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.

Reading

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.

RSV Rebound

I just received the second of two of my Mom’s Bibles that I had rebound. It is a Revised Standard Version published by Thomas Nelson. My Dad gave it to her for Christmas of 1969. It had a white cover that of some type of leather. I believe she used to keep it inside a zip cover that she had and used throughout the time I was growing up. It had completely deteriorated externally in the past 41 years. Mom has marked up the interior every which way, but it is in decent shape.

I had the folks at Mechling rebind it again, and I chose a black goatskin. They don’t have white and I didn’t want it anyway. I also asked them to remove some paintings that were in various places and which I thought made it seem a bit tacky. I think the finished product is very nice and has restored it to usability for decades to come. My pictures of it really aren’t the greatest, but I am trying to show the before and after.

Reads, 2010

Not the best year for finishing books. I read too much stuff online. Here are the books I finished in 2010:

The Puritan Dilemma, Edmund Morgan

The Rise of Puritanism, William Haller

Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Samuel Pepys

The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson

The Bible, ESV {completed}

Rabbit at Rest, John Updike

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis

Eclipse of the Sun, Michael O’Brien

Is the Reformation Over, Mark Noll, Carolyn Nystrom {completed}

America’s God, Mark Noll {completed}

The Mines of Behemoth, Michael Shea

 

Google Books on the iPad

Today is a day of rejoicing for me. Ever since the iPad debuted, I’ve wanted a good interface for reading Google Books on it. I was a bit surprised that one didn’t exist right off the bat. In the last month, Google opened up Google Docs for editing on the iPad – a major plus. And now, I can read ancient books on the most modern device! It blows my mind! I don’t think any author 100 or 300 years ago could have imagined that I would be looking at a printed text of their book from back then on this digital device.

I think this will revolutionize certain niche areas. For example, there are hosts of Anglican theological books (and other theological books) that would never have seen the light of day before. To read them would have required travel to a few select libraries, or a publisher dusting them off and reprinting them in a limited run. Now they are accessible, free, searchable, and universal. It really is something.

I’ve come across ancient magazines like Notes and Queries that I can read a century or more after it came out in a way that was unimaginable when it was first published. I don’t like to overdo the “we are living through history” angle on things, but I do think that we are in the middle of something big with the Google Books project, something that future historians will look back on and pull apart for its impact on the world.

Book Binding: Text Block

I was able to learn a little bit more of book binding a couple weeks ago. I folded many sheets of paper into sections. We had previously marked off where we wanted the holes to be punched in the sections. Using a guide, I then punched holes in the sections with an awl. After that , I prepared tapes and attached them to the paper. Then I sewed using a couple different methods through all of the sections. This was not easy and I required help every step of the way. I was getting better at sewing as I went along, but I could use a lot of practice. Here are some pictures of the completed text block:

You can get a good idea of where the holes are and how the sewing works from the next picture. All of this is done to strengthen the final product.

Here is a close-up of some of the sewing and the tapes.

Cambridge Cameo – Unchanged

I was admiring these photos of the Cambridge Cameo Reference Bible (KJV) when it occurred to me that my Mom’s Bible [that I just had rebound] is also from Cambridge. I wondered how much the layout might be different from edition to edition. Mom’s was printed in the 1970’s, 30 plus years ago. What I found is that there seems to be no difference at all. The typesetting is the same, the notes are the same, the page numbers are the same, etc. Look at the pictures below, first of the new edition, then of my Mom’s edition:


Defending Constantine 1

I received the book yesterday. It is surprisingly large – most of Leithart’s works are shorter. Here’s a quote from the Introduction:

…one aim in this book is to contribute to the formation of a theology that does not simply inform but is a social science.

In contrast to many modern theologians who consider social science to be foundational for theology, Milbank argues that classical orthodoxy contains its own account of social and political life.

I love this – we don’t need to go to sociology and political science for instructions on how to order our lives. Theology, rightly conceived, contains all we need for every area of life. This is Reformational, Medieval, and Kuyperian!

 

Rebinding a Bible, 2

I received my Mom’s Bible back today from Mechling Bookbindery. They did a fantastic job on it as I thought they would. The Bible is a KJV that she received on October 14th, 1976. It is a Cambridge Bible printed on India paper and measures about 4.5″ x 7″.

Here are some pictures of the final product [click to enlarge]:

The image above shows the two ribbons that I requested, gold and crimson.

This gives you some idea of how it folds open and the stiffness of the goatskin leather.

These are the new endpapers that they inserted.

This is a view of the spine.

And this is the front cover.

I expect this Bible to last for the rest of my life and I will treasure it throughout. I am probably going to send another one – an RSV – and will take before and after pictures if I do.