All intellectual debate in the twentieth century can be summed up as the battle between Communism-- that is, "hard" humanism-- and liberal democracy, the soft version.
This is a powerful book, though too many people won't see it's depth and with few exceptions, most of the professional commentariat don't have a clue about what this book is about.
For the literate moron, this book is about the Islamic take over of France. For the Puritan, its about the puerile expression of Sex. For the feminist it is about misogyny. But for the Christian reactionary, this book is deep.
Houellebecq begins his novel citing a passage by J. K Huysmans ;
A noise recalled him to Saint-Sulpice; the choir was leaving; the church was about to close. 'I should have tried to pray,' he thought. 'It would have been better than sitting here in the empty church, dreaming in my chair — but pray? I have no desire to pray. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and wax. I hover on its outskirts, moved to tears by its prayers, touched to the very marrow by its psalms and chants. I am thoroughly disgusted with my life, I am sick of myself but so far from changing my ways! And yet . . . and yet . . . if I am troubled in these chapels, as soon as I leave them I become unmoved and dry. 'In the end', he told himself, as he rose and followed the last ones out, shepherded by the Swiss guard, 'in the end, my heart is hardened and smoked dry by dissipation. I am good for nothing.'As alluded to in my previous post, a superficial social analyst focuses on the symptoms, a more serious one, the disease itself, and it here where Houellebecq demonstrates his skills as a diagnostician. Much as in Orwell's 1984, which showed Socialism triumphant over the human spirit, The central theme of the book is the death of Christian Europe and the victory of materialism. The books relationship relationship with Islam is quite incidental and quite plausibly have been set in the 1940's with fascism emerging triumphant.
Houellebecq tells his story though the lens of Francois, a middle aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. Whilst Francois is an educated professional, he is, once out of his professional milleu, a French everyman. He likes fucking young women, he finds old women repulsive, he has problems with his parents and finances, he eats cheap microwave meals, and, as he ages, he can feel his body give up on him. Houellebecq's writing style brilliantly conveys the sense of tedium and emptiness in Francois life. When Francois attempts to have anal sex with a pair of hired prostitutes, his failure at climax has a deeper meaning than first appears. It's not just that he failed at sex--something which youth would not allow--rather it was evidence of his decay and corruption. If a full human life implied the the capacity to enjoy all possible pleasures, his failure at sex meant that his potential capacity as a human being was being constrained by the aging process. He was losing both his "humanity" and his reason to live.
Nagging at Francois is a sense of emptiness. Francois literary expertise is on the subject of Joris Karl Huysmans, a fin-de-siecle author, who is not just the subject of Francois studies, but a sort of kindred spirit, debauched in sensuality, yet thirsting too, from an emptiness. Huysmans finally found his emptiness filled in the embrace of religion, something Francois tries to emulate without success.
I stayed until the reading ended, but once it was over I realised that, despite the great beauty of the text, I'd have preferred to spend my last visit alone. What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier's manly courage; not even a child's desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly and royal that surpassed Peguy's understanding, to say nothing of Huysmans'. The next morning, after I filled up my car and paid at the hotel, I went back to the Chapel of Our Lady, which now was deserted. The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the car parkThis I think is the pivotal point of the book. Here, where Francois was actively reaching out for God, God failed him. Despite wanting to and seeing the need for it Francois simply cannot invoke the religious impulse. Christianity is dead. And, as the Christian God is, in Francois' eyes, intrinsically tied to the idea of European civilisation so is it. It is this central premise which provides the understanding as to why Islam achieves a victory in France and makes strides into Northern Europe as well. Houellebecq's realises that Islam does not need to conquer by force, all it needs to do is fill the vacuum as the ability to resist it has gone. His genius lays is in portraying the leader of the Muslims as a technically competent, yet skillfully moderate politician, who is able to unite all through the the strength of his personality. Making the transition easier is the fact that the new regime initially interferes very little in the day to day running of the country and actually improves the running of it. What they do insist upon though, is control of the culture, by which they very slowly apply the thumbscrews. France doesn't fight back simply because it has no sense of identity which it feels is being challenged. Houellebecq describes the transition, with a few exceptions, as being rather orderly.
It just sort of happens.
