More than a year after its publication, the worth of novelist Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” shines ever brighter, its synthesis of cynicism, seriousness and sadness a jaded reminder that fiction remains stranger than fact, but only just
In 2014, Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas almost lived up to its name. The speaking schedule featured the fearsomely hirsute Uthman Badar, media representative of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. The title of his lecture: Honour Killings Are Morally Justified. Twitter outrage ensued, the festival organisers bleated and cancelled the lecture, and Uthman Badar’s mouth remained uncharacteristically closed.
His silence disappointed me. I’ve been unable to decide whether Badar’s topic and those who see merit in it are best described as risible or contemptible. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. His speech could have been a clarifying moment, perhaps even a useful one. If one wished to make an easy case for women’s rights and liberal democracy, one could simply call attention to the theocratic-minded alternatives put forward by the likes of Badar and Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The cancellation provided an easy task for columnists. Their safe chatter prompted a reprise of well-worn thoughts about ardent Islam, our murky conception of free speech, and the relative tameness of The Festival of Dangerous Ideas. All sides claimed victory, the next topic trended, and everyone moved on.
One aspect of the affair escaped notice, though, and this was the lecture Badar had initially proposed: The West Needs Saving By Islam. A rather dangerous idea, yes, as well as a fascinating, frightening and thought-provoking one. It finds expression in myriad ways, but we rarely encounter it in such direct language. Rather, it is a sentiment that lurks quietly behind other ideas. Islam, as its most confident adherents claim, is the solution, not merely to philosophical problems but to all human inquiry. And so, the Islamist movement’s fantastical and totalitarian goal of world domination offers a form of salvation for the West, even if salvation looks more like destruction. Here, the certainty and vibrancy of Islam compare favourably to a soulless and etiolated West, where Christianity scarcely seems sure of itself, nihilism reigns, and the promise of even minimal economic stability is continually and casually broken.
An aspect of the debate over immigration makes peace with the idea of Islam saving the West, but this time through demographics and birth rates. Muslims, after all, are more likely to produce children, and therefore contribute to economic growth and a self-perpetuating society. Let them come, then, says the multicultural Left. There’s no doubt about which system is most likely to sustain itself: the virility of Islam contrasts with Western impotence. By the time the West is saved, though, it will no longer be the West.
Ian Buruma, the Dutch journalist and historian, explores this intellectual landscape in his lucid and engaging study of religion and democracy, Taming the Gods. He writes:
For many secular Europeans, it is the strength of Muslim belief that causes anxiety, as though rational “Enlightenment values” and liberal democracy were under siege by irrational faith. There is, however, a curiously religious, even apocalyptic undertone in some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric, an accusation that secular Europeans are bound to lose an existential war because they no longer believe in values, have become decadent and nihilistic, and are indeed, in this respect, inferior to the Muslims who have the benefit of their faith. The fear is that Western democracy might collapse, not because of Islam but because of the Europeans’ lack of faith in their own civilization and their consequent refusal to fight for its survival.”
These ideas have found their most brilliant literary evocation in Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission. Houellebecq (pictured above) introduces us to François, a 44-year-old, moderately alcoholic and friendless academic. François has no relationship with his parents, and only a series of sexual and loveless ones with his students. His current fling is with Myriam, a nubile 22-year-old and first-rate fellator. In the early pages, François welcomes Myriam to his apartment for dinner. He wanders into a half-hearted defense of patriarchy: “I’ve never really been convinced that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same things as men, go into the same professions, et cetera. I mean, we’re used to it now – but was it really a good idea?” His case rests on the claim that patriarchy is at least self-sustaining. Yet, looking at the lovely Myriam and acknowledging the emptiness of his life, François reflects: “And I still didn’t want to give her a child, or buy a Baby Björn. I didn’t even want to fuck her, or maybe I sort of wanted to fuck her but I also sort of wanted to die, I couldn’t really tell. Where the fuck was Rapid Sushi, anyway?”
François is a scholar of French novelist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, a 19th century disciple of Naturalism, and then Decadence, and then Jesus. Francois’s intellectual interests, however, have deserted him. He spends his working hours wondering which microwave dinner to heat and spends his evenings watching pornography. François’s discerning eye for literature is now attentive to a different kind of plot development, dialogue, and artistic intent—the videos on YouPorn. François considers the merits and faults of these videos, and then remarks: “At any rate I got a hard-on, too, sitting in front of my twenty-seven inch iMac, and all was well.” Here, Houellebecq exhibits one of his most remarkable talents: he brings together dark humour with deep melancholy and does so in a laconic style.
Houellebecq lets the narrative’s political context creep up on both François and the reader. It’s 2022, an election year, and two spectres are haunting France: Marine le Pen’s National Front is leading in the polls, and the charismatic Ben Abbes of the Muslim Brotherhood is gaining ground. Abbes strikes a deal with the floundering traditional parties: Abbes will take over the education ministry and thereby assume the power to effect dramatic social change. As François observes these events, his emotions swerve between disinterest, bemusement, and trepidation. He’s already quite susceptible to such mental jolts. He sees Western social democracy as “a power sharing deal between two rival gangs,” and his citizenship of France as merely theoretical. The idea of voting never even enters his mind.
