Culture

Religious temptations. A review of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel

Piotr Kieżun · 17 February 2015
The description of happiness brought about by living in accordance with Islam, as described by Houellebecq, leaves no room for doubt – it reminds us of a holiday brochure for a package holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh. Hence, the process of Islamisation in his new book Submission goes surprisingly smoothly, while the titular process has the subtle flavour of baklava.

 

Houellebecq_okladka

When towards the end of 2014, the world’s media was ablaze with news about Michel Houellebecq’s new novel being illegally posted online, no one was expecting that soon enough Submission (Soumission) will become one of the component parts of a much more dramatic story. Who could have predicted such a course of events?

The new novel by France’s most recognisable contemporary writer was published on the 7th of January 2015. That same day, French newspaper stores took delivery of the new edition of Charlie Hebdo, its cover depicting a caricature portrait of Houellebecq, drawn by Luz, a regular contributor to the magazine. By its usual standards, this particular image was relatively tame. “In 2015, my teeth will fall out,” says the cartoon Houellebecq, wearing a wizard’s pointed hat, “and in 2022 I will be celebrating Ramadan”. At noon that same day, the magazine’s offices are attacked. Luz will survive, because he’ll be late for an editorial meeting. Houellebecq himself, in shock, will cancel his promotional book tour of Germany. The book will, however, manage very well without the author’s promotional support. France will see Submission instantly leap to the top of the sales charts. The same will happen in Germany, where the first 100,000 copies will sell out in the first two weeks, and in Italy Houellebecq will outsell Umberto Eco’s latest novel Numero Zero.

A self-portrait with a crescent moon

Such sales figures are the dream of any publisher, on the condition that these are not fuelled by the bloodiest terrorist attack to have befallen France for half a century. Teresa Cremisi, the boss of Flammarion and Houellebecq’s publisher, can sleep soundly, however. Submission would have caused a furore all by itself. Houellebecq’s political fiction is really of its time. For a number of years now, Europe has lived in fear of Islam: the French, by and large scared of migrants emerging out of Maghreb and Western Africa, turned to their National Front party, which is now beating all records in terms of popularity. In Germany, there is the anti-Muslim Pegida movement. Following an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, along with a whole wave of anti-semitic incidents, over 10,000 Jews have left the land on the banks of the Seine. When we add all the anti-Muslim and anti-migrant moods brewing in Switzerland, Belgium and Holland, can we be surprised that many across Europe are curious to read a novel by a notorious writer, especially one which tells a twisted tale of France becoming Islamic?

 And yet we would be wrong to expect Houellebecq’s new novel to be about an “Other” knocking on the doors of our homelands with the intention of slitting our throats. There are no jihadists in this book. In fact, there aren’t many Muslim immigrants either. In any case, none of these belong to the core group of key protagonists. The Arab sheikhs, who appear as wealthy investors and buy up all they can, along with the esteemed Sorbonne itself, including its African Muslim students, the females wrapped tightly in burqas, appear as background filler in the less important scenes. The same is true of Mohammed Be Abbes, the founder and political leader of the French Muslim Brotherhood, a figure Houellebecq turns into the winner of France’s presidential elections in 2002. His triumph profoundly influences the world we are presented with in this novel, and yet Ben Abbes is at the same time rather absent from the majority of proceedings. We hear about him from media reports, learn about his political career from conversations between the main protagonists, but we never get to see him in direct action. Submission is therefore a book not so much about aliens invading Europe, but about us Europeans suffering from spiritual decay.

An antimoderne convert

One could say – that’s nothing new, it’s just good old Houellebecq, the one we know so well from Elementary particles or Platform – a critic of a modernism which supposedly makes people into isolated atoms, condemned to boredom, insatiable desires and brutal competitions. And things do continue in a familiar vein. The world of 2022 shown in Submission is still the same world which belongs to Michel and Bruno from Elementary particles and Jed Martin from Maps and territories, a place in which all modern emancipatory projects – from the industrial revolution to political revolution to a revolution in mores – transform into caricatures of themselves, failing to offer people anything outside of consumption, a showpiece democracy and the delights of paid-for sex. 

This is the world of François, the main protagonist and narrator of Submission, a 44 year-old singleton lecturer at the Sorbonne who specialises in the works of Huysmans. His time is counted in seasonal dalliances with female students and the slow rhythms of the academic year. And yet Houellebecq’s tone changes somewhat in this new book. Apart from three episodes with appearances from one of our hero’s lovers and two prostitutes, there are no quasi-pornographic descriptions, inserted to make us feel the emptiness at the heart of our sexual relations. Neither is it possible to sum up its author as singularly as it was when Polish translations of Whatever was published, in the words of Agata Bielik-Robson: “disenchanted antimoderne […], stripped of his faith in God and in a secular version of salvation” [1]. At least one of the concepts in this epithet is, in the case of this new book, up for discussion. This new Houellebecq does indeed remain an enemy of modernity and goes on doubting progress, though it is hard to talk about disenchantment in a novel where the protagonist’s greatest temptation is to become a religious convert. 

