I picked up a paperback copy of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform this spring because I wanted to tranquilize my infant son with a book that had breasts on the cover. There are, of course, more edifying critiques of contemporary culture. But they don’t have breasts on the cover.
Houellebecq’s controversial new novel Soumission is about a languorous French resignation to Islam in 2022. It was infamously published on January 7, the date of the attack on Charlie Hebdo; in fact, Houellebecq was lampooned on the cover of the satirical weekly that day.
Soumission was originally entitled La Conversion. In this early version, instead of acquiescing to the Muslim Brotherhood, the prototype of François (the author’s typical anomic male protagonist) converts to Catholicism. The Huysmans scholar was to mimic the late Huysmans. In fact, husk of this former plot remains in Soumission; François has an experience of “dissolution” before the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. But, unable to credit the divine or replicate this religious experience, he decides he had a hypoglycemic spell. La Conversion would have been a strangely didactic book for the misanthropic Houellebecq, a self-described “old Calvinist pain-in-the-ass”, steeped in Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. So, instead, he wrote potboiler “political fiction” about the French resignation to Islamism, which allows François a “conversion” that allows him to retain his misogynistic pessimism.
Why does François choose Islamism over Catholicism? Edmund Waldstein poses this question in a recent review. But one might wonder how real this choice is. Indeed, François seems to choose against religiousness altogether. Rather than embracing faith, his acquiesces to a simulacrum of Islam. To face the degeneration of secular late modern society, François bets on political Islam rather than political Catholicism.
Robert Rediger, the university administrator who steers François towards Islamism, is a truly fascinating character. Rediger is a former Catholic integralist, who once had a powerful attachment to Christendom, or what Kierkegaard would call an objective “world-historical” view of Christianity. But Rediger realizes that Islamism is a vital movement, one that objectively has a better chance to restore counter-Enlightenment, hierarchical, and patriarchal values to Europe.
Of course, Rediger’s embrace of Islam is entirely logical if the great religions are world-historical, or means to paramount worldly ends (the end of abortion, traditional marriage, etc.). Plus, Islam is quite palatable to the polygamist Rediger (who does not give up his Meursault wines) because it lacks a doctrine of original sin, and of a guilty, fallen world in need of transformation. This moral need for self-transformation by God is at the heart of the religious. But Islamic religiousness (like the perspective of women, one might add) is never explored by Houellebecq.
It is unlikely that most readers will concur with the melancholy François that, when all is said and done and France loses the vestiges of its Christian Age, there is “nothing to mourn”. (The novel is widely described as “provocative”.) But mourning world-historical Christianity is already to put one foot in the Rediger trap.
The real problem in Soumission is why La Conversion could not be written, or why La Conversion would not have been read. The eternal love story of God and man would not have forcefully captured the late-modern zeitgeist. Kierkegaard, so obsessively focused on the prospects of religious belief for modern man, gives us a critical vocabulary to speak to this problem. Doubt stifles François’s faith, extinguishing the wonder he felt before the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. Anxiety and guilt — and especially the alternative, to doubt, wonder — in other words, the passionate choice that faith involves, never appeared for François. As it does not for so many.
In the 1840s, Kierkegaard already saw the predominance of doubt and the new world-historical disfiguration of religion. Indeed, Kierkegaard writes in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the only unpardonable lèse-majesté against Christianity is for the individual to take his relationship with Christianity for granted. Without consciousness of infinite guilt before God, with all of its transformative potential, there is no religious.
And this is the bleak pessimism of Soumission, a novel which is ostensibly about great religions, and yet so obviously lacks the religious.