A straightforward reading of Michel Houellebecq’s book shows that the author wants to consider the possibility that religion—not spiritualism, not some kind of therapeutic deism, but true, practiced, day-to-day religion—soothes our longings and grants us some measure of peace and satisfaction, a measure withheld by secular liberalism…
Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq (Groupe Flammarion, 2015)
There are two kinds of people in the West today: Those who believe the world is divided into dangerous fascists and forward-thinking progressives, and those who think the world is divided into forward-thinking fascists and dangerous progressives. Michel Houellebecq, mercifully, is neither. Mr. Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Submission, exposes the collapse of conventional contemporary political and social categories. It gives a grim postmortem of secular liberalism and proposes an alternative path to human flourishing: religion.
Submission is narrated by François, an academic at the Sorbonne in Paris in 2022. François’ field of study is the writings of nineteenth-century French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, specifically the semi-autobiographical A rebours, a parable of a man traversing the spiritual emptiness of Decadence and, eventually, converting to Catholicism. Just as the main character of A rebours is a portrait of Huysmans, François is a portrait of Mr. Houellebecq. The result is a spectacularly controversial, and tragic, novel about an aching soul seeking relief in a Europe making the transition from secularism to religion—but not, this time, Christianity. This time, Europe is becoming Muslim.
At the beginning of the book, France is readying itself for an unprecedented presidential runoff between Marine le Pen’s National Front and the newly formed Muslim Brotherhood Party, led by a fictitious character named Ben Abbas (“a moderate Muslim,” one character insists). François, however, can’t work up much enthusiasm for the spectacle and instead devotes himself to solitary consideration of his approaching middle age and imperiled love life.
His love life consists of various short-term sexual relationships. François covers the spectrum of sexual perversions, all of which are meticulously documented and have the trappings of gleeful modern liberation. But they are lacking in the very things François is seeking: joy, certainty, peace in oneself and one’s relation to the world. Though he is living the ideal life of a modern man—a bachelor (no responsibilities!) with a great many possible, willing sexual partners and unrestricted access to pornography—François is insecure and, frankly, miserable. Even his relationship with Myriam, a young Jewish woman he comes closest to loving, is a bleak situation with no prospect of lasting commitment. When she leaves the country to start a new life in Israel, François knows she will soon find someone else.
Before Myriam leaves, François expresses some of his oddly reactionary thoughts, such as whether women should have been given the vote. She asks him whether he’s for a return to patriarchy, to which François responds, “You know I’m not for anything, but at least patriarchy existed.” That longing for something that has existence and is “able to perpetuate itself” cannot be met by the secular liberal society he inhabits. Secularism, he finds, is essentially sterile, but he is too skeptical to declare himself as for anything that might have some life left it in.
François is not the only Frenchman dissatisfied with secular liberalism, and Ben Abbas wins the run-off. The university shuts down indefinitely. Myriam, in the days leading up to the election, leaves François to join her family in Israel. François, bereft of work and woman, heads aimlessly into the French countryside and finds himself at the shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour, better known as the “Black Virgin,” where he stays for a few days.
The interlude at Rocamadour is the most piercing part of the book. Here, for the first time in the story, François gives his full attention to the transcendent. He sits every day before the statue of Mary, over a thousand years old, before whom Christian saints and kings knelt. “It was a strange statue,” he says. “It bore witness to a vanished universe.” He describes both Our Lady and the Christ on her lap as “erect” and distant, their eyes closed, full of regal and spiritual power. Here, François begins to have an almost mystical experience of what religious belief meant for the medieval person: “Moral judgment, individual judgment, individuality itself, were not clear ideas in the mind of Romanesque man, and I felt my own individuality dissolving the longer I sat in my reverie before the Virgin of Rocamadour.” Here in this shrine, in the presence of the Lady of Christianity and her incarnate Son, François finds an alternative to secular liberalism, one in which the purpose of human existence is conformity, in community, to the reality of Christ’s lordship. For a tantalizing moment, he does not resist that alternative.
But the next section begins, “Still, I had to get back to Paris.” As soon as the remembrance of his daily life—his career, still on hold in the reorganization, the new political order, the absence of Myriam—intrudes, François loses his glimpse of the transcendent. He tries once more to attain that glimpse but fails. In the most poignant sentence in the book, he says, “After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot.” In a way, this reversal of Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy is the climax of the book. Everything that comes after is denouement, an epitaph of this conversion that was not.
François, like the rest of France, gradually adjusts to living in a Muslim country. He, a non-Muslim, is not allowed to return to the university, but he receives a generous pension and suddenly finds himself with a great deal of time on his hands to contemplate his situation. Changes creep through the country. A former colleague, sixty years old and a life-long bachelor, is suddenly married to a second-year college student (“Yes, a woman—they found me one”). Another colleague has two wives and is waiting for a third. Women no longer wear pants or hold jobs. Crime rapidly decreases. And François continues to struggle against the sense that his life has no meaning.
