Friday, March 20, 2015


Soumission is the title of a new French novel by Michel Houellebecq, published just this past January, which Mark Lilla (in the April 2 issue of The New York Review of Books) has called "the best selling novel in Europe today." I don't read many novels. And, needless to say, my high-school quality French is nowhere near adequate to the task of reading this one. So, if I do in the end decide to read it, which Lilla's review has made somewhat more likely, I will certainly have to wait for Lorin Stein's English translation, which is due to be published this coming October. 

Until then, therefore, everything that I know about Houellebecq ("France's most important contemporary novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt") and everything I am saying here about his work is based entirely on having read Lilla's review, "Slouching Toward Mecca," which can be accessed on-line at

The novel, set in 2022 at the time of some future French presidential election, is what Lilla calls a "dystopian conversion tale ... about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca." the country, of course, is France. the man is the novel's main character, Francois, "a mid-level literature professor at the Sorbonne who specializes in the work of the Symbolist novelist J. K. Huysmans." Francois "lives alone in a modern apartment tower, teaches his courses, but has no friends in the university, and returns home to frozen dinners, television, and porn."

Meanwhile in the election, Marine Le Pen's National Front wins the first round. So the socialists and the conservatives back the new, moderate Muslim party, which wins the second round and so takes the presidency - and the education ministry. The new Muslim president "understands that a nation's destiny depends on how well it teaches young people fundamental values and enriches their inner lives."

The story follows Francois, "prematurely retired with a full pension," as he observes a series of small but significant social changes that follow in the wake of the election of france's first Muslim president. Recognizing the religious dimension of what is happening in the larger society, Francois makes an unsuccessful attempt to reconnect with Catholicism, to which Huysmans had himself earlier converted "after exhausting all the modern world had to offer." That having failed for Francois, he comes under the influence of the new University President, once a radical right-wing Catholic, who at some point realized "how much the Islamists' message overlapped with his own," and that "post-Christian Europe was dying and Islam was flourishing." Apparently, more for personal reasons that the world-historical vision of the University President, Francois also converts. "His life is exhausted, and so is Europe's. It's time for a new one - any one."

Islam, as portrayed in this story," "is peaceful, but it has no interest in compromise or in extending the realm of human liberty. It wants to shape better human beings, not freer ones." Lilla considers the critics who consider Houellebecq's story to be anti-Muslim as fundamentally mistaken. They "see the novel as anti-Muslim because they assume that individual freedom is the highest human value." On the contrary, Lilla argues, the novel expresses "a very persistent European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom - freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one's own ends - must inevitably lead to disaster."

Ultimately, according to Lilla, Houellebecq genuinely believes "that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. These are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost."

So, to me, this all sounds like the traditional (and largely correct) critique of the legacy of the Enlightenment - updated to a new social situation in which European Christianity no longer seems to have the vitality to serve as the Enlightenment's alternative in the West, and instead Islam seems strategically positioned to fill in the void. Certainly it seems less about an imminent Islamist threat to Western European life and institutions and more about what is already at the heart of Western malaise and whether and how that malaise may be healed.

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