A shorter version of Susannah Black’s review of Submission appeared in Providence’s print edition. Click here to read.
The shocking thing about Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is not that it isn’t anti-Muslim. The shocking thing is that it’s not—or not primarily—anti-Islam.
You might expect it to be, based on a quick glance at the premise: Paris, 2022: a Muslim Brotherhood party wins the election, and Sharia is established throughout France; the Sorbonne is briskly refashioned into a confessionally Muslim university, and non-Muslims are fired; women retreat behind… if not burqas, than at least extraordinarily shapeless clothes. It can, it seems, happen here. So is Submission essentially a version of Tom Kratman’s Islamo-dystopian pulp novel Caliphate for the Gauloise-smoking set?
That’s the book it could have been: a fictionalized version of Mark Steyn’s or Bruce Bower’s anti-Islamic screeds: a passionate plea from a member of the secularist French intelligentsia on behalf of laïcité and the values of the Revolution, suitably tamed by the passage of a couple of centuries, a Voltairean plea to crush the Infamy, with the role of the Catholic church being admirably reprised by an Islamic state.
There might even—as there is in Steyn—be a nod to the Christian heritage of these Enlightenment values, the usual thing about the separation of church and state being possible in Christian societies as it is not in Islamic societies.
But this is not Houellebecq’s book. There is no possible way to read it as being in favor of traditional French Republicanism, or its naughty little sister Decadence, and as having Islam as its primary target. It is excoriating, it is a passionate denunciation—but a denunciation first of liberalish French intellectual society of the 21st century, a denunciation of the welfare state and the sexual revolution.
The protagonist, François, is a middle-aged academic who’d done his graduate work on the 19th century Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Huysmans—a flâneur who became a monastic, who embraced Catholicism (though a suspiciously aestheticized form)—is François’ parallel. But François is no decadent: he is instead post-decadent; his sin is not lust or gluttony but rather acedia: sloth, a failure to love what is loveable, to hate what is worth hating.
He is a miniature of French society—the welfare state whose denizens are so pampered that they can’t be bothered to have children and have no connection to their parents. He is the Last Man, the thing of Straussian nightmares, the barely-there listless observer.
And Islam offers itself to him as a rescue from this; and a very good rescue it seems to be: tempting precisely because its diagnosis is so accurate, and its solutions so nearly spot on.
But it’s a rescue that can only appeal because François—and by implication France—has chosen against Catholicism. It’s only by that choice that he is empty enough to make Islam a fairly easy yes. The culture of the fin-de-siecle isn’t strong enough to stand against it; neither is the old bourgeois order which the Decadents had rejected; neither is the eighteenth century radical atheistic Republicanism which the nineteenth century had attempted to assimilate into its Third Republic cozy life; neither is the modern EU-inflected laïcité, with its perpetual peace hovering just around the corner as soon as we can convince the religious crazies to get with the program. Islam, with its acknowledgement of the transcendent, and its social cohesion, is a far stronger thing than these others.
How this strength plays out—in the civic life of France, in the personal life of François—is what fascinates about the book. Islam comes across as a heady blend of cozy Chestertonian distributism, perennialist philosophy, and opportunity for career advancement and sex with teenage girls to whom one is married: an irresistible cassoulet of temptation.
Is the book…prescient in some way? It’s not what one should ask of fiction; it’s not a fair question, but it was as I was reading this and thinking about it that the Friday the Thirteenth attacks on Paris happened. Given the darkened Eiffel Tower, the images of Paris in panic and Brussels in lockdown, one can’t really help asking the question.
With the actual events of the day in the background, one thing that’s striking about Submission is how very pre-ISIS it is. The fear, the end-times scenario, that it describes is not one of international violence or terrorism. What violence there is is street-fighting between more-radical Islamic gangs and more-radical nationalists and European New Right types; it is partly with the promise of taming this violence and binding together the nation that the Muslim Brotherhood party comes to power.
The Brotherhood party is clearly using these radicals, this threat of violence, both as blackmail and to present itself as the moderate and reasonable alternative; just as obviously, this kind of party has more in common with Islamist parties within Arab states, and the state that France will become has far more in common with Khamenei’s Islamic Republic of Iran than with IS.
Still, the leader of the Brotherhood party—Mohammed Ben Abbes—does see his mission as establishing power beyond France; he’s bent on establishing a new Roman Empire, and the UN is pictured as a kind of architecture so empty as to be easily filled with the soul of a Caliphate of sorts.
This would be a linked series of Islamic Republics—of France, of Belgium—with the other Islamic Republics joining up as a matter of course. This is a Caliphate that has taken over and partly been shaped by the UN’s structure. (And, as this issue’s review of Samuel Moyn’s Christian Human Rights reminds us, the structure of the EU was originally supposed to house something like Christendom, or Jacques Maritain’s version of it, anyway.)
