Houellebecq’s 19th-Century Novel

by Patrick Bray

The Map and the Territory,
by Michel Houellebecq,
Vintage, 288 pp.

When we read literature from the 19th century, we usually try to be vigilant in order not to project our contemporary ideas and obsessions onto the past for fear they might obscure the radical difference of another era. But what happens when we look at our own century from a necessarily imaginary 19th-century viewpoint? How do we recognize fragments of discourse that persist in contemporary texts, ripped from their original contexts, but not quite consciously assimilated as a cultural reference? By reading for the traces of the 19th century in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel, the Goncourt winning La Carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory), it becomes apparent that, for Houellebecq at least, the function of art is to mobilize the traces of the past – art creates a break in the continuity of time and then rearranges the remains or fragments to create a new work turned towards the future. Houellebecq reactualizes the relationship between national space and text emerging from the 19th century.

The 19th century saw the refinement of very accurate cartographic techniques and the completion of the Cartes de Cassini and later the États-Majors maps, both many decades long projects begun in the eighteenth century to map the whole of France at a scale of 1:86,400, or about twice as detailed as today’s Michelin regional maps at 1:150,000. The French revolution used these maps as a basis for parceling up the country by geographic and supposedly natural boundaries, breaking up the historical regions in a rational, but politically charged way. Local topographical knowledge and local toponyms were classified and subsumed under a new national ordering of space. This alienation of the individual from his or her affective and historical relationship with space and place began through political means but continued and intensified through industrial capitalism. As Gilles Deleuze and others describe it, capital functions through cycles of deterritorialization (not always a bad thing) and reterritorialization. Resources are torn from their local origins, transported to a market, branded with a new and falsified origin, and then sold or repurposed. Haussmanization remains the most famous example of how rampant capitalism and political corruption can transform the spatial ecosystems of a city.

What interests me is the literary response to the ever-changing physical landscape of the 19th century. Novels are spatial in at least three ways: 1) they represent places in the real world; 2) they contain their own spatial structure in the way they arrange their formal elements; and 3) language, as Henri Bergson argued, manifests a marked spatial bias. While 19th century texts, and novels in particular, represented transformations in physical space, they also responded to it with their own spatial inventions through their formal and linguistic experiments. While scientific maps became increasingly accessible and everyone felt the effects of what Henri Lefebvre called modernity’s “pulverization of space,” certain 19th century literary texts intensified the personal and affective connections to places, inventing a spatial subjectivity. In my own work, The Novel Map: Space and Subjectivity in 19th-Century French Fiction, I show how Stendhal’s peculiar book from the 1830s, Vie de Henry Brulard, inscribes this personal time onto space through the dozens of idiosyncratic hand-drawn maps, which conjure up specific moments in the life of Stendhal or his alter ego Henry. These places and events in the maps are usually, though not always, described in the text, but the maps themselves tell their own narratives, some of them can only have meaning presumably for Stendhal. Similarly, Gérard de Nerval’s works inscribe a personal mythology of space and place, specifically Paris and the Valois region. In an extraordinary drawing he created during his first mental breakdown in 1841, Nerval links his genealogy to a hand drawn topographical map including the Valois, Paris, and Imperial Rome, crossing borders and time periods.

In his last texts from the 1850s, such as Sylvie and Aurélia, Nerval attempted to re-inscribe the flow of time into his spatial narratives as he recounts the effects of the industrial revolution on the countryside. Similarly, George Sand’s last major novel Nanon from 1872 tells the story of a young woman who learns how to read the Cassini maps of her region, the Creuse, in order to build a utopian and uchronic community. While these examples are necessarily incomplete, I believe they give a sense of the variety of 19th century literary responses to emerging spatial challenges.

Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel, as its title La Carte et le territoire indicates, uses novel or narrative maps to work through issues of space and identity in the twenty-first century. The novel’s main character, Jed Martin, is a Parisian artist born in 1975. As an art student he specializes in photographing industrial era tools as soon to be out of date objects. His first critical breakthrough comes a decade after he leaves school (which is to say within a year or two of 2005), when after a trip to the countryside to attend his grandmother’s funeral, he discovers the beauty of Michelin regional maps of France. Like outmoded tools of the industrial era, Michelin maps seem quaint and old fashioned compared to fancy GPS devices. But Jed Martin photographs them from unexpected angles, showing not only the detail of cartographic precision in these analog devices from another time, but also the materiality of the paper, as its folds create an additional topography to the ones depicted on the maps. The novel of course contains only descriptions of this fictional artwork, but with a little bit of work and a lot of procrastination, I found them easily reproducible. The first map Martin photographs is of the Creuse – as if reminiscent of a George Sand novel.

