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Michel Houellebecq's "Submission" reviewed by Casey Dorman


By Michel Houellebecq

Translated from the French by Lorin Stein

251 pp. William Heinemann (2015)

Michel Houellebecq’s Submission not only was published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, but a caricature of the author was on the cover of that week’s issue of the magazine. Because the novel dealt with a fictional takeover of France by a Muslim political party and attacked the society that made such an outcome welcome, Houellebecq and his publisher ended that infamous day under police protection from angry French citizens. Even outside of this context, as in Heller McAlpin’s NPR review, Submission has generated as much wrath as it has admiration. McAlpin titled her review, “Don’t take Submission lying down,” a message she directed at women readers because of the novel’s misogynist content, and she described the book as “discomfiting if not downright offensive,” and “too distasteful to be amusing.”

I picked up Submission from an airport bookstore, attracted by the author’s name, because I had previously read and reviewed three of his books in Lost Coast Review, titling my review, “French Nihilism.” Those earlier books, each of which angered some reviewers, particularly American women, as much as this one, left me with the impression that Houellebecq was, as he described himself, a “realist,” who accepted the meaningless of existence and had not found any hopeful alternative to a view that, as I said in my review, is “so deeply pessimistic about the human condition that … its only virtue [is] the brief enjoyment of youth and sexuality, both of which, even as they are being enjoyed, are permeated by the knowledge that with every day, the process of aging is eating away at this only source of happiness.”

Francois, the protagonist of Submission, is turning 44 and seems to have made little or no progress beyond the dilemma in which each of the protagonists of Houellebecq’s earlier novels found himself. In fact, the reality of his condition—his fading interest in sexuality, his loss of enthusiasm for his area of scholarly expertise (the study of the 19th century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysman, who endured a similar loss of meaning to his life before converting to Catholicism), his lack of feeling for either of his parents, and his vapid social life—has left him nearly nonfunctional in his occupation as a college professor and close to suicide.

In the middle of this slowly disintegrating existence, Francois is forced to turn his attention to the French political situation. The novel is set in 2022, in a France in which the secular and philosophically detached elite, who determine the state of the country’s culture, are, in Francois’ mind, floundering nearly as much as he is. In fact, as in his earlier books, it is Houellebecq’s characterization of the French society in this way, and in particular, his insistence that his protagonists are typical modern day French intellectuals, that is a major source of anger for his reviewers. The author is absolutely clear that he is characterizing the French in Submission. As the civil situation unravels and militants attack each other, when explosions are heard throughout Paris, when bodies are found brutally murdered in the streets, the faculty cocktail parties continue undisturbed and the conversations rarely touch on the chaos erupting around them.

Politically, in the presidential elections, Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party fails to win a majority and coming in second is the Muslim Brotherhood, led by a charismatic and pragmatic man who is able to convince the Socialists and the Center Right to fall in behind his leadership to defeat the National Front. What follows is the imposition of Muslim values on the workforce (women are sent home, men take up the slack and unemployment is erased), drastic alteration of the educational system (public school ends at age 12 and private, religious schools take their place for further education and much of the state budget deficit disappears), the Sorbonne becomes an Islamic institution and only male Muslims are allowed to teach (but thanks to Saudi oil money, salaries skyrocket and teachers are allowed, in fact encouraged to take several wives). Throughout France polygamy is encouraged for those who convert to Islam, and women are encouraged to dress conservatively.

In the midst of this drastic change in power in France, Francois loses his professorship at the Sorbonne. He is offered an opportunity to edit a new collection and critique of Huysmans’ work, and he retraces the historical author’s steps to the religious community of Rocamadour to see the Black Virgin, a sacred wooden icon from the Middle Ages. Although he experiences a moment of deep spiritual feeling when he views the statue, it is neither sufficient nor intimate enough to envelop him and he comes away not only feeling estranged from Huysmans, but convinced that his literary hero’s conversion was a matter of trading isolation and the boredom of a civil service job for the comfort of living the life of a Catholic Oblate, dedicated to the Church and writing. In Francois’ mind, Huysman’s choice was one dictated by materialism and the depressing futility of a life spent going Against the Grain of French society (the title of Huysmans most successful pre-conversion novel).

Francois’ revelation about his literary mentor is enough to fuel his own decision to convert to Islam. There are many aspects of the religion that appeal to his biases—male dominance being one of the most salient—but the bottom line is that it allows him to work, to earn more than he has ever earned in the past and to have access to stimulating sex via a marriage to several young wives. Just because he is a French intellectual, he has no competing faith with which to rebut the appeal of Islam. He also sees, in its complete ordering of society as well as in its tenets of faith, the answer to most of society’s ills.

Much of Submission is tongue in cheek. Francois himself is a caricature, an intellectual with a single arcane area of expertise and virtually no knowledge or interest in other aspects of the world. He is both cynical and naïve. His comments on the human condition and on the society around him are worthy of a standup comic. On the verge of a mystical, hallucinatory experience while viewing the Black Virgin, he concludes “Or maybe I was just hungry. I’d forgotten to eat the day before, and possibly what I should do was go back to my hotel and sit down to a few ducks’ legs instead of falling down between the pews in an attack of mystical hypoglycaemia.” When Francois considers his career, he remarks, “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time.” One of my favorite of Francois’ observations was that “It’s hard to understand people, to know what’s hidden in their hearts, and without the assistance of alcohol it might never be done at all.”

Houllebecq’s character, Francois, thinks he’s discovered the fundamental appeal of Islam to the French. It’s an appeal common to all religions, which is why the French Catholics do not seem alarmed. As one of his female colleagues’ husband, a former spy and self-proclaimed student of Islam and the Middle East, tells him, “For these Muslims, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheistic materialism. They think of Catholics as fellow believers. Catholicism is a religion of the Book. Catholics are one step away from converting to Islam—that’s the true, original Muslim version of Christianity.” And it's French secularism, the nonbelief buoyed up by philosophical disapproval of faith, that is the real target of Houllebecq’s novel. Not so much because it creates a vulnerability to a fundamentalist, patriarchal religion such as Islam, which speaks to the human need for order, reasons, simplistic explanations and blind faith, but because secularism is a state of mind that characterizes Houllebecq’s view of the world and he has never found, within it, a counter to the depressing meaninglessness that seems to plague the characters in his novels.

Francois’ acceptance of Islam is clearly a submission, but only partly to the sense of meaning that accompanies any comprehensive world view, such as the one Islam provides. His acceptance is also a submission to the mechanical wheels of materialism that the Muslim Brotherhood has harnessed in its implementation of Islam in France. He will not only regain his professorship, he will increase his salary threefold, and, very importantly for Francois, he will obtain at least three subservient and probably teenage or barely above, wives. As it is explained to him, women are attracted to power and resources. If those men who are most successful in gaining power or wealth are allowed more wives, the women are satisfied because they get what they desire, and those men who have the most talent, and thus the most power and resources, will contribute more offspring to the genepool, thus insuring a constant improvement of the human race. For Francois, and perhaps Houellebecq, secularism provides no competitive argument to these principles.

And that is Houellebecq’s point.

Houellebecq has made the point before that a secular, materialistic stance is not sustainable. His novels trace the outcome of such a stance in his characters, who either lose themselves in a focus upon materialism, fall prey to false prophets, embark upon futile quests for human connection, or succumb to anomie. Francois is no different. While he preserves himself by submitting to Islam, we’re not really able to take his submission seriously. The impression is that he is simply too tired and lost to fight a system that controls the necessities of his life. He welcomes both Islam’s comforting worldview and the material perks that go with the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of Islam. But Francois is not a real person. He knows nothing about politics, the world, or history beyond his narrow focus upon one historical literary figure. His male chauvinism is blatant, crude and satirical. His values appear to be fluid and his lack of engagement with anyone on more than a superficial level is almost autistic, while his knowledge of his own emotional life is nonexistent. His own view that he is “normal” and “typical” is what angers other French intellectuals, who do not see themselves in him.

Francois is a caricature, but does he represent the endpoint of secularism taken to an extreme? In short, is he where France (and perhaps Europe) is headed? That the intellectual left, while being the dominant force in French culture, has no real message, leader, or answer to either rising nativist nationalism or the ominous undercurrent of fundamentalist Islam that characterizes some immigrant communities, may be true. The nativists, particularly in the form the National Front, may win the day, particularly if European immigration policies spawn more terrorist attacks. The likelihood of a viable Muslim Brotherhood-like political movement winning any sizeable portion of the electorate is pure fantasy and a device Houellebecq uses to provide an extreme example for his plot. But the vulnerabilities of the secular culture, which he identifies, may be real. We can see it in the frightened reactions Marine Le Pen has mined to drum up support for her party. We can see it in the acceptance of bigoted stances toward tokens of Islam, such as the wearing of headdresses or more recently the “burkini” flap in Cannes and other Riviera cities. Instead of liberté being the hallmark of French culture, something called “Frenchness” is—an insistence that French identity be protected by restrictions on clothing and language, that secularism be preserved by attacking tokens of religious belief (though always Muslim, rather than Christian tokens). These instances are signs of a cultural point of view that is failing to assert its assets and instead is falling back on defenses against what it considers its threats. Does that mean that it is an empty point of view, one that works when it is battling alternatives, but that ultimately leads nowhere?

My suspicion is that Houellebecq thinks so.



References (3)

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Reader Comments (2)

A review that raises some salient and very uncomfortable points, Casey.
An excellent analysis on your part. For those of us who are living the reality
of the unending attacks in France, this is a time to recoup and work towards
building unity in the country.

August 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRamona Kotur

Special Thanks for this from your friends at...
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September 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

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