NOVEMBER 18, 2015
Editor’s Note: This review was written before the attacks in Paris on November 13.
AS IT EXISTS in popular culture at the present moment, satire is no longer something that disturbs us, or worse, implicates us. Instead, satire now serves both to distance us and, if we laugh at the target (which is never in doubt) to reassure us that we’ve chosen the correct — that is, the other — side. That’s the function of the latest toothless SNL impersonation (often with an appearance by the person being imitated, the better to prove him or herself a good sport) or an Amy Schumer sketch. These self-conscious acts of alleged daring are really acts of comfort. They exist to let us know that because we’re pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, voting for Bernie, outraged by rape culture, supportive of trans teens, or would never judge anyone’s attractiveness by his or her weight or looks, that we could never be part of the problem.
The French writer Michel Houellebecq, who has no interest in being your friend, is a genuine satirist. He is often called a provocateur — which he is, but not only — by those who would rather dismiss his views as ludicrous or boorish rather than take them seriously. Ill-served by admirers who want to insist that his meanings are other than what they so plainly are, Houellebecq is the satirist as ruthless applicant of logic. Logic is always what’s most discomfiting in satire. It’s easy to acknowledge the cleverness at the heart of “A Modest Proposal” in which Jonathan Swift argues that selling Irish babies for meat would satisfy the British appetite for beef and alleviate Irish poverty. But while we chuckle at his cheek, we shrink from the logic in that scenario, the thinking of certain statesmen that Swift takes to its logical extension — that early death might be preferable to a life of starvation and squalor. True satire doesn’t joke around.
Here, from Houellebecq’s slim new novel Submission, is the narrator François, reflecting on his path from literature student to lecturer at the Sorbonne:
The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature — it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance above all; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development—besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.
As well as any, that passage shows why Houellebecq sends so many people into a tizzy — and why some of us find him so bracing. It’s the casual yet unshakable assurance in the narrator’s tone; he doesn’t doubt for a minute the state of things as he sketches it is correct, and that everyone else is just kidding themselves. It’s the refusal to treat certain sacred cows with the reverence they assume they deserve. In this case, it’s the refusal to drape the study of literature in the sanctity of learning, a bit of incense burning that has always been a useful way of avoiding the question of why society claims to value something so highly and reward it so poorly. Houellebecq, whose satirical method is to provide the answers no one wants to hear, has decided that the true contemporary value of literature is as an imprimatur of class in a world of luxury goods, and no one is going to convince him differently. Houellebecq’s protagonist François may have invested his life in studying the French decadent writer J.K. Huysmans, but to the world at large his knowledge is less accomplishment than cachet, signifying essentially the same things as the yacht or the vintage motorcycle in those Patek Philippe ads where a father passes on the heirloom timepiece to his son. And while it’s tempting to say that Houellebecq bemoans the devaluation of literature in the contemporary world, that would strike him as sentimental, a way of elevating his own position as a novelist.
What lies behind that passage is the anger that animates much of Houellebecq’s work, anger by now so familiar he almost wears it lightly. Houellebecq carries a cold, bitter, and settled disgust with a late-capitalist West that in everything from work to sex has alienated people from their own capacity for pleasure. François’s concentration on Huysmans, one of the greatest of the decadent writers, has, after a long bout of student poverty, brought him a secure career as a teacher and a prestigious gig as the editor of the Huysmans volumes of France’s esteemed Pléiade editions. François doesn’t complain about his work. He makes a point of telling us that his teaching, confined to one day a week, leaves his schedule relatively free and that the editing will, for him, be an easy task. But in the novel’s opening passage, François talks about Huysmans as a companion and faithful friend, an admission of affection that ends with his realization, after defending his dissertation, that the best part of his life is probably behind him. What has vanished for François isn’t just the pleasure of discovery but the deeper comfort that comes from familiarity. With the Huysmans now François’s ticket into the world of consumer pleasure, François’s joy in him is mechanized, subsumed into the routine of work.
In Houellebecq’s vision of the West, all pleasure has become consumer pleasure. In the 2001 Platform, still his best novel, he outlines how the Western preoccupation with careers, with sublimating every aspect of our life to work, means that sex becomes simply another need to be fulfilled, like eating or going to the bathroom.
