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Defending the Culture of Death

Houellebecq, Islamism, and our Weimar civilization
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It was thrilling to see that over a million people came out into the streets in Paris alone yesterday to stand against murderous jihadism. It will be less thrilling, I suspect, to watch what happens in France now as the government tries to figure out how to stop it. But good luck to them, certainly.

Last week, Damon Linker wrote a characteristically smart column about Houellebecq, France, and Islamism. It’s probably the best thing I read about the entire subject. Excerpt:

To a remarkable extent, American political and cultural thinking takes place within well-worn, familiar grooves. The right is religious; the left is secular. The right frets about sexual liberation; the left cheers it. The right valorizes markets; the left views them with suspicion. The right praises individualism; the left longs for solidarity. The right defends nations and borders; the left longs for universalism. The right worries about the collapse of authority and the rise or moral and cultural decadence; the left does not.

In a series of earlier novels and essays, as well as in the Paris Review interview, Houellebecq has showed that he descends intellectually from a tradition of French culture that thoroughly scrambles these seemingly settled categories. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Swiss by birth), Auguste Comte, and Emil Cioran (Romanian by birth) before him, Houellebecq personally rejects religion in all of its available institutional forms, while at the same time feeling personally drawn to it and believing (as he puts it in the interview) that society cannot “survive without religion” and that “religion, of some kind, is necessary.” Indeed, Houellebecq suspects that France may be on the cusp of a resurgence of faith: “I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality.”

Such statements make Houellebecq sound like a relatively straightforward French analogue to the millions of Americans who make up the religious right.

But it’s not true. More Linker:

Comte, one of Houellebecq’s heroes, looked for salvation from the miseries of his own time (the mid-19th century) in the advent of a new “religion of humanity” that would succeed Christianity and the “abstract” character of modernity. But Houellebecq sees in all such human-centered proposals just another “philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone.” The religion we need cannot be a religion of humanity. It must be a religion of submission to something higher or greater than mankind.

Why not a return to Catholicism in France? Houellebecq is open to that possibility. Compared to philosophies derived from the Enlightenment, “Catholicism…is doing rather well.” Yet Islam — the very name means submission of the will to God — intrigues him more, in part because the Catholic Church appears to have “already run its course, it seems to belong to the past, it has defeated itself. Islam is an image of the future.”

That is what makes the plot of Submission so chilling. Far from blaming the rise of Islam in France on the immigration of foreigners who impose it on their host society through terrorism or post-colonial guilt-mongering, Houellebecq paints a picture of a near future in which formerly secular men and women deliberately choose to embrace Islam.

Read all of Linker’s piece. He says even if we conclude that Houellebecq’s novel is a fantasy with little chance of coming through, we will learn a lot if we consider that he might be right. I agree with this. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Review of Books (paywalled) piece Mark Lilla did in 2000 about the publication of Houellebecq’s sensational novel The Elementary Particles:

The Elementary Particles is a reworking of this idea, especially through the character of Bruno. What got it more attention than the early novel was Houellebecq’s wicked sendup of the soixante-huitards, the student rebels of 1968 who raged against the machine of capitalism and dug up “the beach below the pavement,” but who turned out to be more radical individualists than their parents and bosses. Houellebecq shares a common French interpretation of the Sixties, quite different from our own and quite refreshing. While many Americans see the Sixties as a step in the steady march of democracy—the extension of the domain of struggle, so to speak—many Frenchmen have come to see the events of 1968 as marking the triumph of a new social ideal of individualism, and the snapping of the last attachments of solidarity binding French society together. The family, the Church, the republican schools, even the Communist Party suffered a crisis of legitimacy, from which they have not recovered, in the name of the individual’s right to self-determination, a right that has become the sole measure of social legitimacy. Such individualism lies at the heart of Americans’ self-understanding as a people but it is a new idea in Europe and it makes the French particularly uneasy.

