Submission, Michel Houellebecq (Vintage Edition)Cold? Yes. Important? Surely. Fiction? Surely hope so. Submission paints a landscape of a hypothetical France plunged into an Islamic regime, through the lens of Huysman scholar and Sorbonne professor, Francois. At the heart of it, François and Huysman, the iconic author of the fin-de-siecle so deeply admired by the protagonist, personify the journey of the French state, descending into nihilism and seeking to reclaim itself. For the purpose of this review, nihilism will be understood as emptying of meaning. Nietzsche characterised this to be the discovery of an inherent absence of meaning in life in the backdrop of a yearning for some value, that results in a crisis eventually manifesting as nihilism. Through Submission, Houellebecq asks the difficult question: Can one escape nihilism? The review will examine the state of nihilism, both on an individual and a state level, following by an evaluation of the attempt to resolve this meaningless.It is worth starting with the nihilism that paints the protagonist’s life. François’ life is one of disillusionment and its consequent ordinariness, dotted with his microwave dinners and single life. In fact, the disillusionment begins with the onset of the novel. Not only is the startling ordinariness jarring with the clunky phrasing with inane details in the first sentence, François deems the defense of his dissertation to be ‘the best part’ (page 1) of his life, preparing readers for a protagonist’s lamentable life. Immediately, François is disillusioned with the ideals of life he sees others are enamoured by, and chooses to live a plain life. This chronic ordinariness manifests in a cynical, disillusionment with the world. Whether having ‘never felt the slightest vocation for teaching’ (page 11) or an almost unbelievable inability to establish closeness with his relationships ‘following a fairly regular pattern’ (page 11) of deterioration, everything François engages in is tinged with pessimism. The pessimism is most evident in François’ deconstruction of relationships. To him, they have ‘nothing final’ (page 12), and instead, be more suitability viewed as transactional ‘internships, a practice that was generally seen as a step towards one’s first job’ (page 13), an ironic detachment that is echoed by François’ indifference when deaths of both parents were announced. This is significant when a relationship so personal, of parent-child or between lovers, has lost its intimacy and been reduced into a distant, clinical exchange. But what remains most worrying is the absurd passivity of François when the world he is familiar with falls apart. François is so involved in the ordinary that he fails to regard the uprooting of his society. Houellebecq employs humour in François’ comments that he ‘couldn’t find any signs of visible change other than the disappearance of the kosher section’ and that ‘several hours of surfing pornographic websites revealed no further changes’ , but realisation of François’ harrowing detachment leaves a remorseful aftertaste for the reader. The ignorance towards the disappearance of the kosher section as an action of commercial interest is haunting of Europe’s historical immoral past, and the use of the availability of pornography as an indicator of political stability is frankly absurd. In fact, the casual treatment of sex throughout the novel as a purely physical act is a siren of not only the amorality, but the immorality that plagues society. François’ cold passivity is perhaps the pinnacle of the individual’s detachment and plunge into immorality, recalling Nietzsche’s comment on the spiralling of Europe into nihilism. Moreover, Houellebecq does not stop the illustration of nihilism on an individual level; he furthers his social critique with the political upheaval of French society. The most important feature of this upheaval is scarcely the act of electing the Islamic Front; rather, it is the departure from cultural and social values. The demise of democracy is mourned, where parties on both sides of the election initially wanted ‘to take power and play by the rules of democracy’ through the ballot, but resorted to the ‘disruption of the electoral process’, a worrying sign of an erosion of a mature democratic culture established over the years. The upheaval extends to the suprastate structure of the European Union, which has ‘committed suicide’, a bold choice of words to illustrate how World War One and the senseless slaughter of people had marked a complete departure of any morality. Houellebecq targets specific groups as perpetrators of this degeneration. In particular, the politicians and the intellectuals (represented by the journalists and the academics) have their irresponsibility highlighted. The politicians allowed for the Muslim Brotherhood to seek power by forming a coalition in order to block the National Front, but the ironic result was instead of peace, France entered into civil war. Likewise, the journalists ‘repeated the blindness’ of their historical predecessors, with Houellebecq going all the way to rank them with Hitler, having ‘passed over in silence’ the violence and the riots. The academics are not immune from harsh criticism, remaining in an elite