What will be will be
Michel Houellebecq, Submission, (Translated from the French by Lorin Stein) William Heinemann, 2015, pp256, £18.99
This latest novel of Michel Houellebecq is set in a future France which is about to get a Muslim president.
It is Paris in 2022 and François is an unmarried lecturer at the Sorbonne. His particular interest is JK Huysmans, a late 19th century writer who began as a ‘decadent’ aesthete and later converted to Catholicism. François himself observes no belief apart from his practice of taking a different lover each year - usually a student. He lectures, travels and eats mostly ready meals. When we encounter him, he is in the middle of a relationship with Myriam, another of his students. He expects this to end soon, even though she is keen for it to continue. It will in fact be one of the things affected by the forthcoming presidential election. It is expected that this will be won by Muhammed Ben Abbes, the candidate for a coalition of the centre-left and the new Muslim Fraternity party.
What reason does the novel give for this prospect of a Muslim-left government? The threat of the far right coming to power. In order to stave off a Front National victory with its plans to leave the European Union, the centre-left Socialists and centre-right Union for a Popular Movement ally with a party recently formed out of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As the contest rises to a climax, Myriam visits François and offers him fellatio. She declares that she loves France - she loves the cheese - but her parents are talking about leaving for Israel. She asks him what he intends to do after the election. François realises that he has no idea and anyway “I didn’t give a fuck”.
Myriam will in the end accompany her parents, fearing a Front National victory. Incidentally she happens to be the most developed female character in the book - which means she is not that developed. Houellebecq’s protagonists are not particularly interested in women except for their ‘beauty’ and for sex.
In the meantime François’s parents both die and François, fearing that he is on the verge of suicide, goes on retreat to a monastery, where his subject, Huysmans, was once a lay member. François does not stay there long - he doesn’t believe in that either - and returns to Paris.
The coalition’s Ben Abbes is elected president and the Sorbonne is privatised: only Muslims can now teach there. François is made redundant. When the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne reopens, some of François’s colleagues convert and acquire second wives under the new polygamy laws. President Ben Abbes, however, distances himself from his Saudi investors and presses for French to become the first language of the EU. He is considered a charming moderate who gets on well with the rabbi of France.
François visits Robert Rediger, a rightwing politician who contends that Europe has “committed suicide in a matter of decades”; it is now Islam that “has been chosen for world status”. A publisher offers François the editorship of Huysmans’ complete works. Meanwhile he reads up on Questions about Islam, a specially prepared booklet, and inquires of Rediger, “Could I convert to Islam?” Rediger does not see why he could not. François, after all, has no strong views about how the cosmos or society works.
François does recognise that petty bourgeois conservatives, the nativists and the Muslims, were in perfect agreement:
When it came to rejecting atheism and humanism, or the necessary submission of women, or the return of patriarchy, they were fighting exactly the same fight. And today this fight, to establish a new organic phase of civilisation, could no longer be waged in the name of Christianity. Islam, its sister faith, was newer, simpler and truer … (p230).
François even gets to return to teaching. He will miss tight slacks and the faces of female students, but he is ready to resume his job and even allows a spouse to be chosen for him. The novel ends, with a brief glimpse of the new era and François’s place within it.
Is it convincing, this transformation that some French writers have called ‘the Great Replacement’ - the hypothesis that the rise in the Muslim population within France may lead to a change in politics? Can one imagine a sizable section of the European middle class, indeed of Britain - not the intellectuals, of course - giving up the liberties of public drunkenness, internet porn and gay liberation, while embracing a simple monotheism, community in faith, alms-giving by the mega-rich and the feeling that free speech is reckless? Surely, a moderate patriot like Ben Abbas would never score with an electorate that will forever identify Allah with masked martyrs and dour sheiks.
Houellebecq does not appear to agree with Alain Badiou that values are binary, that the west and its copycats are opposed by ‘nihilist’ rejectionists - principally Islamic State and their offshoots. For the record though, the Koran neither vindicates the ill treatment of women nor the killing of innocents. But, because Islam has no pope or synod, it is easier for some Muslims to reinterpret it in order to allow both.
Submission stops before it can show us the kind of internal conflicts such a society could develop, like those between Muslim and Non-Muslims and between different Muslims. The book runs out of steam, just as François makes his submission to the new hegemony. Is this more than a failure of imagination? Is Houellebecq just not interested in the kind of future fiction that has a detailed social landscape, like Aldous Huxley’s California-plus Brave new world?
As a character in a French novel, François is not unlike Meursault in Albert Camus’s Outsider. Meursault was not particularly committed to anything either, back then in colonial French Algeria. Meursault, like François, is mainly a believer in the truth of his own feelings rather than any ideas, even if this leads him to shoot an Arab on an Algiers beach without much reason.
François has reminded some of another fictional character. The writer, Emmanuel Carrère, has already compared Submission to Orwell’s 1984. François, however, is no Winston Smith.
Novel and value
Before the novel there was the epic and romance - stories of heroes, knights and ladies. Some novels are still romances in this fashion, like James Bond, while some are anti-romances - the work of grittily debunking Tolstoy. If we try to refer to the novel as a distinct genre, one prominent aspect would be that the protagonist is one who is searching, who attempts to find a place for values, or something other than ‘money to value’, in the modern capitalist world. The break-up of traditional society in the 15th and 16th centuries gave the bourgeoisie economic power and political clout, but led to a lack of general social values, apart from individual advancement and declining religion.
