Michel Houellebecq’s Affair with Islam
Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, came out in French in the winter of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and it was in the context of that atrocity that the novel was originally received. A speculative fiction premised on the election of an Islamist candidate to the presidency of France, Submission was misconstrued in some quarters as a call to arms from a nativist, anti-Muslim right-wing perspective—a warning of the horrible fate that awaited France, and the West more generally, if it did not wake up to the menace of creeping Islamization.
Now the English edition of the novel is out in the autumn of the Syrian refugee crisis and the divergent responses to it from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Once again, there is the risk of the novel being misunderstood—and unread—as a call to resist an invasion by modern-day Goths, lest the West face another Adrianople in the not-too-distant future.
But far from crying “stand, men of the West!,” Houellebecq’s novel is almost the opposite: an argument for, if not rushing to embrace an Islamic future, at least trying to lie back and enjoy it when it comes. And the lingering question, in this reviewer’s mind at least, is: for whom, apart from Houellebecq himself, is this fantasy of submission especially appealing? If the book is a satire, who, precisely, is being satirized?
Submission’s hero, François, is a professor of French literature specializing in J.-K. Huysmans, a 19th-century Symbolist writer and aesthete who later in life became a devoted Catholic. François, in the manner of previous Houellebecq author-surrogates, is bored, anti-social, and half-heartedly obsessed with sexual gratification—obsessed because nothing else seems to interest him remotely as much, but half-heartedly so because even that quest doesn’t feel especially compelling. He has a rotating series of temporary girlfriends, all well his junior, the most recent of which is a voluptuous Jewess named Myriam. But as a burgeoning political conflict between the nativist right and a new Islamist party heats up, Myriam departs for Israel, taking with her François’s best hope for happiness, however dim it may be. As François laments, “there is no Israel for me”—by which he means, no place, no affection, no identity worth fighting for, worth refusing to surrender.
In the wake of Myriam’s departure, the political background moves to the foreground. Nativist and Muslim paramilitary groups battle in the streets, but the news media fastidiously refuses to report the news. An election is held—and then cancelled because of attacks on polling places. The National Front and Muslim Brotherhood face off, and the country feels on the brink of civil war, until the old political establishment of the Socialists and Gaullists collectively deliver peace by backing the Brotherhood candidate in exchange for all the “important” ministerial posts—defense, finance, etc.—since the Brotherhood is primarily interested in the education portfolio, where they aim to win the future.
The Brotherhood sweeps to victory and promptly delivers the promised peace. Their candidate, Mohammed Ben Abbes, far from being a radical firebrand, is a cultured and patient leader who knows how to move the consensus his way. His economic program is a version of distributism, the Catholic 19th-century school of political economy that emphasizes the importance of small property owners and family businesses rather than the pure free market or the welfare state. His social program is strongly natalist, encouraging women to leave the workforce and take care of their children (and husbands). His foreign policy is pan-Mediterranean, aiming to transform both Europe and the Middle East by bringing North Africa and the Levant into the EU.
This program works almost immediately. Crime in the banlieues drops by 90 percent overnight. Women immediately leave the workforce in large numbers, and start dressing more modestly to boot. France’s stature in the EU vaults upward, and the rest of Europe readily endorses the fast-track approval of majority-Muslim candidate states from Morocco to Turkey. When the budget needs to be balanced, Ben Abbes slashes social spending to the bone, particularly on education (the powerful French unions barely muster a protest), while money pours in from the wealthy states of the Persian Gulf to finance Islamic schools as an alternative—or an outright replacement, as with the newly Islamic Sorbonne, where François used to work but may no longer do so because he is not a Muslim.
That last problem is a matter of little financial importance, though, and easily rectified in any event. Laid-off professors are given extraordinarily generous pensions—again, courtesy of the oil sheikhs—so as to avoid any trouble from the intelligentsia. But the administration is exceedingly eager to have François return to work, offering him a much higher salary with many fringe benefits if he will undergo the formality of conversion. The new regime, it seems, cares far more than the old did for a fellow like François. They will even provide him with a trio of well-trained and pliant wives—he should be able to afford as many as three on his new salary—so that he no longer needs to partake of the services of prostitutes or hunt among the student body for sexual satisfaction, as was his wont.
François submits. And he feels pretty good about it. As he proclaims, it feels like a new lease on life, comparable to his father’s second, late-in-life marriage.
The marital analogy comes almost at the end of the novel, but it seems like a belated key to understanding what had come before—because the vision of the transformation of society Houellebecq describes as taking place once the Islamists take over cannot be read as negative, much less dystopian, but neither is it remotely plausible. So it must be a fantasy.
Why can’t it be negative? Well, from the perspective of François, every aspect of the new regime seems designed to make his life more pleasant. He’s offered both a generous retirement and the chance at a far more remunerative and satisfying career. He never looked for any kind of emotional connection with women, so it hardly matters that, under the Islamists, they are reduced to socially invisible, characterless ciphers. And with three wives, they will be more available than ever before and will provide a more comprehensive list of domestic services. The economy improves; France’s political position improves; crime evaporates—even the food is better. What’s not to like?
