The Paris Review conducted an interview with Michael Houellebecq earlier this year upon the release of his book, Submission. The interview was quite interesting, given the nature of Houellebecq's previous novels and I thought as a follow up to the previous post I would reprint some of the interview as I felt that Houellebecq's comments complemented my own view of the novel. Note, I've not reprinted it in full, just some sections of it which I felt were pertinent.
This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission (Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he's given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.
Why did you do it?
For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western [ED] As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.
The death of your dog, of your parents?It's interesting to note, that from the outset, Houellebecq raises the issue of religion as an important thematic consideration for the novel. The lumpen-proletariat can't see past the Islamic "dressing" of the novel and assume it's all about an Islamic takeover.
Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.
Whereas before you felt …
I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first [ED].
But my project was very different at the beginning. It wasn’t meant to be called Soumission—the first title was La Conversion. And in my original project, the narrator converted, too, but to Catholicism. Which is to say, he followed in Huysmans’s footsteps a century later, leaving naturalism to become Catholic. And I wasn’t able to do it.
It didn’t work. In my opinion, the key scene of the book is the one where the narrator takes one last look at the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, he feels a spiritual power, like waves, and all at once she fades into the past and he goes back to the parking lot, alone and basically in despair.Houellebecq's power as a writer seems to lay in the fact that he is able to describe the everyday banality of life so well in a world soaked with physical pleasures. If his novel is to be taken as an act of social commentary, Submission, should frighten the hell out of Christian types, since what Houellebecq is saying that contemporary Christianity has failed even those who are looking for it. Unlike the atheists who would see this a triumph, he notes this fact with a sadness and a sense of mourning.
Where did you get the idea for a presidential election, in 2022, that came down to Marine Le Pen and the leader of a Muslim party?
Well, Marine Le Pen strikes me as a realistic candidate for 2022—even for 2017 … The Muslim party is more … That’s the heart of the matter, really. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.Some of you may want to read up on Auguste Comte because Houellebecq seems to be basis his philosophical position upon some of Comte's. Comte was an atheist, whose understanding of human society led him to the conclusion that some form of religion was necessary. But while Houellebecq does endorse some of his views, he has been critical of Comte in the past so I don't think he is some kind of objective Comtean. I get the impression that he's more a "reactive Comtean" seeing the necessity, particularly of the Christian religion by seeing the consequences of a world without it.
......But we can reasonably assume that for every guy like that there are several dozen who convert and don’t go off to wage jihad in Syria, who don’t do anything of the kind. After all, one doesn’t wage jihad for the fun of it, that sort of thing only interests people who are strongly motivated by doing violence, which is to say, necessarily a minority.
You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting.
I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.
That hypothesis is central to the book, but we know that it has been discredited for many years by numerous researchers, who have shown that we are actually witnessing a progressive secularization of Islam, and that violence and radicalism should be understood as the death throes of Islamism. That is the argument made by Olivier Roy, and many other people who have worked on this question for more than twenty years.
This is not what I have observed, although in North and South America, Islam has benefited less than the evangelicals. This is not a French phenomenon, it’s almost global. I don’t know about Asia, but the case of Africa is interesting because there you have the two great religious powers on the rise—evangelical Christianity and Islam. I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion[ED]
But why did you decide to tell these things in such a dramatically exaggerated way when even you acknowledge that the idea of a Muslim president in 2022 is unrealistic?It's here where Houellebecq pretty much admits that "Islamic" component of the book was simply to generate sales. It says a lot about he professional commentariat--even self proclaimed "intellectuals"--who can see nothing else in this book except the Islamic component of it with the occasional reference to its sexual depictions. This book is primarily about the religious failure of the West which is the novel does not celebrate but mourns.
That must be my mass market side, my “thriller” side.
To go back to the question of your unrealistic exaggerations, in your book you describe, in a very blurry and vague way, various world events, and yet the reader never knows quite what these are. This takes us into the realm of fantasy, doesn’t it, into the politics of fear.Very, Very interesting comment. As I said in my previous post, Houellebecq portrayal of the Right is very ambivalent. Firstly, he recognises the existence of the cuckservative sort of conservative who would rather join with the socialists and allow Islam to win rather than unite with the Natrualists. But he certainly does not give the impression that the far Right is some kind of saviour of Europe. In fact, the man who finally convert Francoisto Islam is an apologist who had his origins in the french Far Right. Houellebecq's view of the "nativists" is not positive. And I really got the impression reading this book that Houellebecq may have been familiar with some of the writings in Neoreaction, based upon his references to the Right and the "internet".
Yes, perhaps. Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.
Like imagining the prospect of Islam taking over the country?
Actually, it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.
