In Michel Houllebecq’s novel Platform, Michel Renault, a bored civil servant who has just come into a substantial inheritance from his father, meets an enigmatic woman, Valérie, while visiting Thailand as a sex tourist. Back in France, they begin an affair which escalates into ever more dangerous and exhibitionist forms of sex – S&M, swinging, and public encounters. Michel quits his job, and tries to help Valérie and her boss rescue their failing travel business through a series of sex-tourism packages marketed at wealthy Western tourists. Eventually, the three travel to Thailand on one of these new packages. As they laze on sun loungers, and Michel begins to feel reconciled to his new life of tropical hedonism, events take an unexpected, and deadly, swerve.
“Just as I turned to give Valérie another grateful look, I heard a sort of click to my right. Then I noticed an engine noise coming from the sea, which cut out immediately. At the front of the terrace, a tall blonde woman stood up, screaming. Then came the first burst of gunfire, a brief crackle. She turned towards us, bringing her hands up to her face: a bullet had hit her in the eye, the socket was now no more than a bloody hole; then she collapsed without a sound. Then I saw our assailants, three men wearing turbans, moving swiftly in our direction, machine-guns in hand.”
The terrorist attack leaves Valérie and many others dead, destroying Michel’s dream of perpetual sex on the beach. After convalescing in a psychiatric hospital in Paris, he returns to Thailand to commit suicide – revealing, finally, that the novel has been his lengthy suicide note to the reader.
Platform is notable for a number of reasons. Besides propelling Houellebecq into the leagues of literary superstardom – the very opposite of the dreaded sophomore slump – and winning him a high-profile religious-hatred trial (acquitted), the novel began a tradition of eerie prescience in Houellebecq’s work which has continued to this day. Platform was published on 27 August 2001, less than two weeks before the Islamic terror attacks of September 11, and the specific style of attack Houellebecq describes in the novel bears a close similarity to the Bali bombings that took place a little over a year later. An even more stunning coincidence attended the release of his second “Islam novel” 13 years later. Submission, which imagines the capitulation of the French elite to aggressive political Islam, was released on 7 January 2015, the very day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. But wait – there’s more. The follow-up, Serotonin, with its theme of a violent uprising among French farmers, closely foreshadowed the Gilets Jaune movement, which convulsed France until the pandemic brought it to a swift end. Clearly, Houellebecq is in touch with something.
For my purposes, however, Platform is notable because it reveals a rather more complicated Houellebecq than we might otherwise be led to expect. Houellebecq, we are told, is the king of the depressing novel – the novel without hope, the novel of life, ultimately, without meaning. Through the lives of unlikeable, maladjusted men, the emptiness of modern Western existence – the inescapable emptiness – is revealed in unflinching detail. These are the real, bitter, fruits of the global triumph of liberalism. Houellebecq is the novelist of the End of History. He’s the incel bard (although he is, actually, married to a much younger woman – Japanese, I think). Houellebecq is “blackpilled” – if by “blackpilled” you mean “an extreme nihilist”, which not everybody who uses the term does, as we’ll see.
Except Houellebecq isn’t. “Blackpilled”, I mean. Rather than the End of History – a flat space outside meaningful time – what Platform gives us instead is the shocking, violent return of History. The terrible, but also terribly exciting, return of contingency to a world which promised only minor ameliorations until the universe finally collapsed in on itself, billions of years in the future. (And don’t forget how spectacularly life imitated art just a week or so after the book’s release.)
Rather than being a novel of despair, Platform is a novel of great hope – or, at least, that’s how I read it anyway. This is the message: life is not forever destined to be a succession of pleasant, but nonetheless meaningless, sex acts (for those who are lucky enough to get them, of course) until one expires – in flagrante, perhaps, with a nubile young Thai masseuse. No, life might also be a violent death at the hands of a jetski-riding jihadi, or something else equally unforeseen. Possibilities!
For Michel Renault, however, the attack and the death of his lover Valérie is the final straw; and the broader implication, developed further in Submission, is that the West is too tired and corrupt to shed its heavy skin. Only an outside force, like an aggressive religion spreading through immigration and demographic change, can transform the old order.
Be that as it may, there are plenty of other indications throughout Houellebecq’s oeuvre – chinks of light, if you will – that reveal that all is not darkness and despair in his world. All we need is the eyes to see them.
It’s for this reason, and others, that I was surprised to see Houellebecq labelled the master of a “blackpilled” aesthetic that’s supposedly dominant among young “right-leaning” fiction writers today. In his essay, “Overdosing on the Literary Blackpill”, one of the centrepieces of the IM-1776 Art and Literature for Dissidents pamphlet, Alex Perez makes two claims about these “dissident” writers: i) that they are simply aping Houellebecq, but lack the necessary personal charm and writerly skills to do so in a way that is anything other than repellent to most readers; and ii) that if a proper literary movement is to emerge among the “dissident right”, these young writers must find a way to look outside themselves and reach a broader audience of “well-adjusted people”.