bubble of their parties funded by the Saudis, with plenty converting effortlessly to Islam to retain their positions, sacrificing their role of building knowledge. Groups in position of power to rescue the descent of France into nihilism had either accelerated the process (the politicians) or divorced themselves (the journalists, the academics) from the upheaval. Houellebecq sees the breakdown of France into nihilistic, and does not stop short of painting a convincing image of his seemingly inevitable fate. Yet, what then is the source of this nihilism? Houellebecq regards the source of this disillusionment to be the result of a loss and mis-replacement of faith. To François, in Western democracies, most students are ‘hypnotised by the desire for money…by the desire to make their mark…galvanised by the worship of fleeting icons’ (pages 5-6). The religious devotion commonly associated with the supernatural has been replaced by a more secular and material faith that is woefully temporary in providing much sought-after meaning. This departure of faith is reiterated with François’ own visit to the Rocamadour, a reflection of his attempt to regain some sort of meaning only to realise he was ‘fully deserted by the spirit, reduced to his damaged and perishable body’ (page 139). This would be the moment to raise Joris-Karl Huysman, the French author of the fin-de-siecle, whose life is followed throughout the novel. An author of the Decadent movement, Huysman had been disgusted by the excesses of the world, spiralling into a nihilism, as highlighted by François’ studies. Nihilism, in Submission, is the product of a loss of faith, a faith that provides a framework and a rootedness to society, a faith that Huysman discovered through Catholicism, and France through the Muslim Brotherhood and by extension, Islam.It comes as no surprise, when Huysman’s trajectory is considered, that in its crisis, French society scrambles in a search for meaning. Like Huysman who had ‘a desperate desire to be part of a religion’, France submits itself to Islam. France’s submission had offered a ‘brief surge of hope’ in the form of a reduction in crimes and lower unemployment rates. The use of religion as a means to reorganise a fallen state is seen with Ben Abbes’ adherence to distributism, similar to communism, but an ideology which he considered ‘perfectly compatible with the teachings of Islam’. Rather than introducing new policies, what France needed was a sense of direction and morality provided by religion. But why Islam? To François, just to Nietzsche , Christianity is ‘a feminine religion’. The subversion of women into more a more submissive homemaker parallels France taking a less dominant position, submitting to perhaps what was a more authoritative and stereotypically masculine Islam. The ordinariness and disillusionment of the individual, and the political upheaval of society required a sturdy hand to sort out, one centralised in the hands of a Muslim president, challenging (it could not be clearer) the ‘atheistic materialism’. One should, however, distinguish between France’s adoption of Islam with Huysman’s conversion to Catholicism. The latter sought a less practical, a more spiritual union, faith in an unadulterated form, in a detached monastery without the material pleasures that a state needed to provide for. The nuance maintains a distinction between individual and state morality, where one is a journey that still remains private, while the religion of the state is a tool to organise and mobilise. Could Houellebecq be offering religion as a response to nihilism?Just when one expects France and François to attain some semblance of meaning, Houellebecq points out the greatest irony of the novel. It is in precisely this search: the pursuit of meaning dug France further into her abyss of nihilism. The deeply emotional process of Huysman’s conversion is juxtaposed against Francois’ pragmatic and completely absurd decision. Compared to the former’s desperate desire to combat nihilism, Francois buries himself further. He learns the phrase for conversion phonetically, compared to Huysman’s words he had delved in depth but just earlier abandoned for this new religion, and engages in a ceremony that would be shorter than a Sorbonne reception. Houellebecq certainly does not hide his cynicism towards Islam as an answer to nihilism. If anything, Francois is completely ridiculed when his ‘chance at a second life’ hinged on marrying students, ‘pretty, veiled, shy’. The search for meaning brought him back to nothing. Surely, while his fantasies of online pornography were finally being realised in the form of a young wife, Francois’ life remained ordinary, devoid of meaning, a farce even, albeit now, he was deluded by this new morality. Houellebecq, unlike Francois, ‘would have everything to mourn’. Submission is a warning. A cold, important one against a potential future. ‘A few weeks would go by’ for Francois, but the hypothetical glares at the reader. What would happen to France? To Houellebecq, a nihilistic France would only bury itself, a pursuit of meaning utterly futile. What would be the answer? The only certainty is that Submission remains a work of fiction.


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