The devastating attacks of November 13 on Paris’s 10th and 11th arrondissements viciously targeted the “progressive” heart of the city. When I am there, that is where I live. Like many other inhabitants and observers, I find it difficult to comprehend why the militants assaulted this historically working-class, vibrant, multicultural, and youthful neighborhood—admittedly often characterized as gentrifying and “bobo”—and not the manicured and touristy “beaux quartiers” to the west. Was it because it represents Paris as a “capital of abominations and perversion,” as the public statement by ISIS, playing to type, suggests?1 Is its model of “living together” intolerable to extremists of all stripes? How might we best respond?
It may seem hard not to turn to Michel Houellebecq in the wake of this new assault, as many did after the January 7 attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes. The scenes of carnage and ISIS’s statement apparently echo the French author’s 2001 novel, Platform, in which Islamic fundamentalists, fueled by sexual jealousy, bomb an idyllic Thai sex resort. In response, Houellebecq’s narrator, Michel, embraces virulent Islamophobia. Many today risk following a similar path. Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Submission, appears to chart a different course. In it a nascent civil war between right-wing “nativists” and “jihadists” is halted by the electoral victory of a “Muslim Brotherhood” president over the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in 2022. This “happy ending” does not, however, sketch out a vibrant, multicultural future. It is supposed to be a joke. Preoccupied by a chauvinistic view of French men’s national decline and derogatory ideas about Muslims, Houellebecq is the last person from whom we should seek guidance. Rather than offering productive insight for the future, his work is attached to an exclusionary fantasy of the French past.
Houellebecq ascended to literary stardom as a chronicler of Western decline. His sexually abject protagonists are adrift in the materialist individualism of modern existence, unable to find satisfaction or social connection, despite repeated visits to sex clubs and Thai massage parlors. François, the narrator of Submission, is a recognizable Houellebecqian type: an isolated, increasingly impotent Sorbonne professor, who, when no longer able to seduce his students, turns to the virtual pleasures of “YouPorn.” He begins to wonder whether he is suffering from “andropause.”
As his name suggests, François’s condition represents a national crisis. The protagonist’s personal inability to form sexual and social bonds mirrors mainstream French republican politicians’ failure to stir adequate passion in advance of elections in 2022 that bring a Muslim president to power. However, Houellebecq’s latest quest story does not simply describe an inexorable slide into decadence. Instead, it becomes a conversion narrative. Despite being a self-declared atheist, François begins to contemplate religion as a salve for his sexual and social ills. In so doing, he retraces the path of J. K. Huysmans, the author to whom he has devoted his less than stellar career as a literature professor. In the early 20th century, the conservative and contrarian Huysmans turned to medieval Catholicism as an antidote to secular modernity’s materialist excess and existential lack. Huysmans was willing to give up sex; François is not.
Set in the future, Submission imagines a new solution to François’s and the French Republic’s woes. Leaving behind both traditional Catholicism and modern laïcité, Frenchmen find redemption in the moderate Muslim president who legalizes polygamy. This is the novel’s satirical joke. But what does it mock, exactly? The failures of French republicanism or Islam? Impotent Frenchmen or macho Muslims?
Although Submission revolves around the allure of polygamy, its reviewers have disavowed the significance of Houellebecq’s banal fantasies of Muslim sex. They confidently declare his novel to be a brilliant mockery of French intellectual impotence and passivity, not a xenophobic screed. Houellebecq, in their view, has restored the French intellectual to a heroic place. In a fittingly self-deprecating, if ironic homage, novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard professes envy for Houellebecq’s oeuvre and celebrates him for saving the writer from the very ineffectualness embodied by his protagonists. Seduced by this narrative of cultural decline, Knausgaard likens Houellebecq to a manly “master carpenter” whose story presents “Islamicization” as “merely a consequence” of the French “lack of attachment” and “indifference,” not its prime cause.2 What this fails to capture is how using Islam to make fun of the French also makes fun of Islam, and in the most banal way possible, by associating it with polygamy.
The charge of Islamophobia against Houellebecq is not new. After publishing Platform, Houellebecq notoriously stated in public interviews that Islam, the “most idiotic of religions,” was from the beginning “characterized by its will to subdue [soumettre] the world.”3 Put on trial for denigrating Islam, he was ultimately acquitted, as Charlie Hebdo would be five years later, when it published mocking cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Indeed, Houellebecq’s 2002 trial established the legal framework that was used in the later case: criticism of Islam as a religion was not an attack on Muslims as people. He and his lawyers distinguished between criticizing Muslim ideas and attacking Muslim bodies.4 But then, as now, Houellebecq often reduces Islam to the body, and especially to sex.
