Give us this day our national bread

Michel Houellebecq and the politics of French culture.

Noah Glasgow

September 28, 2023

The week before I left for France, I read two novels set in Paris. The first was Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, which chronicles the rise and fall of three provincial lawyers at the revolutionary beginning of the French republican experiment. The second was Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin, which is, if nothing else, a bitter response to two hundred years of that experiment.  

I first encountered Houellebecq’s writing in Submission, a deceptively quick novel imagining the rise of Muslim government in France. The protagonist François is an aging professor of literature and a trenchant nihilist attempting to navigate the death spiral of the secular West and the rise of a new orthodoxy. The novel is wantonly pornographic: in its sex, its feverish pace, its tabloidish portrait of Islam, its love affair with the Great Replacement (the conspiracy theory that white Europeans are being demographically replaced by non-white peoples, especially from Muslim-majority nations). François spends most of his time in search of pleasure and satisfaction. The novel plays on desire. Houellebecq asks: What is the world we want to inhabit? Do we relish freedom? Or victimhood? Or simple orthodoxy?

Serotonin is the more pornographic novel, in a literal sense. Florent-Claude—a middle-aged nihilist and civil servant, like François—at one point finds videos of a Dobermann “penetrating” his young Japanese girlfriend “with the vigour normally associated with its breed.” The videos leave him “disgusted—particularly on behalf of the dogs.” While traveling in the French countryside, Florent-Claude encounters a German pedophile and watches, “sick to his stomach,” the videos he finds on the pedophile’s laptop. In Serotonin, Houellebecq’s transgression decouples from desire. There is no living vicariously through Florent-Claude, who encounters only filth—filth with no upside, no pleasure. In fact, the antidepressants Florent-Claude takes leave him impotent. 

Is there hope for the West in Serotonin, for a crumbling tradition where we now use our freedom to have sex with animals and abuse children? This is the question Houellebecq hopes we will ask. For he has a ready answer in the failing dairy farmer Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde, a model citizen for the degenerate age. Florent-Claude makes his way to Aymeric’s Normandy farm at the novel’s midpoint as he tries to relive the excitement of a sojourn he took in his youth through northern France. Then, working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Florent-Claude worked to promote regional cheeses. In the intervening decades, French concessions to European Union milk quotas have brought Aymeric and his dairy-farming neighbors to the brink of extinction. 

But Aymeric is not a simple dairy farmer. Instead he’s the last scion of an ancient Norman house. He lives in a hamlet, Thury-Harcourt, that bears his name. Aymeric’s family is the type for which “the social transformations that had taken place in France after 1794” had gone unnoticed, “more or less.” Aymeric farms the land that was once his family’s estate, but he feels the constricting noose of EU regulations around his neck. To keep the cows fed, he has sold off much of the estate to foreign investors. He has built bungalows for tourists. He has sunk so much time into the property that his wife and daughters have fled. He reflects to Florent-Claude, “My life is fucked.”

Aymeric is not given to the “weddings, funerals, the occasional fox hunt” favored by his blue-blooded father, but rather to the nobleman’s ancient calling as servant of the people and giver of justice. In the wake of a neighboring farmer’s suicide, Aymeric organizes a revolt. He loads his pick-up truck with gasoline and blows it up in the middle of a highway leading dairy imports into France. He distributes guns to his neighbors, who form a barricade across the burning road. Facing down the French gendarmes, he shoots himself. A princely portrait of Aymeric, martyr of resistance, lands on the front cover of The New York Times. Is there hope for the West? Perhaps not. Perhaps there is only a flourish of violence. But in that flourish of violence, Houellebecq suggests, we can remember fondly the old French way, the ancient tradition of noble action taken in the name of a downtrodden countryman.

***

One of the first things that you learn in France is never to order a baguette at the boulangerie. Instead, you order the “tradition,” or, more properly, the pain de tradition Français, the traditional bread of France. The tradition is long and cylindrical and scored across the top just like a baguette, but since 1993, the recipe of the tradition has been strictly regulated by the French government. The bread dough cannot be frozen. The flour must be made expressly from wheat. There are no additives but water, yeast, and kitchen salt, the measures of which are specified by law. The result is a bread that—unlike the baguette, fashioned from bleached flour and filled with additives—is darker, tangier, crunchier, and has no real shelf life past twenty-four hours. French men and women buy a tradition every day. 