Houellebecq knows exactly how to play off this discomfort by insinuating the existence of a world-historical process that is smashing the complex molecules of human existence into smaller and smaller particles spinning in space. That process, he seems to believe, reached its final stage in the Sixties. In one of his unguarded essays in the collection Rester vivant, he recounts what it was like being a ten-year-old in 1968 and thinking something important might be happening. But he now sees that “afterward, the social machine began to turn even more rapidly, pitilessly, and May ‘68 only served to break the few moral rules that still served to brake its voracious operation.” In this machine, everything is coordinated. The forces of neoliberal economics have succeeded in breaking down the last barriers to unfettered global competition—unions, labor laws, tariffs, subsidies, national preferences, even national currencies. (Houellebecq publicly opposed the Maastricht Treaty.)

The sexual revolution has done its part by opening the couple to permanent, relentless sexual competition, aided by feminism, which has encouraged young women to enter this and every other market, while offering solace to resentful older women made redundant. Men have reveled in their new freedom but also felt the sting of competition in the new sexual marketplace, becoming obsessed with their bodies and regressing to the oral stage of sexual development. Children now grow up with parents too selfish and harried to care for them and are abandoned in the sexual jungle to look for love at an early age. Those who succeed as adolescents become slaves as adults to a regime of dieting, exercise, antidepressants, breast augmentation, penile enhancement, and liposuction, in a vain effort to maintain their competitive edge. Those who fail are given boxes of condoms in school and told to keep their chins up. You can see them in any classroom: their hair dyed, their bodies pierced to enhance their ugliness. They are lonely, depressed, self-loathing.

Lilla concludes:

Clotted with confused theoretical speculations, The Elementary Particles is not a distinguished literary work; but it is a very knowing evocation of the night thoughts disturbing the slumber of the French centrist republic today. It will be interesting to see what sort of echo it has in the United States. Individualism, the collapse of authority, the breakdown of the family, pop-culture decadence, globalization, the flexible workplace, genetic engineering—we have different ways of conceiving and worrying about these problems. The American left objects to some of them, the right anguishes about others, but no one sees them all connected in the way Houellebecq does, certainly no American novelist. That may reflect our equanimity and common sense. Or it may mean that Houellebecq is on to something.

I thought about that this weekend when I saw a photo of a blasphemously anti-Christian cover that Charlie Hebdo once published (it depicts the Holy Trinity having three-way anal sex). It would not occur to me that anyone should lay a hand on the Charlie Hebdo artists or editors who produced that filth. I do not want to live in a political order in which cretins like that have to fear for their safety, much less jail. I really do believe that if the Islamists start by shooting blasphemous cartoonists, they will end by shooting Christians, as they have done in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and other places.

But the decadence represented by Charlie Hebdo is probably a greater threat to Western civilization than anything the Islamists can dream up, and it’s important to keep that straight even as we defend the right to free expression and a free press. It destroys everything for the sake of … what, exactly? Charlie Hebdo was straightforward about its far-left agenda of driving all religion out of society. Houellebecq, who is not a religious believer, asks: what are people supposed to live by, then? Man cannot thrive without religion, he believes — and he believes this as a matter of sociology, not theology.

I recently ordered Patrick Leigh Fermor’s thin little 1957  book, A Time to Keep Silence, about his stays in three monasteries. He writes in the early pages about a visit to the Abbey of St. Wandrille, in northern France, which goes back to the seventh century. Excerpt:

When the French Revolution came the abolition of all the religious houses of France. The monks were scattered, the library was split up and auctioned and the conventual buildings were sold. Most of the old abbey church was pulled down, and the masonry carted off and disposed of by the ton as building material.

In 1894, after nearly a century away, the monks returned. But in 1901, anti-monastic laws once again emptied the abbeys of France. Eventually some monks returned, somehow.

This is what the party of Charlie Hebdo has done to France since 1789: murdered its Christian soul, and called it progress. To be fair, European countries that did not go through such a vicious and sustained campaign against the church are doing no better in keeping their faith. Still, France’s spiritual malaise has not been imposed by anybody; it is an act of civilizational suicide.

Again, I would a thousand times prefer to live under the regime of Charlie Hebdo-ism than Islam. But except in the cases of Islamic fundamentalists, I would much rather have observant Muslims as my neighbors and my children’s playmates than someone with Charlie Hebdo‘s worldview. The vitality in Charlie Hebdo-ism is nihilistic, it seems to me. Scrolling my Facebook feed last night, I found this New York magazine feature about the season premiere of HBO’s Girlswhich featured a scene in which a man performs oral sex on his girlfriend’s anus. It turns out that this is a thing in pop culture now. Here is the actress from the scene on how her parents support her career:

How do you tell your family. Are you like, “Dad, sit this one out”?

