Friday, October 23, 2015

A novel on Islam and the intellectual, moral, and spiritual decomposition of France

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq, Submission: A Novel(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 20, 2015).
It's 2022. François is bored. He's a middle-aged lecturer at the New Sorbonne University and an expert on J. K. Huysmans [Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), decadent French aesthete novelist and famous Catholic convert]. But François's own decadence is considerably smaller in scale. He sleeps with his students, eats microwave dinners, rereads Huysmans, queues up YouPorn.

Meanwhile, it's election season. And although Francois feels "about as political as a bath towel," things are getting pretty interesting. In an alliance with the Socialists, France's new Islamic party sweeps to power. Islamic law comes into force. Women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged, and François is offered an irresistible academic advancement--on the condition that he convert to Islam.

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker has said of Submission that "Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but--more unusually--a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind." Michel Houellebecq's new book may be satirical and melancholic, but it is also hilarious, a comic masterpiece by one of France's great novelists.
See also the review by François Maillot from the French Christian weekly, La Vie (January 5, 2015), translated at Rorate Caeli (January 15, 2015):
It is undoubtedly this which grants to this novel its exceptional strength. No takeover by Fascists, no civil war (or just briefly, quickly covered up by the media), no radical Islam chopping heads, stoning men, raping women. As in Huxley's Brave New World, it is imposed softly in a society that is numb and with no way out. If there is any violence in this novel, it is in this perspective of crushing the reader with a submission to a soft and almost consensual New Order, without any resistance being offered to it. Faced with the collapse of politics, the Islamic Republic becomes a choice like any other. Faced with the ruin of the country, petrodollars buy it all. Faced with intellectual emptiness, any kind of speech can impose itself. Faced with generalized atheism, Islam can win the day.

The central point of the novel seems to me to reside in that which however seemed, during its reading, to be its weakest point. Could the French people accept a regime that would demand of women to accept a polygamy that would place them in a position of inferiority regarding men? Those who are proud of having thrown away the cover of Catholicism, would they accept to convert to Islam to teach at the Islamic Sorbonne? Regardless of fiction, Houellebecq follows uppercut with uppercut. How much is our devotion for the equality of the sexes an idea for which we would fight, and not a thin ideological layer that the contingencies of the moment and the insatiable demands of sex will quickly crack? How much is the free thinking of our contemporaries a strong conviction that may resist the attack, even a peaceful one, of a religion that is sure of itself? As we can see it, it is in what could appear as outrageous that Houellebecq reaches the heart of the matter. It might well be, in fact, that all that our society says it believes in is nothing more than a construction built upon sand, that the weakest gust of wind would cause to collapse. This is what Submission says, that our age does not believe in anything, or at the very least, in nothing whose nature allows it to be able to oppose itself to any faith. Faced with cynical and consumerist individualism, every recognition of a collective ideal, of the overcoming of a navel-gazing horizon, contains infinite power.
[Hat tip to JM]

No comments: