Michel Houellebecq, Submission
. . . The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
The melancholy and misanthropic Jacques ("Jakes") possesses the gift of truth-telling that might be the only succor of old age; why delude yourself when you stand on the edge of a vast chasm into which you are about to tumble? Dylan Thomas's "Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight/ Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, /Rage, rage against the dying of the light" captures the rage of the person whose life is receding into memory, but provides at least the comfort of defiance. Aging is frightful, death is terrifying, but how much more terrifying and horrible when one's dying coincides with the passing away of the order of the world, with "civilization" itself? The misreaders of Houellebecq miss this nuance in his work--easy enough to do with a writer who sets out to offend, and does.
Cultural pessimism has a long and distinguished history, beginning with Thucydides and traveling a great arc through the rise and fall of nations and empires--even in the midst of the Enlightenment, the age of optimism and belief in continuous liberal progress, there was Vico to remind us that the glorious age of humanity had passed with Rome, and that sour-puss Joseph de Maistre, whose reactionary attachment to absolute authority--in an age that embraced personal liberty as the only gospel--anticipated Oswald Spengler and the fascist movements of the twentieth century. (Fascism is the only possible resolution of cultural decadence this side of suicide). But pessimism about the products of a rationality unchecked by religious belief and political hierarchy was routed by both the material and cultural products of enlightened cosmopolitanism. Capitalism appeared to supply proof that reason deployed in the service of material progress would make a paradise of this world; the romantics offered the hope that a purely personal spiritual vision could transcend any use people might have for a providential God; and liberalism--the struggle to extend the promise of democratic empowerment--seemed to fulfill the Western dream of individual autonomy sketched out by Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and Kant.
The pillars of modern cultural pessimism--Nietzsche and Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot--understood that the shucking off of the Old Order, however desirable, must have its cost. In Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche's scathing indictment of bourgeois Christian (and, perforce, hypocritical) morality is so entertaining that the careless reader, inclined to agree with Nietzsche, is likely to miss the undertone of nostalgia that seeps into Nietzsche's aphorisms. With Mann, there can be no mistaking the sense of loss; the long Scholastic arguments that occupy the final third of Magic Mountain both dismiss as superannuated and defend as essential the unifying vision of the Middle Ages--the vision that held Europe together, according to Mann, until the catastrophe of 1914. It became fashionable during the decadent years leading up to the Great War for disillusioned intellectuals, their youthful folly spent, to convert to Catholicism (or Anglicanism), finding in Holy Mother Church the meaning that personal liberty could not supply. The reek of incense and the Latin chants of celibate priests guided many thoughtful but unhappy men and women to the oblivion of Faith.
Among those who made the journey back to the Church was Joris-Karl Huysmans, pictured here as an oblate of the Benedictine order associated with Liguge Abby in Poitiers. Huysmans, a clerical worker in the French ministry, was of course the author of the scandalous A Rebous (Against the Grain, 1884), the literary model for Michel Houellebecq's Submission. Huysmans's literary alter ego, Jean de Esseintes, a decadent Parisian noblemen, a Nietzschean aesthete, a dandy who loathes the hollow pretensions of middle-class life, passes his time in pursuit of ever more esoteric sensual and aesthetic pleasures. The tone and mood of the novel are, to put it mildly, overwrought, self-conscious to the point of neurasthenia--in other words, just like virtually any contemporary memoir:
"When all was said and done, the future was the same for all, and neither one nor the other class, if they had had a particle of common sense, could possibly have desired it. For the rich, it was, in different surroundings, the same passions, the same vexations, the same sorrows, the same diseases, and likewise the same poor satisfactions, whether these were alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a vague compensation for all the sufferings, a kind of rude justice that restored the balance of misery as between the classes, enabling the poor to endure more easily the physical sufferings that broke down more mercilessly the feebler and more emaciated bodies of the rich." (Chapter 13)
A bit too didactic--precisely in the voice (whiny, hectoring, self-absorbed) of Houellebecq's narrator. De Esseintes quotes Baudelaire, grows poisonous flowers, and loads a tortoise's shell up with enough gems to crush the poor beast. He drinks too much and ruins his health; mocks the Church, but in the tone of a jilted lover. Throughout the novel the abiding questions revolve around the problem of meaning--what to make of this comfortable modern life of ours? Now that God is dead, superstition is vanquished, reason is triumphant, and "freedom" has been achieved--what do we do until we die? There appear to be only three options: suicide, political engagement (but with Communism dead this option appears cut off), and submission to one of the three overweening monotheisms available to modern persons. Decadents don't do politics and they generally enjoy something enough to stay alive (sex or food or reading), so what's left is the Temple or Church or, in this case, the Mosque.
Baudelaire, who could well have been Huysmans's model for des Esseintes, smoked opium and drank himself to death, and proclaimed (like Rimbaud) the "derangement of the senses," saw fit to take the sacrament of extreme unction on his deathbed, hoping, perhaps, like Pascal, to hedge his bets. This, I think, is real decadence.
