Revenge of the Sacred

In the month after the November terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, the French government launched airstrikes against ISIS targets in the Middle East—responding with all the ferocity of an irritated sleeper slapping at the alarm clock to get it to shut up.

The alarm had rung before: in the March 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people; in the July 2005 London attack that killed 56; in the January 2015 assault on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 17. Europe has swiped at the snooze button several times in recent years—but why, really, should the Continent wake up? Why should the Island of the Lotus-Eaters ever rouse itself from dreams?

Without a metaphysical horizon, some purpose off on the distant edge like a sunrise peaking over the curve of the earth, no one has cause to bother. Without some sense of a goal for history and an aim for human existence, we live, we die, and nothing matters. Nothing, that is, except the pleasant dreams of pleasant sleep. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus famously snarls in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but he had it backward. History is the waking from which somnolent Europe is trying to escape—whatever alarms ring.

That Europe won’t succeed—that metaphysical purpose will always find us, however we try to evade it—is the paradoxical theme of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission. Paradoxical, because the futuristic utopian/dystopian novel offers a new metaphysical horizon in the name of rejecting metaphysical horizons. Muslims are allowed to gain control of France, over the course of the novel, because of the French Left’s desire to reject Christianity. The barbaric stories of Islamist rule in the Middle East are made the root account of world history, because of the European hunger to set aside the barbaric stories of Europe’s old domination of world history. Religion blossoms with Allah in the wish to forget Jesus. And life wakes up to meaning again, in the hope of escaping meaning.

The novel has been much attacked and much defended in France—a lightning rod of the kind that Houellebecq has been good at putting up since the success of his 1998 novel, The Elementary Particles. On the cover of Charlie Hebdo, the very week its offices were attacked, was a caricature of Houellebecq as a Muslim (and one of his friends, the economist Bernard Maris, was killed in the attack). The provocateur Houellebecq was denounced as a reactionary bigot—sometimes as a terrible Right-winger who happens to write well, but also sometimes as a bad writer.

None of that is anything Houellebecq hasn’t said of himself, notably in his correspondence with Bernard Henri-Levy (collected in a 2011 volume) and his 2010 novel, The Map and the Territory. But he’s also often said the opposite of every claim he’s made about himself and his work, and he seems as hard to pin down as anyone since Jonathan Swift.

As Submission opens it is the year 2022, with a man named François narrating. A forty-something professor at the Sorbonne, François is an expert on the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans—the almost-great minor novelist of the late 19th century who wrote À rebours (1884) and Là-bas (1891), both tales of decadent aesthetes who find that even in the pursuit of physical sensation, aesthetic titillation, and the frisson of immorality they are unable to find purpose. His friend, the novelist Barbey d’Aurevilly, told Huysmans that, after writing À rebours, he had nowhere left to go in the decadent line of his thought—and Huysmans would have to choose either “the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the Cross.”

As it happens, Huysmans eventually chose the Cross, entering a monastery out of a “desperate desire to be part of a religion,” in the words of Houellebecq’s François. But Submission looks one level deeper into the abyss, for if the characters in Huysmans’ novels are played out, what shall we say then of François? He’s a character who can’t summon the will to do more than read Huysmans. The apathy that follows his study of the fin-de-siècle literary movement of the Decadents proves that he’s more decadent than they ever managed to be.

The France that Houellebecq predicts has undergone years of stagnation in political scandals and legislative impasse, to the point where

the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to something violent and unpredictable.

Submission employs a curious mix of actual politicians and fictional ones to paint its picture of the elections of 2022. The real-life Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party has a good chance of gaining control of France, and in desperation, the Socialist Party, under the leadership of (the again real-life) Manuel Valls, forms a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood Party to elect (the fictional) Ben Abbes as president of France.

Leading an ever-growing coalition of Middle Eastern and European states in the beginnings of a turn to a global caliphate, France becomes more politically important than it has been in a century, and the French accept the changes that the new Muslim government quickly imposes. Women are banned from work, which solves the French unemployment problem; terrorists’ anger is assuaged as Jews are pushed out of the country (leaving François without a mate, when his girlfriend Myriam flees to Israel); and the budget is balanced by the cessation of government-financed education (leaving François without a job).

Unable to understand either himself or his country, François drifts down to the south of France, visiting the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour and staying at a Catholic monastery in the town of Martel—the monastery Huysmans joined, and the town founded by Charles Martel, the military leader who in 732 stopped the Muslim invasion of France (martel, in French, is “the hammer”). But on his return to Paris, François discovers that his school has gained Saudi backing and reopened as the “Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne,” headed by an old friend named Robert Rediger, who wants François to come back to work. Along the way, Rediger has become a Muslim (taking multiple wives, including a 15-year old). All François needs to do to join the faculty, Rediger explains, is follow him into Islam.

Which François does, giving in as the last step in his complete surrender to decadence. Make no mistake, François was always an apolitical, self-obsessed, lazy hedonist. He has little interest (aside from his scholarship about Huysmans) in anything else in the world besides his own body. This self-styled worshiper of literature cannot be bothered to read much. In various passages of Submission, François allows his penis to take over the narration, and his thoughts about teaching begin with his celebration of the new school year as a chance to beguile and sodomize a new student. He has eczema and hemorrhoids, which he relates in great detail, and his aestheticism, a sort of Huysmans-lite, issues in no more than TV dinners and loneliness.

So why not become a Muslim? It’s a mild, middle-of-the-road kind of Islam that is ruling France. Marine Le Penn may refuse to cover her head, marching through the novel like a Joan of Arc figure—a failed St. Joan, but still more dynamic and principled than the venal figures in the rest of French politics. François, however, has neither the will nor the energy to resist.

Besides, according to François—and, really, according to Houellebecq himself at the end of this satire—France is getting what it deserves. The present-day institutions of French politics, media, and education are all sclerotic and corrupt: emperors with no clothes and easy prey for the robed Muslims who actually believe something. The cruelest suggestion of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is that, in the desire to escape the least suggestion of their old religious horizons, the modern French Left will make common cause with the least modern force in the world.

In other words, they’ll let metaphysical purpose back in, through the side door, if only it will help hold the front door against . . . um, metaphysical purpose. They want Islam to stop Christianity, and in Submission, they get what they want. As Houellebecq’s François surpasses Huysmans, so all of Houellebecq’s French descend the last step into decadence. Refusing either the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the Cross, they find themselves under the Crescent of Islam. And why not? Metaphysical purpose will always find us, however we try to evade it.