Soumission, by Michel Houellebecq
I ordered and read Soumission in French, one of the first editions, or rather a volume of a limited Flammarion edition of 120 copies. And again, as usual after finishing a book by Michel Houellebecq, I’m astonished, amazed and full of admiration for this author so unique. I quote the introduction to the novel first, which is direct and almost exhaustive: ‘Dans une France assez proche de la notre, un homme s’engage dans la carrière universitaire. Peu motivé, il s’attend à une vie ennuyeuse mais calme, protégé des grands drames historique. Cependant les forces en jeu dans le pays ont fissuré le système politique jusqu’à provoquer son effondrement. Cette implosion sans soubresauts, sans vraie révolution, se développe come un mauvais rêve… Le talent de l’auteur, sa force visionnaire nous entrainent sur un terrain ambigu et glissant; son regard sur notre civilisation vieillissante fait coexister dans ce roman les intuitions poétiques, les effets comiques, une mélancolie fataliste… Ce livre est une saisissante fable politique et morale…’
I’m a convinced fan of Houellebecq. Not for a single novel, but his corpus is an absolute masterpiece, maybe the best literary production of the last fifty years in the world. Atomised (Les Particules Élémentaires), Platform, The Possibility of an Island, The Map and the Territory and now Soumission, the whole of his novels represents a terrific picture of our civilization, a merciless mirror of our growing weakness, submission and lack of values. I don’t think that Houellebecq tells a fable politique, not in the usual meaning of the term, but he builds a real fable morale, yes. And his greatness, so disruptive and explosive, lies in his ability to speak of morality without being a moralist – I can’t imagine he is a hypocrite either.
Houellebecq is the prototype of what a thinker and intellectual must be: free, not politically correct nor embedded, sensitive and attentive, critical and provocative, extremely intelligent and visionary. Yes, because at the end of your analysis, of your effort to absorb, smell and understand the implosion and changes in the world, if you are a great artist you have to create a vision. And Houellebecq is a maestro in designing new possible scenarios. A painter must clarify his vision (and the best critics say that 70% of contemporary abstract painting is only trash because it represents nothing but technical expression and masturbation; after the pop art it is difficult to find new, astonishing or moving visions, yes). So a good writer – I’m thinking of a very elite group of great artists – has the responsibility not only to describe but also to declare what his imagination and wisdom are able to shape for our future. With full freedom and without compromise or false constraints. I pay for a book not to get an established opinion (the newspapers do that well enough, and the circles of intellectuals are packed with dancers and dwarfs at the disposal of those with political power). On the contrary, I’m looking for help, for a flash of intelligence, maybe disturbing, maybe harming, but useful, to understand our world, which is becoming every day more complicated and jagged. Economists, anthropologists, mathematicians and philosophers have lost control of things; this is the truth: the changes are so rapid and unforeseeable, and strangely linked with each other, that the problems we are facing now didn’t exist a handful of years ago. Europe was a powerful locomotive, do you remember? Unstoppable, impetuous, able to lure and incorporate the dozens of new countries willing to join our economic paradise, this golden dream. And also it was a military force, don’t forget, maybe unbalanced and unrealistic, a child of stupidity and not of a long-term strategic vision, which assembled to free Libya, led initially by France and the UK, because Europe had to settle old scores and to flex its muscles again – do you remember? Only four years ago and yet it seems prehistory.
Of course, this is not the right place to describe what Europe is today and what have been the consequences of that unhappy military adventure. It is just an example among many others to show how little we know about our system, how small we are in comparison to les forces en jeu, how defenceless is our existential and political construction. Houellebecq lifts, or rather tears the veil of our poor certainties, of our selfish provincialism, and says: “Look at it. So you are. And this is a possible, likely development, be careful!”
I go back to the definition ‘fable politique’ to avoid misunderstandings. Houellebecq speaks of the contemporary political world that we know very well, correctly. He tells about François Hollande, Marine Le Pen, l’islam politique, le Front National, le Parti socialiste, etc., as well as other imaginary characters and parties like la Fraternité musulmane. But his message is not about the tricks, the alliances, the abomination of actual politics (in this sense Soumission is not at all a fable politique – those things are only in the background and are the background), but about the distance between un pays où la misère de masse continuait inéluctablement, année après année, a s’étendre and the spectre of a democracy that doesn’t work any longer, which is only a tool in the hands of bands with hidden objectives. Reflecting – reflecting according to Houellebecq’s style, using his story with a very low profile, his bottom-up account, thus forgetting an essay or a pamphlet – on the concept of democracy, so in this sense Soumission is, instead, a powerful fable politique. Les forces en jeu dans le pays ont fissuré le système politique jusqu’à provoquer son effondrement, and a single individual – not by chance the main character is a bourgeois, a teacher of literature – is unable not only to oppose but also to understand. He is a prey of great strategies of power, so overarching and far for everyday existence, that he can only suffer the consequences. There is no more space for les ‘Cassandres’ qui prévoyaient une guerre civile, as well for a revolution, which is only quoted by some politician (en citant un article de la Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, celle de 1793: “Quand le gouvernement viole le droits du people, l’insurrection est, pour le people e pour chaque portion du people, le plus sacré des droits et le plus indispensable des devoirs.”) but it is not a concrete choice. France – though Houellebecq is telling us about Western civilisation – is no longer able to have a revolution. And the overarching bands know it very well. The only possibility is a slow decline and submission.
“Alors?… Alors, quelle conclusions peut-on en tirer, à votre avis?”
“Vous voulez dire que le gouvernement souhaitait que le processus électoral soit interrompu?”
“Je ne pourrais pas le prouver devant une commission d’enquête…”
The end of the novel is terrific, once again in terms of hopelessness – but I won’t reveal the plot, of course.
Now, Houellebecq is a controversial artist, and it is easy to understand why. But I think that the critics who judged his novel vulgar, pamphlet literature and pornography, and have accused him of obscenity, racism, misogyny and islamophobia, have not read his works. The whole of French literature is crossed by an erotic red line that starts with Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade, (the well-known French aristocrat, revolutionary politician, philosopher and writer, famous for his libertine sexuality), then Marguerite Duras, Georges Bataille, Emmanuelle Arsan, Alina Reyes, Dominique Aury, etc., to arrive at Frédéric Dard and his San-Antonio. So, Houellebecq is only one among many writers who have used sexuality to portray a character (and the coherence of Houellebecq’s characters is outstanding – this is the most important feature, not its pleasantness). He speaks about women as the overwhelming majority of men do, and you can call that misogyny, OK, but it is only crude realism (to which category does Histoire d’O belong, by the way?). Regarding racism (this accusation comes from the French literary intelligentsia, who notoriously are everything but not racist and chauvinist), I think that you have to judge for yourself. In any case, if you think that Soumission is a book against Islam and not against the terminal weakness of the Western civilisation, then sorry, I strongly disagree.