Utopian or dystopian?
You decide. But consider seriously the question: The Muslim Brotherhood forms a new a political party in France, and, in a coalition with the left, forms a new government, with a prominent Muslim as prime minister. Then the Saudis purchase the Sorbonne, an ancient and prestigious French university. What’s a good professor to do?
Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, “Submission,” published in France, and, in translation, in the United States in 2015, is set in the not-too-distant future. The protagonist, Francois, is a French literature professor. He’s midway along life’s way, struggling with his vocation and life’s purpose.
He loses his professorship when Islam triumphs — one needs to be a Muslim to hold the position. He travels for a time outside Paris and visits a monastery where the subject of his doctoral dissertation, Joris-Karl Huysmans, once spent time as a lay observant, after a lifelong spiritual crisis.
What will the new France be like? And just how did France become an Islamic state?
Francois accepts the new order as almost inevitable. Europe, after all, has lost its moorings.
“Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls — zombies. The question was, could Christianity be revived? I thought so. I thought so for several years — with growing doubts. As time went on, I subscribed more and more to Toynbee’s idea that civilizations did not die by murder but by suicide.”
Europe, he concludes, had long since committed suicide, a course of cultural collapse reflected in the literary career of Huysmans, an author who worked through a mordant form of naturalism only to arrive at a diffuse spirituality, a weak-tea version of Christianity.
The West? Suicide?
These lines leapt from the page. Of course, I thought, he is right. The West has come to loathe itself. We apologize to everyone for everything, all in the name of a pluralism without qualities — as if tolerance for all were an end in itself. What sort of person concludes that all visions of the good are equally valid, but then refuses to embrace one himself for fear that he will offend?
Francois, it turns out, is Everyman.
The Saudi owners of the Sorbonne are kind. He is pensioned off comfortably and can live without financial anxiety. But it comes at a cost. This new life is also one lived without passion. He’s adrift, detached from a higher purpose, and seemingly unaware that he has lost the capacity to dream big dreams of the sort that make life worth living.
Not so the new immigrants.
“It may well be impossible,” he observes, “for people who have lived and prospered under a given social system to imagine the point of view of those who feel it offers them nothing, and who can contemplate its destruction without any particular dismay.”
Francois notes that his fellow professors seem oblivious to the changes taking place around them — they believe themselves to be untouchable by the grime of politics.
But change does come. The university closes, all without much real social unrest. Sure, the right protests, and there are street demonstrations and episodic violence. It is as though the zombie lay silent, awaiting infusion of a new soul.
When the university reopens, there are changes: the faculty all must declare their new creed, female students must wear veils, the sexes are separated. But, strangely, not much else changes, really — the Saudis are generous in terms of salary, and plenty of faculty members convert, teaching old subjects under the cloak of new faiths.
Reading this short novel brought to mind, somehow, an event I attended several years ago at the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I was a speaker — one of the last of the evening, as I recall. (I was no Islamophobe then.)
One of the earlier speakers talked about his belief that Islamic people would acquire ever more influence, prominence and visibility in the United States in years to come. His hope was to someday see a female newscaster on the air, reciting the news while wearing her customary headdress. Assimilation meant something less than adopting the moors of your new home. I found it an odd — and vaguely disconcerting — hope.
Francois returns to Paris after a brief absence. The university reopens. He is solicited, proselytized, by the university’s new president.
In short order, he is won over, but in a strange, passionless, way. His decision to convert to Islam yields no rapture of the soul; there’s no sense of the beloved finally finding what he had long sought. Rather, it’s as if his turn to Islam was simply a recognition of the inevitable — he submits.
“The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. This new wave of immigrants … offered a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe,” thinks Francois.
So he converts. His pension becomes a lavish salary, his solitude soon to be relieved by multiple arranged marriages, and all the while he can still teach his beloved Huysmans.
Reflecting on this new life, the novel ends: “I would have nothing to mourn.”
France’s embrace of Islam becomes a utopia — a place where a better life filled with meaning, purpose and prosperity transforms zombies into human beings.
The odd thing about this book is how well it works. Francois’ conversion overcomes no real internal obstacles. He had nothing; he was tap dancing on his own grave. He simply accepts, or submits to, this new life, and is offered the chance for rebirth.
It all seems dystopian to me.
I’m simply not prepared to concede that the West is dead, although I struggle with the role historic faith must play in keeping it alive.
Houellebecq’s work has inspired me to read through Huysman’s work. I am increasingly of the belief that there is still life in the Cross, and the West can be redeemed, but first, it seems, we must reacquire the courage of convictions worth holding.
Sadly, Francois had none.