It is impossible to imagine a Barack Obama or a Donald Trump denouncing a novel as dangerous to society. But in France, things are different. Writers matter: anyone walking around the streets of Paris will notice names like Place André-Malraux or Allée Blaise-Cendrars. So when French Prime Minister Manuel Valls denounced Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Submission” for the “intolerance, hate, and fear” it displayed towards Islam, he provided reason to think there is still a semblance of intellectual life in France, and that writers there can still hope to influence public opinion.
Valls was absolutely wrong about the novel (which he probably had not read). Nonetheless, the book is, and ought to be, hugely controversial. It is by turns brilliant, hilarious, subversive, scathing, sad, mischievous, pornographic, and alarming. It is, in other words, truly, toxically dangerous.
Houellebecq was France’s leading novelist even before publishing “Submission” earlier this year. It rapidly became a sensational best-seller in Europe. In Lorin Stein’s lively English translation, it deserves a large readership here as well.
A Life Bereft of Love and Therefore Meaning
“Submission” is set in France in 2022, during a presidential election. The traditional parties of Right and Left—Gaullists and Socialists—have lost the first round so are out of the final runoff. The two remaining parties are the nativist, anti-immigrant National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood. The two traditional parties throw their weight behind the Muslims, who win.
The hero, named Francois (both “Francis” and “Frenchman”) is a middle-tier professor of French literature, a specialist in the writing of J.K. Houysmans. Houysmans was a nineteenth-century “decadent” who wound up as a Catholic monk. As a character, Francois is meant to be a “decadent” of the contemporary type. There is nothing larger than himself that he serves, purports to serve, or wishes to serve; but he knows that his self is a naught.
Francois, who is in his mid-40s, is of course an unbeliever. He is unmarried, childless, and estranged from his (divorced) parents—so estranged that when he decides to flee Paris he knows better than to seek refuge in the country with either of them. He drifts from one meaningless affair to another with his women students, all of them 20 or more years younger than he. The affairs invariably end when they tell him they have met “somebody else.”
He usually cannot find sexual satisfaction in these relationships, although a Jewish student, Myriam, sometimes excites him. Indeed, Myriam feels affection and respect for Francois: she gives him a great blow job as a birthday present. Myriam’s family flees France for Israel, and she goes with them. He makes no effort to keep her. He muses, “There is no Israel for me.”
Francois finds it remarkable that even though Myriam is in her twenties, she still has dinner with her parents every night. Francois’ relationships with his parents are very different. He is unaware that his mother has died until he receives notice from her local government that she has been given a pauper’s burial. His reaction is to wonder what has become of her pet bulldog.
He has also lost contact with his father, a retired CFO, and is surprised to learn that before his death he had taken a mistress and made hobbies of gun collecting and hunting. Still more surprising to Francois is the discovery that his father’s mistress had loved him: how could a woman find something to love in such an ordinary, boring man?
Even Francois’s relationships with prostitutes rarely give him pleasure. He has no friends among his colleagues, with the possible exception of an older woman professor, whose academic gossip he enjoys. He is also impressed by the knowledgeable conversation of her husband, a graduate of France’s elite Ecole Normale Superieur who has made the unusual career choice of becoming a police spy.
In short, Francois’ life is mean, grubby, loveless, and despairing. He is the epitome of the secularized Western intellectual, except in one respect. Francois, though a conventional man of the Left, is too lucid or disillusioned to be politically correct. In conversation with Myriam, he even blurts out that it may have been a bad idea to give women the vote or allow them into the same professions as men. Myriam is not surprised and mulls it over.
A Personal and Political Turning Point
The turning point for Francois comes with the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, in alliance with the traditional Right and Left parties. The Brotherhood is led by a clever, capable, and intelligent man, Mohammed Ben Abbes. He has a vision for France and for Europe. Modeling himself on the Roman Emperor Augustus, he wants to create a Muslim-dominated European Union, centered on the Mediterranean Sea, with Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and eventually Egypt and Turkey as members.
