NOVEMBER 18, 2015
Editor’s Note: This review was written before the attacks of November 13.
NOT EVEN the most cynical, apocalyptic-minded French writer — and Michel Houellebecq is at the very top of that list — would have dared imagine such a cataclysmic event to accompany the release of a new novel. It is now simply impossible to read Submission, Houellebecq’s latest, without considering the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris that occurred on January 7, 2015, the morning of the book’s release. Twelve were killed, 11 more wounded. Houellebecq immediately left Paris, interrupting the promotion of a work of fiction that, for the moment, had become far less strange than reality itself. We were “in the real” as Houellebecq’s narrator would say.
While other shootings and deaths echoed around the capital and in a Kosher supermarket in the days that followed, French critics forewent the usual debates that in former times would greet a new novel by Houellebecq — is he “an important, minor writer,” “a second-rate novelist,” or even a “great author”? Houellebecq’s influence, his mark on French culture, is now irrefutable. A German edition was published, as scheduled, at the end of January, and British publisher William Heinemann, which had acquired the book from its French publisher Flammarion, published the novel as Submission in September as planned, and, last month, the book was brought to the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is now time for English-speaking readers to weigh in.
So, let’s start with the story contained in the incendiary novel. We are in May 2022 — the sacred month of French presidential elections, and François Hollande is completing his second term (in Houllebecq’s world, Sarkozy officially renounced politics after his defeat in 2017). Socialist cynicism has combined with the center-right’s incompetence to provoke the final demise of traditional politics. An unprecedented second round of elections pits the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen against the fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes and his “Muslim Fraternity”— a typically cunning Houellebecqian assemblage of the well-known Muslim Brotherhood and the most spiritual element of France’s famous Republican triptych “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Through opportunism, a surprising set of common interests, and Ben Abbes’s undeniable Machiavellian brilliance, the socialists and center-right rally alongside Ben Abbes to defeat Le Pen in the 2022 elections.
Under the new Muslim regime, all’s well: unemployment plummets, professors receive salaries (almost) worthy of investment bankers, suburban violence disappears overnight, civil society takes the upper-hand on elephantine Gallic statism, and French dethrones northern Europe’s petty preference for English throughout the EU. There is of course a small price to pay: women stay at home, professors are converted to Islam or forced into early retirement (unless they are women, in which case they just stay at home), and au-revoir to the French welfare state; Libya in the meantime has entered negotiations to become the next member of the EU.
Houellebecq’s is a postdiluvian irony. Since his early novels, he has almost classically played with oppositions — between what is said and what is meant, between what we have left behind and what we think we (may?) still need. In this latest installment he returns to a recurrent theme in his prose, at least since Les Particules Élementaires, between what we think we desire and what we want; his irony drives a wedge between our political, consumer and religious choices and our ostensible commitment to something like a functioning secular liberal democracy. The most unsettling aspect of this book comes however as he seems to take a sinister pleasure in suggesting that it is even too late for such a potent literary device to make any difference whatsoever. (Given the deaths that followed on the heels of this novel, even Houllebecq’s irony has irony.)
The book’s narrator François is a professor at a Paris university and one of the fictional characters in a novel strewn with real-life figures. François is an expert on an actual French novelist J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907), acclaimed author of À rebours (1884). François considers À rebours, which may be translated as “backwards” as well as “against the grain” or “against nature,” as the height of Huysmans’s career.
Here, Houellebecq’s house of fiction is a house of mirrors. There is a seemingly endless set of deformed symmetries between Houellebecq’s novel and reality, between the life of his narrator and Huysmans’s novel, and between the narrator’s analysis and Huysmans’s biography and, finally, between Houellebecq’s storied existence and that of Huysmans. To name but a few, François’s dissertation posits that Huysmans’s fin-de-siècle novel did not mark an end to his naturalism, but that he remained a naturalist to the end. Moreover, François argues, Huysmans’s final conversion to Christianity should not be seen as the end but the starting point of his life and career, and as a result, his oeuvre should be read backwards, à rebours.
So, inspired by Huysmans, the narrator also goes off in search of a Christian religious experience, but sorely comes up dry. To begin his search, François drives 200 km/hour toward the town of Martel, where (as all French schoolchildren of Houellebecq’s generation learned) Charles Martel defeated the Muslim advance in the eighth century. But the narrator’s adventures suggest that Martel is decidedly not the last great barrier to Islam that it once was. François finds his way to the home of a former colleague where he endures an encomium on Islam’s European triumph from the colleague’s husband. He then travels on to the pilgrimage site of Rocamadour, where again his quest for religious ecstasy falls short, this time in a mystical coitus interruptus: while staring at Rocamadour’s famous statue of the black virgin who “waited in the shadows [. . .] possessing a power,” he sees the statue suddenly “drifting away in space, into centuries past.” It turns out he was slightly delusional due to low blood sugar. Equally detumescent is François’s visit to the monastery (the same monastery Huysmans chose for retirement after his conversion). Brother Peter bids him adieu, in hopes that his retreat opened toward “the path of light.” François’s mildly adolescent response to such a benediction on his way out the door — “Yeah, no problem, I had a great time” —suggests that the experience came short of a spiritual awakening.
