Bruno Chaouat on Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission
Recently, French intellectuals have become interested in the unbearable lightness of being oneself, in the paradoxical burden of individual freedom and sovereignty. In an intriguing book entitled L’homme sans gravité [Zero Gravity Man], psychoanalyst Charles Melman argues that most of his patients suffer no longer from sexual repression (the tenet of neurosis for Freud and the inevitable by-product of civilization), but on the contrary from a deprivation of repression that results in all kinds of narcissistic perversions and dysfunctions. The individual, creator origin of his or her own laws, beginning and end of all values, suffers from an excess of autonomy. Ironically enough, the individual longs for repression and, yes, submission. One’s yoke consists in the deprivation of any yoke.
Being free, as Sartre and the existentialists had noticed, can be a trial. Individual freedom is difficult because it entails choices ungrounded in any predetermined moral worldview. In the thought of Sartre and Camus, one does not have the choice not to choose and one must invent one’s own values. But it is one thing to be confronted with meaningful existential choices. When Sartre was writing, Dasein — condemned to be free — had to choose between Resistance and Collaboration, or between taking care of one’s aging, beloved mother and waging war against fascism. It is another thing altogether in a post-historical Europe, when Homo eligens, the individual, fated to choose, must do so between masturbating in front of a Youporn video or engaging in a threesome — pornography and sexual activity constituting the supreme stage of consumerist addiction.
Such are the choices today for French novelist and poet Michel Houellebecq’s characters: a parody of freedom, a caricature of autonomy, and thus nothing less than a perversion of the modern project of emancipation. The world is empty; the dialectic of History, the Hegelian work of the negative, has broken down. All collective bonds have disintegrated — nation, religion, family. Anomic suicide, the type of suicide that sociologist Emile Durkheim had linked to the fragmentation of experience and society, represents a strong temptation for Houellebecq’s characters. Such is Houellebecq’s universe — a neurasthenic, anomic and acosmic world indeed.
Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission, rests on a simple plot. In 2022 France holds a runoff presidential election against the backdrop of a brewing civil war between European white supremacists and Muslim jihadists. The leader of the far-right party, Marine Le Pen, is faced with an adversary of a heretofore unsuspected kind, at least in French politics. He is the charismatic and imaginary leader of a new Islamic party, Mohammed Ben Abbes, a vague composite of two real archetypal figures: the adipose French Muslim community leader Dalil Boubakeur, the truly moderate and conciliatory former imam of the main Paris mosque visited by tourists in the Latin Quarter; and the slim, charismatic and faux moderate Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, cult hero to disaffected youth in the poor suburbs. Of the former he has the friendly and candid outlook, of the latter the Machiavellian genius.
In order to understand Soumission it is necessary to go back to the writer’s earlier bestseller, Les particules élémentaires [Elementary Particles, also translated as Atomized.] The novel was published in 1998 and its plot extends into the mid-21st century. One may recall how the book offers a severe diagnosis of Western malaise in a post-metaphysical, post-religious age, in an age secularized through and through. This post-religious age — which Houellebecq also calls the “materialistic era” that followed centuries dominated by Christianity — has run its course. The end of the 20th century is for Houellebecq the age of total exhaustion of the West. The individual has become an isolated atom, transcendence has collapsed, and the libertarian revolution of the 1960s has led to a complete loss of meaning and despair and to a return to barbarity characterized by sex addiction, envy and resentment — a civilizational regression inherent in the development of democracies.
The main character of that book, Michel, a physics nerd confronted by the absence of meaning and a postmodern deadliness that reduces human life to a disposable commodity (aging and death scenes in the novel are particularly dreadful in their platitude and matter-of-factness), speculates on the need for humankind to reach total autonomy of the species, namely self-reproduction via cloning — a theme that Houellebecq will revisit in La possibilité d’une île. The problem with human life as we know it is indeed sexual reproduction and death. The ascetic Michel will sacrifice his life to end human finitude. Michel’s hyper-materialism leads him to overcome the material world and to become the messiah of a new metaphysical age — a golden age of fusion, a new New Age in which man will have overcome his humanity through medical technology and genetic engineering. Michel heralds an age in which transcendence is to be found in the immanence of a self-sufficient, self-reproducible body.
To be sure, the pseudo-scientific content of the novel was less original than its social critique and its dissection of Homo occidentalis, that nihilistic avatar of the Nietzschean last man that heralds an apocalyptic orgy of self-destruction. Man has become obsolete. In Atomized of 1998, Michel was the harbinger of post-humanity.
