8 January 2016

2016 is the year to read Soumission by Houellebecq

By Alastair Benn

This year will be dominated by debates about the relationship between Islam and the West. It has never been more important to read Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Soumission.

The novel was set to be published in France on 7th January 2015, the  day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, on which Bernard Maris was murdered. He was a columnist for the magazine and a close friend of Houellbecq. In an interview with the Guardian in September, Houellebecq revealed the depth of his grief: “It was the first time in my life that someone I loved was murdered… I was just depressed”.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated: “France is not Michel Houellebecq… it is not intolerance, hatred, fear”. He set out to contrast his response to the massacre with that of Houellebecq’s, whose sole reaction was grief for his murdered friend and fear as he fled Paris.

Whilst this novel is too important to be considered a footnote in the Hebdo tragedy, this episode illustrates well Houellebecq’s status among France’s elites: his influence is acknowledged but his output treated with revulsion.

The novel functions both as a searing indictment of our present politics and as an extraordinary meditation on the legacy of Christianity and the European intellectual tradition.

Julian Barnes said Atomised, another Houllebecq novel published in 1998, was one “which hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbits”. Houellebecq confronts monumental questions. He begins by outlining a theory of history as a sequence of cycles: “Metaphysical mutations…are rare in the history of humanity…. Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen… heedlessly, it sweeps away economic and political systems, ethical considerations and social structures. No human agency can halt its progress”. In sum, any explanation for the cycles of history must be grounded in the power of ideas. It is this peculiarly French attitude which pervades all his work.

His most recent novel is an exploration of the mutation of near future.

In Houellebecq’s universe, the West is committing suicide. But this is not one of the great suicides of history. The history of the West reads as a litany of suicides that meant something. But our suicide expresses not nobility, freedom from fear or defiance, but in the end, submission.

The symptoms of this suicide, he writes, are manifold. Rampant materialism has pervaded all. The commodification of sex has destroyed the marital unit, so important for the survival of our way of life. Most importantly, the greasiness and hypocrisy of the West’s political and intellectual elites has produced a profound torpor. It is Islam that is offered as the solution to these problems.

Thus he presents Islam as a coherent solution to the West’s decline. It provides all the components which once made the Christian faith hegemonic in the West: a coherent cosmological framework which offers both mystery and a clear link to the divine; stern regulation of public and private conventions; and a new language for political life.

In spite of the negative stance to most of the novel, there are glimmers of the importance of what will be lost in the next “mutation”. The death of the West is still worth our sadness. A certain freedom of expression, which is to be heavily regulated after this shift, is worth our tears:

“The special thing about literature, the major art form of a Western civilisation now ending before our eyes, is not hard to define….only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations , its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs.”

In 2016, read Houellebecq. You must. Sometimes unpleasant, sometimes outrageous, but always interesting.

Alastair Benn is a Politics post-graduate at Kings College London.