FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Muslims are Coming: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission”

Three possibilities for approaching Michel Houellebecq’s daring novel, Submission: First, a dystopian narrative of France’s future in a few more years, when Muslims gain enough political power to win elections, form coalitions, and—finally—take over the country. Second, man’s denial of God but eventual admission that He exists, i.e., from atheism to conversion. Third, an incredibly hilarious spoof of academic life by a clever writer who states in the acknowledgements at the end of the story that he “did not attend university, and everything I know about academic life I learned from Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, maître de conferences at the University of Paris X-Nanterre.” So take your choice or a combination of these three possibilities.

Let’s begin with the latter. The main character, named François, teaches literature at the New Sorbonne University, in Paris. He’s single, middle-aged, and an expert on the nineteenth-century decadent writer, J. -K. Huysmans. He sleeps with his students, isn’t interested in politics (“I was about as political as a bath towel”), and doesn’t really care much for teaching except for the sexual access it provides him to his graduate students. These relations generally last throughout the academic year, and then, when the classes end, so do his affairs. When the students are away, he visits prostitutes and watches porn. He’s honest about his teaching—at least with himself, “I’ve never felt the slightest vocation for teaching,” and doesn’t have much affection or excitement for the students he seduces, one of whom he describes as a sad “bird in an oil slick.”

But he’s got the profession down pat, right to a T. “The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career submissionhoullebocqteaching the academic study of literature—it is, in other words a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance above all; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development—besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.” Phew!

Then there’s the issue of Islam’s march across Europe. Starting with an election in France in 2017, the Muslim Brotherhood begins increasing its ranking among the country’s political parties. (Shades, obviously, of LePen in France, the Kurds in Turkey, and so on—except that Submission was published before some of these results were known.) With the 2017 election, the Brotherhood insists that the only part of the government it wants as its portfolio is education—not finance, not foreign policy, etc. It’s a particularly astute move because educational control turns the tide for them. As a colleague tells François, “They want every French child to have the option of a Muslim education, at every level of schooling.” That means no co-education. Women can study only certain topics, mainly Home Ec. Most women will not acquire higher learning. And here’s the clincher: all teachers must be Muslim. “Schools would observe Muslim dietary laws and the five daily prayers; above all, the curriculum itself would have to reflect the teachings of the Koran.” During the subsequent years, after a temporary period of chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the dominant party.

Before that, the universities are closed and François is forced into retirement. An election is rigged. There are riots in many parts of the country, but—amazingly—not much of a backlash once the Muslim Brotherhood assumes total power, in 2022. Significantly, some of the changes are positive. There was “a dramatic drop in crime: in the most troubled neighborhoods it was down 90 percent.” Welfare was virtually eliminated. Unemployment plummeted, mostly because women were no longer in the work force. With France’s increasing stability as a model, other European countries began considering Islam; and several North African countries seek entry into the European Union.

Finally, there’s religion in the sense of conversion, submission. François is offered an important professorship at the Sorbonne, with the status he has never had before. The kicker is that he will need to convert to Islam. (One tantalizing benefit, a colleague tells him, is that he’ll be able to have several wives. That colleague has just taken a second wife, who is fifteen years old; thus there’s a hint that what was forbidden before regarding sexuality with young girls is suddenly made legitimate by Islam.) But conversion also means acceptance of God for the life-long atheist. Surprisingly, that’s worked out fairly easily since the renegade Huysmans, his idol, also converted (to Catholicism) late in life. Thus our colorless professor of literature who has seldom felt a commitment to anything, or even an excitement for life, finds himself at a major turning point when options appear that he has never had before. That’s when credibility is tossed out the window.

And the plot? I didn’t believe a word of it. But with Lorin Stein’s accomplished translation, you’ll certainly have a good laugh or two.

Michel Houellebecq: Submission

Trans. By Lorin Stein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 246 pp., $25

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail