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Converted by un confit de canard: Political Thinking in the Novel Soumission by Michel Houellebecq

  • Marie Demker (a1)

Abstract

From a certain perspective, literature is always political. Literature in a broad sense has been a source of uprisings and protest at least since Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 – and probably much further back in history than that. Narratives are the most potent way to articulate both political praise and criticism within a given society. In his political satires, British author George Orwell reviled all kinds of totalitarianism and the idea of a socialist utopia. Swedish writer and journalist Stieg Larsson wrote explicitly dystopian crime stories targeting the Swedish welfare state. German novelist Heinrich Böll turned a critical eye on the development of the tabloid press and the use of state monitoring in German society. In the same tradition, Michel Houellebecq has been seen as a very provocative writer in his tone and in his use of political tools. He has articulated a nearly individual anarchist perspective combined with authoritarian and paternalistic views. In Soumission, Houellebecq uses the European idea of multiculturalism to explode our political frames from within. This article explores the perception of religion in Soumission, assesses the critique Houellebecq directs towards French society and European developments, and examines Houellebecq’s perception of democracy and politics. The following questions are addressed: does Houellebecq’s critique come from a classical ideological perspective? Does he describe any elements of an ideal society – even if only as the reverse of a presented dystopia? What kind of democracy does the text of Soumission support or oppose?

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1.Orwell, G. (1949) 1984: A Novel (London: Signet classics).
2.Wilkin, P. (2013) George Orwell: the English dissident as Tory anarchist. Political Studies, 61, pp. 197214.
3.Ingle, S. (2006) The Social and Political Thought of George Orwell: A Reassessment (London: Routledge).
4.Réage, P. (1954) Histoire d'O (Paris: Editions Pauvert).
5.I have mainly read the book in the Swedish translation by Kristoffer Leandoer (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers, 2015).
6.Wievorka, O. (2013) Histoire de la Résistance 1940-45 (Paris: Perrin).
7.Camus, A. (1942) L'Étranger (Paris: Gallimard).
8.For a discussion of the so-called War of the Writers, see Unger, S. (2001) Vichy: Beyond the syndrome syndrome? French Politics, Culture & Society, 19(1), pp. 8287.
9.Camus, A. (1942) Le mythe de Sisyphe (Paris: Gallimard).
10.Unger, S. (2001) Vichy: Beyond the syndrome syndrome? French Politics, Culture & Society, 19(1).
11.Joris-Karl Huysmans was a French novelist known for his satire, wit and use of the French language. Among other things, he wrote an autobiographical trilogy with a main character who converts to Catholicism.
12.By saying that François Hollande was the man who should be re-elected with Islamic support, Houellebecq displays his naive idea of politics. The novel’s argument goes as follows: President Hollande is weak and eager to uphold his power; therefore, he is a figure who may be able to invigorate the Islamic takeover in France. Nevertheless, no one in France in 2014–2015 would have thought that François Hollande could gain any popularity through Islamic/left/liberal views; in fact, they would have thought the exact opposite. The only ways for François Hollande to be re-elected would have been for him to either lean to the right of the political spectrum (i.e. toward law and order, or nationalism) or lean to the left in the old sense of resource allocation (i.e. the economy and labour market).
13.See, for example, an opinion article by Ramdani, Nabila, The Guardian, 23 May 2010.
14.See, for example, arguments in Brubaker, R. (2017) Between nationalism and civilizationism: The European populist moment in comparative perspective. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40(8), pp. 11911226, DOI:10.1080/01419870.2017.1294700
15.See, for example, the Freedom House report on Hungary 2017 (partly free) and the EU Press release 13 July 2017 on Hungary’s new law on NGOs.
16.An empirical study supporting this statement is presented in O’Sullivan, B. (2017) Reconciling the French Dilemma: Attitudes of the French Millennial Generation towards Maghrebi Immigration and Assimilation in France. Honours Thesis in Sociology, Whitman College, 10 May 2017.
17.Houellebecq, M. (2015) Underkastelse, translated by Leandoer, Kristoffer (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers förlag).
18.The IFOP Poll from 29 April 2016 showed that 47% of the French population thought that the Muslim community in France was a threat to national identity; this can be compared with the election result for the Front National in the first round on 18 June 2017, which was 13.2%.
19.Here, politics is used as a concept for the authoritative allocation of values in a society, in line with Easton, D. (1953) The Political System. An Inquiry into the State of Political Science (New York: Knopf).

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