"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.