Huge bookstores have always made me feel as excited as a little kid in a toy store. The possibilities of what you can find there – good or bad – gives me the sense of going on a Sunday afternoon adventure. So when I went to Dussmann a few weeks ago, looking for no book in particular, I found myself reading the first two chapters of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission [*1] – a book of speculative fiction about the Islamic take-over in France made possible by a grand coalition aimed at defeating Marine Le Pen’s National Front.
It felt so wrong to enjoy writing from a man I had heard to be notoriously bigoted — it was a justified kind of shame. It was probably the opening line to his second chapter that got me hooked: “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”(10). It tapped into my greatest fears of being a literature major: Why am I doing this? Who for? How likely is it that I am one of the talented ones who gets to teach this discipline to the next generation of readers?
Reluctantly, I bought the book. I had to see what this book, whose central theme is politics, looked like, knowing that its author belongs to the social class that would vote for Macron but who doesn’t have a strong partisanship and claims to only cast a “Yes” vote on a “Frexit” referendum. When I bought it, I have to admit, I wasn’t consciously doing so to “engage with the other side”. It was more of an experience elicited by an almost morbid curiosity – it was going to be my guilty pleasure that I was to tell no one about. I had hoped that reading Submission would be like watching a movie whose message you didn’t agree with: You might not like it, but you move on.
However, this is not what engaging with my first Houellebecq book was like.
I could not simply read Houellebecq’s humiliating descriptions of women and their bodies (“With broad shoulders, her grey crew cut and her courses in ‘gender studies’, Chantal Delouze, the president of Paris III, had always struck me as a dyed-in-the-wool lesbian” (20)) and casual racism (“There were two girls facing [the middle-aged Arab businessman], barely out of their teens — his wives, clearly” (187)) unfold without thinking about the greater consequences of this book. After all, not everyone reads this and thinks, “Wow, what an unlikely scenario”. In fact, many might take in Houellebecq’s carefully chosen words passively and believe that a Submission-esque future to be a likely possibility. My worry lies not with intellectuals seeking to engage with Houellebecq, but with people who might find their biases about Muslims confirmed after a mere surface reading of Submission.
Submission follows the narrative arc of François, a literature professor from Paris, who, much like Houellebecq, doesn’t really identify with a political marker until the new Islamic government comes to power as a result of a broader coalition between the emergent Muslim Brotherhood, the Socialists and the Republicans, all in an effort to stop Marine Le Pen from taking power. This unprecedented situation first affects François’ romantic life: His Jewish (sort of) girlfriend, Myriam, leaves for Israel for fear of the anti-Semitism of the new government – their break up almost makes the reader sad even after reading about François’ general attitude towards women. Next, the new government gets essentially limitless finances from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which they use to pay off François and other professors so that they can be replaced with Muslim teaching staff. Even though he has to give up on his intellectual pursuits, François accepts the offer of twice the average teaching wage in France for the rest of his life so he can live comfortably, independent of politics once again. However, this all changes when a representative of the new government invites François back to academia and convinces him to become a part of the new regime — not by force, but by luring him with high pay, clout, and the possibility of having multiple wives and other “Islamic” pleasures. At the end, François converts to Islam and submits to the new regime, thus giving the book its title.
Considering the French policy/principle of Laïcité – strict secularism in the public sphere – would never allow for a party who openly speaks about their Christianity to be a serious contender in France, let alone a Muslim one, it seems absurd to think that Houellebecq’s scenario is at all possible. And yet, since Houellebecq has a significant cultural status in France, Submission is not immediately disregarded as a bigoted piece of literature, but rather it gets positive reviews from Le Monde and the Daily Mail. Even after Houellebecq publishes a book with something sexist, homophobic, racist or Islamophobic written on virtually every second page, he still gets invitations for speaking engagements, media attention, a whole exhibition dedicated to him at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and even a meeting with the president of France [*2]. Emmanuel Macron made a big show out of their meeting, only further elevating and legitimizing his status as an intellectual.
One should, of course, not assume that he really holds all of these bigoted opinions and obviously his protagonist François cannot be equated with Houellebecq the person. However, I would like to quote Houellebecq himself to maybe bring bit of nuance to this issue: “an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters — as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them. (…) In the same way, to love a book is, above all, to love its author” (7). So there [*3].
