In Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, French novelist Michel Houellebecq is described as the great poet of nihilism. His work, particularly in the French Soumission, is highlighted by Murray as a fictional What if? should Europe not rediscover an identify and meaning of its own.
“Après moi, le déluge.”
Secular humanism may not be enough Houellebecq’s novel drew loud criticisms from a variety of camps, but it shouldn’t be read only at face value. Sure, the Muslim Brotherhood could soon win an election in France, and gain strength in a coalition government that changes France for good (not necessarily for the good), but Houellebecq’s point is deeper.
The main question: what story matters to you, to us, and what should we work toward?
The main thrust of the plotline sees the protagonist lose interest in his intellectual career (as a professor, his best work is behind him) and then even in carnal desires. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found a suitable life partner with which and with whom to build meaning.
Instead, the protagonist follows in the footsteps of the naturalist writer, Huysmans, and goes to the French countryside.
Unlike his the subject of his literary criticism, the protagonist is unable to feel anything in the path of Catholicism, and returns to the city, where strange changes are taking place post-election.
The key bit is that the university has been made into an Islamic institution and that he has lost his job. However, a twist. He learns he can have his job back and a 3x increase in salary if only he’ll convert to Islam. Oh, and he’ll get three wives if he wants.
And that is the end of the book.
What would Huysmans think? The protagonist didn’t have a guiding story, lacked meaning, and Islam gave it to him. And he got back his intellectual pursuits with a little extra on the side, three women to live his life with.
He lacked meaning, but he did have Huysmans. Often, the main character thinks, what would Huysman’s do? How would Huysmans think? These ruminations are some of the strongest prose in the novel, filled with self-criticism and irony and political and existential ramblings (we can probably all relate). The protagonist has been wrapped up in Huysmans for about 7 years (working on his dissertation), so his brain is thinking in those metaphors offered in the naturalist philosopher’s novels.
The danger of role models One of my favorite writers, Christopher Hitchens, warns in Letters to a Young Contrarian on viewing him as an expert on what it is or means to be a radical, especially since a single viewpoint is not a useful sample size.
And yet for our protagonist, Huysmans is something of a moral authority. He is relatable because he struggled, and then found change. The protagonist notices some of the same thought patterns Huysmans had, in particular passages in the various novels investigated.
In the end, though, the protagonist finds that he is not Huysmans, that he does not feel the spiritual push or pull that his idol did.
But neither does he have convictions of his own. Because nothing is sacred to him, he converts to Islam and carries on living his life.
Ennui and solipsism In my reading, the protagonist is a tragic character. He hasn’t learned to live in a secular humanist world. One could argue he doesn’t follow that tract at all. Myriam, his closest lover, calls him an enigma, an avoider of fashions of any kind.
On page 150 of the English version, the protagonist laments his lack of human connection:
I was in my prime. I didn’t suffer from any lethal illness. The health problems that regularly assailed me were painful, but they were minor. I had a good thirty or even forty years before I reached that dark zone where all illnesses are basically fatal, where nearly every illness entails an end-of-life discussion. I had no friends, that was true, but when did I ever? Besides, if you really thought about it, what was the point of having friends?
But even in nihilism there is solipsism. The complaint that life is meaningless suggests a hidden subject, the self. Reframed, life is meaningless for the person thinking that thought.
While most religions carry a similar (and often louder) solipsism, it is curious that the protagonist willingly exchanges one kind for another. But perhaps he will just be a cultural muslim.
Note to reader: I tried to artfully read this book, a charge taken on in reflection of a literary event at the Upper House in Madison, Wisconsin, in April 2017.
I decided to artfully read Houllebecq’s work, which required that I also purchase and read the original French version.
When I said bye to my teachers at the end of high school, my French teacher, Monsieur Carré, asked if I would continue with my French study. I said peut-être, and he responded, il faut!…Of course I tested out of Saint Olaf’s language requirement and took Chinese instead, so lost a lot of my spoken French.
But I can still read French, thus is the strangeness of language in the brain. The connections are still there. This experience is probably common if you ask people about languages: they can still find those places in their brains where those connections/associations are…there was a flip where I translated from Chinese to French to English — that was strange — or where I would see all three languages at once, like Arrival’s linguist protagonist, in time but able to see outside of it.