Three moments in a quest for religious conversion all come up dry. Are we witnessing the twilight of the gods?
Houellebecq seems to have found at least a partial answer in the work of the prominent French public intellectual and contemporary philosopher Marcel Gauchet. In short, Gauchet argues that over the last millennium Christianity itself has slowly but surely ensured the triumph of secular rule over any kind of spiritual foundation for human society. The process began with the Gregorian reforms of the 11th century, which enforced a strict distinction between the temporal and the celestial spheres, a separation of church and state, but done in order to crown the Church as the only possible intermediary between the two. All was fine for four and a half centuries until the Reformation challenged Rome’s capacity to mediate between the heavenly world and our own. The story continued with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which substituted “the people” for a heavenly God as the ultimate foundation for secular rule. So by the 19th century, transcendence had been vanquished and replaced by a new secular religion of the sovereign nation. Unfortunately, the fatal turns of the 20th century revealed the full power of this new secular foundation in the form of fascism and Stalinist communism. These totalitarianisms could only thrive, according to Gauchet, thanks to a new kind of secular fanaticism that summoned up the religious commitments of times past.
But, now, in our post-totalitarian age, the rise of the European Union and a new globalization have marked the definitive exit of the religious from Europe in both its transcendent and secular forms. The current crisis of liberal democracy, Gauchet argues (and Houellebecq seems to concur), is due to the fact that we are finally confronted with this logical conclusion of democratic life.
Gauchet is a respected political philosopher — his current project is four weighty volumes on “the advent of democracy” — and he has until recently been immune from the kind of scandal that still seems to regularly pepper the French intellectual scene (and the release of Houellebecq’s novels). But groups of French historians indignantly denounced his nomination to give the keynote at an annual meeting of historians in Blois — yes, France remains a country where intellectual battles still matter, making headlines in daily newspapers and on public radio. So philosopher Gauchet and writer Houellebecq have both been decried for their conservative positions in the press (from both the left and the right), in part because they agree on a key point: liberal democracy’s confrontation with its terminus ad quem, which means the demise of the religious.
And yet the demise of the religious is not to be confused with the demise of religion. Religion, Houellebecq (and Gauchet) recognize, is everywhere and on the rise. Houellebecq’s irony, however, implies that this new interest in religion holds no hope for re-enchanting a post-religious French politics.
Of course, one would have to be blind not to see the growing influence of religion in contemporary French politics. There have been a growing number of movements, especially from the Catholic right, that have taken to the streets in the hopes of pushing family policy to the right. But these movements sit uneasily with the secular tradition of French republicanism and have systematically resisted political capture. Nor does Houellebecq give us any reason to believe that a political Catholicism could inspire the fictional French voters of 2022 (any more than the real French voters of 2012 or 2017) to find some kind of transcendent new direction for France and Europe. There is no denying that few French citizens today would entertain, or be entertained by, the highly implausible plotline that a Christian political party could gather enough political momentum to thwart the steady rise of the far right, generate a mass conversion, put an end to gay marriage, repeal the right to abortion, and, to crown it all off, unite Europe under the banner of a reinvigorated Roman leadership.
That battle has been fought in the French ambition for laicité . . . and won, n’est-ce pas?
So, if Catholicism is out, Houllebecq seems to suggest, it is up to Judaism or Islam to provide us with an exit from the simulacra of our disenchanted consumerist present — or is it a simulacra of an exit? In addressing this crucial question, Houellebecq’s narrator François explains to the one love of his life, Myriam — a Jewish university student who has decided to move to Israel with her family — that he cannot quit his life in France to join her. This leaves Houellebecq with only one plausible plotline for a re-enchantment of French politics in our post-religious world: the rise of a political Islam and mass conversion.
Needless to say, such an exit only leads us back to the original problem. In Submission, it behooves the elite Parisian intellectual, Robert Rediger, to expose the pitfalls of such a possible re-enchantment. Rediger is the newly appointed President of the Sorbonne, who all but responds directly to Gauchet when he confesses to François that:
the entire intellectual debate of the twentieth century may be summed up by the opposition between communism — let’s say the hard-core version of humanism — and liberal democracy — its weak-kneed variety. I knew at 15 that the return of the religious that started to fill the air was ineluctable.
Rediger makes this pronouncement while enjoying (moderately and in spite of his required conversion) a glass of Meursault in the historic library of his gorgeous home where multiple wives serve him and his guest François, whom he is trying to woo back to the university in exchange for a conversion to Islam.
