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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Submission, A Novel by Michel Houellebecq

This novel, in English called Submission, is about Islam taking over France in a soon-to-happen election. It is confusing to me, mostly because when it comes to things French, I am very ignorant and worse, somewhat indifferent. Not sure why. I think this indifference is a reaction to French indifference to non-French opinion. I failed spectacularly in 8th grade French, and even though I went on to to learn to speak and read Chinese, can survive in Spanish, and am slowly  learning Russian, I never revisited the French language.  It is a language I just can't "hear",  (Sacre bleu! It is arguably the closest language to English, yet nothing gets through to me). 

French history, as I superficially know it, is strangely insular. Yes, they had colonies all over the world, and Napolean almost pulled it off, but to me, it seems lacking in long term effect on the world. I think this is because the French just don't care what other people think. Maybe because their life style is so wonderful, they are happy enough, and they know it. Remember Bull PCs in the 80s? It was the most proprietary system ever made, didn't work with anything, and was expensive to boot. When I sold PC software, Bull had no interest in making it work on their machines.  Same with the Citron, great suspension system, cool looking but, they refuse to do what they need to do to sell in the US. They don't seem to care, they are happy with their domestic market. It goes on, their disdain with Hollywood, snobbishness about food, all of it. I have several wonderful French friends who are very smart, and I know if they read this they will give it a "Gallic shrug", but they won't hold it against me, in fact they will probably agree and have twice as many more reasons for why it is true. And twice as many for why it is NOT true. They do not bend to American "Imperialism" in any of its forms, and I admire that, but short of moving to Provence, as far as I am concerned, it all kind of isolates them.

 Maybe Ceasar's summary of his Gaulic Wars, Veni, vidi, vici, (I came, I saw, I conquered) made easy to skip over “Charles Martel and the gang”. (Martel was the Frankish General who won a skirmish against a small Arab scouting party. Houellebecq writes, “Charles Martel—Charles the Hammer—fought the Arabs at Poitiers (Lee's Note: I always thought it was Tours) in 732, ending Muslim expansion to the north. That was a decisive battle, it marks the real beginning of the Christian Middle Ages.” If that is true it says more about Christianity than about Martel. French literature again didn't really change the world the way the Russians or Shakespeare or even Cervantes or Dante or Homer did. (Stendhal, Flaubert, Sartre – I love them all, and want to read A Sentimental Education again, for the third time, someday. But still...)

I peeked at another review of "Submission", and saw that the speculative novel was called “a comic satire”.  I didn't get the humor, Houellebecq seemed pretty serious about the state of things. If it really is a "comic satire" then that is another point about French  ça m'est égal! (I don't care).
The title “Submission” means many things, including the act of converting to Islam, but is also possibly a shot across the bow at submitting to multiculturalism in general. The novel is a future “alt-history” (“alt” as in “Alt-right”) set in the near present. As an alliance between the Socialists and the Islamic party gains strength, France, slow walks toward a Muslim dominated future in public discussions and is looking like a possible winner in the coming election. The story is a first-person account of a French literature professor at the Sorbonne, unmarried, approaching middle age, coming to terms with the loss of his true love, Myriam, who moves to Israel as Islamic and Socialist anti-semitism gains traction.
Much of the book is a discussion of the subject of his thesis, J. K. Huysman, a relatively minor French novelist (1848-1907) who is a pessimist along the lines of Schopenhauer. The book follows the day to day life of the main character, François, through the several months leading up to the election.  The socialists and Islamic party have formed an alliance together over their hatred of Ms. Le Pen and her Nationalist agenda. But within their alliance, the socialists gradually surrender more and more to the Islamists. Their coalition starts out as a liberal pan-nationalist agenda but slowly begins to bend more and more toward Mecca. The Muslim leader is highly charismatic, witty and urbane, and completely overshadows his political partners as well as Le Pen, (Perhaps Houellebecq means to infer in the way Obama overshadowed his political rivals, to show - “See, it happened in America!”) .
To me in some ways, the story is a high brow illustration of the debates we hear in some of the more troglodyte parts of the US about Sharia Law. High fashion veils start to appear, as do burka-style swimsuits, along with serious discussions of the merits of polygamy. The novel shows a gradual progression toward acceptance of Muslim customs. Saudi funding of cultural and University programs begin to change minds even faster. Serious scholars who convert are given high paying and high-status positions.
The story is told via François’ depressing slog through boring (for him, not the reader)  and empty academic days, meeting other colleagues who say, what the hell, Islam isn’t so bad.   I am not a real Christian anymore anyway, they think, so what difference does it make? Much of it is sterile discussions of Rimbaud, and Balzac and Nietzsche and many minor French writers, cross-referencing their pessimistic fin-de-siecle philosophical ideas with 21-century reality. It is kind of clever in that Cartesian “I think therefore I am”, manner.