If Houellebecq has lost most of his teeth within the past twenty years, his satires have remained biting. Houellebecq has more in common with John Updike in his matter-of-fact chronicling of our daily afflictions — from impotence to bulimia and death — than with Philip Roth. Roth’s baroque sophistication is nowhere to be found in Houellebecq’s simple narratives. Yet if Updike, in his last novel Terrorist, suggested that Islamic terrorism was a reaction to American nihilism, Houellebecq stages conversion to a moderate and “democratic” form of Islam (an Islam lite) as an ironic alternative to European emptiness and to the end of History. Even as France and Europe, have long lost any authentic political and historical experience, history and politics, and therefore meaning, survive in Israel in the form of the friend/enemy dialectic and the threat of annihilation. Israel is the country where Myriam, François’s only real object of attachment, emigrates because of growing French antisemitism.
The narrator of the novel, François, is a Sorbonne literary scholar specializing in the French decadent novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans who came to reaffirm the Catholicism he had abandoned. François detachedly observes the sea-change in French, and indeed, European politics, as Ben Abbes wins the election and thereby ends decades and more of boring electoral alternation between right and left. This new order has been set into motion by the end of the Cold War and the exhausted opposition between liberal democracy and communism — both avatars of atheistic humanism that for Houellebecq can only lead to slow civilizational suicide.
Among his other humble pleasures, François enjoys wine from the Meursault region — an allusion to the last name of the arch-neurasthenic of French modern letters, Camus’s Stranger. To be sure, François, unlike Meursault, is not gratuitously led by a burning sun to kill an Arab on the beach. Yet like Meursault François (along, perhaps, with all of Houellebecq’s characters), sees the world as though he were standing outside of a phone booth. Through the glass, he can distinguish the gestures and the motions, but remains alienated from their meaning. Thus François converts to Islam, brainwashed by the president of the now Islamic Sorbonne, Robert Rediger, himself an echo of George Orwell’s O’Brien — an unctuous, persuasive master at softening the totalitarian nature of a new regime. (With his several wives, Rediger has obviously had no problem accommodating himself to its sexism; he is, moreover, quite unconcerned with its antisemitism.)
And thus goes Houellebecq’s/François’s wager: Why not give up one’s autonomy and submit to an ideology that is greater than the atomized self and promises to restore meaning to an absurd world? It’s a win-win, like Pascal’s wager, all things being equal. Either the God of Islam is real and the convert wins eternity, or He is not and the convert earns several wives, unassailable tenure at the prestigious Sorbonne, and international academic recognition. Islam (a metaphor for a return to heteronomy) will free the self from the torment of freedom — a freedom that condemns the postmodern, Western individual to be nothing beyond his body, an aging body, tormented by hemorrhoids and migraines, torn apart among trivial consumerist choices, consumed by the repetition of mechanical orgasms, and eaten up by eczema and STDs.
The rise of Islam in France is, in the novel, the eruption of History into an eventless world, a drop of metaphysics in the ocean of materialism.
As a result, the debate that erupted in the aftermath of the publication of Houellebecq’s novel about the author’s alleged Islamophobia is at best futile, at worst ill spirited. Houellebecq has been accused of Islamophobia since he declared in 2001 that while all monotheisms are “dumb,” Islam remains the “dumbest of them all.” In recent interviews, however, he has disavowed his view by admitting that he had not read the Koran seriously and that he would not make such a sweeping declaration today. Of course, with Houllebecq, it is never possible to know whether he is serious or playful. And when he declares a few days after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo that he has reconsidered his view on Islam it is hard not to hear irony.
I suggest, ultimately, that Houellebecq is no more an Islamophobe than an Islamophile. He is acutely, yet wearily, aware that Europe has lost all forms of meaning and transcendence and that a civilization that has abdicated all its traditions is an inoperative, idle civilization — doomed to fall into the abyss of its own emptiness.
The establishment of sharia law in France is thus merely an experiment on the level of the plot, a literary device such as was cloning in The Elementary Particles — the ironic suggestion of a last-ditch civilizational attempt at overcoming the despair and affliction of autonomy, material decay and flattened death.
To conclude, a word on the question of literature. In a culture of junk and waste — the culture of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity” — literature has itself been liquidated. It has become a product of the entertainment industry. Writers are no longer heroes. They are celebrities, and their fame is as transient as the newest version of the iPhone, a pop star, or a recent video game. It is disposable fame. Houellebecq’s style is thus a kitsch, post-literary style, but, like the art of Rauschenberg, Valdes, or Braun-Vega, it bears witness to the destruction of style and culture. Whether Houellebecq’s novels, and even his self-consciously staged public persona, are a symptom or a diagnosis of the liquidation of culture, style, and literature — that is something difficult to say. His last novel, however, gives us a hint. It is the most literarily aware of his novels. The long glosses on Huysmans’s life and work that pepper Soumission loom as the hopeless — and perhaps final and tongue-in-cheek — salvaging of what can still be rescued from the wreck of European culture. One imagines it would definitely disappear, if it has not done so already, in the monstrous marriage of Islam and Coca-Cola.