Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd’hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir son image:
Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!
—Baudelaire, “Le Voyage”, Les Fleurs du Mal
The existence of irrational economic agents had always been the dark ride, the secret fault in any economic theory
—Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory
France, 2022. After a disastrous second term for President Francois Hollande, France’s mainstream political parties suffer crippling losses in the first round of presidential elections. In the run-off, the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, and the Muslim Brotherhood, a new party running on an Islamic platform led by Mohammed Ben Abbes, a savvy and charismatic politician, face off. The country is being convulsed by a wave of urban violence—violence that is largely being downplayed by a cowardly media afraid to play into the FN’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Paranoia and conspiracy theories dominate conversations. Is France headed towards a military coup? The center-right UMP and the Socialist Party decide to support Ben Abbes in a bid to block the FN from acceding to power. They negotiate a deal: the Muslim Brotherhood gets to keep only the Education Ministry while compromising on other portfolios.
Islamists, it turns out, unlike the French political elite, understand the importance of education in deciding a country’s fate. French higher education progressively turns Islamic: the Sorbonne is bought out by Saudi Arabia, professors are required to convert, women are compelled to wear the hijab, and programs are rewritten to integrate Islamic teachings. Rimbaud’s rumored late conversion to Islam becomes official dogma.
At the same time, security across the country is, almost magically, reinstated; unemployment drops dramatically, largely thanks to strong fiscal incentives for women to stay home. Like a Muslim De Gaulle, Ben Abbes reorients the European Union towards the Mediterranean Sea, integrating North African countries in its ambit. His policies are popular among the French. The country seems to have finally found a new driving force after decades of decline and doubt.
All this provides the backdrop to the life of Francois, a disillusioned Sorbonne literature professor, the narrator of Michel Houellebecq’s futuristic novel, Submission—a novel that quickly became the number one bestseller in France, Germany and Italy upon its publication.
In Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen visits his sister, an orthodox Jew, who disapproves of his lifestyle in the strongest terms: “You have no values. With you it’s all nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm, and orgasm.” Allen replies: “Hey, in France I could run for office with that slogan, and win!” Add Islam to the mix and you can almost certainly sell a ton of books, too.
Submission was bound to become a literary sensation. It is the work of France’s most famous and controversial living writer, a man with an unparalleled talent for pressing into the country’s deep-rooted insecurities. For his troubles, Houellebecq has been accused of misogyny, racism, sexual obsession and vulgarity. Houellebecq’s universe in Submission is cynical and nasty to the point of caricature, filled with grotesque and complacent journalists, and spineless and uncultured politicians. (He even takes an inelegant jab at my former boss, MP Jean-Francois Copé’s looks; I did not dare raise his claim at literary immortality the last time we met.)
Understandably, much of the attention was focused on the book’s politics and whether the book was “Islamophobic”. Houellebecq’s previous statements provided critics with ample ammunition: in 2001, he was sued for hate speech for claiming “Islam [was] the dumbest religion” during a promotion tour for his book Plateform, the plot of which culminates in an Islamist terror attack against a sex vacation camp, whose victims get blamed for disrespecting local cultures. Houellebecq however now says he misspoke and has learned to appreciate Islam. Actually, as many reviews have noted, the only really smart and visionary political figure in the book appears to be Ben Abbes himself, with his successful mix of social conservatism and free-market policies. Nevertheless, the very scenario of a Muslim takeover of France deftly plays into the current national anguish over decline and the country’s lost identity.
The French political and cultural context prior to the book’s publication only fueled the fire. The Front National, running on a populist anti-immigration and anti-EU platform, finished ahead in the 2014 European elections for the first time in its history. The year’s two bestsellers are Thank you for this moment, a memoir by Hollande’s former partner which recounts the President’s philandering and cynicism; and The French Suicide, by a prominent right-wing polemicist Eric Zemmour, who denounces the French elite as having fallen prey to neoliberalism, Islamic radicalism, American pop culture and European bureaucracy all at once.
Coincidentally, Submission was published the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The Charlie cover at the time of the attacks depicted an ugly looking Houellebecq, surrounded by flies, joking about his losing his teeth. Bernard Maris, a left-wing economist for the paper, who was murdered in the attacks, was a friend of Houellebecq’s, and had written a book about the economic theory of his novels. Just after the attacks, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared in a TV interview that “France is not Houellebecq, it is not intolerance and fear”. It is almost as if, after finally receiving the coveted Prix Goncourt in 2010 for The Map and The Territory, a novel that was hailed as his most mature, but also considered his tamest, Houellebecq had decided to throw maturity and caution to the wind in a bid to become the official novelist of the extreme right, reigniting the tradition of the French reactionary novel.
It would be naïve to believe that Houellebecq, a master provocateur, didn’t know exactly the kind of attention he would be getting when writing this novel. Ever since the start of his career, Houellebecq has divided readers, critics and commentators. His second novel, The Elementary Particles, was awarded the Prix Novembre, a prestigious literary prize in 1998. But when the award’s founder denounced the jury’s choice, new patrons were quickly found and the award was rechristened as the Prix Decembre.
