Staying Alive (Michel Houellebecq)

by Michel Houellebecq

“The universe screams. The concrete records the violence that’s hit it like a wall. The concrete cries. The grass groans under the animal teeth. And Man? What can we say of man?”

The world is suffering spread out, on display. At its origin, there is a knot of suffering. All existence is an expansion and a crushing. All things suffer until they are. Nothingness vibrates with suffering, until it arrives at being: in an abject paroxysm.

Beings diversify and complexify themselves, without losing their first nature. At a certain level of consciousness, the cry becomes manifest. Poetry derives from this. Articulated language, likewise.

The first poetic process consists in going back to the origin. Namely: to suffering.

The modes of suffering are important; they are not essential. All suffering is good; all suffering is useful; all suffering bears its fruits; every suffering is a universe.

Henry is one year old. He lies on the floor, his diapers are soiled; he bawls. His mother passes by and returns, clacking her heels on the tiled section, looking for her bra and skirt. She’s rushing to get to her date tonight. This little thing covered in shit, who stirs with agitation on the tiles, exasperates her. She starts shouting herself. Henry shrieks with renewed vigor. Then she leaves.

Henry is well on his way to a career as a poet.

Mark is two. His father is about to die of cancer in the hospital. This sort of worn-out machinery, with some tubes in the mouth and some drips, that’s his dad. Only his look is alive; they express pain and fear. Mark suffers too. He is also afraid. He loves his dad. And at the same time he starts to long for his father to die, and to feel guilty about it.

Mark will have to work. He will build up inside himself this very particular and fecund suffering: the Most High Guiltiness.

Michael is five. No girls have ever hugged him. He would like to dance with Sylvie; but Sylvia dances with Patrick; and it is plainly obvious she enjoys it. He is frozen; the music penetrates the deepest regions in him. It’s a magnificent slow dance, a surreal beauty. He hadn’t known you could suffer that much. His childhood up to now had been happy.

Michael will never forget the contrast between his heart frozen by suffering and the overwhelming beauty of the music. His sensibility is on the way to being formed.

If the world is made up of suffering, it’s because it is essentially free. Suffering is the necessary consequence of the free play of the parts of the system. You must know that and say it.

It will not be possible for you to transform suffering into a goal. Suffering is and consequently it cannot become a goal.

In the wounds it inflicts upon us, life alternates between the brutal and the insidious. Get to know these two forms. Practice them. Acquire a complete understanding of them. Distinguish between what separates them and what unites them. Many contradictions will then be resolved. Your speech will gain in force and in amplitude.

Bear in mind the characteristics of the modern age, that love may no longer reveal itself; still, the ideal of love is not diminished. As an ideal, it is fundamentally situated outside of time; it can neither diminish nor disappear.
Hence an ideal-real discordance that is particularly glaring, a source of particularly rich sufferings.
The adolescent years are important. Once you have developed a sufficiently ideal, sufficiently noble and perfect conception of love, you are ruined. From then on, nothing will be enough for you.
If you don’t date women (out of timidity, ugliness, or some other reason), read feminine magazines. You will experience sufferings nearly similar to yours.

Go to the bottom of the abyss of the absence of love. Cultivate hate of self. Hate yourself, disregard others. Hate others, disregard yourself. Mix it all together. Make a synthesis. In the tumult of life, be always lost. See the universe as a dance hall. Stock up frustrations in great number. Learn to become poet; it’s to unlearn how to live.

Love your past or hate it; but may it stay present in your gaze. You must gain a complete understanding of yourself. In this way, little by little, your profound ego will be detached, will glide beneath the sun; and your body will remain in place; inflated, puffed-up, irritated; a wall for new sufferings.
Life is a series of stress tests. Past the first tests, fail the last ones. Waste your life, but only waste it a little. And suffer, always suffer. You must learn to feel pain through all your pores. Every fragment of the universe must be a personal injury to you. Nonetheless, you have to stay alive – at least for a while.

Timidity is not to be disdained. One might consider it the unique source of inner richness; that is not wrong. It is, effectively, in that moment of lag between will and act that interesting mental phenomena start to manifest themselves. The man in whom this delay is absent remains near to the animal. Timidity is an excellent starting point for a poet.

Develop a deep resentment towards life within yourself. This resentment is necessary for all true artistic creation.
Sometimes, it’s true, life will appear to you merely as an incongruous experience. But resentment must always remain close, at your fingertips – even if you do not choose to express it.
And return always to the source, which is suffering.

Once you arouse  a mixture of frightened pity and contempt in others, you’ll know you’re on the right track. You’ll be able to start writing.


“A force becomes movement once it enters
into action and grows in duration.”

If you don’t succeed in articulating your suffering in a well-defined structure, you’re fucked. Suffering will eat you alive from the inside out until you have had time to write down whatever it is.
Structure is the only way to avoid suicide. And suicide solves nothing. Imagine if Baudelaire had succeeded in his suicide attempt when he was twenty-four.

