“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today…Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society.” ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from a speech delivered at Harvard in 1978.
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In this speech and his associated writing, Solzhenitsyn delivered his verdict on the decadence and decline of the West, and the West has hated him for it ever since. Without paying attention to what he was saying, our elites easily found Solzhenitsyn guilty of biting the hand that fed him during his years of exile in the United States. The Nobel Prize winner’s return to Putin’s Russia in 1994 remains an act of betrayal for those who imagine Russia’s cultural integration with Western secularism to be merely postponed. Our backs were turned on him and he was considered a strange figure, stuck in a Tolstoian fantasy.
So it is with Michel Houellebecq whose most recent novel, Submission (Soumission in French), portrays Europe’s intellectual laziness as clearly as any writer can in our age of comfortable denial. Houellebecq, inevitably labelled by many in the somnolent media and literary establishments on both sides of the English Channel as the “enfant terrible” of French and European literature. Houellebecq the supposed bitter hater of women and of Islam. Houellebecq, the nihilist who cares about nothing and who proposes nothing. Houellebecq, the novelist who refuses to accept the orthodox and optimistic vision of our changing European home. Houellebecq, who fails to afford interviews and interviewers the respect they crave. Houllebecq, whose observation of and contempt for European hypocrisy drips, without pleasure, from the pages of his work.
Submission was published in France on the day of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris, an event that immediately destroyed whatever promotional strategy had been devised by the publisher, Flammarion. Charlie Hebdo created an entirely uncontrolled environment for the book’s launch, one which facilitated a hysterical sensationalism around Houellebecq’s latest contribution to the perceived struggle with Islam, and thus a general misreading of the author’s intentions became inevitable. Houellebecq cancelled all interviews and television appearances after the attack took place and left Paris for the country; not only for fear of the immediate effects on his book but, far more importantly, because one of his best friends was among those murdered at Charlie Hebdo. For Houellebecq, France’s painful post imperial, multicultural journey is very much his own.
Now, of course, we have the immigrant/refugee crisis that is destroying the European dream of free movement within the E.U.’s borders and will certainly increase cultural tension across the continent in the long term. The crisis provides a further filter through which to view Submission, a work that is intended to be read unfiltered.
‘Francois’: a case study in intellectual disengagement from reality
The book is shorter and considerably leaner than Houellebecq’s previous novels. It seems that, in this case, he gave up trying to discuss and prove progressive degradation through long passages of automatic monologue and discourse. Instead, he describes it through the reactions of his protagonist, François, to an invented political and cultural crisis in France. In effect he creates a case study through which to study western intellectual disengagement from the real world.
François is a tenured academic at the Sorbonne who remains closely attached to the subject of his PhD, Joris-Karl Huysmans, a writer who travelled a path through decadence to spirituality in his own life and work. Through François’ thoughts and experiences we are invited to silently live the consequences of France’s long retreat into secular materialism.
François has lost his way in Paris and has become completely alone less than half-way through the story with the desertion of his girlfriend, the death of both his parents and an abject carelessness in his relationships with others. In short, his own crisis creates a heightened vulnerability that mirrors that of traditional but hollowed-out republican France. Generally ill-informed, he finds himself marginally involved in the transformation of France from being famed as the most ‘civilised’ of western societies to becoming the most developed in the Islamic world.
A moderate Islamic party has formed, the Muslim Brotherhood. In the face of the final degeneration of the country’s choreographed post De Gaulle party system of turn-about government, the Muslim Brotherhood, led by an astute and intelligent character that we never meet, quickly gains strong electoral support and forms a coalition with a weakened Socialist party to win the Presidential election of 2022. There is no serious principled objection to the government of a Muslim party as the greater fear remains the Front National, still led by the tireless Marine Le Pen.
In Houellebecq’s scenario, the unengaged French majority will prefer a comfortable and elegant Islamisation rather than the harsh and divisive regime of the “extreme” Right. For the people, materialism has long ago replaced ethnicity and religion as the country’s core value. The Front National represents only those who have been excluded from this cultural reality.
A moderate Muslim European state
Important things change very quickly but without the anticipated degree of social unrest. The violence that does occur is quickly snuffed out and hushed-up by the perennially adaptable and utilitarian establishment. State spending on education beyond the age of 14 is drastically reduced, to be replaced by vocational training. Everything else, including the university sector, is privatised. High level secular education is available but it must be paid for. François is one of many who lose their jobs during the initial review of university provision.
The economy is restructured to ensure that small family-run business is supported while removing the state credits and tax breaks normally awarded to the corporate sector. This has a knock-on effect on social policy with social benefits being reduced, thus moving resources and emphasis away from the individual and back to the family unit. The family is a core for the Muslim Brotherhood—it forms the basis for everything, while the individual, the basic unit of modern secular society, is to have his/her sovereignty rescinded.
This in turn allows the Muslim Brotherhood to form a strong relationship with the Catholic Church which endorses a great deal of the Brotherhood’s ideas and values. Let’s not forget that they have a considerable amount in common far beyond the mere sharing of God, if we exclude the right to take up to four wives. For the churches, non-belief is the enemy and differences over how to believe fade to insignificance when the separation of church and state is dissolved.
Houellebecq makes great play of the changing laws on and attitudes to clothing with the burqa being fully restored amid a general and voluntary imposition of what used to be termed “decency” on the streets. Crime in the banlieues all but vanishes and the country becomes more peaceful than at any time during the post-war period. However Sharia law is not introduced—the coalition stops short of that. This is moderate Islam, not the fundamentalist variety that we have been educated to fear.