The Sorbonne becomes Islamicised with teaching positions being reserved exclusively for those of the Islamic faith. Francois, initially resists but does eventually convert. However a consideration of the conversion as portrayed by Houellebecq does nothing to honour Islam, and in fact, presents it as just another form of materialism, a back-handed insult. Although Francois hears all the arguments as to why Islam is better than Christianity, none of them really seem to move him. What finally seals the deal is the fact that he will get his old job back, at a very much higher pay rate, with a chance to have sex with younger students through organised Islamic marriage. Islam is essentially a religion which is reconciled with the world. It's a submission to hedonism.
Houellebecq is subtle and very, very good. He's not giving Islam a free pass.
It's also important to realise that Islam is essentially an irrelevancy in this book. Had the book been written in the 1930's, Houellebecq may have used the Fascists, and the 1940's the Communists. The point being that anything can invade into the cultural vacuum of modern Europe. ( Houellebecq pretty much admitted that he used Islam in this role since it would generate controversy and promote book sales. The book needed to be a "thriller"--- Hey, a man's gotta make a living.)
The book therefore is very similar to Orwell's 1984 and another French reviewer has recognised the similarity. However, unlike in 1984, where Orwell so devastatingly demonstrates the the triumph of the party over human will, without any sense of grief, I got the impression that Houellebecq wanted to the leave the option open to the reader that a European rebirth was possible.
In the novel, the opposition-Right sort of recedes into the background without being destroyed. Furthermore, when the subject of the Right is discussed, Houellebecq seems dismissive of the HBD type Right--the "naturalists"-- whilst portraying the religious Right--except for the clergy--in a positive light. Something I found odd, given his previous writing and something I suspect reflects a change in his thinking.
What led me to this conclusion was the prominence of another literary figure, Charles Peguy, who makes an appearances in the book which I did not feel was "organic" to the story, unless Houellebecq's aim was to somehow to draw attention to him.
Peguy is an interesting figure and I'm still not sure what to make of him except that he appeared to be a force of nature. He was a socialist who became Catholic but his was the socialism St Francis, not the socialism of Karl Marx and thus he alienated himself for the champagne-Left of his time. He hated the capitalists for exploiting the workers but he also admonished the workers for trying to exploit the capitalists though shoddy work. He ran a bookshop and published a literary magazine and always seemed to be on the verge of financial ruin. Interestingly one of the early subscribers to this limited run magazine was a young, recently graduated, army lieutenant, Charles De Gaulle. De Gaulle later remarked that Peguy was his most formative intellectual influence.
Peguy was quite prophetic in that he recognised that Christianity was in deep trouble at the turn of the 20th Century. Amongst serious Catholic thinkers, Peguy is held in awe and I'm quite surprised that Houellebecq bothered to put him in one of his novels. But I have a suspicision.
Peguy's Christianity was not of the "fluffy unicorn" variety, rather it rejoiced in soldiering and brotherly solidarity and native identity. His was a Christianity of the "blood and soil."
Happy are they who died in great battles,He was killed when a bullet went through his forehead just before the first battle of the Marne. His last words were purportedly, "For God's Sake, Push on."
Who were laid upon the earth in the sight of God.
Happy are they who died on the last rampart
With all the trappings of great funerals.
Happy are they who died for the carnal cities,
For those are the body of the city of God.
Happy are they who died for their hearths and fires
And the meagre honours of their native homes.
For those are the image and the seed
And the body and the first taste of the house of God.
Happy are they who died in this embrace
Bound by honour and their earthly vows.
So "manly" was his Christianity that the Fascists claimed him as one of their own, something he would have been horrified with. Peguy was a fierce Catholic and the calculating materialism of fascism was outside of his metaphysics. I suspect the reason why Houellebecq placed him in his book was to point toward an example of a Right which did not degenerate into a form of Le Pen-ism which France has had the unfortunate experience of in the past. Could it be that Houellebecq is hoping for a "Manly Christianity" which will fight for the identity of France and Europe? It's interesting to note that Chesterton and Belloc also get a mention in the book. Reactionaries take note.
There is a lot in this book that a reactionary would like. From the descriptions of the failing erotic capital of aging women to the ugliness of Church architecture. Houllebecq seems to be cut from the same cloth as most neoreactionairies and the character of Francois seems to be personifaction of the aphorism attributed to Chesterton;
A man knocking on the Brothel door is looking for God.Peguy, Huysmans, Chesterton and Belloc. Houellebecq has been hanging around strange intellectual circles. I haven't read enough literature to know if this is a masterpiece but it sure as hell is a good book. I would recommend it to the intelligent with trigger warnings for everyone else.