Declinism is in vogue. A number of books and articles have been written in recent years about the “Decline of the West.” Perhaps most notable is Mark Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone, which chronicles the fall of Europe, due in particular to declining birth rates and a resurgent Islam. Oriana Fallaci, Bat Ye’or, Bruce Bawer, and others have all written on this theme as well.
These are all books of nonfiction, and all of them, to varying degrees, raise alarms and offer lessons that urgently need to be heeded. Only a fool would ignore them; unfortunately, Europe and the West have far too many of those.
However, it is to the realm of fiction and poetry that one must go in order to find the pulse – indeed, the soul – of a culture and society. Think of Thomas Mann, W.B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot.
The French novelist, poet, and literary critic Michel Houellebecq (for us non-Francophiles, his last name is pronounced “Wellbeck”) has written such a book. Submission is a number-one bestseller in France and across Europe and has been translated into English by Lorin Stein. It is a masterful piece of work that will stay with you long after you finish the last page.
The novel takes place in the future: it is 2022. François is a middle-aged literary professor at the Sorbonne. An expert on the 19th-century French novelist J.K. Hysmans, he leads an undemanding but miserable and empty life. He is bored. He drinks too much. He sleeps with his students in an endless series of meaningless and empty relationships, watches porn on the internet, has almost no friends, and throughout the book wonders about his purpose and the meaning of his life, more than once fantasizing about suicide. In other words, François is the epitome of early 21st-century Western civilization “man” – indeed, the epitome of our entire civilization. Dreary, driftless, decadent and alone.
Outside of François’s academic bubble, France is roiling – riots and violence in the streets and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood Party on the eve of a presidential election. Their main opponent is the National Front, with a sideshow of Socialists and other center parties. The Muslim Brotherhood Party forms an alliance with the Socialists (naturally), and the Brotherhood leader becomes president. Not by force, intimidation, fear, or threats. Indeed, the Brotherhood Party leader is incredibly smooth and sophisticated, beyond reproach, very “French.” The media, immersed in political correctness, leaves him untouched. He is like silk in his manner, and he charms his way to the presidency of France.
There is so much to discuss in this book, but in the interest of time and to leave one with the desire to actually want to read it in full, I will highlight two critical signposts of the novel.
As mentioned above, François’s love life, if it can be called that, is nothing but a series of short-term relationships, primarily with students, that are void of any feeling or depth. All except for one, that is, which is one of the most critical parts of Houellebecq’s novel. Myriam is François’s one “love”; he cares for her deeply. And this is not a man prone to caring; his parents’ deaths barely even prompt an emotion.
Myriam is Jewish, and one of the critical subtexts of the story is the rise of anti-Semitism in France. It is always in the background, rising but subtle, until, in the person of Myriam, we see the 1930s parallel of Nazi Germany and her flight from the impending storm. Myriam and her parents leave France and immigrate to Israel. She stays in contact with François, at least for a while, her letters and conversation detailing her glee, excitement, and joy at being in Israel. It is clear she has found home. But for François, it means only emptiness; upon her farewell, he pointedly states, “There is no Israel for me.“
As an aside, I caution my fellow Americans who may possess a more puritanical background or bent: this book includes graphic sex scenes. Sex, I guess, as only the French can so elaborately describe. Certainly enough to make this reviewer blush! All of the sex scenes in the book, however, are clinical and sterile, befitting the emptiness of François’s “affairs.” Except, again, for Myriam. Myriam means something – to François and to the story.
A second critical signpost of the novel is the journey François takes to find his past, to attempt to find the soul of France. With the Brotherhood’s rise and the electoral turmoil, François is put on permanent leave of absence; the Sorbonne closes its doors amidst shakeups in leadership and questions of its future. François heeds advice and gets out of Paris, driving to the South, hoping to make it to Spain, but he gets as far as Martel (yes, of Charles Martel fame) and is forced to stop. Gas stations, and almost everything else, have closed. He encounters a friend from Paris and gets the rundown on what is happening across the country. Over many drinks, they ruminate on France’s history, including her classical medieval Christian past.
This leads François to travel to Rocamadour, a monastic commune that draws pilgrims from all over the world to its churches and to see the Black Virgin. At this point in the story, one thinks that maybe François, and indeed France, can still be saved. The visit stirs great emotion, the writing is beautiful, but Rocadadour, for all its beauty, doesn’t sustain; it lacks meaning. It is a tourist attraction, after all. The short chapter almost reads like a poem – foreshadowed in gloom, the end has been written. François heads back to Paris. There will be one final attempt to salvage a Christian past, a chance to keep its ember lit when François visits an abbey he had visited previously in his research of Hysmans. But this chapter, perhaps the dreariest of the entire book, leaves the reader and François barren and alone. The greatness of the Christian era, sustained across two millennia, has closed with a mournful sorrow.
There are other encounters, other characters that deserve mention, so many other signposts that need to be explained, but one really must read the book. The author chooses a literary scholar as his protagonist in a nation where the tradition of literary studies is central to the very essence of what it means to be French. This is the elite of Republican France, stretching back for a few centuries. The lack of courage and conviction among the elites, as represented by François and others, cannot be ignored.
In the end, François submits as the title notes, it is foregone from the beginning. In order to regain his job, his stature, his prestige, and his manhood, he submits to Islam, citing the words that all must say: “I testify that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” And then it is over. François is a Muslim. It is subtle. Throughout the entire book, his story, the movement toward Islam, is, in one word, subtle. One long inevitable and seamless slide into darkness.
Is this our future? Is it the future of France? Of the West? Michel Houellebecq has given us a warning, done in beautiful and disturbing prose, that leaves one shaken. Shaken, yet thinking. You will think about this book for a long time. That may be his point.
I close with a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s talk given at Harvard University in June of 1978.
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature, which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.
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