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Without God : Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror (Hardcover) (Louis Betty)
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Michel Houellebecq, one of the most translated contemporary French authors, is France’s most famous and controversial living novelist. His caricature appeared on the cover of the French satirical weeklyCharlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, the day when Islamist militants killed twelve people in an attack on their offices and also the day when his most recent novel,Soumission—the story of France in 2022 under a Muslim president—appeared in bookstores. Since his first novel in 1994, Houellebecq’s work has been called ******, racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and vulgar. Perhaps both because of this and despite it, his work is extremely popular—popular because controversy sells, but also because his work is indicative of the broader cultural forces of malaise and disillusionment at work in France and elsewhere in the West. InWithout God, Louis Betty examines how Houellebecq has “given voice to the underside, indeed the downside, of the progressive ethos that has animated Western and, specifically, French social, political, and religious thinking since the 1960s.”
The bulk of scholarship on Houellebecq has addressed the social, political, and economic concerns raised in his work. Louis Betty instead focuses on Houellebecq’s complicated relationship with religion, showing that Houellebecq, who is at best agnostic, “is a deeply and unavoidably religious writer.” In exploring the religious, theological, and philosophical aspects of Houellebecq’s work, Betty situates the author within the broader context of a French and Anglo-American history of ideas—ideas such as utopian socialism, the sociology of secularization, and quantum physics. Materialism, Betty contends, is the true destroyer of human intimacy and spirituality in Houellebecq’s work; the prevailing worldview it conveys is one of nihilism and hedonism in a postmodern, post-Christian Europe. There emerges in Betty’s analysis a kind of “materialist horror” as both a philosophical and aesthetic concept that describes and amplifies contemporary moral and social decadence in Houellebecq’s fiction.