This is my quick and rough translation of Michel Houellebecq’s open letter about the pandemic published on Radio France, May 4, 2020:
Just A Little Worse
Answers to some friends
It has to be admitted: most of the emails exchanged in recent weeks were primarily aimed at checking that the person they were talking to was not dead or dying. But, once this verification was done, we still tried to say interesting things, which wasn’t easy, because this epidemic managed the feat of being both frightening and boring at the same time. A banal virus, with little or no reputation compared to obscure flu viruses, with poorly known conditions of survival, with unclear characteristics, sometimes benign, sometimes deadly, not even sexually transmissible: in short, a virus without qualities. This epidemic may have killed a few thousand people every day around the world, but it nevertheless produced the curious impression of being a non-event. In fact, my esteemed colleagues (some of them, nevertheless, are esteemed) did not talk about it so much, they preferred to address the issue of containment; and here I would like to add my contribution to some of their observations.
Frédéric Beigbeder (from Guéthary, Pyrénées-Atlantiques). A writer doesn’t see many people anyway, he lives like a hermit with his books, confinement doesn’t change much. I completely agree, Frédéric, when it comes to social life, it doesn’t make much difference. But there’s one point you forget to consider (probably because, living in the country, you’re less of a victim of the forbidden): a writer needs to walk.
This confinement seems to me the ideal occasion to settle an old Flaubert-Nietzsche quarrel. Somewhere (I’ve forgotten where) Flaubert says that people only think and write well when they’re seated. Protests and mockery of Nietzsche (I’ve also forgotten where), who goes so far as to call him nihilist (so it happens at a time when he had already begun to use the word wrongly and incorrectly): he himself conceived all his works by walking, everything that is not conceived in walking is null and void, moreover he has always been a Dionysian dancer, etc. Hardly suspicious of any exaggerated sympathy for Nietzsche, I must however admit that in this case it is rather he who is right. Trying to write if one does not have the possibility, during the day, of walking for several hours at a sustained pace, is strongly to be discouraged: the accumulated nervous tension does not manage to dissolve, thoughts and images continue to spin painfully in the poor head of the author, who quickly becomes irritable, even mad.
The only thing that really counts is the mechanical, machine-like rhythm of the march, which is not primarily intended to make new ideas appear (although this may happen in a second stage), but to calm the conflicts induced by the clash of ideas born at the work table (and this is where Flaubert is not absolutely wrong); when he tells us about his elaborate designs on the rocky slopes of the Nice hinterland, in the meadows of the Engadine etc., he is not only talking about the new ideas, but also about the new ideas that are born at the work table, Nietzsche rambles a little: except when writing a tourist guide, the landscapes he passes through are less important than the inner landscape.
Catherine Millet (normally rather Parisian, but luckily she was in Estagel, Pyrénées-Orientales, when the lock-down order came down). The present situation reminds her sadly of the “anticipation” part of one of my books, La possibilité d’une île (The Possiility of An Island).
So there I said to myself that it was good, all the same, to have readers. Because I hadn’t thought of making the connection, even though it’s quite obvious. Besides, if I think back, that’s exactly what I had in mind at the time, concerning the extinction of humanity. Nothing like a big show movie. Something rather dull. Individuals living isolated in their cells, with no physical contact with their fellow human beings, just a few exchanges by computer, going downhill.
Emmanuel Carrère (Paris-Royan; he seems to have found a good reason to move). Will interesting books be born, inspired by this period? He wonders.
I wonder too. I really wondered, but deep down I don’t think so. On the plague we’ve had a lot of things, over the centuries, the plague has interested writers a lot. Now I have my doubts. First of all, I don’t believe for half a second statements like “nothing will ever be the same again”. On the contrary, everything will remain exactly the same. In fact, the course of this epidemic is remarkably normal. The West is not for eternity, by divine right, the richest and most developed area in the world; it’s over, all that, for some time now, is not a big secret. Even if we look at it in detail, France is doing a little better than Spain and Italy, but not as well as Germany; there too, it’s not a big surprise.
The coronavirus, on the other hand, is expected to have as its main feature the acceleration of certain ongoing mutations. For quite a few years now, all the technological evolutions, whether minor (video on demand, contactless payment) or major (teleworking, Internet shopping, social networks) have had the main consequence (main objective?) of reducing material, and especially human, contacts. The coronavirus epidemic offers a magnificent reason for this heavy trend: a certain obsolescence that seems to strike human relations. This reminds me of a luminous comparison I found in an anti-LDC text written by a group of activists called “Chimpanzees of the Future” (I discovered these people on the Internet; I never said that the Internet had only drawbacks). Hence, I quote them: “Soon making children yourself, free and random, will seem as incongruous as hitchhiking without a web platform.” Carpooling, sharing a flat, we have the utopias we deserve, but, never mind.
It would be equally false to claim that we have rediscovered tragedy, death, finitude, etc.. The tendency for more than half a century now, well described by Philippe Ariès, has been to conceal death as much as possible; well, death has never been as discrete/muted as it has been in recent weeks. People die alone in their hospital or EHPAD rooms, they are immediately buried (or cremated? cremation is more in the spirit of the times), without inviting anyone, in secret. Dead without the slightest testimony, the victims are reduced to a unit in the statistics of daily deaths, and the anguish that spreads in the population as the total increases has something strangely abstract.
Another figure that has become very important in these weeks is the age of the sick. Until when should they be resuscitated and treated? Until 70, 75, 80 years of age? It depends, apparently, on the part of the world in which one lives; but never before has it been so quietly and shamelessly expressed the fact that life does not have the same value for everyone; that from a certain age (70, 75, 80?) it is a little bit as though one were already dead.
All these tendencies, as I have said, already existed before the coronavirus; they have only manifested themselves with new evidence. We will not wake up, after confinement, in a new world; it will be the same, only a little worse.
The French Original: En Un Peu Pire, réponses à quelques amis, by Michel Houellebecq
And here’s also a German translation: Die Zukunft nach Corona, ein Essay von Michel Houellebecq