Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Soumission has generated so much commentary since its publication on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders that many readers will already know the basic outline of the plot. Seven years from now France comes under the power of a Muslim party, and a quiet process of Islamization sets in. Politicians and journalists who know only the outline have assumed that Houellebecq’s story is islamophobic, but careful readers of the book have agreed with his own protestations that this is not at all the case.
If anyone should be offended by his book, Houellebecq argues, it should be feminists. The place of women in society is indeed one of the main themes of Soumission. The narrator and protagonist of the story, François, begins by describing his growing disillusion with the secular feminism of the contemporary West and ends by accepting a version of Islamic patriarchy. Before accepting Islam he is drawn toward Catholicism, whose attitude toward women is only indirectly hinted at. His rejection of Catholicism seems to stem from the moral character that secular hedonism has given him.
François is a professor of literature, and since his student days he has had about one girlfriend a year. The opening of the book shows his growing realization that these relationships have not remedied his basic loneliness and discontent, but also and more importantly that the current ideal of sexual relations have rendered the women he knows lonely and miserable. When he meets some of his girlfriends from past years he sees that their implicit plan of “trying out” exclusive relationships with a series of boyfriends before settling down with one final boyfriend and starting a family has not worked.
One of them, Aurélie, was so emotionally and physically strained from her series of boyfriends that when she finally did attempt to start a family she failed. This failure has left her a bitter misandrist, whose only topic of conversation is the failings of her male colleagues at her (unfulfilling) job. Another one, Sandra, who has similarly failed to start a family, has become a “cougar,” distracting herself from her inner emptiness by brief flirtations with younger men.
The most miserable of his female acquaintances seems to be the only one of his generation for whom the current model of relationships has gone pretty much as planned: Annelise, the wife of an old friend from his student days. Annelise wakes up and adorns herself with expensive clothes and makeup for her high stress job, in which an elegant and stylish appearance is a sign of her status, but when she returns home at the end of the day, physically and mentally exhausted, she dresses in comfortable and ugly clothes, too tired to enjoy the company of her husband and children, or to try to beautify their lives. Her marriage seems to have become a mockery. In one scene , François is at Annelise’s house for a barbecue that is descending into chaos. Filled with pity he stays at her side, trying to express solidarity with her: “a vain solidarity.”
The (somewhat fanciful) version of Islam to which François eventually submits is portrayed as the opposite of the failed sexual egalitarianism he has rejected. Muslim women are portrayed as dressing in shapeless robes and veils when they go outside, but as dressing up for their husbands. Polygamy allows for stable homes for women without sexual discipline on the part of men. Sealed off in the privacy of the home, the Muslim women are absolved from the stresses of commercial and public life. They remain in idyllic world of childhood:
In the Islamic regime women (at least those pretty enough to attract well to do husbands) could remain children for practically their whole lives. Soon after they ceased being children themselves they became mothers, and plunged again into the world of children. As soon as their children grew up they became grandmothers… There were only a few years in which they bought sexy lingerie and exchanged children’s games for sex games…
The narrator admits that this amounts to a loss of autonomy, but he dismisses autonomy with an expletive. This is certainly an anti-feminist attitude, but is it a misogynistic one? It might be useful in this connection to recall David Graeber’s claim in Debt: The First 5000 Years that patriarchy in the classic, Old Testament sense first arose in rebellion against the decadence and sexual depravity of Mesopotamian cities; the veiling and secluding of women was partly a protest against their degradation in temple prostitution. This is certainly the way François chooses to see it, but it is hard to resist the impression that such infantilization of women implies some degree of contempt.
Moreover, for the new Muslim president of France, Mohammed Ben Abbes, the restoration of patriarchy is motivated not by pity for women, but by desire for power. His ultimate goal is to re-create the Roman Empire. He is scheming to admit the North African nations to the EU, and then re-model the EU as an authoritarian super-state with himself as president.
He realizes that a strong civilization needs to have more children than secular France does, and thus the restoration of patriarchy is key to his project. He thinks the ultimate foundation of patriarchy is religion, and thus his first priority is to give French children an Islamic education. He also sees that economic changes will have to be made if France is really going to become a patriarchal society. He begins by giving women financial incentives to leave the workforce, but he goes on to work toward a complete restructuring of economic life—abolishing both capitalism and the welfare system with their atomizing and egalitarian influences, and building a new economic system meant to strengthen families and family networks.
Oddly enough he turns a non-Islamic source for inspiration here: the Catholic distributists Chesterton and Belloc. Distributism, the astonished public learned,
wanted to take a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism (which it understood as state capitalism). Its basic idea was the overcoming of the division between capital and labor. The normal form of economic life was to be the family business. If certain branches of production required large scale organization, then everything was to be done to ensure that the workers were co-owners of their company, and co-responsible for its management.
A Christian distributist might argue that the overcoming of the separation between work and family could allow for equality between the sexes without giving women Annelise’s problems. But for François such questions are a bit beside the point. François is not much interested in economic theory. He is attracted to Islam because it is in power, and because it seems better than secular nihilism. He does however go through a phase in which he is attracted to Catholicism.
François is an expert on the nineteenth-century French decadent novelist J.K. Huysmans. Huysmans converted to Catholicism, and for a long time François plays with the idea of following in his footsteps. He seems to approach an epiphany at a medieval pilgrimage shrine to Our Lady, but the moment passes. Later he visits a Benedictine monastery. There are of course no women there, but the Christianity that François sees there implies quite a different view of women from Islam:
The voices of the monks in the icy air were pure, humble, and mild; they were full of sweetness, hope, and expectation. The Lord Jesus was returning, He would return soon, and the warmth of His presence already filled their souls with joy. That was basically the only theme of their chants, songs of harmonious and sweet expectation. Nietzsche was quite right, in that bitchy way of his, that Christianity is at heart a feminine religion.
Unlike Nietzsche, François does not at first consider Christianity’s feminine character as a reason to reject it. But then he returns to his room, and a comical scene ensues in which he tries to read a devotional book but becomes exasperated because he is not allowed to smoke. “You are here,” the book tells him, “…to journey to that source where the force of desire can be expressed.” He becomes enraged: “You idiot! My desire is perfectly clear—I desire to smoke a gasper.”
Unable to live without smoking he breaks off his visit early, and returns to Paris. Later the new head of his old university will introduce him to a form of Islam that will allow him not only cigarettes, but also a full harem, and even (surprisingly) fine wine. He converts. It seems that the real problem with the “womanish” religion of Christianity was that it would have required him to discipline his passions.
Some critics have been annoyed by the amount of attention that Soumission has received. From a purely stylistic perspective, it is not particularly notable; Houellebecq’s prose is competent, but fairly conventional. But as a novel of ideas it is worthy of careful consideration. It gives us the picture of a Western intellectual who thinks with good reason that the cultural experiment begun in the Enlightenment is doomed. But unlike many such intellectuals, he goes a step further, asking whether the end of of that experiment is a bad thing and concluding that it is not. For Christian readers it is worth pondering why such a person would see the alternative in Islam rather than in Christianity.