Illustration by Sunra Thompson
With the holidays looming comes the prospect of parties to attend. If that proposition fills you with dread, here are a few handy tips from Michel Houellebecq, a seemingly unlikely purveyor of self-help. Then again, he may know what he’s talking about going by the memorably miserable party scenes in his books, notably the opener of Extension du Domaine de la Lutte in which the protagonist, having downed four vodkas, starts to feel ill, proceeds to collapse onto a pile of cushions behind a sofa where subjected to eavesdropping on a punishingly vapid conversation about the merits of miniskirts in the workplace he eventually drifts off, only to find on resurfacing that he’s vomited all over the carpet. After moving some cushions over to cover up the vomit, he decides it’s time to leave, but it turns out somewhere along the night, he lost his keys.
The point of a party is to make us forget we are solitary, wretched and betrothed to death; in other words, to transform us into animals. Which is why savages have a highly developed party sense. Light up a bunch of hallucinogenic buds, shake a couple of tambourines, and presto! it doesn’t take much. At the other end of the spectrum, the average guy in the west acquires insufficient quantities of ecstasy only after endless raves whence he emerges deaf and drugged up. He has no party sense whatsoever. Profoundly self-conscious, radically estranged from others, terrorized by the idea of death, he’s quite incapable of achieving any form of exaltation. And still he persists. The loss of his animal state saddens him and breeds shame and rancor. He would like to be a partier or at least to pass for one. He’s in a tough spot.
What am I doing with these idiots?
“For when two or three gather together in My name, there I am with them.” (Matthew, 18: 20) And therein lies the problem: gathered in the name of what? What could actually justify being gathered?
Gathered for fun
This is the worst hypothetical. In these sorts of circumstances (nightclubs, dances, parties) that are in no way visibly fun, there is but one solution: the pick-up, to hit on someone. At which point you leave party mode to enter a fierce narcissistic contest, with or without penetration as an option (it is classically deemed that a man needs penetration to obtain the desired narcissistic gratification, he then feels something akin to the bonus round sounds of old pinball machines. Women, most often, settle for the certainty that one wishes to penetrate them). If this sort of game turns your stomach, or if you feel you won’t make the cut, there’s only one solution, leave as quickly as possible.
Gathered for the good fight
The idea, off the bat, is ingenious; indeed, the felicitous glue of a common cause can generate a group effect, a sense of belonging, an authentic collective euphoria even. Sadly, crowd psychology follows an invariable rule: in the end, it’s always the stupidest and most brutish who dominate. So, you end up among a bunch of braying boors, dangerous even. The choice here is the same as at the nightclub: leave before it all starts to fall apart, or hit on someone in a context that, in this case, is more favorable: the presence of common convictions, feelings provoked by how the protest plays out have been known to slightly rattle the narcissistic shell.
Gathered to fuck (sex clubs, private orgies, certain New Age groups)
One of the simplest and oldest formulas: gathering humanity based on what they actually share. Sexual acts take place, even absent pleasure often. Still, it’s something, but that’s about all it is.
Gathered for worship (church services, pilgrimages)
Religion offers an altogether original formula, audaciously denying partings and death while affirming that, contrary to appearances, we are all bathed in divine love while moving towards a happy eternity. A religious ceremony where the participants have faith therefore, provides the sole example of a successful party. Certain agnostic participants might even, for the duration of the celebration, be overcome by a sentiment of faith, but they run the risk, afterwards, of a terrible crash (a bit like sex, but worse). One solution: to be touched by grace.
Pilgrimages, combining as they do the benefits of student protests with those of youth travel, all in an atmosphere of spirituality aggravated by fatigue, further foster the ideal conditions for the pick-up which, as a consequence, becomes involuntary to the point of being sincere. The best case scenario at the end of a pilgrimage: marriage plus conversion. At the other extreme, the crash can be dreadful. Plan to book a package winter sports vacation to immediately follow. You can always cancel if need be. Make sure to read the small print when making the reservation.
Parties without tears
To summarize, all it takes to have an awful time is to have planned on having a good time. The ideal, therefore, would be to renounce going to parties altogether. Sadly, the partygoer is such a highly esteemed personage that such renunciation is bound to drastically downgrade one’s social standing. The following advice should allow you to avoid the worst possible outcome (remaining alone till the very end, in a state of boredom verging on desperation, under the misapprehension that others are having a good time).
• Fully understand at the outset that the party will necessarily be a failure. Visualize examples of previous disasters. It’s not so much a matter of adopting a cynical and blasé attitude. On the contrary, humble, good-natured acceptance of the shared catastrophe allows one to achieve success by transforming a failure of a party into a pleasant banality.
• Always plan on going back home alone and in a cab.
• Before the party, drink. In moderate measure, the socializing, euphoric effects of alcohol remain unrivaled.
• In the course of the party, drink, but diminish the dose (the cocktail of alcohol plus ambient eroticism quickly leads to violence, to suicide and to murder). It’s wiser to take half a sedative at an opportune moment. With the alcohol enhancing the effects of the tranquilizer, drowsiness will set in rapidly. That’s your cue to call a cab. A good party is a short party.
• After the party, call to say thank you. Wait serenely for the next party (allow a one-month interval which may be shortened to one week during the holiday season).
Lastly: a consoling perspective: with age, the need to party subsides, the penchant for solitude intensifies, real life prevails.
This text first appeared in the magazine 20 Ans in 1996, then in the collection Rester Vivant et autres textes (Librio, 1999) and appears in Interventions 2 (Flammarion 2009), a collection of Houellebecq’s essays.
Dorna Khazeni lives in Altadena at the foot of California’s San Gabriel mountains on a block where everyone’s in bed by 9 p.m. and no one parties. Believer Books published her translation of Houellebecq’s book on H.P. Lovecraft in 2005. She has most recently translated Testament of the Dead Daughter by René (Colette Thomas) forthcoming from Univocal Publishing in 2016.