The same, just a little worse
A translation of Michel Houellebecq's Je ne crois pas aux déclarations du genre « rien ne sera plus jamais comme avant » (May 2020), in honor of the forthcoming end of Melbourne's lockdown
Most emails of recent weeks have been sent with the unspoken aim of confirming that that the recipient is still alive. Having confirmed as much, we then try to come up with something interesting to say. Yet this is no easy task, as the current epidemic has achieved the curious distinction of being at once greatly distressing and truly boring.
An unremarkable virus, the inglorious ancestor of some obscure strain, ambiguous all around: we don’t know the mortality rates, we don’t even know what the typical symptoms are, as some infections are completely asymptomatic while others are fatal. A most banal virus: it is not even transmitted sexually. This epidemic claims the lives of thousands around the world every day, while at the same time having the curious feeling of a non-event.
My esteemed fellow contributors to this discussion (some, after all, are esteemed) have not found much to say about the virus itself, preferring instead to focus their thoughts on the lockdown: a topic on which I would also like to add a few comments.
According to Frédéric Beigbeder, writers live like hermits with their books and don’t see many people anyway, so the lockdown hasn’t changed much. Sure, Frédéric, maybe my social life has not changed all that much these last few months. Nevertheless, there is one point that you forgot to consider (most likely because, living in the countryside, you have been less affected by restrictions): a writer needs to walk.
Lockdown presents an ideal opportunity to finally resolve an old disagreement between Flaubert and Nietzsche. Somewhere (I forgot where), Flaubert declares that one can only think and write well while seated. Nietzsche responded to this claim (I also forget where) with a mix of protest and mockery, going so far as to call Flaubert a nihilist, a term which Nietzsche had by this point in his career begun to use very sloppily.
Nietzsche claimed to have first envisioned all of his books while walking, and asserted that any idea that was not “won by walking” was of no value: he had after all always been a Dionysian dancer and all that. No one will suspect me of an excessive fondness for Nietzsche, but he is absolutely right in this case. If one does not have the possibility of walking at a steady pace for a few hours during the day, there is no point trying to write anything. Without a walk, there is no way for a writer to release the nervous tension building up every day, leaving one’s thoughts circling around endlessly in one’s head, driving one toward irritability and even perhaps madness.
What really matters in a walk is its mechanical, machine-like rhythm. It is not really for the purpose of generating new ideas (although this can happen), but rather for calming the shock of new ideas born at the writer’s desk (in this sense, Flaubert’s call for sitting is not completely in error). When Nietzsche tells us of the ideas he conceived among the rocky slopes of the Nice countryside or the pastures of Engandin, he is rambling a bit: unless one is writing a guidebook, the spaces one passes through while walking are of far less importance than the new ideas nurtured therein.
Meanwhile, for Catherine Millet, our present situation discomfitingly evokes for her the “anticipation” within the post-apocalyptic vision from one of my own books, The Possibility of an Island.
It’s good, I suppose, to have readers, because I never would have made this connection, which is nevertheless quite obvious now that she says it. Now that I thik about it, this is perhaps very much what I had in mind while writing that book, regarding the extinction of humanity: it wouldn’t be something dramatic, like in some big action movie. It would be much darker. Individuals living isolated in their cells, without any physical contact with others, just a few exchanges online, these also gradually fading away.
Emmanuel Carrère poses the question: will this moment provide inspiration for some great books?
I asked myself the same question. I really did. But to be honest, I think not. Over the centuries, we have had all types of writings about the plague. The plague has fascinated writers. As for whether the current situation will be of much interest to writers, I have my doubts.
I also do not for a moment believe such grandiose declarations as “nothing will ever be the same.” On the contrary, I propose, everything will remain exactly the same. This epidemic has unfolded in a most predictable manner. The West is not the richest and most developed region of the planet for eternity, as if by divine right. It’s done for, and has been for some time now. This is nothing new. Examining the situation a little more closely, we can see that France may be doing a little better than Spain and Italy, but not as well as Germany: none of this should surprise anyone.
On the contrary, this epidemic is accelerating certain shifts always already underway. For many years, the main outcome of all technological developments, whether minor (video on demand, contactless payment) or major (telecommuting, online shopping, social networks), has been the reduction of contact, particularly human contact. This epidemic provides an unparalleled justification for the acceleration of such trends, revealing the growing obsolescence of human relations.
This bring to mind an illuminating point from a text written by a group of anti-fertility treatment activists known as “The Chimpanzees of the Future” (I discovered them on the Internet: I have never said that the internet is without its benefits). To quote them: “Someday, having children yourself, freely and at random, will seem just as incongruous as hitchhiking without a ride-sharing app.” Ride-sharing, roommates… one gets the utopias that one deserves, in the end.
It would be just as wrong to say that we have rediscovered the tragic, death, finitude, or anything else. The tendency for at least a half-century if not far longer as shown by Philippe Ariès has been to flee away from the thought of death as much as possible. And death has never been quite so hidden as it has been the past few weeks. People die alone in their rooms at the hospital or nursing home, without anyone present, in secret, and are then buried immediately. Or are they cremated? Cremation seems more in the spirit of the times.
Deaths not witnessed by anyone, lives reduced to a mere statistic in daily death counts, anxiety spreading while the numbers grow by the day: it all has something strangely abstract about it.
Another figure that has generated growing attention in recent weeks is the age of the sick. Up until which age is it reasonable to treat and attempt to resuscitate them? 70, 75, 80? It all depends, apparently, on which part of the world you live in. But never has the fact that some lives do not have the same value been expressed with such shameless calm: from a certain age, it is as if one is already dead.
All these trends, as I have said, existed well before the coronavirus. They have only become increasingly apparent as a result of its spread.
After lockdown, we will not wake up to a new world. It will be the same, just a little worse.
 Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows #34, as translated by R.J. Hollingdale “On ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis (G. Flaubert). -Now I have you, nihilist! Assiduity is the sin against the holy spirit. Only ideas won by walking have any value” (pg. 36 of Penguin Classics edition).