It is not only the appeal of peace that Ben Abbes offers—it’s also a genuine appeal of wholesomeness, of a society rebuilt along conservative lines that would warm the heart of Allan Carlson (and indeed Ben Abbes specifically cites Belloc and Chesterton’s distributism as the inspiration for his relocalized, family-centered economic plan).
A major theme throughout the first part of the book is François’ absolute disconnection from family of all kinds—he has no children of his own, of course; but he is also completely and heartbreakingly separated from his parents. Themselves divorced, they are marginal figures in his life; he wonders, at one point, somewhat distantly, whether he will see either of his parents again before they die. Spoilers: he does not. The Islamic society that Ben Abbes brings in is one of warm, intergenerational family ties, cemented by custom, law, and economic interest. It is one of stable—if plural—marriages. And it is one which promises generations of Frenchmen in the future—secularism, it is clear, does not make people who make babies; Islam will.
In presenting his Brotherhood party as that which can bring peace to the warring radical factions of nativist quasi-Catholic thugs and anti-native street-jihadis, Ben Abbes reaches, too, for a vision of Islam as—ex-French Intelligence agent Alain Tanneur explains to François—“the best possible form of this new, unifying humanism.”
But there is, we find, something darker here. And it’s not the darkness we might expect, given the news out of Paris which was streaming through our iPhones this past autumn. It’s not—as Houellebecq presents it—that all this wholesome Muslim Brotherhood-as-Chestertonian-good-fellowship business is actually a cover for terrorism. The political and ideological leaders of the Brotherhood party convincingly and honestly reject suicide terrorism. And while there’s certainly an implied tactical link between the family-friendly Brotherhood party and the radical Muslim street-fighters whom they implicitly promise to tame, that’s not the shock. The shock is that there’s a link—not necessarily organizational, but on the level of passion and philosophy—between the Brotherhood party’s ideologues and the Nouvelle Droite identitarian thugs that the Muslim gangs had been fighting.
And the figure who embodies this link with the New Right is by far the most compelling and disturbing one in the novel: Robert Rediger, the French convert who is François’ proselytizer, catechist, and seducer. Rediger, for whom the change in administration had meant a promotion to President of the Sorbonne, offers him a very well-paid position back at the University—from which François had been cashiered for his infidel status.
“There’s a condition, though…,”—François allows himself to be the one to bring it up.
“And it isn’t trivial…”
[Rediger] gave a slow nod of the head.
“You think… You think I’m someone who could actually convert to Islam?”
He gazed at the floor, as if lost in intense personal reflections, then he looked me in the eye. “I do.”
The smile he gave me was luminous, innocent…The sun vanished behind the terraced steps; night washed over the arena. It was amazing to think that fights between gladiators and wild beasts had actually taken place here, two thousand years before.
“You aren’t Catholic, are you? That could be a problem.” (p. 203)
Rediger had started out as a Front National type, a Catholic nativist, once he’d rejected the nihilism and humanism, the EU-vagueness of extended summer vacations and nothing to die for in which he’d been raised. What he has found in Islam is not precisely what zealous Jihadi converts find there. It’s rather a historical religion that is the best, the final, presentation of Sophia Perennis, the “perennial wisdom” that is—its adherents claim—the esoteric core of all religions.
“I’ve never hidden my youthful activities,” he explains to François, “and my new Muslim friends never held them against me. To them it seemed natural that, when I started looking for a way out of atheist humanism, I should have gone back to my roots…” (p. 207).
But those roots, he believes, are dead.
“Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls—zombies. The question was, could Christianity be revived? I thought so. I thought so for several years—with growing doubts. As time went on, I subscribed more and more to Toynbee’s idea that civilizations die not by murder but by suicide. And then one day everything changed for me.” (p. 208)
The Hotel Metropole’s lobby bar was closing. The epitome of fin-de-siecle luxury, of a post-Christian beauty in life, didn’t capture enough commitment by modern Belgians to keep it in being. They’d lost, Rediger believed, everything, the Europeans—having lost their faith, they’d lost their asceticism; having lost their asceticism, they’d lost their debauchery too. And they needed something else. “I spent that last night in the Metropole, until it closed,” Rediger says.
“I walked all the way home, past the EU compound, that gloomy fortress in the slums. The next day I went to see an imam in Zaventem. And the day after that—Easter Monday—in front of a handful of witnesses, I spoke the ritual words and converted to Islam.” (p 210)
I can’t quite shake Rediger. He’s smarmily compelling; he’s intellectually cheap; but the cheapness and the smarm, which Houellebecq finally allows to flower into pure pandering, is less interesting than his ideological path. His existence seems obvious.
