An Officer of Civilization

The Poetics of Michel Houellebecq

by Nurit Buchweitz (Author)
©2015 Thesis XII, 184 Pages


Michel Houellebecq posits himself as an officer of civilization, offering a map of contemporary reality and according literature a substantial role in the field of public involvement. His unique style problematizes contemporary cultural processes and deconstructs the aesthetic and ideological thought-habits that design the collective imaginary of our era. As such, this book seeks to analyze the particularities of Houellebecq’s poetics in the context of literary tradition, intertextual relations, psycho-cultural aspects and social semiotics, alongside contacts with the contemporary field of art. The author focuses on Houellebecq’s poetical differentia specifica, the unique and innovative intersection between the cooperation with transnational capitalism and the resentment toward ignorant indulgence in it. This book reads Houellebecq as both iconoclastic and subversive and at the same time as a commodity in the literary marketplace and shows how his narratives are harnessed for the purposes of activism in the service of engaged impact.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations of the Titles of Houellebecq’s Works
  • The Map, the Territory and the Poetics: Introduction
  • The Parable of the Map
  • About this book
  • Passive-Activism: A Modular Narration
  • Passive-Activism
  • A Modular Narration
  • Modular Narration and Tourist Guides as Passive-Activism
  • Familiarity, Kinship, and the Autobiographical Topos
  • The Autobiographical Topos
  • Romantic Relationships
  • Fathers, Mothers, and Sons
  • Visions of the Future, Persistence of the Real: A Quest
  • Two Quests
  • Apocalyptic Imagination
  • Utopia Becomes Dystopia
  • Art, Literature, and the Market: The Viewer/Reader as Voyeur
  • The Self-Exploitation of Jeff Koons
  • Damien Hirst’s Prettification of the Obscene
  • Voyeurism and Degradation
  • Crime Fiction
  • The Cult of Happiness: A Gnostic Theology
  • Pornography and the Post-human
  • The Pornographic Formula
  • The Cultural Logic of Posthumanism
  • Distancing Language from Reality
  • The Waning of Subjectivity
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Filmography
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index


The impetus, and ambition, to write this book arose from my fascination with Michel Houellebecq’s powerful, intense, and unfeigned writing. I was particularly attracted to Houellebecq’s fierce discourse and his overt engagement with reality.

I embarked upon this journey out of curiosity and it was indeed a thought-provoking experience. I soon began to discern that, in my opinion, Houellebecq shares many of the traits that drew me to the works of the Israeli poet laureate Meir Wiezeltier, which were the focus of my PhD dissertation and first book. In particular, both writers exercise a robust and compelling poetics. I do not attempt to compare between Houellebecq and Wiezeltier, nor do I suggest the existence of any intertextual relations between the two; suffice it to say that from my humble perspective, similarities appear evident. However, the title of this book is a citation from Wiezeltier, a phrase which I believe perfectly describes Houellebecq’s position on reality.

In writing this manuscript I have benefited from the insights and assistance of family, friends, and colleagues.

I wish to extend my thanks to Prof. Ziva Shamir, who guided me when I first plunged into Wiezeltier’s world, in hindsight facilitating me with the necessary tools to find my own way in Houellebecq’s writings.

I am also grateful to my colleagues at Beit Berl College Israel, Prof. Amos Hoffman, Prof. Izhak Greenberg, and Prof. Tamar Ariav, for their encouragement, generosity and patience.

I owe a debt of gratitude to those who at have read all or parts of the manuscript and offered their valuable advice. Conversations with Dr. Cynthia Biron-Cohen, Dr. Gilad Padva, Dr. Einal Baram-Eshel, and Dr. Hana Livant helped me to sharpen my ideas and approach.

I would like to thank the many students who have participated in my seminars on Houellebecq, especially Adi Zidon, Rachel Arbel, and Lilach Borovsky, who helped me read Houellebecq and inspired me to keep an open mind. ← xi | xii →

I am sincerely indebted to Dr. Rebecca Wolpe for her indispensible work in refining the shape of my book in matters of language and style. So many thanks to the devoted French editor Marlène Shemouni.

I am very grateful to the artist Prof. Roee Rosen for granting me permission to reproduce his image on the cover of my book. I chose the image out of deep appreciation of his art, and due to my contention that Roee Rosen shares Michel Houellebecq’s conceptual environment and artistic style.

