English-speaking readers may recall that the publication of Soumission coincided with the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but the subsequent response of its author to go into hiding for a few weeks should not obscure the fact that Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel is not Islamophobic. It does not criticize Islam, and in spite of the title (Submission) it offers very little in terms of discussing the theological, moral, or political beliefs of the followers of Muhammad. Instead, Houellebecq, that diagnostician of decadence, offers a scathing critique of Western democratic societies that are experiencing their death throes.
The novel’s protagonist is François, a professor at l’université de Paris III—Sorbonne, who specializes in the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans. As the first-person narrator, François shares his experiences as he suddenly sees his world turned upside down when political events in France have a direct effect on his profession. The plot of the novel is relatively simple. It is the presidential election year of 2022, and the right-wing Front national (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, has garnered enough support among the electorate that it appears it will prevail in the second round of elections. The parties of Nikolas Sarkozy, the Union pour un movement populaire (UMP), and of François Hollande, the Parti socialiste (PS), are so weak that they find themselves having to work with the newly formed Fraternité musulmane (Muslim Brotherhood), led by the fictitious Mohammad Ben Abbes, in order to prevent Le Pen from becoming the next President of France. Through a series of political maneuvers, the Socialist Party makes it possible for Ben Abbes to be elected president, and he in turn allows the Socialists to hold every ministerial position in the government except the Ministry of Education, which is directed by the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the new education policy, all forms of higher education become privatized. Thus, the Sorbonne returns to its roots as a theologically based institution, although it is now an Islamic University bankrolled by the Saudi government. Only adherents of Islam can teach at the Sorbonne, so in order to regain his teaching position, François, after some halfhearted soul searching, converts and returns to his classroom while being handsomely rewarded monetarily and personally.
The cursory reader will see in this novel a political satire that warns of the rise of Islamism in Europe and the threat of an Islamic state being established in France. This certainly accounts for sales of the novel in francophone nations and the anticipated interest in the appearance of the English translation of the novel in October [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, translated by Lorin Stein]. For those familiar with French politics, the scathing portraits of François Bayrou as an opportunist, of the UMP as a sclerotic and moribund party, and of the PS as an intellectually bankrupt political organization will strike deep chords. By including appearances of television journalist David Pujadas and print journalists such as Christophe Barbier and Yves Thréard, as well as the activities of the right-wing nativist group Bloc identitaire, Houellebecq lends his novel an air of authenticity that gives the reader pause.
Yes, there is political satire here. Nevertheless, that is not what the novel is about, nor is that what makes the novel worthwhile. The aspect of the novel that appeals to what may be termed the political prurience of readers is actually secondary because the driving force of the novel is Houellebecq’s presentation of the thinking and behavior of François, a member of the faculty of one of the most prestigious intellectual institutions in the West. For those who wrongly compare the author of Soumission to Orwell, an even stronger and equally specious comparison could be made between Houellebecq and David Lodge, for the most effective satire in the novel is directed against university professors. The portrait of professorial life may be exaggerated, but anyone familiar with the halls of academe will recognize the verisimilitude governing the portraits of academics who pursue sexual liaisons with their students, or academics whose intellectual peak occurred when they were writing their dissertations, or academics who avoid directing the dissertations of graduate students, or academics making any number of compromises to further their careers. But as biting as this satire is, and it is humorous, the academic, like the political, satire masks Houellebecq’s larger achievement; namely, Soumission is nothing if it is not a philosophical novel. Like his forebears, Diderot and Voltaire, Houellebecq offers us a philosophical novel that generates questions in the mind of the reader. Houellebecq is not derisively saying that France is doomed to be overrun by Muslims any more than Diderot is claiming that the nephew of Rameau is simply a charlatan, or Voltaire is declaring that Candide can be reduced to its final sentence. Instead, Houellebecq is provoking us to ask serious questions about the effects of two hundred years of Enlightenment thinking on social democratic societies in the West.
As is the case with nearly every other novel he has written, Houellebecq constructs his new narrative along two parallel lines. In Soumission, there is the political story dominated by the character of Ben Abbes and the personal story of François. The novel brings these two threads together through the actions of a third character named Rediger.
