Nietzsche, Schopenhauer & Houellebecq

Eddie Ejjbair
7 min readFeb 12

Michel Houellebecq — who is arguably the most important author alive — is a figurative descendant of Schopenhauer. As many have already pointed out, the whole of Houellebecq’s work can be read through the filter of Schopenhauer’s philosophy:

In both cases, suffering is taken for granted, and there is the same pessimism, the same conception of style, and even the same central emphasis on compassion as the general basis for ethics; we also find the same salvific character of aesthetic contemplation, and the same impossibility of ‘being at home’ in the world (Agathe Novak-Lechevalier)

In his book, In the Presence of Schopenhauer, Houellebecq acknowledges his indebtedness to the so-called ‘Buddha of Frankfurt’, and argues that ‘even if you find yourself in disagreement with him, you cannot fail to be deeply grateful to him’.

It would seem as though, for Houellebecq, there is no ‘anxiety of influence’, no distancing himself from his figurative forefather. According to Harold Bloom and his theory of influence, the relationship between ‘precursors and their poetic “sons” is [akin] to a Freudian “family romance,” where poetic relations seem to bear familial resemblances to one another’ (Geddes). Usually, ‘conscious admission of the precursors’ influence can be the death-knell for the [poetic son’s] self-confidence as a unique and unprecedented creator’.

Illustration by Edward Sorel

Contrary to this, Houellebecq embraces his influencer. There is no paternal angst, no contempt. There is, however, a familial rivalry — not between father and son, but between siblings. Schopenhauer had another well-known descendant, one that Houellebecq read first — and one that bears all the hallmarks of Bloom’s anxiety of influence: Friedrich Nietzsche.

Before reading Schopenhauer, Houellebecq says that he was ‘stuck’ at Nietzsche. There is, in his encounter with Nietzsche, a mixture of admiration and disgust:

I found his philosophy immoral and repulsive, but his intellectual power impressed me. I would have liked to destroy Nietzscheanism, to tear it down to its very foundations, but I did not know how to do so…

Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’