Ben Jeffery’s Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebeq and Depressive Realism

So far Ben Jeffery’s book on Houellebecq has been nothing but a dark ride into depressive realism, not in the clinical sense but in the literary critical sense. I’m enjoying it: if you can call enjoying a pessimist, misanthropist, misogynist, anomieist (he subverts every norm beyond recognition)… you name it the Houellebeq’s not you’re average cynical author out for laughs… actually he’s a rather nasty bastard whose only redeeming factor is his black humor. But then again he’s portraying our own culture, and the bottom feeders at that… like a marriage of noir and rotgut on steroids, except unlike noir where despair usually ends in the outer limits of sadomasochism… Houellebeq  turns it all inside out: instead of s/m we get the real bloodmaul, a sacrifice that bleeds the psyche dry… This guy’s like a walking tomb, an agent to the Black Mass, a slow freeze in a steel furnace. If someone thought that meth was a good idea, then this guy is meth without the speed. Hell is gaping and this guy is its emissary, except that metaphysical hells still offer solace – even if only for the lost. With Houellebecq you get no solace and no metaphysical rubbish: the only thing you get is pure and unadulterated emptiness, the void beyond the thin red line, a pit so dark you’d think you were dreaming except in this black prison there are no keepers, only weepers…

An instance of this is the rendition in Whatever where the protagonist, an anonymous freak, your typical psychopathic office jockey: full of himself, blind to others, a real narcissist type, suddenly wakes up from his comatose life after a fellow employee, Raphaël Tisserand, dies in a car wreck driving home from work on Christmas Eve. The nameless protagonist, a manipulative sociopath who has for the most part enjoyed his little torture games with Tisserand suddenly falls apart, has a break down and finds himself in a mental ward at a hospital. This isn’t one of those absurdist romps like Ken Keysey’s One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest, this is more of joe schmo gets what’s coming to him:

After checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, the hero is confronted by a female counsellor who chastises him for speaking in overly abstract, sociological terms. His effort at self-analysis emerges: ‘But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear [and there’s a] system based on seduction and sex. And that’s it. Is it really possible to live and believe that there’s nothing else?’ Afterwards, he asks the counsellor if she would sleep with him. She refuses. (14-15)1

Ben Jeffery makes a comment on this, saying: “It is not that Houellebecq is a reactionary writer exactly. For example, it is never suggested that religious faith is the solution to his character’s dilemmas; the books are all resolutely atheist.” (15) But I guess Jeffery has never heard of the likes of Mencius Moldbug, neoreactionary atheist: not the sort of guy you’d want as a neighbor, believe me. Nick Land uses him as a pin cushion for his own merciless entertainment on his new blog Outside In. It would be sad to find Houellebecq in the company of such a Neanderthal, but hey we’re not all destined for the progressive farm, are we?

Ben Jeffery tells us that the term ‘depressive realism’ comes from a psychological study performed by Alloy and Abramson in 1979 which suggested that depressives routinely demonstrate better judgment about how much control they have over events (as opposed to non-depressives, who habitually over-estimate their control). Alloy and Abramson concluded that ‘depressed people are “sadder but wiser”… Non-depressed people succumb to cognitive illusions that enable them to see both themselves and their environment with a rosy glow.’(3)  A rosy glow? Have you read Koheleth’s book of late, believe me it’s no picnic. But I don’t think people read Houellebeq for wisdom, folks; no, his works lead one into silence not out of it. What you get with his books is just the stark obliteration of what it is – whatever that is is. Maybe a bucket of ashes over the head would do the trick, a sort of endless prayer to the Void. If Nietzsche was the first to put nihilism on the map, then Houellebecq took it into the abyss and zipped up the black hole to infinity. There is no escaping this dark world: helpless and alone you wander the circles of your own lost dreams.

