Love may no longer exist?
That’s the question of the moment.
And what is causing its disappearance?
The materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.
It may surprise you, but I am convinced that I am part of the great family of the Romantics.
You’re aware that may be surprising?
Yes, but society has evolved, a Romantic is not the same thing that it used to be. Not long ago, I read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I am certain that if you took, on the one hand, an old-order Romantic and, on the other hand, what de Tocqueville predicts will happen to literature with the development of democracy—taking the common man as its subject, having a strong interest in the future, using more realist vocabulary—you would get me.
What is your definition of a Romantic?
It’s someone who believes in unlimited happiness, which is eternal and possible right away. Belief in love. Also belief in the soul, which is strangely persistent in me, even though I never stop saying the opposite.
You believe in unlimited, eternal happiness?
Yes. And I’m not just saying that to be a provocateur.
One of the things I like about Houellebecq is that he writes his novels from the point of view of a atheist materialist. It's one thing to write a critique of modern love from the point of view of a Christian, to which atheists will always attribute a degree of non-objectivity to, but it's another to write it from within the world view of Atheism. Being one of their own kind he is much harder to dismiss.
People accuse Houellebecq of being a depressive realist, yet as he has remarked before, the transient and hence depressing nature of modern love is a logical consequence of the materialist mindset. To this mindset, love is ultimately a biological mechanism responding to biological forces:
Humans are just animals, and, unsurprisingly, that knowledge gives precedence to biological impulse; to strength, health and beauty over weakness, infirmity and repulsiveness; and it makes self-interest paramount. Houellebecq’s men find themselves incapable of considering anything but themselves, but they also apprehend, with some horror, the essential unsustainability of individualism. Living with nothing other than your own desires and urges makes your frustrations, increasingly awful and unavoidable as you age, torturous—and the prospect of death unmanageable. “Contemporary consciousness is no longer equipped to deal with our mortality. More than at any time or in any civilization, human beings are obsessed with 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 inevitably towards the end). This weighing up of pleasure and pain which, sooner or later, everyone is forced to make, leads logically, at a certain age, to suicide.” It is, to paraphrase Houellebecq on a different topic, an insoluble condition, but not really a complicated one.
Some men may be quite happy with this state of affairs, but it would appear that most people find the emotional isolation of his protagonists with a sense of repulsion, in fact, slight horror. There is something profoundly wrong. I think Houellebecq, from his comments above, is of this opinion as well. His genius is in being able to speak, in stark terms, about the death of a type of love which is still present in memory; a love which is never ending, permanent and fixed. This is the pervasive theme through his books; that there is no everlasting love.
Houellebecq balefully recognises that our biology cannot provide this love. His solution to the problem is technological, that is, through manipulation of human genetics he changes human nature. His solution to the problem was to kill the need, but in doing so he recognises that the new man is not really man at all. In other words the problem is unsolvable. Man, as he is, is doomed in a materialist universe to permanent gloom because of his nature and his need to be loved. The stench of impermanence hangs everywhere.
The question then is, how to achieve this love? Our connection to others must be through some kind of mechanism that is not dependent upon transient pleasure, because that which lives by emotion intensity dies with its fading. The solution, therefore, is in by-passing the "love mechanism", that is, by not making our love contingent upon the emotions but making it an act of the will. The only type of love which is permanent is an emotionless type of love. Our connection to the other must be through some non-emotional choice, we must want to remain connected to each other even though there is no emotional drive to do so. But here's the rub, rationality is not the answer, since rationality always aims at some self-optimal solution, and is therefore by it's nature solipsistic. Loving someone because it is the smart thing to do is going to last as only as it is smart to do so, their is an element of self interest involved. So the question of permanence remains.
Natural biology cannot provide the solution.