Submission's plot is fairly straightforward: In the near future (the 2020's) a close election and an alliance with the disillusioned French Socialist Party hands the presidency of France to a presentable representative of the Muslim Brotherhood (no talk of jihad; western business attire). The narrator, a disillusioned professor at the Sorbonne, a specialist in Huysmans, a decadent himself, looks on with cynical disinterest as France quietly accepts Islam as its new religion/ideology--an Islam cloaked in terms of traditional family values (women out of the workforce, back into the nursery), a new Mediterranean empire with Paris as its capital (Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, and the Arab Middle East are quickly admitted to the EU), and an abandonment of secular education (the Sorbonne becomes a center of Islamic scholarship; all professors must pronounce the Shahada). The narrator, a half-hearted atheist, is retired on a generous pension. The trouble is, his life has no meaning. He is alone--his lover has left for Israel, as have many other French Jews--he is friendless, alienated from politics and dismissive of his former life as an intellectual. He still has his prostitutes--there's a generous amount of raw sex sprinkled throughout the book, but it's entirely joyless. Fucking and eating and drinking--like de Esseintes, Houellebecq's narrator finds nothing much to attract him in any pleasure, and mulls over the meaninglessness of life in the style of an angst-ridden teenager, without much belief even in despair. Eventually, after an abortive journey to the scene of his hero's Benedictine monastery in Poitiers, the nameless narrator is offered a chance to return to the Sorbonne, to revive his study of Huysmans, to take up a well-paid academic existence. Is he interested? Not really. But the other attraction, the lure of submission, that is tempting, almost irresistible. Why think or feel when you can surrender to Creator of the Universe?
Not an especially good book--Houellebecq is more of polemicist than a novelist, and Submission is full of the sort of long speeches on the absurdity of life that are the mainstay of French literature--the book does hold out the attraction of timeliness and painful relevance. It was published in France around the time of the Charlie Hebon massacre; I read it during the weekend surrounding the most recent ISIS atrocities in Paris. It's nonsense to accuse Houellebecq of being "anti-Muslim": he's against everything, religion, academics, women, men, and even the pleasures his characters so mindlessly pursue. He is a nihilist, and for the reviewers at the Times and other publications to wring their hands over his depictions of sodomy and his mockery of religion (Houellebecq has a "twisted outlook on the sacred" according to Adam Gollner of the New Yorker) misses the point. This isn't a book about Islam or even about religion--it's a work of cultural pessimism, a lament for the end of Western civilization, an ending that has been announced often in the past, but never before with as much conviction that this time we're not kidding.
I have two immediate reactions to the criticisms of Houellebecq as (frankly) an unpleasant writer and person: first, when did book reviewers become so complacent about the ideas expressed in novels? The main outlets for cultural opinion in this country appear to have tacitly agreed that no work of fiction that is "offensive" can be taken seriously, no matter how serious its intentions (see my review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones from October 20th). Second is the fact that the media in which these reviews appear are replete with respectful essays on the trashiest products of Hollywood, the misogynistic music churned out by hip-hop "artists," and the sex-and-violence-laden pulp fiction that graces the New York Times bestseller list every week. Put simply, books and movies and music that make money are treated with respect, no matter how ghastly and immoral their content, while literary fiction, committed to awakening readers' senses to some of the difficult truths of life, are dismissed on moral grounds. (He insults Islam? He's contemptible; but if Houellebecq were a member of the Republican Party he could be running for president). Or perhaps the upside-down values of our age are a sign of our decadence. Kant's "dare to know" has become "don't you dare," as we close our eyes to what is difficult in favor of what affirms our fantasies.
Reading Submission, I kept seeing the benign countenance of Ben Carson in my mind's eye: Carson became Ben Abbes, Houellebecq's Muslim President of France, also a benign-seeming man, whose brand of low-volume politics was pitched exactly right for a France that had (fictionally) tired of the indignities of the contemporary world. Gentle Ben's platitudes, reducing their disguised ideological fervor in the mush of banalities that we seem to prefer. Here's Spengler:
"A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirtuality of ever-childish humanity and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. . . It dies when this soul has actualized the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, sciences, and reverts to the proto-soul." (Part III, "Cultures as Organisms)
Spengler doesn't mention this, but it seems clear that the universalizing aspirations of the Enlightenment--a French inclination, born in the wars of Louis XIV and at the heart of the Revolution, systematized by Diderot in the Encyclopedia, and detested by Germans like Herder, Hegel, and Fichte--are what led to the "decline of the West." If Culture at its foundation is a set of spiritual aspirations that generate a particular cultural soul (Europe in its golden Roman and medieval periods), then decadence arrives with the rejection of this universalizing spirit in favor of an atomized individual. All of the great decadents are loners--the flâneur, the solitary poet wandering the countryside in search of lost gods, the despairing intellectual alone in his chateau with his books and tortoises (Huysmans), or the despairing Frenchman pumping himself dry into a woman he's paid for the privilege. How do we reverse this decline and fall, how do we restore hope if not meaning to the declining West? Find another universal, another great spiritual truth. Ben Carson has the Lord and Houellebecq imagines France with Ben Abba's Allah. Decadence dissolved in the Absolute; Mind in mindlessness; politics in Authority; love in reproduction; thought in blessed ignorance.
All will be well. Only submit.