Houellebecq’s novel Submission was recently published in English. It was reviewed in rambling fashion two Sundays ago in the New York Times by Karl Ove Klausgård. Houellebecq’s protagonist is a solitary, pleasure-seeking professor of literature at the Sorbonne, a specialist of Huysmans. He is deeply disillusioned by a number of recent philosophical and social movements like feminism and gender studies. Or perhaps more accurately, he never believed in anything. He is willing to erase all traces of belief or trust. Eventually, reluctantly it seems, he sells out completely to an intelligent version of Islam that wins the elections in France in 2022 and is pursuing political and moral restoration on the grand scale. Houellebecq is apparently not Zemmour, whose The French suicide is one more lament over France’s fall from grandeur. Houellebecq’s target in this fiction appears to be a much wider and deeper current than the immediate social and political circumstances France finds itself in. Does he think that enlightenment intellectuals who “converted” lacked courage and resolution in Huysmans’ times? Or is he simply after monotheism, from whatever origin, as it is reported? Huysmans, the alter ego of the protagonist, lived at a time when the Catholic church demanded submission. Or perhaps Houellebecq’s fundamental take is that the problem goes back much further, to the pursuit of freedom as the single fundamental marker and good of enlightenment. That pursuit of freedom is what is also claimed to be the greatest good in capitalist America, for example by GW Bush or more recently Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. They manage to find it in the Bible as well as in pope Francis’ latest encyclical on climate change, though it is not there. That is perhaps what Houellebecq argues is the cause of what he sees as catastrophic failures. The relentless pursuit of freedom would prepare new forms of slavery and submission.
The book, beginning with the title, adds to the fears regarding Islam. My own experience of it is not of a conquering, hateful messianic dream, but of a search for a life of dignity. In that spirit, let me try to sketch a small portrait of such a life.
C. is not a professor of literature at the Sorbonne. Abandoned at birth, passed on to careless or cruel foster families, he was adopted by a loving, supportive family at four. There was a very long, painful struggle for him and his adoptive parents, with some peace achieved only in his thirties, after he realized he might lose his family to disease and accidents. There was a long-standing fascination for life at night—not nightlife—, friendships in this in-between world. He did not take to drinking or drugs, but followed people living at the margins and edges, on the fringe of sleeping society. School was extremely difficult and humiliating. There were jobs eventually, friendship with a woman but that too broke and threatened to become a catastrophe. I do not know how and why—I presume it is through some of his friends in the suburbs of his large city—, he became a Muslim. Within Islam, he planned to marry and did find a young woman from north Africa he had never met. She emigrated to France, married him, works in a factory, is learning French, and is adapting the best she can to the new world she is in. She is devoted to her family of origin and has many siblings still living in the town she comes from, one disabled and in great need of help. She does her best trying to help them. She also helps her in-laws who have the modest financial security a hard-working and frugal family could expect after more than forty years of salaried work in post-WW II France.
She is young, dresses conservatively, and could be taken to be a radical Muslim. H. and C. have a child. They are devout, work hard, visit her family every year, stand by the in-laws, by now quite ill and isolated. It would take a book or two to describe this long surge of hope and added life in that family and circle of friends. These are the kind of people I know a little and whom I am thinking about when I hear echoes of Houellebecq’s story of submission, on top of the recent terrible events in Irak, Syria, Paris, Beyrut. In this young family, there is more free spirit and courage, more trust and openness, and less submission than exist in those who are so quick to express their hate of immigrants and foreigners.