Submission: a scepticism beyond scepticism

This review was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Michel Houellebecq’s Submission carries an explosive political charge, even by the standards of France’s most controversial novelist.

A story that dares to imagine the transition of the French Republic to an Islamic theocracy, it was first published in January on the same day as the Charlie Hedbo massacre. Houellebecq was the subject of the satirical journal’s headline story that week.

The book now appears in English translation as the refugee crisis renews febrile talk about a coming ‘Islamicisation’ of Europe, and candidates for the US Republican Presidential nomination compete to sound the harshest note about the possibility of a Muslim one day becoming Commander-in-Chief.

Submission is preceded by Houellebecq’s notoriety as a scathing critic of Islam. His earlier books frequently ridiculed the faith, and in 2002 he appeared in court after several Muslim organisations sued him for calling Islam ‘the dumbest religion’.

However Houellebecq’s complex and provocative new novel is no crude Islamophobic polemic, but something altogether more intriguing, seeking to shine a remorseless light on the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of all sacred cows, relgious and secular. For Houllebecq the ‘self-evident truths’ that underpin modern liberalism – reason, freedom, equality – warrant just as much scrutiny as the shibboleths of traditional faith. His is a scepticism that questions scepticism itself.

As with Houllebecq’s earlier books Submission is told from the perspective of a disillusioned everyman, the anti-hero in this case being François, a middle-aged literature Professor at the Sorbonne, and, appropriately, an authority on the work of Joris-Karl Huysmans, one of the most infamous writers associated with the fin de siècle decadent movement.

One of Houellebecq’s most obvious literary forebears, Huysmans wrote novels suffused with disgust at the hypocrisies and banalities of late 19th century Parisian society, culminating in the incendiary À Rebours, the story of a wealthy aesthete so appalled by the world he never leaves home, which he has transformed into a sanctuary dedicated to art encompassing libraries and galleries through which diamond-studded tortoises wander. Oscar Wilde’s admiration for the book, which inspired Dorian Gray, was cited as evidence against him during his trial.

Against the grain

François is a character straight from Huysmans’s pages, an alienated Parisian observer by turns amused and appalled by the selfishness, careerism, vulgarity and materialism that surrounds him, but acutely aware of his hypocritical participation in the same vices, and the hopelessness of his ever finding the willpower to resist. He indulges in the most expensive cars and gadgets he can afford, fritters away his evenings in front of the TV screen, and, having lost interest in his academic career long ago, does the bare minimum to get by:

My afternoon seminar was exhausting. Doctoral students tended to be exhausting. For them it was all just starting to mean something, and for me nothing mattered except which Indian dinner I’d microwave (Chicken Biryani? Chicken Tikka Masala? Chicken Rogan Josh?) while I watched the political talk shows on France 2.

He is only interested in his students in so far as they are open to his half-hearted seductions, wobbling from one student girlfriend to another before both parties lose interest. Be warned: as ever with Houllebecq the graphic accounts of his hero’s various depravities are unsparing – and if you can get past the frequent gratuitous misogyny – wickedly amusing.

François helplessly indulges in the freedoms liberal society affords, but doesn’t know what to do with them. But like so many cynics he retains a childlike sentimentality about the possibility of some elusive, purer world. Gazing out of the window early one morning after another evening of excess, he falls into reverie:

Chubby little cumulus clouds drifted across the sky. For me these had always been the clouds of happiness, the kind whose brilliant whiteness only heightens the blue of the sky, the kind children draw when they represent an ideal cottage, with a smoking chimney, a lawn and flowers.

As with more or less everything else François’s interest in politics is shallow – ‘I’d always loved election night. I’d go so far as to say it’s my favourite TV show, after the World Cup finals’ – but like the rest of France he finds himself caught up a dramatic 2022 Presidential election.

Going with Marine’s flow

Following a second unremarkable Hollande term, the Presidency seems to be heading to Marine Le Pen, with the National Front well ahead of both the mainstream left and right parties as the first round of voting begins. Sensationally, her closest challenger is likely to be a new force in French politics: the charismatic Mohammed Ben Abbes, head of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The liberal Ben Abbes – a Muslim intellectual with ‘the kindly look of a neighbourhood grocer’ – condemns all forms of religious extremism, offering instead a warm, open-minded communitarianism, ‘a new humanism’ that seeks to soften the hard edges of secular liberalism through a programme designed to counter the breakdown of the nuclear family and extend religious teaching in schools to acknowledge the historic contribution of the Abrahamic faiths to the development of European civilisation.