In chapter three of Submission, François narrates: “When I reached my classroom – today I planned to discuss Jean Lorrain – there were three guys in their twenties, two of them Arab, one of them black, standing in the doorway. They weren’t armed, not that day.” (23), Houellebecq writes as he describes a scene when François encounters three men of color with nothing “overtly menacing” (23) about them blocking his entry to his classroom. It is just one instance of the racist overtones – the racism is so clear that one cannot call them undertones — in this book.
And yet, making some kind of grand statement about de-platforming Houellebecq or asking for publishers to stop supporting him seems to be an inadequate response as I have become aware of the complexity of his case. My first instinct was to compare him to the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer. However, after giving it a lot of thought, I realised that this is a vulgar and lazy comparison. Houellebecq is more nuanced than these two known white supremacists; his work seems to be ‘wrong’ in a more enticing way. The reason the distinction needs to be made is because Houellebecq has a writing style that not only shocks but also lends itself to distinct moments of insight and literary merit, making the work all the more insidious. Consider a passage from page 159:
So my father’s last years had been nice. This, too, was a surprise. When I was growing up, I’d never met anyone he worked with, I don’t think he ever saw anyone outside of work, that is. Had my parents had friends? If so, none that I remembered. (…) In other words, he had led two entirely separate lives, one having nothing to do with the other.
In this passage, François reflects on his father’s life after he passes away. This, I believe, is one of those moments in which Houellebecq demonstrates his literary merit. He artfully weaves just the right words in just the right configuration to capture the nature of a child’s limited perception of their parents: Children do not see their parents as full human beings. A parent’s social life may never truly touch base with his familial life, which may become the source of a fundamental misunderstanding. Truly, this is a valuable moment of insight.
I imagine that the more ‘purist’ readers — those reading primarily for pleasure — would be inclined to enjoy this book for precisely these moments that give Submission its (limited) literary and aesthetic value. However, after reading this book, I felt that I needed to do further thinking on the Kantian separation between aesthetics and morality i.e. the notion that a work of art could have aesthetic beauty even though it lacks morality. I felt that a book with so much overt racism, Islamophobia and misogyny could not simultaneously have real aesthetic — let alone cultural — value. I kept asking myself how something could be truly beautiful if it was not also ethical. I do not have an answer to the complex question of what constitutes aesthetic beauty, but thinking about this concept in relation to Submission left me with some inquiries, including: Is there any value in me engaging with overtly racist literature? Maybe, but I still cannot describe it in concrete terms.
The more I read of Submission, the harder it became for me to draw a distinction between its literary achievements and ethical implications — while reading the first 60 or so pages of the book I was willing to be a more charitable, ‘purist’ reader, convincing myself that François’ occasional clever observations outweighed his bigotry. But my charity was depleted the further I read.
Houellebecq not only taps into my greatest fears of being a literature major, but he taps into something deeper and more dangerous, namely the racist fears of white Europeans who feel that they will be “outnumbered” by Muslims and people of color.
‘So you’re for a return to patriarchy?’ [Myriam asks François ].
‘You know I’m not for anything, but at least patriarchy existed. I mean, as a social system it was able to perpetuate itself. There were families with children, and most of them had children. In other words, it worked, whereas now there aren’t enough children, so we’re finished.’
This, of course, refers to the declining birth rates among white Western women. It is not a direct attack on feminism or female liberation, but that’s what makes it such consumable ideology. François does not claim to even support the system of patriarchy necessarily, but he does seem to find a problem with white women having less children. He does not need to say anything about Muslim women having more children or immigration or anything overtly racist to make his (conservative) point about returning to a time with stricter gender roles and more children because the “threat” of Europeans being “finished” implies enough.
And Submission is full of these moments. You cannot go a chapter without a claim like this one being made, implicitly or explicitly. While I was reading it, I kept asking myself whether our interest in this book is simply of a voyeuristic nature (What outrageous thing will François say next?), or are we drawn to this text because we’ve internalized concepts of racism and misogyny so much that we are inclined to think that there is some truth to what Houellebecq is saying? Is this book only interesting because we live in a world where in one way or another white supremacy is still the norm? Does this novel only suck European readers in because, despite their best efforts to overcome racism and misogyny, these values are still held as correct — at least unconsciously? I wonder if this book would at all be at all pleasurable to read under an anti-racist, feminist reorganization of society.