Has Houellebecq discovered a religious bone in his body? This is a conclusion which is all too easy to make, especially if we follow François’ adventures. From the very start of the book, politics on a vast scale enters the calm life of this middle-aged man. Having defeated Marine Le Pen, the Muslim leader Ben Abessa – supported in a second round of presidential elections by socialists and the centre Right – forms a specific kind of coalition in France. The Muslim Brotherhood surrenders a few of their ministerial departments to the socialists and the centre Right, leaving themselves in control of the key Ministry of Education. It is easy to feel the rapid effects of this political upheaval at the Sorbonne. Professor Robert Rediget becomes its rector, someone who is himself a Muslim convert, specialising in the works of Nietzsche and René Guénon – the creator of the concept of integral traditionalism from the end of the 19th century, who eventually chooses to enter an esoteric Muslim Sufi order in Cairo. Soon enough, it turns out that François too must choose: either he converts to Islam and remains a lecturer at the school, or will have to leave his job and accept retirement.

 The temptation is great, but in Submission it is not this academic appanages which push our main protagonist in the direction of conversion. It is rather his spiritual emptiness which is answered, as it turns out, not just by the religion established by Prophet Mohammed. Before Houellebecq forces his protagonist to consider the rather small book “Ten questions about Islam” by Rediget, he will first send him to follow in the footsteps of Joris-Karl Huysmans, an author who, having written the bible of the decadent, the novel Against nature (1884), converted to Catholicism and spent his last days in a Benedictine monastery. François will visit the Ligugé Monastery, and then experience religious exaltation when confronted with the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. Unfortunately, the sense of fullness he experiences will be fleeting: “The next morning, having parked my car and paid for my hotel, I returned to the Notre-Dame Cathedral at a time when it was empty. The virgin was waiting in the shadows, calm and indestructible. She possessed a kind of sovereignty, a power, but as time went by I felt I was losing touch with her, that she is retreating in space and time. I slumped against a bench, crushed, defeated” [2]. And all that is left is Islam, which in Submission fulfills for François the same role as Catholicism for Huysmans, Wilde or that other converted decadent of the age – Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly.

A baklava-flavored submission  

Houellebecq is not a confessional sort of writer. His hero doesn’t expose his spiritual innards. Conversion – which is how the novel’s title was originally to sound [3] – doesn’t here have an intimate character. It is a social fact which has its political consequences. Catholicism loses its battle with Islam, a battle over millions of souls, not due to its lack of theological glamour, but because it loses the ability to organise the collective imagination. The final, fifth section of the book is preceded by a telling quote from Khomeini: “If Islam is not political, it is nothing”. It is in this chapter that François visits Rediget in his home and conducts with him a decisive conversation about the Prohoet’s faith. The professor’s arguments for the existence of god and the truthfulness of Islam are not new: Rediget refers to harmony and the beauty of the universe which is subject to divine order. This god-like power can also be seen in the extenet of Ben Abbes’ desire to shift the focus of European politics from North to South and bring into one political body all of the countries of the Mediterranean Basin. His plans are a contemporary repeat of the Middle Age idea of a grand Christian kingdom within the borders of the Roman Empire – only this time under an Islamic banner.

Houellebecq, however, is not inspired by the likes of Berdyaev’s “The New Middle Ages”, but by Huysmans. The magic of political Islam in Submission therefore has its source not in ethics, but in aesthetics, and it is this last which appears to be the key to understanding this latest work by the French literary superstar. Eventually, François converts to Islam, seeing as it answers his need for peace and aesthetic harmony. It calms the senses and the mind, through the sounds of oriental music and in the company of teenage wives, who under Rediget minister to two of the lecturers. The description of life in line with Islamic doctrine in Submission leaves no illusions – it reminds us of holiday brochure for a package holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh, aimed at German pensioners. This is why the process of Islamisation goes so smoothly in Submission – not with a bang but a whimper. The titular submission has the taste of baklava, not gunpowder.

And yet, is there anything strange in this? Religion in a world of neurotic consumers cannot become anything other than another product, and buying into it can only calm our nerves for a short while. Not unless a miracle happens, though not even love is worthy of such magic in Houellebecq’s world.

In Submission we will not find any religious assurance. Besides, readers aren’t left entirely certain whether François converts to Islam. The scene of his “submission” is described in a supposing context, as if it were a daydream. Houellebecq remains as he has always been – an unruly pessimist and a disappointed inheritor of Baudelaire’s legacy. Though one subject to a slight shift, as mentioned in his interview for The Paris Review, published just before the book’s launch, in which the author muses: “I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I am no longer so sure” [4].

Footnotes:

[1] Agata Bielik-Robson, “Houellebecq, the complaint of a sexual proletarian”, “Europa”, no. 117, 28.06.2006, [in:] also, „Romanticism, an unfinished project. Essays”, pub. Universitas, Kraków 2008, p. 203.

[2] Quote from „Soumission”, translated by Liberal Culture.

[3] Ref. “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book”, Sylvain Bourmeau, “The Paris Review”, 2.01.2015.

[4] Ibid.

Book:

Michel Houellebecq, Submission, pub. Flammarion 2015.

  

Translated by Marek Kazmierski