At one point François tracks down an article that Rediger has written
…as an appeal to his old comrades, the traditional nativists. It was a passionate plea. He called it tragic that their irrational hostility to Islam should blind them to the obvious: on every question that really mattered, 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 civilization, could no longer be waged in the name of Christianity. Islam, its sister faith, was newer, simpler, and more true (why had Guenon, for example, converted to Islam? he was above all a man of science, and he had chosen Islam on scientific grounds, both for its conceptual economy and to avoid certain marginal irrational doctrines such as the real presence of Christ in the eucharist), which is why Islam had taken up the torch. (p. 225)
This is Islam as alt-alt-right, Islam as archaeo-futurism on steroids, with a hefty dose of Nietzsche in the mix. It’s real Islamofascism, in the precise way that ISIS is not. And it rings extraordinarily true. There must, I thought as I read, be such people—the path from the Catholic branch of the Nouvelle Droite via a sort of Guenon-reading perennialism and traditionalism to a rationalist/mystical version of Islam, with deep commitments to political activism, seems compelling. But the only person I could think of initially who approximated Rediger was Aleksandr Dugin; his Eurasianism depends on a claim that Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy have more in common with each other than Orthodoxy does with Catholicism and Protestantism; his New Right credentials are complicated but impeccable.
A friend, though, pointed me towards another whose thought may be even closer—without Rediger’s cheapness and smarm, but mirroring his new-right sense of McWorld decline. I’ve since found others, as well, sharing some of Rediger’s influences, and sharing his commitment to a perennialist form of Islam as a solution to that decline.
And this similarity has been recognized by those in the New Right movement—although it seems unlikely that such recognition would be received by these thinkers as an unambiguously good thing. Arktos Publishing editor-in-chief John Morgan draws his readers’ attention to the parallels in the alt-right blog-of-record Counter-Currents, noting that
As a Traditionalist, I do recognize the validity of Islam as a manifestation of the ultimate metaphysical reality, although I think it is obvious that the Islam which adheres to the doctrines of the Primordial Tradition in today’s world is embodied in certain forms of Sufism, and not by its simplistic arguments and the black-and-white Manichean views of radical Islamism, which lacks the esoteric component that Guénon recognized must exist to sustain a healthy spiritual tradition.
Still, it cannot be denied that our Right shares many of the same concerns as the Islamists, particularly in terms of the degenerative impact of modern culture on civilization and the role that American, Jewish, and other imperialistic power interests have in continuing and exacerbating the trend.
The tradition through which Rediger made his way to Islam was that of identitarian Catholicism, the Catholicism that sees itself not as catholic Christianity, but as a more or less native religion of Europeans, the path to eternal truth that the descendants of the Franks and the Gauls have been given. It has the unfortunate feature of being complicated by all this business about God becoming man, and the…unsavory semitic origins of its Founder to deal with, but other than that it is a perfectly good way to get at the Perennial Wisdom, if that’s what you’ve been born to—unless you want to go for the Norse gods instead, which might be a good idea actually.
This is related to Rediger’s path, but not to François’. A Huysmanist, François took Catholicism to be what Huysmans took it to be: something essentially aesthetic, the crown of the life of a Decadent for whom a sort of modified asceticism becomes a new kind of decadence. He’d gone to Huysmans’ monastery, had spent his career wrestling with Huysmans’ conversion, but “as for the metaphysical questions that Rediger had raised the night before,” François reflects, “Huysmans never mentions them. The infinite spaces that terrified Pascal… Huysmans seems never to have noticed.” The Catholicism that could compete with Rediger’s Islam, in other words, would not be an aesthetic or a social or a literary Catholicism. It would not even be the nativist Catholicism of Huysmans’ fellow-convert Charles Péguy, which, as it is described by François’ intelligence-agent friend Tanneur, is a thing designed to give heft and depth to French patriotism. Rather, it would be a religion of reality, believed because it is alive and accurate, believed on a personal level, a thing of fear and love and truth.
François never managed, in fact, to confront the issue of the actual existence of God—until it was presented to him in the context of Islam by Rediger. After his conversation with the convert, “For the first time in my life,” François tells us,
I’d started thinking about God, seriously imagining that there could be a kind of Creator of the universe observing everything I did, and my first reaction was uncomplicated, pure and simple fear… that he might suddenly become aware of my existence, that he would lay his hand on me… (p. 214)
This is, perhaps, the beginning of wisdom, though not its end; it may be far closer to genuine piety than the vague desire to seek pattern or meaning in the life of Huysmans’ monastery that he’d entertained and rejected. That monastery had, to be sure, genuine faith as well, but it was not for that which François had looked, and, not having been called to the life of the monastery itself, it had not occurred to him that the monks might have information about reality outside their walls, and not just a set of wholesome traditions within them.
Absent real Christianity, Islam as it is presented to François fills the gap: it is a metaphysical religion that is also extraordinarily appealing as a way of life on both the wholesome and the …less wholesome levels of experience. “Maybe God is real,” one sees François thinking, “and also I can have at least two wives, one of whom will be no older than sixteen, and apparently I can still drink, too—and the salary!”