Eventually, François receives an offer to rejoin the academic community, but the offer comes with a price: conversion to Islam and adoption of the Islamic way of life. With this, all doors are open to François. Without it, he will remain on the outskirts of society. For the second time, François begins to consider the claims of religion, the presence of the transcendent in the universe, but this time in the context of Islam, a very different religion than the one represented by the Black Virgin and Child, and one in which submission has a very different meaning.
Submission is being called a satire by nearly everybody except its author. This insistence on satirizing what is meant to be sincere tries to reduce the book to merely social commentary, but Mr. Houellebecq is after something much deeper. The widespread cultural conviction in the West is that religion is obviously on the decline, and secularism holds the field. Mr. Houellebecq dares to disagree. A straightforward reading of the book shows that Mr. Houellebecq wants to consider the possibility that religion—not spiritualism, not some kind of therapeutic deism, but true, practiced, day-to-day religion—soothes our longings and grants us some measure of peace and satisfaction, a measure withheld by secular liberalism.
The book has drawn fire from cultural elites, as evidenced by the openly aggressive tone of The Paris Review’s interview entitled, “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book,” in which the interviewer repeatedly insinuates that Mr. Houellebecq is a racist and informs him that inerrant research has demonstrated that religion is dead, so the central question of his novel is moot. (Mr. Houellebecq is up for the challenge, and the interview is well worth the read.)
Liberal elites are not the only ones bothered by Submission: Christians and conservatives can find much to object to, including the novel’s graphic description of sexual perversions, the casual subjugation of women, and Mr. Houellebecq’s descriptions of Christianity. These things, however, should not keep people from engaging with the text. The sex scenes can be skipped, and the other two elements are vital to raising the stakes of the novel, for despite all attempts to reduce Submission to a social satire, it is fundamentally a novel about wrestling with the nature of God.
It is no coincidence that Book V is the only section with an epigraph: “If Islam is not political, it is nothing,” a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini. Politics and political power pervade the book. The starring supporting actor of the second half of the book is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas apparently synthesize nicely with Islamic theology and political philosophy. François’ newly Islamic friend Robert Rediger says that in Europe, Catholicism may have had its day, but it has lost its hold on Europe and cannot be revived. Rediger’s implication is that the determining factor for a religion’s truth or falsehood is whether it is powerful. Christianity, Rediger says, can no longer be taken seriously, for it is far too feminine, too weak. He attacks the Incarnation of Christ as the chief instance of the emasculation of God that, he believes, proved fatal to Christianity’s dominance of Europe.
There are no platitudes here of Islam as a partner-religion with Christianity, Islam as a force for unity, or Islam as a spiritualized arm of progressivism. Mr. Houellebecq describes Islam as it actually is: male-centric to the point of chauvinism, aggressive, political, dominant. He has no compunction about including all the doctrines of Islam, including those most distasteful to the contemporary elite. Despite repeated insistence otherwise, the Islam in Submission is not satirical; it is historically and ideologically accurate.
It is refreshing to read a description of Islam that accurately describes the religion and permits for the existence of vast differences between religions too often lumped together. Even as François begins to believe that Islam and Christianity have more in common than either religion has with secularism, the fault lines between the two religions become obvious. It may be true that the civilizations of Christendom and of the medieval Islamic states demonstrated a few similarities (prayer multiple times daily, dietary restrictions for the faithful, alms-giving as a central element of piety), but it is clear in Submission that their roots are dramatically different. Islamic practice is rooted in the idea of dominance; Christian practice, in the idea of humility.
François says of Huysmans: “Obviously, it’s not easy for an atheist to talk about a series of books whose man subject is religious conversion.” Despite his forthright grappling with religious questions, it is evident at the end of the book that Mr. Houellebecq encounters the same difficulty. When it comes down to it, he cannot bring himself to depict a religious conversion; when the crucial moment comes, he cannot say it. To underscore the point, though the entire book is in the past tense, the last chapter—the conversion chapter—is written in the subjunctive: “A few more weeks would go by…” It is as if François, and Mr. Houellebecq with him, cannot quite believe that such a thing as a true religious conversion—ultimately, a decision to submit—can really happen.
So, after all the political and sexual and social questions, after all the academic asides and the interludes, the core of the book turns out to be within the title itself. What, after all, is submission? Is the decision made by many of the characters in the book to convert to Islam, a religion of dominance, when they are part of the dominant group (educated and influential men) actually submissive? Or is it possible that true submission can only be found in that other religion, the sidelined and rejected one, the one in which God Himself submitted to human nature for the sake of lifting up the lowly?
In Submission, Mr. Houellebecq makes a convincing case that in the West today, we are thinking in all the wrong categories: progressivism vs. fascism, globalism vs. nationalism, etc. We are operating under the flawed assumption that the secular West will persist, while in reality, it is crumbling beneath our feet. He even points us to a possible solution of submission to a God outside of ourselves, and to the daily life and habits prescribed by that God through a holy text to bring us peace and order in our lives. But the question he shies away from is, in the end, the most important question of all: Is God the kind of Being Who would become man to be closer to us, or is He not? Submission is a noble onslaught against the wrong way of thinking; what it does not quite succeed in doing is pointing us towards the right way.