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 conclude our series of discussions of the novel with the following contribution by Ellis Hanson. See also the earlier posts by Vincent Lloyd, Michael Allan, Alex Dubilet, and Giuseppina Mecchia.
However improbably, Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission returns continually to the work of Joris-Karl Huysmans for inspiration, if one can call it inspiration, this exercise in disillusionment seeking its literary echo. All the more surprising is Houellebecq’s insistence on a view of Huysmans that scarcely anyone, even those who have read his best work, will recognize, despite its being scrupulously accurate in its biographical and literary detail. When Huysmans is read today, it is almost invariably as the quintessential Decadent of À rebours, which Houellebecq touches upon only lightly when he declares it a masterpiece and then declines to discuss it in any meaningful way except to ask where one goes, where Huysmans went, where Houellebecq’s protagonist François might go, when his best work, his greatest inspirations, and his greatest dissipations are behind him. “In the case of Joris-Karl Huysmans,” the protagonist worries, “the obvious problem was what to do with À rebours. Once you’ve written a book of such powerful originality, unrivaled even today in all of literature, how do you go on writing?” Houellebecq even seems to be inviting us to contemplate his own midlife crisis as a novelist and wonder if, after writing the great novel of cynicism in our time, after exploring in painful detail better than anyone else all the great whatevers of modern anomie, he has simply run out of fresh disillusionments to anatomize in prose. His answer to his own question is quite simply Durtal, Huysmans’ other great literary accomplishment, the autobiographical alter ego around whom he focalized a series of somewhat mystical, somewhat Naturalistic, somewhat Decadent novels of Catholic conversion that occupied him for much of the two decades that followed the success of À rebours.
But what does either Huysmans or Durtal have to do with Houellebecq’s dystopian satire by which French politics and society are too effortlessly refigured in the year 2022 by a conservative Islamic revolution? Houellebecq seems to have mashed together two very different books: one a dreary campus novel about a disillusioned academic who ironically relives the subject of his dissertation, and the other a Swiftian political satire about Islam and the decline of French civilization. All these two narratives have in common is cynicism, and the touchstone for it is Huysmans. The Decadent movement in literature, as typified in the late nineteenth century by such French writers as Baudelaire, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Verlaine, and Huysmans, does indeed begin with an assumption that, like a human being, a nation and its literature have an infancy and a prime—but also a senescence, when its passions are too exhausted, its sophistications too subtle, its dreams too feverish, and its morals too compromised. The modern empires of Europe will go the way of ancient Rome, yes, but what of this marvelous music they will play as they commence to burn? The myth of Decadence and imperial decline has not ceased to entice us, though we have been through two world wars since Huysmans wrote and seen empires rearrange themselves along different lines many times. Houellebecq renews the myth for us in a satirical mode: modern French culture has declined so far, is indeed so weary of itself, that an Islamic revolution would be welcomed with a shrug, since a new Muslim Europe would at least bring France closer to its own medieval and imperial grandeur, which it long ago betrayed. Houellebecq’s contempt for Islam makes this scenario all the more bitterly ironic: the antidote is, for him, even more toxic than the problem, though the protagonist of this novel, the aptly named François, has eminently reliable powers of rationalization and self-delusion that help him make the best of it.
To consider a conversion to Catholicism, or for that matter to Islam, as somehow the opposite of Decadence would be a mistake. A great many writers and artists whom we deem Decadent were in fact converts or seriously contemplated conversion, and they were Decadent stylists before, during, and after: not only Verlaine, Barbey, Rimbaud, and Huysmans, but also Oscar Wilde and most of the Decadent writers in his orbit. Catholicism was not the antidote to their Decadence, but a frequent vehicle for its poetic mysticism: without sin there is no hope of transgression, and without the spirit there is no hope of ecstasy. Huysmans is the ideal illustration for this paradox: before and after his conversion, he is most Decadent when he is most Catholic, when his mysticism becomes an aesthetic passion, whether for Christ or for his alter ego, Satan. Instead of focusing on Huysmans as a Decadent stylist—on his aestheticism, his lapidary vocabulary, his tortuous syntax, his esoteric knowledge, his perverse sensuality—Houellebecq evokes instead the often overlooked ordinariness of the man himself (a career civil servant, after all) and on his struggle for religious faith in a world whose vulgarity and dullness disgusted him.
