Prophecy, a la Houellebecq

2008.06.09._Michel_Houellebecq_Fot_Mariusz_Kubik_03

In two sittings I finished Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, a mordant vision of an Islamic future for Europe though the eyes of a man in a state of hedonistic despair. I couldn’t put it down. To call it dystopian is to misunderstand its paradoxes; it simply works out the logic of where things might lead given current events in the Middle East and Europe, speeding up the timeline for Western culture’s surrender to a new order, with a whimper rather than a bang (there’s plenty of the other sort of banging on both sides of the velvet revolution here). The book’s central paradox is that Islam wins, which is both the bad news and the good news, depending on what page you’re on, and how wedded you are to the Western notion of equality. For the author, it seems secular culture built around self-fulfillment has exhausted itself. Houellebecq has been vilified for calling Islam “the stupidest religion” and yet the picture of the society that would follow from this cultural revolution, via a vote runoff, is actually depicted as a supple and peaceful correction to Europe’s socio-economic woes. He doesn’t find it repellent at all. It’s clear that Islam has allure for his main character who seems like an avatar for the book’s author.

For someone who has claimed to be an agnostic, who has said science is the only arbiter of truth, he conveys impotent spiritual yearning in a convincing and sad way. (Recent interviews indicate his views on religion have shifted, or have simply become clear, depending on how you interpret his remarks.) It’s a brilliant book and it made me laugh out loud, and yet it isn’t a satire. Through the mouth of the man who heads the new Islamic Sorbonne in the novel, Houellebecq downshifts into beautiful prose, which comes out of nowhere (given the tone of the rest of the novel), when the subject comes to Muslim worship:

For Islam, though, the divine creation is perfect, it’s an absolute masterpiece. What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to his laws. In general, I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn about Islam by reading the Koran, unless of course you take the trouble to learn Arabic and read the original text. What I tell people to do instead is listen to the suras and read aloud, and repeat them, so you can feel their breath and their force. In any case, Islam is the only religion where it’s forbidden to use any translations in the liturgy, because the Koran is made up entirely of rhythms, rhymes, refrains, assonance. It starts with the idea, the basic idea of all poetry, that sound and sense can be made one, and so can speak the world.

Though he puts those lines into the mouth of a recent convert, he is deeply drawn toward this vision of an Islamic future. (The author at first tried to build the book around a conversion to Catholicism, but wasn’t happy with the results.) To put it mildly, the world he depicts would be a sharp U-turn from the path we’ve been on since the Enlightenment. It’s impossible to imagine Western women peacefully retreating from the workforce as they do here–or putting up with polygamy. It’s also possible to imagine many who would welcome a permanent vacation from the workforce. Houellebecq seems secretly drawn to Islam and feels a nostalgia for the retrograde social order it might bring. You might say he writes about it the way Milton once wrote about Satan, knowing the ostensible enemy is the most interesting character on the page, and maybe the real hero. He’s drawn to what he understands would be a sharp abridgement of all the freedoms that have made his career possible. Islam may loom like a conquering power here, but it would hardly be a despotic rule if the Islamic moderates from this novel took over. Their power grab proceeds through attraction, not force. This isn’t ISIS. The book doesn’t mock anything but the decadence of its central character, as a stand-in for the West’s decline.

Here’s a blast from the past from The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

But what stops you from succumbing to what you have said is the greatest danger for you, which is sulking in a corner while repeating over and over that everything sucks?

HOUELLEBECQ

For the moment my desire to be loved is enough to spur me to action. I want to be loved despite my faults. It isn’t exactly true that I’m a provocateur. A real provocateur is someone who says things he doesn’t think, just to shock. I try to say what I think. And when I sense that what I think is going to cause displeasure, I rush to say it with real enthusiasm. And deep down, I want to be loved despite that.

. . .

It may surprise you, but I am convinced that I am part of the great family of the Romantics.

INTERVIEWER

You’re aware that may be surprising?

HOUELLEBECQ

Yes, but society has evolved, a Romantic is not the same thing that it used to be. Not long ago, I read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I am certain that if you took, on the one hand, an old-order Romantic and, on the other hand, what de Tocqueville predicts will happen to literature with the development of democracy—taking the common man as its subject, having a strong interest in the future, using more realist vocabulary—you would get me.

INTERVIEWER

What is your definition of a Romantic?

HOUELLEBECQ

It’s someone who believes in unlimited happiness, which is eternal and possible right away. Belief in love. Also belief in the soul, which is strangely persistent in me, even though I never stop saying the opposite.

INTERVIEWER

You believe in unlimited, eternal happiness?

HOUELLEBECQ

Yes. And I’m not just saying that to be a provocateur.

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