No, also because of my wiring, I was like, “Any advice? What do you guys think in terms of what adhesive I should use?” I got some advice from my parents, because they too are veterans of the show, so their thinking has changed as well. I’d get a call from my mom and she’d be like, “Maybe if you took a thong and cut it away from the sides but you stuck it on in the front and the back it could work.” I was like, “Mom, I like your thinking.” Just your regular dinner conversation! We’re changing as a family; it’s lovely. 

No, it’s degenerates raising degenerates. More from that piece, this from an actor on the show:

Alex Karpovsky: Yeah! Let’s do it! Let’s go there! Let’s explore all the cavities. Yeah, 2015 is the Butt Year. There is some type of sexual revolution happening, and maybe that’s one of the cliffs or peaks that we need to begin to incorporate into our societal representation of this revolution, specifically in television. This could be the year of the anus.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen: life, liberty, and the year of the anus. I think Michel Houellebecq understands this decadent culture better than most.

An Orthodox Christian friend out West says that he often runs across conservatives these days who are willing to let the broader culture go to hell as long as it leaves them alone. “But it won’t leave you alone,” he replies. And he talks about how his parish is pretty faithful, but so many of the kids raised in it still get sucked in and away from their faith by the culture of Lena Dunham, of Charlie Hebdo, and the rest. The corrosiveness of the broader culture on faith is profound. We can (and should) get all Benedict Option-y about it — I really think there’s no other rational way to respond — but we should not be under any illusions that there is a foolproof way to avoid Weimar America and its suicidal tendencies. The best we can do is to improve the odds for our children.

I don’t know what’s coming. Nobody wants to live under hard Islamism. The Islamists have nowhere built a society capable of thriving. But at the same time, the society the West has built and is building without God or any kind of sacred values other than the Self cannot be said to be thriving either. Could it be that a soft Islamism, along the lines of the AK Party in Turkey, might one day appeal to the French, who cannot or will not return to Christianity? I think it must be unlikely. But not impossible. Which is Linker’s — and Houellebecq’s — point.

We are morally compelled to defend artists and journalists against those who would kill them for what they draw or say. But we should be clear that we are defending one culture of death from another one.

UPDATE: Reader Hector writes:

I had an interesting exchange on Facebook with my friend the other day. He’s in his mid-20s and an ultra-atheist ethnic Jew, with very little fondness for religion, to give you some context. Here’s what he says about the rise of Islamism.

“I think a big part of this is that modern western life really is alienating and empty and meaningless. When you listen to interviews of the western people who ran away to Syria or whatever, they’ll talk about how they listened to pop music and f*cked girls and did drugs but that it didn’t provide any meaning. I think some of it is a symptom of nobody believing anything anymore. Communism is dead, ethnic nationalism is dead. We’re just all supposed to try to collect as much money as we can and then die, and Islamic fundementalism is an attractive ideology relative to that.”

If this is true, and I think it is (George Orwell provided a very similar explanation of why people turned to Fascism, in The Road to Wigan Pier), then the current spiritual malaise in the west isn’t the result of the success of the Left, but rather of its failure. Liberalism, after all (specifically the French, Wellbeck brand of liberalism) never conceived itself as a grand project of the left, but rather of the centre- the ideology of the middle class, opposed to aristocratic conservatism and proletarian socialism. The Left was supposed to provide (in the New Socialist Man) a better substitute for the kind of meaning and brotherhood that the feudal era had purported to provide in Catholic Christianity. Well, now the old feudal-Christian values are gone, but real old-line socialism is gone too (at least in western Europe) and all that’s left is the spiritual and moral vacuum of liberalism. It’s in that spiritual vacuum, where crown, altar, and working class solidarity have all lost their ability to move people, that you get people turning to ideologies like Islamism (or on the flip side, to National Front-ism, which seems like it’s increasingly defining itself in purely negative terms as the opposition to Islam.)

Whatever this is, it wasn’t what the victory of the Left was supposed to be about.



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