Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map and the Territory retells an ‘artistic’ life among the moral wreckage of our early third millennium. The story is told from the first-person perspective of Jed Martin, a commercially successful French artist, with occasional comments on his artwork by an unnamed future Chinese art historian. Jed’s primary attribute is his indifference to life, his passive acceptance of what is accepted of him, what he sees around him, what he chooses to do with his days. His artwork is the only place that he begins or acts in any way (with one exception), and even here his ideal is a sort of inert receptivity: the one statement he makes about his artistic vision is that he has tried to ‘give an account of the world’. As a child his first creative impulse is a yearning to catalog, to capture on film, everything in the world. Already his focus is purely on the material aspect of the world, and given his lack of wonder or introspection, we’re left with an impression that Jed, our artist working in an age of mechanical reproduction, may as well be a tool of that reproduction, a living camera. Jed makes his name with a series of photographs of Michelin maps, juxtaposed with satellite images of the same domain. His exhibition of these works (sponsored by the Michelin brand, of course) proudly declares that “THE MAP IS MORE INTERESTING THAN THE TERRITORY”. Jed’s attempt at giving an account of the world has abstracted from representations of real objects to representations of representations of reality; Jed - and his approving buyers - find this preferable.
Whether we can come to see, or even represent, reality is a major (though underdeveloped) theme of the book, and the arc of Jed’s life can be plotted by his answers to this question. His earliest phase is taken up with the attempt to account for the world by photographing all the manmade things he can find in it; his fame comes from showing the schema that we use to navigate through the world we inhabit. Abandoning his photography as soon as he finds fame (as much from boredom as any other reason), Jed begins painting humans defined by their work, from a prostitute to ‘Bill Gates and Steve Jobs deciding the future of IT’.
(Aside: Jed’s one approach to a human friendship comes at the end of this period, when he contacts a reclusive, misanthropic French novelist named Michel Houellebecq to write an introduction for his gallery. Just as their relationship seems like it could benefit both men, Houellebecq is murdered in fantastically gruesome fashion, and the next segment of the book is really a police procedural within the larger story. The aftermath of the murder and criminal case bring us the only two moral sentiments Jed ever espouses, such as they are - that he ‘believes in punishment’ and that ‘all his life he has longed to be useful’.)
After the murder, Jed retires to his grandmother’s house in the countryside and uses his wealth to enclose a great preserve of loneliness. His final artistic chapter, continued until his death, consists of capturing videos in the forest around his home and double-exposing them to create representations of human artifacts (and eventually representations of humans) decaying into nature (our Chinese art guide calls them ideograms). Ultimately Jed finds that both maps and territories have always been thin constructions atop the barely restrained ‘jungle’ of indifferent nature - that in effect, the nature of reality is below our ability to comprehend. He seems to see, in the frailty of human artifice and the muted, lurking menace of plants, an intimation that anything we attempt to call reality can only be a representation.
Through these artistic chapters, Jed has almost no human relationships, and despite his artistic commitment, no wonder, either. Even his paintings are famed for their more-than-photorealistic quality rather than any moral or aesthetic judgment by their creator. In some of the most momentous moments of his own life - letting his girlfriend leave for a job in Russia, leaving her again when they reconnect a decade later, failing to convince his father not to end his life after a cancer diagnosis - his internal narration is only a detached, completely passive commentary about the inevitability of it all:
“he realized that nothing would happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought… there is a moment for doing things and entering into a possible happiness, and this moment... happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible.”
He describes the world he has set out to ‘give an account of’ as mediocre but has little contact with it, little feeling for the human world at all, except a sort of distaste. Jed seems put at a loss by his life, unsure what to do with it, or unsure he has it at all. In other words, he embodies the crisis of meaning of decadent, technocratic society - a man painting pictures at Camus’s absurd crossroads before death, hope, or despair. Even Camus’s rebellious existentialist pose was never as bleak as Houellebecq’s view of the human condition in 21st century France.
The Map and the Territory is Houellebecq’s fourth novel, and by all accounts his least vulgar or pornographic, his most polished - and therefore his most widely accepted. He was awarded the Prix Goncourt, with what I imagine was an unseemly haste, as though to quickly redirect the scorn of the “enfant terrible of French literature” at targets the establishment approves. The clearest indication of this attempt to co-opt his rage is the overwhelming emphasis most reviewers place on his hatred of “neoliberalism” - which is comfortable because this is a thing they too profess to hate. But I think I’ve shown, in Jed’s career and life, that the financialization of life is an aspect but hardly the direct cause of all the aspects of the modern world that Houellebecq reviles.