Jeffery tells us that helplessness is the current running beneath all of Houellebecq’s narratives, the inability to either get what you want or change what you want; to avoid death or believe that death is anything except bad.(36) If your seeking solace for you lost soul Houellebecq’s books should not be on your priority list for self-help, rather think of self-loathing and sinking your head into a shit can:

This is the omega point of depressive realism. What good are books if you are sick, alone, and unloved? They are no good. At best they are make-believe to help us disguise the facts of life – but the facts remain, and they are unbearably heavy. Hence the dark joke at the bottom of the pessimist’s project is that it subverts itself. Ridiculing the futility of human action finally makes pessimism seem pointless, demonstrates the emptiness of its honesty. Depressive realism leads us up to an airless summit, and the wonder is how seriously we can take it; whether, despite itself, there is anything to be drawn from its negativity.(36)

He may lead me to the summit, but once I get there if he expects me to jump he’s got another thing coming. But that’s just it: that’s just what his pessimism leads too: that moment of pure depressive realism when you realize “You will die!” This is the Great Defeat, not some simple mindless jaunt into madness, but the stark cold facts of one’s useless existence spelled out in harsh black and white, no color here folks, just the dark contours of the psyche depleted of its last gestures. “This is not one defeat amidst life’s pleasures; it is the overwhelming end, a negation at once absolute and utterly private.”(77)

And what of staging his own death. In The Map and the Territory we come upon a Alfred Hitchcock moment, when the author himself makes a ghostly appearance, or should we say an offstage vanishing act:

That did happen the following day. “Author Michel Houellebecq Savagely Murdered” was the headline in Le Parisien, which devoted half a column to the news, though quite uninformed. The other papers gave it almost the same amount of space, without giving more details, mainly just repeating the communiqué from the prosecutor in Montargis. None of them, it seemed, had sent a reporter to the spot.

 – The Map and the Territory (198)

A Detective on the investigation wonders who would be capable of murdering this author, and gets a reply:

Houellebecq had lots of enemies, they had repeated, people had shown themselves to be unjustly aggressive and cruel toward him; when asked for a more precise list of them, Teresa Cremisi, impatiently shrugging her shoulders, offered to send him a press file. But when asked if one of these enemies could have murdered him, they both replied in the negative. Expressing herself with exaggerated clarity, a little like the way you address a madman, Teresa Cremisi had explained to him that you were dealing with literary enemies, who expressed their hatred on Internet sites, in newspaper or magazine articles, and, in the worst case, books, but that none of them would have been capable of committing physical murder. Less for moral reasons, she went on with notable bitterness, than because they would simply not have had the guts. No, she concluded, it was not (and he had the impression that she had almost said “unfortunately not”) in the literary milieu that you had to look for the culprit.

– The Map and the Territory (199)

To stage one’s own death and have one’s revenge on one’s enemies to boot. Is this the last boon of taste or what? Yet, if there is any redeeming thing in Houellebeq’s works it all comes down to his own words as author on his own writing:

To this, only one reply: ultimately, you know nothing about it. … You will never really know this part of yourself which compels you to write. You will know it only through contradictory forms which merely approach it. Egotism or devotion? Cruelty or compassion? Any of these possibilities could be argued for. Proof that, ultimately, you know nothing about it; thus, do not behave as if you did. Before your own ignorance, before this mysterious part of yourself, remain honest and humble.

Maybe that’s all any of us can do: remain honest and humble before the mystery of our own lived lives. Whether that is enough is up to each and every one of us to decide. Maybe that’s what being a depressive realist is all about: looking at the horror surrounding one with unblinking eyes, a recording Angel that knows the truth has flown the coup, and all that’s left is the myriad lies (sorry, I meant stories) we tell ourselves in the night to help us survive this catastrophe we call life. As Ben Jeffery remarks:

That life is not an inevitable defeat is not a claim that can be defended in good faith. Not everyone is happy, or healthy, or loved – but everyone is caged in their own body, and in the deepest sense helpless over what happens to them, and everybody dies. In a certain state of mind that feels very like lucidity, the bad things appear so much more pertinent and insoluble and unutterably real that the idea of being sanguine or reasonable or ‘intelligent’ about them is almost hideous.(91)



For my previous review of Michel Houellebeq, Islands of the Mind: click here!

