It is a great power of literature to reflect contemporary society and politics. Through literature, as through art, the writer records what they see in a mirror held obliquely to the world. Reflecting and dreaming, literature can imagine the best and worst of humanity to lead it to better days.
In Submission Michel Houellebecq created a dissonance of social division, personal disillusionment, and political upheaval, all with the bitter taste of disquiet. The novel, translated from the French in 2015, takes place in 2022 and centers on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood Party, an Islamist political movement that supports and later establishes religious government and social patriarchy on a France torn by ethnic conflict and popular apathy and exclusive for self-interest. The ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood (that with the Socialist Party formed the National Front) is told from the perspective of a morally resigned literature scholar, François, who recounts political wrangling, hypocrisy and violence in off-hand digressions from monologues on the Decadent author Huysmans, lurid obscenities, mockery of colleagues’ mediocrity, tirades against gender equality and monologues on the virtues of patriarchy.
The reprehensibility of François’s beliefs exists within the reprehensibility of ethnic conflict and the intolerance and ignorance from which it arises. Yet this reprehensibility is not answered, it is not qualified by even a hinted desire for justice or struggle for change in French society. Neither the speaker and intelligentsia, nor the government and public, visibly express beliefs against forced religious conversion, abridgment of education, or restriction of protest and personal liberty; nor do they believe misogyny, antisemitism, or xenophobia to be immoral and unjust. This lack of a champion for morality contributes to an unforgiving sense of doom that is helpless and that permeates the novel; this is caused by and continues the characters’ moral indifference. In the absence of ethical, human awareness the reader is led to surrender their own conceptions of justice and equality and moral right, perceiving what humanity is capable of once it resigns to avarice, hostility, and prejudice.
François remarks—after days spent in a chapel built upon the blood-stained end of a medieval French- Arab war—“I knew I was close to suicide, not out of despair or even any special sadness, simply from the degradation of ‘the set of functions that resist death’” (Houllebecq, 168).
Houellebecq portrays a people standing at a precipice, glazed with detachment. They spend the remains of life and human vigor on prejudice and bitter hostility. A thunderstorm grows on the French horizon, and it is unclear from where it came or where it will pour its rage.
Submission indulges what racism, ethnocentrism and nationalism imagine society to be and to become, to convey the error and absurdity of these beliefs and the depravity to which we will come if they are indulged.
The novel is a subtle satire, more illustration than explanation, in which Houellebecq walks a fine line between parodying and imitating, denouncing and agreeing; and in which he takes a mirror to what is past and what is to come—with the intention of inspiring change.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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