The author who teaches us that hedonism comes at a price

Michel Houellebecq teaches about the consequences of hedonism. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

I have just been reading Submission by Michel Houellebecq, which, as you may well be aware, is the novel that people were talking about all last year. It is a good book, and I have come to it rather late, and if you are unfamiliar with it, you can read an outline here. The plot is not particularly important, so it will not spoil any future enjoyment of the book.)

Houellebecq’s novel (by the way, the name is pronounced ‘Wellbeck’) is set in the not too distant future and deals with the election of France’s first Muslim president, and the beginning of the Islamification of French society. Its hero, François, teaches in a Parisian University, and his specialty is the work of Huysmans (a novelist I have never read.) As is clear from the book, Huysmans was a writer whose trajectory was towards faith and the Church, but François is headed in the opposite direction: he believes in nothing, has no relationships worthy of the name, not even with his parents, and has no friends. His life is empty. He tries to emulate Huysmans, and to find faith, but fails abjectly.

The book is wonderfully readable, and shocking in parts in its frank descriptions of sexual matters, but these are not gratuitous, as a man who has so little meaning in his life as François is bound to be addicted to internet porn and prostitution, among other things.

It is a skillfully written book, so it should be obvious to the reader that this is nothing as crude as a “prophecy” about the future of France, just as Orwell’s 1984 is not a prophecy about that year either. Rather it is telling us about France as she is now, and the way her intellectual and social life has been hollowed out. François has no family, and he knows no families. Family life has ceased to exist. The great literature of the past is not a repository of cultural values, but a reminder what we have lost and can never regain.

What does the book have to say about religion? If Catholicism is the answer to the nihilism of contemporary life, and it may be, this is in fact of little help, as it is a Catholicism that cannot communicate itself to an unbeliever like François, try as he might to believe. Thus the book provides little comfort for the Church.

What about Islam? Here perhaps the book makes a cogent and sly criticism. Islam, the ending seems to suggest, is the perfect religion for the atheist and nihilist, and someone like François or his venal university boss can easily convert, especially given the inducement of Saudi money, a job in an Islamicised university, and up to four wives, a nubile fifteen-year-old included. All the Islamic converts in the book drink wine, so even there things are made easy for them. This is “liberal” Islam.

Submission is the sort of book English authors don’t often write: it is really a novel of ideas, about a country and a culture that has run out of ideas, and is ripe for being taken over by a bunch of pseudo-religious hucksters. That’s what will happen to you if you live for pleasure alone and if you abandon family life. It is this last that is the most serious point. Houellebecq is, on this at least, singing from the same hymn sheet as the Church: as goes the family, so goes society.

Is France about to be taken over by an Islamic government? Almost certainly not. The Muslim Brotherhood and similar parties have a very poor track record of delivering any sort of good governance outside Europe. In fact a tour of Muslim-majority countries should convince even the most casual observer that no electorate in Europe is ever going to opt for the sort of government that currently rules in Turkey, for example, let alone Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Daesh. It is not an accident that there are no Muslim parties with a mass following in Europe. Our own version, Respect, is not doing well.

But while we can be confident that profound change, as described in this book, is not on the horizon, the alternative – that things are going to continue much as before – is hardly encouraging. Submission tells us a great deal about ourselves, and if we are to continue as we are, the future is hardly bright.