Strategically, the new government’s plan is to move the fulcrum of the European Union south, away from the finance-obsessed Protestants of Germany and central Europe towards the Mediterranean where a more humane and Godly alliance is possible. France will be established as the leader of a new power bloc that includes Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Turkey and eventually Egypt who will all join the European Union. This expanded and decidedly less Teutonic E.U. will provide an effective, less neurotic but independent partner for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States whose relationship with the ultra-materialist U.S.A. has failed.
This new France is presented by Houellebecq in such a simple and matter-of-fact way, by one of his intelligent and reasonable characters, that the reader, while finding much of it unlikely, does not consider it impossible. More importantly, the generally straightforward and efficient acceptance of the transition by most of the population seems reasonably if not entirely credible. We simply have to look back to the Europe of the 1930s to understand that anything is possible. People will accept that which may previously have been considered unimaginable, if their material circumstances do not deteriorate or indeed improve. Hitler proved that to be the case.
A West too comfortable to respond to Islam
The reader could easily be forgiven for thinking that Houellebecq’s purpose in writing Submission is to show that a moderate Muslim revolution in the constitutional (republican) government of France would at least not be such a catastrophic event and at best could illuminate a brighter and more sustainable future for Europe as a whole. This interpretation would be a mistake.
Submission’s big idea is that French/European/Western secular materialism is simply too comfortable to provide the motivation and intellectual vigour to form and then activate a response to Islam. François experiences the political and cultural upheaval in his country through a haze of introspection bordering on self-loathing. However, his standard of living is not threatened when he is fired by the university because a generous pension is immediately offered to him. He can still do what he wants, go where he pleases, eat and drink as he always has, afford the company of prostitutes and drive his Volkswagen Tuareg.
There are no material changes in François’ personal life as an individual. Even the emigration of his Jewish girlfriend to Israel cannot change the fundamentals of his lifestyle and so he cannot conceive of circumstances in which he would offer any challenge to the Islamification of France. Nor, in Houellebecq’s estimation, would millions of French people. So, if religion no longer motivates the French—and by extension the Europeans—to a defence of their fundamental culture, what about patriotism? Surely a love of France, of French customs and traditions, the French language, the fabled cuisine or the French countryside would force people out of their seats?
Houellebecq thinks not. The many retreats and defeats suffered after Napoleon have seen a draining of national fervour among the general population. He doesn’t specifically mention it, but one can imagine that the dreadful and pointless losses at Verdun in 1916 remains one of the great shocks to the French psyche. So many died for nothing that it is impossible not to think that the general idea of dying for one’s country lost all credibility. We see the same thing throughout the rest of Europe, with the Germans’ lasting shame at what the Nazis did in their name, a universal perception of Italian incompetence and the loss of everything that the general population of the United Kingdom thought they owned.
It is true that a sense of genuine, spine-tingling collective pride among the masses is hard to find these days. It has now been replaced by consumerism and the almost manic purchasing of goods manufactured profitably in far-off places, making it harder for most people to find anything tangible to fight for. And let’s not forget that the great E.U. integrationist project is designed precisely to rid us of whatever sense of patriotism remains, without offering us anything meaningful in its place. Europe’s habit of fighting terrible wars has been cured but we are now seeing the price to be paid in our loss of motivation for and belief in the defence of what we once were.
It’s not about religion
In an attempt to find some meaning in his life and to find some inspiration from his spiritual mentor Huysmans, François travels to the Catholic shrine of Rocamadour in the Dordogne. He also spends some time at the monastery to which Huysmans retreated after his re-conversion to Catholicism. He is moved, his spirit is not completely dead, but only as a tourist might be affected in the presence of historical spirituality or by the authentic kindness shown by monks living beyond the modern world. François does not find any kind of Christian awakening profound enough to overcome his natural state of agnosticism.
In spite of the various distractions placed in its path and the serial misunderstanding thrown at it by Houellebecq’s critics, Submission is a very easy book. There are signposts throughout the text and Houellebecq has done everything he can to be clear in his argument. This is not an anti-Islamic rant; there is not one disparaging word about Muslims to be found here. In fact, in an interview given to the BBC in 2006, Houellebecq said that he thought once about Islam “a while ago” and hadn’t given it any thought since. No, this is a book about what might happen after the long, slow death of French, European and Western cultural passion, period.
Two questions remain.
Is Submission a great book? Not yet. Too much is happening in the real world at this moment to make any kind of sensible assessment possible.
Is Michel Houellebecq an important writer? Of course he is. His fiercest critics can’t wait for their free copy of his next book to drop through their letter boxes so that they can have another go at him. This is confirmation of his status. Possibly the most difficult task for a writer is to observe and interpret what is going on right now as there are so many contemporary witnesses only too happy to dispute any particular and subjective take on the world. Writers of historical and fantasy fiction don’t have the same problem. Jonathan Franzen and Douglas Coupland do the same thing in North America without challenging the fundamentals of their shared society and they are considered extremely important.
If anything Houellebecq is more important than any Western writer publishing today because he has the courage to confront and not just report our refusal both to think and to accept the consequences.
Solzhenitsyn’s comments on the West’s lack of courage do not refer to our willingness to bomb, strafe and otherwise engage militarily with Islamic extremism to defend our economic interests. He was talking about our fear of believing in something greater than our individual selves, something that cannot be bought at the mall. In Submission, Houellebecq calmly describes the results of clinging to that fear.
Ronnie Smith writes for Quadrapheme, an arts, culture and politics blog. His review is republished here with permission. Subtitles have been added by MercatorNet.
Note: The photograph of Michel Houellebecq is sourced via Flickr