The close association between Houellebecq and Charlie Hebdo was reinforced by the attack on the magazine’s headquarters on January 7, 2015, the date of Submission’s official publication. Pictured on the magazine’s front cover for that week, Houellebecq appeared to ring in the New Year with a dire prediction that by 2022 he would be celebrating Ramadan.
While this coincidence appeared ominous in retrospect, Houellebecq publicly denied that he was a “prophet of doom.” In one prepublication interview, he proclaimed: “You can’t really describe this book as a pessimistic prediction. At the end of the day, things don’t go all that badly, really.”5 Houellebecq often intentionally creates confusion between himself and his narrators, so it is difficult to gauge whether the comment was mere provocation. Intended as a mockery or not, his “positive” account of Islam is, in fact, no less stigmatizing than earlier works in its understanding of “Islamic” sex. It remains in this work, as in earlier ones, a xenophobic mirror of the author’s panic over French men’s impotence. The novel’s satire presumes rather than mocks the stereotype of the polygamous Muslim man and the submissive and childlike Muslim woman. Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh in their 2004 film of the same name, Houellebecq draws out the masochistic sexual connotations of “submission.” But Houellebecq’s Submission has no feminist pretentions. It is concerned not with women’s degradation, but with that of French men.
Since Platform’s publication in 2001, public debate on the “Muslim question” in France has only intensified, coming to focus on the disruptive presence of Muslim bodies in French public space. After the banning of girls’ headscarves in schools in 2004, a 2010 law criminalized women who wear “integral veils” over their faces in public despite the statistically insignificant population concerned (estimates at the time hovered around two thousand). Right-wing politicians continue to fuel panic over France’s bodily violation by Muslims. They denounce halal options in school cafeterias; condemn how, during Ramadan, “thugs” deprive French children of chocolate croissants; and compare the “undignified” spectacle of public Muslim prayer to the Nazi occupation.
Alongside these politicians, media-hungry intellectuals fixate on the foreign Muslim body as contributing to unrelenting Western decline. Appearing on television at every given opportunity, the reactionary “philosopher” Michel Onfray has repeatedly insisted that “the cruel truth is that our civilization is collapsing.”6 Sensationalistic journalist Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français (2014) similarly laments the national rot that has set in with the withering of patriarchal authority, the rise of feminism and gay liberation, neoliberal individualism, and the invasion of France by Muslim migrants. Drawing on historic concerns about dénatalité (falling birth rates) that date back to 19th-century fears of German and Jewish invasion, Zemmour updates them for the present age. His account of “French” demographic decline connects women’s and gay liberation with the nation’s postcolonial invasion by patriarchal Muslim migrants. Zemmour views the current flow of northward migration as an ironic—and tragic—instance of the “empire striking back.” His panicked account of French degeneration hit a nerve. By the end of 2014, on the eve of the release of Houellebecq’s novel, Le Suicide français had sold an estimated 400,000 copies in three months, making it the second-most-purchased book of the year.7
Rather than offering productive insight for the future, Houellebecq’s work is attached to an exclusionary fantasy of the French past.
The circumstances of Submission’s release did much to make it an instant best seller. It exhausted its first run of 150,000 copies in the space of a week, while Zemmour’s book also received a boost.8 Many commentators noted parallels between the two authors’ accounts of the decline of “Western civilization.” The novel’s plot assumes that a moderate “Muslim Brotherhood” politician, Mohammed Ben Abbes, would have a sizeable enough constituency to surpass the Socialist Manuel Valls (France’s current prime minister), 22.3% to 21.9%. In the second round of voting, the coalition between the Muslim party and the Socialists and Gaullists defeats the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. As political scientist Olivier Roy has noted, the idea is sociologically and statistically absurd. It assumes the coherence and homogeneity of “Muslim” identity in France, when Muslim French are, in fact, highly diverse in their political, religious, and social commitments.9 But, as Houellebecq himself has pointed out, a novel is not an essay or political “pamphlet.”10 Its concern is fantasy, not demographic reality.
