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At Least It’s an Ethos

Review: Michel Houellebecq, ‘Submission’

Michel Houellebecq / AP
• October 30, 2015 5:00 am

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The imminent-future dystopia portrayed in Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is not nearly so bad as the worlds described in other examples of the genre. In 1984, to cite an obvious case, post-war England has disintegrated into a totalitarian hellscape known officially only as Airstrip One. In the France of Submission, set in 2022, at first everything seems quite similar to the present day. The only detectable false note is the heightened appetite of the Parisian characters for Moroccan cuisine and hookah. It was a bright, cold day in April, and everybody wanted to get falafel…

But as our protagonist, a prominent academic named François, goes about his days teaching 19th-century literature, it becomes increasingly apparent that France—or France as we know it—is coming to an end. A cocktail party celebrating the latest issue of a literary journal at the Musée de la Vie romantique on the Rue Chaptal is interrupted by the sounds of an explosion and small arms fire at the Place de Clichy; the guests calmly head for home, where they are not surprised to find that news of the fighting—presumably between some combination of members of the far right, the Islamists, and state security—has been suppressed by the authorities. The Muslim Brotherhood has become a political force, with prospects to win the approaching presidential election. Young men of Arab descent wander the halls of the universities, ensuring the virtue of their veiled "sisters."

François’ response to all of this is … nothing, effectively. He is the quintessential chestless man—as Houellebecq is at (sometimes laborious) pains to demonstrate—a product of late social democracy and a near-perfect monad, drifting through life without friends, lovers (except in the mechanical sense), political engagement, or meaning of any kind. François once wrote a well-received book about Joris-Karl Huysmans, and despite his intelligence hasn’t done much thinking since. The character is modeled somewhat loosely on Huysmans—the "decadent" 19th-century novelist, just as Submission itself is loosely modeled Huysmans’ most famous novel, Against Nature.

The moral crisis of France after the Franco-Prussian war—the period that produced the bleak visions of Baudelaire and the Symbolists, and thus in turn the modernists—hasn’t gone anywhere for Houellebecq. If anything, things are worse, due to the vital presence of the Brotherhood, poised to sweep away the existing order and accomplish what the Umayyads failed to do at the Battle of Tours. Or, as François comes ultimately to suspect, maybe things are better, precisely because of Islam. For him, France’s leftist political mainstream is utterly bankrupt, but so is the right, inasmuch as it peddles a racial vision that is demographically hopeless, and is committed to a religion which itself contained the seeds of social democracy.

Far preferable to the individualist Christianity of the modern world, for François, was its more political medieval iteration. Fleeing Paris for the southwest during a period of violence, he contemplates the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, marveling at the difference between its message and that of contemporary Christianity:

There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. … In the early Middle Ages … the question of individual judgment barely came up. … The Romanesque vision was much more communal: at his death, the believer fell into a deep sleep wand was laid in the earth. When all the prophecies had been fulfilled and Christ came again, it was the entire Christian people who rose together from the tomb, resurrected in one glorious body, to make their way to paradise. Moral judgment, individual judgment, individuality itself, were not clear ideas in the mind of Romanesque man, and I felt my own individuality dissolving the longer I say in my reverie before the Virgin of Rocamadour.

But in the France of 2022, that version of Christianity is as dead a letter as can be. Luckily for our morally exhausted anti-hero, a not-dissimilar alternative is available.

To say that in France Submission hits awfully close to home is a little bit like saying that Uncle Tom’s Cabin seemed to bear some relevance to debates over the peculiar institution. The novel was released on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks—as it happens, the cover of that week’s issue of Charlie Hebdo bore a caricature of none other than Michel Houellebecq, who now has to live under 24-hour police guard.

The atmosphere in France has thus not so far been very conducive to a balanced appreciation of Houellebecq’s literary effort. But for American readers not personally involved in France’s troubles, the charge of Islamophobia frequently leveled against the author will seem absurd, at least on the evidence of this latest novel. Islam isn’t Houellebecq’s target here—if anything, he treats it with some respect. As Mark Lilla points out, the only people who could be offended by Houellebecq’s vision of Islam are liberals who believe that Islam and liberalism are somehow identical—which, granted, describes the opinion of most liberals.

Houellebecq’s real target is France itself—and his chosen weapon is satire, so broad at times as to really be farce. (François flees Paris for the region around Rocamadour because "if a civil war should break out in France, it would take a while to reach the southwest. I knew nothing about the southwest, really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war.") This is not a serious prediction for the way things will go in the France of 2022. Figuring out work-life balance is no doubt a bitch, but that doesn’t mean that a single election will make the bulk of French women suddenly comfortable about the prospect of serving as Wife Number Three.

None of which is to suggest that European social democracies don’t face a real crisis, or that the influx of Muslims into those countries (especially with this year’s migrant crisis) doesn’t pose a cultural problem entirely different in character from that faced by the United States. Merkel’s unilateral decision to all but throw open Europe’s borders in a fit of compassion comes to mind when François cites Arnold Toynbee, specifically his idea that "civilizations die not by murder but by suicide." Of course, François really should have cited Ibn Khaldun—that’s where Toynbee got the idea.

Published under: Book reviews