Research article
Issue: № 3 (7), 2016


The following article considers the relation to corporeality as a phenomenon of modern culture crisis. Human body becomes a point of reference in determining the ontological foundations of both individual life and culture in general. The reference to the problems of corporeality in Michel Houellebecq's novel "Atomised" (also known as "The Elementary Particles") is emblematic. The power of sex, according to the author, entraps humanity and distorts its value system. Within the scope of the study of the novel’s plot and ideology we concluded that the author's commitment to Spengler's philosophical tradition prophesizes an inevitable and consistent regression of the culture and its destruction.

The history of the formation and development of the concept of “homo somaticus” which concerns the place and importance of human corporeality in the structure of personality and in social space, the principles of contingency or opposition of physical and spiritual in a person is polyphonic and contains various ideas and concepts. In both foreign and national study corporeality as a phenomenon is considered from the point of view of sense, from the perspective of value content analysis, that is, it is considered through the prism of the human world of culture, not the world of nature and impersonal society.

Historicism as an approach had dominated western philosophy of physicality for a long time. It separated history and culture from nature, physical from the spiritual. Expanding through extremely broad ideological categories (such as peace, ego, the other person) the problem of corporeality stayed within the forced frame of a scientific paradigm. Continuous tradition of separating the physical (natural) and cultural sources, the perception of body as flesh, which requires transformation defined the largely negative attitude towards human physicality at the beginning of XX century and pushed the human body to the marginal value space.

XX century is characterized by fundamental changes in attitude to corporeality as a phenomenon of culture. From the peripheral, marginal areas of social and cultural space the human body moved into the spotlight and became a point of reference in determining the ontological foundations of both individual life and culture in general. The performances of contemporary artists with a demonstration of physical and even physiological manifestations of corporeality illustrate this shift. Besides, a certain cult of bodily deficiencies and deviations from the norm has aroused (the disabled theatre, body art, the association of sexual minorities, nudist movements etc.)

It became obvious that the human body can not be analysed from the point of view of traditional reflective analysis. Current trends and approaches to the study of the human body consider and interpret it in the context of the inherent human spheres and factors (anti-metaphysical direction). The most fundamental of these approaches comprise phenomenological (body as a phenomenon which is a problem in itself) – Merleau-Ponty, Artaud, Deleuze, Guattari and others; psychoanalytic (body from the point of view of unconscious structures) – Freud, Maslow, Frankl, Adler, Fischer, Cleveland and others; social (body in the system of social relations) – Moss, Frank, Turner, Foucault and others. Thus, at the end of the XX century the old paradigm of body perception gives way to the recognition that "there is not only the body that belongs to us, but also the body we belong to" [3].

Therefore, it is particularly interesting and relevant to study the problem of corporeality in literary works of one of the most widely read contemporary writers – French poet, novelist, essayist, winner of the Goncourt Prize in 2010 Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is called both an outstanding master of social controversy of the beginning of XXI century and a sophisticated literary master of provocation, "Karl Marx of sex", "literary marginal" [2, p. 7], "the false mirror of the generation" [4, p. 154] and "pornographic misery" [1, p. 100].

Continuing the philosophic line initiated by Spengler in "Decline of the West", Houellebecq considers (in particular, in his novel "Atomised"/"Elementary Particles" which brought him international fame) the crisis of modern society, associated with consistent and inevitable regression of culture and its transition to the stage of extinction and death. This implies the loneliness of a person, despite all modern means of communication between people and leisure-time activities aimed exclusively at entertainment and the opportunity to communicate, the presence of large amounts of free time due to easier conditions of work and life, the loss of all moral values, family traditions, the meaning of life and its value in the person’s own eyes and the eyes of society. Even the name of the novel itself"Atomised"/"The Elementary Particles" echoes Spengler's idea that the soul of the culture dies when the relationship of all its elements breaks down, destroying the integrity of the structure and harmony of style.

Let us look the manifestation of the problem of corporeality in the plot and ideology of the novel in more detail. It describes the life of two half-brothers – Bruno Clément and Michel Dzherzinski. Both brothers were abandoned by their mother (and fathers), were deprived of love and attention of their parents. Their mother, Jeanine Sekkaldi, is a prime example of the modern human society, not burdened by any obligations. She was a person who sought personal freedom at the expense of the freedom of others. She was one of the first people who became the true product of the time she lived in– mass society ("Janine Ceccaldi, on the other hand, belongs to a different and dispiriting class of individuals we can call precursors. Well adapted to their time and way of life on the one hand, they are anxious, on the other hand, to surpass them by adopting new customs, or proselytizing ideas still regarded as marginal"). Having abandoned her children, Janine felt no regret and forgot about them. In the novel Janine is the brightest representative of a modern woman whose loss of maternal instinct is a product of her desire to remain young and sexually attractive. Refusal to take care of her children gives her a sense of irresponsibility, and thus carelessness which equals youth.

