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. <>.

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.


2019 was a good year for reading for me. I was able to dig in to Hemingway and read his major works on the back end of the year. Earlier I read almost all six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, most of which I enjoyed immensely. Reading both of these talented writers illustrated clearly what different times we live in, how much has changed in the eighty or so years between them. Outwardly the forms of how we live has not changed that much: we drive cars, eat meals, wash, and shave in the same way. The thought-world that we occupy has been turned upside down however, and that is easy to see reading their books.

I have lots of directions I want to to head in for 2020, and I’m sure some new paths will emerge as well. Right now I’m hoping to get to Kant, Hegel, and Dante among others. Most of my life is spent catching up to the education I wish I had rather than the one I actually had.


Yesterday I went to the library and bought several books that they had on sale. Amongst those books was one called “World Within Walls” by Donald Keene. It’s about Japanese literature of the pre-modern era. I’m not really sure why I bought it. I paid no attention to who the author was.
This morning, I was looking at the NY Times online, and I saw a headline about an author who is becoming a Japanese citizen, despite being American. He is an old and noted scholar of Japan. His name is Donald Keene! I wasn’t sure when I read the name if it was the author of my book, but I came down to the library, and sure enough, it is. I’m not sure what that means, if anything, but I find it very intriguing.

Mosser on Scholarship

Several years ago Prof. Carl Mosser wrote a definition of scholarship that I found helpful.

Scholarship is the product of a certain kind of activity.  This activity can be done poorly or well, with varying degrees of precision and exhaustiveness, and by minds of varying cognitive abilities.  This results in qualitative differences in scholarship so that one can speak in terms of a continuum of bad, mediocre, good and excellent scholarship.

Pseudo-scholarship is the product of different kinds of activity but gives the impression that it is the product of scholarly activity.  Admittedly, drawing sharp lines of demarcation between poor scholarship and pseudo-scholarship can be difficult.  But this is no more a good reason for rejecting the distinction than evening and morning are good reasons for rejecting the distinction between day and night.

What is scholarly activity?  I don’t think anything like a list of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given.  Perhaps a basic working definition is that doing scholarship is to “openly study some issue or set of issues.”  This open study is characterized by such things as: investigation of evidence pertaining to specific issues to see what knowledge can be gained about those issues, a careful and controlled analysis of the evidence, a realization that evidence is sometimes ambiguous and open to multiple plausible interpretations that need to be considered, entering a critical but charitable dialogue with others who have investigated the same issues (past or present) to gain insights and correct errors, and constructing plausible hypotheses and cogent arguments.

Furthermore, this activity is requires one to reject epistemological dogmatism.  He/she recognizes that the results of the investigation cannot be determined before the evidence has actually been looked at and analyzed.  He/she recognizes that his/her preferred theories and positions must be adjusted in light of the full body of evidence and argumentation. He/she is committed to fairly representing and responsibly engaging the views of others.  He/she seeks to handle the primary and secondary literature in a responsible and critical manner.

The academic community has developed a number of practices designed to safeguard the integrity of the scholarly activity.  Most noticeably, this results in the use of precise technical terminology and the following of certain conventions when research is published.  For example, quoting authorities in a field, including bibliographical footnotes to the relevant literature one has consulted, using precise technical terminology are designed to help ensure that an author has engaged in the scholarly activity at some level (even if poorly).  However, the presence of these trappings of scholarship do not guarantee that this has in fact occurred. Thus, behind the scenes publishing houses employ editors and editorial boards that review the material they publish, journals have recognized scholars review articles being considered for publication, etc.

Pseudo-scholarship is what we get when somebody employs (usually quite heavily) the trappings of scholarship–quotations, footnotes, technical terms, etc.–without really having engaged in the scholarly activity.  I suspect that it could be a product of several different activities, some malicious and others entirely well-meaning.

The person who produces pseudo-scholarship confuses the trappings of scholarship with scholarship.  And they produce things that on the surface look like scholarship but really are not.  To do this requires that a kind of superficial research is done–one has to look up books in the library, consult lexicons, look up references to ancient texts, etc.  But the writer has not really investigated the issues being discussed in anything approaching a responsible manner.  The issues haven’t really been studied and considered–the answers were all known at the beginning.

One of the most common signs of pseudo-scholarship is that primary and secondary literature is not handled responsibly or critically.  For the most part literature is simply culled for quotations that appear to bolster one’s polemical claims.  There is an evident inability to discern qualitative differences between sources.  There is a lack of critical engagement with the sources–everything that appears to favor one’s point is taken as reliable.

