November 7, 2015


Michel Houellebecq's 'Submission' (KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD, NOV. 2, 2015, NY Times Book Review)

The disillusioned perspective distinguishes continually between faith and reality, between life as we want it to be and life as it actually is -- for it is faith that joins us together with our undertakings and with the world, faith that accords them value. Without faith, no value. That's why so many people find the disillusioned perspective so provoking: It lacks faith, sees only the phenomenon itself, while faith, which in a sense is always also illusion, for most people is the very point, the profoundest meaning. To the disillusioned, morals, for instance, are not so much a question of right or wrong as of fear. But try telling that to the moral individual. When François at the beginning of the novel writes that the great majority in Western societies are blinded by avarice and consumerist lust, even more so by the desire to assert themselves, inspired by their idols, athletes, actors and models, unable to see their own lives as they are, utterly devoid of meaning, what he is describing is the function of faith in modern society. The fact that he himself does not possess such faith, that he exists outside of it, within the meaningless, as it were, he explains as follows: "For various psychological reasons that I have neither the skill nor the desire to analyze, I wasn't that way at all."

This is the only place in the novel that opens up for the idea that the emptiness and ennui that François feels is not just universal, a kind of existential condition applicable to us all and which most people hide away behind walls of illusion, it may also have individual causes. That is somewhere he doesn't want to go, and thus a vast and interesting field of tension is set up in the novel, since the narrator is a person who is unable to bond with others, feels no closeness to anyone, not even himself, and moreover understands solitude existentially, that is from a distance, as something general, a universal condition, or as something determined by society, typical of our age, at the same time as he tells us his parents never wanted anything to do with him, that he hardly had any contact with them, and that their deaths are little more than insignificant incidents in his life. Such an understanding, that the ennui and emptiness he feels so strongly are related to his incapacity to feel emotion or establish closeness to others, and that it is difficult, indeed impossible, not to see this as having to do with lifelong rejection, is extraneous to the novel's universe, since nothing would be remoter to François's worldview, an intimate model of explanation would be impossible for him to accept, a mere addition to the list of things in which he doesn't believe: love, politics, psychology, religion.

Such a disillusioned protagonist allows, too, for a comic perspective, insofar as the comic presupposes distance, shuns identification and is nourished by the outrageous. Indeed, "Submission" is, in long stretches, a comic novel, a comedy, its protagonist François teetering always on the brink of caricature, his thoughts and dialogue often witty, as for instance in this passage, where Myriam, his young mistress, asks if he is bothered by her just having referred to him as macho: " 'I don't know, I guess I must be kind of macho. I've never really been convinced that it was a good idea for women to get the vote, study the same things as men, go into the same professions, et cetera. I mean, we're used to it now -- but was it really a good idea?' Her eyes narrowed in surprise. For a few seconds she actually seemed to be thinking it over, and suddenly I was, too, for a moment. Then I realized I had no answer, to this question or any other."

The main reason François's ennui never really seems significant, at least not compared with the status ennui is accorded in Huysmans's "Against the Grain," even if it is consistently present in nearly all the novel's scenes, is, however, neither abhorrence of emotional closeness nor the remoteness with which its comic passages are infused, but rather the fact that it coincides with the massive political upheaval France is undergoing in front of his very eyes. An election is coming up, and the mood across the country is tense, there are armed street battles and riots in several towns, right-wing radicals clash with various ethnic groups, and yet the media avoid writing about it, the problem is played down, and people seem weary and resigned.

It is this theme that lends the novel its narrative thrust and which of course is the reason for all the attention it has received, for anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left's anti-­racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities, say, but in this novel all is brought to a head, taken to its most extreme conclusion, in a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible. What's crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture's enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.

In this, "Submission" is strongly satirical, and its satire is directed toward the intellectual classes, among whom no trace is found of idealism, and not a shadow of will to defend any set of values, only pragmatism pure and simple. François sums up the mood among his own as: "What has to happen will happen," comparing this passivity with that which made it possible for Hitler to come to power in 1933, when people lulled themselves into believing that eventually he would come to his senses and conform.

During a reception given by a journal of 19th-century literature to which François regularly contributes, shots and explosions are suddenly heard in the streets outside, and when later he walks through the city he sees the Place de Clichy in flames, a wreckage of burned-out cars, the skeleton of a bus, but not a single human being, no sound other than a screaming siren. No one knows what's going to happen, whether all-out civil war will erupt or not. And yet in François's circles weakness prevails, and if this is meant to be satirical, a depiction of a class of people helplessly enclosed within its own bubble, without the faintest idea what's going on outside or why, a bit like the aristocracy before the revolution, it is also realistic, because when a person has grown up in a certain culture, within a certain societal system, it is largely unthinkable that that culture, that system, might be changed so radically, since everything in life -- the beliefs instilled in us as children at home and at school, the vocations we are trained in and to which we later devote our labor, the programs we watch on TV and listen to on the radio, the words we read in newspapers, magazines and books, the images we see in films and advertising -- occurs within the same framework, confirming and sustaining it, and this is so completely pervasive that to all intents and purposes it is the world, it is society, it is who we are. Minor modifications and adjustments take place all the time, of a political nature, too -- sometimes the right is in charge, sometimes the left, and the greens may win a percentage of ground -- but total upheaval isn't even a faint possibility, it is simply unimaginable, and therefore does not exist.

And yet society's total upheaval is what "Submission" depicts. The election is won by a Muslim party with which the left collaborates in order to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. But maybe that isn't so bad? Maybe it doesn't matter that much? Aren't people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs. The novel closes with him looking forward in time, to the conversion ceremony of his own submission to Islam, a travesty of Huysmans's conversion to Catholicism, not because François becomes a Muslim rather than a Catholic, but because his submission is pragmatic, without flame, superficial, whereas Huysmans's was impassioned, anguished, a matter of life and death.

This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel's fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence. What does it mean to be a human being without faith? This is in many ways the question posed by the novel. François shares Huysmans's misanthropy and disillusionment, but fails to grasp the religious route of his deliverance.

Posted by at November 7, 2015 8:12 AM