Death from Above: Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ Speculates on the End of Europe

A controversy you know about in advance, more often than not, doesn’t become one. So it’s no big surprise that Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, translated by Lorin Stein and published yesterday by FSG, hasn’t generated much literary debate.

Those readers predisposed to Houellebecq had likely formed an opinion of the novel in advance, or at least they’d decided not to form one against it. Those oppositely predisposed have likely chosen to avoid the book out of spite, or to read it out of spite. But for the majority of readers — probably the most dangerous of all readers — the novel deserves little more than a shrug. In an American election season, one that could see the nomination of a hate-baiting TV billionaire, who has time for a French novel about a bored, clueless electorate?

Here’s the backstory. Michel Houellebecq is France’s most decorated and controversial novelist, a provocateur and thought-experimentalist who writes essayistic, theoretical novels about late capitalism’s privatization of sexual and social life and its effects on the secular male — a category he’s done as much to invent as describe. His novels derive almost all of their powers of humor, analysis, and sexual description from a radical phallogocentrism that could easily be redescribed as misogyny. He’s a serious and indispensable writer whom many progressive American readers would hate — far more than harmlessly liberal writers like Jonathan Franzen — if they cared at all about other countries.

Earlier this year, an image of Houellebecq appeared in France on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, just in advance of the publication of Submission. In the illustration, Houellebecq is depicted as a wizard, and he says something to the effect of “In 2015, I’ll lose my teeth…In 2022, I’ll observe Ramadan.” The part about the teeth is there because Houellebecq has already lost them (because of aging, cigarettes, and neglect). The part about Ramadan in 2022 is there because Submission takes place in 2022, at which time a political party called the Muslim Fraternity (translated here as Muslim Brotherhood) finds election in France.

The French publication of Submission coincided with the killing of eleven individuals, and the injury of another eleven, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Almost immediately, Houellebecq was placed under police protection, presumably because the French police believed that the group of Islamic terrorists responsible for the killings planned to target him in the aftermath. Since that time, Houellebecq has remained mostly silent, even as his novel became the subject of consternation in France. Only in recent weeks has he spoken up again, apparently reluctantly. Forced to answer questions about Islam, which he once called “the stupidest religion,” Houellebecq has tried again and again to explain that he is more concerned with the fear the religion evokes than “its contents.”

Still, Submission is probably Houellebecq’s laziest and least complicated novel since his first, Extension du domaine de la lutte (translated in the U.S. as Whatever). It tells the story of François, a scholar of J.K. Huysmans (a great French writer whose novel À rebours is one of my favorites; readers should seek out Huysmans’ writings for themselves, and many of his books can be found on Project Gutenberg). I’ll mention here two reasons why Huysmans matters in Submission. For starters, both Huysmans and Houellebecq extend “materialism” or “naturalism” — let’s just say a materialist, scientific worldview — to its breaking point, and in the process they come to find that society itself has reached some kind of “end.” In À rebours, the character Des Esseintes, who finds himself at the end of a noble line, realizes that his way of life is finished. He chooses to cash-in and hole-up in a richly curated bachelor pad:

But these extravagances, that had once been his boast, had died a natural death; nowadays his only feeling was one of self-contempt to remember these puerile and out-of-date displays of eccentricity, — the extraordinary clothes he had donned and the grotesque decorations he had lavished on his house. His only thought henceforth was to arrange, for his personal gratification only and no longer in order to startle other people, a home that should be comfortable…

In Submission, the “natural death” belongs to the European daydream of secular Enlightenment (and its attendant way of life):

The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. This wave of immigrants, with their traditional culture — of natural hierarchies, the submission of women, and respect for elders — offered a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe.

The “moral and familial rearmament of Europe” François is alluding to is, in the case of Submission, the rise of Ben Abbes and the “Muslim Brotherhood,” a party whose platform includes reducing unemployment (by removing women from the workforce), polygamy, the defunding of public education and the considerable (Saudi) funding of private Muslim schools, and the soft-deportation of Jews to Israel. It’s a testament to how bored Houellebecq is that this platform is unbelievable. He imagines that France is so atomized, fragmented — that France is so over — that it would easily “submit” to such a platform; meanwhile, he’s convinced that French Muslims — indeed all of European “traditional culture” (whatever that is) — form a coherent bloc.

Or maybe not. In this case, I think it’s fine to take Houellebecq at his word, to believe him when he says he doesn’t care about Islam at all. The book is, accordingly, poorly weighted. The rise of Ben Abbes is presented almost as a series of badly filmed newsreels that (at best) form a hurried backdrop to François’ typically Houellebecquian sexual laments. The Muslim Brotherhood is mentioned casually, only twice, before the fortieth page, a fact that lends credence to the argument that Submission probably should have remained a disquisition on Huysmans — in the vein of Houellebecq’s book on Lovecraft — rather that a novel about the decline of one “group” and the rise of another. Which is it say it only gets worse from there.

This leads me to my second point about Huysmans: he becomes, in later books, a novelist of spiritual crisis (resolved). And Houellebecq has been candid about his own state of spiritual crisis; indeed, François discusses this more than once in the novel. In interviews, Houellebecq presents his crisis as one of faith: he is no longer sure that he is an atheist. “[M]y atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with,” he told the Paris Review in January. “In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.”

But here, I would argue, is one thing that critics and defenders of Submission have overlooked. Houellebecq’s crisis of faith, no matter what he says, isn’t about suddenly losing atheism as an option; it’s rather about losing positivism as an option. Since the beginning of his literary career — or at least since The Elementary Particles — Houellebecq has maintained that he is a Comtean positivist, a believer in science and rationality, in the three stages of history and, loosely speaking, the religion of humanity. He has therefore always been religious. The question now, for Houellebecq, is whether his belief in scientific observation is now challenged by his openness to a creator. From his Paris Review interview just a few years ago:

I am a curmudgeonly pain in the ass because I refuse to diverge from the scientific method or to believe there is a truth beyond science.

From January of this year:

When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

Also:

I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.

The problem for Houellebecq is not whether he remains a Comtean, it’s whether he retains a positivist fidelity to scientific observation. And this is important because Houellebecq’s best novels, like The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island, draw on his weird, positivist willingness to observe and rationalize, but not to speculate. Speculation implies a vantage point, higher ground, a watchtower; Houellebecq, who studied pedology in school, describes his training oppositely:

Pedology, or the study of soil, is clearly a fundamental subject in agronomy; it would be, at least, if it could take pride in reproducible results, lead to exact predictions, direct the agronomist to make well-reasoned diagnoses. Unfortunately, this is far from being the case. Pedology was in an embryonic stage, at least when I was studying (not to mention in Robbe-Grillet’s time). Even to call it a science would have been to give it too much credit; it was, at best, a discipline of observation.

This is to say that Submission, more than all of his previous novels, lacks this “discipline of observation.” Crisis or not, one hopes Houellebecq abandons his watchtower, his view of Europe from above. He was always better at sifting things out of the dirt.