The controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq explains why he wants to be cloned. He just can’t help it, he says; like most people, he just blindly wants to perpetuate himself. “Such feelings leave no space for freedom and individuality, they aim for nothing but eternal, idiotic repetition”; and yet these feelings “are shared by almost all mankind, and even by the majority of the animal kingdom; they are nothing but the living memory of an overwhelming biological instinct.” As always, Houellebecq’s insights are quite bracing…
Houellebecq is the master of grim reductionism. “There are many sources of joy in this world, but few pleasures–and few of them are harmless.” Leaving aside Houellebecq’s dumb attempts to create controversy by being “politically incorrect” (ranting against Islam, throwing in off-the-cuff racist comments, etc), you have one of the purest, and most eloquent, literary expressions ever of the idea that “life is shit, and then you die.” Houellebecq shows that late-20th-century punk nihilism is nothing new, but merely the most recent expression of a pessimistic materialism that has existed in Western culture ever since the Renaissance (and that has roots in ancient Greece and Rome as well).
The idea of clones is nothing new for Houellebecq; his succes de scandale novel The Elementary Particles ends with the salvation of humanity from the dilemmas of always-unsatisfied sexual desire by our transformation as a species into a race of sexless, undesiring clones. But the actual prospect of actually achieving this cloning scientifically does not exactly make Houellebecq rejoice; “Of course I will have myself cloned as soon as I can,” he wearily writes; “of course everyone will get themselves cloned as soon as they can.” We just can’t help it. We are forever condemned to “navel-gazing,” Houellebecq says. and we still will be even when “we” are clones produced outside the womb, and hence without navels.
Houellebecq forsees the death of all ideals, the death of all hope; that is why he is worth reading, as an antidote to the facile, feel-good optimism that has so central a place in our culture. Though, of course, Houellebecq’s pessimism is itself, ultimately, just another consolatory fantasy. If you always expect the worst, then you will never be disappointed (as Jerry Lewis’ father once told him); eliminate desire, and you are shielded against the inevitable frustrations of that desire.