How Many Wives Does A Man Need: On Knausgaard and Houellebecq


The Dance of the Seven Veils is a term used to refer to the dance performed by Salome before Herod Antipas. It is an elaboration on the biblical story of the execution of John the Baptist, which refers to Salome dancing before the king, but does not give the dance a name. Wilde’s choice of title for the dance has been linked to the popularity of orientalist “veil dances” in the period and to the emergence of striptease acts.

If there is a single term that defines the momentarily trendy work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, perhaps it is this: he tried. Really. He tried his best. It is perhaps no coincidence, no mere accidental pun, that Knausgaard mentions Lars von Trier (ha!) in his New York Times review of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.

Knausgaard is a spectacular case of an also-ran: having tried and failed to be, by his own estimation, a “real” creative writer, he becomes an international sensation by writing a series of highbrow memoirs. Not to give anything away, but in these books (he plagiarizes the title from another failed artist, Adolf Hitler) Knausgaard reads various novels, listens to well-reviewed records, wanders around drunk at night, and turns out to be a decent father. These books are very popular in Knausgaard’s native land of Norway, primarily because the Norwegian translation is excellent.

To understand the difference between Knausgaard and Proust, one has only to read the following, which is “graduate school in Literature” humor at its finest:

You may quite easily conduct a conversation with people about Houellebecq, even members of the literati, without anyone suspecting that you have never read a word he has written. In such conversations I have, for instance, said that I have “skimmed” Houellebecq, or else I have praised him for his courage, and in that way given the impression that of course I have read his work, without actually having to lie about it.

Variations of this joke — which is, “you will think, given who I am, that I most certainly must have read this author, but I haven’t!” — absolutely bring the house down at academic cocktail parties, reason being, that nobody knows (at this point in history) what they are truly supposed to have read. Nobody knows what is essential and what isn’t, because the humanistic disciplines in the West have no idea what they are jointly trying to accomplish. They have no sense of a vocation or a project, and therefore nothing in particular that their acolytes should or shouldn’t read.

Proust would never bother confessing to skimming an author; if he did skim a book, it wasn’t one he thought deserved any more substantial effort. Knausgaard, however, tries to watch and read everything in existence, with the best of intentions, and naturally he does not succeed. This is his way of avoiding the conclusion that there is no point in reading anything. His struggle, therefore, to so many contemporary readers, appears similar to their own. They skip ahead to the ending of their own story by skimming his memoirs.

Thus Knausgaard is partially correct about Houellebecq’s novel Submission when he writes that the novel “is strongly satirical, and its satire is directed toward the intellectual classes, among whom no trace is found of idealism, and not a shadow of will to defend any set of values, only pragmatism pure and simple.” He is talking about himself, to be sure, but he is doing so lucidly, and the natural result is a not-half-bad literary insight. Submission is a satire, but it is not the other things Knausgaard believes it to be. It is not a work of great literary merit, nor is it especially concerned with an absence of faith, although it does accept that absence as a fact.

From a literary standpoint, the problem with Submission — and let’s not spend too long worrying this particular issue — is that it’s derivative. It is not merely derivative of Huysmans, which it wears on its sleeve. It is also copied, at times nearly word-for-word, from The Stranger, and ends with a totalizing irony (the alienated individual celebrating his own brainwashing) that will be all-too-familiar to readers of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange.

(I can already hear Knausgaard apologizing for missing these connections on the grounds that he only read The Stranger once, in high school, and saw Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork Orange while drunkenly preparing to copy it for Halloween.)