I don’t disagree with the broad thrust of this diagnosis, if the broad thrust is that there are some bad writers on this side of the internet, because there clearly are. The worst of their writing is very bad – derivative, charmless, pointless. And yes, some of it does look like a bad impression of Houellebecq circa his first and most incel-y novel, Whatever. Imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, but it seldom makes for great reading. And this is true even in the case of someone who really can write, like Cormac McCarthy. His early Faulkner impressions, especially the anti-picaresque Suttree, are pretty tough going, no substitute for the real thing. An obvious part of the problem is, as Perez suggests, that anybody can publish their writing on the internet now, without any real form of quality control. (I won’t get in to the bad poetry here, much of which suffers from the mistake of thinking that we can just forget the twentieth century – i.e. modernism in its various forms – and go back to writing sonnets and heroic poetry like nothing happened. We can’t.)
That being said, it’s also plain as day that there’s a huge amount of great fiction being written by “dissident” or “right-leaning” authors, whatever you choose to call them. Some of it has been featured in this magazine. Zero HP Lovecraft’s uncanny corporate nightmares (“Dagon”). Faisal Marzipan’s blackly comedic reimagining of an interview for a top consultancy firm (“The Minnetonka Safe Haven Project”). Detective Wolfman’s archetypal adventures (“Heartsfire”). Or what about “The Scrimshander”, one of many gems in the last issue? Or “human.exe” from this issue? Not one of these stories displays any of the defects Perez identifies. Instead we have daring imagination, originality, horror, suspense, excitement, craft, as well as considerable charm and wit. These are stories that could – and should – reach the widest possible audiences. In no way is it obvious to me, then, that this “blackpilled” genre is the dominant trend. It might be a trend, but it doesn’t strike me as something we should be unduly worried about.
And for the bad writing Perez identifies, I’m not even sure it’s Houellebecq who’s most to blame. Brett Easton Ellis is a very obvious influence on that kind of writing – I’ve handled more than a few Bateman monologues as editor of this magazine (“Then I apply a JOOV 600nm red light to my testicles for 10 minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine…”) – and there’s also Chuck Pahlaniuk, author of Fight Club, to name just two.
Where the analysis really starts to fall apart, though, is when we consider what it really means to be a “blackpilled” writer, according to Perez. He doesn’t actually give a definition, but we can cobble one together easily enough. “Blackpilled” writing is full of “world-weariness” and “doom and gloom”. It’s written by and appeals to “depressives”. Okay: so far, so uncontroversial. But then we’re told these writers are also playing at being “angry young men”, which rather cuts against the grain of the general apathy and indifference we tend to associate with having swallowed and digested the black pill. “Blackpilled” writing is also “base” (not “based”), full of “repulsiveness”, “debased and debauched” and “antisocial” – things we needn’t associate, on their own or even in combination, with being “blackpilled”.
It’s not just that the implicit definition is a little bit confused. It’s that it’s somehow capacious enough to include a writer who is so obviously not “blackpilled” that I find myself wondering what Perez is really up to here. I’m talking, believe it or not, about Bronze Age Pervert. BAP is, of course, an enormous influence on writers of every stripe on this side of the internet, and I’m sure that many of the writers who write the bad Bateman monologues have read Bronze Age Mindset and no doubt love it. But do I really need to say that this means practically nothing about BAP himself? Calling BAP “blackpilled” because of one tiny segment of his audience is about as meaningful as saying that, because I’m currently listening to “Easy Lover” on repeat, Phil Collins is a “dissident right” singer. Hardly.
BAP’s message is the absolute opposite of “blackpilled”. It feels ridiculous even to have to say this. And yet, here I am, saying it. The positivity of the book is one of the main reasons it’s been so popular. Yes, we live in a trash world, a world of owned space where the young and vital are subject to a stultifying gynocracy; yes the current order is antithetical to higher forms of life; yes you feel trapped, hemmed in, circumscribed, put out to pasture – but things were this way once before and they changed radically, and now there are already signs of another radical change on the horizon. BAP isn’t just offering a diagnosis of the ills of the modern world, he’s very clearly pointing us towards the exit and giving us a slap on the back for good measure; although, as Perez notes, perceptively, Bronze Age Mindset isn’t a self-help book. If it’s Lift, Love, Laugh you want, you’ll have to wait for my next book (I’ve got dibs on that title, by the way, so hands off!).
