Review of Submission, by Michel Houellebecq
The book is written from the first-person point of view of Francois. He is a scholar specializing in the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans. In many respects, he is Huysmans, except that Huysmans drifted into Catholicism; Francois into Islam. Like Huysmans, Francois is “the misanthropic aesthete and loner” who overcomes his aversion to religion.
This is a book of ideas, it’s not a whodunit with plot twists, and it is the development of the ideas that moves you along. So to get at the gist of those ideas, some of the plot developments are discussed here. This isn’t exactly a spoiler alert. It isn’t that kind of novel. I should also caution that there are some sexually graphic scenes in the book, which usually detracts from an otherwise good book, but I can’t say they’re entirely gratuitous. Finally, my copy was a paperback (Picador 2015) and page cites are to that copy.
Fairly early in the book Francois is in a discussion with his sometime girlfriend Myriam when he says in a supercilious way, joking, that he’s “never really been convinced that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same things as men, go into the same professions, et. cetera.” (28) Myriam asks, in the same kidding way, whether he was for a return to patriarchy, but that caused them both to stop and actually think about the idea. Francois then responded by linking it to the encroaching malaise they all experienced in modern France: “You know I’m not for anything, but at least patriarchy existed. I mean, as a social system it was able to perpetuate itself. In other words, it worked, whereas now there aren’t enough children, so we’re finished.”
Francois ruminates on the purpose of his life by taking some pride in his academic scholarship, but in truth there has been little, at the time of his narration in recent years, and in any event it was so narrow, being centered on just one turn-of-twentieth century author, Huysmans. About his earlier academic writings, he wonders,
[W]as that enough to justify a life? And why did life need to be justified? Animals live without feeling the least need of justification, as do the crushing majority of men. They live because they live, and then I suppose they die because they die, and for them that’s all there is to it. If only as a Huysmanist, I felt obliged to do a little better.
35. As we see in the remainder of the book, though he recognizes the need for purpose, he never really moves off the slim reed of career advancement, even as he is increasingly aware of his own and his culture’s vapidity.
Francois is preoccupied with food and sports (e.g. 58) and this preoccupation seems deliberately tied to the “bread and circuses” placation of the masses in Rome, now being replicated in modern-day Europe. At every turn, Francois seems incapable of describing even monumental political and cultural events without commenting on the particular brand and attributes of this wine or that delicacy. It seems to be all that he has to live for.
Except sex. Francois is also preoccupied with sex, or perhaps more accurately, the prospect of sex, because he finds that his encounters bring him less and less joy. He is in his mid-forties, but the idea of settling down with a wife, “a good little cook” seems like a distant future possibility. Even though he is in middle age, he has not squeezed from life all the sexual opportunity it might bring. You have the overwhelming sense that Francois is created quite intentionally by Houellebecq to caricature a hollowed-out beast of a man, despite all his leanings to taste and refinement. His intellectual pursuits, such as they are, and his appreciation of fine food, literature, and art, are a thin veneer to Francois’ emotionally stunted perpetual adolescence.
Through the middle of the book, we see development of political trends that will ultimately put Muslims in power, in alliance with socialists and nativists – the key constituencies outside of the center-left that normally dominates France. You can think of the nativists as the party of the Le Pens, or populists, or Trumpsters, if you like. I read a disconcerting article by a professor who assigned this to his class, and was dismayed that they missed the bigger point altogether – the causes of Europe’s soft submission to a more hardened culture – and took the book to be a commentary on Trump. In any event, for each group in France’s ruling coalition, with respect to a particular interest, they either share it with the others, or have so little interest that they cede it away. The socialists want what socialists always want, collectivism. The Muslims don’t care about that, because they want collectivism of a different sort, universal Islam. The nativists want their country back, but align with Muslims for its social conservatism.
The most important interest for the Muslims is education, and the other groups in the alliance care little about it. And so, inculcation of the next generation into Muslim belief accelerates. The alternative metaphysical beliefs will be swept before it. Secularism because it does not have the mettle to stand for anything beyond a vague but misguided sense of freedom; Catholics because it has so abandoned its temporal authority that it cannot say “no.” As Houellebecq’s Francois suggests, Catholicism’s heyday was in the medieval ages, when Islam was in its infancy. Now European Catholicism is a tired, doddering old man, and must give way. Islam points to the wonder of the obviously God-designed universe. Catholicism has lost the grandness of creation pointing to almighty God, fuddling around with tired old points of litany, practice, and obscure iconography.
