Michel Houellebecq’s Submission: A Review
The year is 2022, and France has seen the election of an openly Islamist President whose first act is to enact dramatic educational reforms including the firing of all female staff from the Sorbonne & demanding all professors convert to Islam to retain their positions. No, this is not some nightmarish scenario being predicted by some right-wing extremist but rather the setting of Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Submission. Having recently had the joy of reading it over the long weekend, I could not resist making it the subject of my first literary review.
Published only days following the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff by a pair of jihadist gunman for the crime of publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, the novel soon became a best-seller. I think it is safe to say that had Submission been written by an author of less stature than Houellebecq, in a nation other than France (which has always given a special respect to the the literary intellectual) it never would have seen the light of day…but not necessarily for the reasons one might initially think.
Shallow acolytes of Huntington’s theory of a clash of civilizations will likely come away from Submission feeling disappointed; despite the hype generated by the events coinciding with the novel’s release and the premise of its setting Houellebecq’s target is not Islam. The crosshairs of our French polemicist are turned on a far more sacrosanct target: Western society itself. While ivory tower leftists still cluck in dismay and disapproval at those who are so insensitive towards political correctness as to condemn radical Islamist terrorism it must be acknowledged that those who do so in the name of protecting Western liberal values of equality and tolerance and diversity have been granted a very reluctant degree of legitimacy. However, to attack the very foundations of the Enlightenment consensus that dominates Western thought is still unheard of for anyone seeking to retain a place in polite society; yet attack it Houellebecq does without mercy or quarter.
Submission is told from the point of view of Francois, a French literary academic at the Sorbonne. By every criteria of modernity, Francois would be considered a success. He is professionally accomplished, in a field he personally enjoys. His peers respect him. Despite being a lifelong bachelor, he has no lack of success with women. Francois is not happy however, indeed within moments of encountering him we realize he is truly miserable. Having accomplished everything that the modern Western world tells him is important he finds that it is all empty; his life is nothing but a constant stream of microwaved dinners and takeout meals, Internet porn and escorts, and abject loneliness. Islam and its adherents actually come across quite positively in contrast to Francois and the zombie-like, post-Christan West he embodies; they at least still have a hope.
The true strength of Submission is Houellebecq’s willingness to confront the full implications of the subjects he explores; sugar coating is one sin he cannot be accused of. “Let’s say you’re right about patriarchy, that it’s the only viable solution. Where does that leave me?” Myriam, Francois former girlfriend, opines very early on in the novel. One can hardly dispute that she is raising a valid point. Under the old ways Myriam would have been left with far more limited options, but what goes unaknowledged (and Houellebecq forces us to recognize) is that there is a dark side to modernity as well. Yes, both sexes are allowed to equally participate in the pursuit of material gratification, the unfortunate byproduct being it has left civilization teetering on the brink of demographic collapse. Yes, women’s worth are no longer solely determined by them being mothers and caregivers….instead it is largely by sexual desireability which has an incredibly fleeting self-life (and yes I will preemptively agree that this is horribly unfair but it is also unfortunately the truth).
Houellebecq is also unflinching in his assessment of the root cause of modern malaise. “There is no Israel for me,” Francois says woefully in farewell to Myriam when informed that she and her family are leaving France. At the time our narrator reflects it is not a very deep statement, but actually it is. Like the Muslims, the Jews too still have a hope, one that they cradled for centuries through exile and persecution: Israel. Devout or atheist, of the right or of the left, they still have a sense of who they are. Beyond each mere individual, there is something to bind them together into a greater whole. That is something that Francois, and the Western civilization he represents, ultimately lacks.
This is the Enlightenment’s great miscalculation, the gamble that a philosophy that reduces each man to a singular, atomized individual will lead to us all operating together out of cold logic and unaffected reason. To a degree that was correct, but the outcome was unsurprisingly one that was also cold and unaffected as the rationality that inspired it. It overlooks that man is, on a fundamental biological level, a creature of the pack. We desire a social mythology to hold us together and give us a reason to exist beyond the immediate satisfaction of material needs.
Submission is ultimately an acknowledgement by Houellebecq that through undermining the family, and faith, and even the nation state itself, modernity has left us bereft of that needed social mythology. We have been told that happiness will be found in soulless materialism, sensual gratification, and empty popular culture, but instead we are miserable. Cut adrift from this lifeline of custom and tradition, we have found ourself lost in a very dark ocean.
And the sharks are circling.