This is where his grandmother’s house is located and where he retires at the age of 40 to escape the rest of the world at the end of the novel. After he begins showing his photographs of the maps, a beautiful Russian woman who happens to be an executive from Michelin and who wants to create a partnership with Martin, approaches him. The company will help him expose his works while he will add cultural legitimacy to the enterprise. At the vernissage, the masterpiece of the collection is described as follows [translation my own]:

Jed had hung side by side a satellite photograph taken from the area near the Grand Ballon de Guebwiller and a blowup of a Michelin ‘Département’ map from the same zone. The contrast was striking: while the satellite photo only revealed a soup of             more or less uniform greens sprinkled with vague blue splotches, the map developed a fascinating lacework of county roads, scenic highways, points of view, forests, lakes, and mountain passes. Above these two blowups, in black uppercase letters, figured the title of the exhibition: ‘THE MAP IS MORE INTERESSTING THAN THE TERRITORY’.

I’ve tried to reproduce it here, using a slightly less detailed Michelin map.

The contrast between satellite image and photographed map is striking. The ichnographic projection of the satellite, taken from directly above, grants what is often called the perspective of the eye of God – in traditional map making this was of course an ideal projection, an imaginary projection of mastery. Today, satellite mapping not only offers the eye of God to anyone, but also actual mastery over the terrain, as it can be used for surveillance, espionage and precision assassination in real time. Maps are the product of human labor, artistic renderings of relations between places. The jumble of color Houellebecq’s narrator describes in the satellite image is nearly meaningless compared to the wealth of information catalogued in the maps. Moreover, the artist’s rendering of the maps records his own presence or perspective onto the map. It becomes specific, personal, and material all at once. Just like Stendhal’s many maps of Grenoble or Nerval’s genealogical map.

Not only is “the map not the territory” as Alfred Korzybksi once said, but it is more important because, like a novel, it creates a virtual space for the interaction of subjects and places.

In his fascinating book Domaines et châteaux from 1989, anthropologist Marc Augé shows how luxury real estate advertisements in magazines like le Nouvel Observateur or Demeures et chateaux implicitly evoke landscapes and images derived from 19th century literary texts, in particular by Nerval, Stendhal, Balzac, but also Rousseau and Proust. The homes described in real estate and tourist brochures, like the places described in these literary texts, produce a nostalgia for past places and memories, and yet the attraction of real estate ads is simply the hope for a refuge to a place anchored in a “terroir.” For Augé, the 19th century literary texts conjured up by real estate classifieds are in fact “triply” historical, since they layer the general movement of history (say 1830), the personal history of the author (Stendhal), and the imagined history of the hero (Julien Sorel). Augé argues that literary technique makes it very difficult for several places to coexist in the same textual space, however, literary convention makes an ambiguity in time possible, what he calls a ‘uchronie’, where the same place can improbably exist in the past, present, and future (130). Augé doesn’t take this argument further, but we can see in Houellebecq’s novel that the way literature layers different spaces in time reinscribes human agency into ruptured space.

Houellebecq’s La Carte et le territoire is also a novel obsessed with real estate and the inanity of tourism that takes a more caustic tone than Augé’s book but with the same literary references. Already in the 19th century tourism was one of the cures capitalism proposed to the bourgeoisie to compensate for the alienation of modernity. It is probably not a coincidence that in Stendhal’s 1838 Mémoires d’un touriste the text that introduced the word “tourist” into French, the narrator is a rather dull industrialist visiting France. Houellebecq’s main character, Jed Martin, however, is a tourist despite himself. In various scenes he travels with the Russian Michelin executive to “typical” villages and restaurants in France, visits the unimpressive sites of Beauvais on his way back from a Ryan Air flight from Ireland, and at the end of the novel, when he is old and famous, his village in the Creuse becomes a tourist site for rich Chinese. His work on Michelin maps, as we saw, celebrates and distorts the touristic function of these popular but soon to be obsolete maps.

The real estate market, like tourism, offers the illusion of authenticity and holistic relations to history with space in return for money. And it doubles as an investment, since luxury properties become in principle ever more rare with time. Jed Martin spends much of the novel in a simple and dumpy apartment in a new neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement. In fact narrative time is structured around the many repairs he makes to his decrepit water heater. The novel pokes fun at the difference between real estate rhetoric and reality; when Martin first purchases the apartment, the real estate agent is ecstatic that for once he can sell an atelier d’artiste to an actual artist. Likewise, Martin’s father lives in a beautiful mansion in a dangerous neighborhood, Raincy, since he misread the real estate tealeaves in the 1970s. The father was a CEO of an architecture firm specializing in tourist resorts, ones that are respectful of the local environment, and so is a sort of visionary for the future of France. In a touching moment in the novel, the father, diagnosed with a deadly cancer, spends an entire chapter describing his architectural philosophy and how he came to working in a way that seemed to be a compromise. Inspired by 19th-century eccentrics like Fourier and the pre-Raphaelite William Morris, he sought to counter the “concentration camp” aesthetic of Lecorbusier, as he says, but was shut out of big contracts in France because of the obsession with modernism and functional architecture. Here the novel makes an explicit link between 19th century thought, the organization of space by art, and the authentic relationship to work in a pre-capitalistic society. The same ideas are repeated a few pages later by Houellebecq himself, who becomes a character in his own novel when Jed decides to make a portrait of him. The novel predicts a future in which France is protected from the ravages of capitalism precisely because it has nothing to offer except luxury goods and “hôtels de charme.” Time is halted or even reversed as local customs are rediscovered to cater to a fossilized vision of France sold to wealthy tourists from whatever country happens to be on an economic upswing, whether Indonesia, Brazil or China. The new global tourist nostalgically seeks the good life in France, an art de vivre, made possible in France paradoxically by tourism itself.