In that novel, Houellebecq posited sexual tourism as the answer, and his reasoning was this: in a world where careerism has taken over, sex work is the one career where bringing your work to bed doesn’t get in the way of sex. The protagonist of Platform envisions a series of upscale sexual resorts where wealthy Westerners could relieve their sexual loneliness and local sex workers could, for once, be decently treated and paid. With eloquent disquisitions, Houellebecq prepared his case on how the corporatization of society had alienated people from their bodies. He didn’t equate all sex work with human trafficking; he didn’t pretend a human exchange was not possible along with the monetary one. Predictably, instead of taking Houellebecq seriously — which is not the same as agreeing with him — the British critics who panned Platform opted for either disgust over the author’s “bar-room opinions” (James Buchan, The Guardian) or affected being too sophisticated to be shocked: “Even if his position is just a posture, it is at least an amusing one” (Toby Clements, The Telegraph).
Something similar is happening with Submission, set in 2022 in a France which has carried on much as it is now, a republic in which there exists tensions between immigrants and the far right, who have been prevented from running the government by coalitions of centrists and the left. The coalition holds in Submission, but the result is to elect the first Islamist president. Steven Poole, in his largely positive Guardian review, poses a question meant to set off tremors — “[I]s France’s most celebrated controversialist offering a splenetic vision of the Muslim threat to Europe or a spineless ‘submission’ to gradual Islamic takeover?” — before reassuring readers “the real target of Houellebecq’s satire […] is the predictably manipulative venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man.” In other words, don’t worry. He’s really going after Westerners.
I don’t mean to beat up on Poole. A contemporary critic who praises Houellebecq is in an impossible situation, hampered by the current hypersensitivity to even mild criticism of Islam. And Poole praises the novel in the midst of asses like the French critic from Libération who proclaims that Submission marks “the date in the history of ideas on which the ideas of the extreme right made their entrance in high literature.” Poole is quite right that the novel is not “a splenetic vision of the Muslim threat to Europe.” What Submission is is a rational vision of the seductiveness Islam represents to an exhausted liberal Western democracy.
Which isn’t to deny that Houellebecq is going after Islam. He is. But before we assume, as so many of his critics have, that attacking a set of beliefs is the same thing as racism, we need to consider how the subject itself has deranged Western political discourse across the spectrum, allowing the left as well as the right to fall into the particular idiocies each is prone to.
For the right, Islamist terrorism has provided an excuse to escape into the pleasures of xenophobic bigotry — which it finds almost always irresistible anyway. Thus the invasion of Iraq, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the suspicion that every Muslim is a potential terrorist. And the left, understandably disgusted, has fallen prey to its perennial temptation, fashioning for itself a crude morality play pitting the evils of the imperialist West against the concomitant goodness and helplessness of whomever the West attacks. In this fantasy, Islamist terrorism is such an aberration from the norm that it barely exists.
As those who denounce Islamophobia frequently point out, a billion and a half people can’t all be terrorists. There’s no surprise in a 2013 Pew Research poll that found an overwhelming majority of the Muslims polled reject violence. But what that statistic leaves out is that, with few exceptions, terror is rarely a mass movement, and terrorism does not need a lot of participants to wreak murder and destruction on a mass scale, as 19 Saudis have proved.
What so many liberals seem absolutely unable to deal with, what they find offensive to even ask, is the question of what it is in Islam that inspires fascist apocalyptic fantasies, and inspires some to carry them out? Just as it would be ludicrous to pretend that there’s nothing (such as enforced celibacy and the barring of women from positions of influence) in the Roman Catholic Church that inspires child rape, the left ignores the truth when it insists that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, with its medieval sexual strictures and consistent subjugation of women. Western liberals often fall back on the cliché that it’s arrogant to judge another culture, even when that culture endorses beliefs that are anathema to everything liberals supposedly stand for. That same Pew poll in which Muslims overwhelmingly rejected violence showed broad support for the notion that Muslims, even in non-Muslim majority countries, should be able to be judged by sharia; that a belief in Allah was necessary to be a moral person; that homosexuality is an unpardonable sin; that, in private life at least, women should be subject to the rule of their husbands; and that death is an acceptable punishment for apostasy. Houellebecq recently told The New York Times that he recognizes no difference between Islamism and Islam and, as usual with his public statements, the provocation existed side by side with the reason. But Houellebecq was simply placing violent extremism that aims to crush all opposition on the same spectrum as nonviolent repression which decrees, just as the likes of Kim Davis and Mike Huckabee do in this country, that the law should bow before religious beliefs.
Writing in an atmosphere of vicious extremism on the right and neutered liberalism, Houellebecq has not forgotten that he is a satirist. Nothing is simple in Submission. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate comes about as the result of a runoff against the National Front candidate. The socialist and center-right parties unite with the Brotherhood to defeat the possibility of a fascist president presiding over France. It’s one of Houellebecq’s best jokes. As François realizes, if only the National Front could rid itself of its racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it might recognize in the Muslim Brotherhood a partner in wanting to make the male-led family the primary institution of society and to return to a society where women knew their place.
