Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book
January 2, 2015 | by Sylvain Bourmeau
It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark ... and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.
The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.
This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission (Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he's given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.
Why did you do it?
For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.
The death of your dog, of your parents?
Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.
Whereas before you felt …
I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first.
How would you characterize this book?
The phrase political fiction isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ve read many similar examples, but at any rate I’ve read some, more in English literature than in French.
What books are you thinking of?
In a way, certain books by Conrad. Or by John Buchan. And then more recent books, not as good, which are more like thrillers. A thriller can unfold in a political setting, it doesn’t always have to be tied to the business world. But there’s a third reason I’ve written this book—because I quite liked the way it began. I wrote the first part, up to page twenty-six, practically in one sitting. And I found it very convincing, because I can easily imagine a student finding a friend in Huysmans and dedicating his life to him. This didn’t happen to me. I read Huysmans much later, I think when I was almost thirty-five, but I definitely would have liked reading him. I think he would have been a real friend to me. And so, after I wrote those pages, I did nothing for a while. That was in January 2013, and I must have gone back to the text that summer. But my project was very different at the beginning. It wasn’t meant to be called Soumission—the first title was La Conversion. And in my original project, the narrator converted, too, but to Catholicism. Which is to say, he followed in Huysmans’s footsteps a century later, leaving naturalism to become Catholic. And I wasn’t able to do it.
It didn’t work. In my opinion, the key scene of the book is the one where the narrator takes one last look at the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, he feels a spiritual power, like waves, and all at once she fades into the past and he goes back to the parking lot, alone and basically in despair.
Is this a satirical novel?
No. Maybe a small part of the book satirizes political journalists—politicians a little bit, too, to be honest. But the main characters are not satirical.
Where did you get the idea for a presidential election, in 2022, that came down to Marine Le Pen and the leader of a Muslim party?
Well, Marine Le Pen strikes me as a realistic candidate for 2022—even for 2017 … The Muslim party is more … That’s the heart of the matter, really. I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.
But to imagine that such a party might find itself poised to win a presidential election seven years from now …
I agree, it’s not very realistic. For two reasons, actually. First—and this is the most difficult thing to imagine—the Muslims would have to succeed in getting along with each other. That would take someone extremely intelligent and with an extraordinary political talent, qualities that I give to my character Ben Abbes. But an extreme talent is, by definition, an unusual occurrence. But supposing he existed, the party could take off, but it would take longer than seven years. If we look at the way the Muslim Brotherhood has done it, we see regional networks, charities, cultural centers, prayer centers, vacation centers, health care, something not unlike what the Communist Party did. If you ask me, in a country where poverty will continue to spread, this party could attract a lot more than just “average” Muslims, if I can put it that way, because really there is no longer such a thing as an “average” Muslim since we now have people converting who are not at all of North African origin … But such a process would take several decades. The sensationalism of the media plays a negative role, really. For example, they loved the story of the guy living in a little village in Normandy, as French as he could be, not even from a broken home, who converted and went off to wage jihad in Syria. But we can reasonably assume that for every guy like that there are several dozen who convert and don’t go off to wage jihad in Syria, who don’t do anything of the kind. After all, one doesn’t wage jihad for the fun of it, that sort of thing only interests people who are strongly motivated by doing violence, which is to say, necessarily a minority.
You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting.
I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.
That hypothesis is central to the book, but we know that it has been discredited for many years by numerous researchers, who have shown that we are actually witnessing a progressive secularization of Islam, and that violence and radicalism should be understood as the death throes of Islamism. That is the argument made by Olivier Roy, and many other people who have worked on this question for more than twenty years.
This is not what I have observed, although in North and South America, Islam has benefited less than the evangelicals. This is not a French phenomenon, it’s almost global. I don’t know about Asia, but the case of Africa is interesting because there you have the two great religious powers on the rise—evangelical Christianity and Islam. I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.
But why did you decide to tell these things in such a dramatically exaggerated way when even you acknowledge that the idea of a Muslim president in 2022 is unrealistic?
That must be my mass market side, my “thriller” side.
You wouldn’t call it your Éric Zemmour side?
I don’t know, I haven’t read his book. What does he say, exactly?
He and a number of other writers overlap, despite their differences, in describing a contemporary France, which strikes me as essentially fantastical, where the menace of Islam looms over French society and is one of its principal features. In the plot of your novel, it seems to me, you accept this as a premise and you promote the same description of contemporary France that we find in the work of those intellectuals today.
I don’t know, I only know the title of Zemmour’s book [Le Suicide français], and this is not at all the way I see things. I don’t think we are witnessing a French suicide. I think we are seeing practically the opposite. Europe is committing suicide and, in the middle of Europe, France is struggling desperately to survive. It is almost the only country that is fighting to survive, the only country whose demographics allow it to survive. Suicide is a matter of demographics, it’s the best and most effective way to commit suicide. That’s why France is not committing suicide at all. What’s more, for people to convert is a sign of hope, not a threat. It means they aspire to a new kind of society. That said, I don’t think people convert for social reasons, their reasons for converting are deeper—even if my book contradicts me slightly, Huysmans being the classic case of a man who converts for reasons that are purely aesthetic. Really, the questions that worry Pascal leave Huysmans cold. He never mentions them. I almost have trouble imagining such an aesthete. For him, beauty was the proof. The beauty of rhyme, of paintings, of music proved the existence of God.
