Michel Houellebecq, 2015
Translated from the French by Lorin Stein, 2015
I picked up a copy of Submission during the week of November 8th following the election. The jacket cover and bookseller note card both described Submission as a dark comic satire of French politics and I hoped that it would provide an artistic diversion from my somber mood following the devastating American election results of 2016. It was a fairly quick and amusing light read that I finished in just a couple of days but have only gotten around to saying anything about it until just now. Houellebecq’s comic prose did fulfill my hopes in distracting me from my post-election fears, but in hindsight reflection following the inauguration and first two weeks of Trump’s presidency I am chilled by the ways in which art reflects life. Submission is the story of a cultural-political coup and what is happening today in America is a reflection of the chaos and turmoil depicted in Houellebecq’s comic book.
The premise of Submission takes place in France of the not to distant future of 2020. The country’s populace has been overwhelmed by Muslim immigrants and rather than destroying France through violence and terror (as expected) the immigrant population have usurped the French cultural identity by gaming the democratic political system. In the 2020 election the French government is overtaken by the Islamic party and within their first few days of power the new extremist government enacts sweeping changes to the political and legal system such as requiring all woman to be covered and forcing them to forfeit their jobs, the education system is overturned to filter all teaching through the lenses of Islam, and there are widespread changes to the economic system such as outlawing the sale of liquor. The French nationals are in upheaval and chaos presented through riots and disorder throughout the country.
The narrative is told through the perspective of Francois, a middle-aged single man who is a literature teacher with a specialty focus on the nineteenth century novelist and writer, H.K. Huysmans. Huysmans was a naturalist that headed the decadent movement and like his literary champion, Francois is a decadent who prides himself on replacing his girlfriends year after year with an ever abundant supply of young and beautiful students. As he grows older and less attractive, he finds more success in meeting his sexual desire through the convenience of Youporn. To get a sense of the pessimistic attitude of Francois the narrator, read the following passage from Francois’ inner monologue as he reads the prose of a monk in an attempt to find solace during the political turmoil ongoing in his country:
“The prose of Dom Jean-Pierre Longcat – no doubt an excellent monk, full of love and good intentions – exasperated me more and more. “Life should be a continual loving exchange, in tribulations or in joy,” the good father wrote. “So make the most of these few days and exercise your capacity to love and be loved, in word and in deed.” “Give it a rest dipshit,” I’d snarl, “I’m alone in my room.” “You are here to lay down the burdens and take a journey within yourself to the wellspring where the power of desire is revealed.” “My only fucking desire is to have a fucking cigarette,” I raged, “I’ve reached the fucking wellspring, dipshit, and that’s what’s there.”” (179)
Francois is snooty, sexist, and misogynistic but for all of his unlikable traits he represents classically French high culture through his dedication to ideals of art, philosophy, and culture. In this satirical novel, Francois serves as a reflection of French cultural decline and it would be too easy for a reader to simply right him off as a elitist pig. His character is intended to signal a warning about contemporary French cultural identity amidst a changing world and despite some of his negative traits and views, he provides some significant thoughts and reflections about the history and development of French culture and perspective.
“People don’t really care all that much about their own death. What they really worry about, their one real fixation, is how to avoid physical suffering as much as possible.” (230)
Although this is a story about political and cultural anxiety told through a French perspective, it is clearly applicable to any of the world’s democratic nations that are currently undergoing cultural influences of newfound uprising of nationalism and anti-immigration anxiety. When I read Submission in November I had been filled with my own anxiety of the yet-to-come change promises by president elect Trump. Now in the two weeks following Trump’s dictatorial onslaught of executive orders that impinge and damage my country’s international respect due to shortsighted and poorly enforced immigration bans, constant manipulation and degradation of the media to promote a post-fact/alt-fact society of reactionary policy, and blatant disregard for the public outcry in support of human rights I am sadly enlightened by the thematic truths buried within the satirical narrative of Submission.
Within the novel the extremist Islamic Party uses the democratic political system to manipulate the cultural identity of the nation of France with disregard towards the impact that the changes will have upon the people as a whole. This novel isn’t really about satirizing Islam; within this book the fictional Islamic Party is essentially a satirical warning about the dangers of extreme nationalism as a reactionary influence on public policy. Extreme nationalism ignores the diversity of contemporary society and seeks out a nostalgia of a more pure simpler time. The trouble with such a perspective is that the world, society, and culture are in constant flux and the simpler times are only a nostalgic dream. Extreme public policies that disregard the rights, cultural identity, and diversity of a cohesive general public may support the agenda of extreme nationalistic ideals, but these policies do so at the cost of perpetuating a never ending cultural war because the disregard for universal human rights will always cause collateral damage. The extreme policies of the Islamic Party in this novel are a signpost and warning towards the policies of nationalistic fears about the influence of Islam in the modern world.
“Those hideous buildings had been constructed during the worst period of modernism, but nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics, it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.” (217)
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