A story any earnest evangelical Christian would love to write — to film, maybe: an extremely successful academic teaching at an elite institution in Europe (in Paris, no less! the Sorbonne!) who also happens to be sexually skilled — able to bring his lovely ex-girlfriend, who it seems still desires him and would stay with him if he wanted — to orgasm, nevertheless finds his successful life increasingly empty and meaningless. But as it turns out, the 19th-century author he specializes in and has a unique attachment to, a writer known as one of the foremost of “the decadents,” J.-K. Huysmans, had relatively late in a life a surprising conversion to Christianity — an event our protagonist, François, cannot forget, not least because when we meet him he is precisely the age at which Huysmans converted. He makes a kind of pilgrimage to the monastery where Huysmans had confirmed his own commitment to Catholicism. And indeed, soon after this visit François undergoes a religious conversion of his own.
Yet what I have described is not the plot of an evangelical film — an R- or perhaps X-rated follow-up to God’s Not Dead — but that of Submission, the most recent book of the controversial and scandalous French novelist Michel Houellebecq.
Now, my précis of the book’s plot is quite accurate as far as it goes, but I may have omitted a few elements of the story. So let me try again.
Submission imagines circumstances in which, in the near future, France could become a nation ruled by Islam: a place where women do not appear in public unless shrouded; where polygamy is not only legal but widely practiced by men of the social elite — including professors in the best universities; where those universities teach only subjects, and approaches to those subjects, that are by obscure authorities deemed consistent with Islamic law; and where these social transformations and many others are funded by Middle Easter petrodollars.
The peculiar genius of this novel — which is relentlessly sexually explicit without ever being remotely erotic, and ofter very funny in a bitter sort of way — lies in the convincingness with which it unites the two stories I have just told. Whether Houellebecq has invented a plausible future for France, as reasonable trajectory of Islamization, I cannot say; but in any case, I think it would be a mistake to assume that Houellebecq has striven for plausible prophecy. No, his inquiries mostly are directed elsewhere.
François, his protagonist, is I think meant to be seen as a fairly common example of a social type: the intellectual from a middle or upper-middle class background who has received from his family and culture no religious and almost no moral formation. François, in middle age, doesn’t care to produce scholarship any more, and has never been interested in teaching — indeed, does not seem to have thought that anything more could be asked of him than to give his required lectures and supervise just as many students as he is required to supervise. Marriage has never appealed to him — his own parents’ marriage was a failure and he is so detached from them that he only learns of his mother’s death weeks after it happens — and his interest in sex is slowly declining and more-or-less adequately satisfied by the internet porn he watches on his shiny new iMac. He recalls an occasion when his ex-girlfriend showed up in an especially provocative outfit and he thought to himself that he didn’t want to have sex with her; or “maybe I kind of wanted to … but I also kind of wanted to die, I couldn’t really tell.”
For François those are the alternatives: sex or death. Might there be another? “It’s not that I minded turning forty-four, it was just another birthday, except that Huysmans was forty-four years old, exactly, when he found God.” Could François find God? He decides to give it a try — twice, despite the fact that, as he describes himself, “I was almost completely lacking in spiritual fiber.” (Thus what he feels “when confronted with … the series of spiritual retreats, followed by eruptions of divine grace, that make up Huysmans’s last three books … is, unfortunately, boredom.”)
But he tries, first at the shrine of the Blessed Virgin at Rocamadour, in southwestern France.
Early in my stay I fell into the habit of visiting the Chapel of Our Lady. Every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin — the same one who for a thousand years inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe. The Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extraterrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus — who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man — sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise, and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power — of intangible energy — were almost terrifying.
(Later, when François tries to think consciously and intentionally about the possibility that there might be a God, he says “my first reaction was uncomplicated, pure and simple fear.”)
I felt ready to give up everything, not really for my country, but in general. I was in a strange state. It seemed the Virgin was rising from her pedestal and growing in the air. The baby Jesus seemed ready to detach himself from her, and it seemed to me that all he had to do was raise his right hand and the pagans and idolators would be destroyed, and the keys to the world restored to him, “as its lord, its possessor, and its master.”
But when he returns to the chapel the next day, the spell has already faded. Significantly, François registers the change as one that has happened not to the shrine, but within himself. “The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot.”
Later in the book, as the political crisis in France intensifies, he tries again, this time by visiting the same monastery where his literary hero Huysmans encountered God, but it doesn’t work. He listens to the monks chant, and just thinks that Nietzsche was right to say that Christianity is a feminine religion. In his room at the monastery he reads an exhortation by the monastery’s abbot to “exercise your capacity to love and be loved, in word and deed,” and thinks, “Give it a rest, dipshit … I’m alone in my room.” On the third day he leaves, concluding that “the whole thing had been a mistake from the beginning.” But when he leaves the monastery and kills some time at a bar while waiting for his train, he comments, “It gave me no satisfaction to be back among people like myself.”
