Whatever is wrong with us, Islam is not the solution

Michel Houellebecq: 'looks like a man who has crawled out of an ashtray after a prolonged alcoholic binge in clothes that have not been washed for weeks. This does not mean he approves of the world he inhabits: it is that he can conceive of no other, at least for Western man, and if anyone thinks otherwise he is deceiving himself. Grunge is reality; everything else is veneer'

Michel Houellebecq: ‘looks like a man who has crawled out of an ashtray after a prolonged alcoholic binge in clothes that have not been washed for weeks. This does not mean he approves of the world he inhabits: it is that he can conceive of no other, at least for Western man, and if anyone thinks otherwise he is deceiving himself. Grunge is reality; everything else is veneer’

Fundamentalist Mohammedanism has nothing of any value to say to the inhabitants of the 21st century

The novelist Michel Houellebecq’s theme, writes Dalrymple, is

the emptiness of human existence in a consumer society devoid of religious belief, political project, or cultural continuity in which, thanks to material abundance and social security, there is no real struggle for existence that might give meaning.

Arduous vacuity

Such a society

will not allow you to go hungry or to live in the abject poverty that would once have been the reward of idleness, whether voluntary or involuntary. This lends an inspissated pointlessness to all human activity, which becomes nothing more than a scramble for unnecessary consumer goods that confer no happiness or (at best) a distraction from that emptiness.

For Houellebecq,

intellectual or cultural activity becomes soap opera for the more intelligent and educated rather than something of intrinsic importance or value.

The Houellebeckian mood

An economics lecturer character

describes his work as the teaching of obvious untruths to careerist morons, rather than as, say, the awakening of young minds to the fascinating task of reducing the complexity of social interactions to general principles.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 23.19.47

Joris-Karl Huysmans: the novelist of pessimism and decadence became ‘desperate to escape his nihilistic condition’ and ‘returned to Catholicism later in life and became an oblate’

So brilliantly

does Houellebecq describe the arduous vacuity of the life of his protagonists that one suspects (or knows?) that his books are strongly autobiographical.

The very success of the Enlightenment project, says Dalrymple,

is the root of its failure. Having eliminated myth and magic from human life, it has crushed belief even in itself out of society. Bravery and excitement have given way to comfort and convenience; degeneration is the inevitable and unavoidable result.

The protagonist and narrator of Soumission

is a teacher of French literature in a Parisian university, a specialist in the work of Joris-Karl Huysmans. This was a clever choice on the part of Houellebecq, for Huysmans returned to Catholicism later in life and became an oblate, his last book being Les foules de Lourdes. Huysmans followed the path that the protagonist, in desperate need to escape his nihilistic condition, will follow; but Catholicism having lost its faith and becoming, under Pope Francis, little more than transcendental social work to the hosannas of the right-thinking, there is no living faith in France except Islam for him to convert to. It is Islam, faute de mieux. The subtlety of Houellebecq’s book consists of demonstrating that the spiritual need of the protagonist can be made to coincide with his material interest.

Islamism: 'intellectually nugatory'

Islamism: ‘intellectually nugatory’

Houellebecq

does not feel it necessary to point out that the protagonist, having converted, will not be free to apostatise should he subsequently decide that he has made a mistake; Islam is like a vein, it has an built-in mechanism of preventing backflow, so that conversions flow in one direction only. Free enquiry on many subjects will henceforth be denied him, and eventually even the subject of his scholarship is likely to be prohibited.

Soumission is far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic, says Dalrymple.

It is rather a meditation, admittedly using all the author’s habitual tropes which fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, are susceptible to an infinite number of bitterly amusing variations, on the state of Western civilisation and what makes that civilisation vulnerable to attack from so intellectually nugatory a force as Islamism which, by all reasonable standards, has nothing of any value whatever to say to the inhabitants of the 21st century.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 22.42.14Houellebecq’s novel

is an invitation to us to look inwards, to think of what is wrong with us rather than with them. Whether we or they will read it like this, I rather doubt. As to a solution, it is hardly the place of a novel to supply it. But whatever it might be, Islam is certainly not it.

 

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