Finally, I would like to thank my husband Igal for his fervent moral support and my children, Erez and Yael, for their genuine inspiration. ← xii | xiii →

Abbreviations of the Titles of Houellebecq’s Works

ExtensionExtension du Domaine de la lutteWhateverWhatever
ParticulesLes Particules ElémentairesParticlesThe Elementary Particles
PossibilitéLa Possibilité d’une IlePossibilityThe Possibility of an Island
CarteLa Carte et le TerritoireMapThe Map and the Territory

← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | 1 →

The Map, the Territory and the Poetics: Introduction

Let us begin with a warm up: Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, The Map and the Territory (La carte et le territoire, published in 2010), tells the story of the protagonist’s (Jed Martin) broken boiler. Most of the story unfolds in the prologue, with the incident of Jed’s broken heating system serving as a frame for the other events that are woven into it – the Christmas dinner that Jed is planning with his father and his completion of two paintings: Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market and The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business. References to the boiler – which “uttered a succession of loud banging noises. It went rigid, paralyzed. It was already 15 December.” (Map, p. 4) [«le chauffe-eau émit une succession de claquements secs. Il se figea, tétanisé. On était déjà le 15 décembre.» (Carte, p. 11)] – are scattered throughout the prologue. Each section opens or concludes, sometimes both, almost verbatim: one ends with a description of the boiler’s collapse in the previous year – “One year before, on almost the same date, his boiler had uttered the same succession of banging noises before stopping completely.” (Map, p. 4) [«Un an auparavant, à peu près à la meme date, son chauffe-eau avait émisla même succession de claquements, avant de s’arrêter tout à fait.» (Carte, p. 12)] – and the next begins, “one year on, the boiler repair had held, and this was the first time that it had shown signs of weakness.” (Map, p. 9) [«Un an plus tard, la réparation avait tenu, c’était la première fois que le chauffe-eau donnait un signe de faiblesse.» (Carte, p. 20)]. In between appear further references to the boiler which form a recurring refrain: “It was the noise of the boiler that had woken him, but not the usual banging noises; the machine now gave out a prolonged, low-pitched, almost infrasonic roar.” (Map, p. 12) [«C’est le bruit du chauffe-eau qui l’avait réveillé, mais ce n’étaient pas les claquements habituels, la machine émettait cette fois un ronronnement prolongé, grave, presque infra sonique.» (Carte, p. 27)]. These mentions of the boiler at key points in the text serve to capture the reader’s attention.1 The boiler, the painting ← 1 | 2 → and Jed’s father are key actors in the short episode that unfolds. The chill in Jed’s apartment becomes unbearable following the breakdown of the boiler, preventing him from completing his father’s portrait before the Christmas dinner at which he had intended to unveil it. Jed invests a great deal of effort in repairing the boiler, and by December 24 it is once again in working order. The temperature rises slowly as Christmas Eve approaches. On December 15 of the following year the heater once again breaks down. This time too, the protagonist has difficulty enduring the cold; however, on this occasion the heat becomes truly unbearable – “The room was hot, suffocatingly so” (Map, p. 12) [«La température dans la pièce était chaude, presque étouffante.» (Carte, p. 27)] – leading Jed to slash the painting Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing up the Art Market in his fury. Having done so, Jed experiences the joy of closure, finally achieving a sense of tranquility: “He belched and vomited, and suddenly felt better, the air circulating freely on his face, and he closed his eyes contentedly: he had visibly reached the end of a cycle.” (Map, p. 14) [«il eut un renvoi et vomit, d’un seul coup il se sentit mieux, l’air frais de la nuit circulait librement sur son visage, il ferma les yeux avec bonheur il était visiblement parvenu à une fin de cycle.» (Carte, pp. 30–31)]

The boiler resurfaces later in the novel, in connection with other apartments – those of Jed’s father and his grandparents – where it is referred to in the context of changes ordained by time. The impracticality of warming up a state-of-the-art domestic environment is specifically mentioned in connection with the renovations which must be carried out in his father’s home as the neighborhood in which it is located empties out and becomes increasingly dangerous:

First, the perimeter wall had needed to be reinforced and topped with an electrified fence, then a CCTV system linked to the police station was installed, all so his father could wander alone in twelve rooms that were impossible to heat and where no one came except Jed, every Christmas Eve. (Map, p. 8; emphasis added)

[«Il avait d’abord fallu renforcer le mur d’enceinte, le surmonter d’un grillage électrifié, installer un système de vidéosurveillance relié au commissariat, tout cela pour que son père puisse errer solitairement dans douze pièces inchauffables où personne ne venait jamais, à l’exception de Jed, à chaque réveillon de Noël.» (Carte, p. 18; emphasis added)] ← 2 | 3 →

