Sunday, October 25, 2015

Michel Houellebecq's Submission

French author Michel Houellebecq is in some ways a variation on America's Mark Steyn. Like the Canadian expatriate, he is a prolific writer and controversialist who did not graduate from university; he questions the conventional wisdom; he has been prosecuted for criticizing Islam and won in court; he is a multimedia content provider of films, books, website, recordings, television and radio; he is a lightning rod for both Left and Right--not to mention Islamic fundamentalists. Unlike Steyn, a persona non grata in academia, Houellebecq is professor of literature at the European Graduate School, where he teaches a course on the aesthetics of Frankfurt School Marxist Theodor W. Adorno; his work is classified as fiction rather than reportage; his focus is on France rather than America, and he has managed to escape pigeonholing as a right-winger, unlike Eric Zemmour, author of Le Suicide Francais (which has not yet been published in English translation). So, on second thought, perhaps Houellebecq isn't really France's Mark Steyn-- maybe he's more like France's Salman Rushdie.

In any case, Houellebecq's latest success de scandal,  Submission: A Novel, published in translation this month in America, created a sensation when it hit the bookstores in France just as Islamic fundamentalists attacked Charlie Hebdo and the HyperCacher supermarket. In the aftermath of that horrific mass murder, Houellebecq was given police protection by the French government--then cancelled his book tour.

All of which adds a frisson to reading 246 widely-spaced pages, with plenty of blank spaces at the beginning and end of each chapter, and lots of detailed sex scenes.  Which means, Submission is more a novella than a novel, more a direction than a destination. The dystopian plot, such as it is between long digressions on literature and philosophical musings, hinges on an academic crisis faced by a professor named Francois whose career depends upon conversion to Islam--following a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood Party in French elections. This event has led to the end of French secularism and its replacement by Islamism, with the cooperation of the nativist right-wingers (who like the family values in Islam) and the socialists (who go along out of political calculation). Purged from his university post, and at sea after completing his dissertation "Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel" Francois at first resists the change and contemplates escape--embarking upon an exploration of decadence, including a number of sexual encounters with prostitutes and girlfriends, visits to his sister in the French countryside, and a "farewell" to his Jewish mistress before she flees to Israel. Alone and adrift, Francois initially contemplates Huysman's conversion to Catholicism, visiting scenes from Huysman's time in a French monastery, then, after he is offered editorship of a prestigious scholarly edition of Huysman's works at Pleiade, and is invited to the palatial mansion in which Pauline Reage once wrote The Story of O, now home to his boss, Professor Robert Redigier, a former right-winger turned Islamist, who makes Francois an offer he can't refuse.  So, after a brief cost-benefit analysis, and noting that he has no Israel of his own to which he might escape, Francois plunges in, recites the Shahada at a mosque, and takes a tenured professorship at the Sorbonne, as well as the promise of three wives (he can't afford four yet), among other plums. 

Rediger, the academic grandee and politician who offers Francois the keys to the kingdom, plays Mephistopheles to Francois's Faust (and doesn't "Francois" sound curiously close to "France"?). Rediger in the novel is part politician and part scholar, and 100% ambitious as drawn by Houellebecq. The character's name is very similar to that of real-life French intellectual Robert Rediger, of whom Wikipedia informs us (we cut and paste in solidarity with Houellebecq's public stance that copying Wikipedia is not plagiarism):

Robert Redeker is a French writer and philosophy teacher. He was teaching at the Pierre-Paul-Riquet high school, in Saint-Orens-de-Gameville, and at the École Nationale de l'Aviation Civile. He is currently in hiding under police protection.
On 19 September 2006, a few days before the Islamic month of Ramadan, he wrote an opinion piece for Le Figaro, a French secular and conservative newspaper, which quickly removed the article from its public database. In it, he attacked Islam and Muhammad, writing: "Pitiless war leader, pillager, butcher of Jews and polygamous, this is how Mohammed is revealed by the Koran." He called the Qur'an "a book of incredible violence", adding: "Jesus is a master of love, Muhammad a master of hate."[1] That day's issue of Le Figaro was banned in Egypt and Tunisia.[2] Afterwards, Redeker received various death threats originating from one Islamist website (where he was sentenced to death; they posted his address and a photograph of his home). He requested and was given police protection.[2][3] A man has been arrested because of a hate mail he sent to Redeker.
On 3 October 2006 a group of renowned French intellectuals published "appel en faveur de Robert Redeker" (an appeal in support of Robert Redeker) in Le Monde, among them Elisabeth BadinterAlain FinkielkrautAndré GlucksmannClaude Lanzmann (with the editorial staff of "Les Temps Modernes") and Bernard-Henri Lévy. They see their most fundamental liberties endangered by a handful of fanatics under the pretense of religious laws, and decry the tendency in Europe to avoid "provocations" in order to not anger supposed foreign sensitivities.[4] The vast majority of the "official" responses was, however, hostile to the ex-philosophy teacher - including France's 'Le Monde' who "characterized Redeker’s piece as “excessive, misleading, and insulting.”
In Submission, Rediger takes the road not taken by Redeker in real life--submission to Islam--and therefore basks in worldly success, spiritual peace and bourgeois contentment. 

That, in a sense, makes Submission a counter-factual novel, along the lines of those "What if Hitler had won the Second World War?" books which describe Piccadilly Circus in London festooned with Swastikas after the Duke of Windsor and Wallace Simpson became King and Queen of England. Houellebecq has in effect taken France's history of collaboration with the Germans under Vichy and transposed its attitudes of acceptance to a contemporary threat.

Likewise, Submission recalls Voltaire's Candide: Or Optimism, with Rediger in place of Dr. Pangloss and Francois in Candide's role. As such, it is very, very, very French.

And again, Submission is also the title of the 2004 Dutch film by Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali that led to his murder and her exile. The gist of their film was that Islam literally meant 
Wait, there's more... Submission might have one more jeu de mots at work. To judge this book by its cover--a sheaf of manuscripts bound with red tape--it looks like a manuscript submission for publication, a doctoral dissertation, or a submission to the Academie Francaise

Perhaps in publishing this satire, Houellebecq has made his submission to the Invisible College of the Republic of Letters, an application from an engage French philosophe, in the tradition of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau to join the immortals of Western Civilization opposed to Superstition, Feudalism, and Religious Intolerance.

Whether Houellebecq manages to enter the Pantheon because of this book, only time will tell...but he certainly has made a courageous literary effort, taking a literary stand on behalf of France's civilizing mission in the Clash of Civilizations.