This lack of consensus was dangerous for social cohesion. Intellectuals, from Shakespeare to Adam Smith, who worried about modernity, could not help but ask the question about what greater values were realistic in this situation. On the other hand, in the heroic romance tales of TV and movies, the Hero, who already has values, almost always wins: love conquers all, heroes defeat evil, comedies end with all’s well. But from Robinson Crusoe to the Great Gatsby characters, novels search for values by which they can live, but that also accommodate to reality. In early capitalist fiction, realism is not just a panorama of everyday life, but poses the question whether one can be a hero in a disenchanted world - Don Quixote, Crusoe, Pickwick.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice, the petty bourgeois Elizabeth Bennett arrives at the realisation that the aristocrat Darcy is worthy to be loved and admired, even though - or perhaps because - he criticises the limitations of her genteel family. Later, Thomas Hardy’s narratives are a lot more sceptical about Victorian society: his working class protagonists may conform (Tess) or rebel (Jude), but both are destroyed. In the 1920s, the couples of DH Lawrence’s Women in love seek to discover a way of living passionately together among the increasingly atomised world of monopoly capitalism, where everything seems mechanical and petty. The prose of Women in love presents us with characters that are not ‘characters’: that is, types. They are unfinished, shifting, not secure in themselves, even as they pursue conflicting destinies of Love or Will or Art.
Those who have read Orwell’s dystopia of 1949 know that Winston Smith seeks a personal escape too with colleague Julia, against the ubiquitous double-think (bullshit) of Big Brotherism. He does not succeed and never could succeed, given the all-powerful surveillance system. But he tries for the impossibility of a private solution (given his position in the party), as well as attempting to explore questions about the society he lives in. The Big Brother society does not even have a special day of celebration - a day of independence or revolution, when positive values are affirmed. This makes one doubt whether a society like Orwell’s design could be feasible. Can a divided (class) society do without even the hypocrisy of having common values?
In Houellebecq’s previous and award-winning second novel Atomised (2001), the paths of two half-brothers dovetail into a future - yes, another projection - where biological science has provided the solution, as well as the problem. Here we have another decline of civilisation hypothesis, where chemistry in the 1960s - the pill and mind-altering drugs - has led to a crisis of individualism, when single-minded desire promoted by advertising and the sexual revolution gives way to cruelty.
“Charles Manson,” the text tells us, “was not some monstrous aberration in the hippie movement, but its logical conclusion.” Individual liberty has been reduced to self-seeking for personal satisfaction, whether sexual, economic (in consumption) or ultimately religious, with the churches crumbling before the sects and their offers of personal ecstasy and small group bond.
However, one of the characters in Atomised works in molecular biology and invents principles for the absolute separation of sex and reproduction. This results in the creation of a post-individualist human being - a body cloned, perfect and detached from evolution, united with their fellow clones by a common sameness, involved in a love that is the oblivion of mind.
Atomised keyed into and may even have promoted a mood in the noughties where science - biological, chemical or IT-based - was declared to promise freedom from single consciousness and mortality, finally achieving unity and everlasting life in the ‘cloud mind’. There was much talk of the ‘post-human’, at least in literary theory textbooks and on Radio Four science shows. Whether this was of much use to people now was something I do not remember being discussed.
In Submission François is not happy either about the way things are going, but this can have no impact. With Submission we have reached a depressive stage of fictional character, where a protagonist submits because any choice of values or even a compromise is impossible. From this character’s point of view it does not matter whether anything works or not -the depressive can live in the most perfect or imperfect society without much difference: their alienation from society is presented as psychological, not political. Given a protagonist like this, Submission has no need to tell us much about the new society: the point is that things are going somewhere - maybe worse or not - and what will be will be. It is unnecessary from this point of view to go very far in depicting social details and personal struggles, as in Orwell or, for that matter, Lawrence.
Not that pessimism as such need be a dull read. Take that most unprogressive of texts, Gulliver’s travels by Jonathan Swift. What does Gulliver get out of his travels? Certainly not a fortune nor much pleasure and only one useful lesson, which is for the reader. Gulliver travels to new countries, explores science (Laputa), and encounters humanity in the raw (the Yahoos).
The beings which he finds who are like those at home, though smaller or bigger, are awful and the ones who are not like his fellow citizens, the horsey Houyhnhnms, leave him shamed about his humanity and unable to bear the smell of his own family in England. He gets nothing of benefit from meeting new people or observing faraway societies. The message of Gulliver’s travels would seem to be: don’t do it; stay put - progress, of any kind, is a delusion.
Houellebecq’s characters mostly do not get anywhere, not even by going into new lands, new futures; they live passively with things as they are, while the story merely hints at a ‘shocking’ hypothetical change. Even as readers, we may want more than this, more than a tease. Maybe the next kind of utopian novel could imagine a society, which, although not perfect (like a socialist Europe faced with an unreconstructed US and China), might at least have a go at struggling with problems we recognise as ours.