Ben Abbes is a rather vaporous, utterly undeveloped character, but as an idea, he is quite fascinating. He is not an Islamist calling for the institution of sharia law. Rather, he is a shrewd politician who has larger goals in mind. He allows the socialists to hold nearly all the ministerial positions. He begins the process of including Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, and Tunisia in the European Union. He welcomes Saudi money to finance the Sorbonne, but his government snubs the Saudi Prince at a major gathering when the Sorbonne is reopened. The spouse of one of François’s colleagues, who works for the DGSI (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure) argues that Ben Abbes wants to unify the entire Mediterranean basin in an attempt to reestablish something akin to the Roman Empire, a project that Napoleon also pursued and failed to achieve. What is important about this aspect of the novel is not the project per se but the actions of the political players in response to this.
In this instance, Ben Abbes can appeal to the UMP because he embraces free market principles, just as he can appeal to the PS because he has no quarrel with their opposition to Israel’s Palestinian and West Bank policies, and he can appeal to both parties because he supports the idea of a European Union. Couple this with the reluctance on the part of the PS to criticize anything to do with Islam for fear of being labeled racist, as well as the practical gains the PS can make in terms of running nearly every ministry, and one can see that Houellebecq is showing not so much a blueprint for the Islamic takeover of French politics as he is pointing out how parochial political interests have destroyed the effectiveness of democratic political processes. The UMP and the PS want to defeat the FN first and foremost, whereas Ben Abbes has broader goals and can capture the imagination of a coalition of voters.
Make no mistake, few readers will find plausible this imagined political future of France in large part because the success of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership rests on the willingness of the majority of women to leave the workforce and renounce a role in public life. Houellebecq offers no explanation as to why this might occur. Nevertheless, he clearly shows how the individual interests of political parties can undermine the universal interests of democratic societies. Should readers of Soumission doubt the possibility of the paradoxical outcome Houellebecq describes, perhaps it is instructive to look at the results of the Arab Spring or, even closer to home, the recent elections in Great Britain, where David Cameron was returned to office largely because the Scottish National Party took nearly every seat north of Hadrian’s Wall thereby destroying the Labour Party’s chances of forming a new government. In addition, as Ben Abbes strives to create a greater European Union and is compared favorably by some characters to Caesar Augustus, Houellebecq inspires us to recall that the grandeur that was Rome was based upon authoritarian principles that ignored individual freedoms and bound all aspects of society including art (consider the pandering of Virgil and Horace) to the will of the state. That such a drive toward an authoritarian state exists within democratic societies cannot be disputed, and this is worrisome to Houellebecq as he once again scrutinizes an individual living in a late-capitalist society.
Like earlier Houellebecq characters such as Bruno Djerzinski and Michel Renault, François is a forty-something man who indulges his appetites, and as he has grown older, he has become increasingly concerned with physical debilities and ailments. Among François’s fellow academics, the main concern appears to be establishing liaisons with female college students. Scholarly conversation is largely reduced to acknowledging a colleague’s area of expertise, and there is a striking absence of conversations involving larger philosophical questions or politics. The only exception to this is the conversation involving the spouse of an academic who works for the DGSI. Early in the novel, there is a rather comic depiction of a scholarly gathering during which everyone is at pains to ignore the increasingly loud and violent confrontation between jihadists and the police out on the street. The professors, it seems, would prefer to stick to what concerns them the most—their careers and personal proclivities.
François provides a case in point. In nearly every significant scene, François is far more concerned about his personal satisfaction than anything else. When Myriam, his Jewish girlfriend, reveals that her parents have emigrated to Israel and that she might follow suit, François is more interested in reflecting on the quality of the champagne they are drinking and how easily he can get drunk. During his visit to Rocamadour, François has a near-mystical experience, but this fails to transform him in part because he is more interested in commenting on the Armagnac he has been drinking than to immerse himself in a spiritual moment. In a similar fashion he leaves the monastery of Ligugé after three days because he cannot tolerate the prohibition against smoking. When visiting his recently deceased father’s lover, Sylvia, he says very little about his father and nothing about his loss and prefers to comment on the Mitsubishi Sylvia is driving. Finally, in the crucial discussion between François and Robert Rediger, the Mephistophelian academic who becomes the new head of the Sorbonne and will later become the foreign minister, François is more concerned about the Meursault he is drinking and he wonders how drinking alcohol can be condoned by adherents to Islam.
