chapter
Excursus IV: the map, the territory, and the impossibility of painting a priest
Pages 13

If Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, The Map and the Territory, is a ‘novel of ideas’ (Kipnis 2012), the pivotal idea that serves as its meta-plot is the total subsumption of the society under capital. Houellebecq’s is a late modern world in which capital tends to replace, like a map, the actual experience of life, the territory; a world in which everything is modeled on the logic of businesses; capitalism has taken the place of religion. As the novel gradually takes this idea to its logical extremes we find ourselves within a dystopia even darker than The Possibility of an Island, which was praised as ‘the first great, and thus far unrivalled dystopia for the liquid, deregulated, consumption-obsessed, individualized era’ (Bauman 2012: 21). All Houellebecq novels focus on contemporary problems, including the misery caused by commodification processes and the consequent breakdown of social bonds. Religion, too, is a significant topic in this context. However, The Map and the Territory distils the relationship between religion and capitalism anew, and this relationship, together with the political questions it invites, will be the leitmotiv for my considerations here. The protagonist of The Map and the Territory is a commercially successful

photographer and painter, Jed Martin. Like all other Houellebecq characters he is a weary loner who ‘never totally signed up’ to his own existence (2011: 290). He is not used to seeking others’ friendship (Ibid. 26). Thus he spends all his time working. A hard-working artist, his greatest ambition is to represent reality as accurately as possible, ‘to give an objective description of the world – a goal whose illusory nature he rarely sensed’ (Ibid. 28). Initially he specializes in photographing manufactured objects. Then he starts to take pictures of Michelin maps, which plays a decisive role in his artistic career. His photographs sell for high prices to Chinese, Russian, and Indian rich. But he achieves global fame when he starts to paint ‘Professions’ – a series portraying some typical professions, through which Martin studies the contemporary society, trying to give an image of its functioning on the basis of the notion of work. Indeed, Jed’s artwork is ‘a homage to human labour’ (Ibid. 27).