"Don't pin your hopes or pin your dreams, to misanthropes or guys like me" - "It's A Wonderful Lie," Paul WesterbergYou know you're in the presence of great literature when you find yourself agreeing with the author that humanity is a vile species worthy of extinction. If you begin to feel a bit uneasy, a little awkward as though the author has been observing you without you knowing, that's also a good sign. Michel Houellebecq's 1998 novel, Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires in French) did that to me.
In lurid detail, Atomised tells the story of two brothers, both irredeemable scums in their own individually unique way, as they bump from one "relationship" to another. The one trait brothers Bruno and Michel share is a detached isolation from their fellow beings. They're like indifferent particles floating through society concerned more about freedom than anything resembling responsibility. Their only reason to be is to serve the self, no matter what that entails:
"An animal's sense of self emerges through physical pain, but individuality in human society only attains true self-consciousness by the intermediary of mendacity, with which it is sometimes confused." (89)If the moment we lie to others is the moment our true self-consciousness is born, then we are indeed doomed.
Atmomised I felt the icy hand of good, old fashioned Catholic admonition scoffing at the characters. But I suppose behind every misanthrope there cowers a failed philanthropist:
"Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction which is why it is so difficult to give up hope." (61)
Both reactionaries and progressives would be hard pressed to argue with the novel's central theme, however. Houellebecq identifies the symptom of our disease in his title, which in English is both a sociological term and a buzzword for alienation and disempowerment. Ironically, British Prime Minister David Cameron mentioned "atomised society" in reference to a lack of community:
"We're collapsing into an atomised society, stripped of the local bonds of association which help tie us together."Meanwhile, Noam Chomsky frequently uses it as a way of labeling efforts to delegitimize democracy and government:
"What's holding us back is the last century of intense efforts to atomize people, to drive them towards the superficial things in life, like consumption. You have to fabricate consumers. You have to make people hate governments. The mentality that's been fostered is that there is this alien force out there -- the government -- that's stealing your hard-earned money."
Whatever you may think about Houellebecq, he's definitely on to something...
"As the last members of this species are extinguished, we think it just to render this last tribute to humanity, a homage which itself will one day disappear, buried beneath the sands of time. It is necessary that this tribute be made, if only once." (379)