The lack of mother's love and affection and father's care and attention left their marks on children. After the death of Janine's mother, Bruno's father and mother prefer to send their son to a boarding school, so as not to disturb the course of their lives. Weekends were the only pleasant moments of Bruno’s life at the time; he then visited his father and ate different sweets until he felt sick: this way his body responded to numerous bodily humiliations and bullying of boys at the boarding school.

Having become an adult, Bruno decides to become a teacher in the humanities, as more girls typically choose this profession, and accordingly, it is possible to search for sexual partners among them. The search for bodily pleasures was the sole meaning of his life. He wanted to correspond to an established stereotype of the sexually successful man, meaning he wanted "to be like everyone else."

After many attempts to find happiness, he met an ideal woman with whom he felt joyful for the first time. He was calm and confident as for the first time in his life he was a sexually desired partner. Christiane treated him with almost maternal tenderness and care,. In him she saw a little offended boy who had done nothing wrong in his life. But when Christiane fell seriously ill, Bruno had almost immediately decided to leave her. Their relationship was no relationship of the soul – it was about the copulation of two bodies, and if the body failed, it became an irreversible tragedy and an irreparable loss for both. Christiane expressed no reproach for what Bruno had done. As soon as she found out that she would be chairbound till the end of her days she almost immediately died, having resigned herself to the inevitable law of dominance of corporal in the human life.

Thus, Bruno hadn't learned what it is like to be responsible for another person, he was afraid that he would have too little time for fun, and he did not understand that Christiane's death was the loss of everything for him. His constant state of desire and his own dissatisfaction meant life for him. Bruno could not cope with the complete and final collapse of all his expectations and went to a psychiatric hospital, where he stayed until his death. At the same time, deep down he knew that behind all his sexual desires there was an ingenuous desire to touch the body of a loving person, feel the embrace of the loving arms ("Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so difficult to give up hope").

Much of the novel consists of the descriptions of numerous sex scenes, the scenes of Bruno's masturbation as a teenager and brutal scenes of sexual violence. Sex scenes are described in a simple way as a realistic sequence of events. Houellebecq dedicated almost half of his book to various sexual relationships between the characters. Sex excites them all, half of their lives or even more of it is sex: the characters have sex, think about it, suffer from the lack of it or think about its significance. When they can no longer be fully functional, sexually active, desired by the opposite sex, they start suffering, they go crazy, they voluntary end their lives.

Pleasure achieved by conventional methods is considered primitive and old-fashioned. In a liberal society, where Bruno and Christiane live, sex model, proposed by the official culture (advertising, magazines, non-governmental organisations and health care system) is an adventurous model. Within such a system, desire and satisfaction are seen as the result of the"seduction" process, which highlights the novelty, passion and personal ingenuity ("In this fantasy world, cocks are invariably enormous and rock hard, breasts enhanced, cunts wet and shaven").

The subject of bodily pleasures that will never be available to everyone when and how (s)he wants is emphasized in the description of Bruno's life. He often visited places where every woman (according to the concept of the place and in the spirit of the advertised free sex society) was supposed to give herself to him, but it did not happen. Even in the era of hippie free love, love was not free for everyone – this sphere still had its own hierarchy and upper class, which was formed based on physical attractiveness. If a person's appearance was not good enough, (s)he could not occupy a higher level in the hierarchy, so Bruno had to be content with his inferior position. Thus, this conspicuous sex abundance meant that it was another item for purchase, which was available only for those ones who had money.

The reader will gradually feel the full horror of the dead end Bruno found himslef in – he became hostage to his excessive sexuality. But, in fact, he was an ordinary man with the usual temperament, he appreciated tenderness and care in relationships, but he was not aware of it as modern market society constantly pushed him to the search for more and more"unforgettable" experiences. But the abundance of physical pleasures does not make him happy. Hope for love that flashes in front of him before his final collapse disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Unlike his half-brother, Michel became a physicist and fully rejected all physical pleasures of life. He, like his father, felt repulsive of everything natural, alive, sensuous. Living his austere, quiet life, he was not desperately looking for endless fun like Bruno. It would seem that the very way of his existence would secure him from any disappointment in life, but in the end he died because of his inability to feel, to awaken his emotional and bodily beginnings, that were so excessively developed in his half-brother. Faced with Annabelle in adulthood, his childhood and adolescence girlfriend, Michel thinks: "He himself wanted nothing more than to love. He asked for nothing; nothing i nparticular, anyway. Life should be simple, Michel thought, something that could be lived as a collection of small, endlessly repeated rituals. Perhaps somewhat empty rituals, but they gave you something to believe in. A life without risk, without drama"Having met Annabelle he did not have any strong feelings for her, apart from empathy and compassion. His whole emotional sphere was completely subordinated to his intellect and the only thing that he was impressed by is described in the novel the following way: "He quickly stopped moving, fascinated by the geometry of copulation, entranced by the suppleness and richness of her juices""Just before he ejaculated he had a vision—crystal clear—of fusing gametes, followed immediately by the first cell divisions. It felt like a headlong rush, a little suicide".