Houellebecq makes this dry, and (for me) obscure story pretty interesting, by recounting many little historic vignettes mostly set in the late 19th century and spicing it with his own graphic, yet depressing visits to Parisian prostitutes. François is a bright and perceptive man, a fact that makes the story all the sadder.
Houellebecq published his novel in 2015 around the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and was subject to a lot of criticism for making anti-Muslim ideas fashionable. Others have compared the novel's slow march to Franco-Islamicism to Germany’s creeping toward Nazism in the early 1930s.
I see it as an alarmist fantasy, that while an interesting read on European demographic trends, offers little real insight into a possible dystopian roadmap of Europe’s future. It is not going to happen that way, because educated Muslims, I believe won’t allow it. They have lived in France and know what they have to lose. Also, the demographics don't measure up. Just 8% of French is ethnically North African Muslim, and only 100,000 ethnic French have become Muslim, mostly through marriage. So they are an unthreatening minority, electorally. They don't want Ms. Le Pen, that is true, but it is a long way from making the whole country Islamic. But maybe that is beside the point. It is satire after all.
Angela Merkel and the German people are showing the way to keep your culture is to welcome people into it. They are spending money on refugees, (like they did for their Soviet controlled countrymen to the east) teaching them German, putting them in needed trades, and setting them on a future for them and their children as future Germans. They follow up, keep tabs on the bad apples and deal with that in a firm but civilized manner. It really is not that hard to make good citizens of refugees. You could not have a more motivated audience.
The French problem is more complicated. The majority of Muslims are not refugees, they are citizens, with multigenerational roots in France. Poverty and racism are the problems, as well as a lack of national consensus to fix them. Imperialism, colonialism and slavery are debts that have not been paid yet. Belgium in the Congo, Holland in Indonesia, and France in the Arab world extracted great wealth and prestige from these colonies. But the "legacy" of it all is that many people were able to move to the “mother countries”. In the US, the immigration issues that rile up Trump’s base are for the most part the result of “The Alamo” and it aftermath.
Abraham Lincoln as a young Congressman in the 1840s railed against The Mexican War, but American Manifest Destiny, a concept which U.S junior high history teachers used to explain with a straight face, drove America then, just as “anti-Communism” did in the lead up to the Vietnam War. Large populations of Mexicans and Vietnamese resulted, to America’s economic and social benefit, but alas, not to our political culture. Racism and xenophobia never seem to die. And if you have gotten this far in this review, I don't think I need to explain slavery in this context.
If there is a true historical parallel to  Submission, it might be in the new Chinese push in the cultural and economic spheres. The “Confucius Institutes” are worldwide Chinese funded programs to teach Chinese. The outreach of the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure plan is somewhat like the outreach by the Oil Sheiks to fund Muslim programs in  Submission. But again, not even the most nationalistic Chinese scholar would think that those outreach programs could subvert another national culture in the way described in  Submission.

The only country that has succeeded in such a venture recently, (other than Hollywood and fast food industry in much of the world) is the recent Russian takeover of the US Government. But that is a takeover 180 degrees away from the one Houellebecq describes. Putin's American surrogates took power because of the infantile anti-”Submission” like fantasies of Trump. Trump's world is a mirror to Houellebecq's. “What is Submission?” is perhaps the Jeopardy question for “Book that encourages xenophobes to block the border and deport immigrants.”

An interesting exercise is to Google “Steve Bannon and Houellebecq” together. You will find a whole host of articles about the European populism, the new right, Euronationalism, along with lots of breast-beating about the death of civilization. Adam Gopnik had an interesting article in the New Yorker about the trend.

Submission, the novel is subtle and not easily encapsulated. I wish I was as good a writer as Houellebecq. It might be a call to arms for some, but for me, it was enlightening about many things I didn't know before, such as pessimistic 19th Century Europeans and the scholars who study them. It's “conclusions” can hopefully be seen as satiric admonitions rather than a battle cry. It's political predictions seem very unlikely. But the title – Submission – is not really bad advice. Submitting to a world that is not dominated by American and Western Europe need not mean cultural death, but a cultural renaissance. Humankind has found other ways to be happy, and that is the ultimate American pursuit.