Submission hits a French society struggling with issues of Muslim integration and national identity right in the solar plexus. But conflating the novel’s reception with its bigger themes would be missing the point. Houellebecq does not have a political program, nor is he interested in offering policy prescriptions or endorsements. Contrary to Zemmour, he doesn’t show nostalgia for a lost glory. His concern is not with ideological struggles or French Grandeur. “That’s the difference between me and a reactionary,” Houellebecq said in 2010 interview with the Paris Review. “I don’t have any interest in turning back the clock because I don’t believe it can be done. You can only observe and describe.”
You will be hard-pressed to find anyone saying this is Houellebecq’s finest work. The descriptions of French society and politics are clichéd and often lazy. There is a lot of sloppy exposition: entire elements of the political storyline are unveiled in long, canned conversations with a domestic intelligence agent who, conveniently, happens to be married to one of Francois’ colleagues. Another teaching colleague also just happens to be linked to right-wing anti-immigrant groups, and initiates Francois into their underground culture. Seriously: good luck getting tenure at Sorbonne when you hang out with hardcore nationalists as a hobby. The satirical ending is way overblown: the narrator, Francois, a university professor, is lured by the new Sorbonne director into converting to Islam to keep his position, and is in addition offered three wives and a lavish salary paid by the Gulf monarchies.
But one shouldn’t read Submission for its plot. Indeed, the various cheap shortcuts Houellebecq takes in setting up the storyline obscure his major strengths as an author. His talents are much more sharply on display in his previous works. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood taking over the French political system in 2022 is to Submission what Charles Lindbergh’s rise to the White House in 1940 was to Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America: a farce allowing the author to explore deeper issues. And the issues Houellebecq obsessively returns to time and again have rightly earned him recognition as one of the most important living European novelist.
Houellebecq catapulted himself into the French literary world by offering a brutal and refreshing break with decades of stylistic narcissism culminating with the Nouveau Roman experiment—a style that Paul Morand, a popular chronicler of life in the roaring twenties in France once ridiculed as “I’m hard. I come. I ejaculate. How new!” The Nouveau Roman was the literary equivalent of Godard’s New Wave cinematography, an exercise mostly devoid of social or political context—or any plot for that matter. Houellebecq reaction to it was to rehabilitate the tradition of the 19th century French realists such as Balzac and Flaubert. His works, at their best, examine in excruciating (and often hilarious) detail the implications of socio-economic changes on the daily lives of his miserable characters struggling with sex and the dullness of office life. His observations make him something akin to a sociologist of loneliness and eroding community life—echoing scholars like Harvard Professor Robert Putnam who, in Bowling Alone, lamented the decline of the civil society dynamism in modern America that had so impressed Tocqueville when visiting the United States.
The Elementary Particles opens with the following lines—in many respect a summary of Houellebec work and worldview:
This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries are at best indifferent and more often cruel.
While they don’t bowl, Houellebecq’s characters in Submission watch YouPorn videos to check if their tastes are still in touch with fellow men (“within minutes it became clear that I was an utterly normal man”). Everyday life revolves around elusive attempts at connecting: prepared microwaved meals give their consumer the “sense of participating in a collective experience, disappointing but egalitarian”. The mood is redolent of how Chuck Palahniuk’s characters in Fight Club look for a sense of community by visiting support groups for testicular cancer patients (“to see what real suffering is about”) before senselessly beating each other up in underground clubs. Ben Abbes and the politicians described in Submission never actually appear in the novel. They are only background to Francois’s atomized life.
In his first collection of poems, Rester Vivant (Stay Alive), Houellebecq makes his project clear: “the first poetic undertaking consists in going back to the roots: suffering. (…) Suffering is the necessary consequence of the free interplay of the system’s parts.” What is this suffering about? It’s about the impossibility of love and human connection in our postmodern liberal societies. His first novel, Whatever (a poor translation to the original French title L‘extension du Domaine de la Lutte, literally The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle) is the story of a sexually frustrated computer programmer struggling to hook up during a workshop retreat. Like most of Houellebecq’s central characters, Raphael Tisserand, a 28 year old virgin, is at the same time awkward and bored, observing with cold detachment the social play in front of him, unable to participate, too aware of the “absolute separation between his individual existence and the rest of the world.” He analyzes the false promises of modern existence: increased freedom, especially sexual liberation, has only extended struggle, competition and anguish to areas of private life that were once secure.
In societies like ours, sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their lives, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what known as the ‘law of the market’.
The vocabulary is clearly Marxist, but the undertone is quite conservative.