Ben Abbes’s seemingly mild Islamism and reassuring establishment background – as is customary for French Presidential candidates he is an ENA graduate – makes it possible for him to navigate the perilous waters that usually engulf politicians standing on a socially conservative platform:

When he campaigned on family values, traditional morality and, by extension, patriarchy, an avenue opened up to him that neither the conservatives nor the National Front could take without being called reactionaries or even fascists by the last of the soixante-huitards, those progressive mummified corpses – extinct in the wider world – who managed to hang on in the citadels of the media, still cursing the evil of the times and the toxic atmosphere of the country. Only Ben Abbes was spared. The left, paralysed by his multicultural background, had never been able to fight him, or so much as mention his name.

Ben Abbes’s apparent moderation notwithstanding, the prospect of a showdown between the Brotherhood and the National Front for the Presidency brings violence to the streets, and the election takes place against the backdrop of riots instigated by extremists on both sides: radical Islamists and the ‘Nativists’, a conservative militia made up of ‘Catholics, royalists, neo-pagans, hard-core secularists from the far left’ that has taken up arms to defend the ‘indigenous’ French from Islamicisation.

Sure enough, Ben Abbes wins second place in the first round of Presidential voting to go into the final run-off against Le Pen, and goes on to secure the backing of the other parties, who see him as preferable to the prospect of a National Front Presidency that would take France out of the EU. In the second round he defeats Le Pen by a landslide.

La république musulmane

François, who had left his city centre flat during the campaign to escape rioting that was getting uncomfortably close to his front door, returns to the capital to find that Ben Abbes, emboldened by his emphatic victory, is already changing France more profoundly – and more easily – than anyone might have expected.

The first thing he notices are subtle cultural shifts: most women now wear trousers, certain shops have been closed, and a few TV channels are no longer broadcast. The second is that he has lost his job. Ben Abbes’s transformation of the French education system has begun in earnest with the transition of the Sorbonne to an Islamic university owned and funded by Middle Eastern petro-monarchs. All teaching staff have been asked to convert to Islam, and while incommunicado during his summer absence François had been laid off. He accepts a generous retirement package from a university newly awash in oil money and watches as Ben Abbes’s revolution gathers pace over the following months, revolutionising the relationship between the individual, the family and the state.

And, it seems, France rather likes it. Families with stay-at-home mothers receive generous financial support through tax breaks and new benefits, and subsidies previously reserved for corporates are redirected towards loans and grants for small family firms. As women leave the workforce unemployment disappears and wages rise. Crime plummets as formerly rootless young men move into a lucrative labour market.

France’s secular education system is unravelled, as state funding for schools is slashed to open the way for wealthy conservative benefactors to fund a new wave of Islamic and Catholic schools (Ben Abbes respects Christians as ‘people of the book’). Mandatory education stops at the age of 12 and all but the most intellectually gifted girls are encouraged to thereafter to enroll in Home Economics courses. A few months into the new regime polygamy is legalised. The Republic’s liberal foundations – the primacy of the rights of the individual, equality of the sexes, universal education – dissolve as Ben Abbes’s new French caliphate reasserts itself.

It all sounds absurd, but Houllebecq’s sly narrative makes it all sound matter-of-fact. Though Ben Abbas’s most audacious initiatives – particularly, of course, the sustained effort to reassert traditional gender roles – are adamantly opposed by liberals, who scramble to form new political coalitions, the President’s programme appeals to a latent socially conservative majority who are happy to exchange abstract liberal freedoms for the material benefits of economic security and clear rules for social conduct. Ben Abbes offers a simple design for life, free of the economic insecurities, moral complexities and atomisation that secular liberalism brings with its freedoms.

As France moves towards theocracy the hitherto atheist François also finds himself drawn to the assurances of religious faith. Early retirement has left him even more aimless and dissipated than before: ‘really my only goal in life was to do a little reading and get into bed at four in the afternoon with a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky.’ Weary with self-hatred and haunted by suicidal thoughts, he finds himself, inevitably, like Huysmans before him, on the threshold of conversion to Catholicism.

After writing À Rebours a spiritually sick Huysmans had concluded that only some kind of faith could save him. François visits the shrine of the Black Madonna at Rocamadour, where he experiences the pull of faith, his ‘individuality dissolving the longer I sat in my reverie before the Virgin’. He books himself a retreat at the same abbey where Huysmans lived out his final years as a Catholic oblate, expecting that he too will give in, and after some final spiritual crisis and flash of illumination, convert.

