In an essay that appeared in this journal about a year ago titled “My Pilgrim’s Progress,” I explored how moral failure and cultural erosion have produced a nether state where the most affluent among us, the most privileged, are nevertheless a lost and unhappy lot. I also attempted to tie their sorry condition to the so-called progressive thinking that was born in the Enlightenment and has now reached a degree of ascendancy in modern society that has nearly eclipsed any viable counterpoint. My own “progress” included a brief discussion of the 2015 bestselling novel Submission, an extraordinary work by the French author Michel Houellebecq. I’d like to return to that novel now, and consider more closely the author’s withering condemnation of contemporary life—and his startling anticipation of subsequent world events.
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A poet, writer, and government employee, Michel Houellebecq published his first novel Whatever in 1994. The book was not without its enthusiasts. A group of them founded a magazine called Perpendiculaire, devoted to “depressionism”—a form of art the Urban Dictionary defines as using “social ideas and people’s beliefs to elicit an emotional or intellectual effect on the audience”—and rewarded Houellebecq with a place on the masthead. His next book, The Elementary Particles, leaped to the top of the bestseller list in 1998 and launched the public life of its author. Critics didn’t know what to make of it, uncertain as to whether Houellebecq was really a wolf of an old-fashioned dirty-book writer wearing the sheep’s clothing of intellectual pretense. “The [Perpendiculaire] staff was,” according to Paris Review, “offended by what they saw as his reactionary denunciation of the sexual liberation movement and booted him from the magazine.”
By 2015, Houellebecq was a well-established provocateur, low-lighted, perhaps, by a sensational fight with his mother over what she saw as her unfair characterization in his writing. That year, on the very day of the terrorist murders at the office of Charlie Hebdo—a crude humor magazine that happened to feature a caricature of Houellebecq on its cover that week—his publisher brought out Submission. Naturally, the book generated controversy. Although it might be noted that anything that does not comport with the prevailing left-wing cultural orthodoxy will be characterized as “far right,” Liberation (co-founded by the Karl Marx-admirer Jean Paul Sartre) intoned that “Submission will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far right made a grand return to serious French literature.” Susannah Black, writing in the Christian journal Providence, suggested the book was “a denunciation first of liberalish French intellectual society of the 21st century, a denunciation of the welfare state and the sexual revolution.” But the left-leaning Guardian drew a breath and concluded that Submission was “both a more subtle and less scandalous satire than the brouhaha surrounding it might suggest.”
The novel is narrated by François, a middle-aged senior lecturer at the Sorbonne who is forced to concede, at least to himself, that his academic career is, in effect, over. He has nothing more to say, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how to say it. Lust, a reliable diversion that has in the past delivered him from boredom and a très Francaise sense of ennui, leaves him feeling even emptier and more ground down than he does before his various assignations. His response to hunger is a similar cheap fix. In one scene, take-out sushi arrives long after he has reeled into empty-stomached drunkenness; but his usual repast is microwavable, and indifferently consumed in front of the television.
Submission’s antics won’t suit some readers, but its sexually explicit set pieces are far from gratuitous. On the contrary, they are stark depictions of François’s increasing inability to achieve any kind of satisfaction, sexual or otherwise, any sense of Aristotelian wellbeing. His sins, however, are not limited to those of the flesh. His moral morass stems from the fact that his only concern is for himself. Childless, unmarried, emotionally unmoored, he is consumed with faculty gossip, connected to nothing substantial. His life is at once meandering and rapidly passing him by, and the future, whatever it may hold, can only be bleak. Might as well uncork another bottle of wine. Whether or not Submission is a work of Literature with a capital L only time will tell—and I don’t expect to live long enough to make that call. Many, many books that arrived noisily in their own time are languishing in the junkyard of history, their authors having lapsed into obscurity. One widely accepted test of Literature, as the great teacher Sabina Wells assured our 11th-grade English class, is timelessness, which is to say that a particular book speaks to another time as it did to its own. Again, too soon to tell. We can however consider the novel’s timeliness. Set in an easily recognizable yet fictionalized France of the very near future, Submission provides uncanny insight into our culturally confused present; it is near-impossible to avert our eyes from the similarities.
In what may be the fulcrum of this complicated novel, the story unfolds against the backdrop of a closely contested election between the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Marine Le Pen’s right-wing National Front, a heady brew. The Brotherhood has co-opted the forces of the Left, deploying its more thuggish cohort in street-fights against their Nativist, putatively Catholic, counterparts. The violence is tsk-tsked but tolerated, sotto voce, of course, as the media refuse to cover it and, by their low tones, perhaps encourage the disorder.
François, while fascinated by the high-stakes political drama, is at heart disengaged—he can’t even be bothered to vote. On the day of the election, he embarks on a road trip without a destination in mind. Stopping for gas, he blunders across a murder scene, which is almost certainly political in nature, but his sole action is to step over the body and get back in his car. Eerily, François loses access to information from the outside world; the car’s radio picks up nothing but static; television isn’t working nor is there an internet signal at the hotel where he lands. Only later that evening does he learn that the election has been suspended due to widespread attacks on dozens of polling stations.