But Perez doesn’t want you to pay attention to the message of Bronze Age Mindset. This, I think, is where the true purpose of the essay is revealed. I’ll let Perez speak for himself now:
“BAM is certainly a ‘blackpilled text’, but the driving force behind the book is not the content, but the… chaotic energy that permeates it, which is what young writers should be taking away from it. What a book says stylistically and aesthetically is often of greater import than whatever thematic point of view it’s trying – and often failing – to propagate.”
So what you’re saying is… the famous BAP patois is what really matters about Bronze Age Mindset? Ignore the content: it’s just a vehicle for BAP to break the rules of strict grammar and coin some funny new slang words? As much as it may be true that BAP-speak has become ubiquitous among little (and even large) frog accounts, this is well and truly ass-backwards. Of course Perez is welcome to dislike Bronze Age Mindset. But to suggest that the “driving force behind the book”, the reason why it’s become a subject of feverish excitement everywhere from Twitter to the corridors of the White House, is not the actual themes of the work, but the energy, style and aesthetic – as if, in any case, form and content could be separated in such a way here – seems, frankly, bizarre.
At last, then, I think we can see what the “blackpilled” epithet really amounts to. Rather than being a criticism of a genuine identifiable movement, it’s just a tag for things the author doesn’t like, and one of those things is clearly Bronze Age Mindset.
Now, before you interject that this laddy doth protest too much, let me say that I don’t think the attempt to minimise the message or enduring impact of Bronze Age Mindset is confined to just this essay. In actual fact, I see this as a broader phenomenon. There are plenty who have been happy to ride the BAP wave and be associated with BAP – at a safe distance – but who have never believed a word of what he says in Bronze Age Mindset. This became abundantly clear after BAP’s most recent banning from Twitter last year, when many accounts that had reaped the benefits of his largesse turned on him the moment he was gone. Despite the book’s incontrovertible importance, it’s just too extreme, too off-the-wall – nowhere near “respectable” enough for those “dissidents” who are merely waiting for the door to be opened, at long last, to let them in to the establishment party. Seen in this light, Perez’s use of words like “base”, “debased and debauched” and “anti-social”, but especially his injunction for “blackpilled” writers to appeal to “well-adjusted people”, looks rather more telling. So too does his insistence on referring to Bronze Age Mindset as “the most popular self-published book [my emphasis] among the blackpilled writers”. This can only be a deliberate jibe at the book, which has sold tens of thousands of copies, consistently outselling the most “popular” astroturfed writers in fields like ancient history, the classics and philosophy. As far as white pills go, I’d say those sale figures are a pretty big one, wouldn’t you?
Of course, this would hardly be the first time that “dangerous” thinkers have been neutered by those of a more – how shall we say? – mainstream inclination. (Note: I’m not saying that a mainstream influence is something we shouldn’t be trying to cultivate, especially since we already have a pretty significant one.) Nietzsche is an obvious example here. I don’t mean how his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, selectively edited his work the better to fit with her own ideological commitments. Rather, I mean the way that French postmodernists like Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault focused on his style and method (“genealogy”) at the expense of the substance of what he actually said. This gave us the largely unrecognisable “New Nietzsche”, as well as absurdities like the “Nietzschean” Foucault, as fitting a candidate for the Last Man as you could hope to find: a bald, bespectacled boy-lover who found nirvana spreading HIV in the bath-houses of San Francisco. No less absurd is the “liberal” Nietzsche of Bernard Williams, a sort of Humean sceptic who, by an extreme act of leg-crossing, can be made to sit nicely among the grave philosophers of the Anglo-American analytic tradition. Pffffft.
In all honesty, though, I think BAP will continue to speak to readers on his own terms, long after most of his current interpreters and critics have vanished from sight.
What remains of Perez’s essay is an attempt to provide positive advice for how the “blackpilled” writers can build a movement that will gain wider recognition. Building a movement, especially a political movement, brings its own problems. One of the most fundamental issues is one that dogs all explicitly political art: Is the art’s defining feature its political message? If so, what is that message? What makes an artist a “dissident right” artist, as opposed to something else?
Wouldn’t it be more sensible for the aim to be to make good art, first and foremost? After all, by their own admission, most artists have deliberately abandoned the traditional principles of aesthetics (representation, harmony, conformity with nature, etc.), leaving artists on the right with a totally open goal. Being able to depoliticise the issue – to say that artists on the right are simply doing art – could also be an advantage in certain situations. This would be my suggestion, or the beginning of one, but it needs development, and here is not the place to do that.
These and many more questions remain to be resolved at present. But if there’s one thing I know already, it’s that the “dissident right” won’t win any battles by tilting at imaginary enemies – or by biting the hand that has so generously fed it.