Well it’s Christmastime now down on Rue Morgue Avenue. Time to talk of peace on earth, good will to men and women, mistletoe, opening presents under the tree, and, of course, depression. I’m too lazy to Google it now but I know there are plenty of psychological studies relating Christmastime to depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (um, SAD) being one of the more benign conditions.

There are plenty of novels dealing in some way with depression, whether Christmas-related or just regular good ol depression. One of the most interesting is French author Michel Houellebecq’s (pronounced “Well-beck”) first novel, which carries the English title, Whatever (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998, 2011). The French title is Extension Du Domaine De La Lutte, which, I am informed by a French reviewer on US Amazon, means Extension of the Field of Struggle. Yeah, a real audience-grabber. I haven’t been able to come up with captivating titles for my books but even I wouldn’t dare use an obtuse title like that. Tells you how much I know. This novel, Houellebecq’s first, made him famous as an intellectual novelist, say the Norman Mailer of modern times. While my comments here relate to Whatever, they could as easily relate to most of Houellebecq’s novels as most of his themes carry over from one book to another.

Houellebecq doesn’t care about plot. His books are anti-plot. One thing happens after another for no apparent reason. Everything is remorselessly depressing. Then he throws in some violence near the end, maybe because he’s seen too many modern movies. Yet then one meaningless thing happens after another all over again.

But one reason I like his writing so much is that he dares to ask the ultimate question: is this all there is? And he answers it pitilessly: yes. The mundane stuff in our lives is all there is and it is pointless to look for any hope. He is nonreligious and non-“we are all part of the great wave of the universe” to the max. I don’t agree, but it is this pitiless honesty that makes his books so absorbing. He takes depression head-on. And he doesn’t give us an easy way out.

Houellebecq puts an Everyman in an arbitrary situation. But there is no arc, no redemption, no change. We all remain the poor slobs we are. We are all caught up in “the struggle,” a social Darwinist approach describing life as a struggle to gain the physical attentions—not love, forget love, that’s too cutesy—of the sexual objects (same or opposite sex) we desire. It all, somehow, maybe, sorts itself out in the end. According to Houellebecq: we get the sexual mates we “deserve” in the sexual economy. We are not valued for who we “truly” are but then, why should we be? Life is a movie-magazine culture.

Until we finally accept our fate, life is terrifying because we always want someone more desirable than we are. (Buddhism: we are always grasping.) But why should that more desirable person want us? He or she wants someone more desirable than them. Besides, even if we land someone more desirable than us, they will trade up at the first opportunity. (Look at Trump’s divorces…the divorce rate in general.)

Most of life is taken up with the day-to-day battles and manipulations to fend off rivals and to find some meaning in a meaningless universe. (To create our own meaning or to truly accept our own suffering on its own terms, not for any noble or religious terms). We might not achieve what we’d like but the important thing is to struggle, not to abdicate, to keep looking for love despite the unlikeliness of finding it and despite the general hopelessness of it all. Now that French title makes sense: To recognize there is a field of struggle and to extend it wherever possible. Santa Claus?

In the evolutionary jungle of attractiveness, there are winners and losers starting at least by adolescence. The economy of good looks generally rules. We will not grow out of adolescent sexual failures but, rather, those failures cut deep wounds that will get deeper and deeper. Those wounds will create an atrocious, unremitting bitterness that will grip our hearts. There will be no deliverance, no redemption, other than having struggled—to be who we want to be, to do what we believe we are called to do. (He wouldn’t put it this way. There is no “who” calling us, he would say.)
Houellebecq adds to this an interesting take on the “new” sexual economy, which may not be new at all. Everyone is in a Catch-22. The victors, the attractive ones who have lots of sex in adolescence and young adulthood, by their very victory lose a kind of innocence and illusion they could only have if they weren’t so attractive. As these people age, they necessarily lose their attractiveness. This leads to a festering hatred of youth culture, with all that remains being resentment, disgust, sickness and the anticipation of death. So, the victors aren’t really victors. And the sexual losers? They just keep losing throughout their lives. Except. Except if they do happen to find that appropriate mate, that appropriate challenge in life—which they may never do. There you have it. And who’s to say it’s not so.

What to do when there is no hope? At least Houellebecq writes about it in terms that bring it home to us. And we respond because it’s honest. It’s Hemingway without the b.s. Don’t expect anything more, Houellebecq tells us.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Think Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits. But we can be happy, not worried. Houellebecq is right but so are the old Budweiser slogans. You only go round once. This Bud’s for you, my friends. Sure your outdoor display just got vandalized, your car just got hit by a cell-phone-distracted teenage-softball-star name-checking her dates, and some red-faced guy in a pickup cut you off because he wasn’t paying attention to his exit. Your daughter just got cancer and your spouse found someone better. Look inside all that. Look at the moment the ladder started falling. It ain’t fun but while we’re alive, we are alive. Drink tea and oranges. Dance with the one who brung ya. Love the life you’ve got.

About johnwagner

John Wagner is a retired lawyer and the author of: 1. Troubled Mission: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, a memoir about his human rights work in Peru 2. Baby Boomer Army Brat, a coming-of-age memoir

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