The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged houellebecq
Houellebecq's Submission

Adam Shatz reviews Michel Houellebecq's Soumission in the London Review of Books.

Soumission derives its name from the original meaning of the Arabic ‘al-Islam’ – voluntary submission, or surrender, to the will of God. In that sense, the novel is a faithful rendering of Islam’s meaning. François is under no compulsion to convert, other than the usual inducements of professional ambition and sex, the typical motors of the French novel. Ben Abbes’s arrival is greeted with relief, the war between theidentitaires and the jihadists is brought to an end, and Islamisation proceeds not so much by conquest as by persuasion. The national patrimony – the Sorbonne, the Paulhan hôtel particulier – now belongs to the Gulf sheikhdoms, and on campus the miniskirt has given way to the burqa, but otherwise France is unchanged. In fact it’s even a bit better off. As Houellebecq says, the entire novel unfolds in an ‘ambience of resignation’.
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumissionresembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
Perhaps this is all just a Swiftian stunt. Perhaps Houellebecq is saying that France has sunk so low that even Islam would be preferable to the state religion of laïcité. But I don’t think so. Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire – or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation. Yes, civilisation, that word evocative of the longue durée, religion, tradition, shared values and, not least, clashes with civilisational rivals. But the word is unavoidable. What has always made his writing so perverse is the way it jumps between microsociology and the aerial view of history. (His novels almost always take place at some point in the future, allowing the present to be depicted as a just vanished past.) Houellebecq has an unerring, Balzacian flair for detail, and his novels provide an acute, disenchanted anatomy of French middle-class life: TV dinners, petty intrigues at the workplace, tourism, sex. But since his characters are never more than sociological types, without much of an interior life, he needs to find another narrative for them: hence the role played by history. For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values. These metaphysical mutations are the engine of history. Politics and economics – the stuff materialists get worked up about – are of secondary importance. (By any objective measure, France isn’t doing so badly: people work less and make more, and have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average. The ‘crisis’ of the French model is partly phantasmagorical.)

I'm reading this book now. It has some entertaining bits, some nice phrase assassines on French academia, politics and media. But generally it disappoints, mostly because of how much it repeats familiar themes and scenes. Once again there is the morose view of a culture corroded by individualism, materialism and humanism. Once again explicit, porn-like sex scenes meant to convey the opposite of intimacy. Houellebecq seems to have reached the point in his career where his style is becoming a pastiche of itself. As Shatz notes, "At the beginning of Soumission, Houellebecq says that while the style of a novel matters and ‘the musicality of phrases have their importance,’ ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books.’ He is distressingly present in Soumission."

Because Soumission came out the day before the Charlie Hebdo attack (the magazine featured Houellebecq on its cover) it has been treated as not only relevant -- the author is certainly gifted at hitting on nerves -- but somehow prescient. But the scenario it unfolds is political science fiction. This is not a book about Islam or Muslims at all; it is a book about a decades-long French malaise and, as usual, about Michel Houellebecq himself. 

Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobia

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about Michel Houellebecq's latest, in which he imagines France electing a Muslim president and its intellectual classes cravenly converting to Islam and adopting Sharia. This gives an idea of the current French zeitgeist.

I haven't read this book, but I've read most of Houellebecq's previous works. I don't agree with Gopnik that he is not a provocateur. And I find Gopnik's definition of satire bizarre. He writes that "Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what's happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening." But that assumes that "what's happening right" now is the ascendancy of French Muslims to power. On the contrary, French citizens of Arab origin remain a small minority, economically marginalized, targeted by rising right-wing parties, and not at all homogenous -- hence the problem of discussing France's "Muslim community" (many of them are not practicing Muslims) or using the even more condescending category of Frenchmen and women "issus de l'immigration" ("offsprings of immigrants") -- for how many generations must French citizens with Arab names be categorized this way? I would argue that satire is a way of revealing a truth -- about an argument, a point of view, the world we live in -- through its gross exaggeration. 

Houellebecq is an interesting writer; he can be funny and thought-provoking. But he's not a satirist. He's a reactionary -- his seeming cynicism is masked, depressed romanticism. What Gopnik gets right is how much the hysterical discourse on identity in France is based on personal nostalgia, the inability of a certain class of French intellectuals to accept that France is a different country now. Here he is on Eric Zemmour (another writer whose fixed preoccupation with the cultural, sexual, political threat posed by Muslim men is just ridiculous). 

"In the back of Zemmour’s mind, it seems, is an oddly singular and specific place to long for—the Gaullist France of the booming sixties, when Zemmour was a kid. Society held together, authority was firm and essentially benevolent, each man had a role, each woman could choose to stay home if she wanted, and Catherine Deneuve was in every other movie. This is a nostalgia that Houellebecq, who was also a kid then, shares."

I'll never forget reading a column by another French writer in which he lamented the sight of halal butchers and Arab internet cafes in Paris, as if it were the end of the world. It was the end of his world, I guess, since he had too little imagination to make room in it for historical and social change, for anyone different. Or to reflect for one moment on how much more drastically the French colonial presence once altered and alienated the reality of other peoples.