Translated from the French by Lorin Stein
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, October 2015
Reviewed By Randy Rosenthal
In hindsight, after the 2015 Paris attacks, Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission will inevitably be considered prophetic. More than The Elementary Particles or The Map and the Territory, it will be Submission that secures Houellebecq’s place in the French Canon. The novel will stand among the modern masterpieces of the language. Like Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us and Albert Camus’s The Stranger, it is perfectly paced and perfectly lengthed, not to mention beautifully translated, with plenty of underlinable insights and aphorisms. For its timely prediction of the Islamic takeover of French culture (the book takes place in 2022), reviews of Submission appeared in the major publications before the book was even published in English. And yet—perhaps distracted by the red herrings of politics, philosophy, religion, and history—critics seemed to have missed Houellebecq’s deeper point.
Submission is not so much about the invasion of Islam or the demise of European Christianity and its secular manifestations of Western liberalism, humanism, and individualism. It is more simply about what a man wants: submissive wives who know how to cook and fuck. A man wants his belly full and his balls empty. Because that’s what’s essential. Everything else is essentially superfluous. This includes romantic love, creative and intellectual work, even spiritual religion. Because ultimately, man does not want transcendence. He wants submission. Submission to how he was made. Not the transcendence offered by Christianity and Buddhism, but the submission of Islam. Not the Buddhist or Christian model of striving for perfection, but the peaceful surrender to being imperfect. Not a religion in the spiritual sense, but a surrender to the material, the mundane, the base, the low.
In Islam, this surrender to the low is accomplished through the veneration of an intangible high. Not the higher in our self, but a higher that is absent in our self, and so which must—by process of fallacious logic—exist elsewhere, in something beyond our comprehension. So it’s best to call it Allah and not to worry too much about it, about the higher things, about the beautiful and lofty potentials, the life of the mind and the life of the spirit. It’s best to stuff one’s belly, and stuff a woman’s orifices. Because that’s all a man really wants to do. That is to say, he wants polygamy. And that’s what Houellebecq’s Submission is really about.
For Houellebecq, Islam is reduced to polygamy. And for polygamy, a man will accept anything. He will accept the loss of his culture and his heritage. He will accept the covering of women and the Islamization of the education system. He will give up individuality and personal liberty—the most valued jewels of the Enlightenment. He will convert to Islam for the lure of polygamy, just as Houellebecq’s narrator François ultimately does. He will surrender to being imperfect, and submit to how he was made. Islam literarily means submission, and out of the world religions it only for Islam, as Houellebecq writes, that “the divine creation is perfect, it’s an absolute masterpiece. What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to his laws.”
If the Creator’s laws prescribe multiple wives, and allow teenage ones at that, then what man won’t submit? What man won’t surrender to the takeover of Islam? This simultaneously satirical and serious question is, at bottom, what Houellebecq is asking. And simply by asking, we already have the answer.