Francois first gets a lesson from a former high-level government official who summarizes the Muslim point of view (and to us, the reader, the Muslim mettle injected into society) like this:
to them [the Muslims] it’s simple—whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins. If you control the children, you control the future.
64. This sounds like something we’ve always known, but have forgotten. It puts me in mind of the right but often scoffed-at Mark Steyn, who wrote America Alone, chronicling with irrefutable figures the inexorable and accelerating decline of Europe as we know it, in favor of Islam. America alone (for now) resists the imperatives of this demographic reality.
Interestingly, this now obvious trend was foreseen by what the characters in this story describe as the far-right. An amusing scene (66) involves the former government official speculating that the far-right had infiltrated government speculations on these points. You, the reader, will understand that it’s what the so-called “far right” has been saying all along, and indeed, it’s obviously true. These are basic facts of life: that today’s Europeans are aging out, and being replaced by Muslims. They apparently don’t see it because they don’t appreciate a difference in thinking, between the young Muslims who arrive with large families in tow, and the older Europeans blinded by arrogance over their high culture. They are incapable of seeing that this refined and ancient civilization is doomed. A certain inner mettle is necessary to sustain it. A mettle that existed for Christian Europe in past ages, but is absent entirely from the directionless secularism that has replaced it.
At some point our anti-hero’s placid acquiescence is penetrated by alarm that the extremist coalitions will win, and there will be immediate consequences, including Francois’ losing his job. Education is a priority for Muslims, remember, and so all teachers in France must be Muslim. What will this mean for Francois, who is, by his own admission “almost completely lacking in spiritual fiber?” 75. We know, though Francois doesn’t yet, that that absence of spiritual fiber doesn’t mean he’s incapable of crossing over to Islam. It means that it is inevitable. He doesn’t start from a competing metaphysical position. He doesn’t even have the depth to start from the anti-metaphysical position of atheism. He drifts.
There’s a lot of detail in this book that you might be inclined to pass over. Don’t. It’s not there just so you can appreciate Houllebecq’s eye for detail. It’s there so you can see the foolish scattering of our thoughts away from what’s important. Francois is easily derailed, such as when he is able to recite all the specs of a flashy vehicle that he encounters, and then wonders if it is too much for his late father, who was “almost affectedly bourgeois in his good taste.” (154). His father who Francois hadn’t seen in six years. So much for family ties. Francois becomes increasingly nostalgic for romance, even as his encounters are increasingly transactional, to the point that he takes up with prostitutes. His description of their fulfillment of the transaction leaves us cold, and even less sympathetic for Francois, if that is possible, except that he heart-breakingly imagines, at the end of one of these transactions, developing a relationship with one of the hourly-paid specialists.
Francois is declining. Remember that Francois is France, and France is Europe. Francois even contemplates suicide. Not from a classic sense of despair, but from the ennui of his age, “simply from the degradation of ‘the set of functions that resist death,'” Francois says at 168, citing an 18th-century intellectual, Marie Francois Xavier Bichat. Every detail of this book shows us the inevitable submission of Francois to his fate. Partly it’s just a good career move. Partly it’s a yearning for some inner mettle to replace that which is drained out of him by the secularism of modern France.
“Islam” is of course Arabic for submission, hence the title of this novel. Francois is shown the way by Redinger, an influential Muslim who explains it all to Francois and to us. He saw the pattern: “Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls—zombies.” (208). Rediger feels no need to hide his agenda, and that of the new government, in stealth.
Thanks to the simpering seductions and the lewd enticements of the progressives, the Church lost its ability to oppose moral decadence, to renounce homosexual marriage, abortion rights, and women in the workplace. The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. . . . He, Rediger, was the first to admit the greatness of medieval Christendom, whose artistic achievements would live forever in human memory; but little by little it had given way, it had been forced to compromise with rationalism, it had renounced its temporal powers, and so had sealed its own doom—and why? In the end, it was a mystery; God had ordained it so.
225. Rediger cites Arnold Toynbee for the proposition that is now all too obvious: civilizations die not by murder, but by suicide.