His concept of the economy is based on that of nineteenth-century social thinkers of the Arts and Crafts type. He loathes violent Islamic radicals. When he comes to power, the threat of civil war in France disappears. So does violence in the inner cities. Employment soars as women exit the work force for the home.
The Muslims are willing to let the traditional Right-Left parties in the coalition government control the ministries of the military and the police. All they want is the Education Ministry. They get it, because the Socialists would rather have the Muslims control French education than allow the National Front to win. To prevent that, the Socialists will even sacrifice the teachers!
Francois is purged from his university job because he is not a Muslim. But his new masters give him a golden handshake, so he doesn’t mind. His life is as pointless as ever. He thinks about suicide but decides it is too soon to pull the trigger.
Leaving Paris while the elections are going on (he fears danger: the only safe district is Chinatown), he winds up in a village called Martel. It is named for the medieval French hero who defeated the Muslims. Francois has never really seen France before, other than Paris. He goes to a nearby medieval town, Rocamadour, where there is an icon, “the Black Virgin.” Over the centuries, great Christian saints and heroes have prayed before it.
He begins to feel stirrings; perhaps he, like Huysmans, should convert to Catholicism? He even, briefly, has an ecstatic vision of the sacred, seeing the Virgin and her Son exalted in majesty. It is the most lyrical part of the book:
Every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin – the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe. The Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extraterrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus – who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man – sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise, and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power – of intangible energy – were almost terrifying. . . . I felt my own individuality dissolving the longer I sat in my reverie before the Virgin of Rocamadour.
The Black Virgin and her Son almost, almost bring Francois to the point of conversion:
I felt ready to give up everything, not really for my country, but in general. I was in a strange state. It seemed the Virgin was rising from her pedestal and growing in the air. The baby Jesus seemed ready to detach himself from her, and it seemed to me that all he had to do was raise his right hand and the pagans and idolators would be destroyed, and the keys to the world restored to him, ‘as its lord, its possessor, and its master.’
Was this a breakthrough to (or of) the sacred, or merely, as Francois suspects, “mystical hypoglycemia”? He decides to revisit the monastery where Huysmans became a monk and put the matter to the test.
A True Conversion Is Impossible
After two days, he concludes that Catholicism is not for him. He cannot smoke in his monastery bedroom, and he finds the monks’ teachings jejune. His momentary epiphany fades; it must have been hypoglycemia after all. Catholicism is played out, just like France. He cannot recover its “vanished universe.” His “individuality” finally proves too hard, too atom-like, to be dissolved.
Apparently Houellebecq had originally intended to end the novel with Francois’ conversion to Catholicism. He found that that ending simply did not work. The logic of artistic truth drove him to a different conclusion.
The new Muslim leadership of his university wants Francois back. But first, he must convert to Islam. They test him out by offering him the chance to edit the works of Huysmans in the prestigious Pleiade series. He takes the bait. Then he speaks at length to the new university president, Rediger, a convert to Islam who had also rejected Catholicism. Rediger lives opulently in the mansion that once belonged to the author of the pornographic novel, “The History of O–,” a sado-masochistic story about submission.
Rediger is highly persuasive and intelligent, and he knows Francois better than Francois knows himself. He makes a plausible intellectual defense of Islam. He also knows Francois’ price for conversion. It will be a bigger salary—enough to support the three wives the Brotherhood will give him. One of Rediger’s wives is an older woman: she is a superb cook. Another is a 15-year-old in a Hello Kitty T-shirt. Despite being a Muslim, Rediger serves superb wine. Francois takes the offer and becomes a Muslim.
In the end, all Francois wants are the bourgeois comforts most Westerners took for granted until the 1970s—a wife, children, good meals, regularity. Alas, almost no one is his circles enjoys such things now. Francois seems typical: he floats from one shabby affair to another, filling the intervals with Internet pornography that he watches while heating unappetizing meals on his microwave.
Other than Myriam, who has dinner every night with her close Jewish family, only one modern woman seems to be happy: the professor of literature. And she is happiest only after she has been fired and goes to live with her husband, the ex-spy who has also been fired, in their country place, where she can make him delicious meals.
