Michel Houellebecq and the Ruins of Modernity
Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, is a book whose layers of meaning a counterpoint to so much of the shallowness of our culture. The fact that this contemporary piece of fiction demanded an academic treatment of this kind points to its literary depth and cultural impact. In this essay my aim is to go in a… The post Michel Houellebecq and the Ruins of Modernity appeared first on VoegelinView.




Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, is a book whose layers of meaning a counterpoint to so much of the shallowness of our culture. The fact that this contemporary piece of fiction demanded an academic treatment of this kind points to its literary depth and cultural impact. In this essay my aim is to go in a slightly different direction from the same starting point. The irony being that the protagonist, Francois, is himself shallow. In my view, Houellebecq’s overall style, epitomised in Submission, is a struggle with the legacy of modernity as articulated by Roger Scruton and is emblematic of literary modernism in whose centenary year we find ourselves. The ruins of modernity that modernism revealed are gazed upon in Submission, and for this reason it is worth further consideration as one of the greatest novels of the twenty-first century.
One of the running themes of Houellebecq’s oeuvre is the disengaged and terminally disconnected protagonist, who is not only detached from love and deep relationships, but from life itself and the things that give it some semblance of meaning and purpose. In Submission, the narrator Francois is a dissolute college professor whose main academic focus is the fin de siècle decadent author Joris-Karl Huysmans, a fruitless academic endeavour that captures in microcosm the desert of the mind in which Western philosophy is now lost, rushing from one philosophical mirage to another, all the time aware of its increasing intellectual exhaustion. This deadening intellectual life is matched by a discontented sexual life, pursued for mechanistic sensation rather than any pleasure or deep sentiment rooted in attachment to a person as an end in themselves.
In the descriptions of Francois’ relationship with his Jewish love-interest Myriam and her family life we can see both the pain of the modern condition and the contrast of the disconnection endemic to it with a deeper relationality offered by religious fellowship tied to family bonds. Francois recounts how “it suddenly occurred to me that for the last twenty years Myriam had had dinner with her parents every night, that she helped her little brother with his homework, that she took her little sister shopping for clothes. They were a tribe, a close-knit family tribe, and as I thought back on my own life, it was so unlike anything I’d ever known that I almost broke down in sobs.” This feeling of being outside something profound, that calls to something deep within even Francois’ corrupted inner life is central to the modern condition, as argued by Scruton in his book, Modern Culture. As he writes, “modern people long for membership; but membership exists only among people who do not long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the face of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man.” Francois is still attuned to the intuition that “we too are beset by those ancient and ineradicable yearnings for something else – for a homecoming to our true community.”
This condition was confronted by modernism following the shattering of any last illusions of immersion in a timeless order following the First World War, T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land is a prime example. The disenchantment diagnosed by Max Weber, according to Scruton, saw “places, times and actions lose their holiness, the gods retreat from us, and our bonds are sealed by no higher force than law. And this is what we must expect when religion dies, and the common culture evaporates like a mist beneath the sun of reason.” This was made complete by the mechanised slaughter on the Western Front, with the banishment from a world of pre-rational gemeinschaft into a rationalist world of gesellschaft given concrete form by the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the assent to power in the world’s largest country of a universalist Marxist regime built on rationalist, deductive philosophical grounds.
In our ever more technologically capable civilisation, we feel more and more that we have become masters of the means to our liberation; liberation from the constrains of nature, the restraining hand of the past, and the supposed prison of social convention that prevented the full flowering of our inner reality out in the world. However, while the means of our freedom have become increasingly powerful, the matter of towards what end goes unanswered, and even asking the question of ends now earns rebuke for incipient authoritarianism. This leaves us bereft, as Scruton writes: “the mastery of means that emancipated mankind from drudgery has brought with it a mystery of ends – an inability to answer, to one’s own satisfaction, the question what to feel or do.”
This inability to answer the question of ends is interwoven with Francois’ narrative, as he struggles to see what the point to his life is, other than the buying of food that he doesn’t really want, from a supermarket he disdains, only to take it home and prepare it with technology he doesn’t particularly understand or like. Houellebecq’s descriptions of this consumer society in which Francois (and all of us, by implication) lives his degenerated half-life accords perfectly with Scruton’s description of how consumerism confuses the matter of ends even more than it already was. As “the mystery deepens with the advent of the consumer society, when all the channels of social life are devoted to consumption. For consumption, in its everyday form, is not really an end. It destroys the thing consumed and leaves us empty-handed: the consumer’s goals are perpetually recurring illusions, which vanish at the very moment they loom into view, destroyed by the appetite that seeks them.” Scruton might be writing about Francois and his unreal desires for unreal things when he writes that “the consumer society is therefore phantasmagoric, a place in which the ghosts of satisfactions are pursued by the ghosts of real desires.”