The ascendance of global neoliberalism plays a role in the coarsening of society that Houellebecq is indicting - he dwells at length on the banal, airport-terminal-like hellscapes of modern public spaces, and the cheapness of life that the pursuit of convenience brings. But Houellebecq doesn't focus on bankers or technologists at all; he shows the worst aspect of ‘neoliberal’ society - turning any real property into fungible wealth and selling it off to the highest bidder - being assiduously practiced by the artists, the supposed critics of such society. As Jed’s gallerist remarks, without any irony or alarm,
“success in market terms justifies and validates anything, replaces all other theories. No one is capable of seeing further, absolutely no one.”
I’m left with the impression that focusing on the common ground between a progressive critic and Houellebecq - ok, we both hate advanced capitalism - is like swearing that Eminem (certainly a spiritual brother of Houellebecq’s) has been mad about urban decline for all these years.
It is truly in the private realm that Houellebecq sees the greatest catastrophes of modern life, and to blame neoliberalism for the same individualistic, permissive processes that the left normally prides itself on is surely a strange about-face. Within the tedium of ugly, commodified surroundings, Houellebecq takes greater pains to demonstrate the atomized, lonely fallout of the 1960s social revolution than any other contemporary writer I can think of. Houellebecq is himself a child of abandonment, and the tension between a child’s longing for love and the duty that imposes on others is at the core of his critique of modernity. His mother cast him aside when the duties of parenthood would have interfered with her desired lifestyle (One of the greatest comic elements of this book is Houellebecq’s use of cliches like this as fake sociological judgments). In this book, Jed’s mother commits suicide when he is a similar age - and in the end he can’t stop his elderly father from slipping off to Switzerland quietly end it all in a perfectly normal procedure, either.
The many swipes at modern social life ("They don't really amount to much, anyway, human relationships”) are infuriating at the level of Houellebecq’s indifferent, barely-there characters, but they seem fairly descriptive of the author's perception of a society where individuals are allowed, even encouraged, to neglect other individuals in the name of freedom. The central complaint of this book, and perhaps of its author’s life, is, “if I can’t be loved, why do I exist?” Houellebecq’s outcry is directed against both the technological developments that have made people superfluous ("why do I exist?") and the permissive, sterile culture that betrayed him ("why can't I be loved?"), couched in the language of these simultaneous corruptions of the soul. There are scenes where you can perfectly imagine Houellebecq behind the curtain muttering, ‘You assume there is no value to anything except the material and the personal? Very well, I’ll show you how that feels’.
For months I’ve been mulling over this book and trying to ascertain whether Houellebecq is a misanthrope getting some sick pleasure from making me dwell on this meaningless, lonely life, or whether he is an honestly outraged observer revealing the nihilism of the age: that is, whether the book’s ugliness is Houellebecq’s fault or his accomplishment.
His prose, at least in translation, inclines me to the former view; though not like his previous novels in pornographic detail or subject matter, it remains a deformed vision, and the pessimistic, cliched shrugs about the worthlessness of family, friends, art, love, life itself are quite depressing, despite the smirk they might evoke momentarily. It was tempting at many points to turn away and say of Houellebecq what he says of Picasso in one aside: that he is
"ugly, and he paints a hideously deformed world because his soul is hideous, and that's all you can say about Picasso."
Yet I’ve found it hard to stop my thoughts from returning to this cynical book, attempting and re-attempting to articulate my frustration with the whole thing. Houellebecq points aggressively at the presumptions and preoccupations of his self-satisfied, ‘enlightened’ contemporaries, goading us towards looking anew at the things we say we believe and facing his challenge. He is a critic shouting from the mezzanine: is this the best you can do? Is this truly all you aim to be? What a height of civilization, what a sophisticated malaise! And so, like Auden in the theater, I'm left wondering how I know he’s wrong. The Map and the Territory makes one yearn for solid ground from which to reject Jed Martin's whole way of living with the proper force. The anger that Houellebecq roused is akin to a motivation to declare and develop my own philosophy - if I reject his conclusions, are my premises sound? Does my view of the world hold up to this particular assault? Can I defend why family is vital, why friendship is "one of those worthless things which make life worth living", why love can transfigure us, why art can elevate human consciousness for the creator or appreciator (but not the mere buyer or seller), why I believe in the human capacity to aspire and transform ourselves?
By no means does Houellebecq show the unique or highest goods of human life, as novelists like Tolstoy or James do, nor the deepest anguishes of the soul, as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky or Proust attempt. But in the contemporary publishing environment, where most fiction is sold to shore up people’s assumptions about themselves, to console them with whatever they happen to believe, Houellebecq’s gift is to present a real challenge to the reader, to make them sharpen their own dimly held beliefs to meet his ugliness head-on. His writing lets us test our aesthetic and moral sensibilities, to improve the state of our psychic defenses. The next time that I encounter indifference, complacency, malaise, ennui, I will be more prepared - because of the angry work that Houellebecq set me off to do, I will know exactly where I stand. Despite the ugliness of the book, that is a great gift.