By Ross Douthat
November 4, 2015
Like many people who pretend to parle a little francais but get tired after reading a page, I’ve only just now read the newly-translated “Submission,” Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a near-future French republic that succumbs willingly to a vaguely Tariq Ramadan-esque form of political Islam. When I say “dystopian,” the casual reader may infer — as many people did when the book first appeared, literally at the same moment as the “Charlie Hebdo” massacre — that the dystopia is the Islamicized France, that Houellebecq is trying to do for Islamism or “Eurabia” what Orwell once did for Stalinism. But if you’ve read the keener reviews (or Houellebecq’s previous novels) you probably understand that no, actually, the dystopia is the contemporary West, and the Islamified future that Houellebecq’s story ushers in is portrayed as a kind of civilizational step forward, or if you prefer a necessary regression back to health.
I sort of knew this going in but even so it was remarkable how — well, I think neo-reactionary is really the only term to use to describe what Houellebecq seems to be doing in his portrait of contemporary France and his mischievous prophecy about its potential trajectory. And I do mean neo-reactionary in the internet-movement, Mencius Moldbug sense of the term (if you aren’t familiar with this particular rabbit hole, good luck): The overt political teaching of “Submission” is that Europe is dying from the disease called liberalism, that it can be saved only by a return of hierarchy and patriarchy and patriotism and religion and probably some kind of monarchy as well, but that religion itself is primarily an instrumental good and so the point is to find a faith that actually convinces and inspires and works (and that’s, well, a little manly), and on that front European Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism is basically a dead letter so the future might as well belong to Islam instead.
Indeed one of the clever touches in the book involves the way the new Islamic Charlemagne of Europe, the Muslim Brotherhood leader turned French president Mohammed Ben Abbes, builds a power base that includes both France’s remaining conservative Christians, for whom his traditional-values pitch has some appeal, and (in a prominent cabinet position) a former Nietzsche scholar who presumably found in Islam a partial answer to some of old Friedrich’s sallies against Christianity’s weak-kneed femininity.
Now as this cleverness suggests, Houellebecq is considerably slyer than your average neoreactionary (or newspaper columnist, for that matter). And everything that happens in “Submission” is filtered through his frankly repellent, self-resembling narrator, so the actual message of the novel is necessarily somewhat more complex than the straightforward, un-Straussian reading I’ve just offered.
At the very least it’s safe to assume that the novelist is satirizing almost everybody, up to and including the neoreactionaries whose message he seems to adopt. For instance, when he has Europe’s Nietzcheans and conservative Christians get on board the Islamic express, what is that scenario, after all, but a variation on the relatively-commonplace liberal argument that the West’s social conservatives actually have a lot in common with the Taliban, to which said conservatives reliably take offense? Maybe not the Taliban, Houellebecq is saying to them, but you probably would find a Eurabia more congenial than your current anti-Islamic anxieties suggest!
Then he’s also satirizing, well, himself, as Noah Millman’s review of the novel for The American Conservative suggests, by having the Islamist takeover emerge as the very personal solution to the problems of late modernity that Houellebecq is obsessed with — a solution that works because it delivers meaning, domesticity and a clutch of docile wives to his chestless, sex-addled, Last Man academic without asking anything in return:
Houellebecq’s vineyard, which he has been working for decades, is Western boredom and exhaustion, the profound dissatisfactions of life under capitalism, the welfare state, and the sexual marketplace. When he began to write Submission, as he has said, he thought it would recount a character’s journey back to Catholicism, much as François’s subject, Huysmans, returned. But he found himself unable to feel his way into that particular journey. It felt forced, false. He couldn’t ultimately believe in such a return.
But Islam—that felt plausible. Not, I suspect, because it fit his needs better, but because he could fit it to his needs better. Catholicism might promise peace and harmony, but Houellebecq had some idea what that religion looked like in practice and what sacrifices it would entail. Islam, the perpetual “other,” he could imagine as being a “worldly religion” that would deny him nothing of consequence and cater to his deepest desires at no cost.
Islam, in other words, is playing the part of the fantasy second wife that the husband imagines awaits him if the old bag finally kicks or he gets the guts to leave. The one who makes no demands, who really gets him, yet somehow isn’t boring but exciting and exotic. She makes him feel alive again, without actually asking him to change anything at all.