Houellebecq has sought to distance himself from Zemmour’s suicidal predictions, and from similar pronouncements of a “Eurabian” future and “the great replacement” of Europeans by Muslims. Claiming not to have even read Zemmour, Houellebecq sees his own story as much less despairing. Right-wing intellectuals do appear in the novel as “‘Cassandras’ who predicted civil war between Muslim immigrants and the indigenous populations of Western Europe.” But this is not François’s position, nor is it Houellebecq’s. Indeed, the election of the “Muslim” party puts a stop to the armed skirmishes between nativists and jihadists that had forced a delay in the elections. Once chosen, new president Ben Abbes is a pragmatist rather than a fanatic, who has the “kindly look of a neighborhood grocer” (this is, in France, no less of a racial stereotype than the bearded fundamentalist, even if a seemingly benign one). His policies to “restore the centrality, the dignity, of the family as the building block of society” include clerical schooling, an emphasis on vocational training, expelling women from the workforce, reducing state welfare, and promoting family businesses over ruthlessly individualist capitalism. The narrative depicts all of these as having salutary effects; crime and unemployment fall, producing what François calls “the most optimistic moment that France had known since the Thirty Glorious Years [the postwar economic boom] half a century before.” It is difficult to see how this new regime brings hope for French women, but few critics note this logical flaw.11
The advantages of the new regime are more evident for men, who, like François, hope to restore their fading virility. He makes repeated attempts, not least by pursuing “Muslim” women. Turning to escort services, he opts first for a young woman of Tunisian descent named Nadia, since “it was arousing, in a way, to pick a Muslim, given the overall political situation.” Importantly, “Muslim” designates her appearance, not her religion, signaling an implicit racialization of religion that Houellebecq elsewhere denies.10 In fact, this ethnic attraction marks François as a very typical French man. According to one recent study, “beurette” (the common slang term for “Arab girl”) is the most frequently Google-searched porn subject in France.13
He persists in his efforts despite several failures. “Should I just die?” he wonders. But he makes another effort. A subsequent threesome with a Moroccan named Rachida and a Spaniard named Luisa proves more satisfying: “Little by little, with growing amazement, I felt shivers of forgotten pleasure.” But the “miracle” is short-lived, and the next time he sees them, “once more my dick had become an organ as efficient as it was unfeeling.” The longed-for redemption from soulless Western modernity has not yet come.
When this commodified sexual healing fails, François turns to religion, by trying to retrace Huysmans’s footsteps from cynicism to conversion. Rereading the author’s 1895 novel En route, he contemplates following its protagonist, Durtal, in leaving behind quotidian frustration for the tranquility of a monk’s cell. Leaving Paris, François travels through the nation’s Christian past. In the Dordogne, he passes through Martel, named for Charles Martel, or Charles the Hammer, who defeated the “Arabs” in 732, thus ending “Muslim expansion to the North.” He then visits Rocamadour in order to experience first-hand “what a great civilization medieval Christendom really was.” But like Huysmans, who was sickened by the crass materialism of Lourdes, François ultimately finds despair rather than renewal at the pilgrimage site. Standing before the Black Virgin, he “felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny.” A trip to the Abbaye Saint-Martin de Ligugé near Poitiers, where Huysmans was an oblate, proves no less successful in securing spiritual renewal.
François wants transcendence, but won’t give up women. He thus takes his distance from Huysmans, whose Durtal eventually finds relief in confession, communion, and a return to Catholicism. François cannot “share the disgust he [Huysmans] claimed to feel for the carnal passions.” With an otherwise failing body and sputtering life of the mind, he realizes that, “In the end, my dick was all I had.”
Conversion to Islam is the perfect solution to this existential impasse. François begins to realize it on the train back to Paris, when he sits across from an Arab businessman accompanied by “two young Arab girls” that were “barely out of their teens—his wives, clearly.” He imagines the comfort of having “two graceful, charming wives to distract him,” and perhaps even “two more wives waiting for him in Paris.” This fantasy of polygamy finds reinforcement on a visit to the home of the new president of the Islamic University, a convert named Robert Rediger. “A teenage girl wearing low-waisted jeans and a Hello Kitty T-shirt” mistakenly opens the door without her veil. She is Aïcha, Rediger’s new 15-year-old wife. During the visit, Malika, Rediger’s first wife, serves them a chilled Meursault (one of several references to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger in the novel), while Rediger recounts his conversion narrative in an effort to convince François to follow his path.
It is difficult to see how the fantasy “Islamic” regime described in the novel brings hope for French women, but few critics note this logical flaw.
