A reading of Michel Houellebecq's poetry from the points of view of the “abject” and the “ethereal”

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In this article the poetry of the French poet and novelist Michel Houellebecq (1956–) is scrutinised from the points of view of two "poles" that are present in his poetical oeuvre, namely the abject and the ethereal.

Various researchers have examined aspects of Houellebecq's poetry; cf. Roy (2008), Carlson (2010), Evans (2010), Granger Remy (2010), Lemasson (2011), Bowd (2012), Du Toit (2012), Novak-Lechevalier (2014) and Williams (2015).

The abject in Houellebecq's prose and, to a lesser extent, in his poetry, has received attention in studies by inter alia Clément (2003: 24, 32, 49, 50, 54, 55, 96, 191–2), Roy (2008: 7, 68, 70, 93, 170, 186, 232, 255) David (2011) and Williams (2015). The ethereal and, connected to that, the sublime and transcendent in his poetry, have, however, not been examined properly.

After a brief background sketch of Houellebecq, the focus of this article first falls on the types of poems and themes that are found in his four volumes of poetry. Houellebecq's poems can be categorised in four types: verse poems or poems with formal rhyme schemes, blank verses, prose poems and hybrid forms (Lemasson 2011:64). In the corpus there are 324 poems, of which 262 (80%) are verse poems, 12 (4%) blank verses, 25 (11%) prose poems and 15 (5%) hybrids. The poems are clearly mainly verse poems with established rhyme schemes.

Many of the poems link up with the poetry of Houellebecq's poetical "father", Baudelaire (1821–1867), in terms of the interest in sensual and aesthetic pleasures, themes such as the city and masses of people and the often cynical, sardonic and ironic tone thereof. Baudelaire is one of the best-known "poètes maudits" ("cursed/doomed poets") and various poems of Houellebecq are in concord with his views and themes. Houellebecq furthermore follows Baudelaire in terms of classical prosody, especially concerning the use of the alexandrine as metric principle.

Houellebecq's poetry displays various Romantic aspects and a researcher such as Aurelien Bellanger (2010) views him specifically as a Romantic writer. Bellanger furthermore describes Romanticism as a technique of horror and calls Houellebecq a "dandy", a "créature romantique par excellence" (2010:40).

There are apocalyptic images in various poems of Houellebecq that are connected with mystic and abject aspects of his poetry. A strong mystic element is discernible in some poems, as well as some surreal images in a few. Ultimately, many of the poems are very complex because of their rich philosophical and theological underpinnings.

Essentially, Houellebecq is a lyrical poet and most of his poems are pervaded by melancholy and a feeling of sadness for lost things and times.

The relationship between poem, human voice and music is also important for Houellebecq – in that relationship he sees the realisation of the contact that he tries to establish with his poems and he has released a few CDs on which he reads his poems to musical accompaniment. Novak-Lechevalier (2014:17) describes how the musicality of the poems and the vibration of the voice confront that which cannot be formulated. She points out that this source of lyrics shows that Houellebecq views poetry as a spoken and not a written genre.

Although Houellebecq has mainly distanced himself from theoretical approaches to literature, his views resonate with those of the Structuralist poetry critic Jean Cohen. Both authors are interested in the affective potential of writing and Houellebecq appreciates Cohen's work for Cohen’s focus on "practical" rather than "theoretical" emotion. The distinction that Houellebecq makes in his essays regarding reasoned thought and emotion in writing also resonates with Cohen's views on "prosaic" and "poetic" language respectively.

Novak-Lechevalier (2014:21–39) points out the complex identity of the poet and mentions the variety of lyrical subjects in the poems: although "I" appears as lyrical subject in most of the poems, “you”, “he” and “we" also fulfil the role of this subject, so that multiple voices are discernible.

Novak-Lechevalier (2014:9) also points out the existence of two poles – extremes – in Houellebecq's oeuvre: the ponderous and the light; life and death; day and night; indifference and empathy. These poles correlate with the abject and the ethereal respectively in his poetry.

There are interesting "spiritual" themes and effects, even ascetic effects, in several of Houellebecq's poems that form a clear contrast with the direct, often crude and vulgar impact of certain poems. These themes manifest, on the one hand, as a furious, desperate quarrel with God and Christ in which despair and desolation can be found and, on the other hand, as a spiritual search for deliverance, for God, Christ and the Virgin Mary, a sense of wonderment about divine power and an almost Buddhist vision on things, inter aliaon the dissolution of the self.

The spiritual may be described as one of the poles – the ethereal – found in Houellebecq's poetry. The other pole is the abject and many of the poems float between these poles or points of tension.

Kristeva (1982:4) describes the abject as follows:

It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. […] It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. […] a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you.

The abject (often in conjunction with the apocalyptical) is the focal point in various poems of Houellebecq. One possible answer to why the abject figures in his texts is that he often (but not always) moves through the abject towards the beautiful, the ethereal. Kristeva (1982:28) associates the aesthetical experience of the abject with poetical catharsis, "an impure process that protects [the artist or writer] from the abject only by dint of being immersed in it".

The abject is bound by the ethereal, by the effect of being extremely delicate and light in a way that seems not to be of this world. The ethereal can be linked with, or related to, the continuous search for love in various poems and also with the aforementioned Romantic effect in many poems. Furthermore, the ethereal can be related to Kristeva's (1982) notion of the transcendent or sublime: the attempts by man to cover or hide the collapses (and affirmation of boundaries which follows that) coupled with the abject.

In various poems the ethereal is foregrounded. Sometimes the ethereal is in direct tension with the abject and sometimes it grows from the abject. In a few cases the abject grows from the ethereal and in a few poems a balance or synthesis between the two poles is reached.

Keywords: abject; apocalyptic; ethereal; Houellebecq, Michel; poetical catharsis; sublime; transcendent

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: ’n Lesing van Michel Houellebecq se poësie tussen die pole van die "abjekte" en die "eteriese"

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