The one character that springs to life on the page is Rediger, an academic who wrote a thesis on Guénon and Nietzsche and who converted to Islam several years before the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. In creating Rediger, Houellebecq offers us the latest in a long list of philosophical antagonists. But Rediger is not so much Svidrigaylov or Kirillov as he is Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator of Camus's La chute. Like Clamence, Rediger presents seductive arguments that trap his interlocutor. In their penultimate meeting, Rediger begins by calling into question the idea of atheism. He relies on photographs of deep space and scientific data about the universe and wonders if such a thing could be the result of mere chance. He opines that there are very few true atheists and that Francois, a scholar of Huysmans, would certainly understand the impulse to embrace an explanatory system of belief that makes sense of the world. Rediger goes on to defend the patriarchy and the inegalitarian social system that one finds in Islamic concepts of polygamy by appealing to Darwin and Nietzsche’s will to power. He invokes Toynbee in declaring that all civilizations come to an end and affirms that the West is committing suicide. Finally, he flatters François, telling him that his dissertation on Huysmans is comparable to The Birth of Tragedy and that academics are superior men and are recognized as such by women who consider them sexy. He even goes so far as to suggest that, according to his calculations, François would be able to support three wives. Thus Rediger, whose name resembles the French verb rédiger, (to frame, compose, edit, draft, write, or draw up), uses Western scientific findings to reestablish the plausibility of faith and the writings of leading Western thinkers to declare the death of Western civilization while at the same time appealing to the basest instincts of a colleague.
By now, it should be readily apparent that the key to the novel lies in the references to writers and philosophers. That François is a Huysmans scholar is an important clue. In the English-speaking world, Huysmans is known primarily as the author of À rebours, a plotless novel describing the activities of Jean des Esseintes, an eccentric aesthete, who, among other things, encrusts the shell of a living turtle with precious gems, creates a musical keyboard that links specific keys to the release of particular liquors thus satisfying his palate the way music pleases the ear, and who cancels a trip to England at the last moment because he can take a mental trip to the British Isles that would be much more satisfying. Needless to say, À rebours is widely regarded as the leading example of decadent literature, a work that significantly influenced aesthetes like Oscar Wilde. What is less well-known is that Huysmans, the champion of artifice as being the hallmark of human genius, converted to Catholicism, and that his final four novels, including his most widely read novel on the Chartres cathedral, explore the turn toward faith. As François points out, what plagued Huysmans was the problem of where to go after À rebours. Having pushed his creative and aesthetic principles to their limit, he found himself at an impasse. In response to this, Huysmans turned toward faith. In a similar fashion, François listlessly moves through his life and eventually converts to Islam.
In invoking Huysmans, Houellebecq is after more than cheap irony. The drive toward an absolute or the transcendent, or simply an ordered life, is something that seduced many a creative and daring mind during the era of modernism. Consider Houellebecq’s countrymen Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy, and Paul Claudel, and, in the Anglo-American tradition, writers such as T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and W. H. Auden. That these men and many others converted or turned toward faith is something that should disturb. If François is the latest (although fictional) name on a long list of people who turn away from a secular, reason-based, scientifically-oriented, technologically-dominated society, then we must ask: why did they do so?
In the famous Grand Inquisitor scene of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky presents the idea that people cannot handle freedom, and that, in this case, the institution of the Christian church had to step in and provide people with structure and guidance. Perhaps Houellebecq concurs, but he also suggests that it is the fear of boredom as much as the fear of freedom that drives people unwittingly into the arms of constraint and control. According to François, Huysmans suffered from the unhappiness of boredom after he wrote À rebours, and indeed, ennui, the voracious monster that Baudelaire perceived as the principal product of modernity, is precisely what lies at the heart of the matter. For it is ennui that also infects François and, one could say, nearly every protagonist Houellebecq has created over the years.
