Christmas is not my favourite festival of the year; aside from it being the celebration of a religion to which I adherence (and which I consider I am inclined to take a dim view of), there is the problem of the almost Stalinist enforcement of merriment. Furthermore, given that most people have a reasonable idea of what presents they are to receive, much of the whole affair seems oddly mechanical and lacking in spontaneity.

However, Christmas did afford me the chance to catch up with some reading, tarting with Grey Area and Junk Mail by Will Self, the latter having a particularly interesting interview with JG Ballard. When talking about Burroughsian humour, Ballard notes that Self has the same sort of humour while he has a rather more forensic imagination. The comment is a just one, as an earlier essay sees Self endorsing the Burroughs of Junky against the later use of cut-up experiments, which Self feels marked the start of a disengagement from reality on the part of Burroughs. While there is nothing inherently disagreeable about either statement it does seem to me that they point to a comparison which is wholly to Self’s advantage. For all of his radical image much of Self’s fiction has a parochial English cosiness to it, which accords well with his humour, but which leaves the surrealism of the stories and novels like Great Apes as being rather more evocative of English eccentricity than of the derangement of the senses which characterises both Burroughs and Ballard.

I’ve also read Atomised by Michel Houellebecq and The Ticklish Subject by Slavoj Zizek (advocate of a somewhat unsettling brand of Kantian Marxism). Both of these seem to represent the point at which the socialist and conservative critique of liberal democracy merge (even if Houellebecq does refer to “the usual right-wing fundamentalist rant” that is nonetheless a good description of the many bilious diatribes in the novel).

Houellebecq shares with JG Ballard a preoccupation with dissecting modernity
but is very far from sharing Ballard’s relish for nihilism, replacing it with a critique of modernity that seems largely founded on misanthropy. Although one of the characters criticises Huxley for his lack of psychological insight, Houellebecq seems to have an uncertain relation to the idea of character itself "Was it possible to think of Bruno as an individual?…his hedonistic world view and the forces that shaped his consciousness… were common to an entire generation."

The two main characters are ostensibly counterpointed; one a cynical libertine, the other a arid idealist. However, the events of their lives are closely related and the their debates are intended to point to a common figure, expressed towards the end of the novel; “humanity would give way to a new species, which was asexual…a species that had outgrown individuality.” Nonetheless, the novel remains forcefully dialogic by nature; of the two characters, it is Michel who has primacy (as the identification with the authorial name implies) as the founder of the novel’s extropian revolution. But it is Bruno who forms the backbone of the novel’s critique of society and much of his critique applies to the society envisaged at the close.

This is most evident in the topic of religion, where Michel seeks unify religion and science; “science and materialism have completely undermined traditional spirituality, but… society cannot function without religion.” When Michel quotes Comte to the effect that religion has nothing to do with personal mysticism but is simply the basis for social unity, Bruno retorts that as society can no longer believe in reincarnation, then religion becomes impossible, as does society; “man has always been terrified by death, he’s never been able to face the idea of his own… physical decline.” In saying this, Bruno demolishes what is the one of the central themes of the novel; the modern preoccupation with youth and age as symptoms of decline. Conversely, at the ending Judaism, Christianity and Islam are for once united in their opposition to Michel while “Only Buddhists demurred, noting that the Buddha… had battled with the impediments represented by old age, sickness and death.” A curious conclusion for a novel that had derided modern obsession with eastern religions and the decay of old norms.