Australian Journal of French Studies

Valéry and Houellebecq: The Death (or the Return) of the Subject

Australian Journal of French Studies (2013), 50, (3), 318–331.


In this article, I examine two authors who may appear dissimilar in the extreme: Paul Valéry and Michel Houellebecq. Most commonly associated with Monsieur Teste and Pure Poetry, Valéry is considered a hermetic author, inaccessible to a large public, while Houellebecq is perhaps the only contemporary French author who has attained planetary status as a bestselling novelist. Often dismissed by critics who ascribe his fame less to literary merits than to politically incorrect provocations, Houellebecq has also been labelled a New Reactionary. More specifically, he is viewed as representing the "return" of the subject as opposed, and in reaction, to the "death" of the subject which the progressive thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, and Valéry before them, had theorized. The putative Houellebecquian return of the subject proves, however, to be much more ambivalent than categorical, hence amenable to an opposite interpretation. By means of a pervasive use of contradiction, Houellebecq even seems to obliquely reaffirm the death of the subject. In addition, if the notion of the death of the subject is indelibly linked to poststructuralism, Valéry is an important precursor to it. The bridge thus created between Valéry and Houellebecq is further reinforced by their shared pessimism about human nature, which leads each to conceive of a new human type. This article will conclude with a rapprochement between Valéry's Monsieur Teste and Houellebecq's humanoid clone as embodying such a new type.

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Author details

Webber, Insook