Gut feelings: Depression as an embodied and affective phenomenon in Houellebecq’s Serotonin

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Abstract

Current debates about the possible causes of depression reinforce the age-old
body–mind dualism: while some claim that depression is caused by psychological or societal stress, others underline that it results from a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the central nervous system. This paper shows that Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Serotonin can be read as
an account of depression that goes beyond this body– mind dualism. Moreover, we will argue that his way of narrating invites us to reconsider the restorative power of narrative in ’pathography,’ a genre that is a primary focus within medical humanities. The first section of the paper discusses, while drawing on Wilson’s work on new materialism, that although the title of the novel
Serotonin may suggest that Houellebecq takes sides with those who believe that depression is a brain disease, the protagonist of the novel suffers mainly from his gut feelings, which affects his entire embodied existence. Against the background of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, the second section specifies this existential disruption in terms of an embodied ’I cannot.’ In the third section,
we make clear how Houellebecq’s way of narrating— plotless and episodic—reinforces these embodied feelings of incapacity. The final section, then, traces how Houellebecq, by means of his style of writing and his choice of themes, succeeds in transferring gut feelings onto the reader. If illness narratives aim at sharing experiences of illness, the ’narrative’ of depression, so we argue, had better take the form of an anti-narrative or a chaos story. Indeed, Houellebecq’s anti-narrative succeeds in passing on to the reader the experience of a debilitating gut feeling, and a gradual loss of grip that manifests itself as a temporal and spatial disorientation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-9
JournalBMJ Medical Humanities
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Jun 2020

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