Mark Collins – “Der Untergang des Abendlandes”, Islamism and French Novel Section

Excerpts from a major piece in the NY Times Book Review on a best-selling and “controversial” book:

Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ 

Oswald Spengler’s once unprecedentedly influential work “The Decline of the West,” published starting in 1918, …construed civilizations as organic entities passing through clearly defined life cycles of a thousand years, in which culture’s pinnacle, its summer, also contained the very seed of its decline, for at that point it was consummate, and then stagnated, withered, turned in on itself, questioning its own raison d’être, a path that inexorably led to nihilism and decadence, the autumn of civilization — whereas winter marked the return of faith, when religiosity once more descended upon it [more here]…

All of this resonates in Houellebecq’s novel…

An election is coming up, and the mood across the country is tense, there are armed street battles and riots in several towns, right-wing radicals clash with various ethnic groups, and yet the media avoid writing about it, the problem is played down, and people seem weary and resigned. 

It is this theme that lends the novel its narrative thrust and which of course is the reason for all the attention it has received, for anything that has to do with immigration, the nation state, multiculturalism, ethnicity and religion is explosive stuff in Europe these days. Many of its elements are recognizable, like the newspapers omitting to mention, or mentioning only with caution, conflicts arising out of ethnic differences, or the political left’s anti-­racism overriding its feminism, making it wary of criticizing patriarchal structures within immigrant communities, say, but in this novel all is brought to a head, taken to its most extreme conclusion, in a scenario of the future that realistically is less than likely, and yet entirely possible. What’s crucial for the novel is that the political events it portrays are psychologically as persuasive as they are credible, for this is what the novel is about, an entire culture’s enormous loss of meaning, its lack of, or highly depleted, faith, a culture in which the ties of community are dissolving and which, for want of resilience more than anything else, gives up on its most important values and submits to religious government.

In this, “Submission” is strongly satirical, and its satire is directed toward the intellectual classes, among whom no trace is found of idealism, and not a shadow of will to defend any set of values, only pragmatism pure and simple. François sums up the mood among his own as: “What has to happen will happen,” comparing this passivity with that which made it possible for Hitler to come to power in 1933, when people lulled themselves into believing that eventually he would come to his senses and conform.

…society’s total upheaval is what “Submission” depicts. The election is won by a Muslim party with which the left collaborates in order to keep the National Front from power, and France as a result becomes a Muslim state. But maybe that isn’t so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter that much? Aren’t people just people, regardless of what they believe in, and of how they choose to organize their societies? It is these questions that the novel leads up to, since this entire seamless revolution is seen through the eyes of François, a man who believes in nothing and who consequently is bound by nothing other than himself and his own needs. The novel closes with him looking forward in time, to the conversion ceremony of his own submission to Islam…

This lack of attachment, this indifference, is as I see it the novel’s fundamental theme and issue, much more so than the Islamization of France, which in the logic of the book is merely a consequence. What does it mean to be a human being without faith?..

And from an earlier New Yorker review, by :

Houellebecq is one of those writers who cause critics to panic, since placing him is tricky. He is probably the most famous French novelist of his generation…

Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening. That’s what satirists do. Jonathan Swift saw that the English were treating the Irish as animals; what if they took the next natural step and ate their babies [Modest Proposal]?..

 The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic. The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond; he likes the fundamentalists’ suavity and sureness. Ben Abbes’s reform of the educational system is wholesome, and his ambitions to rebuild France are almost a form of neo-Gaullism. (He succeeds in integrating Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey into the European Union, creating a power bloc greater than the American one.) The reform of education, the reinforcement of the family, even the re-domestication of women are all held up for admiration. It’s the shrugging admiration of satire, of course…

Like most satirists worth reading, Houellebecq is a conservative. “I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values,” he has said…

One wonders how Globeperson Doug Saunders, always looking to take shots at the West (more here), might react to this novel.

More unterganging here.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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