Michel Houellebecq’s latest English language poetry collection, Unreconciled, evokes a strange nostalgia. While this relentlessly downbeat collection is entirely composed of poems from between 1991 and 2013, it feels far older than that. In contrast to the current moment, the images Houellebecq uses to conjure up the bleakness of capitalism — commuters, isolated from each other by their Walkmen; microwave dinners for one — feel a little toothless. They make you want to laugh-sob over one beer too many: “remember when we thought things were bad for workers?” Which makes it all the more striking that one aspect of Houellebecq’s work makes it a must-read for the present day — his depiction of the Sad Flâneur.
This figure is freakin’ everywhere in this book. Trudging past an old beggar being kicked in the head, wandering through a car park, reluctantly navigating the tourist district, he consistently registers somewhere between numb and suicidal. He’s worlds away from what’s normally associated with the flâneur — somebody who takes joy from immersing themselves in the crowds and the hustle and bustle of the city. As such, he feels like the inevitable rebuttal to Walter Benjamin’s vision of the flâneur, who simultaneously protests capitalism with its emphasis on hurry and productivity by taking a turtle for a walk in the Arcades and allowing the turtle to set the pace of movement, and who functions as a connoisseur of capitalism. (“For the masses as well as the flâneur, glossy enameled corporate nameplates are as good a wall-decoration as an oil painting is for the homebody sitting in his living room.”) This vision of the flâneur feels appropriate now — undermining as it does, one interpretation of the flâneur’s most hopeful aspect: that he will act as a witness for the horrors of the past and trigger the “redemptive repair that can correct the past in hopes of a better future.”
Of course, Houellebecq didn’t invent this figure. The Sad Flâneur can be seen through all manner of literature, from the recent (for example, Tao Lin’s 2013 novel, Taipei) to the older (as with Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar). It’s no coincidence that the figure appears in literature in times in which capitalism is at its most ruthless: at his most powerful, the Sad Flâneur lays bare the relationship between capitalism and depression.
All three works feature characters who move through the city with a certain weird sadness. Despite Esther acknowledging that her summer in New York is a gift for someone as suburban and inexperienced as herself, she never reaches the dizzy heights of flânerie. Instead, we get motion minus emotion: “I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolley-bus.” Even when she attempts to deviate from her schedule, as when she lets a group of strange men take her and her attractive friend for drinks, she still expresses her feelings via metaphors for a sort of melancholy movement: “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction…rushing away from all…that excitement at about a million miles an hour.” Paul, Taipei’s man-child protagonist is the inverse of Esther. He lives in New York full-time, his life is mysteriously all leisure (though, much like that classic New York sitcom trope, like in Friends or Sex and the City, his finances don’t really add up) and his motion expresses that: we follow him from party to party, with his arrival only leading to the realization that he wants to be somewhere else.
It’s clear Paul doesn’t think of himself as a slacker. He’s constantly inventing tiny tasks or goals, as if to lend a sense of industriousness to what is, effectively, just goofing off. He’s not wandering the city, he’s going to buy an avocado or to buy drugs, or else he’s going to a reading. He never seems to enjoy the city or motion itself so much as a sense of having something to check off his to-do list. Meanwhile, Houellebecq’s flâneur narrators are perhaps the most openly lugubrious about their lifestyle. In the poem “The Core of the Malaise,” the narrator states wistfully that when “one is dealing with a ‘simple stroll,’ that ‘direction is…alas very rare.” But if he hates walking with no clear goal, why do it? Earlier in the poem he clarifies for us. The view outside his room “doesn’t make you feel like going out, but staying in the room is disastrously boring.” If at this point, you’re chalking this up as the Gauloises n’ cynicism pose of a French writer of a certain age, read through the entire volume and you’ll gradually get worn down. He’s serious.
If you’re “well, duh”-ing the above, you’re not wrong. After all, one of the tasteless side effects of Plath’s death is that she’s become a poster girl for literary depression, while Houellebecq has been public about his own struggle with depression, which was so serious it led to “several stays in psychiatric units.” Lin has been equally candid, referring to his depression on several different occasions (although he has stressed he’s never been “officially” diagnosed with the illness due to embarrassment about consulting a doctor). So maybe I’m overegging this omelette. Maybe wandering through New York and Paris sounds terrible and exhausting and crushing because, quite simply, we’re seeing these cities through perspectives that have been soured by depression.
Yet none of these authors are shy about linking their works to a larger political picture. It’s no coincidence that Plath opens her novel on a sentence that neatly yokes together city, politics, and depression: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” By the Rosenbergs, Esther is referring to, of course, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of and executed for conspiring to commit espionage with information about the Atomic Bomb for the Soviet Union at the height of McCarthyism. Plath goes on:
I’m stupid about electrocutions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers…It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
Esther’s “It had nothing to do with me” feels disingenuous. It hardly seems a coincidence that the protagonist’s name is so strikingly similar to Ethel Rosenberg’s maiden name, Esther Ethel Greenglass. Besides which, the gruesome, half-botched execution that would go on to mark the height of McCarthyist paranoia in America is described here in a way that anticipates the electroshock therapy Esther undergoes for her depression (“with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant”). It’s hard not to conclude that Esther’s depression is, in part, that hoary old chestnut: a sane reaction to an insane world, or in this case, political climate.
It’s a similar story in Taipei. On a skim read, it seems apolitical. Barring the use of recreational drugs, Paul doesn’t feel passionately about anything and is so exhaustingly ironic that it’s hard to imagine him holding anything within a mile of a deeply-felt political belief. But that one exception is more meaningful than it first seems: in Audrea Lim’s acute LARB essay on Taipei, she notes how Lin swerves “conventional drug genres of bacchanal and cautionary tale” and makes reference to “what Michel Foucault calls ‘technologies of the self’– techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves.” Her emphasis is on the way drugs make us productive and our reality bearable and this, I believe, is where Taipei makes its politics known. Because Taipei is the first really convincing novel about the modern precariat worker.