Believe in structure. Believe in the old metrical forms, as well. Versification is a powerful tool for liberating the inner life.

Do not feel obligated to invent a new form. New forms are rare. One per century, that’s already good. And it is not necessarily the greatest poets who originate them. Poetry is not a work on language; not essentially. Words are under the care of the whole of society.

Most new forms are not produced from zero but by a slow derivation based on previous forms. The tool adapts, little by little; it undergoes minor modifications; the novelty that results from their coinjoint effect generally only appears at the end, once the work is written. This is altogether comparable to animal evolution.

At first you will emit inarticulate cries. And you will often be tempted to come back to them. This is normal. Poetry, in reality, slightly precedes articulated language.
Dive back into inarticulate cries each time you feel it necessary. It is a fountain of youth. But don’t forget: if you don’t get out of it, at least once every now and then, you will die. The human organism has its limits.

At the paroxysm of suffering, you cannot write anymore. If you’re feeling its force, try anyhow. The outcome will probably be bad; probably, but not definitely.

Don’t ever work. Writing poems is not work; it is a burden, a responsibility.

If the implementation of a determined form (for example the Alexandrian) demands effort, give it up. This type of effort never pays off.
The overall effort, the permanent, consistent effort to escape from apathy, is a different story. It is indispensable.
On the subject of form, never hesitate to contradict yourself. Bifurcate, change direction as many times as necessary. Do not push yourself too much to have a coherent personality; this personality exists, whether you like it or not.

Neglect nothing that might procure for you a parcel of equilibrium. In any case, happiness is not for you; this is decided, and has been for a long time. But if you can snatch up a few of its simulacra, do it. Without hesitation.
In any event, it will not last.

Your existence is now only a tissue of sufferings. You think you’ll be able to deploy them in a coherent form. Your focus, at this stage: hope for an adequate living [une vie suffisante].


“The profession of letters is still the only one where you can not make any money without being ridiculed.” —Jules Renard

A dead poet writes no more. Thus the importance of staying alive.

The reasoning is simple, but it will sometimes be difficult to sustain. Particularly over the course of prolonged periods of creative sterility. Keeping yourself alive will seem to you, in such circumstances, to be painfully futile; at any rate, you will write anymore.
There is only one response to this: deep down, you don’t know anything about it. And if you examine yourself honestly, you will eventually have to admit to it. We’ve seen some strange circumstances.
If you don’t write anymore, it is perhaps the prelude to a change in form. Or a change of theme. Or both. Or maybe it is, effectively, the prelude to your creative death. But you have no idea. You will never exactly  know this part of yourself that pushes you to write. You will only know it in approximate and contradictory forms. Egoism or dedication? Cruelty or compassion? Anything could be a support. This is proof that, in the end, you know nothing; therefore, do not behave as if you knew. Before your ignorance, before this mysterious part of yourself, remain honest and humble.

Not only do poets who live to old age produce more on the whole, but old age is also the site of particular physical and mental processes, and it would be a shame to misunderstand them.
That said, surviving is extremely difficult. One might think of adopting a strategy à la Pessoa: Find a small job, publish nothing, await your death peacefully.
In practice, one will run into substantial difficulties: the feeling of losing time, of not belonging and having no place, of one’s real value not being recognized… all this will quickly become unbearable. Alcohol will be hard to avoid. At the end of the day, that path will end in bitterness and acrimony, quickly followed by apathy and complete creative sterility.
This solution thus has its inconveniences, but in general it is the only one. Don’t forget about the psychiatrists who have the power to give you a break from work. However, a prolonged stay at a psychiatric hospital is to be proscribed: too destructive. Only use this as a last resort, as an alternative to homelessness.

The mechanisms of social welfare (unemployment benefits, etc.) will have to be used to the fullest, as well as the financial support of more well-to-do friends. Do not develop any excessive guilt in this regard. The poet is a sacred parasite.

The poet is a sacred parasite; like beetles in ancient Egypt, he can prosper from the body of societies that are wealthy and decomposing. But he belongs just as well at the heart of frugal and strong societies.

You don’t have to beat yourselves up. Boxers fight each other, not poets. But, all the same, it is necessary to publish a little bit; this is the necessary condition for posthumous recognition to take place. If you do not publish a minimum (even if only a few texts in second order reviews), you will pass unperceived into posterity; just as unnoticed as you were while you were alive. Even if you are the most perfect genius, you must leave a trace; and put your confidence in the literary archeologists to dig up the rest.
This can fail; it often does fail. You must at least once a day repeat to yourself that the essential thing is to make it possible.
Studying the biography of your favorite poets may be helpful to you; this should allow you to avoid certain mistakes.
Rest assured that as a general rule there is no good solution to the problem of material survival; but there are very bad ones.

The problem of where to live will in general not arise; you will go where you can. Just try to avoid neighbors who are too noisy, for they alone are capable of provoking a definitive intellectual death.
A small professional insertion can provide some insight, potentially useful in a later work, into the functioning of society. But a period of vagabondage, where one plunges into  marginality, brings a different knowledge with it. The ideal is to alternate.
The other realities of life, like a harmonious sexual life, marriage, having children, are both beneficial and fecund. But they are nearly impossible to attain. These are, on the artistic map, practically unknown territories.

