Michel Houellebecq is the enfant terrible of contemporary French literature, a modern and best-selling Voltaire or Sartre who writes provocative novels of ideas that both exploit and skewer liberal debauchery and nausea. Michel Houellebecq’s recently translated Submission, which imagines that Islamists come to power during the French presidential election of 2022, has received a lot of attention in the Anglo-American literary world. That attention has understood better than French criticism that this novel is far more anti-Western than anti-Islamic, but it has failed to pick up its important Christian message. That fault isn’t surprising, for Houellebecq himself doesn’t get it.
Submission satirizes the purposeless, Godless, loveless hedonism of contemporary Western man. The first-person anti-hero is a specialist in the decadent Catholic fin de siècle novelist J.K.Huysmans, and relives the literary aesthete’s very existence as devoté of exquisite music, art, sex, and food in the same quarter of Paris where his only, dead “friend”—also a French bureaucrat—collected rare art and furniture in an earlier century. Year by year, life on the purely aesthetic plane, with no transcendent horizon, has left him, like the “Christian naturalist” (as the Parisian professor calls his subject) profoundly disappointed.
Though he never names it as such, the narrator François has a terminal case of acedia—sorrow for spiritual good—manifested by a profound hopeless boredom in spite of a prestigious job, faithless student mistresses, material opulence, abundant free time, even fascinating intellectual work at the pinnacle of honor and comfort in what he calls “social democracy.” What is missing? In a word, agape, the demanding, self-giving love that brings enduring joy. Love in this book is reduced to momentary carnal pleasure, sad depictions of which abound.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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François cannot find lasting eros or authentic storge (“family affection,” to continue using C.S. Lewis’s famous categories), for his girlfriends leave him after every summer vacation, and his divorced parents are “self-centered baby boomers” living respectively with a bulldog and a gold digger. Nor can he find philia, as much as he appreciates the few colleagues who enter his world, because they are all walled in their academic specializations and worlds of private delight, which they, too, have abandoned since their dissertations. Friendless but for the literary corpse who still talks to him on the page (albeit with esoteric coinages that themselves resist communication) he consumes extreme political opinions with intellectual acquaintances, and extreme pleasure from exes and call girls. He can complete his teaching load in a single day. The rest of the week, he smokes, drinks, eats sushi, re-reads Huysmans, and completes the coveted short preface to the Pléiade edition.
To overcome being Pascal’s man bored in a room, four times in the novel he travels to venerable monasteries, the very ones that had contributed to Huysmans’s conversion. They tempt him twice, early in his career, when he went to the Benedictine Ligugé and Cistercian Igny Abbeys, but only because they might offer relief to “petty annoyances” such as a “clogged sink” and “slow Wi-Fi.” With their efficient hotel service, “one laid down the burden of one’s individual existence.” Like a citizen of the welfare state, a monk was “assured of room and board.” This submission even promised a “best-case scenario, eternal life as a bonus.” Houllebecq’s presentation of the rich Catholic past is so thin, however, that it cannot but disappoint the searching soul. Christendom in the novel is an off-the-beaten-track museum, with scarcely an allusion to a saintly life, a wise spiritual writer, or even Sacred Scripture in the entire text—so dead that even scholars do not attempt to interpret the ruins. The believers huddle in the side chapels of deserted cathedrals like early Christians in the catacombs.
Of course, the Catholic answer to acedia is not good room service. Unlike Huysmans, François wasn’t able to renounce pleasure as a graduate student. Since he is so disgusted with his own hemorrhoids, rashes, and toothaches that he “required bodies that were firm, supple, and flawless,” he can’t imagine that married love can result in anything better than “charred, perhaps carcinogenic barbecue” and ruined morel soufflé, blow-dried hair, endless e-mails at work, and “the sagging of the flesh.” Houellebecq’s anti-hero is to be taken as self-centered, self-loathing, self-fatiguing, modern European humanity.
Political Islam promises the social goals of traditional Catholicism. It understands the electorate’s fatigue with lawless decadence and proposes “a return to religion” in the secular educational system: “More and more families—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—wanted their children’s education to go beyond the mere transmission of knowledge, to include spiritual instruction in their own traditions.” Of course, since the Jewish tradition has nearly entirely fled the country and the “intégrist” Catholics have “all but disappeared,” this ecumenical proposal will strengthen only Islam. The moderate Islamist Abbas campaigns on “family values, traditional morality, and, by extension, patriarchy” and sees the marginalized Catholic as “fellow believers, people of the Book, and allies against laicism, secularism, and atheist materialism.” He will not dynamite but subsidize the Catholic Church, which is but “one step away from converting to Islam.” This moderate tolerance is “the true, original Muslim vision.” One wonders what Islamic society Houellebecq is thinking of in this conceit; one also wonders why the nearly identical message of Catholic traditionalism is seen as empty and démodé in “the eldest daughter of the Church.” Have two hundred years of anti-clericalism, despite the cults of Jeanne d’Arc, Bernadette, and the Little Flower, gagged and bound the Gospel?