Houellebecq’s prose is simple and accessible, even pedestrian by comparison with the style of À rebours. Oddly, despite his apparent expertise on the subject, François is scarcely concerned with the style or aesthetic obsessions of À rebours. He shows a much greater affinity for the plainer, drearier Naturalism of Huysmans’ earlier novels and the duller stretches of the Durtal novels—the Huysmans that hardly anyone reads anymore. Most critics praise En rade, the novel after À rebours, for its jarring and surreal dream passages, but François finds them a nuisance: “It would almost seem that he was trying to go back to Naturalism—the sordid Naturalism of the countryside, where the peasants turn out to be more abject and greedy even than Parisians—if not for the dream sequences, which interrupt and ultimately hobble the story, and make it so impossible to classify.” Usually a professor of literature would find that impossibility of classification further evidence of the novel’s originality and appeal, but Houellebecq is unaccountably eager to turn Huysmans back into the author he first was, a lame version of Zola without the political insight, social range, or narrative urgency of the master of Naturalism. He reads Huysmans’ most disturbing novel, Là-bas, not for its stylistic virtuosity, its satanic mysticism, or even its grotesque scenes of debauchery, but for its boringly comfortable passages about Maman Carhaix’s good French cookery: Huysmans’ idea of happiness, François argues, “was to have his artist friends over for a pot-au-feu with horseradish sauce, accompanied by an ‘honest’ wine and followed by plum brandy and tobacco, with everyone sitting by the stove while the winter winds battered the towers of Saint-Sulpice.” Huysmans was certainly longed for good companionship and good digestion—who does not?—but the rest of Là-bas aspires to a more sublime and mystical level of experience that is comically beyond François’s grasp, eager as he is to find the simple domestic pleasures so absent in his own life in the pages of one of Huysmans’ most notorious novels.
Houellebecq and François are eager to turn Huysmans into a writer more like themselves. What François admires most about Huysmans’ work is the intimacy it gives him with the author: “an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.” Huysmans lends himself well to such a perilously biographical and rather narcissistic practice of reading, not the least because all of his protagonists are more or less authentic versions of himself. Des Esseintes in À rebours is the least so, given his aristocratic dandyism, but Durtal is abundantly autobiographical and intimate company through four novels: a sophisticated, disillusioned, neurotic, cranky, chain-smoking spectator of life who contemplates a vulgar world in decline and envies the spiritual and aesthetic enthusiasms that entice his imagination but always fail to rescue him once and for all from the ennui, the despairing spiritual dryness, that is the most frequent of his many complaints. Houellebecq delights in the mise en abîme of this game of literary mirrors: he is writing about a writer much like himself (François) who is writing about a writer much like himself (Huysmans) who is writing about a writer much like himself (Durtal) who is seeking the mirror of his own aspiration or despair in every text or personality he contemplates. Houellebecq’s satirical distance from François and François’s ultimate betrayal of Huysmans give their identification with their subjects all the more pathos.
It makes sense that En route, Huysmans’ relatively unexciting novel about his own conversion experience, should be the main focus of Francois’s attention and the text that Houellebecq quotes at length for his epigraph: Durtal exclaims, “I have no desire to pray. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and candle wax. I hover on its outskirts, moved to tears by its prayers, touched to the very marrow by its psalms and chants. I am revolted with my life, I am sick of myself, but so far from changing my ways!” Yes, so Catholic, but what could be more Decadent than this passionate, unrelenting self-disgust? It is what also makes Houellebecq even more reliably Decadent than the modern culture he despises. Durtal is genuinely enchanted by the religion of his childhood, yet prayer eludes him, ennui reasserts itself, and his mystical vision fails. This refrain rings repeatedly though all of the Durtal novels, before and after Huysmans’ conversion, even once he feels he finds a place for himself as a Benedictine oblate, a sort of monk manqué who would still be allowed to write and smoke the way he wants. As Huysmans himself correctly pointed out, the same struggle is evident even in À rebours, which concludes on a similar note with Des Esseintes’s more famous prayer, which would have served equally well as an epigraph for Soumission: “Ah! but my courage fails me and my heart is sick within me!—Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who wants to believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!”
François comes closest to this sort of earnest plea during a church visit that is inspired by Huysmans, though it is less a pilgrimage than a mere vacation from the Islamic revolution at home. As he stands before the Virgin in the Chapel of Our Lady and listens to a recital of a trite religious poem by Péguy, his cynicism is still in evidence, but he finds himself in “a strange state” of mystical appreciation that he finally attributes deflatingly to hypoglycemia. Still, he feels he recognizes in her “something mysterious, priestly, and royal that surpassed Péguy’s understanding, to say nothing of Huysmans’s.” But the feeling recedes into disillusionment, as it does for Durtal in the epigraph from En route. This scene is analogous to another passage in En route where Durtal, wakened by a wet dream that he attributes to a succubus, goes out for a cigarette and literally stumbles upon a group of monks in ecstatic prayer. He thinks of one of them, “In this old man the soul did not even take the trouble to reform his physiognomy, to ennoble it; she contented herself in annihilating it with her rays; it was, after a fashion, the nimbus of old saints remaining no more about the head, but extending itself over all the features, pale, almost invisible, bathing his whole being.” Huysmans speaks in the language of a great spectator, a great artist of mysticism, but one who remains envious of a power of transfiguration that he can glimpse but not embrace. François, by comparison, seems merely envious of this envy, since both the passion and the power of articulating it are mostly lost on him. In his final and most cynical act, his bad-faith conversion to Islam, he makes a mockery of Huysmans’ conversion to Catholicism and brings his intense identification with the author to an end. It is not only his intellectual life, but also his opportunity for a spiritual and emotional transfiguration, that he abandons when he finally admits that his “long, very long relationship with Joris-Karl Huysmans” was over.