This brings us back to the question of suicide, since Baudelaire said of Huysmans that the only choice he could make was between suicide or conversion …
No, it was Barbey d’Aurevilly who made that remark, which is fair enough, especially after reading À rebours. I reread it closely and, in the end, it really is Christian. It’s astonishing.
To go back to the question of your unrealistic exaggerations, in your book you describe, in a very blurry and vague way, various world events, and yet the reader never knows quite what these are. This takes us into the realm of fantasy, doesn’t it, into the politics of fear.
Yes, perhaps. Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.
Like imagining the prospect of Islam taking over the country?
Actually, it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.
Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis?
None. No effect whatsoever.
You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?
In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.
Doesn’t it make you want to write about something else so as not to join the pack?
No, part of my work is to talk about what everyone is talking about, objectively. I belong to my own time.
You remark in your novel that French intellectuals tend to avoid feeling any responsibility, but have you asked yourself about your own responsibilities as a writer?
But I am not an intellectual. I don’t take sides, I defend no regime. I deny all responsibility, I claim utter irresponsibility—except when I discuss literature in my novels, then I am engaged as a literary critic. But essays are what change the world.
Of course not. Though I suspect this book by Zemmour is really too long. I think Marx’s Capital is too long. It’s actually the Communist Manifesto that got read and changed the world. Rousseau changed the world, he sometimes knew how to go straight to the point. It’s simple, if you want to change the world, you have to say, Here’s how the world is and here’s what must be done. You can’t lose yourself in novelistic considerations. That’s ineffectual.
But you don’t need me to tell you how a novel can be used as an epistemological tool. That was the subject of The Map and the Territory. In this book, I feel that you have adopted categories of description, oppositions, that are worse than dubious—the sort of categories relied on by the editors of Causeur, or by Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, even Renaud Camus. For example, the “opposition” between antiracism and secularism.
One cannot deny there is a contradiction there.
I don’t see it. On the contrary, the same people are often militant antiracists and fervent defenders of secularism, with both ways of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment.
Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace. A striking example? The left wing candidate on Olivier Besancenot’s ticket who wore the veil, there’s a contradiction for you. But only the Muslims are in an actually schizophrenic situation. On the level of what we customarily call values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic. That seems obvious to me.
But I don’t understand the connection with racism …
That’s because there is none. Objectively speaking, there is none. When I was tried for racism and acquitted, a decade ago, the prosecutor remarked, correctly, that the Muslim religion was not a racial trait. This has become even more obvious today. So we have extended the domain of “racism” by inventing the crime of islamophobia.
The word may be badly chosen, but there do exist forms of stigma toward groups or categories of person, which are forms of racism …
No, islamophobia is not a kind of racism. If anything has become obvious, it’s that.
Islamophobia serves as a screen for a kind of racism that can no longer be expressed because it’s against the law.
I think that’s just false. I don’t agree.
You rely on another dubious dichotomy, the opposition between anti-Semitism and racism, when actually we can point to many moments in history when those two things have gone hand in hand.
I think anti-Semitism has nothing to do with racism. I’ve spent time trying to understand anti-Semitism, as it happens. One’s first impulse is to connect it with racism. But what kind of racism is it when a person can’t say whether somebody is Jewish or not Jewish, because the difference can’t be seen? Racism is more elementary than that, it’s a different skin color …
No, because cultural racism has been with us for a long time.
But now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. Racism is simply when you don’t like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn’t got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.
But since, from a biological point of view, “races” don’t exist, racism is necessarily cultural.
But racism exists, apparently, all around us. Obviously it has existed from the moment when races first began mixing … Be honest, Sylvain! You know very well that a racist is someone who doesn’t like somebody else because he has black skin or because he has an Arab face. That’s what racism is.
Or because his values or his culture are …
No, that’s a different problem, I’m sorry.
Because he is polygamous, for example.
Ah, well, one can be shocked by polygamy without being the least bit racist. That must be the case for lots of people who are not the least bit racist. But let’s go back to anti-Semitism, because we’ve gotten off topic. Seeing as how no one has ever been able to tell whether somebody is Jewish just by his appearance or even by his way of life, since by the time anti-Semitism really developed, very few Jews had a Jewish way of life, what could antisemitism really mean? It’s not a kind of racism. All you have to do is read the texts to realize that anti-Semitism is simply a conspiracy theory—there are hidden people who are responsible for all the unhappiness in the world, who are plotting against us, there’s an invader in our midst. If the world is going badly, it’s because of the Jews, because of Jewish banks … It’s a conspiracy theory.
But in Soumission, isn’t there a conspiracy theory—the idea that a “great replacement,” to use the words of Renaud Camus, is underway, that Muslims are seizing power?
I don’t know much about this “grand replacement” theory, but I gather it has to do with race. Whereas in my book, there is no mention of immigration. That’s not the subject.