You rely on another dubious dichotomy, the opposition between anti-Semitism and racism, when actually we can point to many moments in history when those two things have gone hand in hand.Houellebecq is a wordsmith and his insistence for precision in language and concept is apparent here. He is quite insistent on using words in the correct context while the Cathedral Operative wants to use it in more expansive way to condemn him.
I think anti-Semitism has nothing to do with racism. I’ve spent time trying to understand anti-Semitism, as it happens. One’s first impulse is to connect it with racism. But what kind of racism is it when a person can’t say whether somebody is Jewish or not Jewish, because the difference can’t be seen? Racism is more elementary than that, it’s a different skin color …
No, because cultural racism has been with us for a long time.
But now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. Racism is simply when you don’t like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn’t got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.
But since, from a biological point of view, “races” don’t exist, racism is necessarily cultural.
But racism exists, apparently, all around us. Obviously it has existed from the moment when races first began mixing … Be honest, Sylvain! You know very well that a racist is someone who doesn’t like somebody else because he has black skin or because he has an Arab face. That’s what racism is.Somehow I don't think he'd fit in with the Radix crowd.
Or because his values or his culture are …
No, that’s a different problem, I’m sorry.
Because he is polygamous, for example.
Ah, well, one can be shocked by polygamy without being the least bit racist. That must be the case for lots of people who are not the least bit racist. But let’s go back to anti-Semitism, because we’ve gotten off topic. Seeing as how no one has ever been able to tell whether somebody is Jewish just by his appearance or even by his way of life, since by the time anti-Semitism really developed, very few Jews had a Jewish way of life, what could antisemitism really mean? It’s not a kind of racism. All you have to do is read the texts to realize that anti-Semitism is simply a conspiracy theory—there are hidden people who are responsible for all the unhappiness in the world, who are plotting against us, there’s an invader in our midst. If the world is going badly, it’s because of the Jews, because of Jewish banks … It’s a conspiracy theory.
I don’t see it. On the contrary, the same people are often militant antiracists and fervent defenders of secularism, with both ways of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment.
Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace [ED]. A striking example? The left wing candidate on Olivier Besancenot’s ticket who wore the veil, there’s a contradiction for you. But only the Muslims are in an actually schizophrenic situation. On the level of what we customarily call values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic. That seems obvious to me.Agree with him here. It also explains why he disparages Naturalism, because it ultimately shares the same metaphysics of the Left and therefore makes it hostile to religion as well. An atheist Right is simply the Left dressing in right wing drag. What I also find interesting here is his view that he thinks the Enlightenment is dead. I agree. The Left has long since left the discipline for rationality and is now motivated as much by sentiment as the traditional Right. The enlightenment was not the enemy of Religion, strict Positivism was. But at least the positivists made some demand on rationality, whereas the modern Left is nothing more than another Romantic movement. Romantic, in the the sense that it is driven by feelings and intuition more than rational thought.
How would you place this novel in relation to your other books?Houellebecq, here, explains his novel. Catholicism has failed and there is a vacuum that needs to be filled, hence the appeal of Islam. It's not Islam's strength that is causing it to occupy Europe, but Europe's spiritual weakness. It's interesting to note that the alternative to lslam is the HBD "naturalism" of the New Right. The ideals of both the Enlightenment and Catholicism have failed. In many ways he portrays a situation reminiscent of the late 1920's.
You might say I did several things that I’d wanted to do for a long time, things I’d never done before. Like having a very important character whom one never sees, namely Ben Abbes. I also think it’s the saddest ending to a love plot that I’ve ever written, because it’s the most banal—out of sight, out of mind. They had feelings. In general, there is a much stronger feeling of entropy than in my other books. It has a somber, crepuscular side, which accounts for the sadness of its tone. For example, if Catholicism doesn’t work, that’s because it’s already run its course[ED], it seems to belong to the past, it has defeated itself. Islam is an image of the future. Why has the idea of the Nation stalled out? Because it’s been abused too long.
There is no trace of romanticism here, much less lyricism. We’ve moved on to decadence.In Submission, Francois lover, Miriam--who is nominally Jewish--decides to emigrate to Israel to escape what she sees will be the upcoming persecution of the Jews. She asks that Francois accompany her, but he finds the prospect of living in Israel unappealing and declines. Francois envies Miriam because she has a place to go to,a refuge, a home. As he contemplates his own state, he realises his essential isolation and mourns the fact that "There is no Israel for me."
That’s true. The fact that I started with Huysmans must have something to do with this. Huysmans couldn’t go back to romanticism, but for him it was still possible to convert to Catholicism. The clearest point of connection with my other books is the idea that religion, of some kind, is necessary[ED]. That idea is there in many of my books. In this one, too, only now it’s an existing religion.
I think the interview is a good guide to understanding this book what the and what unites it with his others. These are spiritual books for a decadent age, and a lament for the loss of the "Old Christian Europe" by portraying, so vividly, what an empty place the modern wold has become.