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 Michael Allan.
For scholars of religion and literature, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission glimmers like a shiny lure. The storyline contains the sorts of details that appeal to an easy and seductive journalistic gloss. The year is 2022. A charismatic Muslim prime minister is elected in France, and an almost caricatured series of events follows: men and women are separated; the university president converts to Islam and weds a young wife; professors are coerced to convert or retire early; and so on. Add to the plot Houellebecq’s professed Islamophobia and the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, and you have the ingredients of a newsworthy book to be addressed by critics, journalists, and readers across the world. Like a number of reviewers, I initially found myself lured to consider religion, secularism, and contemporary French politics against the backdrop of the newly published English translation. But as I began reading, I was confronted with a challenge of a different sort.
For a novel so frequently approached journalistically, it surprisingly begins not with any explicit discussion of religion or politics, but with a still more elusive category: literature. The opening section introduces us to the narrator, François, a professor of literature at Paris III, and to the nineteenth-century author Joris-Karl Huysmans, to whom François’ academic career is devoted. We learn in the first line that François’ connection to Huysmans exceeds that of any simple academic interest: “Through all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend . . .”(5); and later, “. . . my boring, predictable life continued to resemble Huysmanss’ a century and a half before” (11). Alongside specific biographical details linking Huysmans and the narrator, the novel also offers more general reflections on the status of literature: “only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettiness, its obsessions, its beliefs . . .” (6–7). We thus encounter a framework that underscores the identification of the narrator with the nineteenth-century author and simultaneously draws our attention to the place of literature in the modern world: “Much, maybe too much, has been written about literature” (6); and later, “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know” (10). Literature, then, serves at once as a humanist value, connecting human spirit across place and time, and an entirely trivial, professionally fruitless undertaking. In a novel otherwise presented as a projection into the future, we confront quite explicitly a literary past. The nineteenth-century Huysmans—that quintessential figure of authorship—haunts the work as more than a simple literary echo.
The late Edward Said famously remarked, “texts are worldly, to some degree they are events, and even when they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted.” These lines have gone on to be interpreted by scholars such as Talal Asad, Gil Anidjar, and Stathis Gourgouris, each of whom in differing ways helps to consider the contours of Said’s secular criticism. At first blush, a novel like Submission would seem to call out for a situated, worldly reading. For one, Houellebecq is quite explicit about the resonance the scenario he plots has for the world in which he writes—so much so, in fact, that Adam Schatz describes Houellebecq as “a sly and witty chronicler.” That the novel engages as explicitly as it does with a contemporary France, even alluding to Marine Le Pen by name, would seem to invite exactly the sort of grounded, secular criticism that Said describes. The concurrence of Éric Zemmour’s notorious bestseller or the events surrounding Charlie Hebdo necessary lend to understanding this novel in its historical moment. The gravity of Houellebecq’s novel derives, it would seem, from its capacity to diagnose underlying cultural anxieties around questions of religion and politics.
And yet, it strikes me that Submission invites considerations that exceed any simple contextual or thematic reading. On the pages of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reads Houellebecq’s novel as a satire; Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books takes it to be a new genre of “the dystopian conversion tale”; and in an interview with Sylvain Bourmeau, Houellebecq claims the novel is best understood as political fiction. Genre matters not because one needs to classify the text, but because it delimits how this novel comes to be read. And whether satire, a conversion tale, or political fiction, no one disagrees that the story is a work of fiction. And as a work of fiction, it immediately functions differently than it would were it a speech act of a different sort. Not only does the novel itself complicate historical temporality, projecting forward to France in 2022 and looking backward to the nineteenth century, but it assumes a frame that makes reading this story as a story possible. This frame, we could say, is the status of the novel not as journalism, nor as history, but as fiction. In this sense, yes, of course, the text is worldly, but it is also a fictional world imagined through the literary contours of the genre it assumes. And as a fictional world it relies heavily upon the terms of the literary education embodied in François and his connection to Huysmans.