The violence in Submission comes from extremists on both sides, far-right thugs and the young jihadists whom the Muslim Brotherhood want nothing to do with. The new leaders, like the Muslim smoothie who becomes the leader of the Sorbonne and thus François’s new boss, aren’t firebrands. They’re diplomatic operators who are eager to convince the public they mean no harm. That doesn’t mean anything goes. Those who have not converted can no longer teach in the public universities, and women have to wear the veil. And while women can’t teach, women students can continue with their education. Better though, in the new government’s view, that they stay home and start a family. The prime benefit of having them remain in university is to allow the unmarried, newly converted professors to pick a wife, one among the several they will be expected to have. (This has a special kick for American readers when so many American universities are instituting policies banning sexual relations between teachers and students, which, as the writer Laura Kipnis has pointed out, have been the basis for a number of academic marriages.)
When François is called to the home of his new boss, he sees both a 15-year-old bride, who presumably shares his boss’s bed, and an older wife whose primary duty, it seems, is to bring tea when summoned. It would seem that the Islamists have solved the predicament that bedevils the West, at least for men, the desire for both sexual novelty and the stability and familiarity of marriage. What with this enticement, and salaries considerably higher than the ones they were previously paid, it’s not a hard choice for some of François’s male colleagues, and, finally, him, to choose to convert. For the sexually frustrated Westerner whose work obsession is the means to a world of luxury goods, Islam solves both sexual and material desire.
For François and his colleagues, especially the mediocre ones, it’s less religion than career path, just as, for François, Huysmans became less a source of pleasure than a means of advancement. Closeness to God is trumped by corporeal satisfactions. In this sense, Islam becomes no different than the clubs businessmen join if they want to make the right connections.
There’s a deeper sense of submission in the book, though, and I believe it springs from Houellebecq’s suspicion that Western liberals may be ready to give up on Western liberal democracy. It’s clear that Western right-wingers already have — not just in the United States where yahoos from state legislators to presidential candidates claim Christianity as the source of government, but in the European countries where anti-immigrant parties are gaining ground. With liberals, the submission is a combination of crippling politeness and gutlessness, the logical outcome of the belief that we must respect other cultures — as if criticism is equal to imperial conquest.
It probably doesn’t strengthen any case to be made for Houellebecq to recall that he once gave an interview where he called Islam “the stupidest religion.” (For that he was charged — and acquitted — under France’s draconian hate speech laws.) But Houellebecq clearly also sees stupidity in the actions of liberals who stand against the barbarism and bigotry of the right and yet pretend that there’s nothing in Muslim beliefs that are similarly problematic. How can Reza Aslan, when criticizing Muslim stereotypes on CNN, proclaim the freedom of women in Indonesia when that country’s health ministry, in 2010, affirmed the practice of clitordectomy as long as it was performed by a doctor? How does a left that, as it should, ridicules the Christian university students who refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home because it violates their beliefs also speak up in support for the PEN members who protested the organization’s honoring the Charlie Hebdo survivors because the magazine allegedly insulted the beliefs of Muslims? How do you not feel contempt for liberals who are more scared of offending people than of abandoning their principles?
There’s more sardonic scorn than rage in Houellebecq. And, though Submission reads fast, it also, at times, reads more like an argument than a novel. The characters and incidents don’t live in your mind as they do in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, another what-if scenario targeted at a contemporary political nightmare. But we shouldn’t overlook what the French writer Emmanuel Carrère, blurbed on the jacket of Submission, calls Houellebecq’s unheralded and “acute sense […] of human decency.” For all of his reputation as a libertine, a lazy reading of the sexual appetites of his protagonists who desire human connection even in the most casual encounters, Houellebecq is one of the best contemporary writers on the devotions of love. The love story of Platform lent that book a tragic dimension. The most touching parts of Submission are the scenes between François and his Jewish girlfriend who, after the Islamists come to power, moves with her family to Israel and fades from François’s life. There is as much melancholy and regret in their parting as in any wartime romance. Their love affair stands here as a human possibility snuffed from the world.
Submission succeeds on its own terms as that increasingly rare animal, satire that doesn’t give a damn how uncomfortable it makes the reader. And though I suspect Houellebecq would deny it, or perhaps find it sentimental, it also has to stand as a work of bravery. Submission was published in France on January 7, the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Since then, Houellebecq has been under constant police guard. The book has, understandably, taken on echoes, not of the assassins or the ones who expressed immediate support for the murdered writers and artists. The echoes are of the PEN members who betrayed their profession with variations of the useless construction, “I condemn the murders but …” Theirs, too, is a form of the submission of which Houellebecq seems incapable.