IN THE PRESENCE OF SCHOPENHAUER
Translated by Andrew Brown
60pp. Polity. Paperback, 9.99 [pounds sterling].
Michel Houellebecq projects himself as a man of strong ideas. His novels are replete with views on modern society, philosophy, religion and much more besides. Few, however, take him very seriously as a thinker--mainly because Houellebecq doesn't appear to do so himself.
His characters' musings about life, the universe and everything have a playful quality that defies reasoned analysis. The references to Arthur Schopenhauer are a case in point. The German philosopher pops up in Woody Allen-like vignettes where the mundane and the mock-solemn are juxtaposed for effect. The narrator of the novel Platform (2001), for instance, connects his readiness to ditch all his belongings and move in with his girlfriend to Schopenhauer's thoughts on the indeterminacy of the self and irrelevance of the past.
The author has paid homage to Schopenhauer in interviews, but speaking to journalists is not something he is known to take particularly to heart. Readers could be forgiven for wondering whether these nods are any more sincere than his fictional paeans to Agatha Christie, Snoop Dogg or Leclerc superstores.
But it turns out that Houellebecq was serious about Schopenhauer after all. In the Presence of Schopenhauer is a profound tribute that illuminates the French novelist's own work. Houellebecq discovered Schopenhauer by picking up a copy of The Wisdom of Life in his local library. He was in his mid-twenties and assumed he had read everything that could shape his...