But Millman loses me when he suggests that this satire on Houellebecq’s own desires is somehow incompatible with the novel also being a satire of the Western elite writ large:
… even if we attribute to [the West’s consciously multiculturally-minded liberal elite] a kind of unacknowledged subconscious yearning for an old-time patriarchal masculinity, this novel does not particularly indulge that yearning—because the men we meet are as far as possible from those types. François does not learn how to be a “real man” from Islam, the Islamic regime simply bestows upon him a new social position, as it has done for an even less likely candidate for transformation whom François meets at a party, an elderly and socially awkward professor who would never have been able to marry under the old sexual dispensation. Even the social-climbing head of François’s department, a character named Rediger who is clearly intended to be a kind of Mephistophelean figure, is more of a dandy than a man’s man and he has done nothing to seduce his teenage bride. She’s simply trained gigglingly to obey.
But why can’t Houellebecq’s point be precisely that the actual subconscious desire of Western man, liberal man, late-modern man is not really to somehow return to a true patriarchy, where you have to shoulder real burdens as the price of your authority, but rather to just play-act patriarchy with a giggling child bride or three while still drawing a government salary and living in a rent-stabilized apartment in a safe modern city? What can’t be he just be saying that many liberal men are themselves pathetically Houellebecqian, except without his self-awareness about their actual desires?
His suggestion, I think, isn’t that the modern enlightened adult male secretly “liking” teenage bikini pics on Instagram somehow contains, buried deep within himself, the soul of Saladin the Great. It’s that this pathetic excuse for a man could be effectively bought off, in the event of an actual cultural upheaval, by a regime that bestowed the illusion of real manhood (along with a comfortable sinecure) in a way that the present mix of official gender egalitarianism and internet fantasias do not.
But of course this cultural upheaval has to come from somewhere for the novel to work, and if both the European right (Christian and nativist) and the liberal left are hapless and exhausted ready to be bought off then it has to come from outside … and that’s why the one thing that isn’t really satirized at all in “Submission” is, well, Islam itself. Instead, it’s mostly just valorized, but from a safe distance, without much detail or dimensionality and without any realism at all.
As Millman notes, we never meet a cradle Muslim, and the figure of Ben Abbas, the brilliant Machiavellian who somehow gets every non-National Front party in France to let him have the presidency, is truly fantastical, a political superman who makes the original Charlemagne look like Jeb Bush. And so is everything associated with his religion: “Submission” takes place in a version of 2024, as Houellebecq has conceded, where France has demographics that won’t arrive till 2050 (if at all), but more than that it takes place in a world where Islamic civilization seems considerably more stable, integrated and attractive than in our own.
In Houellebecq’s world, Ben Abbas envisions a France-led revision of the E.U. extending south to encompass North Africa; in our world the actual E.U. is quavering in fear that North Africa’s Islamist-infused chaos will spread northward across the Mediterranean. In Houellebecq’s world Qatari and Saudi moneymen are competing to buy up French universities and subsidize French intellectuals; in our world they’re desperately spending money trying to influence the massive, region-destabilizing, intra-Islamic civil war next door to their own none-too-stable fiefdoms. In Houellebecq’s world, Islam is enough of a coming thing in the West to seduce high-profile academics a la Marxism and fascism in days gone by; in our world, at least for now, it’s not.
Part of what “Submission” does is to imagine a Europe that’s more violent, closer to internal civil war, than the real continent; in that way the novel shrinks the huge gulf that separates Western stability and prosperity from the ongoing agonies of the Islamic Middle East. But mostly Houellebecq just conjures up an imaginary Islam that’s considerably stronger than the real thing at the moment, that’s poised to seduce and conquer rather than tearing itself apart, that resembles the high-medieval Christendom his narrator repeatedly references (or for that matter medieval Islam) in its vitality and confidence rather than struggling, as the real Islamic world is, through a dark valley of political decadence and religious fanaticism. And then he keeps this Islam for the most part offstage, so he doesn’t have to flesh any of this out.
Again, he needs to do that kind of conjuring and invention for the story to make sense. But it means that “Submission” is as interesting for what isn’t recognizable about its vision as for what is. You don’t have to share the author’s dark view of late modernity to at least recognize the European society that he’s mocking, the types he’s ridiculing (himself included), the kind of decadence that he portrays as the West’s essential lot. But it’s noteworthy that while he only needs to exaggerate reality to make our own society seem ripe for some sort of submission, he needs to turn to a pure fantasy — one that’s not even detailed enough to be described as Orientalist — in order to envision how that submission might actually be imposed or brought about.
Which is, to harp again on an old theme of mine, the striking thing about our era in human history: There’s enough decadence in the West to make a fall or change imaginable, but it’s very hard, even for a novelist, to breath real life and plausibility into the alternative idea or way of life that might (in the near term) conquer or supplant our own.