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.
- literature and medicine
- patient narratives
- literary theory
- medical humanities
- philosophy of medicine/health care
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JS and IvdV contributed equally.
Contributors This paper is the result of joint authorship. Both authors contributed equally to the text. JS wrote the first version of the paragraphs on 'From brain to gut' and 'Depression as embodied I cannot'; IvdV wrote the first version of the paragraphs on 'Chaos narrative and temporal dislocation' and 'Affective transference'. Both authors then revised and supplemented each other’s paragraphs. Both authors wrote the introduction, conclusion and abstract together.
Funding This research is funded by a Vici grant (277-20-008/2737) from the Dutch Research Council (NWO), which has been granted to Jenny Slatman’s research project “Mind the body: Rethinking embodiment in health care” (2017-2022).
Competing interests None declared.
Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.
Patient consent for publication Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data availability statement Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study. No data are available. This paper involves an analysis of the novel Serotonin by the French writer Michel Houellebecq. The novel is worldwide available in libraries and bookstores.
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