Lastly, it should be noted that doing scholarship does not depend on having academic degrees.  Someone with a very limited education can learn to engage in the scholarly activity and even to do it well.  Most people without a formal education cannot achieve this on their own, but it can and is done by a few.  Formal education is a process whereby one is given instruction, resources, opportunities to practice and correction.  It is right to assume that the person who has made it through this process will have some capacity to do scholarship (especially if they have earned graduate degrees).  But the process cannot guarantee the outcome and the having of degrees does not guarantee that one is capable of doing scholarship or doing it well.

Leithart on Austen’s Anglicanism

Peter Leithart reviews Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism here. Leithart says:

To today’s readers, Austen’s characters rarely pray or engage in overt religious activities, but that is partly an illusion. Because of her thorough knowledge of eighteenth-century Anglicanism, White is attuned to the religious overtones of Austen’s language. From the time of William Law’s Serious Call to the Devout Life (1729), the word “serious” had religious connotations. When she records that Emma Woodhouse is “very serious in her thankfulness” for Harriet Smith’s engagement to Robert Martin, Austen is telling us that Emma offered prayers of thanks. Similarly, apparently general words like “exertion,” “principle,” and “duty” are all religious terms in Austen’s world. Plus, more obvious religious ideas like sin, evil, atonement, fall, temptation, repentance, and contrition are present throughout her work. Even Austen’s restrained unmetaphorical style reflects the theologically-grounded neo-classicism of her time. Add to this the pervasive evidence that Austen shared common Anglican convictions about nature and the “chain of being,” it becomes clear that her novels are “imprinted” everywhere with her religious values.

Reads in 2011

I forgot to post my list of books read for the past year, so here it is:

The New Charismatics, Richard Quebedeaux

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

The Life of Dr. Donne, Izaak Walton

The Life of George Herbert, Izaak Walton

John Calvin and Roman Catholics, Randall Zachman

Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart

Faithful Reason, John Haldane

Conquest, Hugh Thomas

Rabbit Redux, John Updike

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Piers Brendon

Deep Comedy, Peter Leithart

From Silence to Song, Peter Leithart

The Foundations of Social Order, R.J. Rushdoony

A Fury for God, Malise Ruthven

The Reformation, Diarmaid Mucculloch

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson

Count to a Trillion, John C. Wright

Predestination, Policy and Polemic, Peter White

The Sociology of the Church, James B. Jordan

Not as many as I would have hoped for, but of course I start scores more and will finish them later. Also, I read far too many articles and junk.

Predestination, Policy and Polemic

I have just finished reading Peter White’s book, Predestination, Policy and Polemic, Conflict and consensus in the English Church from the Reformation to the Civil War. It is a masterful summary of the topic throughout a varied landscape of Church politics, belief systems, and changing theologies.

…the model of a theological dichotomy between ‘Calvinism’ and ‘Arminianism’ is simply inadequate for understanding either the overall development of doctrine in the Reformation period, or of personal allegiances within it. This is by no means to deny the existence of polarities, but rather to suggest that they were concurrent and evolutionary rather than abruptly linear, that there was development within a continuing spectrum, a development to which theologians of contrasting churchmanship contributed, in spite of their indulgence from time to time in the language of polemic against each other.

White gives us an interesting quote from Arminius himself on his view of Calvin:

…after the reading of Scripture, which I strenuously inculcate, and more than any other (as the whole Academy, yea the conscience of my colleagues will testify) I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read, whom I extol in higher terms than Helmichius himself, as he owned to me, ever did. For I affirm that in the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable, and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the Bibliotheca of the Fathers; so much so, that I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above all others, above most, yea above all. His Institutes, so far as respects Commonplaces, I give out to be read after the Catechism, as a more extended explanation. But here I add – with , as the writing of all men ought to be read.

Bishop John Hooper summarized early Anglican beliefs on the subject by saying:

It is not a christian man’s part to attribute his salvation to his own free-will, with the Pelagian, and extenuate original sin; nor to make God the author of ill and our damnation, with the Manichee; nor yet to say, God hath written fatal laws, as the Stoic, and with necessity of destiny violently pulleth one by the hair into heaven, and thrusteth the other headlong into hell.

Bishop Latimer outlined what was to become a common theme within Anglicanism regarding predestination – that discussing the subject outside learned circles would only produce chaos and division:

Latimer warned his hearers not to trouble themselves with ‘curious questions of the predestination of God’. In particular, he condemned a ‘lewd opinion of predestination’ based on Acts xiii (‘as many as were ordained to life everlasting believed’) that ‘therefore it is no matter whatsoever we do; for if we be chosen to everlasting life, we shall have it’.