In general, you will be tossed between bitterness and anxiety. In both cases, alcohol will help you. The essential thing is to obtain a few moments of remission that will allow for the realization of your work. They will be brief; force yourself to seize them.

Don’t be afraid of happiness; it doesn’t exist.



Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. –II Timothy 2:15

Do not study knowledge for its own sake. Anything that does not proceed directly from emotion is, in poetry, of zero value.
(Of course emotion should be understood here in the broad sense; some emotions are neither agreeable nor disagreeable; that is generally the case with the feeling of strangeness.)

Emotion abolishes the causal chain; it alone is capable of making things in themselves perceivable; the transmission of this perception is the object of poetry.
This identity of purpose between philosophy and poetry is the source of the secret complicity that links them. The latter does not manifest itself in any essential way through the writing of philosophical poems; poetry must discover reality through its own ways and means, purely intuitively, without passing through the filter of an intellectual reconstruction of the world. Even less through philosophy expressed in poetic form, which is most often nothing but a miserable con. But it is always among poets that a new philosophy will find its most serious, attentive, and fertile readers. Likewise, only certain philosophers will be able to discern, to shed light on and use the truths hidden in poetry. In poetry, almost as much as in direct contemplation – and much more than in previous philosophies – that they will find material for new representations of the world.

Respect the philosophers, don’t imitate them; your path, unfortunately, is elsewhere. It is indissociable from neurosis. Poetic experience and the neurotic experience are two paths that cross, criss-cross, and usually end by merging together; the poetic vein dissolves into bloody flood of neurosis. But you have no choice. There is no other way.

Permanent work on your obsessions will end up transforming you into a pathetic mess, sapped by anxiety or devastated by apathy. But, I repeat, there is no other way. You have to reach the point of no return. Break the circle. And produce some poems before you crash into the ground. You will have caught a glimpse of immense spaces. Every great passion leads to infinity.

Ultimately, love solves all these problems. Likewise, every great passion concludes by leading to a zone of truth.  To a different space, extremely painful, but where the view stretches far and clear. Where the cleared objects appear in their clearness, their limipid truth.

Believe in the identity between the True, the Beautiful and the Good.

The goal of the society you live in is to destroy you. So much what you have is at its service. The weapon it will employ is indifference. You cannot let yourself adopt the same attitude. Spring into action! [Passez à l’attaque!]

Every society has its points of least resistance, its sore spots. Put your finger on the wound and press good and hard.
Dig deeper into the subjects no one wants to talk about. Behind the scenes, the underside of the decor. Insist upon malady, agony, ugliness. Talk about death and oblivion. About jealousy, indifference, frustration, the absence of love. Be abject, you will be true.

Adhere to nothing. Or else do adhere, but betray immediately. No theoretical allegiance should detain you for very long. Militantism makes a person happy, and you do not have to be happy. You exist on the side of misfortune; you are the somber part.

Your mission is not first and foremost to propose, nor to construct. If you can do it, do it. If you are led to insoluble contradictions, say so. For your most profound mission is to dig deeper toward the True. You are the gravedigger and the cadaver. You are the body of society. You are responsible for the body of society. Responsible for it all, in equal measure. Embrace the earth, the garbage!

Determine innocence, determine culpability. First of all in yourself, which will furnish a guide. But also regarding others. Consider their behavior and their excuses; then judge, in total impartiality. You will not be spared; spare no one.

You contain riches. You know Good, you know Evil. Never give up separating them; do not let yourself get bogged down in tolerance, the poor stigmata of this age. Poetry is in a position to establish definitive moral truths. You must hate liberty with all your might.

The truth is scandalous. But, without it, nothing is worth anything. An honest and naive vision of the world is already a masterpiece. In the face of this demand, originality doesn’t weigh much. Don’t be preoccupied by it. In any event, an originality is bound to emerge from the sum of your failures. As for what concerns you, just speak the truth; speak the truth wholly simply, no more, no less.

You cannot love the truth and the world. But you have already chosen. The problem now consists in holding to this choice. I invite you to keep your chin up, protect your courage. Not that you have anything to hope for. On the contrary, know that you will be very alone. Most people settle and make a deal with life, or else they die. You are a living suicide.

To the degree you approach the truth, your solitude will increase. The building is splendid, but deserted. You march in empty rooms that return to you the echo of your step. The atmosphere is limpid and unchangeable; objects seem to be frozen statues. At times you will be brought to tears, so cruel is the clarity of vision. You would like to turn back, back to the fogs of ignorance; but deep down you know it’s already too late.

Keep going. Don’t be afraid. The worst has already taken place. Of course, life will rip you apart again; but, as for you, you no longer have much to do with it. Remember this: fundamentally, you are already dead. You are now face to face with eternity.


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