The Atheist’s Burden

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michel houellebecq

Submission, Michel Houellebecq, William Heinemann, 256pp, ISBN 1785150243 £12.91

(French edition) Soumission Flammarion ISBN 2081354802

‘Rats will most probably outlive mankind; their social system, in any case, is far more solid’. Although it features a third of the way into Submission, this is the kind of sentence that could have come from the conclusion to Michel Houellebecq’s previous book The Map and the Territory (2010), the novel that won him the Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Man Booker prize. One might say that Submission stands as Houellebecq’s attempt to bypass the hallmark world-weariness of his characters, providing an alternative to both cheerless and cheerful nihilism alike.

Houellebecq’s latest novel is based on the premise that free-market, free-range sex and atheism in the West is ready to totter over the edge. In televised interviews, he has argued, a shade hyperbolically, that no-one believes in the Enlightenment project any more, that the notion of absolute freedom from God is counterintuitive and ultimately unviable. His claim seems to rest on the moot idea that the West has jettisoned all values except material gain and individual freedom, as if authentic relationships, family values and their emotional consolations were now a thing of the past.

Houellebecq’s views draw on the social philosophy of Auguste Comte who believed that a society could not ultimately survive without belief in a supreme deity, that the atheist’s burden is too heavy. Nevertheless, the novel seems to hesitate between depicting religion as a wholesome path and a merely necessary illusion.

In Platform (2002), the hero is momentarily removed from his surly cynicism by the sexually-forthcoming heroine Valérie until she is blown to bits by a Muslim terrorist group for attempting to promote sex tourism in Thailand. François, the conservative libertine narrator of Submission, is sentimentally attached to a young Jewish woman called Myriam, but she leaves France for Israel when political events indicate that France is bringing Islam to power.

One might say that the ultimate aim subtending Houellebecq’s latest novel is less to decry or embrace the rise of Islam in Europe than to bemoan the decline of traditional amorous relationships and especially housebound, oral-sex-and-cakes spousal submission in the West.

Houellebecq’s original plan for the novel was inspired by the life of Joris-Karl Huysmans, the nineteenth-century novelist whose work is the subject of François’s doctoral thesis. Huysmans is known as the French Decadent writer who surprisingly converted to Catholicism. After losing his post at the Sorbonne when the university is bought by Saudi Arabia, François goes on a meandering, half-hearted pilgrimage to see the Catholic icon known as the Black Madonna of Rocamadour but the journey ends in an anti-climactic non-epiphany.

In the end, François converts to Islam and is given his high-paying college post back. It’s hardly a spoiler to say this as one can feel it coming from the moment one reads the title of the novel. There isn’t an ounce of revolt in this hero, almost as if Houellebecq had pealed a flattened Winston Smith off the end of 1984. The main difference is that there is an awful lot more to object to in Orwell’s dystopia. Houellebecq has made Diet Islam so palatable to the hero that he willingly succumbs to what seems like the ideal solution to emotional vacuity and purposelessness. It hardly comes across as an allegory of French collaboration during the Second World War.

Even the reader has little to object to in the end, apart from the not negligible fact that women are expected to be as submissive to men as the men are to God. This gender hierarchy is presented in the novel as the essential backbone to a healthy, stable society. It will come as no surprise to the reader familiar with Houellebecq’s novels that he makes light of this major detail.

The novel has been faulted for being noncommittal, but Houellebecq has claimed that a novelist should not have an opinion if he is to bring his characters to life. Admittedly, the novel does display Houellebecq’s ability to engage in challenging thought experiments. It is a complete ideological turnaround if you consider the fact that Houellebecq once said in an interview for the French literary magazine Lire that Islam was ‘the dumbest religion’.

Far from being a satire of Islam, the novel is a commendation of it as a solution to the fantasy of France’s cultural decline. It is a mistake to align Houellebecq with those who see immigration and tolerance as a form of national suicide. Submission has no rivers of blood streaming through it. There is of course room for misinterpretation with any work of speculative fiction in which the distinction between utopia and dystopia is sometimes subjective. Critics are still debating to what extent Thomas More wished to present his Utopia as a locus amoenus or a locus terribilis, or a mixture of both.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Houellebecq was placed under police protection, but this doesn’t mean that he is going to become a Francophone Salman Rushdie. Visible security measures in France have disappeared as quickly as they arose after the attack.

Like its predecessor, Anthony Burgess’s novella 1985, Submission is finally not to be ranked on the podium of its author’s best creative performances. Neither Burgess nor Houellebecq seem to believe enough in the prospect of an Islamic takeover to deploy their most captivating plots, or perhaps the prospect of it dampened their creative spirits. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is ultimately a more gripping novel, partly because it is inspired by a far more radical version of Islam. This being said, it’s well worth reading Houellebecq’s novel, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

By Erik Martiny

Submission by Michel Houellebecq is to be released in the UK on September 10 2015.