Soumission suggests that the seed planted in the eighteenth century has produced the fruit of an extreme individualism such that contemporary western society appears to be geared toward responding to the pleasure principle and little else, which is something that Houellebecq has explored in other books. The many sex scenes that litter Houellebecq’s novels are anything but inspiring or arousing. Instead, they are symptoms of an exhausted experimentation. Houellebecq’s earlier novels often depict men indulging in sexual escapades that provided little or no pleasure, and Soumission has its fair share of empty scenes of fellatio and sodomy (it is Houellebecq, after all). Nevertheless, if one could argue that Les particules élémentaires and La posssibilité d’une île explore the effects of Enlightenment-based forms of science and technology on the individual, and Plateforme the ramifications of Enlightenment economic principles on individuals in Western societies, then one could say that, in his latest novel, Houellebecq considers the paradoxical relationship between Enlightenment political thinking and the individual. These two strains—the personal and the political—are brilliantly combined in Houellebecq’s addition of a clever detail in Soumission. It seems Rediger lives in the home that was once owned by Jean Paulhan, whose lover, Dominique Aury, wrote Histoire d’O. In this brilliant move, Houellebecq infers that the drive toward the absolute ultimately results in capitulation, surrender, submission.
At one point, François declares that it is not in the nature of French intellectuals to be responsible, something which may strike English-speaking readers as unusual given the portrait we have of public intellectuals like Sartre and Camus and their epigone, Bernard-Henri Levy. Nevertheless, François correctly points out that French intellectuals in the past had publicly supported Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. In this regard, Houellebecq portrays what might be termed another instance of “La trahison des clercs,” but rather than champion a kind of mindless nationalism, as Julien Benda noted in his book of that title, the academics Houellebecq describes pursue narrow, personal goals. Steve, for example, one of the first to take up the offer to return to teaching at the Sorbonne, can continue teaching his beloved Rimbaud as long as he professes that Allah is the one true god and also emphasizes in every Rimbaud class that Rimbaud’s purported conversion to Islam at the end of his life is a fact. All of the male academics, François included, are attracted by the notion of being able to have several wives because after the election, polygamy becomes the social norm for Muslims in France. In short, one could say that François and the other Sorbonne academics who convert to Islam echo Henri IV: “Paris is worth a fast.”
Whether he intended to or not, Houellebecq has raised a series of questions about Western societies that allow its citizens the greatest levels of personal freedom and political expression. Do we lack the courage to live in accordance with Enlightenment principles? Is it too difficult to “dare to know?” Seen in this light, perhaps one begins to understand what Houellebecq has been examining in book after book over the past seventeen years.
In a world in which any personal desire can be soon sated and in which each individual is encouraged to pursue his or her own narrow interests, concern for others, the willingness to be engaged in activities that go beyond the personal, and the very concept of the universal begin to disappear. Soumission shows how the ideology of current political parties could lead to a paradoxical outcome. In the world of social democratic politics, this individualism translates into simply trying to win the next election. When we only attend to our personal concerns, we ignore the larger picture, and the atomized political landscape in a democracy could actually lead to the diminution of democratic freedoms. The paradox of a democracy that could vote for the elimination of democratic processes is one that few political scientists, to say nothing of politicians, want to discuss. Houellebecq has asked us to consider this, and what Soumission implies is that the very ideals of the Enlightenment that emphasized the rights of the individual are what has made it possible for those free individuals to sink into self-indulgence and willful blindness.
In La chute, Clamence declares, “Nous sommes tous coupables,” that we are all guilty of the crimes of the twentieth century. In a similar fashion, Houellebecq implies that we are all complicit in the dismantling of Western institutions and the abandonment of Enlightenment principles. By combining the personal story of François with the political frame story of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Houellebecq compels us to examine why and how we have come to this point, where free societies appear to be too timid to engage in a serious critique of Islam, the politics of identity, and the role of religion in secular societies. With this in mind, we should consider the following: If Thomas Piketty’s recent Capital in the Twenty-First Century has caused us to revisit Marx and to discern all that was correct and limited in the great German philosopher’s description of the world, then perhaps Soumission will spur us to reexamine The Dialectic of Enlightenment, for there is a fault line becoming ever more visible in the West, in which we see Enlightenment principles bringing about their own undoing.
Just as Houellebecq masterfully includes in his novel a telling French cultural reference to Histoire d’O, he ends Soumission with an equally allusive sentence. In declaring “je n’aurais rien à regretter,” François echoes a song made famous by Edith Piaf. But this song, which in many ways was the anthem of the paras who fought in Algeria, is a bitter reminder that, despite our declared intentions, we often cannot escape the larger consequences of our personal actions.
Soumission. By Michel Houellebecq. Flammarion, 2015.
Submission. By Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Lorin Stein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.