René Girard, Michel Houellebecq, mimetic rivalry in the liberal consumer society, and the metaphysical future of the Afrikaners

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In section one of this article I argue that Michel Houellebecq is possibly France’s most prominent and most controversial novelist. At the same time he is also very much a novelist of ideas and a metaphysical novelist who is of the view that the West is living through what he calls a major metaphysical mutation. While Houellebecq has in novel after novel worked out what the nature of this major metaphysical mutation may be, it could be argued that in his latest novel, 2022’s anéantir (sic), he sees this mutation as being one of the annihilation of the West and the Western individual against the background of the extreme metaphysical poverty that follows on the decline of Christianity in the West. This tallies with René Girard’s famous reading of Dostoyevsky’s view of the modern metaphysical mutation as Girard lays it out in Deceit, desire and the novel, according to which modernity has tipped into an extreme multiplication of models and mimetic rivalry.

One would imagine Houellebecq – whose Catholic sympathies have become ever more pronounced over the last few years – being sympathetic to the Catholic Girardian’s analyses of themes such as pride, mimetic rivalry and how the victims in contemporary modernity have become the persecutors, but Houellebecq rather perplexingly explicitly disavows Girard’s theory of mimetic desire when he writes in anéantir that although René Girard’s “theory of mimetic or triangular desire is [...] on paper amusing, it is in reality false. People are more or less indifferent towards one another’s desires, and if they so unanimously desire the same things and the same people, it is simply because these are objectively desirable” (my translation from the French).

In other words, and in Girardian terms, Houellebecq thus seems to subscribe to a theory of desire that Girard explicitly rejects, namely that the source of desire is the object of desire, while Houellebecq in turn seems to reject the theory of desire that Girard develops; that is, that others are the source of the subject’s desires – notably so, of course, in the form of the model of desire and, increasingly in modernity, the ever-increasing number of mimetic rivals.

In the rest of this article I argue that anéantir does in fact on many levels not only confirm Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, but that it can also be read as an updated version of the Dostoyevskian society of infinitely multiplying mimetic rivalry and its concomitant of increasingly unstable subjectivities. Here I elaborate on an analysis of Houellebecq’s oeuvre that the French philosopher, Olivier Rey, published late in 2022, and in which he writes that Houellebecq shows that “what follows on the sexual terrain from the abolition of the old limitations is not delight for all, but intensified competition and an enormous contingent of the defeated” (my translation from the French).

In order to develop my argument I proceed as follows. First, a brief summary of anéantir is provided in section two. In this section the key events and themes of the novel are laid out. It covers the roughly nine months from December 2026 to August 2027, during which the 2027 presidential election takes place, and a number of perplexing terrorist attacks against Western targets are carried out. During this period, the main character, Paul Raison, confidant of the French Minister of the Economy, Bruno Juge, experiences a number of life-changing events, which include unexpected illnesses, some family intrigue and an unforeseen turn of events with his wife, Prudence, from whom he is estranged at the beginning of the novel.

In section three, the character of the leftist journalist, Indy – who is married to Paul’s younger brother, Aurélien – is analysed as a prime example of a person who completely falls prey to mimetic rivalry and unstable subjectivity. Indy’s mimetic contagion is investigated, for example, as it manifests in her relationship with Paul as well as with Aurélien and their deceased artist mother.

In section four, Aurélien is analysed as a case of the failure of what Girard calls positive mimesis. For a start his relationship with his mother as his non-rivalrous model is investigated, as well as his illicit love affair with the nurse, Maryse. Olivier Rey’s concept of the Freudian superego that has morphed into the liberal consumer society’s imperative to climax is also applied to Aurélien.

In section five the broad argument so far is, first, deepened and secondly extended, specifically to the Afrikaners as a Western-derived cultural community. As far as the former goes, attention is paid to the development of Houellebecq’s thought over the past ten years or so regarding the metaphysical loss that the decline of Christianity represents for the West – especially with regard to Christianity as a former constraining factor on the delimiting of desire that Houellebecq so astutely identifies as perhaps the root cause of contemporary Western unhappiness. As far as the latter is concerned, and in the light of the popularity that Houellebecq’s work enjoys amongst Afrikaners, the article takes the metaphysical pulse of the Afrikaners in the light of Houellebecq’s work.

While some key differences between the contemporary Afrikaners and the contemporary French are acknowledged, what I describe as a sped-up embrace of the Enlightenment by Afrikaners after 1990 and the end of the apartheid dispensation has thrown the Afrikaners into a metaphysical rapid of which increasing secularisation seems to be a symptom. The historical role of the Afrikaners’ idealism is also addressed, while noting the concern that unless this tradition is bolstered it may not survive secularisation – with possible disastrous consequences for the Afrikaners as a community. One way of bolstering their idealism would be for the Afrikaners to learn from three 20th-century and contemporary movements in the West to recover its Christian metaphysical sources – the Orthodox Neo-Patristic movement, the Catholic Ressourcement movement, and the more recent mostly English Radical Orthodox movement.

The research question that this article seeks to address is how the work of Michel Houellebecq – specifically his latest novel, anéantir (2022) – can within a Girardian framework be read as an updated version of the Girardian reading of Dostoyevsky as scribe of the modern multiplication of mimetic models and rivalry, and what the implications of this are for the metaphysical future of the Afrikaners as a Western-derived cultural community. The method followed in the article is a hermeneutical one of close reading.

Keywords: Afrikaners; Christianity; Fyodor Dostoyevsky; René Girard; Michel Houellebecq; liberal consumer society; mimetic desire; mimetic rivalry; secularisation; West


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René Girard, Michel Houellebecq, mimetiese wedywering in die liberale verbruikersamelewing, en die metafisiese toekoms van die Afrikaners

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