David Roberts – Crowds, Cancer, Clones: Houellebecq rewrites Canetti

Crowds, Cancer, Clones: Houellebecq rewrites Canetti

Professor David Roberts will presenting a paper at the Ublendungniversity of Melbourne on May the 5th 2017

The importance of Aldous Huxley for Michel Houellebecq has long been recognised. Atomised (Les particules elementaires, 1998) and The Possibility of an Island both engage with Huxley’s utopian fictions. What has not been recognised is the informing presence of another thinker and writer in Atomised. Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-Fe (Die Blendung) provides Houellebecq with the model and template for his critique of and utopian/dystopian alternative to Huxley’s Brave New World. The theme of Auto-da-Fe is the longing of the ‘elementary particles’ of which society is composed to escape from the burden of individuality. The utopian (or dystopian?) vanishing point of Canetti’s novel is the crowd as the redemptive return to unity, which cancels the world of social and sexual division and death. The suicide of the individual – the novel ends with the famous scholar Peter Kien setting fire to his library – symbolises the suicide of Western civilisation. Houellebecq works not only with the theme of civilizational suicide and the end of humanity but also with Canetti’s structuring contrast between two  antithetical brothers, Peter and George Kien. Reading Atomised against Auto-da-Fe allows us to appreciate the creativity of Houellebecq’s rethinking of his model, which is exactly contemporary (written 1931/1932, published 1935) with Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

Friday the 5th of May @ 3:30pm

Room 506 Babel Building,

University of Melbourne

David Roberts is Emeritus Professor of German, a former director of the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, and co-editor of the social theory journal Thesis Eleven.

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