But nothing happens. During his days at the abbey he finds himself as restless as ever, perplexed by petty inconveniences: he can’t smoke in his room, the furnishings are cheap, the utilitarian modernist chapel is too cold, and the supposed peace of the abbey is continually disturbed by a neighbouring railway line.

François realises he is quite incapable of the flights of mysticism and embrace of a spirit of sacrifice and mortification that characterised Huysmans’s own conversion, recounted in his autobiographical later novels. François is ill at ease in the world but very much of it. He wants the comfort and stability religion promises without foregoing the luxuries and indulgences to which he has become accustomed.

He leaves the abbey, broken, and gets drunk in the pub across the road. But on his return to Paris an unexpected way out presents itself. François is sought out by the Sorbonne’s new president, Robert Rediger, a Nativist turned Muslim, who offers him his old job back, on three times the salary, without onerous teaching commitments – on condition he convert to Islam.

True believer

François is incredulous, but doesn’t take long to realise that the Islamic faith Rediger asks him to embrace offers him everything he wanted from Catholicism but without the pain. He doesn’t need to emulate Huysman’s feats of spiritual athleticism or the stark lives of the brothers at the abbey. He is simply asked to acknowledge ‘that there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet’ and to keep Islam’s commandments. Rediger persuades a receptive François that Islam has a healthier, more matter-of-fact attitude to creation and natural human desires than Christianity, with its residual Gnostic suspicion of the physical world:

For Islam … the divine creation is perfect, it’s an absolute masterpiece. What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to His laws.

Compared with Huysmans’s austere Catholicism this is a creed whose burden is easy and whose yoke is light: François is offered the prospect of a life of easy prosperity and a stable, respectable position within the social order. And Rediger seals the deal by confiding that as a respected academic at the Sorbonne, and thus a man of some status, he would be entitled to three wives, sourced by a professional Islamic matchmaker, just one short of Rediger’s four.

Houllebecq’s account of Islam as presented by Rediger is shameless: a hollow religion of external observance that makes no reference to the faith’s rich mystical traditions, providing metaphysical justification for the privileges of powerful men.

But Houllebecq’s interest here is not so much Islam – all of the major faiths can be interpreted to justify the most regressive patriarchy – as the deep human desire for order. Ben Abbes’s new Islamic settlement offers a clear path through life without asking for too much in return, just the humility to stick to the rules. For most people through the ages religious faith has never involved great self-sacrifice or profound spiritual insight, just obedience to simple divine laws that give structure and meaning to their lives. Ben Abbes’s France is reverting to something like the social order characteristic of most human societies through the ages, promising secure employment, a firm moral framework and clear gender roles.

‘It’s submission,’ Rediger murmured. ‘The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission. I hesitate to discuss the idea with my fellow Muslims, who might consider it sacrilegious, but for me there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man … and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God. You see,’ he went on, ‘Islam accepts the world, and accepts it whole.’

Houllebecq’s story probes the depth of our commitment to the liberal principles that we take as self-evident: individualism, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equality of the sexes. Those freedoms were hard won, but the responsibility of choice can be a burden as well as a gift.

During a train journey François watches a Muslim businessman and his coterie of wives across the aisle:

Under an Islamic regime, women – at least the ones pretty enough to attract a rich husband – were able to remain children nearly their entire lives. No sooner had they put childhood behind them than they became mothers and were plunged back into a world of childish things. Their children grew up, then they became grandmothers, and so their lives went by … Obviously they had no autonomy, but as they say in English, fuck autonomy. I had to admit, I’d had no trouble giving up all of my professional and intellectual responsibilites, it was actually a relief, and I had no desire whatsoever to be that businessman sitting on the other side of our Pro Première compartment, whose face grew more and more ashen the longer he talked on the phone, and who was obviously in some kind of deep shit.

Like so much in Submission, it’s a passage designed both to offend and raise questions demanding answers. The patriarchal social unit François observes is representative of how most of humanity has organised itself for millenia. Submission dares to suggest that it may one day do so again, here in western Europe, unless liberalism can continue to persuade those who enjoy its freedoms that they do not come at too high a price.

The English edition is published by Heinemann RRP £15.99 (hardback) £9.98 (e-book).