Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening. That’s what satirists do. Jonathan Swift saw that the English were treating the Irish as animals; what if they took the next natural step and ate their babies? Orwell, with less humor, imagined what would happen if life in Britain remained, for forty years, at the depressed level of the BBC cafeteria as it was in 1948, and added some Stalinist accessories. Huxley, in “Brave New World,” took the logic of a hedonistic and scientific society to its farthest outcome, a place where pleasure would be all and passion unknown. This kind of satire impresses us most when the imaginative extrapolation intersects an unexpected example—when it suddenly comes close enough to fit. (As when Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared as living proof of Philip K. Dick’s prescience about the merger of American politics and the wilder shores of its entertainments, achieved by people with funny names.)
In the novel that made Houellebecq famous, “Les Particules Élémentaires” (1998), he proposed that a society with an unchecked devotion to economic liberalism and erotic libertinism would come to a daylong oscillation between fucking and finance, where bankers would literally break their backs in the act of having sex for the hundredth time that day. The satire seemed ridiculously heavy-handed and overwrought—and then came Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who, in the brief time before dining with his daughter and boarding a plane, turned out to have budgeted fifteen minutes for sex (coerced or not) with a total stranger. D.S.K. was a character only Houellebecq could have imagined, and already had.
Gopnik says 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.” He’s not having fun sending up modern France; he’s genuinely made miserable by things (and if you’ve ever seen a photograph of Houellebecq, you have to believe that he is an intensely unhappy man). More Gopnik:
The literary obsessions are important, since it turns out that the principal target of the satire is not French Islam—which is really a bystander that gets, at most, winged—but the spinelessness of the French intellectual class, including the Huysmans-loving narrator. The jokes are all about how quickly the professors find excuses to do what’s asked of them by the Islamic regime, and how often they refer to the literature they study to give them license to do it. The new Islamic administration at the University of Paris allows a professor of Rimbaud studies to carry on, but on the condition that he teach Rimbaud’s conjectured conversion to Islam as an established fact. The professor is happy to do it. Huysmans’s actual conversion to Catholicism makes the narrator contemplate the convenient possibility of crossing over: for all his supposed decadence, Huysmans might have welcomed the new religious regime.
The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic. The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond; he likes the fundamentalists’ suavity and sureness. … All the most eloquent spokesmen in the book are religious-minded and in favor of theocracy. Another collaborationist professor at the Sorbonne—which is soon funded solely by a Saudi prince, with all women veiled—eventually offers to let the narrator achieve his dream of editing the Pléiade edition of Huysmans, in exchange for converting to Islam. The struggle of the twentieth century was between two failed humanisms, the other professor explains—between the “hard” humanism of Communism and the “soft” humanism of liberal capitalism, each in its way “horribly reductive.” Both have failed, and some form of faith must take their place. Without faith, any idea of a French or a European revival is impossible. Why not Islam, whose deity is properly remote—and thus right for a cosmos that science has shown us to be immense—rather than provincially incarnate and local, like the Christian Messiah? The narrator converts.
Here’s the especially interesting bit:
Chesterton and Belloc and their ideas appear in “Submission” as a kind of secondary sound, a Greek chorus. Houellebecq takes very seriously the enterprise, in which Huysmans is also implicated, of rejecting Enlightenment modernity in favor of some kind of mystical-spiritual nation reëstablished on a foundation of faith. There is a passage in “Submission”—by Houellebecq’s own account the key scene in the book—in which the narrator goes south to contemplate the Black Madonna of Rocamadour and has a moment of blissful vision, one that he wishes to sustain but can’t. Islam rushes in to fill the absence. Houellebecq makes the entente of Islam and Catholicism attractive. “My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people,” he said in an interview. “Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible.”
While anti-Semitism has always been the active, evil form of extreme traditionalist ideology—get them out of here and we’ll be pure—Houellebecq’s half-infatuated fascination with Islam has always been the more fatalist form. If Judaism represents the corrupting, cosmopolitan alternative to the European nation, an Islamic invasion represents its apocalyptic end, the conqueror at the gate. The idea of an overnight Muslim takeover, where suddenly the University of Paris becomes the Islamic University of Paris, perches at the back of the European apocalyptic imagination, perhaps because it once really happened. On the morning of May 28, 1453, Constantinople was still a Christian city. The next day, it wasn’t. The great churches were turned into great mosques, and the Sultan’s flag flew over the conquered city. (The conquest never would have taken place had the Byzantines not first been fatally weakened by the fraternal Christian sack of the Fourth Crusade.) The notion that you wake up and there’s the Eiffel Tower with a crescent moon and star upon it haunts the Western imagination of catastrophe.
The spectre of an Islamic re-reconquest is therefore mixed with admiration for its discipline and purpose. The Muslim warriors are taken to be antimaterialists inspired by an austere ideal—the very idea of submission to authority that we have lost.
Read the whole thing. To be clear, Gopnik, who knows France well, doesn’t take the idea of French decline all that seriously, and he explains why he considers bunk the idea of a unified Muslim community in France, marching confidently towards an Islamist future.
But you can see why traditionalists (like me) are interested in the ideas in Houellebecq’s book. I’ll be interested to see the English translation. Gopnik says that in Houellebecq’s mind, the leadership class of modern France is like the exhausted aristos in the Cavafy poem, Waiting For the Barbarians:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
UPDATE: Reader Giuseppe Scalas, who writes from Italy, says:
This morning I was listening to a debate on the radio about a crackdown on jihadist propaganda on the web.
Then an audience of the member called in to tell this staggering – but enlightening – story.
The audience member is the dad of a child of 10. At some point, the boy started talking in exalted terms of jihad and jihadi heros, and asking to be taken in Iraq or Siria to meet the fighters.
Initially, the parents gave little heed to the child, considering this no more than childish whim.
They started to worry when the boy reported, glowing with pride and with full technical details, the acquisition by the jihadist of a new weapon – some kind of automatic rifle – and repeated by heart a quite long jihadist oath.
Now the parents were quite worried. Since the kid didn’t have independent access to the web, they were struggling to track the source of his indoctrination.
Then they reported to school authorities, and with their help, they found out that the kid was looking at jihadist web sites together with a friend who enjoyed unchecked access to the web. They had amassed an incredible amount of material and jointly developed a hero worship cult for jihadist.
Please mind that here we’re talking about a mainstream, integrated white family, not about some emarginated muslim immigrants.
I found the comment of one of the guest of the Radio Broadcast especially apropos. He more or less said, in a quite Houellebecquesque statement: “Our society has become emotionally dull. It doens’t offer almost anything capable of moving or engaging, or adventurous. Movie and cartoon heros have become unattractive. And here lies one of the great strengths of jihadist propaganda”.
Religions as Fight Club!
He’s a classic example of the cosmopolitan as provincial: He has something clever to say about everything under the sun, but where something more than cleverness is called for he’s often at a loss, or else inappropriately facile. His breadth is astonishing, his depth considerably less so; he’s a liberal ironist who often seems unable to imagine how anyone could have ever been anything else. This means that he’s precisely the right manto explain, say, a Parisian restaurant war to an American audience, or to gently mock the over-enthusiastic reception that greeted the Gospel of Judas. And it makes him a fine guide to G.K. Chesterton the literary stylist, where both his praise and his criticisms seem to me judicious and on point. Where other aspects of Chesterton are concerned, though … well, not so much.