The boiler appears again as a morbid point of comparison suffused with black humor when Jed responds to the deaths of the character ‘Michel Houellebecq’ and his father with the following words: “His boiler had survived Houellebecq, Jed thought on returning home, looking at the machine which welcomed him with an insidious roar, like a vicious beast. / It had also survived his father, he would speculate a few days later. It was already 17 December, Christmas was only a week away […].” (Map, p. 235) [«Son chauffe-eau avait finalement survécu à Houellebecq, se dit Jed en rentrant chez lui, considérant l’appareil qui l’accueillait en ronflant sournoisement, comme une bête vicieuse. / Il avait également survécu à son père, put-il conjecturer quelques jours plus tard. On était déjà le 17 décembre, Noël était dans une semaine […].» (Carte, p. 367)]. The water heater is mentioned one last time in the epilogue: before deciding whether or not to move into his grandparents’ old home, Jed finds himself talking to the boiler, “And what was more worrying […] was that he now expected the boiler to answer him […]. It was, when all is said and done, his oldest companion.” (Map, p. 252; emphasis added) [«Et le plus inquiétant […] était qu’il s’attendait maintenant à ce que le chauffe-eau lui réponde […]. Il était, en somme, son plus ancient compagnon.» (Carte, p. 398)]. When he finally moves into his grandparents’ home, Jed remembers the years he spent there and finds himself wondering “for a few moments about the boiler. Never, during his childhood or adolescence, had he heard of problems with the boiler […].” (Map, p. 254) [«Il s’interrogea quelques instants au sujet du chauffe-eau. Jamais, durant son enfance et son adolescence même, il n’avait entendu parler de problèmes de chauffe-eau […].» (Carte, p. 402)].

The appearance of the water heater at both the beginning and end of the book and its role as a leitmotif underscore its significance. Inarguably, the boiler is an object of reference for the protagonist, a gauge and point of comparison, an object of importance to him, even if he does not reveal its precise meaning. What then is the significance of the apartment’s heating system?

Discussions of the BOILER draw a direct line between the building, a “functional unit of human habitation” (Map, p. 254) [«unité fonctionnelle d’habitation humaine» (Carte, p. 402)], the boiler, which is a part of it, and the human family living in it. When a room is cold, people cannot function; no family life can exist. Due to the cold, Jed cannot complete the painting of his father, as is realistically explained by the fact that “the drop ← 3 | 4 → in temperature meant that the last layer of paint would take an age to dry” (Map, p. 5) [«l’abaissement de la température allait ralentir le séchage de la dernière couche.» (Carte, p. 12)]. This cold affects a living unit equipped with state-of-the-art electronic devices and halogen lighting (Jed’s home, Map, p. 14; Carte, pp. 30–31), which are symbols of the extreme contemporary (extrême contemporain) that glorifies self-fulfillment, financial success, sexuality, and individualism yet prevents genuine, honest, and deep family ties. Thus according to the symbolism of the heater, until the necessary conditions for family relations are provided, there can be no recovery of kinship. When the temperature in the room rises unbearably, Jed destroys the very painting that is the mise en abîme of current society: a painting that glorifies the champions of late capitalist cultural logic. Due to overheating, the protagonist carries out an act of symbolic separation from the destructive cold which destroys intimacy. The protagonist’s dizziness, nausea, and vomiting are not only a physical reaction to the unbearable heat, but rather a symbolic act, a retching that purges disease. In this manner the work, which (as all of Houellebecq’s novels) begins at Christmas and depicts a protagonist cut off from all close family ties, begins to tone down its cynical statement. Indeed, the tale of the boiler stands in stark contrast to Houellebecq’s previous narratives, which lack familiarity, intimacy, and partnership. The absence of these aspects is intensified by the timing of the plots during the Christmas and New Year’s season,2 a time at which people supposedly take a break from the capitalist rat race and direct their energies, albeit momentarily, to the Judeo-Christian value of considering the needs of others and the accompanying rhetoric of compassion and solidarity. The fact that this hiatus is merely a mirage creates a cynical contrast with the remainder of the year and the period thus comes to emphasize the dual value system dominating Western culture: on the declarative level, Western culture espouses the values of helping others, solidarity, family, and fraternity, while in reality it is guided by a distinctly materialistic system of values based on the worship of money, all manifestations of materialistic power, pandering to this power, exaltation of beauty, the cult of youth, self-realization, and physical comfort. The timing ← 4 | 5 → of the plots of Houellebecq’s novels underscores the vacuous social forces at work in Western society and the sense of general loneliness and despair into which many individuals fall during the Christmas season.


XII, 184
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Contemporary literature Literary criticism Public involvement Ideology Collective imaginary
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XII, 184 pp., 2 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Nurit Buchweitz (Author)

Nurit Buchweitz is a Senior Lecturer of Comparative Literature at Beit Berl College in Israel. She has previously published the books Permit to Pass: Generation Shift, Meir Wiezeltier and the Poetry of the 1960s (2008, Hebrew); In Other[s] Words: Studies in Hebrew and Arabic Literature (2010, Hebrew); Sensational Visual Pleasures in Cinema, Literature and Visual Culture: the Phallic Eye (2014).


Title: An Officer of Civilization