Rediger is here something of a deus ex machina. He provides just the argument that François was waiting for: conversion as the ideal solution for Frenchmen’s sexual and political crisis. A former right-wing “nativist,” Rediger explains how he came to see the light. In Huysmans’s time, France seemed to be at its height, “when the European nations were at their apogee, when they commanded vast colonial empires, and dominated the world!” Catholicism was a still viable antidote to the vulgarity of the modern world. No more. Rediger echoes the right-wing Cassandras here, explaining that “that Europe, which was the summit of human civilization, committed suicide in a matter of decades.” But he adds a new twist. Rather than resigning himself to self-destruction, Rediger converted to Islam on Easter Monday 2013. Since then, he has continued to accumulate material as well as spiritual goods: a top university position, multiple wives, and a private mansion once owned by author, editor, and Sade enthusiast Jean Paulhan.
The reference to Paulhan makes way for one of Houellebecq’s heavier-handed allusions, namely to the erotic bondage novel Story of O, written by Paulhan’s lover Dominique Aury (as Pauline Réage) in the 1950s. Rediger relishes the connection between the story and his new life.
“It’s submission,” Rediger murmured. “The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission. I hesitate to discuss the idea with my fellow Muslims, who might consider it blasphemous, but for me there’s a connection between women’s submission to man, as it’s described in Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God. You see,” he went on, “Islam accepts the world, and accepts it whole.”
Just as Aury’s heroine discovered new levels of sexual pleasure by submitting completely to male desire, men like Rediger recover a lost patriarchal power, also mourned by “traditional nativists,” when they submit to the new Islamic regime. Indeed, in an effort to convince his former associates, Rediger points to this telling ideological coincidence between Islam and nativism: “When it came to rejecting atheism and humanism, or the necessary submission of women, or the return of patriarchy, they were fighting exactly the same fight.” With Europe in a state of “putrid decomposition” and Christianity discredited and hopelessly feminized, only Islam—or rather, an Islam colonized by Western fantasy—seems capable of saving European Man from himself.
It is, of course, polygamy’s promise of restored virility that most interests François. When Rediger gives him the short volume that he has penned, Ten Questions on Islam, François, “like most men, probably”—and the novel itself—“skipped the chapters on religious choices, the pillars of wisdom, and child-rearing, and went to chapter 7: ‘Why Polygamy?’” Rediger’s argument here is neither spiritual, nor legal; it is biopolitical, based on the male’s “essentially limitless capacity to reproduce” and natural selection. This very French emphasis on maximizing biological reproduction aligns (some) men’s sexual access to submissive women with the presumed social good of high birth rates. Figured here as a future fantasy, this notion of polygamy has a storied colonial history documented in lurid postcards and trashy novels. It also shaped a violent political reality. French-ruled colonial Algeria excluded “Muslim” subjects from full citizenship until 1947 based on their purported “right to polygamy.” Houellebecq’s novel playfully inverts this past but leaves the association between Islam and polygamy firmly in place.
The potential of a polygamous future seduces François: he will return to the university and to classes full of students “pretty, veiled, shy.” His salary will guarantee him a minimum of three wives. Herein lies the novel’s happy ending: “Each of these girls, no matter how pretty, would be happy and proud if I chose her, and would feel honored to share my bed. They would be worthy of love; and I, for my part, would come to love them.” Islam will allow François (and France) to transcend the monotonous serially monogamous life he had once known. Submission to an invasive Islam, rather than annihilating French manhood as decades of far-right French thinkers feared, is a path to masculine redemption.14
As with Houellebecq’s earlier works, Submission is principally concerned with Western “Man’s” sexual decadence. The novel, like its narrator, displays little interest in documenting or imagining Muslim French existence, past, present, or future. Submission’s obsession with French decline has led commentators like Mark Lilla and Adam Gopnik to conclude that “the charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic.”15 But these two tendencies are neither mutually exclusive nor easy to distinguish. As historians of xenophobia in France have amply shown, national self-loathing does not contradict a hatred of foreign others. It produces it.16 The novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline offers a spectacular example of how fears of French bodily decay give rise to sexual fantasies of foreign invasion. Such highly ambivalent attitudes have been a hallmark of far-right thinking in France from the Dreyfus Affair to the 1930s and Vichy, from the era of decolonization to today.17
Houellebecq identifies himself as a transgressive “public enemy.”18 But as a writer he in no way resembles Céline, whose transgressions were as brilliant stylistically as they were reprehensible politically. Submission’s fantasies, whatever their satirical intention, are ultimately and unfortunately banal. The novel’s welter of literary references insufficiently veil its naked core: a clichéd reduction of Islam to male sexual domination and female sexual pliancy. No matter how positively and playfully represented, this figure of “Muslim” polygamy is politically and socially stigmatizing, based on debilitating stereotypes not just of Muslims but also of women. This is not to say that Submission should not be read. It may not be a great a novel on its literary merits, but it is a revealing document that shows disturbing political currents in France’s past and present, albeit in the guise of predicting the future.