So how do we talk about Submission in a way that rejects its racism and only deals with the points of insight? I don’t think I know how to answer this question, but many critics read this book as a work of satire with the presupposition that Houellebecq cannot possibly be serious. Considering that Houellebecq has demonstrated his capabilities of deeper political analysis, this book could just be poking fun at the fact that Europeans are so worried about “Muslim take-overs”. Still, this book uses an already vulnerable group to create a narrative in which Muslims are the antagonists flipping everything that French society stands for on its head. In a (Western) media landscape where Arab people are mostly given negative representation, Submission does not really show how racist and ridiculous that is. It seems rather to be adding fuel to the fire.
So, yes, in all likelihood Submission was meant as satire, but there is no guarantee that everyone will get the joke When I told someone whom I consider intelligent about the premise of this book, they felt that this is not an impossible scenario. If this is the response from someone who has done their fair share of thinking and reading, then what kind of responses can we expect from people who are already voting for The National Front? Perhaps not all of the nearly 35% of French people that voted for Marine Le Pen in the second round of the 2017 presidential elections [*4] voted for her out of profound agreement, but even that is far too many. Even if this book is meant as satire, doesn’t it also (perhaps unintentionally) strengthen the Islamophobic tendencies already plaguing Europe? I would say yes. In his seminal essay, The Death of the Author [*5], Roland Barthes argues that the author’s intention behind his work doesn’t matter; only what the work conveys matters. Perhaps not understanding Submission as a satire is a ‘misreading’ of the book, but it is precisely this ‘misreading’ that poses a danger. This does not mean that Houellebecq needs to necessarily take some kind of responsibility for others’ possible misinterpretations of his work: However, one cannot negate the negative effects of such interpretations.
When I was reading this book, I kept thinking about Marga Hattingh’s last article. In it, she argued that academia is a neutral enough of a space for all types of ideologies and discourses to be allowed. Through Socratic dialogue, we would get to truth and the reconciling of our differences. However, I am not sure that “critically” engaging with opinions of “the other side” actually gets us closer to overcoming bigotry and making racists see the error of their ways. I am having a hard time figuring out the real value of Houellebecq’s books and an even harder time finding a justification for their place in academia. Would we, students and academics, write about how intricate his Islamophobia is? Examine how specific his hatred of women’s bodies is? It seems that teaching these books in a class would give them and the idea presented in them legitimacy. The uninformed reader could then take license to read Submission seriously and perhaps deem its portrayals of Muslims to be true. I do not call for a cessation of publication (as I will surely get accused of) or for anyone to necessarily not read Submission — I do not recommend it, but clearly I have spent some time with this book — but I do advise caution. In times of rampant Islamophobia and dehumanization of refugees, I hope that the media, critics, and French politicians do not elevate Houellebecq to respectability and the speculation of Submission to possibility.
Still, there is much more to be said about satire, the responsibility of authors regarding the implications of their work and Submission — perhaps the only way to adequately address all of these looming questions is through a more rigorous textual form than a blog article. It has even been suggested to me that I write my Senior Thesis on Houellebecq. I shudder at the prospect.
- Houellebecq, Michel. Submission. London: Penguin Random House UK. 2015. Print
- Laffeter, Anne. Michel Houellebecq et Emmanuel Macron : « On n’est pas heureux, enfermés dans des petites cases » (Michel Houellebecq and Emmanuel Macron: “One is not happy, locked up in small boxes”). Les Inrockuptibles. June 21, 2016. http://www.lesinrocks.com/2016/06/21/actualite/michel-houellebecq-emmanuel-macron-lentretien-11847419/
- This is funny and you know it.
- Schultheis, Emily. Marine Le Pen’s Real Victory. The Atlantic. May 7, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/le-pen-national-front-macron-france-election/525759/
- Barthes, Roland. (Translator: Richard Howard). The Death of the Author. Source: UbuWeb Paper. Date of Access: October 20, 2017. http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf