Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission raises important questions about the cultural crises of modernity. It reflects on the dialectics of post-secularism and post-democracy in ways that have become particularly salient in light of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernadino. Today on TELOSscope, we continue our series of discussions of the novel with the following contribution by Giuseppina Mecchia. See also the earlier posts by Vincent Lloyd, Michael Allan, and Alex Dubilet.
Reading the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, I remembered an essay by Maurice Blanchot that appeared in 1964, entitled “L’Apocalypse déçoit,” roughly translatable as “The Apocalypse Disappoints.” Originally devoted to the intellectual failure on the part of the French intelligentsia to deal with the possibility of nuclear annihilation, the title of that essay seems the perfect commentary to a plot that would sound nothing less than apocalyptic to a very sizable part of contemporary French society: the election of a Muslim president of the French Republic and the Islamization of its civil code. This disastrous occurrence, currently treated in the Western media as nothing less than a catastrophic finis Europae, is narrated by Houellebecq in his increasingly understated voice, now mostly situated halfway between deadpan satire, melancholic brooding, and a touch of occasional melodrama. Gone are the violent Islamic terrorists of Plateforme, the 2001 novel that ended with terrorist attack on European sexual tourists in Thailand. No more spectacular explosions of the 9/11 kind: if the Western way of life will go, it won’t be with a bang, but with a merely audible whimper.
Houellebecq is not new not only to science fiction, which he has practiced successfully in his The Possibility of an Island (2006), but also to the more difficult, politically controversial genre that I might want to name “proximate dystopia.” In this kind of fiction, the reader finds herself in a very familiar environment, postdated only of a couple of years. Or one can play with temporal devices in order to go from a proximate past to an equally proximate, perfectly conceivable future. Houellebecq has used the later technique in The Map and the Territory (2010), where we saw the contemporaneity of its protagonist, the painter and conceptual artist Jed Martin, being stretched out in a narrative future that seems to place the narrative voice around the year 2040 or thereabout. In Submission, we start with a barely futuristic setting, the presidential elections of 2022 with a largely familiar cast of political characters currently gracing the French political arena, and a protagonist whose everyday unhappiness reminds us of his many avatars in Houellebecq’s previous novels: François is just another lonely, greying French man, stuck in a navel-gazing interiority barely interrupted by work and sexual encounters. That his name is François rather than Michel (used in a quasi-autobiographical vein in many of Houellebecq’s past novels) alerts us to the exemplarity of his characterization, which seems to be more widely national than individually psychological.
What the reviewers of the book have failed to underscore—at least as far as I know—is the narrative point of entry that allows Houellebecq to envision as verisimilar the cultural and political takeover of France on the part of an Islamic government: no reader of his previous work could be surprised to find sex and gender politics at the center of this turn of events. Houellebecq, whose flat-affect, deadpan novelistic delivery makes it impossible to determine the author’s position with respect to the events narrated, has made of the sexual frustrations of the white French male the main object of his novels. None of his male protagonists have a heroic, conquering approach to the sexual relation. While mocking of even inferior specimens, they alternate between cowering and resentment when faced with the true alpha males that they might encounter. This was true already in Extension du domaine de la lutte (1999), and maybe only Jed in The Map and the Territory is less characterized by sexual failure than all his previous counterparts.
François, however, goes back to the various Michels of old: he is not only unheroic, but even predatory in his sexual habits: he relies on his position as professor to seduce—prey upon?—his female students. When that fails, he has recourse to prostitution. In other words, none of Houellebecq’s main characters, around whom the narration is always exclusively focalized, finds contemporary France a welcoming environment for their sexual lives in the free market of relationships or even one-night stands. To achieve any measure of relational satisfaction, these men need to be protected and buoyed, so to speak, by a strong structural support, be it the travel arrangements of sexual tourism, the highly disciplined milieus of sexual swinger soirees, the inherent elevation provided by a university chair, and so forth. For this kind of man, Islam—of course in its most trivial popular understanding—is actually a lifesaver. François, faced with a professional and personal marginalization, understands rather quickly that the perspective of having three young and submissive wives is not that terrible after all. His own submission to the new cultural-political social rule is then all too convenient.
The novel has recently been trashed by Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times reviewer, on the occasion of its translation into English, just one day after the Swedish novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, in the same newspaper, gave of it the most general and non-committal account possible. In both cases, the reviewers either missed, or chose to ignore, the ethical and aesthetic value not only of Submission, but of Houellebecq’s novelistic oeuvre in general. Knausgaard apologized profusely for not having read any other work by Houellebecq, but then went on to deliver a rather positive review of the book, and in particular of its sense of the sacred and the way it is trivialized in current cultural debates. On the other hand, the improbable coincidence of the novel’s publication in France with the massacre of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo was particularly damning in the eyes of Kakutani, who considers this “ugly new novel” fully deserving of this unfortunate historic fate. This is, I believe a shortsighted, moralistic, and in any event clearly inadequate position.
Only the most wide-eyed believer in the progressive nature of contemporary French, and indeed, Western, societies would consider Houellebecq’s male protagonists and their sexist, pusillanimous, and sometimes hypocritical ways an individual aberration attributable to Houellebecq’s own “putrid” morality and imagination. If we consider the issue from a serious, even tragic perspective, the statistics about domestic violence, rape, and other forms of violence against women should alert us to the indisputable fact that the nostalgia for an imaginary autochthonous past or a different cultural future might be more rooted in our populations than we would like to think. Additionally, it is equally Pollyannaish to imagine that bigotry and racism, intended as objectification and vilification of the cultural other, are somehow a marginal phenomenon that can be countered by well-intentioned intellectuals or informative TV documentaries and—let me adopt for a moment Houellebecq’s satirical flippancy—educational field trips to the local mosque.
Literature has always been a lightning rod for the expression of the deepest existential, cultural, and political failures of a society. To a certain extent, attracting and taking the blows for the ambiguities and even the lack of courage of a certain social environment is the task of the writer, for which he or she can receive—if the books sell well, as is the case for Houellebecq’s—a rather hefty monetary reward. In this respect, rabid vilification, moral pillorying, and sometimes even direct physical threats are the obverse of celebrity and public recognition. If Houellebecq is considered one of the greatest French writers of our era, it is precisely because of his willingness to adopt that social role in writing novels where the ambiguity of our ethical choices is fully revealed. Only a consummate art of the deadpan delivery can accomplish that. We are not told what to think of Houellebecq’s characters. We only know that they are, and that they exist in a highly recognizable French context, beyond the indeterminacies insured by the “proximate dystopian narrative.” We despise them, we laugh at them and with them. It is in the relation between the work and the reader that the value of a work of art should be judged: in this respect, the political and ethical issues raised by Submission, as well as its emotional impact, are more than deserving of the novel’s success. France cannot ignore or sugarcoat its own inability to make sense of its cultural and political tensions. We can only hope that Houellebecq will keep putting out novels that will make impossible all attempts to silence them under a hypocritical and bigoted veil of propriety.
1. See Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission,'” New York Times, November 2, 2015; and Michiko Kakutani, “Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ Imagines France as a Muslim State,” New York Times, November 3, 2015. It is unfortunate that such an influential paper should not have bothered to look for more competent reviewers.