- ISIS’s statement is quoted by Bill Chappell in “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Bloody Attack on Paris,” NPR.org, November 14, 2015. ↩
- Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission,’” New York Times, November 2, 2015. Some critics have even suggested that the novel offers a positive portrayal of Islam: “quite fond” (Adam Gopnik), “far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic” (Anthony Daniels), and “deeply reactionary” but “not Islamophobic” (Adam Shatz). See Adam Gopnik, “Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic Satire,” New Yorker, January 26, 2015; Anthony Daniels, “France’s ‘Submission,’” New Criterion, February 2015; Adam Shatz, “Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées,” London Review of Books, April 9, 2015. ↩
- Didier Sénécal, “Michel Houellebecq,” Lire, September 1, 2001; Mohammed Aissaoui, “Houellebecq et Platforme: ‘La religion la plus con, c’est quand même l’islam,” Le Figaro, December 30, 2014 (my translation). ↩
- See “Poursuivi pour injure, Michel Houellebecq est relaxé,” Le Monde, October 22, 2002; Pascale Robert-Diard, “La confirmation de la relaxe de ‘Charlie Hebdo’ requise dans l’affaire des caricatures de Mahomet,” Le Monde, January 1, 2008. ↩
- Sylvain Bourmeau, “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book,” Paris Review Daily, January 2, 2015. For Bourmeau’s own highly critical appraisal, see Sylvain Bourmeau, “Un suicide littéraire français,” Mediapart, January 2, 2015. ↩
- Vincent Tremolet de Villers and Alexandre Devecchio, “François-Xavier Bellamy – Michel Onfray: vivons-nous la fin de notre civilisation?,” Le Figaro, March 24, 2015. ↩
- Agence France-Presse, “Trierweiler, Zemmour et … Modiano: Les cartons de l’année,” Le Point, December 12, 2014. ↩
- Nicolas Guégan, “Cent Houellebecq pour cinq Zemmour!,” Le Point, January 12, 2015. ↩
- Olivier Roy, “L’islam, dernier refuge du chrétien décati,” Critique, no. 816 (2015), pp. 438–442. Roy here contradicts John Rosenthal’s claim that “Far from being fantastic, Houellebecq’s account of how an Islamic party could come to power in France rests almost entirely on factual premises, and virtually all the political figures depicted are real.” See John Rosenthal, “Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’: Islam and France’s Malaise,” World Affairs (May–June 2015). ↩
- See Bourmeau, “Scare Tactics.”
- For one notable exception, see Lydia Kiesling, “The Elegant Bigotry of Michel Houellebecq,” Slate, October 6, 2015. ↩
- See Bourmeau, “Scare Tactics.”
- Sexualized Arab girls appear in virtually all of Houellebecq’s novels. In the 2014 telefilm, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, a prostitute named “Fatima” plays a pivotal role. See Claire Richard, “Sites pornos: Les ‘Beurettes,’ un fantasme bien français,” Rue 89, September 28, 2015. See also Éric Fassin and Mathieu Trachman, “Voiler les beurettes pour les dévoiler: Les doubles jeux d’un fantasme pornographique blanc,” Modern & Contemporary France, vol. 21, no. 2 (2013), pp. 199–217. ↩
- This far-right anxiety about “Arab”—and especially Algerian—men’s feminizing invasion of France was particularly pronounced in the wake of the French loss of Algeria in 1962. See Todd Shepard, “‘Something Notably Erotic’: Politics, ‘Arab Men,’ and Sexual Revolution in Post-decolonization France, 1962–1974,” Journal of Modern History, vol. 84, no. 1 (2012), pp. 80–115. ↩
- Gopnik, “Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic Satire”; Mark Lilla, “Slouching toward Mecca,” New York Review, April 2, 2015. ↩
- See, e.g., Sandrine Sanos, The Aesthetics of Hate: Far-Right Intellectuals, Antisemitism, and Gender in 1930s France (Stanford University Press, 2012). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World, translated from the French by Miriam Frendo and Frank Wynne (Random House, 2011). ↩