Houellebecq’s real problem with modern French society is that he doesn’t see any connection between modern romance, which presupposes individualism, and the practical, collective work of child-rearing. Houellebecq puts his theories in the mouth of a fictitious sociologist:

These developments were turning France into a new kind of society, but it took a young sociologist, Daniel Da Silva, to articulate the change. His groundbreaking essay was ironically entitled “One Day, Son, All This Will Be Yours.” The subtitle was more straightforward: “Toward a Reason-Based Family.” In the introduction, Da Silva expressed his debt to an essay by the philosopher Pascal Bruckner, published a decade earlier, in which Bruckner had argued that marriage for love was a failure; he called for a return to marriage based on reason. Da Silva maintained that family ties, especially the tie between father and son, cannot be based on love, only on the transmission of practical knowledge and on inheritance. The transition to a salaried workforce had doomed the nuclear family and led to the complete atomization of society, and society could be rebuilt only if industry was based on a small-business model. In the past, arguments against romance may have enjoyed a succès de scandale, but before Da Silva the media never took them seriously, thanks to the universal consensus concerning individual liberty, the mystery of love, and so on. Da Silva was quick on his feet, an excellent debater, and basically indifferent to political or religious ideology.

Houellebecq’s point here is not, as Knausgaard would have it, that society is suffering from a lack of “faith in its purest form.” Notice that Da Silva is “basically indifferent to…religious ideology.” Rather, Houellebecq believes that everyone nowadays believes in individualistic romantic love, but only by default. Nobody understands what it is, in fact, that they believe in, and this endangers the whole institution of love as we know it. Once love becomes a sentimental “mystery,” it is only a matter of time before somebody steps in on behalf of reason, and what can be known, and what actually “works.” Do you want an empty ideal, asks Da Silva, or do you want a happy home?

When Houellebecq writes that “the transition to a salaried workforce has doomed the nuclear family,” he means, in essence, that modern people earn too much money. (Whether this is an inherently offensive statement, when over 3 billion people live in poverty, is a subject for another day.) Everyone has the means to support themselves, begging the question of why they would bother living with somebody else. That requires exertion and compromise, and it isn’t “necessary,” even from a sexual standpoint. When the novel’s protagonist runs out of girlfriends, he switches to prostitutes. What’s true of wives is even truer of children. Wives, at least, are chosen deliberately. Children, in Houellebecq, are like something out of The Omen: technically, we conceive them, but then individuality takes possession of them, never to be exorcised. If Houellebecq was asked whether he believes in loving all that is free and independent in children, he would probably respond, “Do you have any experience with free, independent children? In particular, have you noticed how annoying they are?”

Love is paradoxical in nature. We are attracted to people who embody our ideals, but this is not what we ultimately want; we want to be loved for ourselves, which really means that we want to be loved by someone who knows everything about us. When a Lacanian like Slavoj Zizek insists that “the flaw” is the basis of romantic love, he means that a birthmark on a beautiful face is a sort of promise. It makes the beloved seem capable of tolerating us: after all, they have a birthmark! Perhaps they, too, need an understanding lover. Yet this kind of mutual understanding is misrecognized in Submission. The narrator thinks only in terms of sexual compatibility, and when he is compatible with someone, he never stops to ask himself why.

When he loses Myriam, a woman who is his very destiny, he does not know what he has lost. He comes back to life with the prostitute Rachida:

She rested one hand on my ass, then leaned in and started licking my balls. Little by little, with growing amazement, I felt shivers of forgotten pleasure. Maybe Myriam’s e-mail, and the fact that she’d, as it were, officially left me, freed me up in some way. I don’t know. Wild with gratitude, I turned around, tore off the condom, and offered myself up to Rachida’s mouth. Two minutes later, I came between her lips. She meticulously licked up the last drops as I stroked her hair…And maybe, if I kept seeing Rachida on a regular basis, we’d end up having feelings for each other.

This is wildly delusional. Myriam’s breakup email has not freed him; rather, it drives him to find somebody else who reminds him of Myriam: “As for her blow jobs, I’d never encountered anything like them. She approached each one as if it were her first, and would be her last.” The explicit sexual descriptions are red herrings here. The point is that Myriam sees him, as he truly is, and sucks him off anyway: “I looked her in the eye just before she touched her tongue to my cock…she was in a strange state, a frenzy of concentration.” This is the same Myriam who tells the narrator, “you don’t seem to be doing too great yourself. But then you always seemed that way.” She says this, Houellebecq makes sure to observe, “without animosity.” He means that she says it with love.

