Hug me till you drug me, honey.”

––Huxley, Brave New World (1934)[1]

Is Michel Houellebecq’s Sounmission (Submission) (2015) merely a re-writing of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934)? Do these mannish novels, separated by nearly ninety years, bear any family resemblances? One can say, at the very least, that while Miller turned to surrealism in order to cope with the pains of his reality, Houellebecq opted for satire to understand the surrealism plaguing his reality.

One of the theses of Houellebecq’s narrator is the fact that modern citizens of Western civilization don’t fear death—they fear suffering:

People don’t really care all that much about their own death. What they really worry about, their one real fixation, is how to avoid physical suffering as much as possible. [2]

To condition the mind to cope with death, Westerners have resorted to, among other things, music, drugs, sex, and religion. And, most of the time, as Miller’s narrator observes, none of these actions or options remains satisfactory:

Impossible to dream even when the music itself is nothing but a dream…. There is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama.[3]

The “illusion of truth” inhibits one from encountering the truth.[4] The illusion of truth inhibits all experience. This idea is further explored in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a.k.a. Blade Runner (1968):

Out in what had been before the war the suburbs, one could find buildings entirely empty … or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.[5]

Is it too absolute, too definite, to suggest that doubt is the midpoint between dream and experience?

Much of Dick’s Electric Sheep is a rewriting of Huxley’s Brave New World (1931). In fact, Dick’s fiction has been conditioned by Huxley’s. From the latter:

It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge…. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” [6]

Oh untimely death![7] Oh inescapable conditioning! With Houellebecq the narrator’s conversion to Islam serves as the medium of his conditioning. In Dick’s book the profession of the character of Rick is that of a bounty hunter, and this––as well as the possibility that Rick may be an android implanted with false memories of being a bounty hunter––has conditioned him to prefer avoiding direct experience. In Huxley the soma pills inhibit the experiences had by the novel’s characters, which is why they sing things like: “hug me till you drug me, honey.” And in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry (1927), the conditioning comes via the American brand of evangelical Christianity. It is a brand that strives to bring happiness to the sick rather than healing, but this happiness is just another “illusion of truth” that inhibits experience:

“Can you think of anything finer for a big husky like you than to spend his life bringing poor, weak, sick, scared folks to happiness? Can’t you see how the poor little skinny guys and all the kiddies would follow you and praise you and admire you, you old son of a gun?”

And in a later passage from Lewis:

It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in America. People were tired of eloquence; and the whole evangelist business was limited, since even the most ardent were not likely to be saved more than three or four times. But they could be healed constantly, and of the same disease.[8]

Huxley, Houellebecq, and Lewis all use satire to tell their tales, while Dick and Miller, whose texts are not without their moments of comic relief, are for the most part, utterly serious with their styles of storytelling.

NOTES

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[1] Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006. XIII, p. 193.

[2] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 230.

[3] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. pp.70, 87–88.

[4] I suspect Miller’s “illusion of truth” is akin to Nietzsche’s “seduction of language,” (Genealogy I, 13).

[5] Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. NY: Delrey Books. 2007. I, 3.

[6] Huxley, Brave New World XII, 177; I, 16.

[7] Shakespeare, King Lear, IV, vi, 239.

[8] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter III,” 39–40; “Chapter XV,” 212.