A surprisingly wide spread of French foodstuffs have their production and distribution circumscribed by French law. Elaborate taxa of appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) and appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) control who can make what wines and cheeses, with which grapes or with milk from which cows, in which regions, with or without which additives, and so forth. True champagne famously comes from the region of Champagne (that is an instance of wine protected by an appellation d’origine). But fewer know that they have never tasted true camembert, Camembert de Normandie AOC, which is made from the raw milk of Normande cows pastured at least six months of the year in one of only four adjoining French departments (there are 101 departments in total), coagulated at a maximum of 37 degrees Celsius, aged for a minimum of thirteen days between 10 degrees and 18 degrees Celsius, and containing at least 38 percent fat in its final product. So has the French state decreed. (It is false camembert, which does not live up to AOC standards, that we consume in the United States and which is produced by large conglomerates in France using foreign milk for predominantly foreign markets.) 

There is an exquisitely simple logic behind these laws: there is a French culture that the French state must defend. There is one and only one pain de tradition Française, and it is the responsibility of France, the state, to see that that bread survives into the modern day. This is all to say that the French state—a republic or otherwise—is intimately involved in the business of defining and controlling French culture. This leaves the Frenchman, insofar as he is inalienable from his bread and his cheese, an artifact of the French state. 

There is no equivalent in the United States. When I say “Je suis Américain” to a Parisian, none of the cultural tokens that might come to his mind—hot dogs, Hollywood films, automatic weapons—are defined by the American government. There is no “American traditional hot dog” laid out in law, no legal definition of the “summer blockbuster.” If there’s one thing associated with Americans that is defined by our government, it is our freedom. Freedom, liberty: they sit at the core of our national identity. The “American” is just a subject of the American government, from which he is owed his liberty. The United States, properly understood, is a great big legal institution set up to provide freedom to its members. (The last two centuries have been, by and large, an experiment in extending the boundaries of membership.) The American is a purely political construct, unlike the Frenchman, who is a cultural construct defined politically. 

American political language appeals endlessly to the freedom of the citizen. The American’s relationship to his government is constructed by defining and redefining freedom. There is a libertarian freedom that holds sovereign personal choice and independence, and there is a progressive freedom that prizes equal opportunity and social welfare. And I think that there’s a freedom transcending this commonplace binary, a freedom to define one’s own values—to act, produce, and create with liberty—and pursue those value’s through an elaborate, if imperfect and inelegant, system of common rights and restrictions. 

For Houellebecq, the imperfection of that system is in its design, in its belief that core values might be determined individually rather than by national tradition. The Enlightenment ideals of the French revolutionaries, inspired by their American compatriots, picked a fight with an ancient and—sometimes literally—noble way of life. Houellebecq contends that the contest is still fought today, only by state bureaucrats who sign the death warrant of French agriculture in the name of the neoliberal freedom of the transnational consumer. In the final convulsions of the Western tradition—the pillar of fire Aymeric launches into the sky—he finds a bleak majesty. In its regulation of culture, even the present French Republic state takes cues from Houellebecq’s moral outlook. France is Houellebecquian, but it isn’t, for Houellebecq’s taste, Houellebecquian enough.

It is at this point that my own experiences—a childhood on an American dairy farm and ten weeks in Paris—shamble back into the picture. I found Aymeric a righteous and earnest symbol before I set out in France. I read in him my parents’ own hopes, in the wake of the financial crisis, to reset their family on an earnest, agricultural footing, devoting themselves to the finer details of craft and taste, walking arm in arm into a way of life relentlessly punished by corporate competition and rising land prices. I approached French agriculture with reverence and curiosity. 

But there is no perfect farmer, certainly not in French agriculture, or agriculture and culinary tradition anywhere. Instead, I think there is a fight by certain people to forge something of value out of the land and its fruits. They are battered on the one hand by the machinery of corporate competition and state failure to regulate international commerce, certainly. But they also face men like Houellebecq and his fictional proxies, who appeal (in one sense or another) to the state to preserve a particular idea of national culture, one that leaves no room for, say, the traveling Jew like myself, reminded with every bite of his pain de tradition Française that he is not eating his bread, but the French man’s bread. 

In the political battle fought along the axis of freedom, the freedom of the consumer and the corporation triumphs over the freedom to produce and create, which is certainly the most important sort of freedom. This triumph, Houellebecq notes, is deplorable. But Houellebecq’s prescription—a desperate burst of Frenchness—is deplorable, too. It is not living but undead. It is exhumed by the state from the premodern world. It presupposes its own superiority. It renders the pleasure of a bite of Camembert de Normandie—and it is a real pleasure—an afterthought. 

One day I’d like to find some French farmer in an ancient village, perhaps a village that bears his name, making some cheese that no one has ever heard of. He worries, of course, about the future of his farm, about milk quotas, and about a neighbor’s death from despair; so he casts his ballot at the polls. But most importantly, he watches to see my eyes light up at the taste of something he has made, something untraditional and freely delicious.

Noah Glasgow is the editor in chief of The Harper Review and a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying history.