Despite some graphic descriptions, the sex in Houellebecq’s books is anything but glamorous. It is crude and unsatisfying, an impossible quest for the pleasure and vitality promoted by society. A female characters breaks her back in one orgy too many in The Elementary Particles. Submission’s narrator thinks he’s glimpsed a rare insight into happiness during a threesome with two prostitutes, but quickly falls back into anguish. The renowned Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman noted that modernity has rendered all social connections more “liquid”—giving primacy to transitory desire rather than any final sense of completion. Life becomes a quest for the means of attaining pleasure, and for how to attain the most pleasure. Performance and quantity displace everything solid and permanent. In Houellebecq, economists and their language rule everywhere.
Houellebecq is the novelist of postmodern man’s disillusionment. Tricked into believing individualism necessarily leads to happiness, the postmodern man pantomimes the supposedly carefree rituals of the young. But in truth, he is desperately lonely, cut off from both his male peers and from the women for whose sexual attention he is bitterly competing. Houellebecq’s characters were promised something else. They are well-educated, urban, upper middle class figures. The social contract supposedly stated that their economic success should bring recognition and fulfillment. Why do they feel so miserable? Submission’s narrator ponders:
I had no more reason to kill myself than most of these people did. On reflection, maybe even less. My life was marked by real intellectual achievements. In a certain milieu –granted, a very small one- I was known and even respected. Financially, I had nothing to complain about. Until I died, I was guaranteed a generous income, twice the national average without having to do any work. (…) The mere will was clearly no match for the pains and aggravations that punctuate the life of the average Western man. I was incapable of living for myself, and who else did I have to live for?
This question is not new, it has long been described as a risk inherent to the development of liberal societies. Tocqueville already warned against the dangers of individualism in democratic countries: “Democracy makes every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
Houellebecq’s novels describe a quest to find a way to overcome the suffering, to recreate community and love, or even to overcome the very need to search for it—“the curse of desire”. The means is murder in Whatever, the erasing of sexual drive with cloning in Elementary Particles, the setting up of a sexual tourism travel agency in Platform, the creation of a new species of advanced humans in The Possibility of an Island, and… conversion to Islam in Submission.
Is religion the answer? The narrator of Submission would like to believe so. A scholar of Joris-Karl Huysmans, a 19th century writer who went through a mystical conversion to Catholicism, Francois attempts the replicate the same experience and embarks on spiritual journey to Rocamadour, a destination for pilgrims in Southern France. He experiences a holy epiphany in front of the statue of the Black Virgin. But much like with his earlier experience with the two prostitutes, the revelation is short-lived: “After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot.”
Where Catholic spirituality fails, Islam offers Francois a compelling alternative. “The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission”, Radiger, the new Muslim dean of the Sorbonne, says in the book’s key scene. Islam, an ideology in expansion, strong and confident, offers the narrator—and indeed the whole country—an accessible framework for a complete and easy life. And it turns out, it is what everyone has been waiting for. Francois converts because he is offered predictability, security, recognition, and status. Yes, the university grants him three wives. But even more importantly, they will be chosen for him. The burden of having to make decisions as a free man is, at last, taken away.
In this, Houellebecq’s intellectual challenge to liberalism is much more troubling than the quite frankly preposterous fictional prospect of a Muslim takeover of France. That people will not willingly submit is central to liberalism’s survival: citizens must bear the responsibility of choosing and questioning, rather than relying blindly on external authority. We want to believe that only fear, violence or lack of education—exterior factors of constraint—should prevent people from naturally wanting to be free. At the end of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Winston Smith is brought back to obedience to Big Brother only through torture. That some people, especially the educated and informed characters of Houellebecq’s novels, might rationally choose submission goes against liberalism’s very core. It is partly the result of Houellebecq’s exceedingly pessimistic take on his fellow men. But he is not (just) a bitter misanthrope. He does not blame his characters for their resignation or their weakness. He empathizes with their struggle. A depressive and lonely figure who wrote his first novel while working anonymously as a part-time computer repairman at the National Assembly, Houellebecq is well placed to find sympathy is his narrators.
Submission therefore is a success—despite its many flaws—because it really does tell us something about the times we live in. As the English translation hits American bookshelves this week, Europe is grappling with self-doubt and is flirting with toxic populism and cynical resignation. Even with its shortcomings, the novel brilliantly manages to distill the intellectual questioning wracking the continent. Can European societies recover? Can Europe give a new sense of purpose, identity and bond to its citizens, while still keeping with its liberal tradition? Or will Europeans turn to more totalitarian ideologies, and to populist demagogues, as they forsake the lonely, thankless and exhausting individualist project demanded by modern liberalism?
The French population’s immediate reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks—taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers to defend Republican principles and freedom of speech—seems to provide, as Manuel Valls noted at the time, an eloquent refutation of Houellebecq’s pessimism. Yet none of that has prevented thousands of disaffected youth, born and raised in Europe, from leaving their families to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria.
In a way, I wish Houellebecq had written that novel instead: no one would have been more apt at describing the disintegration of families, the quest for meaning, the boredom, the yearning for violence and sexual misery that explain this terrifying phenomenon. Perhaps next time. In the meantime, we have Submission, a very imperfect novel from an important writer.