This last note is struck more than once in the novel. “Humanity didn’t interest me — it disgusted me, actually. I didn’t think of human beings as my brothers, especially not when I looked at some particular subset of human beings, such as the French, or my former colleagues. And yet, in an unpleasant way, I couldn’t help seeing that these human beings were just like me, and it was this very resemblance that made me avoid them.” François knows what he suffers from, though he never names it as such: anomie, a kind of internal lawlessness, a lack of direction stemming from a lack of governance. (The sociologist Emile Durkheim popularized the term, in, significantly, a book on suicide that he wrote around the time that Huysmans discovered God.) Early in Submission, François thinks to himself, “You have to take an interest in something in life, I told myself. I wondered what could interest me, now that I was finished with love. I could take a course in wine tasting, maybe, or start collecting model airplanes.”
The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, whose multi-volume memoir My Struggle has been one of the most talked-about works in recent European literature, wrote a long review of Submission for the New York Times in which he claimed that François’s intrior state provides the real subject of the novel: “This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence. What does it mean to be a human being without faith? This is in many ways the question posed by the novel.”
Certainly it is a key question, but Knausgård is wrong, I think, to set aside “the Islamization of France” as a “mere consequence.” Houellebecq presses hard on one major question, which lies at the intersection of the internal and the political: What resistance could François or anyone formed as he has been formed, offer to the Islamization of France? The novel’s prime suggestion seems to be that people like François have no internal resources that would even prompt, much less enable, resistance; and that the offer of certain desirable goods — say, an older wife to cook meals and manage the household and a very young one whose charms could renew a diminished libido — might just prove irresistible to a man afflicted by anomie: in addition to the women, it provides a kind of moral exoskeleton, a framework of clear, and clearly imposed, law. And all it asks in return is submission.
A significant secondary character in this novel is a Belgian academic and convert to Islam, Robert Rediger, who becomes a political leader in the new Islamized France, and very gently but firmly works to bring François around to the new order. He tells François how he came to the conclusion that “Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls — zombies. The question was, could Christianity be revived?” But then, he says, he decided that “Europe had already committed suicide.” (Francois does not contest this judgment — does not appear to think to contest it — even though he has seen first-hand the power of Christianity among at least some in France.) Rediger now lives — Houellebecq stretches plausibility wildly here, but his reasons for doing so are interesting — in the house once occupied by the woman who write The Story of O, a famous novel of sexual bondage and, yes, submission. Rediger speaks to François of “the shocking and simple idea … that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission. I hesitate to discuss the idea with my fellow Muslims, … but for me there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man … and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God.” Rediger, by the way, has multiple wives. One of them is fifteen.
Rediger’s appeal to François goes through the motions of religious apologetics, but he does not scruple to speak directly about some further matters: the restoration of François’s position at the Sorbonne, which he lost when the Islamists took over; a hefty raise; and the provision of an appropriate number of wives, to be selected perhaps from François’s students. For François these offers bring Huysmans back to mind: when that great writer converted and chose to live among the brothers at the monastery, he ended up with a very pleasant life, and only participated in the rigors of monastic existence when and as far as he chose. Religious conversion for Huysmans was scarcely incompatible with creature comforts.
In his review of Submission, Knausgård seizes on this point as immensely significant:
Was all this refinement, all this decadence, this misanthropy and disillusionment, were all these religious agonies and scruples merely the sublimation of a longing for the sedate pleasures of a bourgeois life? Was Huysmans’s entire body of work the result of a grandiose self-delusion?
François appears to believe so, and the idea is far from improbable, in fact I find it quite plausible. The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses we concoct to give life meaning, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its own driving force. But what does that matter as long as it creates great literature, quivering with ambivalence, full of longing for meaning, which, if none is found, it creates itself?
This is a curious conclusion. As far as I can tell, Knausgård is saying that self-delusion — the pretense of belief in a wholly fictional religious consolation, pursued until one forgets the pretense — is an acceptable price to be paid for literature that gives pleasure in the making and in the reading. Moreover, he seems to think that this is what is going on in François’s mind as well: the idea that, even if he does not in any strict sense believe in what he affirms, such unbelief should not be investigated too closely, lest the consolations be lost that accompany submission.
This seems to counsel the transformation of personal and political crisis alike, their sublimation into aesthetic pleasure: religious affirmation becomes just another stage of aestheticism, with the bonus of allowing you not to mind very much if your culture is conquered and ruled by another one. This position might seem to make Knausgård as much of a target for Houellebecq’s satire as François, except that Houellebecq occasionally invites the interpretation that he is as much of an aesthete as François. When asked by a journalist whether he thought that through this novel he might be responsible for feeding the fires of Islamophobia, he replied, “It’s not my role to be responsible. I don’t feel responsible. The role of a novel is to entertain readers, and fear is one of the most entertaining things there is.”