‘Freedom is Submission‘
Mark Lilla, reviewing Michel Houellebecq’s controversial new novel Submission in the New York Review of Books, says it is both brilliant and prophetic. Lilla takes his reader through the plot of the novel (which will be published in English in October), and says despite the French Left’s caterwauling that it’s an Islamophobic work, the book is actually a kind of epitaph for an exhausted civilization — one that threw off Christianity, and found nothing durable with which to replace it. The protagonist accepts with a shrug the conclusion that post-Christian France is expiring with a shrug, and that Islamic civilization is the wave of the future. It will give France what it needs (the argument goes), not because it is true — the protagonist’s conversion is not a true religious one — but because it provides a workable answer to the problem of decadence and the dead end of secular humanism. It is as if the barbarians from Cavafy’s famous poem have come and were embraced by those they conquered, because they were a kind of solution.
This, it must be said, is not what Houellebecq wants to happen. His is a dystopian fantasia. The key, it seems to me (and, I think, to Lilla) is that this Islamic future is not imposed on the French, but accepted by them for lack of a better idea. Here’s Lilla:
There is no doubt that Houellebecq wants us to see the collapse of modern Europe and the rise of a Muslim one as a tragedy. “It means the end,” he told an interviewer, “of what is, quand même, an ancient civilization.” But does that make Soumission an Islamophobic novel? Does it portray Islam as an evil religion? That depends on what one means by a good religion. The Muslim Brotherhood here has nothing to do with the Sufi mystics or the Persian miniaturists or Rumi’s poetry, which are often mentioned as examples of the “real” Islam that radical Salafism isn’t. Nor is it the imaginary Islam of non-Muslim intellectuals who think of it on analogy with the Catholic Church (as happens in France) or with the inward-looking faiths of Protestantism (as happens in northern Europe and the US). Islam here is an alien and inherently expansive social force, an empire in nuce. It is peaceful, but it has no interest in compromise or in extending the realm of human liberty. It wants to shape better human beings, not freer ones.
Houellebecq’s critics see the novel as anti-Muslim because they assume that individual freedom is the highest human value—and have convinced themselves that the Islamic tradition agrees with them. It does not, and neither does Houellebecq. Islam is not the target of Soumission, whatever Houellebecq thinks of it. It serves as a device to express a very persistent European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom—freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends—must inevitably lead to disaster.
For all Houellebecq’s knowingness about contemporary culture—the way we love, the way we work, the way we die—the focus in his novels is always on the historicallongue durée. He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.
Read the whole thing. It’s very good.