This sense that he ought to long for something real drives Francois to the Catholic shrine at Rocamadeur, where he gazes on the statue of the Black Virgin and “yearns to yearn for faith [but] this yearning does not come,” as Neil Rogachevsky puts it in his essay ‘Michel Houellebecq’s Comparative Political Science of Religion’. As Francois tells us, “every day I went and sat for a few minutes before the Black Virgin,” gazing on her face, seeing through her eyes the “thousand years [that] inspired so many pilgrimages, before whom so many saints and kings had knelt. It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe.” He examines the statue closely, noting that “the Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extra-terrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus – who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man – sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power – of intangible energy – were almost terrifying.”
This almost anthropological approach bespeaks the stance adopted by the Enlightenment man on seeing pre-Enlightenment religious rituals practiced by those still in a pre-Enlightened state, their world and the cosmology that surrounds it still oriented towards the most high. Scruton writes that this man “does not worship, since he no longer believes in the god; but he is moved by the reverential atmosphere, by the sublime stillness of the sculpture, and the serene belief to which it testifies. He does not address the image with religious feeling as his neighbours do; he does not treat it as an avenue through which another and higher being can be approached and mollified.” Instead, as Francois does in darker days, “his emotion attaches to the image itself. The signifier has become the signified. It is this thing, the statue, which is or contains the meaning of the shrine. The enlightened visitor directs his attention to the stone, to the way it is worked and finished, to the expression on the face of the god, and the breathing limbs of marble.” As with Francois, the “enlightened visitor does not believe the sacred story; so far as he is concerned, the god is a fiction. His awe is not religious, but aesthetic. To put it another way: he rejoices in the statue, not for the god’s sake, but for its own sake. Every meaning that he finds in this marble figure resides, for him, in the figure itself. To the believer the statue is a means to the god; to the philosopher the god is a means to the statue.”
The tragedy of Francois and, in Houellebecq’s eyes, of European civilisation as such, is that he still retains a faint longing to pass back from the state where the god of aesthetics, one that he worships with ever growing doubt and discontent, is a means to the statue to one where the statue is a means to God.  Even though Francois wants, even desperately, to be moved he can’t quite get there. He is as one who tries to remember a beautiful dream on waking, feeling it pour like water through the grasping fingers of memory until only the warmth that makes your heart glow remains, until even that fades away.
This dreamlike quality also applies to the how Francois describes his journey through France to Rocamadour in the south, with the landscape shimmering as though seen through a veil, the buildings there in the present but also bearing the imprint of the past, the few people he encounters reduced to ghosts, walking among the ruins of a forgotten past with the ghosts of those who inhabited it, now ignored or derided by their descendants who surround Francois at the academy and in his circle of peers. This contains echoes of Scruton’s points about Romanticism being born in reaction to the Enlightenment’s determination to strip away the vestiges of pre-modern cultural and religious vestments even if many of the Romantics held heterodox and scandalous beliefs.
In Francois, with his grasping onto a diminishing source of consolation in the aesthetic, we can still see a remnant of “the course of Romantic art,” one that is “of ever deeper mourning for the life of ‘natural piety’ which Enlightenment destroyed. And from this mourning springs the Romantic hope – the hope of recreating in imagination the community that will never again exist in fact.” This harks back to the longing to belong to a cultural community, as seen in Francois’ description of supper with Myriam’s family, and his yearning to yearn for belief in front of the Black Virgin. But, again echoing an earlier point, “The Romantic artist is a wanderer. The old moral order that lies enfolded in nature has withdrawn from his grasp.”
Francois, in the enervation he feels when contemplating his work on Huysmans, embodies a move beyond the saving grace of art in modernity where “imagination acquires its modern role – the role of ennobling, spiritualising, re-presenting humanity as something higher than itself,” to a place where art, literature, architecture have all become so self-referential for want of true ends to which they can aspire that they have increasingly lost the meaning attained in the pre-modern, gemeinschaft world. All that is left for Francois is a tired sigh of exhaustion, and to either switch on the tv or pick up the phone to hire a prostitute for the evening.
In his robotic approach to sex, a realm subject to the disenchantment and commodification analysed by Aaron Sibarium, Francois fulfils Scruton’s warning of the temptation in modernity against the reducing of people from ends in themselves, possessors of souls and the attendant intrinsic dignity, to one where “human relations dwindle into a machine-like parody of themselves, the world is voided of love, duty and desire, and only the body remains – though centre stage, flicking channels on its private TV.” Francois is aware of this depraved circumstance in which he finds himself, but for most of the novel can’t see a way of doing anything about it, at least not one that would satisfy the bodily pleasures, if that is even the right word, he still has access to in the sexual marketplace.
The “outsideness” that runs through Submission, both in terms of Francois’ social and metaphysical position, as well as his narrative style and reliability, is inherent to modernism itself, where for Scruton, “a modernist is concerned to situate himself and his art in history. Modernism is essentially a view from outside.” The individual is thrown back on his own cultural and religious reserves and told to make of the world and his place in it what he will. This is a burden unbearable to so many, one that encourages a view of life reduced to the moment-to-moment seeking of passing pleasures, themselves reduced to purely physical phenomena.