There is almost nothing that could be so good as this. Islam works better than Christianity as a vehicle for perennialism and as a weapon against the wretched fruitlessness of technocracy—as long as you don’t mind letting go of several things.
It is always tempting to recruit the author of a book one has enjoyed to one’s own camp, to make him a spokesman for one’s own positions. I’m trying hard not to do this, with Houellebecq: he’s no Christian; word is that he had originally intended the book to be about the protagonist’s conversion to Catholicism, and couldn’t manage that; this is not a Catholic apologetic; and I am not a Catholic.
And yet, it’s very difficult to read it without getting the impression that within the world Houellebecq has created, if there is a “solution” to the problem of modern Frenchness, modern Europeanness (I had almost written: “a solution to the European problem”) that solution is a real, believing Catholicism. It is hard not to perceive the world of the novel as a world in which that’s true. Not the aestheticized Catholicism of Huysmans, nor the identitarian Catholicism of Péguy—not Catholicism as an instrument for European renewal—but a Catholicism that is metaphysically true. And a Catholicism which has at its center the Virgin.
Before his encounters with Rediger, before his trip to Huysmans’ monastery, on the advice of his intelligence-agent friend Tanneur, François takes his first real stab at grasping or being grasped by this Catholicism: he heads to the citadel-town of Rocadamour, to the Marian shrine there. On his next-to-last visit to the Chapel of Our Lady, François tells us,
I was in a strange state. It seemed the Virgin was rising from her base and growing larger in the sky. The baby Jesus seemed ready to detach himself from her, and I felt that all he had to do was raise his right arm and the pagans and idolaters would be destroyed, and the keys of the world restored to him, “as its lord, its possessor, and its master.” (p. 136)
There’s a reading of Péguy’s poetry going on, on this visit, but it is not Péguy’s instrumentalized Catholicism, Catholicism as French civil religion, that François sees at the shrine:
What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier’s manly courage; not even a child’s desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly, and royal that surpassed Péguy’s understanding, to say nothing of Huysmans’s.
The world Houellebecq has written is a Catholic world, in which Jesus is the Lord of History, and Mary is the Queen of Heaven, the queen mother, “clothed with the Sun, the Moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (Rev. 12:1)
And it is this that François declines. “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.” He loses Mary; after he comes home, he finds the other Jewish woman in his life, his lover Myriam, preparing to go with her family to Jerusalem; it is no longer safe in France for them.
The whole of the book resonates with the loss of women, their absence; his bachelor life is grotesquely lonely; Islam promises to correct this, but its erasure of women from the public sphere carries another kind of grotesqueness. Anyone in the mood to complain about Christian ideas of complementarianism, of a distinction between women’s and men’s roles, would do worse than to absorb Houellebecq’s description of a public world from which women have simply vanished. The book parties he goes to after the Brotherhood win are just like those before, but the Parisiennes—clever or elegant, lovers or sisters or collaborators, conversation partners and conversation instigators—are gone from them. (And in my judgement it is in describing these salons with no salonnieres that Houellebecq is at his most savagely satirical against Islam.)
And behind this all is, must be, the attempted erasure of the Church: of the woman who “appears like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars in procession.” It is a world without this Woman in which François has, for the most part, lived; it is another kind of world without her that he is, in Islam, being offered.
It is a harder world in general—without the complexity and tenderness of the Trinity. “I found myself more interested in Elohim,” François tells us,
the sublime organizer of the constellations, than in his insipid offspring. Jesus had loved men too much, that was the problem; to let himself be crucified for their sake showed, at the very least, a lack of taste… And the rest of his actions weren’t any more discerning.
Still, as long as one is willing to do without the public companionship of—rather than the simple sexual and culinary services of—women, and as long as one doesn’t mind the absence of Jews, and of two of the three Persons of the Godhead, it’s a pretty good deal. Infinitely better than atheist humanism, with plenty of spiritual interest, up to date with the most advanced cosmology, and no complicated and objectionable incarnation; plenty of babies; also good hors d’oeuvres. A fine bargain, in fact.
Unless. Unless, of course, what Huysmans’ monks chanted was true. Unless the Word, in flagrant defiance of both materialist possibility and perennialist propriety, was made flesh.
Susannah Black is associate editor at Providence and a native Manhattanite living in Queens. Her writing has appeared in First Things, The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Ethika Politika, and elsewhere. She is a section editor at Solidarity Hall. She blogs at radiofreethulcandra.wordpress.com and tweets at @suzania.
Photo Credit: Bad Weather in Paris by Jacob Surland in October 2015. Shot taken from atop the Arc of Triumph. Licensed Creative Commons non-commercial v4.0. Via Flickr.