Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission has been greeted by a predictable mix of anger and uncritical bias toward the author, a typical reception for the most controversial French author of the past two decades. Though his latest novel was released on the same day as the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, one should be more careful than ever in discussing the two together.
Before the novel was even released January 7, rumours concerning its plot were already causing public outrage. Soumission, or “submission” in English, which is meant to be a translation of the word Islam, describes a French society set in 2022 where the head of a fictional French Muslim Brotherhood party is elected president. The novel’s first-person narrator is a dejected lecturer and expert in the work of Huysmans, a key writer of the 19th-century Decadent literary movement. Through him, we witness the social transformations brought about by society’s conversion to Islam against the backdrop of a French society in decline.
The novel is a deeply disturbing provocation on France’s fantasies about faith and Islam in particular. France, seduced by a stereotypical vision of Arab nations and of Islam by old Empire nations, converts willingly to the form of religion it has itself fantasised. With this detail, Houellebecq flags up the unhealthy fascination with and portrayal of Muslim communities in the European media and public sphere.
The exotic other
A very worrying trend about the novel is that it openly renews what Edward Said critiqued as the distorted representation of the “Orient” in European literature. In the near-future described in the novel, religion offers renewal to a consumer society in tatters, a society that has lost its drive for pleasure. The renewal that Islam offers here is the veil of transcendence lacking in a materialist society. This is mostly obvious in the novel’s sexual scenes, and in the exotic language which surrounds them.
An example of this deliberate fantasy is a scene where the narrator has sex with two women, one of whom, Rachida, is presumably of North African descent. The narrator’s sexual experience with Rachida is given a sublime element, akin to that of a spiritual rebirth. The same subtext is explicit in his equally controversial novel Plateforme. Here, a couple go to Cuba and pay to have sex with a local maid in a hotel to palliate what the novel suggests will be their inevitable loss of sexual desire – for each other and in general. What connects both scenes is the fact that the regeneration experienced by the characters occurs through the thrill of exotic difference.
Houellebecq’s novel describes an alliance between a decadent consumer society where pleasure is permitted but which has lost the capacity to experience it, his version of Islam fantasised, based on the return of patriarchy and orientalist pleasure. The religious and ideological conversion imagined in the novel keeps consumerism in place and cures the ills of apathy provoked by over-consuming.
Woman’s natural submission
Religion is not the only contentious subject dealt with in the novel. Ultimately, this future world is built on the back of racial and sexual differences rather than religious and political commitment. Feminists, in particular, are explicitly scapegoated as the reason for society’s loss of libido – and women’s “natural” submission to men is a point of view which remains unchallenged throughout. The narrator notes:
While a woman is indeed human, she nevertheless represents a slightly different type of humanity, giving life a necessary flavour of “exoticism”.
The novel cements this theory by sacrificing women to the new society. The consumerist representation of women as sex objects is combined with fantasised representations of the “Orient” – such as we see in Cabanel’s painting, sumptuous and eroticised. Houellebecq suggests that a return to patriarchy is the only thing capable of reviving the corpse of a materialist society in decline.
The novel’s portrayal of Islam against the background of a decadent French society is a caricature of current fears and fantasies, as well as echoing the decadent world of Huysmans’s novels. The portrayal of France is also worryingly akin to the symbolisation of decadence in Weimar Germany, where sexual transgression became associated with anti-semitic fantasies.
Houellebecq’s portrayal of Islam is undeniably perverse in its reversal of roles between the oppressor and the oppressed. But Soumission makes it clear that it is the social apathy produced by a hyper-consumerist society which turns France into a pleasure-seeking junkie looking for a fix in religion.
Ultimately, the societal crisis described in Houellebecq’s Soumission implies a facile society no longer capable of making judgements and so falls to the easier path of gratifying its fantasies about others – women, Muslims. The problem is that this is a trait which the novel is itself guilty of – it readily takes these fantasies for granted.