It is for this reason Francois throws himself at the feet of the Black Virgin, meditating on the transition from the medieval world where “the question of individual judgement barely came up,” and “The Romanesque vision was much more communal: at his death the believer fell into a deep sleep and was laid in earth. When all the prophecies had been fulfilled and Christ came again, it was the entire Christian people who rose together from the tomb, resurrected in a glorified body to make their ascent to paradise. Moral judgement, individual judgement, individuality itself were not clear ideas in the mind of Romanesque man, and I felt my own individuality dissolving the longer I sat in my reverie before the Virgin of Rocamadour.”
Even so, this state does not hold, the revery inspired by a brief reverence, does not last. This feeling of falling away speaks as much to Francois’ connection with his country of France as it does to his virtually non-existent belief in the Catholic Christian God. He listens to a poem by Charles Peguy, that brave, romantic and tragic son of France, extolling the sweetness of sacrifice for one’s land and her people, wondering “what the patriotic, violent-souled Péguy could mean to these young Catholic humanitarians” there around him, so far removed from the world and its ways in which Peguy still dwelled, before its breaking apart.
Francois too feels almost ready to make such a sacrifice, entering a trance-like state, where he feels “ready to give up everything, not really for my country, but in general. I was in a strange state. It seemed the Virgin was rising from her pedestal and growing in the air. The baby Jesus seemed ready to detach himself from her, and it seemed to me that all he had to do was raise his right hand and the pagans and idolators would be destroyed, and the keys to the world restored to him, ‘as its lord, its possessor and its master’.”
And then it fades, and Francois reflects that “maybe I was just hungry,” and thinks on what he plans to eat to satiate his bodily appetite, silencing any whisper of his soul’s call for sustenance. For Francois, what “this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier’s manly courage; not even a child’s desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly and royal that surpassed Péguy’s understanding, to say nothing of Huysmans’.” He returns the following day, where “the Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shrivelled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the car park.”
This falling away, the retreat that characterises the Long Defeat in our time, is characterised in the works of modernism, especially of Eliot and his Waste Land but of many others, as it points to how, according to Scruton “high culture hurts because it is bereft. For a century it has denied the death of the common culture that gave sense to it; now it can acknowledge its loss.” This pain saps the potential solace Francois might find in his work on Huysmans, and which now cannot be salved by a return to a faith he never had to begin with. Houellebecq continues what Freud calls “the work of mourning” that Scruton argues is begun by Eliot in The Waste Land, and as with the poem, so with the novel, where Houellebecq “invokes the dying god, and the communal emotions which he symbolised, while showing the world as it is when the god withdraws from it – when the god dies for the last time, and the miraculous rebirth no longer happens.”
If, as Scruton writes, “The question for the modernist is this: can you rediscover the ethical vision in the midst of modern life, without some equivalent of faith – some self-guaranteeing vision of the community and its gods?”, then Houellebecq, through Francois, suggests that this is nigh-on impossible. When Francois tells Myriam, set to make Aliyah with her family to Israel, that “there is no Israel for me,” some have understandably assumed that this means he has no way out from the disaster approaching France, that there is nowhere else to go. This is partly true, but I would also argue that “Israel” here, taken in its original meaning of “to struggle with God,” points to the fact that there is not God for Francois to struggle with, and there is no homeland to return to sanctified by adherence to a deep well of faith. Francois is doubly bereft: of a home in the world and a home beyond the world.
Of course, the novel ends with Francois submitting to the newly ascendant Islamist order and submitting to Islam itself (an implicit prophetic declaration by Houellebecq about the future of France and Europe with a twist). Francois’ submission, rather than a return to soulful transcendence, is devoid of even the faint echoes of the divine he caught on the whispering breeze of history in Rocamadour. Instead, he enlists to maintain membership in the sexual marketplace, now guaranteed two wives due to his social station as an academic. This ending encapsulates the modern condition as diagnosed by Scruton, where the alienation that soaks the novel and the “ennui of modern life is the sign of a deeper disorder – the dissipation of the community which gave sacraments their meaning.”
Francois regains community by joining the world of Islam but does so as a modern man lost in the wreckage of modernity, for “the self-conscious attempt to be part of a tradition – even the concept of tradition itself – is a modern phenomenon.” Those “immersed in a tradition have little consciousness of the fact,” and what was continued by instinct must now be chosen by a self-conscious act of individual, autonomous will. Through his work to “to purify the dialect of the tribe,” as Eliot puts it, Houellebecq seeks, in Scruton’s words, “the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience … the experience that unites us as living here and now.” The urgency of these matters is why Houellebecq’s work is the mirror to our soul that we cannot look away from, however much we might wish to. Whether our civilisation and its various cultures can be restored in such a way is the great question of our time, and it is one that Houellebecq demands we reflect on.

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