1. Jeffery, Ben (2011-11-16). Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism (p. 14). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.

17 thoughts on “Ben Jeffery’s Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebeq and Depressive Realism

  1. I’m a bit way into writing a post on Houellebecq but after I saw your comment on Jeffry’s book I’ve decided to leave it until I read that. There is a lot more to clinical depressive realism than that one study, but leaving that aside one of the most interesting things about depression is its relationship to the self-esteem construct. We regularly assume that people with depression would be measured as having low self-esteem but, on the contrary, people with constantly low self-esteem don’t seem to develop depression and, as is obvious, nor do people with constantly high self-esteem. One of the vulnerabilities for depression appears to be a fluctuative or unstable sense of self-esteem.

    I think this is interesting given the centrality that Ernest Becker gives self-esteem. For instance, from The denial of death:

    ‘How does one transcend himself; how does he open himself to new possibility? By realizing the truth of his situation, by dispelling the lie of his character, by breaking his spirit out of its conditioned prison. The enemy, for Kierkegaard as for Freud, is the Oedipus complex. The child has built up strategies and techniques for keep­ing his self-esteem in the face of the terror of his situation. These techniques become an armor that hold the person prisoner. The very defenses that he needs in order to move about with self-con­fidence and self-esteem become his life-long trap. In order to transcend himself he must break down that which he needs in order to live. Like Lear he must throw off all his “cultural lendings” and stand naked in the storm of life’.

    Self-esteem is the result of successful individual coping-with, and armour is obviously that which is worn to try to transcend the vulnerability of being exposed to ‘the storm of life’. The depressed person is the one who copes well sometimes, and copes poorly at other times. Part of this is also down to what psychologists call “attributional style”; the depressive tends to attribute internal, global, and stable causes to situations and perceived failings (by contrasts paranoid types make external, global and stable attributions).

    I bring this up because the idea of depressive realism is flawed in this one major way: while depressives might be better at judging the level of control that they have in a given situation, they conflate that with something essential to them. Depressive realism is thus realistic about the present but goes beyond that to generalise about all situations and all times. I’ve written before about depression as a form of “learned helplessness” (and how I think the left has been suffering from this ailment for some time). In the end being a depressive realist gives too much over to the self. Hence, one of Houellebecq’s poems can state that “we are trapped in our own clear selves” via a “pact with the body”. Depressive realism becomes a depressive idealism in which one makes stories (I prefer the term “delusions” over “lies”) about the world and about possibility based on one’s own current position. It is what Terence Blake might call a synchronic psychological position.

    Still, I pretty much can’t disagree with the conclusion that that is what follows from a position like Houellebecq’s. I like your connection with him to Nietzsche, but I think its truer to say that he is closer to Schopenhauer. I love this early section from his “To Stay Alive” (really the key to everything else he’s written):

    ‘The world is suffering unfolded. At its origin it is a node of suffering. All existence is an expansion, and a crushing. All things suffer into existence’.

    Its almost as if he’s trying to out Schopenhauer Schopenhauer. Ha!


    • I tend to agree with you about the defenses and breaking free of those childhood traps. In some ways almost anything can be that armor, that mental casing that surrounds us and protects us as children. I know from my own personal struggles that is exactly how it happened: breaking free of certain claustrophobic emotional and mental barriers that had begun to strangle my life. Bible-belt Christianity and its apocalypticism being a great part of that… rebelling against the authority of family and social encrustrations is a dark and lonely struggle.

