The Peculiar Cassandra: Review of Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission”

The string of terrorist attacks in European cities in recent years has produced, in addition to a significant number of casualties, no shortage of prophets counseling us on where the present crisis of Islamic immigration into the Old Continent will end. Those predicting that it is but a passing moment which will dissolve into a peaceful and harmonious future face off against doomsayers, yours truly included, who fear that many European countries are at risk of becoming Balkanized and collapsing into political turmoil or even civil war.

One detailed outlook on what Europe’s near future might be like is presented in Submission, Michel Houellebecq’s bestselling 2015 novel. In it, we follow François, the Parisian protagonist who, in the year 2022, sees a Muslim Brotherhood party gain political power in his country after the conventional parties back it in the run-off presidential election in a bid to prevent the National Front from coming out on top. A charismatic chap by the name of Mohammed Ben-Abbes becomes the nation’s new president and sets in motion a series of sweeping reforms. After an initial period of deadly street violence between the native “identitaires” and jihadists, the new government swiftly pacifies the country. It privatizes the universities, which are henceforth funded by Saudi petrodollars. François, a literature professor at Paris III, loses his job as a result, though he receives a generous retirement package — hush money for the infidel, if you will — on the way out. François’ Jewish girlfriend sees the writing on the wall and emigrates to Israel. Before long, women are forced to wear the veil and pushed out of the workplace, causing the unemployment numbers to plummet. On the foreign front, Ben-Abbes starts an immediate lobby to expand the European Union into North Africa.

If François’ hedonism and utter lack of a desire to mature into a bourgeois life are emblematic of his time, he has a negative thing or two to say about the obsession with money and material pleasures among his fellow countrymen.

Houellebecq’s is an odd sort of protagonist: François is not a family man who ends up overcoming his fears and putting his heroism on full display in an effort to protect his offspring from this creeping Islamic tyranny. A scholar of the 19th-century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, he is a forty-something bachelor whose love life can at best be described as a cocktail of serial monogamy and prostitutes. He lives on a steady diet of cigarettes, microwave meals and take-out dinners, and spends many a night drinking alone on his couch or in the presence of call girls. This lifestyle has left him too lethargic to pay much attention to politics, and the Islamic takeover of his country takes him more or less by surprise.

If François’ hedonism and utter lack of a desire to mature into a bourgeois life are emblematic of his time, he has a negative thing or two to say about the obsession with money and material pleasures among his fellow countrymen. “[M]ost students,” he remarks, are “hypnotized by the desire for money or, if they’re more primitive, by the desire for consumer goods…  Above all they’re hypnotized by the desire to make their mark, to carve out an enviable social position in a world that they believe and indeed hope will be competitive, galvanized as they are by the worship of fleeting icons: athletes, fashion or Web designers, movie stars, and models.” And Western women, he comments, “spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favor of clothes that were loose and shapeless.”

Though bored with his literary hero at the outset of the novel, François attempts to make sense of what’s happening in his country by revisiting Huysmans. After his girlfriend leaves for Israel, he takes off from Paris on a whim and lands, at first, in the medieval village of Martel, not coincidentally named after a Charles with that same last name who fought off the Muslim invasion of France in the eighth century. He spends a few weeks in the commune of Rocamadour, where he makes frequent visits to its sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On his final visit to that shrine François has an intimation of a religious epiphany, but, when push comes to shove, he finds himself unable to make the leap into Catholicism like Huysmans had done over a century earlier. He shrugs off his experience: “[M]aybe I was just hungry.” When, a few months later, he spends some nights at the Ligugé Abbey, “where Huysmans had taken his monastic vows,” François is utterly annoyed with both the fact that he can’t smoke in his dormitory and the continuous chanting of the monks — “full of sweetness, hope, and expectation.” “That old queer Nietzsche had it right,” he quips. “Christianity was, at the end of the day, a feminine religion.”

The novel concludes with its protagonist returning to Paris and falling under the spell of a successful politician named Robert Rediger, who convinces François to convert to Islam, so that he may be reinstated to his former job. Unable to find redemption in Christianity, François finally submits to the Muslim faith. Even now, however, his motive is not the aim of finding personal salvation in a religion of self-denial, but the prospect of an academic position and, most importantly, the possibility of a polygamous life. “In your case,” Rediger assures him, “I think you could have three wives without too much trouble—not that anyone would force you to, of course.” François’ material and bodily desires, not his head or his heart, lead him into submission.

The release of Submission, or any Houellebecq novel for that matter, has not been without controversy. A caricature drawing of the author’s face was on the cover of the issue of Charlie Hebdo on the morning of January 7, 2015, the day that satirical French magazine’s office was shot up by Muslim extremists. While Houellebecq was shocked to the core after losing a good friend or two in the event, some were quick to point fingers in his direction after the attack. “France is not Michel Houellebecq,” the country’s heroic socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, said shortly afterwards. “[I]t is not intolerance, hatred and fear.” Submission had not even made it to the bookstores at that point, but the French had just suffered 17 casualties in a terrorist attack that was emblematic of the problem against which Houellebecq has been warning us for the past few decades now. Pick your priorities, prime minister.

Reading the novel presently under review, however, it quickly becomes clear that the author has deviated from his earlier criticism of Islam to offer instead a stinging rebuke of the hedonism which has permeated Western culture over the past century.

In the latter’s defense, Houellebecq never shies away from an entertaining jab at the cultural and political establishment in France. “For years now, probably decades,” he writes in Submission, “Le Monde and all the other center-left newspapers, which is to say every newspaper, had been denouncing the ‘Cassandras’ who predicted civil war between Muslim immigrants and the indigenous populations of Western Europe.” He proceeds to make the obvious point that the Cassandra of ancient Greek mythology made predictions that actually came true, but nobody believed her. The (correct) implication, of course, is that our elites today have never read anything written before last Wednesday.

Reading the novel presently under review, however, it quickly becomes clear that the author has deviated from his earlier criticism of Islam to offer instead a stinging rebuke of the hedonism which has permeated Western culture over the past century. Sometimes Houellebecq makes his case explicitly, but for the most part his critique is lurking just below the surface in the form of his anti-hero protagonist. In one example, François says about his girlfriend: “She could contract her pussy at will (sometimes softly, with a slow, irresistible pressure; sometimes in sharp, rebellious little tugs); when she gave me her little ass, she swiveled it around with infinite grace.” If remarks like these are a little too much for your reviewer’s good senses, they leave the usual suspects steaming with outrage.

In other words, when Houellebecq isn’t being accused of Islamophobia, he’s being charged with misogyny or one of the other cardinal sins of our era. But his detractors are too busy dismissing his stylistic choices to grasp that these harbor the author’s lamentations on the lack of spirit among twenty-first-century Western Europeans. If François’ thoughts about the female sex are, to put it mildly, less than desirable in the age of #MeToo, is his attitude really all that different from how many European men approach the topic, cruising through life as they are without giving it any true meaning by committing themselves before the eyes of God to a spouse and later to their offspring, and willingly accepting the heavy burden to protect both at all costs? Does François pay less attention to the ancient national and Christian culture he inherited than many of his compatriots, and is he less willing to fight for it? Research demonstrates that a mere quarter of Europeans are willing to go to war in defense of their countries. Had the Brits felt the same way in 1940, they would have all spoken German today.

Monsieur Valls’ moral posturing notwithstanding, it is perfectly clear that the French, as well as every other Western European nation, have devolved into the myopic nihilists Houellebecq makes them out to be. The author deserves credit for holding up his mirror in front of them. Submission‘s is not a pretty picture, and for that reason not enjoyable to look at, but it is one which had to be painted.

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