I wonder, then, what it might mean to take seriously a speculative observation at the conclusion of Michel Foucault’s famous essay “What is an Author?” Reflecting on the formation of the author in the eighteenth century, Foucault writes, “if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion.” And in what follows, Foucault speculates further about the connection between the author and fiction in general: “I seem to call for a form of culture,” he writes, “in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author.” He notes that since the eighteenth century the author has “played the role of the regulatory of the fictive,” and he considers what might happen if fiction is no longer contained, restrained, and domesticated by the author function. Houellebecq’s novel—and even the story it contains on its pages—is fundamentally concerned with the contours of the literary regime that Foucault describes. Indeed, authorship haunts Houellebecq’s work in the form of Huysmans, in the form of the literary career of its narrator, and in the form of Houellebecq himself, who enjoys the status of literary celebrity, albeit not always favorable, in the French press. Reading for secularity in the novel, I would argue, extends us beyond the details of the story to the conditions in which the story itself comes to be understood as fiction. And as fiction, it comes to matter in a particular way in large part due to the author function it performs.
My point here is not to target Houellebecq for good or bad representations of a political future, nor to anchor his imaginings in him as an author or the world from which he stems. Instead, if we take the literary dimensions of the novel seriously, then we are led to address the form of representation the novel makes possible—that is, the status of the novel as fiction. The fictive world on the pages of Submission affirms, celebrates, and, yes, even critiques the literary, but nevertheless relies upon its conventions. It is the literary, after all, that helps secure Houellebecq’s speech as a journalistic curiosity, but merely a curiosity. Were it speech of any other sort—scripture, law, history, or even an interview—it would be subject to a different sort of inquiry. Literature, then, presumes its own hermeneutic, and it is a hermeneutic carefully policed by those readers who claim to appreciate literature the most. It is a hermeneutic offered to us at the start of this particular novel in François’ reflections and his scorn for the world that fiction has now become. It is a hermeneutic, we might say, that renders the novel the domain of purposelessness inquiry—merely fiction.
What a luxury this must be. What a luxury to hide in the shroud of literariness. The novel at once intrigues for its engagement with contemporary politics and yet retreats at precisely the moment it would be read as a speech act—it is a work of literature, we are told. The question that confronts us when taking stock of the text, then, is to consider the contours of the literary as itself an outgrowth of secularity. The reflections with which the novel both opens and closes, the musings of Huysmans confronted with questions of conversion, and the narrator connecting his own situation to that of the nineteenth-century past—these are the reflections made possible through the novel as form, its formulation of characters, identification, and modes of consciousness. In this regard, Houellebecq is not so much exceptional. He merely does what other novelists do. But we readers, easily seduced by the journalistic lure of the fictional future, may all too easily overlook the prominent haunting of the literary past.
1. Michel Houellebecq, Submission (Paris: Flammarion, 2015), and in English, Submission: A Novel, trans. Lorin Stein (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Page numbers and citations in what follow draw from the English version.
2. Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 4.
3. See Talal Asad, “Historical Notes on the Idea of Secular Criticism,” The Immanent Frame, 2008; Gil Anidjar, “Secularism,” Critical Inquiry 33 (Autumn 2006): 52–77; Stathis Gourgouris, Lessons in Secular Criticism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).
4. Adam Shatz, “Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées,” London Review of Books 37, no. 7 (2015).
5. Here I refer to Éric Zemmour’s Le suicide français (Paris: Albin Michel, 2014) and to the publication of Houellebecq’s Submission on January 7, 2015—the same day as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo.
6. Tempting though it would be to read the status of conversion in the text—and the interchangability of Islam (for François) and Catholicism (for Huysmans) as parallel conversions—here I would suggest that secularity be sought not as a thematic issue in the text, but rather a function of the literary frame the text itself occupies.
7. Adam Gopnik, “The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic Satire,” New Yorker, January 26, 2015; Mark Lilla, “Slouching Toward Mecca,” New York Review of Books, April 2, 2015; Sylvain Boumeau, “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book,” Paris Review, January 2, 2015.
8. Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), pp. 101–20.
9. Ibid., p. 119.