a little worse

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Michel Houellebecq*

Reflections by the French writer on the current situation in the form of responses to friends

It is necessary to recognize: most of the messages exchanged in these last few weeks had the main objective of verifying that the interlocutor was not dead, nor about to die. But, after this verification, we still tried to say interesting things, which was not easy, because this epidemic managed the feat of being both distressing and boring. A banal virus, with little prestige related to obscure flu viruses, under poorly known conditions of survival, with fluid characteristics, sometimes benign, sometimes deadly, not even sexually transmissible: in short, a virus without qualities.

Although this epidemic resulted in a few thousand deaths every day in the world, it still produced the curious impression of being a non-event. Incidentally, my esteemed colleagues (some, however, are estimable) did not talk much about it, they preferred to address the issue of confinement; and I would like to add my contribution to some of your comments here.

Frédéric Beigbeder

(from Guéthary, Pyrénées-Atlantiques). Anyway, a writer doesn't see many people, he lives like a hermit with his books, confinement doesn't make much difference. Totally agree, Frédéric, as far as social life goes, it doesn't change much. But there is one point that you forget to consider (surely because, living in the countryside, you are less of a victim of prohibition): a writer needs to walk.


This confinement seems to me the perfect occasion to settle an old Flaubert-Nietzsche quarrel. Somewhere (I forget where) Flaubert claims that we only think and write well when we are sitting down. Protests and mockery of Nietzsche (I also forget where), who goes so far as to treat him as a nihilist (this occurs, therefore, at the moment when he had already begun to use the word left and right): he himself conceived all his works walking, everything that is not conceived in walking is useless, besides, he was always a Dionysian dancer, etc.

Little suspicious of exaggerated sympathy for Nietzsche, I must admit, however, that in this case he is right. Trying to write if you don't have the opportunity, during the day, to dedicate yourself to several hours of walking at a constant pace, is strongly inadvisable: the accumulated nervous tension does not dissolve, the thoughts and images continue to revolve painfully in the poor head of the author, who quickly becomes irritable, even mad.

The only thing that really counts is the mechanical, machine-like pace of the walk, which is not essentially intended to generate new ideas (although this can happen in a second moment), but to calm the conflicts induced by the clash of ideas born at the work table. (and this is where Flaubert is not entirely wrong); when he tells us about his conceptions elaborated on the rocky slopes of the interior of Nice, on the Engadine prairies, etc., Nietzsche digresses a little: except when we write a tourist guide, the landscapes traversed are of less importance than the interior landscape.

Catherine Millet

(Usually Parisian, but happily meeting up in Estagel, Eastern Pyrenees, at the time the restraining order was issued). The current situation made her angrily recall the “anticipation” part of one of my books, The possibility of an island.

So I thought it was good to have readers anyway. Because I hadn't thought of making the association since it's so clear. In fact, on second thought, this is exactly what I had in mind at the time, regarding the extinction of mankind. Nothing like cinematographic superproductions. Something rather monotonous. Individuals living isolated in their cells, without physical contact with their peers, just a few computer exchanges, which are decreasing.

Emmanuel Carrere

(Paris-Royan; he seems to have found a valid reason to move). Will interesting books be born, inspired by this period? he wonders. I also wonder about this. I really asked myself the question, but deep down I don't think so. About the plague we had many things over the centuries, the plague interested writers a lot. Now, I have doubts. First of all, I don't believe even half a second in statements like "nothing will be like before". On the contrary, everything will be exactly the same. The course of this epidemic is remarkably normal. The West is not forever, by divine right, the wealthiest and most developed area in the world; all this has been over for some time now, it is nothing new. If we look closely, in detail, France is doing a little better than Spain and Italy, but worse than Germany; and that's not a big surprise either.

The main result of the coronavirus, on the contrary, should have been the acceleration of certain ongoing mutations. After a few years, the main consequence (the main objective?) of the set of technological evolutions, whether minor (video on demand, contactless payment) or major (telecommuting, internet shopping, social networks), was to reduce material contacts , and especially humans. The coronavirus epidemic offers a magnificent reason for this strong trend: a certain obsolescence that seems to affect human relationships.

Which reminds me of a brilliant comparison I noticed in an anti-WFP [Assisted reproduction - Medically Assisted Breeding] written by a group of activists called “The Chimpanzees of the Future” (I found these people on the internet; I never said the internet was all about drawbacks). Thus, I quote them: "In a little while, having children, free and randomly, will seem as incongruous as hitchhiking without using a web platform". Shared cars, renting with other people, we have the utopias we deserve, but let's move on.

It would be equally wrong to say that we have rediscovered the tragic, death, finitude, etc. The tendency, for more than half a century, well described by Philippe Ariès, has been to hide death as much as possible; well, death has never been more discreet than these last few weeks. People die alone in their hospital rooms or from the EHPAD [Établissement d'hébergement pour personnes âgées dépendantes – Housing establishment for dependent elderly], are buried immediately (or incinerated? cremation is closer to the spirit of the times), without inviting anyone, in secret. Killed without any witnesses, the victims add up to a unit in the daily death statistics, and the anxiety that ripples through the population as the total rises in an oddly abstract way.

Another figure will have acquired great importance in these weeks, that of the age of the patients. How long should it take to revive and treat them? 70, 75, 80 years old? Apparently it depends on the region of the world we live in; but, in any case, never has it been expressed with such quiet indecorousness the fact that everyone's life is not of equal value; that after a certain age (70, 75, 80 years old?), it's as if we were already dead.

All these trends, as I said, existed before the coronavirus; they just manifest themselves with new evidence. We will not wake up, after confinement, in a new world; it will be the same, only a little worse.

Michel Houellebecq is a writer. Author, among other books by Serotonin (Alfaguara).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves


Michel Houellebecq. The possibility of an island. Rio de Janeiro, Record, 2006.

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