Yet the death of Annabelle influenced Michel. For the first time in his life he cried at the funeral, he felt the injustice of her death and probably this event influenced his further studies, in which he tried to "restore the conditions which make love possible"He knew nothing of love, but through Annabelle he was able to grasp an idea of it: "He was capable of realizing that love, in some way, through some still unknown process, was possible"At the end of his work dedicated to the creation of new conditions to make love possible Michel commits suicide, deprived of all human attachments. At the same time he recognizes that misery is not only people's fault: "It wasn't entirely their fault, he thought: they had lived in a painful world, a world of struggle and rivalry, vanity and violence; they had not lived in a peaceful world. On the other hand, they had done nothing to change it, had contributed nothing that might make it a better place".

In "Atomised"/"Elementary Particles"a person tries to drown all the filth, misery, pain, despair, loneliness and impotence in power, wealth, sex, abuse of other beings, and if it is obtained, it helps to forget the pain.

Sadism, sexual perversion are also manifestations of the crisis of modern society, the search for new areas of pleasures. When normal sexual relationship bore us, an individual free from the limitations of traditional morality, turns to cruelty. Absolute freedom in sex, undermining the ability to love in both bodily and spiritual ways, leads to freedom in hatred, violence and murder.

As a consequence there is the incurable cult of sexuality. The consumer society introduces a cult of the body. The body becomes the most desired product which turns a person into a fetish. The cult of the body in the novel is inextricably linked with the cult of youth, as only young body causes desire. Houellebecq speaks of continuous extinction, decay of people, emphasizing their fragility, delicacy and perishability. For example, the author uses the Michel's grandmother death to make a meticulous, realistic description of what happens to the body after the burial. It takes a few dozen pages, and then Houellebecq describes what happened to the body after 20 years and what it looks like after exhumation.

There are a lot of such descriptions in the novel – scenes which constantly remind that man is mortal, where someone dies and turns into nothing. Thoughts about the transience of life and constant worries about how little time is left to enjoy life, since the only fun is sex, according to the characters of the novel, the man has just a few years of physical activity and attractiveness. No wonder that the main characters do not feel young in their twenties. "Never in any other time, or any other civilization, have people thought so much or so constantly about aging. Each individual has a simple view of the future: a time will come when the sum of pleasures that life has left to offer is outweighed by the sum of pain (one can actually feel the meter ticking, and it ticks always in the same direction). This weighing up of pleasure and pain, which everyone is forced to make sooner or later, leads logically, at a certain age, to suicide".

Houellebecq sadly states: "A world that respects only the young eventually devours everyone"and one more thing: "nothing – not even death – seems worse than the prospect of living in a broken body". The only remedy from suffering contemporary humanity goes through, according to the author, is the achievement of immortality and non-gender human reproduction – he gradually leads the reader to this idea, drawing pictures of the unfortunate, tragic, and sometimes very ugly existence of the members of modern society.

In the final, Michel Dzherzinski creates a new type of humanity relieved from the pangs people of all previous eras had had. They are spared from the major human vices. Having obtained the chromosomes, not amenable to mutation, Michel removes everything that entails aggression, anger and violence. In essence, he frees mankind from the power of sexuality – he uses chromosomes to raise a new ideal person: all of them were women. The future humanity does not propagate sexually, but still feels the pleasure of the process, as the Krause corpuscles are placed all over their bodies. Old humanity gradually and voluntarily dies.

So, as a solution Houellebecq ironically suggests Krause corpuscles and through his character he denies people their right for redemption or enlightenment. This is how the death of the Western civilization occured and a new world was born where people (people, right?) acquired renewed bodies.

Houellebecq believes that the death of mankind would not come as something shocking and stunning for people, because they have nothing to strive for, no reason to live, nothing to believe in. Even the death of their loved ones is merely a random, unfortunate moment. The same moment as in the beginning of the novel, when the life and death of Michel Dzherzinski's canary is described. The bird could not live in a cage, but was not able to live in freedom. When it flew out of the cage, the only thing it could do was to frantically cling to the bars, not knowing what to do with its freedom. Having arrived home, Michel noticed that the bird did not sing – it had died, and he indifferently threw it in a garbage bag with his half-eaten dinner. He occasionally recalled that he had once had a bird and that it had died, so he needs to get rid of an empty cage some day.


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