It is not enough to say that we love other people because of their flaws. Zizek understands love’s insecurity, and articulates it well, but there is something neither ideal nor flawed about individuality. So much about us is neither good nor bad: the position of our sleeping body, the way we hum, what part of the loaf we eat first. In the dystopian France of Submission, polygamy is an escape from the otherwise inevitable confrontation with the beloved’s uniqueness:

I’d been waiting two or three minutes when a door opened to my left and in walked a teenage girl wearing low-waisted jeans and a Hello Kitty T-shirt…”That’s my new wife, Aicha. She’ll be very embarrassed that you saw her without her veil.”

The speaker here is Robert Rediger, and he’s wrong; his young wife is completely veiled by her Hello Kitty T-shirt and her “low-waisted jeans,” which conspire to turn her into the sexual object par excellence. In this brave new world, each wife fits into a different archetypal pigeonhole. Since one wife cannot play every part, it is essential to marry early and often. The aging wives cook extremely good food, as Houellebecq points out repeatedly.

This is what Houellebecq finds most erotic (alas!) but also most objectionable. He complains about male desire while pretending to champion it:

Man is completely ineducable. I don’t care if he’s a language philosopher, a mathematician, or a twelve-tone composer, he will always, inexorably, base his reproductive choices on purely physical criteria, criteria that have gone unchanged for thousands of years. Originally, of course, women were attracted by physical advantages, just like men; but with the right education, they can be convinced that looks aren’t what matters.

This is nonsense, and most conspicuous within this pile of garbage is the nonsense about correctly educating women. Attraction has criteria; love has none. Like all religious madmen, Islamists persist in believing that the goal of education, and the goal of the family, is the “transmission of values.” I cannot transmit a value I do not understand, and the work of understanding is never finished. Accepting religion at face value detracts from the richness of the self and the richness of the world. Houellebecq’s narrator has a disturbing experience visiting Rocamadour, a French shrine to the Virgin Mary. Knausgaard, of course, thinks “he is fully aware of what she represents, something superhuman.” In fact, the Virgin is subhuman. Faced with the statue of the Virgin, he realizes its appeal is purely atavistic: “Moral judgment, individual judgment, individuality itself, were not clear ideas in the mind of Romanesque man, and I felt my own individuality dissolving the longer I sat in my reverie before the Virgin of Rocamadour…I had to get back to Paris.”

I worry, like Houellebecq, about the meanings of the Muslim veil. I don’t begrudge it; people can wear what they want. I just worry about people — as in the old anecdote from Freud — who think that women, or men for that matter, are naked underneath their clothes. Such thinking is positively indecent; underneath their clothes, there’s an endless story.

Which brings me back to Karl Ove Knausgaard, and his unwatched DVD copy of Antichrist by Lars von Trier. He keeps the veil over it — and why? Because he thinks he already knows what it means. (In fact, even I know what it means: it means that Knausgaard has lots of sex with his wife, but it’s a little kinky, and they haven’t really talked about those kinks.) Heaven preserve me from a cocktail party with Knausgaard where he talks about Antichrist‘s disturbing, “uncanny” forest animals, or for that matter about the “courage” of Houellebecq. If I’ve lost my faith in the literati, it’s because of people like him, who buy their opinions secondhand the way folks used to buy books by the pound. I know what Antichrist “means”; what I don’t know is what Knausgaard might gain if he actually watched it. The thing in itself is neither the veil nor the flesh; the dance is the thing, as Herod understood. Give me something real, in excess of everything I know, and I will gladly deliver to you all my articles of “faith,” still bloody, on a platter.

No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, – a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning.
-Joris Karl Huysmans, Against The Grain