Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sex And The Angry Western Guy, Part II

"Something is definitely happening that's making westerners stop sleeping with each other. Maybe it's something to do with narcissism, or individualism, or the cult of success, it doesn't matter . . . On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing . . . except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality."

"The money you could make is almost unimaginable."

So says Michel, the central figure in Michel Houellebecq's Platform (pages 172-173 of my Vintage paperback in English). The subject is a business plan. The problem with the tourist industry, Michel says, is that people on vacation want to have sex, and they are not having sex. The solution is sex tourism: rich western guests can pay poor attractive locals for sexual pleasure. Gay, straight, man, woman, as Michel makes clear, this solution is for all of us.

In a previous post, I described my love for this book, and my confusion over its interpretation by critics. In particular, I was surprised that the book had been taken to present a simple free-market defense of sex-tourism, given that the book harshly criticizes the "What have you done for me lately?" western preoccupation with contractual interactions and fair exchange. Indeed, I suggested, the book seems to say that this preoccupation is leading us to hell.

As Captain C. has observed, the questions of sex tourism are live ones: even now, bloggers are trading tips and advice for finding the hottest girls in Thailand, and musing on the pleasures of sex tourism compared to the pains of sex at home.

And so here I want to return to a question I left hanging before: what does this book have to say about why sex at home is in so much trouble?

To find the answer, I reread the book. And I found two ideas there.

First, westerners have become annoying. The women ask for too much and give too little; they go on and on about their stupid problems and ex-boyfriends, and won't put up with guys who don't have looks, brains, and style. They're a real pain. Western men, too, are hung up and have no sense of fun or sexual innocence.

Second, sex in the western world is ruined because westerners are self-absorbed, obsessed with status, and terrified of weakness and dependence. Michel presents this view explicitly, telling his girlfriend that we are "cold, rational, acutely conscious of our individual existence and our rights, more than anything, we want to avoid alienation and dependence; on top of that we're obsessed with health and hygiene." And with the failures of our bodies to achieve porn standards (pp. 174-175).

It's impossible, Michel says, to make love without giving selflessly, without accepting a state of dependency and weakness.

The second idea, it seems, may be meant to explain the first: our self-absorption and fetish for autonomy has made us into whiny exchangers of sexual goods. And no one finds that attractive.

I have to say, on this interpretation the novel seems to present no defense of sex tourism. Far from it. First, it suggests we are seeking selflessness by paying for it, which is a dubious and morally disturbing strategy. Second, it raises the obvious problem that if contracts for pleasure have ruined us, and sex tourism is contracts for pleasure, well, then. . . things aren't looking good for the rest of the world.

The narration does not shy away from this conclusion. Toward the end, Michel reflects: "I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what's more, we continue to export it (p. 258)."

Frequently, the novel presents male characters complaining bitterly about western women and their pain-in-the-ass expectations. In a characteristic passage, the boss describes meeting up with potential western mate while on vacation: "She started telling me all about her job in marketing, her problems with her boyfriend, how that was why she'd come on vacation. She got on my nerves, so I went to bed (p. 159)."

Captain C.'s post suggests that these complaints about western women echo those sometimes made in defense of paying-the-locals. So we might ask whether the novel endorses them.

In one way, I think the novel does endorse them, as part of its general claims about western self-absorption. Michel himself talks this way, as if he agrees with the defense.

But in a sense it also undermines them. What could be more self-absorbed than a man who can't bear to hear about a woman's life before having sex? What is more contractual than demanding a perfect and sexy woman with no investment of time, energy, or personality?

The novel suggests no answer to these problems. There may be nothing to do. As Michel says, "In most circumstances in my life, I have had about as much freedom as has a vacuum cleaner (p. 67)."

In his New Yorker review, Julian Barnes suggests ambiguities like these represent a novelistic failure. But to me the combination of Michel as astute observer and Michel as a representative of our various failures is part of what makes this book great.


Captain Colossal said...

I can't find my copy of the book at the moment, so this may just be dumb, but it's hard for me to imagine that there was an earlier, less contractual, version of western sexuality.

I don't know. The whole thing makes me think of the essay by Lionel Trilling about Lolita where he suggests that Nabokov was trying to recreate the classic love story by imagining a scenario in which no happy ending was possible, in which health is not the goal.

On a side note, the Big Mango blog to us.

The Secretary said...

A simple question that interests me: what does, and what does not fall under the label of "philosophy"? The topics discussed in this post (and the previous PLATFORM posts) seem to fall more under the rubric of sociology or anthropology. (Obviously, there are vastly different takes on the scope of philosophy -- and far be it from me to suggest that it should be narrowly bounded.) Thanks! 8 ]

Noko Marie said...

You know, after I had laid out this possible Houellebecqian view, I started to think I didn't agree with it. I'm not sure contractual attitudes are so undermining of good sex. I'll try to say something about this in a week or two after I've thought about it some more. CC, you may be right to be skeptical about the implied historical claim.

I haven't read the Trilling essay. I'll check it out.

Secretary, excellent question. I'm just using here a very loose sort of field-observers idea: if the post touches on something "philosophers" write on, think about, etc., I label it philosophy. Where the name means something like "people we call 'philosophers.'" Flawed conceptually, but practical.

I think of the Platform posts as being partly about whether, or how, sex involves using a person as a mere means, and whether if it does there's something to worry about.

Probably many of these things could be appropriately "cross-listed" under subjects like you mention, but I don't know enough about those things to know. I teach philosophy so I there I have some sense of what goes on.

Captain Colossal said...

N. Marie: I was thinking more about the contract issue last night (still without having re-read the book) and it struck me that one way paying directly for pleasure could be distinguished from the unsatisfying implied contracts of western sexuality (according to Houellebecq) is that the implied contract could be seen as less a contract for sex in itself, and more a contract for status, reinforcement of autonomy, power, etc. Which could be seen as undermining of sexual innocence in a way that a direct exchange of money for pleasure would not be. As in the D.H. Lawrence essay on The Scarlet Letter: "The sin was the self-watching, self-consciousness. The sin, and the doom. Dirty understanding."

That essay also happens to be much more abusive of the western woman than anything else I've seen, and it suggests that the only hope is for her to develop "a whole new submissiveness to the dark, phallic principle."

The Secretary said...

Good 'ol D.H.