Michel Houellebecq’s Critique of Western Anomie

Oct. 28 2015

Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission—recently translated into English—depicts a dystopian near future in which France undergoes Islamization. The protagonist, François, is a cynical and unhappy professor at the Sorbonne, which has recently become a Muslim institution. Although the book raised predictable cries of Islamophobia, not to mention death threats against the author, Benjamin Haddad argues that it is an attack not so much on Islam as on modern, secular, and liberal European society:

Where Catholic spirituality fails, Islam offers François a compelling alternative. . . . Islam, an ideology in expansion, strong and confident, offers the narrator—and indeed the whole country—an accessible framework for a complete and easy life. And it turns out, it is what everyone has been waiting for. François converts because he is offered predictability, security, recognition, and status. Yes, the university grants him three wives. But even more importantly, they will be chosen for him. The burden of having to make decisions as a free man is, at last, taken away.

Houellebecq’s intellectual challenge to liberalism is much more troubling than the quite frankly preposterous fictional prospect of a Muslim takeover of France. That people will not willingly submit is central to liberalism’s survival: citizens must bear the responsibility of choosing and questioning, rather than relying blindly on external authority. We want to believe that only fear, violence, or lack of education—exterior factors of constraint—should prevent people from naturally wanting to be free. . . .

Submission therefore is a success—despite its many flaws—because it really does tell us something about the times we live in. As the English translation hits American bookshelves this week, Europe is grappling with self-doubt and is flirting with toxic populism and cynical resignation. Even with its shortcomings, the novel brilliantly manages to distill the intellectual questioning wracking the continent. Can European societies recover? Can Europe give a new sense of purpose, identity, and bond to its citizens, while still keeping with its liberal tradition? Or will Europeans turn to more totalitarian ideologies, and to populist demagogues, as they forsake the lonely, thankless, and exhausting individualist project demanded by modern liberalism?

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