Two thirds of the way in, the novel makes an abrupt change in genre, from a vague Bildungsroman to a crime fiction (a genre invented in the 19th century, inaugurated by Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 “Murders in the Rue Morgue”). Houellebecq becomes a major character in his own novel when Martin makes a portrait of him, a painting that ends up selling for 12 million euros. In the novel, Houellebecq returns to France, moving to a deserted picturesque village in the Loiret. After Martin delivers the painting to his home, Houellebecq and his little dog are found decapitated, their bodies cut up into thousands of tiny pieces by a laser designed for surgical amputation. The murder scene is described as resembling a Jackson Pollock, but with flies. Jed Martin’s artistic practice of taking precise photographs that catalogue the present quickly turning into past is implicitly compared to police forensic science. The detectives take hundreds of pictures of the crime scene and make portraits of all those who attend the funeral. The novel shows great respect for the métier of police detective as making sense of human actions, of ordering and classifying, and ultimately fighting against the mediocrity of the world. The detectives themselves seem to communicate with the 19th century, one of them reads Nerval’s Aurélia outside of the murder scene and another police officer is named Aurélie. But it is by chance that they ultimately find the killer – a tautologically vulgar plastic surgeon from Cannes who collects stolen art and also makes grotesque montage sculptures out of body parts. The murder and the theft of Houellebecq’s portrait were cheaper than buying it through the art market. Not coincidentally the novel itself was charged with stealing large amounts of text from the Internet, principally from Wikipedia. Houellebecq escaped charges because Wikipedia articles are made up of innumerable fragments from multiple authors who thereby give up their copyright. Authorship, as it was conceived at its height in the industrial era, is dead. Houellebecq’s authorial genius, such as it is, lies not in forging beautiful and original sentences, but in juxtaposing fragments of banal discourse and discourse from the 19th century to create startlingly candid images of contemporary society. He is, in many ways, the modern embodiment of Flaubert’s two idiot copyists, Bouvard and Pécuchet. As his character says, “I think that I am more or less done with the world as narration – the world of novels and of films, the world of music too. I’m only interested in the world as juxtaposition – the world of poetry, of painting.”

The novel’s epilogue describes Jed Martin’s final project where he tries to “account for the world” (“rendre compte du monde”) over the last thirty years or so of his life. Through an incredibly elaborate process, he produces dozens of “videogrammes” with the use of a program from Illinois that allows him to superpose up to 96 different video tracks. He films time lapse video of computer mother boards, tellingly “cartes-mères” or “mother-maps” in French, which are slowly dissolved in acid. These video tracks are then superposed in the manner of early cinema or surrealist cinema with uncanny images of vegetation taken from Martin’s immense, enclosed property in the Creuse. Later he substitutes the mother boards with the pictures of all the people he has known in his life, as if a meditation on his own death. The novel’s own explanation of the artwork proposes two levels. The first is nostalgia for 19th century industrial France, continuing Martin’s early work with tools and maps. This art proceeds first with an understanding and classification of disorder, like police work or Wikipedia or even scholarship, but then moves on to an arrangement or articulation of this classification or taxonomy. The second and more profound meaning is humanity’s fatal struggle to make meaning in the world: Martin’s art, like Houellebecq’s novel and also like 19th century literature as I suggest, is a layering and superposition of spaces and necessarily borrowed banal or historical discourse, to create an image of time combining past, present, and future to show the emergence and subsequent disappearance of difference. But unlike the relative optimism of his 19th century predecessors, Houellebecq’s artist can only see the end of humanity. The last line of the novel, describing the battle between the dissolving images of Martin’s relations into images of plants, says, “The triumph of vegetation is total”. Humanity may be doomed to lose the battle of meaning in the long run, but Houellebecq makes a passionate argument that there is beauty in the struggle.

Essay adapted from a lecture “Map, Territory, Tourist: Ordering the Experience of National Space” delivered by the author at the Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium, Philadelphia, October, 2011


About the Author:

Patrick Bray is Assistant Professor of French at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Novel Map: Space and Subjectivity in 19th-Century French Fiction.