The term was popularized in Guy Standing’s 2011 work The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and refers to the millions of people “flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits,” working zero hour contracts and without any of the benefits (sick leave, pensions, maternity leave) enjoyed by those in stable, seemingly permanent roles.
Which all feels distinctly familiar when reading Taipei, which was publicized as “an ode — or lament — to the way we live now” that would concentrate on “what it means to be…on the fringe in America, or anywhere else for that matter,” and in which Paul and his friends are united by the precariousness of their work. There are no stable salaried roles here, instead we get friends who wait tables (fine, but hard to fathom how to eke out a living from such a role in New York), work as a gig-by-gig research assistant for a ghostwriter and almost-copywriter for a band, or work as a freelance journalist whose pitch emails languish unanswered. Writer Paul is perhaps the most financially comfortable person of his generation in the novel, but make no mistake, he’s aware of his success being evaluated on a series of one-off performances. Paul’s most pressing motivation to take drugs isn’t to let off steam, but to repress his social anxiety to a point where he can be talkative at the events on his book tour:
To determine what amount of what drugs…he should ingest, on what days, to minimize anxiety and boredom for himself and others, he’d edited the seven page itinerary from his publisher to fit on one page…He’d printed a final draft…that said he should ingest something…before twenty-two of his twenty-five events and some miscellaneous things such as the day a writer from BlackBook was writing an article about ‘hanging out’ with him while doing that.
The success (or lack thereof) of Paul’s attempts to self-medicate are made explicit when he states:
I mean…the world is good enough, based on evidence, because I haven’t killed myself…Since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in.
In a world in which the U.S. president appears to be about to roll back workers’ rights with regard to enforcing labor laws and cracking down on wage theft, in which almost a million Britons work zero hour contracts while their banks get propped up by the taxpayer, this feels like Paul has internalized the right-wing idea of what the standard of life for the average precariat worker should be. Just good enough so that you’re not pushed over the edge into brutal self-harm. Given Paul’s use of drugs to function professionally — in contrast to Walter Benjamin, who looked to hashish, much as he looked to his rambles through the city for “profane illumination” — Paul’s inability to move through the city without inventing small to-dos seems a symptom of an America in which productivity has taken priority over humanity.
Houellebecq is more explicitly savage about what he sees as the false promises of politics. He has no faith in the benevolence of institutions, and we see this in the geography of his latest collection. In Unreconciled hospitals are:
…asylums of suffering
Where the forgotten old turn into organs
Beneath the mocking and utterly indifferent eyes
Of interns who scratch themselves, eating bananas.
After death, the “council-flat old” are buried in “the crematorium/In a little cabinet with a white label” in contrast to “the too-rich old ladies” who are buried in cemeteries “surrounded by cypresses and plastic shrubs.” Clearly, only money permits you to escape being buried at the bureaucratic heart of the city. The fruits of capitalism are cold comfort for inequality: there’s only “Supermarkets and urban routes,/The immobile boredom of holidays.”
It’s worth stressing that half of the collection was written at the peak of publicity surrounding the plight of the French precariat — when working conditions at Orange (formerly the state-owned France Telecom) became increasingly stressful after a push for efficiency following privatization led then-boss Didier Lombard to announce he would cut 20,000 jobs. Lombard is suspected of trying to speed up job losses by unsettling staff with a forced relocation scheme and staff were subject to the stress of “a reduced workforce being asked to produce better results…the threat of site closures and job losses, and an atmosphere of increased competition between workers.” There were 35 suicides between 2008 and 2009 (and further waves of suicides up until midway through 2016), with employees leaving suicide notes implicating the management.
Given the implied politics of these works, the reason for these flaneurs’ strange, numbed sadness becomes clearer. How could these characters take pleasure in ambling across the city they’re based in, when these same cities are effectively the visual form of the same system that’s crushing them?
Because it’s worth stressing that the connection between capitalism and depression isn’t as woolly as it sounds. In recent years there has been a growing acceptance that the two are linked. Research from the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine support the idea that links between poverty and mental and physical health problems exist, while first-person narratives support the thesis and the Guardian publishes articles honing the argument: it’s not capitalism, but selfish capitalism we have to look out for.
Which makes returning to these works — starting with Houellebecq’s new collection — more than worthwhile. If you want to know what Donald Trump thinks about a work-life balance, refer to the man himself: “If you’re interested in ‘balancing’ work and pleasure, stop trying to balance them. Instead make your work more pleasurable.” And yet, it doesn’t sound as if work will become more pleasurable under Trump — as Professor Raymond Hogler has observed, his economic policy overlaps with right-to-work ideology (workers’ right not to be required to join a trade union), which statistically tends to correlate with “lower rates of union membership, lower levels of human development, lower per capita incomes, lower levels of trust and less progressive tax schemes.”
Cities will change under Trump. How could they not? We’re talking about the man whose hotels have altered the skylines of cities around the world, whose primary passion is real estate, whose security detail around Trump Tower in New York means Manhattan midtown traffic jams for the next four years. But it won’t just be about buildings, but people. Sure, Walter Benjamin was from a wealthy family and Charles Baudelaire spent much of his life living off his mother’s money, but still: I think we can all agree that making the city so prohibitively expensive that only philosophers and artists with family money can afford to idle their way round the streets curtails the revolutionary potential of flânerie.
So look to Houellebecq, Lin, Plath for a glimpse into the crystal ball. In a world where business interests will dominate the urban landscape, it’s hard to imagine the happy flâneur will be any more prevalent in literature — or life — than any other endangered species.
Image Credit: Pexels.