The sequence could be an allegory of our own convoluted past couple of years, a spooky anticipation of the Marxist violence that marred the American summer of 2020, unrest that in turn led to the populist paroxysm of the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riot. It is impossible not to see these events as intertwined. When Trumpian elements trespassed the sacrosanct home of the legislative branch, how could they not have been influenced by the consequence-free mayhem they had witnessed in the nation’s streets during the previous six months? The American media—always biased—impose their own blackout on the stories they are loath to tell, for fear of diluting their political advocacy. At the same time, their deafening amplifications go silent the moment a narrative—the story they’re straining to spin—falls apart, as it often does, and with breathtaking immediacy.
The week I began this essay, one wholly false concoction exploded in the media’s face like a joke-shop cigar. A deranged man murdered eight people associated with two Atlanta area massage parlors, and since six of the victims, some of them working as prostitutes, were Asian, this, according to the media, was proof that the crime was motivated by racial hatred. Law enforcement drew no such conclusion—because there was no evidence to support it—and although the hideous crime spurred nationwide demonstrations to “stop Asian hate,” and although randomized violence against Asians has been going on for decades, most of it unreported, once any white supremacy angle failed to materialize, the media dropped the story as if it were a molten rock.
Still, the questions persisted. What if the shooter, a self-described “sex addict,” wasn’t acting out of racial animus, but from rank misogyny instead? What elements brought his tortured mind to such a state? Was it his habitual use of prostitutes? He would have had easy access to all kinds of representative depravity the day he got his first computer: At what age did he begin consuming hard-core pornography? Was he eleven years old? Nine? Might that have had an effect on his developing mind? No media figure took the trouble to ask.
Unlike the media today, Michel Houellebecq is curious—and fearless. Although Submission tackles the issue obliquely, François is really a pornoformed sex pig. Our narrator’s exhaustive, wince-inducing expeditions for the ideal pornographic image inform the novel’s early pages, and his misdirected urges require two prostitutes at a time to be slaked. But aren’t the young women in his temporary employ—at least according to the laissezfaire attitudes of the dominant social class as it is portrayed in Submission— merely asserting their right to agency and self-determination? You know, their bodies, their selves? No judgments, no consequences? Hardly. The nagging takeaway from these scenes is that there’s something horribly wrong— soul killing—in the genital commerce they depict.
There’s no trick to anticipating which way the election, rescheduled for the following Sunday, is headed, and so this isn’t going to spoil the novel for anybody. The Brotherhood prevails, and to prevent the National Front from assuming any rule, the Left joins with the Brotherhood to form a coalition government. And since the Islamists have won the most votes, they can lay claim to the most influential bureaus; as will come as no surprise (although the irony is stinging), the Ministry of Education is first in line for an ideological do-over.
Now, the contemporary Left of the United States is not the Muslim Brotherhood, and the country itself is not some make-believe future France, but credit the Left—and the Democratic Party it now controls—for understanding that the path to genuine and lasting power is through education, for by controlling education victory is not consolidated in the present generation, but in the next one, and in the generations to come.
Consider the American public education system, dominated by militant teachers’ unions—dishonestly and dishonorably led—that are currently seeking to insinuate into curricula from coast to coast, critical race theory, as spelled out in the pseudo-historical 1619 Project, a New York Times “educational” undertaking that asserts the real founding of the United States occurred when the first slave ship landed ashore in the New World. In Submission, a takeover of the means to educate is a mere stepping-stone to the establishment of a caliphate. In real-life America today, it’s the inculcation of half-truths and falsehoods in pliable young minds that spells permanent power for the forces of so-called progressivism.
We’ve been living with this leftward tilt for at least fifty years at this point, since the cultural battles that rocked American universities in the 1960s, when spineless administrators joined sit-ins with students flambéed in leftist ideology. Those ’60s-era radicals are largely responsible for the academic corruption that’s sickened us for decades, and worse, for the corporate cultures we are suffering under today. Witness the non-stop stream of emails originating in corporate PR shops that begin, “We at [e.g., CVS] . . .” and then go on to endorse the leftist cause du jour.
