Birth, Freedom and Identity in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission

We like to believe that we choose our own path, create our own destiny, and are the master of our fate, the captain of our soul, to paraphrase William Ernest Henley.  But is this really the case, or are we defined by the very place we live, or the time that we are born? For example, would you be you if you had been born 200 years ago in another part of the world? Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission suggests that who we are is largely contingent on where and when we live, not our innate genius, and in this, the book is very Foucauldian.

Let us briefly examine the contents of the book. The book is set in France in the very near future, 2022 to be specific. This France is identical in almost every way to the France of 2015, there are not massive technological leaps or systems of control akin to Orwell’s 1984. The main difference in this France is that a Muslim party and a Muslim candidate win the Presidential election. The book centers on a character named François, a literature professor whose best days are behind him. François has lived a life largely uncommitted to anything, having sex with women who drift out of his life, disconnected from his divorced, Baby Boomer parents, irreligious, uninterested in politics, and seemingly an alcoholic based on the massive amounts he drinks in nearly every scene of the novel.

François is something of a cipher, mirroring perfectly the emptiness of modern Western Europe. He is also almost a caricature of what we might imagine a middle-aged, unmarried college professor to be. He is generally intellectually disinterested, he uses his classes to hit on young female students, and he is lazy. He “…never felt the slightest vocation for teaching” (Houellebecq 9), and doesn’t “…like young people and never had” (Houellebecq 9). If this were a romantic work, we might expect François to be some sort of radical non-conformist who exists to foment revolution on the system, sleeping with women and corrupting the morals of the youth! But no, this is not the case. He has simply drifted into his lifestyle, not through any great thought or choice, but apparently because it is the water that he swims in as a French literature professor in the Twenty-First century. To use Foucault’s terminology, problematization has made him what he is. Gary Gutting summarizes what problematization means:

The fact that my existence is problematized in a specific way is no doubt determined by the social power relations in which I am embedded. But, given this problematization, I am able to respond to the issues it raises in my own way, or, more precisely, in a way by which I will define what I, as a self, am in my historical context (Gutting 103).

     To apply this concept to François, he is operating within a limited set of choices available to him. Had he been born in Japan, or in the France of 1200, his life would have been very different. His sexual appetites would have been unlikely to be the same given the social strictures upon him, and he would presumably have thought quite differently about god, society and his parents. The social forces impinging on him have divided him from family, community, religion and the political space and have turned him into another atomized individual who doesn’t care much for what goes on in the world.

     The book cleverly tracks the life of French author J.K. Huysmans, who François has devoted his academic life to studying. Huysmans converted to Christianity towards the end of his life, and the hollow life that François leads brings us to suspect that he too is on the same course. In fact, he visits the Ligugé Abbey, a monastery, “…where Huysmans had taken his monastic vows” (Houellebecq 170). But in this tale, Christianity has lost all of its force, at least for François, and his visit achieves nothing. The social power of the Christian faith is not strong enough in France to correct the identity of François, because there is a new player on the scene.

     The new power in France is of course Islam, about which François says, “To be honest, it wasn’t a religion I knew much about” (Houellebecq 199). This lack of knowledge for a professor of literature in the modern day is somewhat astonishing, but I believe it shows what a blank slate François is. His parents did not teach him religion, his society does not demand any belief of him, and so he has made it to middle age with limited knowledge of a faith whose numbers are exploding in Europe. Foucault teaches that, “A society without power relations can only be an abstraction” (Foucault). While the West has debated the merits of Capitalism, Socialism and many other systems of thought, Islam has continued in its ancient form as a system of pure power, uniting mosque and state. Houellebecq quotes the Ayatollah Khomeini, who says, “If Islam is not political, it is nothing” (Houellebecq 181).

     The France of Submission undergoes a total transformation when an Islamic party wins the Presidential election. Suddenly, education is controlled by an Islamic worldview, polygamy becomes legal and a fusion of Middle Eastern petro-states and Europe begins to occur. Women’s fashions move towards modesty outside the home, and the Welfare State is scrapped. Surely, this means that a sexual libertine such as François is doomed in this new system? To our surprise, he is not! The book can be scene as a three-part narrative, first with François declining along with modern France in indifference and solipsistic nihilism, second with him seeking the same path of conversion as his hero Huysmans and failing to achieve any transcendental meaning, and thirdly to a submission to Islam (which of course means ‘submission’) out of conformity to the new social reality and the demands of his libido.

     It should not surprise us that a man with as little conviction about anything as François is should buckle under and convert to Islam. François is subjected to new powers from on high, powers that are favorable to him if only he will make the concession of converting to Islam. He can then take up to four wives, or perhaps three based on his salary. This will provide his cooking for him and satisfy his sexual urges with a younger bride, probably the result of an arranged marriage. He can take up his teaching post again, and indeed is recruited into doing so by someone who needs intellectual credibility at his university. Other than professing his faith in Allah and Muhammad as his prophet, very little in his day to day life needs to change. Perhaps the most shocking thing about this book is how little actually has to change in France when Islam comes to power! People still shop, take the train and read the news. Sexual power is now more in the favor of men, but when you analyze the previous “hook-up” culture that demanded no commitment from men, perhaps not too much has changed. Life goes on and the exhausted Western culture that has given up on its heritage goes quietly into the night as Islam comes into power. François adopts to this new power by becoming a Muslim, putting up no resistance whatsoever against a faith that should be utterly alien to him.

     Who are we? Submission is an almost picture-perfect illustration of Foucault’s theories of identity, centered around being constituted as subjects. A modern man in France converts to Islam because the society around him has changed completely. If we were born in a different country or a different time, would we still be who we are now? If Islam took political power in the United States, would we still think and behave as we do? Submission suggest that our self is constituted by when we are born, where we are born, and the social forces at play in our society.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “The subject and power | Michel Foucault Info.” Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Michel Foucault Info, 4 Jan. 2014. 29 Oct. 2015. <http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.power.en.html>.

Gutting, Gary. Foucault: A Very Short Introduction (very Short Introductions). 1st ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, USA, 22 Apr. 2005.

Houellebecq, Michel. Submission. United States: Farrar Straus Giroux, 20 Oct. 2015.

4 thoughts on “Birth, Freedom and Identity in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission”

      1. I did enjoy it. It was funny in a very sardonic way. You described the main character’s “drift” really well.

        I could have lived without the rather specific and vulgar descriptions of his sexual encounters and desires, if I recall correctly.

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