The political tension heightens, and Myriam comes over for a vigorous and farewell bonk. Myriam tells François that she’s moving to Israel with her parents and asks about his plans: “I realised I hadn’t the slightest idea, and also that I didn’t give a fuck. I kissed her softly on the lips, and said, ‘There is no Israel for me.’ Not a deep thought; but that’s how it was.”
The new government comes to power and France is Islamised: there is Islamic education; the unruly Muslim banlieues are brought under control; unemployment disappears because generous financial incentives push women back into the family home; and Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco negotiate for membership in the European Union. Abbes’s government vehemently rejects laicism and atheist materialism. But his government isn’t the Islamic State of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Abbes’s plans are closer to those of Charles de Gaulle’s: France will be a great Arab power. The West will be rescued and revitalised. It’s both exciting and sinister.
François’s life changes dramatically, but his despondency remains unimpaired. He loses his job at the newly renamed Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne, as only Muslims can teach there now; his parents die, but he’s emotionally unaffected He’s depressed, however, to find that women are now concealed under the lengthy veil. He’s left to observe that “the contemplation of women’s arses, that small, dreamy consolation, had also become impossible.” “A transformation,” François concludes, “was indeed under way.”
Huysmans, François’s literary hero and, in a sense, François’s only friend, converted to a Catholicism of a mystical variety in his later years. Submission’s final question is whether François, too, will turn to religion: Will he submit to Islam as an escape from Western nihilism? He travels to the monastery where Huysmans found solace in religion. But François can hardly think about anything other than the ban on cigarettes. He mistakes a pang of hunger for a glimpse of spiritual insight.
Back in Paris, François is courted by the university president, Robert Rediger, who wants him to return to work on the condition that he converts to Islam. François ponders Rediger’s persuasive case:
The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. This wave of new immigrants, with their traditional culture — of natural hierarchies, the submission of women and respect for elders — offered a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe. These immigrants held out the hope of a new golden age for the old Continent.
François is drawn to other pleasures. Rediger has authored the bestselling book, Ten Questions on Islam. Francois quickly skips to the chapter entitled “Why Polygamy?” and considers the accompaniment to his conversion: the choice of at least three beautiful wives—teenagers perhaps—who will tend to his every need. This is unsettling. It seems that skulking behind Western condemnation of Islam’s treatment of women is a kind of envy, a wish that we, too, could be so barbarous. Dangerous ideas, indeed.
Francois is ready for submission, but he is unmistakably resigned: “ . . my only goal in life was to do a little reading and get into bed at four in the afternoon with a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky; and yet, at the same time, I had to admit, I was going to die if I kept that up — I was going to die fast, unhappy and alone. And did I really want to die fast, unhappy and alone? In the end, only kind of.”
WHAT IS Houellebecq up to? In an earlier novel, Atomised, Houellebecq indicts Islam as “the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions,” and he has echoed this sentiment in interviews. With Submission, though, he finds unusual comradeship with Uthman Badar in examining the idea that Islam will save France and, by extension, the West. Once again, salvation looks rather like destruction.
At first glance, Houellebecq doesn’t seem to be a helpful guide to our civilisational troubles. The events in the novel are frighteningly plausible. With the current refugee crisis, Europe happily plays the role of its own executioner. For this reason, one can see the novel as a timely warning about a dark future, but that isn’t Houellebecq’s intention. He doesn’t write to change anything or to set France on a brighter course. Submission is his chronicle of a downfall. It is the West’s funeral notice rather than its elegy.
It pays well, though, to take a second glance and linger there. In Submission, Houellebecq’s nihilistic and reactionary ideas are as present as ever, but what matters is how the reader responds. Submission is a masterly work, a near perfect synthesis of humour, seriousness and sadness. If the West submits to Islam, it will have nothing to do with the truthfulness of Islam’s claims, nor with the validity and superiority of Sharia. It will have everything to do with a supine West that refuses to defend its achievements. And Houellebecq, who is a genius, sees all this and merely shrugs.
Will the reader share or approve of the author’s response? I doubt it. Anyone who thinks at all won’t find relief in Submission’s tragedy. Nor will anyone seek to enlist in Houellebecq’s lonely movement of pessimism and nihilism. He won’t damn a single soul. I can’t imagine that anyone has ever described Michel Houellebecq and his work as inspiring. But we may have cause to do so here. The novel is a reminder of what’s at stake, and herein lies its finest and final pleasure: it forces the reader to contemplate the loss and abandonment of Western culture and civilisation, and in doing so, prompts the reader to reject that very loss and abandonment. What becomes illuminated, then, is the duty to defend and cherish the Western inheritance and the meaning and value that it offers. To speak of such things, of meaning and all that, is to invite laughter, but only from the witless with nothing to offer but their smirks. French intellectuals, in other words.
The day of the novel’s publication, January 7, 2015, was also the day that jihadists murdered the wonderfully blasphemous cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, a magazine whose cover that same week featured, of all people, a caricature of Houellebecq. In the end, I hope Submission will inculcate in its readership a certain restiveness — a characteristic of the Western mind we must rediscover and nurture. If that happens, it wouldn’t be the standard Houellebecquian irony, I suppose, but it would be a welcome and amusing one.
Timothy Cootes completed a Master of International Relations at Macquarie University in 2013. He is now teaching in South Korea