Like their academic predecessors, big business bosses know who their customers are . . . or do they? This past summer, as boisterous school board meetings threatened to turn into brawls, people of all races and backgrounds shoved back against this leftist putsch in the education system. Taking their cue from affluent private school parents who, having had their fill of critical race theory, lashed back in widely circulated letters that were made public, folks once thought of as aspirational started questioning the value of what their children were being taught. And as if on cue, Joe Biden’s Justice Department announced plans to brand parents not aligned with Democratic political views as “domestic terrorists.” For talking out loud. At school board meetings. Virginia emerged as a flashpoint, and the issue became central in the state’s 2021 gubernatorial race, with the Republican Glenn Youngkin supporting a ban on CRT, and Democratic warhorse Terry McAuliffe casting his lot with the teachers unions. Recognizing a winning idea when he saw one, Youngkin hammered away at what was portrayed as a divide between teachers and administrators and alarmed parents who’d had a year and a half to listen in on what their kids were being taught in Zoom school. Presented with such stark alternatives, keener observers (Houellebecq, maybe) might have predicted the outcome of the race. Although it was hardly a trouncing, Youngkin carried the day. Leftist last-gaspers heard a cacophony of “dog-whistles”— they always do, racism you see—in spite of the fact that the same electorate that chose Youngkin as governor also elevated a black woman to Lieutenant Governor. Those of a less-desperate ideological stripe—including, obviously, some Democrats—spoke of a commonsense revolution, a victory of the sane.
The eerie auguries Houellebecq outlined in Submission were set in what was at publication (in 2015) the very near future—2022—and in case somebody hasn’t noticed, we’re there now. But despite the novel’s positively Cassandra-like qualities (and remember, her prophesies went unheeded), Submission is not a work of science fiction, but a novel of considerable literary ambition. As also noted, the book is complicated, though highly readable (one of its many triumphs).
In another crosscurrent, François is an expert in 19th century literature, with a particular attachment to the writer J.K. Huysmans, best remembered today for his novel À Rebours, or in English, Against Nature. À Rebours is about a lot of things, but it is essentially a treatise of opinions and aesthetics, and rolls on unburdened by anything resembling a plot. The novel’s main character, Des Esseintes, withdraws to a country manse where he spins a cocoon of art, artifice, and artificiality in order to insulate himself from the horror of mediocrity that is the outside world. François appears to be doing largely the same thing, in his way and according to his means (while Des Esseintes is an aristocrat, François seems mired in the middle class); in place of exquisite teas and masterpieces of art, Houellebecq’s protagonist falls back on fast food and porn.
Bolstered by ethereal prognostications that (seen in a contemporary light) appear to have been realized, Houellebecq’s repeated references to Huysmans, to Des Esseintes, and to À Rebours make comparisons inescapable. “Huysmans’ work,” said the critic Alex Preston, “sits palimpsest-like behind Submission, marshalling its obsessions and providing a satisfying extra layer to an already complex novel.” But although it’s fair to conclude that François is to some degree a stand-in for Houllebecq, in other instances that would be a ridiculous assertion. In much the same way, Huysmans deploys Des Esseintes to deliver his most trenchant observations, but also often stands in the wings, mocking his main character. But a more revealing comparison isn’t between the writers or even the protagonists of their respective novels, but between Houellebecq’s fictional François and the flesh and blood author Huysmans.
Whatever slim reputation François has assembled is built on the back of Huysmans, and he cannot escape the author’s shadow. Not professionally— he has contracted to contribute more writing on the subject for an upcoming publication—and maybe more importantly, in spite of himself, not spiritually, either. He sets out on a pilgrimage to Ligugé Abbey, site of Huysmans’ final conversion. To François’ shock, he is recognized by a monk he had encountered there twenty years before when he visited the abbey to supplement his academic research. François is moved by the beauty of the monastic setting, the simplicity of the lifestyle, the chanting, and the prayers that define the order of the day. He cannot help but be envious of the monks’ contentedness, but he couldn’t possibly commit, as Huysmans did, to permitting the Church and her sacred instruction to shape his view of the world. François would love to believe, but he cannot. The hurdle of his intellect, much like the “progressives” we have been discussing here—or maybe it’s his laziness—is too high to clear. Plus, the monks don’t want him smoking in his room.
Back home in a Paris now dominated by Sharia Law, François the infidel has gotten the sack from his tenured professorship. Reinstatement, however, can be achieved with the recitation of a few choice words. He will be handsomely compensated without the bother of much work, and enjoy the favors of teenage concubines, his lawfully wedded wives. True to his character—weak, shallow, amoral—and representative of the citizens, both real and imagined, of what used to be called the West, in the end it won’t be a difficult decision for François to make. Never mind that he doesn’t believe the half of it. Those words will get him what he wants.
This complacency and facility in endorsing an abiding falsehood (whether it’s an ahistorical academic initiative, the way our rancid media treat a story that is an obstacle to the fable they’re fabricating, or the attempted eradication of parental influence over their children’s education) provides unfortunate evidence that the ease of lying all too often defeats the hard work of truth, at least in the short term. The divide permeates our era, but the final betrayal, the last capitulation, occurs within ourselves. The question that Submission seems to be raising is: Once the truth catches up, will it be too late? Physically (François has a thousand aches and pains), mentally, spiritually—François’ ruin is complete. He has submitted. Have we?
Peter Pavia is the author of The Cuba Project and Dutch Uncle, a novel. His work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Diner Journal, and many other publications.