Do Contemporaries Reject ‘Submission’s’ Observations?
Prime Minister Valls lambasted the novel as Islamophobic. In fact, it presents Islam in a (somewhat) favorable light. The genuinely interesting question is, What do such critics really find objectionable in it?
Perhaps they fear the novel’s presentation of the sordidness and despair of contemporary secular life, especially among the academics and intellectuals. These critics are probably not unlike Francois themselves: they don’t like hearing about the need to submit to any Higher Will.
Or could it be that the critics detest what the novel has to say about feminism, the dominant Western ideology for the past 40 years? The Muslim women, even those in polygamous marriages, are presented as happy because they have submitted to a greater will (the man’s). Other than Myriam, the liberated Western women with whom Francois has sex seem to be lonely, aimless, and unhappy—no less so than the men. When the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, French women get with the program. They leave their jobs; their dresses begin to cover and conceal their bodies.
Or are the critics infuriated by the novel’s argument that Francois is motivated above all by very bourgeois longings for ease, comfort, and stability? Francois in the end sells out for a good price: tenure, not too much teaching, no doctoral students, three wives of various ages, a good salary. What left-wing academic would turn down that deal?
Let it be said that Francois’ conversion is not the passionate, life-shattering conversion of a God-seeking Huysmans. It makes negligible demands on Francois’ reason, beliefs, or conduct. It merely represents a kind of return to bourgeois normality. His new Islamic faith does not require Francois to abjure any of the “good things of life” that a consumerist culture offers—no, they are heaped on him. His “conversion” is simply a matter of signing an employment contract.
But if the Islam to which Francois submits seems domesticated and tame, why should secularized critics find fault with that? Isn’t that undemanding, “reformed” type of Islam precisely what our progressives dream about?
A Submission to Something Higher than Self
What the critics cannot truly find objectionable is the novel’s depiction of Islam: how could they? Yes, the novel says that Islam allows polygamy—but doesn’t it? And isn’t polygamy built into the logic of same-sex marriage, which the secularized Western Left enthusiastically supports? Why is it not enlightened, rather than reactionary, to endorse polygamy?
Yes, the novel shows that Islam aspires to bring the whole world into its fold—but doesn’t it? Islam is emphatically not depicted as a “religion of war.” Rather, it is shown as more rational and less mystical than Christianity—practically the Enlightenment itself, but with elements of prophesy, and what seems like a bit of science fiction, added into the mix. Without much effort, Voltaire himself might have become a good Muslim.
Houellebecq shows no animus to Islam. As the novel presents it, Islam seems superior to both Christianity and secularism. Christianity demands that human beings transcend their nature, e.g., by living monastically. Islam takes a more “realistic” view of the capabilities of ordinary people, like Francois. Islam prescribes ways of regulating and ordering the passions and affections, like male sexual lust or the desire for intimacy, not for extirpating them. It comes to terms with human nature; it does not seek to supersede it.
For the same reason, Islam is presented as a far better form of life management than secular unbelief. It answers the human need for submission to something higher. It understands that liberty cannot be a goal in itself, that human beings require hierarchy and direction. Instead of allowing us to pursue our passions without limit—that way lies loneliness and despair—it grasps that they must be socialized.
True, the individual’s drives must be satisfied, but only within a framework that serves the higher needs of society. Hence, sexuality must be rightly ordered to the birth of children and maintenance of the family.
How could a novel that says those things be considered “Islamophobic”? No, the true cause of the critics’ complaints is altogether different. The novel shows us what “decadence” means in our time. For the many decadents among us, that message comes too close to home.
Incidentally, soon after the ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015, Prime Minister Valls hastened to adopt the substance of proposals made by National Front leader Marine LePen to expel foreigners who “preached hatred” and to strip French citizenship from binational Islamists. French President Hollande upped the ante by proposing to take citizenship away even from native-born French who were convicted of terrorism. Leading French newspaper Le Monde wrote that the Socialist government had made a “180 degree turn.” So much for the Left’s opposition to “Islamophobia.”