It’s not necessarily racial, it can be religious. In this case, your book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.
No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.
You who have become an agnostic, you can look on cheerfully and watch the destruction of Enlightenment philosophy?
Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stage, which began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear.
Why did you choose to set your novel in the world of academia? Because it embodies the Enlightenment?
Is it all right to say I don’t know? Because really, I don’t think I do. The truth is that I wanted there to be a long subplot dealing with Huysmans, that’s where I got the idea of making my character an academic.
Did you know from the beginning that you would write the novel in the first person?
Yes, because it was a play on Huysmans. It was like that from the beginning.
Once again, you’ve written a character who is partly a self-portrait, not entirely, but … there is the death of his parents, for example.
Yes, I have used things, even if the details are really quite different. My main characters are never self-portraits, but they are always projections. For example, what if I’d read Huysmans when I was young, if I’d studied literature and become a professor? I imagine lives that I haven’t led.
While allowing actual events to insert themselves in your fictional lives.
I use moments that have struck me in real life, yes. But more and more I tend to transpose them. In this book, all that’s left of reality is the theoretical element—the death of the father—but actually everything about it is different. My father was very different from this guy, his death didn’t happen that way at all. Life just gives me the basic ideas.
In writing this book did you feel you were a Cassandra, a prophet of doom?
You can’t really describe this book as a pessimistic prediction. At the end of the day, things don’t go all that badly, really.
Not so badly for the men, but for the women …
Yes, that’s a whole other problem. But it seems to me that the project of rebuilding the Roman empire isn’t so stupid, if you reorient Europe toward the south the thing starts to make a kind of sense, even if it doesn’t make sense right now. Politically, one might even welcome this development—it’s not really a catastrophe.
And yet the book is extraordinarily sad.
Yes, it has a strong underlying sadness. In my opinion, the ambiguity culminates in the last sentence—“I would have nothing to mourn.” Really, one could come away feeling exactly the opposite. The character has two things to mourn—Myriam and the Black Madonna. But he happens not to mourn them. What makes the book sad is a sort of ambience of resignation.
How would you place this novel in relation to your other books?
You might say I did several things that I’d wanted to do for a long time, things I’d never done before. Like having a very important character whom one never sees, namely Ben Abbes. I also think it’s the saddest ending to a love plot that I’ve ever written, because it’s the most banal—out of sight, out of mind. They had feelings. In general, there is a much stronger feeling of entropy than in my other books. It has a somber, crepuscular side, which accounts for the sadness of its tone. For example, if Catholicism doesn’t work, that’s because it’s already run its course, it seems to belong to the past, it has defeated itself. Islam is an image of the future. Why has the idea of the Nation stalled out? Because it’s been abused too long.
There is no trace of romanticism here, much less lyricism. We’ve moved on to decadence.
That’s true. The fact that I started with Huysmans must have something to do with this. Huysmans couldn’t go back to romanticism, but for him it was still possible to convert to Catholicism. The clearest point of connection with my other books is the idea that religion, of some kind, is necessary. That idea is there in many of my books. In this one, too, only now it’s an existing religion.
Whereas earlier one might have invented a religion, along Comtean lines.
Auguste Comte tried in vain to create a religion and, indeed, I have sometimes created religions in my books. The difference is that this one really exists.
What is the place of humor in this book?
There are comic characters here and there. I would guess that it’s about the same as usual, really, with the same number of ridiculous characters.
We haven’t spoken much about women. Once again you will attract criticism on that front.
Certainly a feminist is not likely to love this book. But I can’t do anything about that.
And yet you were shocked when people described Whatever as misogynistic. This book won’t help your case.
I still don’t think I’m a misogynist, really. I would say that this isn’t the crucial thing, in any case. The thing that may rub people the wrong way is that I show how feminism is demographically doomed. So the underlying idea, which may really upset people in the end, is that ideology doesn’t matter much compared to demographics.
This book is not meant as a provocation?
I accelerate history, but no, I can’t say that the book is a provocation—if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.
While you were writing or rereading the book, did you anticipate any reactions to its publication?
I still can’t predict these things, not really.
Some might be surprised that you chose to go in this direction when your last book was greeted as such a triumph that it silenced your critics.
The true answer is that, frankly, I didn’t choose. The book started with a conversion to Catholicism that should have taken place but didn’t.
Isn’t there something despairing about this gesture, which you didn’t really choose?
The despair comes from saying good-bye to a civilization, however ancient. But in the end the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it—or rather, read it. The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims. Obviously, as with all religious texts, there is room for interpretation, but an honest reading will conclude that a holy war of aggression is not generally sanctioned, prayer alone is valid. So you might say I’ve changed my opinion. That’s why I don’t feel that I’m writing out of fear. I feel, rather, that we can make arrangements. The feminists will not be able to, if we’re being completely honest. But I and lots of other people will.
You could replace the word feminists with women, no?
No, you can’t replace the word feminists with women. Really you can’t. I make it clear that women can be converts, too.
Sylvain Bourmeau is a producer at France Culture and an associate professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.
Translated from French by Lorin Stein.