Depending on which reviews you read, Michel Houellebecq is either a novelist of ideas and an original thinker, or he’s a blowhard contrarian and polemicist. I know which side of the fence I’m on.
Splendidly contemptuous of current intellectual and political orthodoxies, his latest novel –Submission- got my vote for the most interesting read of 2015. It explores one of his big themes, namely that the west is in the process of committing suicide. Ostensibly outlining the process through which France will become an Islamic state, Submission argues not only that atheistic humanism is doomed, but that western liberal culture will eventually be viewed by historians as a brief experiment, an interlude between one mighty religious civilization and another.
Set in 2022, the story is told by Francois, a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is an expert on the work of the 19th century novelist J. K. Huysmans, whose conversion to Catholicism transformed what had been a dissolute life. Like his hero, Francois is in a state somewhere beyond disillusionment, believing not only that he can’t teach, but that the academic study of literature is pointless anyway. Apolitical and unambitious, he daydreams about which students he might have sex with or what he’ll have for his dinner while watching TV every night.
In the run-up to the French presidential election, people are worried and tense. There is violence on the streets, but a media black-out is preventing the mainstream outlets from reporting the extent of the troubles. This state of denial extends to polite society; Francois attends a cocktail party and, when people hear gunfire in the distance, they pretend not to notice and make various excuses to leave. Expecting an outbreak of anarchy, Francois flees Paris to spend some time at the monastery where his hero Huysmans had contemplated a return to the Catholic faith.
After a period of violence and instability, the delayed election eventually sees the socialists and the centre-right UMP form a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to prevent Marine le Pen’s National Front from taking power. The new president is Mohammed Ben Abbes, a moderate and charismatic figure who is as far removed from our notion of radical Islam as it is possible to get. An intelligent and ambitious president, he envisages an expansion of the European Union that will re-focus on the south of the continent, as well as welcoming modern North African states into the fold. He passes a series of laws to support and strengthen the traditional family unit and is content to surrender some government departments to his coalition partners in return for the appointment of Muslims to key positions in education. Ben Abbes understands that, in any battle for cultural supremacy, birth rates and education are crucial. The future -to coin Mark Steyn’s phrase- will belong to those who turn up for it.
By the time Francois returns to Paris, the new regime at the Sorbonne -supported by Saudi money- has removed females from the staff register and is in the process of enticing the males to convert to Islam with the promise of enormous salaries and enhanced status. For all of the possible arguments about the merits and demerits of conflicting ideologies, the decision Francois makes boils down to the granting of a few perks; the offer of a well-paid job and polygamous status is enough to persuade him to convert and grab his “second chance at a new life”.
Submission does not so much describe the triumph of Islam, as outline the inevitability of the west’s decay and surrender. Houellebecq presents the transformation not as an apocalyptic event, but as an inevitable and gradual movement, one which finds favour among many non-Muslim religionists and social conservatives. There is no high drama involved; in typically Houellebecqian fashion, things just happen because the tide drifts that way.
Some folk claim that he is just another purveyor of the apocalypse-du-jour, but in outlining the reasons why religious belief and socially conservative notions of societal hierarchy will outlast atheistic humanism, Houellebecq has expressed an idea that we ought to take seriously: namely, that belief in something will generally trump belief in nothing.