Fearful of a violent purge after the Islamic victory, François retreats from ugly Parisian republican rallies to Rocamadour, where Huysmans and pious French kings had also made pilgrimage to the Black Madonna. The “serene, spiritually powerful, almost terrifying atmosphere” of the “king of the world” tempts him but little:
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.
So what’s no longer working in Our Lady’s power, “rising from her pedestal and growing in the air,” looking “extra-terrestrial,” and tempting François to “give up everything, not really for [his] country, but in general,” while her son only had to “raise his right hand and the pagans and idolaters would be destroyed, and the keys to the world restored to him, ‘as its lord, its possessor, and its master’”? First, inveterate materialistic cynicism cripples Francois: “Or maybe I was just hungry.” He thinks that “possibly what I should do was go back to my hotel and sit down to a few duck’s eggs instead of falling down between the pews in an attack of mystical hypoglycemia.” Second, contemporary faith overemphasizes individual judgment. Medieval spirituality stressed the communal nature of salvation: “the entire Christian people … rose together from the tomb, resurrected in one glorious body, to make their way to paradise.” Instead of joining the Mystical Body of Christ, however, “moral judgment, individual judgment, individuality itself” stand in Francois’s way. The loss of a communal habit ties the Blessed Mother’s hands and sends him back to a “joyless but not empty life” in Paris, unable to submit to the Lord.
Crime falls by ninety percent in the formerly troubled unassimilated neighborhoods, ones that have in fact recently fomented and fostered terrorism in Belgian and French banlieus. (Houellebecq’s novel was eerily released on the very morning of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.) Women leave the workforce in droves to take advantage of a huge subsidy to strengthen patriarchy, and unemployment also drops drastically. The new economic policy astonishingly and explicitly follows Catholic Distributist principles, and farmers, craftsmen, and small-business entrepreneurs rise as large-scale industries decline. Pope Pius XI’s pillar of subsidiarity influences a cutting of funding for the welfare state, a propping up of the family, and consequent huge budgetary savings that no party heretofore has been able to do more than promise. Why can’t the Catholic Church advocate her own social teaching in this novel?
Materially set for life but utterly alone (orphaned and jilted) and nearly suicidal, François makes a fourth pilgrimage to a monastery, Ligugé Abbey, near Poitiers, which has historically suffered both Saracen and laicist barbarity, but is making a comeback. He doesn’t stay long because he can’t smoke in his room and because the “sober ugliness” of the restored church and sappy retreat prose of the Abbot, though “full of love and good intentions,” exasperate him: “Life should be a continual loving exchange; lay down your burdens and take a journey within yourself, to the wellspring where the power of desire is revealed.” This “feminized Christianity” drives him away from “a journey into the light.” His “desire, wellspring, and journey,” pale imitations of “faith, hope, and charity,” are cigarettes. He is quite willing to give up the anxiety of autonomy, but not nicotine and central heating, especially when the Church is so bland even in her resurgence.
If patty-cake Catholicism fails him, why is his final submission to Islam plausible? The new Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne woos him back with a Pléiade publishing contract and a plum position. Its new polygamist president Rediger explains that the West has been on a long suicidal decline since World War One, and only Islam can satisfy the exhausted atheist in the same way that pornography satisfies the exhausted reader of romantic love: “there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man, as it’s described in Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God.” As he puts it,
Islam accepts the world, and accepts it whole. It accepts the world as such, Nietzche might say. For Buddhism, the world is dukkha—unsatisfactoriness, suffering. Christianity has serious reservations of its own. Isn’t Satan called ‘the prince of the world’? For Islam, though, the divine creation is perfect, it’s an absolute masterpiece. What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to his laws.
Rediger’s Islam offers the clockmaker hands-off God without the Incarnation, the “pernicious doctrine” that led to “humanism, the rights of man, decadence, and homosexuality.” Polygamy favors the natural selection of übermenchen. Liberal democracy, by atomizing individuals, has paved the way for the divine tyranny of Islam, in which every previously isolated individual is linked directly to Allah and now indirectly to each other. Unlike the traditionalist nativists, who may have also rejected atheism, abortion rights, homosexual rights, and women in the workplace, Islamists preach a religion simpler than Christianity, conceptually economical, without “marginal, irrational doctrines (such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) and also without “the simpering seductions and the lewd enticements of [Church] progressives.” Islam will not only dominate the West; it will replace it. Francois thus submits to this second chance on life, and he will “have nothing to mourn.” In the last pages of the novel, he goes through the motions of conversion as he might fill out an application for social-security benefits and accept an embossed invitation. Islamic submission finally means a hammam bath, a phonetic recitation of twenty-six Arabic syllables, a cocktail party, and, eventually, several young wives who can cook.
By contrast, Christianity requires freedom, the focused, complex, arduous, disciplined freedom of choosing to live out mysterious doctrines that are not immediately understood, to look for analogies of the transcendent in the ordinary, to love beyond unpleasant appearances and fallen creatures, and to listen to the law of agape, which demands mutuality, sacrifice, and patience. It’s a great catechetical failure that Houellebecq doesn’t know this, but at least he represents it.