Yet for all the same obvious reasons, it’s a fantasy. In reality, women have psychologies, including Muslim women. Forget about feminism—which is a force within the Muslim world, though badly overmatched by the advocates of traditional patriarchy. Even within a deeply patriarchal society, the family is a zone of frequent conflict, not of perfect harmony. And even if you believe that this conflict is preferable to the ennui of the sexual marketplace, it’s absurd to pretend that under Islam marital relations are pure bliss.
The economics are similarly absurd. The abrupt departure of millions of women from the workforce would reduce the aggregate productivity of the economy, ushering in a sharp recession. Once again, that might be a worthwhile tradeoff for the social good of stronger families, but the tradeoff should be acknowledged. Sillier still is the notion that college professors would be treated like royalty in an Islamist France. In the real world, the Gulf states would be vanishingly unlikely to care enough about winning over the good opinion of obscure French literature professors—they would certainly not triple their salaries in order to do so. (Nor would they have quite enough money to underwrite the complete social transformation of Europe.)
There are no magic wands Islamist leaders can wave to cause crime to vanish. Civil strife has not evaporated in the countries where they have come to power, whether by violent or non-violent means.
So the scenario is a fantasy, which is not necessarily a problem. Houellebecq has created a world, not a position-paper, and that world needs to be emotionally persuasive, not to pass an audit. But then, the world he created has few characters with real emotions—really, only François. The book feels in many ways like a pundit’s idea of a novel, an “idea” laid out through bits of plot and dialogue rather than a living thing.
But to say that it’s a fantasy leads to a question: whose fantasy is it? Without the answer, one cannot say where the satire’s sting is aimed.
It’s not the fantasy of political elites in Western societies. If there’s a fantasy that consciously appeals to the adherents of multiculturalism, it’s that there are no important differences between cultures: we’re all good liberals in training, and Islam will be dissolved as readily as Christianity was before it.
These elites may not know their own minds. But even if we attribute to them a kind of unacknowledged subconscious yearning for an old-time patriarchal masculinity, this novel does not particularly indulge that yearning—because the men we meet are as far as possible from those types. François does not learn how to be a “real man” from Islam, the Islamic regime simply bestows upon him a new social position, as it has done for an even less likely candidate for transformation whom François meets at a party, an elderly and socially awkward professor who would never have been able to marry under the old sexual dispensation. Even the social-climbing head of François’s department, a character named Rediger who is clearly intended to be a kind of Mephistophelean figure, is more of a dandy than a man’s man and he has done nothing to seduce his teenage bride. She’s simply trained gigglingly to obey.
Submission is not the fantasy of the nativist far right, either, though that’s a more intriguing possibility. There are no actual liberals in the novel: essentially all the characters accept the premises of the extreme right as true if unacknowledged. And one of Houellebecq’s more creative choices is to have Rediger be a former nativist and a scholar of Nietzsche who became a Muslim not out of simple expediency but because he saw that, for all his affection for the culture of his ancestors, the Muslims represented more faithfully the virtues that he most admired. But as Putin’s Russia amply demonstrates, there’s no objective reason why Christianity can’t be pressed into service by a state aiming to revive a martial, patriarchal spirit. Indeed, it is Putin’s Russia that has become the real-life fantasy land for Europe’s nativists, who have shown no interest in crossing over to the Islamist side in our clash of civilizations.
Is this supposed to be the fantasy of the Islamists themselves? One can certainly find rhetoric from that quarter about the decadence of the West and the inevitable triumph of Islam due to greater fecundity and civilizational confidence. But we never meet a single cradle Muslim in the novel. Houellebecq’s is a conversation entirely between Frenchmen.
Or, really, entirely with himself. Houellebecq’s vineyard, which he has been working for decades, is Western boredom and exhaustion, the profound dissatisfactions of life under capitalism, the welfare state, and the sexual marketplace. When he began to write Submission, as he has said, he thought it would recount a character’s journey back to Catholicism, much as François’s subject, Huysmans, returned. But he found himself unable to feel his way into that particular journey. It felt forced, false. He couldn’t ultimately believe in such a return.
But Islam—that felt plausible. Not, I suspect, because it fit his needs better, but because he could fit it to his needs better. Catholicism might promise peace and harmony, but Houellebecq had some idea what that religion looked like in practice and what sacrifices it would entail. Islam, the perpetual “other,” he could imagine as being a “worldly religion” that would deny him nothing of consequence and cater to his deepest desires at no cost.
Islam, in other words, is playing the part of the fantasy second wife that the husband imagines awaits him if the old bag finally kicks or he gets the guts to leave. The one who makes no demands, who really gets him, yet somehow isn’t boring but exciting and exotic. She makes him feel alive again, without actually asking him to change anything at all.
That’s a fantasy, yes. But it’s not a fantasy of submission.
Noah Millman is a senior editor for The American Conservative.