History is rarely kind to speculative fiction. The genre’s shelves are lined with unlucky books with plots rendered impossible or absurd by subsequent events. Usually this process takes decades. Not so with Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Submission. Houellebecq’s prophecy was shattered within 24 hours, and obliterated within a year.
Submission imagines a peaceful rise to power for Islam in France, a whimpering collapse of decadent modernity and vestigial Christianity in the face of a dynamic, disciplined, and united Muslim world. It was published in France on January 7, the same day that jihadists murdered 12 people in an attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Jihadists would attack Paris again within a month of the novel’s American debut, killing 130 on November 13.
Following these attacks, the scenario that Houellebecq’s novel envisions, an electoral defeat of France’s nativist, reactionary National Front by a coalition of socialists, conservatives, and Islamists, is not merely fantastic but unimaginable. Fortunately for Submission, the realism or even the plausibility of its plot is largely irrelevant. It hardly matters whether Islam is as vital or the West is as moribund as Houellebecq imagines.
The novel’s protagonist, Francois, is an aging professor who hates teaching, sleeps with his students, and subsists on microwave curries and prodigious amounts of wine. The perverse joy of Submission is Francois’s inner monologue. He may be a revolting personality, but his depraved self-revelations have an edge of social commentary.
Consider a modern “date” described early in Submission: Myriam is one of Francois’s ex-girlfriends, their relationship began while she was a student, and he invites her to his apartment because he “didn’t really want to go to a restaurant.” The agenda for the evening is principally sexual, but they order sushi first. “Everyone always says yes to sushi,” Francois thinks, “she was already poring over the wasabi and the maki and the salmon rolls—I didn’t understand a word of it, and didn’t care to.” Francois’s depressive indifference extends to more than sushi, and the evening falls apart before their order can arrive: “I still didn’t want to give her a child, or help out around the house, or buy a Baby Björn. I didn’t even want to fuck her, or maybe I kind of wanted to fuck her but I also kind of wanted to die… Where the fuck was Rapid’Sushi, anyway?” After several minutes of awkward silence, Myriam excuses herself, and the scene closes: “The sushi showed up a few minutes after she left.”
Looking at everything that is lacking in this encounter—romance, passion, even sexual desire—framed by the perfect symbol of globalized consumerism—delivery sushi in Paris—we begin to see modernity as a kind of dystopia. Throughout his career, Houellebecq’s theme has been the failure of liberalism to promote human flourishing. Liberalism privileges the individual’s autonomy above the common good and—or so Houellbecq attempts to show—even above the individual’s happiness.
Houellebecq has been especially concerned with sex, which the sexual revolution has reduced to a commodity. The practical results have been the destruction of the family, as seen in The Elementary Particles, and the isolation and deprivation of the sexually unattractive, as seen in Whatever. Submission extends these observations about the sexual marketplace and social atomization to the endless bureaucracy of the welfare state. Collectively, these characteristic modern problems are the sources of Francois’s malaise.
Houellebecq has considered the possibility of overcoming the failures of liberalism through neo-colonialism (a return to the past), as in Platform, or through technological progress (a leap into the future), as in The Possibility of an Island. In Submission, he offers a new possible solution to the failures of liberalism and problems of modernity generally: the reverse colonization of Europe by Islam, which the novel depicts less as a religion or even an ideology than as a kind of social technology.
In fact, Houellebecq’s Islam is in many respects exactly the kind of moderate Islam that Western thinkers have been calling for and anticipating. While still firmly political and triumphalist, his hypothetical Islamic regime has thoroughly rejected violence as a political tool and comes to power through the electoral process. In making converts, it relies on persuasion and a healthy amount of that very modern, capitalist technique: bribery.
As Rediger, the novel’s principal spokesman for Islam, explains, Islam loves and accepts the world, and especially human nature, as it is. All of its strictures, especially its emphasis on patriarchy, are thoroughly rational concessions to human nature and attempts to construct a peaceful and orderly society. (The parallels to neoreaction are obvious.) Islam achieves peace between men because its universal ethic of submission provides a foundation for a stable social hierarchy.
Houellebecq’s challenge to his audience lies precisely in the attractiveness of a neo-Islamic France. The restoration of the family as the basis of society means an end to the strife of modern sexual politics, with men and women, liberated from the struggle for independence, being substantially freer to enjoy one another. Meanwhile, the return of economic power from unaccountable bureaucracies to the family unit means less alienated, more satisfied workers.
While most modern Westerners strenuously avoid charges of Islamophobia, the fact remains that while they hope to establish a space within their pluralism for Muslims, they have no intention or desire of becoming such themselves. Particularly regarding issues of patriarchy, few would want to submit to such a worldview. Houellebecq is daring his reader to say why. What objection could you have to a moderate Islam once you understand that its paternalism is for your own good? Is your autonomy worth sacrificing your happiness? What does Francois’s submission cost him?
The virtue of Houellebecq’s work is to break through the assumptions of end-of-history liberal triumphalism and to return debate to the ends of society and not its means, to restore the question of what constitutes the good life to the center of political discourse. Like Rediger, he is a kind of Mephistopheles, asking the reader to put a price on his own soul. But in this novel, by juxtaposing the acedia of the unlimited self with an idealized yet nonetheless totalizing Islam, Houellebecq reminds us that we will all submit to something.