July 13, 2024

Prophesying the Present: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission”

“Submission” is a novel that should bear a trigger warning. In his writing, Michel Houellebecq insults several different minorities in French society. Islam is treated as a homogeneous block, the Senegalese guard with condescension, and women with blunt misogyny.

Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” should bear a trigger warning | Photo courtesy WSJ blogs

With the French Presidential campaign in full swing, anti-Muslim sentiment has reached a fever pitch among the republic’s far-right candidates. Marine Le Pen, who in the past compared Islamic prayers to a form of Nazi occupation, has doubled down on her doomsday rhetoric, calling mass immigration a “tragedy for France.” Such fear-mongering and hostility toward multiculturalism has found shelter outside of France’s political debates, and can even be seen amongst France’s intellectual class. Two years ago, in his novel “Submission,” literary provocateur Michel Houellebecq imagined another sort of presidential election. His was set in 2022, and a Muslim political party dominates. Revisiting this novel as France gears up for a decisive election reveals the jagged nature of Islamophobia bleeding across French society.

“Submission” is a novel that should bear a trigger warning. In his writing, Michel Houellebecq insults several different minorities in French society. Islam is treated as a homogeneous block, the Senegalese guard with condescension, and women with blunt misogyny. The term “pornographic” that Le Nouvel Observateur used to describe the novel is flattering; the sexism and excruciating depictions of protagonist Francois’ sexual adventures with his female students are simply graphic and rapey.  TIME praised the novel for being “relevant”, but the oversimplified way that Houellebecq interprets the intricate ethnic, religious, gender, political, and economic dynamics of French society makes this a political novel that is extremely limited in its relevance.

“Submission” is the story of Francois, a cynic, bachelor, and literature professor who leads a life of “modern decadence.” Amidst the political turmoil that precedes the French presidential elections, Francois’ thoughts are a one-person political debate that walks the reader through France’s socio-political landscape as it is experienced by the Parisian intellectual middle-class. Surprisingly, the fictitious “Islamic party” wins the elections and Francois has to review his convictions as he is faced with an ultimatum: to keep his position he will have to convert to Islam.

Houellebecq’s novel takes place in the “dying welfare state” of 2022. Francois’ routine echoes the hybridity of liberal socialist democracy.  Housing, health care, and unemployment benefits coexist with liberal real estate and labor policies, providing for unemployment while implementing liberal policies for economic integration that prevent unemployment but enhance precariousness and inequality, the society described is very much what France looks like today.

What is new—and provocative—is the Islamic party that comes to power. In the novel, the Islamic party is a challenge for the Socialist “left,” questioning the ideals of assimilation contained in French liberal thought. In the novel, all parties except for Marine Le Pen’s National Front acquiesce. The Islamic party is portrayed as a compromise between the Left and the Right: it imposes cuts on education but establishes a new family model, polygamy, that spurs reproduction and revives the welfare state. It is against free trade and economic liberalism but not against dissolving the state into a new form of economic union. The far-right is crushed and the anti-colonialist sentiment is conveniently silenced, content, we assume, with the new government.  And any internal opposition—the feminist struggle for example—is bought off by power; women are happy that their men are the political leaders. The social context of the novel is explained incompetently, which is why some critics suggest the novel’s tone is a satirical exposition of modern French society. If Francois is indeed an anti-hero, a literary martyr through which French society is exposed for what it really is, then it is important to examine the novel in these terms.

Yet, the novel provides little room for nuance and criticism. Houellebecq represents Islam as a uniform block, lacking an understanding not only of its internal religious and cultural complexities but also of the way its followers are treated in France.  Since the attacks that took place in Paris in January and then November 2015, “Islamophobia” targeting Arabs, Muslims, refugees, and black French or French of Arab descent has increased. This makes the supposition that an Islamic party could come to power not only less probable—which is not the author’s claim anyway—but also devoid of any explanatory power of the present and of any relevance to the collective conscious; in short, the fabrication of an Islamic party ruling the French Republic has already been emptied of any provocation by current events.

Hidden behind its sensationalism is a troubling reproach of Islam, religious integration, and the possibility of a multicultural French democracy. On the same day  “Submission” was published, Jan. 7, 2015, there was an attack on the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, which launched a nationwide debate on political correctness and freedom of speech.  The “Je Suis Charlie” motto is telling of a society that has trouble seeing outside the binary of a “war of civilizations.” Submission seems to question this myopic viewpoint, chastising Islamophobia while parading Islam as a joke and promoting “rape culture.”

This intentionally uncensored language is something the novel shares with right-wing populist parties across Europe that are rebelling against political correctness, but the novel does not share their political views, especially because it is not explicitly anti-Islam. But neither does it align itself with the socialists, whose inefficacy it implicitly mocks, nor with the Right, in its skepticism of free trade. This is indeed an original political position. As a cynic and proud decadent,  Francois believes that Western civilization has committed suicide, leading to the “inevitable” return of religion; surprisingly – this is Houellebecq’s “trick” – religion returns with Islam, not Christianity. The novel is, therefore, reactionary, although it does not hope for a return to the past, but for an alternate future. “Submission”‘s original political stance is ‘réac futuriste.’

Criticizing the novel for its sexism and cultural insolence may seem to ignore Houellebecq’s central aim: to provoke, entertain, and subvert.  But, by establishing a clear parallel between submitting to an Islamic state and submitting to male domination, the novel reaches its utopian denouement in a new status quo where polygamy is permitted and women are used as reproductive machines. If we believe that he is being sarcastic – is a joke that uses the structure of a “war of civilizations” to create a contradiction, placing a culture (Islam) against a humanistic value (feminism). This provocation is incommensurate, irresponsible, and above all, not funny.

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