Early on in my sobriety a friend recommended a book to me: The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq. Last August, about a year after he’d recommended it, I got around to reading the book. I can be slow like that.
I was at home visiting my family for a week, so I had less to do during the day and more time to read, hence actually starting and finishing a novel within a few days. Normally, between other responsibilities and my slow reading, it takes me weeks to finish a book. But once I began I couldn’t put this one down. I was left shattered and adrift, texting my friend to confirm that this in fact was the book he had recommended and that I hadn’t confused the title with something less horrifying. He assured me that I’d gotten the title correct and that my reaction wasn’t uncommon.
The Elementary Particles is an autopsy of French society in particular, and the human person in general. The story follows a pair of half-brothers, born during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and abandoned by all their parents. They age to become disconnected, incomplete people, incapable of either meaningful connection with others or satisfaction in the myopic path of their choosing (one is a hedonist who feels no pleasure, the other a scientist who abhors the natural world). By the end I was raw and terrified, the scorched-earth of modernity laid so simply before me.
I have felt haunted by this book for a year now. Every couple of weeks I think about it. I even read all of the author’s other novels, except for his most recent, which I am still working on. Since I am again in Portland visiting my family, maybe I’ll finish it this week. This makes it sound like I would tell everyone I come across to read this book. I am usually that person; as soon as I finish something I can’t wait to proclaim how everyone should follow in the footsteps of my good taste. I haven’t. In fact the few people that I have talked to about it I have only suggested they read it with the knowledge that it is sexually graphic, but not pornographic. This is a tough distinction to make in a world where 50 Shades of Grey is a New York Times Bestseller, and True Blood is on it’s 6th (or maybe 7th) season. The obsessive and ritualistic sexual practices of the characters are described by the narrator with a brutal dispassion that leaves no room for the reader to mistake it for titilation. It is not that I feel I would be advocating vice by recommending it to a friend to read, rather that I don’t believe most people I know would find it something to their particular taste.
But as the year has passed and I have been unable to cast aside the spectral presence of this book in the background of my life, it has done what real art does. It has made me more aware of the world around me and made me more sensitive to the way I see things.
My friend is a PhD candidate and wrote an article about The Elementary Particles that he asked me to read. In it he mentioned that there is no catharsis for the reader, but since this was peripheral to his argument, we didn’t talk about that very much. But I kept wondering about it. Why, when the book is over, and it ends in such harsh terms, is their no feeling of relief for the reader? What is missing from this book that the reader is left with no outlet for the emotional turmoil wrought by so much destruction?
The simple (or maybe not so simple) answer is that there is no higher good. In The Elementary Particle the highest good is physical pleasure, and the characters either strive towards or fight against this standard. For true tragedy there must be a standard of truth above that of the individual person, a universe ordered beyond myopic demands. When there is no measure outside of personal perception, there can be neither fulfillment in attainment, nor wisdom in failure. Catharsis is not simply the expulsion of emotion; it is knowledge from experience. Without a higher good founded in truth and evident in reality what should be tragedy is nothing but a series of unfortunate events.
I used to worry that I was too drawn to tragedy, that my preference for dead heroes and bleak societies was a lack within myself of the joyful possibilities in life. I’ve never like The Odyssey mainly because of its comic resolution and I would willingly jettison all F. Scott Fitzgerald into the atmosphere. I’m both bored and offended by easy redemption; I like characters to suffer. And for the longest time I thought this was because I was just a spiteful human being with no capacity for happiness or empathy.
But I don’t think that anymore. First of all, because I’ve come to realize that I am not a spiteful human being with no capacity for happiness or empathy. More importantly, by reading a book that should have been tragic but was merely sad, I have seen a bit clearer just how much we need tragedy. Yes, the world is sad, and to merely wallow in that sadness does no one any good. In fact, that can be quite harmful. But tragedy doesn’t wallow; it lays bare human imperfection and in the context of a ordered creation shows us how to do better. It gives shape to our particular sufferings and provides the ideals to which we must strive if we are ever to improve. Tragedy is the antidote to apathy, and it cannot exist in a world without meaning.
We could all use a little more tragedy in our art.
(1 Year, 10 Months, and 10 Days Sober)