We are tempted to read Rediger’s and the narrator’s conversion as well as the gleeful acceptance of healthy (early) retirements as a sign that religion veils multiple ambitions for the men who benefit from it. The return of religion as the foundation for the political community seems to have left intact our professional obsessions, rampant consumerism, and inextinguishable sexual appetites (the dark trinity of Houellebecq’s plotlines). In Submission, religion, as widespread as it may be, has no capacity for unleashing a new national spirituality. It is yet one more means of subjecting us to such base temporal desires as a fat paycheck, multiple wives, large homes, prestigious positions in eminent universities, and unmitigated government austerity. Why else would anyone convert to a monotheistic religion, anyway?
So we’re back where we started. Well, not quite. Is political cynicism, early retirement, an enviable academic salary, and a budget surplus all that is left for religion in a post-religious age? Or is Houellebecq’s mischievous irony pointing us toward something else? Has Houellebecq, like Huysmans, started to embrace a more authentic mysticism through his neo-naturalism in this desert of the real? We do not yet have a clear answer to these questions, but it is because we are pushed to ask them that Houellebecq’s work troubles any serious reader.
Houellebecq has made a hallmark of flirting with the dark side of modernity. He has made no mystery of his fascination for H.P. Lovecraft, and his self-styled resemblance to Céline in his author portraits of the last few years is hard to miss. In this book, his turn to the less obviously menacing figures of Chesterton and Belloc provides a kind of economic relief. Their commitment to Catholic conservatism and ideas for fiscal reform in the interwar period seem harmless enough — yet sufficiently potent to convert C.S. Lewis, if not Houellebecq. According to the actual Crisis Magazine: A Voice for the Faithful Catholic Laity (any resemblance to Houellebecq’s style is purely coincidental, but way too funny to be passed up), Chesterton and Belloc popularized the Catholic social and political doctrine of subsidiarity, an idea based on radical decentralization. An ideology defended by Pope Leo XIII that as it turns out, since the government in Soumission uses subsidiarity to decrease social spending by 85 percent, also suits political Islam and raging neo-liberals.
Enter René Guénon (1886-1951), the even more obscure French author who makes regular appearances throughout the work as Rediger’s author of choice. Not coincidentally, Guénon’s works and life are a perfect fit for Houellebecq. Proposing a universal metaphysics, a stinging critique of modernity, and a theory of spiritual diffusion, Guénon captured the imaginations of many esoteric writers of the first half of the 20th century. But he is even more relevant for the phantoms haunting Soumission because of his ambiguous embrace of Islam in the last decades of his life. Moving to Cairo in 1930, Guénon took on a Muslim lifestyle while consistently refusing an official conversion. Christianity and Hinduism also contained metaphysical truths, he insisted, making conversion impossible. Nonetheless, in the face of Catholicism’s decadence (since the Renaissance, says he), only his “installation” in Islam could provide him solace. Once again, Houellebecq has staged a figure who pushed beyond religion to embrace the religious decades after the proclamation of God’s supposed death.
Guénon has a long intellectual shadow in this novel. The fearful oppositions between Rediger and Guénon gives us pause: Guénon lived in exile, while Rediger moves into a hotel particulier in the 5th arrondissement; Guénon refuses to convert but lives according to Islamic law, while Rediger converts but enjoys a sip of Meursault from time to time; Guénon’s erudition leads him to denounce less sophisticated popular religious movements, while Rediger popularizes Islam through his defense of polygamy. While Rediger adopts the slippery uniform of university President and then government official, Guénon remained esoteric and mysterious to the end. The reader closes the book with a profound antipathy for Rediger and, at the very least, a curiosity about Guénon.
A little research into this enigmatic figure reveals that he too was unafraid to condemn the religious trends of his time. “Certainly, Spiritism is stupidity,” Guénon wrote at the end of his book The Spiritist Fallacy, “but what is terrible is that this stupidity has reached a point where it exercises an extraordinarily wide action, proving that it corresponds to quite general tendencies.” There is more than an echo here of Houellebecq’s offensive claim in an inebriated interview in 2001 that “the stupidest religion has to be Islam.” (He also stated in recent weeks in a more sober interview with the French Catholic magazine, La Vie, that he had finally read the Koran to assess how dangerous it really was and came out “somewhat reassured.”)
Submissions’s plotline of a victorious political Islam, manipulated for personal gain, so completely turns the tables on Houellebecq’s pungent secularism that we can’t help but wonder in what direction (if anywhere) Houellebecq is pointing. There is of course satire in the cupidity of many of his characters, the incompetence of its politicians, and the existential angst of contemporary French life, but the vehicle for this satire is so overwhelmingly ironic that we read the entire novel waiting for the other shoe to drop . . . and it never does, or at least not yet.
The dialogue between Western decadence in the past and the present (or near future) unsettles our reading of Houellebecq’s new-car-smell prose. Like the narrator’s enigmatic final claim, in a stand-alone sentence, the only words on the final page: “I would have no regrets.” (In the English translation it read, “I would have nothing to mourn.”) We are left wondering if a turn to religion, be it religious or not, might offer a way out of our post-modern cell. As François does with Huysmans, can we read this book backwards in light of Houellebecq’s future conversion? And if so, conversion to what? This question haunts with greater urgency in the face of the events of January 7–11, 2015.