      I know this is where Nietzsche helped me personally: passive nihilism then active (abyssal) nihilism is only the first stage in a long struggle against our prison masters, the ideological entrapments that weave their incessant magic around us everyday is a constant battle. One is never finished with the war against hate and fear. This is not some Manichean battle, not some religious bullshit against good and evil in a metaphysical sense of a spiritual war; this is the real war against those psychic control systems, the objective and subjective systems of control that encase us in illusions of self, rather than in that zero sum self of freedom.

      I think this is why so many use terms of magic as metaphors to describe their entrapment as well as their escape from the illusions of our world systems of late capitalism, etc. We must all become Sorcerors/Brujo’s (or the feminine forms, Sorceress/Bruja’s) to unweave/unbind the intricate knots of hate and fear that enfold us with their dark powers. In some ways Whitehead and Rorty were right to turn back to poetry: it is the creator of language rather than concepts, and it seems that we need the power of mythopoetic thought much more in our struggle than the abstract halls of conceptual reasoning. Why? Conceptual reasoning is for an elite few: it takes years to assimilate the learning and knowledge to use the tools of reason effectively. Of course the same could be applied to poetry. The Irish Ollaves trained upwards of 20 years to become Master Poet’s. Being a Poet was at one time to carry the knowledge of one’s culture in all its ramifications. Sometimes I think we’ve forgotten that. This is at the heart of Plato’s battle with Homer. The battle over who would be the carrier of Truth for the culture of Greece. Where are our great poets now?

      Schopenhauer = pessimism. If that’s true then Houellebeq is a dark vitalist rather than a depressive realist. Favors Will over Intellect. Affective relations over abstract reasoning, etc.


      • I had a similar experience, although mine was less easy to identify and had more to do with the way I’d learned to adapt to the world. Theory didn’t help much in those days, it tended to be a kind of autistic inoculant against the real.

        I agree that its a spiritual war against psychic control systems. That is why I’ve started to re-read Max Stirner. In some ways Nietzsche far exceeds Stirner, but in terms of the individual’s psyche’s battle against its own domestication, Stirner is hard to beat.

        Hmm… I think Houellebeq would be consider us stupid and arid for trying to imprison him in a category- but perhaps also a little relieved to have been explained ahead of himself. There is, I suppose, something of an ambivalence in Houellebecq when it comes to questions of Will/Intellect, Affect/Reasoning- and its shown by so many of his novels being marked by two characters, one of whom stands for one side of these dualities and the other for another. After all, he is so obviously mourning the loss of sensuality and of the ability for empathic relationship, the ability to love, whilst on the other hand he thinks some kind of Singularity might save us (although not cleanly, Possibility of an Island showing that such a technoredemption would only accelerate the acuteness of the death of affect). In the end, I think he wishes for a world of will and affect, but doesn’t believe that its possible: all we’re left with is logic, reason, and the myths of technoscience. As he puts it toward the end of “To Stay Alive”:

        ‘At times you begin to weep, so cruel is the clarity of your vision. You would love to turn back, into the fog of ignorance, but ultimately you know that it is already too late’.


      • Rorty’s take on the anxiety of influence (In his Irony book) is helpful here are he talks about our poetic/creative (sadly he never really got much into the secondary lit on sublimation) ways of working through (bricolaging) our blind-impresses, most of the analysands that I have seen over the years are suffering from what are called in the US “adjustment disorders”, inabilities to adapt their habituated response-abilities, and so suffering from related anxiety/stress, which brings us to the wider and more interesting category/cure for me which is depressing realism my update on Freud’s everyday unhappiness.


  2. I realize that it’s only a side remark, Noir, but my reading of Land’s blog is that he regards Moldbug as a forerunner, spokesman, and inspiration for his own point of view. While they might disagree on details, e.g., the fate of Bitcoin, they’re neo-reactionary fellow travelers.

