Houellebecq, for example, writes a great deal about how the sexual revolution, rather than making everybody happier, has actually increased the amount of loneliness and dislocation in modern society. Now, Houellebecq may have just won the Prix Goncourt, but when he first emerged the critics treated him like the antichrist.
Ballard, who goes back the farthest, was writing about the intersection of media, technology, and the darker impulses and desires of human beings decades before anyone had imagined things like ubiquitous pornography, 24-hour-a-day news coverage, or the Internet. The critical establishment is just now starting to accept him; mainly, I imagine, because of his recent death. He’s safe for them now. No more unpleasant surprises.
Fortunately, I think this shadow literature is expanding. A novel was just published in Israel called Safari that is much in the tradition of Ellis and Houellebecq, and while it isn’t quite up to that level, it is a bracing piece of work and totally unlike anything else in Hebrew-language literature today, which tends to be really quite maudlin and politically correct.
FP: Tell us a bit about the French literary trend called Depressionism.
Kerstein: Depressionism is a semi-organized artistic movement that tries to critique modern life—or post-modern life, if you like—by pointing out and accentuating its most depressing aspects: loneliness, dislocation, the loss of identity and social bonds, etc. I think Houellebecq described it best, without really meaning to, when he said that in his work he tries to question “the official version” of life, which tells us “that everything is fine, that things are getting better and better and that the only people who deny this are a bunch of neurotic nihilists.”
To an extent, this isn’t at all political, but it does eviscerate the most basic assumptions and assertions of the post-‘60s cultural establishment, which is that once upon a time everything was horrible, but then we liberated ourselves intellectually, culturally, and sexually, and now we live in a modern world that is either the best of all possible worlds or a world that is flawed but whose flaws can be fixed by through more liberation.
Depressionism, on the other hand, says that the modern world is pretty bad all round and we might as well at least be honest about it. In a certain sense, that’s the most subversive thing you can say in the West today. We’re all supposed to be smiling and happy all the time—Oprah told us so, after all—and if we aren’t happy it’s because we’re hung up on our old attachments and beliefs and simply have to open our mind to new possibilities and adopt a positive attitude. Depressionism tends to see this kind of thinking as, at best, a self-destructive delusion. As Houellebecq wrote of H.P. Lovecraft, “he saw no reason to believe that by looking at things better they might appear differently.”
That is not to say that Depressionism is necessarily a gift to the Right, either. Conservatism generally tries to preserve traditional things and even return to them after they’ve been abandoned. Depressionism more or less holds that there is no way back, the “storm called progress,” as Walter Benjamin called it, has come and it can’t be stopped or even slowed down.
This appears to be completely despairing attitude, but I’m not sure it is. Any artistic movement is looking for some sort of connection, so perhaps within Depressionism there is the hope that, by sharing our sense of sadness, loneliness, or dissatisfaction with the modern world, we can retrieve some of the sense of human empathy that’s been lost in the upheavals of modernity.
FP: What is your own political and intellectual journey? How come you are not a leftist?
Kerstein: Again, there are long and short answers. The short answer is anti-Semitism. The long answer is that I grew up in a very leftwing environment and eventually found it so suffocating and oppressive that I simply had to break out of it. I’ve actually come to view it, especially in terms of institutional education, as a form of psychological abuse. When you tell children that everyone is racist, sexist, and homophobic and you’d better keep a close eye on yourself and make sure you aren’t racist, sexist, or homophobic, you’ve essentially created a totalitarian state of being. But the worst thing is that it’s an auto-totalitarianism. It’s something they convince you to do to yourself. Personally, I think this type of thing is utterly monstrous and if it were undertaken by, say, a religious cult, it would be universally—and quite rightly—condemned.
I think there’s a great deal of that in my novel, actually, especially in the character of Quinn himself, who’s essentially a ferociously moralistic person who uses that moralism to control people. Rightwingers make a terrible mistake when they see Leftwingers as nihilists. They’re violently moral people. That’s what makes them capable of some really quite appalling things.
There was a specifically Jewish aspect to this as well, in that I think we were also taught to be essentially self-hating. If we didn’t hate ourselves and hate Israel, we were told that we were racist and in that world “racist” is just another word for “pure evil.” I came to feel that these people who claimed to be so anti-racist actually loathed the Jews and that this was particularly dangerous because they considered themselves incapable of loathing the Jews. I think I left all that for good when the second intifada broke out. I thought, and I still think, that a great many people on the left—whether conscious of it or not—are of the opinion that the Arabs have earned the right to murder Jews. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to stick around to see how that particular psychosis played itself out.
FP: Benjamin Kerstein, thank you for joining us today and sharing your profound work and journey with us.
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