The common target in injunctions like Latimer’s is antinomianism, which was a very legitimate problem in the Church (and still is). White’s book traces the influences of Bucer and Peter Martyr on the emerging Anglican consensus:

Although Bucer and Martyr have much in common which provides an obvious contrast with Hooper and Latimer, there were significant differences between them. There was a spectrum of opinion on the doctrine of predestination in the Edwardian Church which cannot be neatly categorized into indigenous and continental, or ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Lutheran’ influences.

White discusses the view of Cranmer and the early divines as expressed in the Articles of Religion and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum on the subjects of free will and grace. White says that “There is compelling evidence of a consensus among Edwardian Protestants that divine grace may be spurned and rejected, that it is not irresistible; human free will must play its part, first to accept or reject, to obey or not to obey, and having obeyed, then to co-operate. The concern of the Reformatio was to refute those who placed such confidence in human free will that they believed that ‘by it alone, without any special grace of Christ’, man could live uprightly.” This view was in synch with that of Erasmus, and indeed his Paraphrases were ordered by the King to be “provided in every parish.”

White discusses John Jewel and highlights his belief that Christ died for all men. White says:

The reprobate for Jewel are those ‘who have refused the word of reconciliation’, for ‘though God be patient and long-suffering, because he would have all men come to repentance; yet, in whom his mercy taketh no place to work their amendment, upon them  he poureth out his wrath and indignation to the utmost’.

White’s contention throughout is that the early Anglicans represented an early Reformed consensus that was not equal to later hardening of doctrine (double decrees, one to life, one to damnation) on the part of Beza and others who responded to Arminius. When various factions would veer, some to the side of totalizing free will, others to the side of a decree to damnation from before the world’s creation, the Crown and Bishops would reel them in to the teaching of the Articles or Religion, which are essentially a Bucerian, early Reformed consensus. Davenant again reflects this consensus in a letter he prepared at the Synod of Dort:

…we do hold that our blessed Saviour by God’s appointment did offer himself up to the Blessed Trinity for the redemption of mankind, and by this oblation once made, did found, confirm and ratify the Evangelical Covenant, which may and ought seriously to be preached to all mankind without exception…consequently we hold, that the whole merit of Christ is not confined to the Elect only, as some here do hold…

I will not weary you with the writings of Richard Hooker, King James I and others. White is very exhaustive in covering this ground, and unless you are into Anglican history, this book may weary you with several very obtuse points of doctrine finely argued. One common refrain throughout the book is the ultimate inability to know with finality about the doctrines discussed. Many of the best divines offered up an argument, but rested on the fact that they could not know. Bishop Laud put it this way: “somewhat about these controversies is unmasterable in this life.”

British Empire

I finished reading The Decline and Fall of the British Empire today. It is a depressing tale of racism, slaughter, oppression and misused power over the span of a few centuries. It was also eye-opening in that my grasp of history between the Reformation and WWII outside of America is vague. This book really sets the stage for seeing the origins of a lot of our current world situation, for example, the rise of India. I knew little to nothing of the mayhem that attended the partition of India and Pakistan. Full on ethnic slaughter and pogroms from Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus happened. From the book:

But Muslims and Hindus also perpetrated every outrage summed up in that grotesque modern euphemism, “ethnic cleansing.” They roasted babies on spits, impaled infants on lances, boiled children in cauldrons of oil. They raped, mutilated, abducted and killed women…They subjected men to frenzied cruelties, burning them alive in their houses, stabbing them in the streets, butchering them in hospitals, strangling them in refugee camps, torturing and forcibly converting them in desecrated temples, mosques and gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). They poisoned their enemies, drenched them in acid, blinded them by throwing chilli powder in their eyes.

On and on it goes. And that is simply the partition of one colony. The use of torture seemed normative from Rhodesia to Kenya and Nigeria. The treatment of Africans is particularly galling and inhuman. That a nation dedicated to high ideals sunk to such a low level when dealing with others is a testament to the reality of evil. In fact, this entire book is yet another reminder of the reality of original sin. Whenever tempted to believe the foolish platitudes of (small l) liberalism about man’s goodness, human decency and the brotherhood of man, you simply need to open up a history book and see how we really are. Lurking right beneath the surface of a peaceful social order is total chaos, hatred and blinding evil. Let’s hope that America pulls back and does not engage in even more foolishness in the next century, resulting in who knows what. But I doubt that we will stop ourselves, as our political class is as unable as the Brits were to pull back, fearing the label of coward.