Rude Remarks

Houellebecq and Cassandra

January 15, 2015

He also works in the Cassandra myth from Greek literature; it took me a few beats to get the joke he was going for when he stopped to explain the Cassandra story. If he were less acerbic I might suppose he was trying to spare the feelings of undereducated modern readers. But he is clearly highlighting a particular aspect of Cassandra’s transgression against the gods.

[The center-left newspapers] had regularly denounced the “Cassandras” who forecast a civil war between the Muslim immigrants and the native Western European population ... in Greek mythology, Cassandra is first mentioned as a very pretty girl, “like the golden Aphrodite,” as Homer writes. Apollo falls in love with her, and gives her the gift of prophecy in exchange for their future relations. Cassandra accepts the gift, but refuses herself to the god—who, in a rage, spits in her mouth, which will forever prevent anyone from believing her.

Cassandra is, like so many poor humans in Greek mythology, punished in part for being attractive, and for being in the wrong place at the wrong time—but here, Houellebecq slyly highlights her failure to submit sexually to the god. Pagan religions are more frank about this than the religions of the book—but submission to the godshead in human myth is, at the historical root of it, sexual, libidinous, or at least euphoric; and among religions in modern vogue, none is more explosively kinky than Islam.

Houellebecq’s game here is double: not only is he pointing up the sexual obsessions of Islam, he is taking the piss out of the French establishment for reviling those who point out the niqab-bedecked elephant in the room. A century from now the book will still be comprehensible, but the contemporary reader will immediately place Houellebecq’s fellow contrarian Éric Zemmour in the role of Cassandra.

Zemmour, after having been fired from i-Télé for predicting all of this, is also currently in hiding after a flurry of threats on his life following last week’s bloodbath; the French establishment’s self-destructive fury at Zemmour’s truthiness is classically tragic. It’s like watching Athens stupidly go after the Spartans in real time.

The experience of reading this book this week, as I keep one eye on the ever-multiplying feed of bad news and extreme reaction, has reminded me of the dire importance of literature to the human soul. The careful composition of Houellebecq’s narrative served as a stark and saddening contrast to the gibbering tone and tenor, the 120-character shrieks and spurts, of the intertubes; the hive brain where we now spend so much time looks very ill next to the towering aesthetic construction of a single yet multifaceted mind.

Classical man does not speak from a soapbox, a minbar, or a social media account from which he can block hecklers: he speaks from the stage.

An English translation is scheduled for September.

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