Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism by Ben Jeffery

Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism BY Ben Jeffery. O Books, John Hunt. Paperback, 105 pages. $14

Ben Jeffery's Anti-Matter is the kind of intelligent, sophisticated response to provocative work that affirms criticism’s value as art in itself. The book is ostensibly a long essay about the work of Michel Houellebecq, the controversial French novelist who recently took his country’s highest literary award for his latest novel The Map and the Territory, but really, Anti-Matter uses Houellebecq’s fiction as a platform for a series of reflections on the hazards of seeking meaning in art. A more rigorous, less stylized version of the kind of long critical essay usually associated with writers like Geoff Dyer and Pierre Bayard, Anti-Matter is a work of criticism that honors—and occasionally exceeds—its source.

Jeffery gives the distinct impression that he doesn’t admire Houellebecq’s writing so much as find it exemplary of a certain worldview that's popular among disaffected left-leaning citizens of first-world nations. Labeling this worldview “depressive realism” (a nice enough formulation, but can we please stop naming schools of writing with “[adjective] realism”?), Jeffery defines it as a pathological inability to believe in the little lies that happiness requires. The effect, as he describes it in his a one-sentence summary is “instead of any high-flown ‘making strange,’ Houellebecq tries to make the reader feel the way they do already, only much worse.” So in Houellebecq’s account, radical doubt and the search for meaning always end in sexual hedonism. With God and art unmasked as mere contrivances that shield us from thinking about our own death, all that remains in male protagonists is sex drive, the desire par excellence. After all, once you’ve accepted the fact of death, the non-existence of God, and the futility of art, what incentive is there to do anything other than have as much sex as possible?

Just as Houellebecq is obsessed with what he considers art’s inability to help us transcend the empty materiality of our lives, Jeffery is fascinated with the problem of what he calls “our inarticulacy” in the face of great art—the inability to express what exactly we find so compelling about a painting or work of literature. This aphasia, Jeffery contends, can sap the work’s “transformational power”; it can make us feel unworthy or pretentious and force us to resort to baser pleasures, like sex. Like anything that exerts power over us, great art has the capacity to unsettle if we cannot satisfactorily account for it. This “is the fundamental reason why deep attachment to art can seem so stupid,” Jeffery writes, “why it gets so frustrating to try to explain what the ‘real’ worth of art is, even to oneself.” The problem, then, is this: In order to adequately explain your love of Beckett’s The Unnamable, wouldn’t you have to be at least as good a writer as Beckett?

Anti-Matter’s shortcoming is that in trying to find a way out of this dilemma, Jeffery is much clearer about what he doesn’t believe than what he does. Though Houellebecq's work helps Jeffery pose the problem, Jeffery finds the novelist’s answer lacking. Furthermore, though Anti-Matter brings in a number of stars from the constellation of postmodern thought—everybody from Slavoj Zizek, David Foster Wallace, and Frederic Jameson to less widely-known figures like Leszek Kolakowski—to address this question, it doesn’t zero in on any of them, or focus on any single issue. At one point he asks, “isn’t it basically superfluous to ask for a good reason for art to exist?” The tempting response is, “yes, now get on to more interesting questions,” but he doesn’t. His riffing on how the “value” of art is implicated across consumer culture is interesting, yet Jeffery limits his argument by tethering art to its “uses,” to concrete values that can be “proven.” The frustrating result is of a bright thinker who threatens to become constrained by the same kind of radical resignation that hems in Houellebecq’s work.

Jeffery's inability to move beyond doubt is especially apparent in Anti-Matter’s final six pages, which betray just how unsure he is that there is a good reason to value literature. He calls art, respectively, a secular religious experience, a “good lie,” an aspect of Beckett’s “need to go on,” and finally, a thing that allows us reflect on the fact that “the very things which define human life—our values and principles—are also things we are left agonisingly uncertain about.” Unable to find a good intellectual foundation from which to defend art, he falls back on the reflection that “the most reliable defence against pessimism is the knowledge that pessimism, too, is unsure.” While it’s hard not to find the circularity of his argument at least a little charming, one wants to reply that a much better defense is the fact that Jeffery, myself, and many other readers agree on enough that we can argue about these questions in the first place. Jeffery is correct in noting that pessimism is integral to much of the literature that feels especially alive right now—Kafka, Beckett, Bernhard—but defaulting to pessimism is not enough. We need literature and criticism that seeks ways out, rather than allowing artists to wallow in bleak solipsism.

But one should not be too hard on Jeffery: Despite his own doubts, he successfully uses Houellebecq as a vehicle for meditating on significant questions about art and philosophy. And this is in large part what makes Anti-Matter feel vital: In posing important questions about literature, doubt, and pessimism through an author he recognizes as fatally limited, Jeffery offers a vision of how criticism can detach from the literature that inspired it and become a thoughtful, necessary genre in its own right. Jeffery implies as much in the book’s introduction: “Anti-Matter could be described as a piece of extended literary criticism, and that would be sort of right, but it would be more exact to say it uses Houellebecq’s novels as a basis for thinking about pessimism and how it relates to honesty, how novelists justify their work, what people think art is for, and philosophical materialism, amongst other things.”

Houellebecq and Jeffery are skillful at articulating the malaise that often accompanies the search for meaning in contemporary life. Where they fall short, however, is in failing to recognize that unrestrained doubt is no sturdier a philosophy than unrestrained belief, even if the former is more fashionable. In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, the great literary critic Wayne Booth critiqued what he called the “modernist dogma”—essentially, a variant of the philosophies of doubt that Houellebecq and Jeffery espouse. Booth recognizes why these dogmas are seductive—they play into a disaffected worldview based on alienation from religion and politics—but he offers good reasons to reject them. Regarding “the implied claim that life is meaningless and therefore that nothing is worth doing,” Booth counters that “the works themselves are offered as something worth doing; the reader who is transported into them never doubts for a moment, during the experience, that what he and the author are doing together is worth doing.” He's not wrong. Ultimately, what more need be said about art’s enduring value than that Houellebecq wrote his books to be read, that they inspired Jeffery to write Anti-Matter, and now, that we get to read them both?

Scott Esposito's literary criticism has been published by The Paris Review, Tin House, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. He edits The Quarterly Conversation, an online periodical of literary essays and reviews.