“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom”— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
In the mid-twentieth century, while much of the decolonised world was enduring momentous social, economic and political change, the spirit of freedom in the developed West – not content with having destroyed the unjust orders of feudalism and slavery, oppressive medieval tribal ties or the imperiousness of the Church – finally targeted the last vestige of hierarchy, the family.
These were the restrictions placed on the wife by her husband or on the daughter by her father; the oppression of lifestyle expectations that parents laid on the children; the obsession with feminine chastity that characterised the generally male-dominated society.
Such were the beginnings of the sexual revolution in the West, which for many has finally brought women at par with men and removed one of the last major obstacles in the path of true gender parity and hence individual freedom.
But has this achievement been worth it? Did the West – and now, India, which is rapidly embracing similar norms – commit societal suicide by embracing the most radical notion of individual freedom and gender equality to have existed in human history? This is the challenge that Michel Houellebecq (The Map and the Territory; The Elementary Particles) poses in what is easily the most formidable piece of literary fiction in recent times.
Houellebecq’s Submission is not an Islamophobic tract – as its embittered leftist critics would like to allege. Instead, and in the great tradition of novels like the Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, it is a powerful critique of the vacuous individualist consumerist lifestyles that has come to characterise most of the West and much of the urban landscape of countries like India and China.
The political surprise
François, the protagonist, is an academic in his early forties. After a youthful intellectual outburst studying the works of the nineteenth century French literary figure Joris-Karl Huysmans, he is now resigned to the aimless but secure life of a tenured professor at a middling French University.
The only excitements in his life are his regular sexual liaisons with his students or prostitutes and transitory indulgences that “consuming” things provide. He knows few whom he can call his friends and he is almost completely detached from his parents (who eventually die – much to his indifference). As is understandable for a lonely man, he often ends up retiring every day in his apartment with frozen food and porn. He is in many ways reflective of a lifestyle that pervades a number of people in the urban landscapes across the world.
Staid as François’s life may be, the world around him is coming apart. It is 2022 and increased immigration and the consequent social repercussions have made the far right-wing National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood the leading political parties in France, with political disputes regularly becoming violent. The Brotherhood, under the very moderate and sober leader Muhammad Ben-Abbes has convinced the neoliberal UMP and the Socialist Party to come on board in order to stop the “Fascist” National Front’s Marine Le Pen. France finally sees a run-off election between Ben-Abbes and Le Pen with Ben-Abbes winning the presidency.
Back to orthodoxy
What follows is the advent of slow but creeping conservatism in French society. Women forgo wearing short skirts in summer and withdraw from the workforce (government now provides a financial incentive for them to stay at home). Institutions of learning in the once strictly Republican France can now be openly affiliated to religion, which means Catholics, Jews and Muslims can send their children to “their” schools. Religious communities are allowed to live under their own scriptural norms, which include introduction of polygamy for Muslims.
What is more surprising is the willingness with which much of French society begins to embrace such changes. François’s university is now thoroughly Islamic (it is bought by Saudi proprietors); and his colleagues begin to convert to Islam as means of gaining better positions and multiple wives.
François’s life soon takes a sharp turn. When deserted by his latest student-girlfriend Myriam, a Jew who is now leaving for Israel, and confronted with the death of both his parents, the loneliness and aimlessness of his existence finally hit him and he doesn’t know what to do with them.
It is this parable of François’s (and, by extension, much of the Western society’s) gratification-filled, purposeless life that is the heart of Submission. Like Durtal, the protagonist of the Huysmans novels, François finally embarks on a painful rediscovery of the religious communitarian heritage of France, which eventually leads him to Islam.
Rescue from consumption?
Islam, therefore, is painted as the great redeemer for a Europe that has lost its traditions, a Europe that has substantively emptied itself in the gratifying downward spiral of materialism, a Europe that in its quest for freedom has become quite lonely, a Europe whose liberalism and rationality may have paved the way for cultural suicide.
Houellebecq admittedly ventures into the fantastic. The success of Brotherhood’s economic model – “distributionism”, a third option between the free market and statism – is as unlikely as is the reticence with which masses of French society accept radical changes to the body politic. But his targets are prescient.
The past 40 years in the West have seen the institution of marriage dwindle, birth-rates crashing to below population-replacement levels, a vociferous rejection of religion, and a culture increasingly revolving around momentary gratification, be it porn, Miley Cyrus or the next iPhone.
In one of the more reflective scenes early in the novel, François tells Myriam, “You know I’m not for anything, but at least patriarchy existed. I mean as a social system it was able to perpetuate itself. There were families with children, and most of them had children. In other words, it worked, whereas now there aren’t enough children, so we’re finished.”
It really is up to the West to prove Houellebecq wrong.
Akshat Khandelwal's Twitter handle is @akshat_khan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.