    I read a Houellebeqc novel, couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, read another, had the same (non)response. The books aren’t fresh enough in my mind for me to offer anything substantial. More recently I’ve had the same experience reading Murakami, who purportedly is shortlisted for a Nobel, but that’s off the topic. Maybe I’m too non-empathic and anhedonic to get much out of them…


    • I’ve only read the The Map and the Territory and while I finished it I wasn’t thrilled, certainly didn’t feel the need for any more, the murder twist seemed gratuitous the ‘philosophical’ reflections/themes pretty weaksauce, not like earlier DeLillo which is more what I expected (hoped for?). But than I find Land to be pretty over the top, operatic, and so haven’t really read much there either, no accounting for tastes and all…


      • You should: Land lives in the hypercapitalist void singing of electric machines. Land is the enemy we’re becoming… he decided long ago to fold, die as a philosopher and become the thing he most despised. Now he rides the waves of his own madness, the madness we all must overcome or become victims of its incessant energy, too. Houllebeqc is the dead soul of this post-capitalist machine world, a terminator fallen on hard times.


    • I think his essay in Fanged Noumena summed it up (and you are correct):

      “Perhaps there will always be a fashionable anti-capitalism, but each will become unfashionable, while capitalism – becoming ever more tightly identified with its own self-surpassing – will always, inevitably, be the latest thing. ‘Means’ and ‘Relations’ of production have simultaneously emulsified into competitive decentralized networks under numerical control, rendering paleomarxist hopes of extracting a postcapitalist future from the capitalism machine overtly unimaginable. The machines have sophisticated themselves beyond the possibility of socialist utility, incarnating market mechanics within their nano-assembled interstices and evolving themselves by quasi-Darwinian algorithmns that build hypercompetition into the ‘infrastructure’. It is no longer just society, but time itself, that has taken the ‘capitalist road’. (Fanged Noumena 626)

      So, yes, I use Land as the philosophical sounding board of ultracapitalism of the machininc and transhuman worldview. Being a Communist myself I find Land’s hyperNietzschean blend of Deleuze and that madness of his own genius fascinating but ugly at the same time. He seems to be a true psychopathic alien of our future terminator world.

      Houellebeqc and Murakami are representative of aspects of that world, that is all….


    • Yea, I think a lot of people may think I support Land because I’ve written a great deal on him. But the truth is that I’ve always seen him as a part of the madness we need to overcome. His accelerationism and hypercapitalism are cannibalistic. It’s as if he wants the transhuman void to open up and swallow him whole. He’s already pushed his mind into that zone and thinks he’s become a seer, but all he’s become is one more victim of its dark heritage. What’s that old saying, “A Fool and his Wisdom part ways soon enough!”

      I have to admit I’ve pointedly not used my blog as a platform of critique, but more as a commentary of current thought. Yet, there will come a time for critique, too. And I have to admit I’m a bloody bastard when it comes to ripping systems apart that too me seem sheer ineptitude. That time will come.


      • That’s a helpful clarification, and it reinforces what I thought you’ve been up to here on the blog. I wasn’t following Hyperstition back in its heyday, but that cadre endorsed the project of turning fiction into reality via rhetorical force. This idea seems useful to me in reading Land’s blog now. He’s espousing a mythology that through repetition, elaboration, and strategic alliances might become the ideological underpinning for society, tracing a fictional trajectory that, through its own unfolding, creates a future reality around itself. Land’s current fiction is more likely to succeed than some others, since it does trace the actual trajectories of power and money in our world. TV shows seem to be spawning variants on this same neo-reactionary fictional vector. Spinning through the channels on the motel TV the other night it seemed as though every fictional character, every host, every comic, every reality contestant was an egoistic, ultra-extroverted sociopath. There may have been a time when straight-up fiction writers were able to offer fictional outlines for other alternative realities. Maybe that time is still with us, at the edges, on the Outside.


    • Yea, just bought it! Looks fun… nothing more depressing (funny) than a noirist on obsession, especially if that obsession is catastrophism. Kidding of course: got to love a guy who quotes Saul Bellow’s “New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world. The end wouldn’t come as a surprise here. Many people already bank on it.”


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