My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After Les Fleurs du mal I told Baudelaire it only remains for you to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the Cross. But will the author of À rebours make the same choice?
You probably know this novel’s near-future science-fiction conceit already: the 2022 presidential election in Frances results in a win for the Muslim Brotherhood after the socialists and the center-right parties throw their support to the Muslims to prevent the nationalist right’s accession to power. The Muslim Brotherhood then proceeds, under the leadership of the charismatic Mohammed Ben Abbes, to undo secularism, roll back the welfare state, and reimpose patriarchy. It is even poised by the novel’s end to save the “European” project by reinventing the Roman Empire under the auspices of an Islamic world power centered on the Mediterranean. All of this the novel presents in a more or less utopian light—a sclerotic civilization, under new influences, returns to life.
These events are narrated by François, a typical Houellebecquian narrator (as far as I can tell from having read two of his previous books, The Elementary Particles and the Lovecraft study): a single and dissolute man, no longer young, a misogynist grinding out a tediously meaningless existence in the atomized modern world, surviving on booze, cigarettes, and casual sex. This particular narrator, however, is a scholar of literature—an expert on Huysmans, appropriately enough. Huysmans, a naturalist turned Decadent turned Catholic convert, is a fin-de-siècle archetype of the journey from meaningless self-pleasure to the sublimer pleasures of submission in faith.
François is apolitical and, by his own admission, knows little of history and religion. But the new national situation gradually begins to impinge upon him. First, the student he is sleeping with, a Jewish woman named Myriam, flees with her family to Israel, where she finds happiness. Then, François is forced out of his academic job when the French university system becomes Islamicized and professors are forced to convert or lose their position. These events throw the narrator into a depression which he tries to salve by visiting the shrine of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour and the monastery at Ligugé where Huysmans retreated late in life; while François is impressed with their sacral sublimity—particularly that of Rocamadour—he comes to understand the the medievalist Christian rejuvenation of European culture that thinkers like Huysmans had wished for will never happen.
Eventually, he is lured back to the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne (now heavily funded by Saudi petrodollars) by a new administrator, Robert Rediger, who wants to hire premier scholars to burnish the reinvented university’s reputation. Will our narrator convert to Islam? Rediger, himself a convert, both explains to and exemplifies for François the benefits for the intellectual male, from polygamy to the guarantee of a transcendental relation to the cosmos. An offer François can’t refuse; a novel with a seemingly happy ending.
Submission, then, appears to be a reactionary roman à thèse, with the following thèse: western modernity has sown chaos and anomie; having destroyed every social institution between the state and the individual, from the church to the family, it has finally destroyed itself, quite literally through its declining birth rate. Given this, its fate is inevitable: conquest by a more vital and viable culture. Islam is one such culture, according to Submission, and, despite the objections of the European Right, Houellebecq further implies that Islam can preserve the essential values of the Western cultural tradition (albeit with some difference—the novel insists that Christianity is a feminine religion, its medieval high period presided over by the Blessed Mother and not her Son, while the more purely monotheistic Islam is a religion for men.)
Is this the novel’s thesis? Or is the novel a political satire in the mode of reductio ad absurdum? On this second reading, Houellebecq imagines what would happen if the political left’s attempt to fuse three probably incompatible commitments—a sex-and-gender libertarianism that is the pure product of capitalism; a socialism that sets the state over all rival agencies; and a multiculturalism that refuses to make ethical or political distinctions between social visions when race is involved—ever really came under pressure. Houellebecq judges that the left would put their multiculturalism above their feminism and socialism, even if it meant the complete destruction, by a highly conservative “Other,” of feminism and socialism themselves:
[Ben Abbes] understood that the pro-growth right had won the “war of ideas,” that young people today had become entrepreneurs, and that no one saw any alternative to the free market. But his real stroke of genius was to grasp that elections would no longer be about the economy but about values, and that here, too, the right was about to win the “war of ideas” without a fight. Whereas [Tariq] Ramadan presented sharia as forward-looking, even revolutionary, Ben Abbes restored its reassuring, traditional value—with a perfume of exoticism that made it all the more attractive. When he campaigned on family values, traditional morality, and, by extension, patriarchy, an avenue opened up to him that neither the conservatives nor the National Front could take without being called reactionaries or even fascists by the last of the soixante-huitards, those progressive mummified corpses—extinct in the wider world—who managed to hang on in the citadels of the media, still cursing the evil of the times and the toxic atmosphere of the country. Only Ben Abbes was spared. The left, paralyzed by his multicultural background, had never been able to fight him, or so much as mention his name.
But Houellebecq also mocks the nationalist right; what, after all, are these conservatives conserving if not the cumulative revolutions of the modern period? And if that is all they can conserve, why would a far more genuinely and creatively reactionary force, such as political Islam, not be preferable by the logic of their own arguments?
[Marine Le Pen had] concluded [her speech] with a quotation from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the one from 1793: “When the government violate the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”
In fact, Submission goes well beyond satire. Its rich evocations of the religious life suggest a genuine yearning for an apprehension of higher order on Houellebecq’s part, for for a way of being in which the individual is joined to the community because the community is joined to God. Or else they suggest the desperate pass to which our time has brought the modern (male) individual; it has brought him to his knees.
I could complain about Submission: its novelistic texture is far too thin, its characters speak in expository blocks of prose, neither the narrator nor his interlocutors are distinct or memorable figures. Its politics, however calculatedly ambiguous, should certainly be scrutinized, which Adam Shatz does capably in the LRB, objecting to Houellebecq’s generalizations about Islam and his indifference to the history of colonialism. Submission goes well out of its well to outrage the pieties of our time, all of them at once; and I would not praise a novel just for trying to shock the bourgeoisie, which is an exhausted ambition by now.
I will praise it because it portrays a radically different future for western society, and does so with such adroit political intelligence that, however horrifying you may quite rightly find it (see, for instance, the highly moralistic criticism of Lydia Kiesling and Heller McCalpin), you can nevertheless just about imagine its coming to pass. Submission is not, ultimately, a masterpiece, but it is a fiction of the future that enables critical reflection on the contemporary and the real. The value of such fictions should not be underestimated.