The Best Lack All Conviction

Mild spoilers for Submission follow.

Halfway through the novel Submission, the narrator’s parents die in quick succession. But this is not a novel about the death of his parents, and these events are a narrative sideshow. François’s parents are divorced and he hasn’t seen either of them in years. The news, therefore, reaches him not through family or friends but through the dull prose of bureaucratic paperwork:

Finally, on July 11 the city informed me that pursuant to article L 2223-27 of the General Local Authorities code, the city had deposited my mother’s body in the common division of the municipal cemetery. I had five years to order the exhumation of her body and its reburial in a private plot, at the end of which time it would be cremated and the ashes scattered in a “garden of memory.“

I certainly hadn’t imagined my mother leading a vibrant social life….even so, I had no idea she was so completely alone. They’d probably tried to get in touch with my father, too, and he must have left the letters unanswered….I wondered what had become of her French bulldog (humane society? euthanasia by injection?)

Later, he hears about his father’s death from the late father’s girlfriend, a woman he had never met before:

I got the news over the phone from Sylvia, his partner. She said she was sorry that we hadn’t ‘had much chance to talk’. This was a euphemism: in fact, we’d never spoken at all. I had learned of her existence only two years before, the last time my father and I had talked, when he’d happened to mention her in passing.

There’s no rending of clothes or interpersonal conflict here, but something still strikes the reader as being terribly wrong. The idea of a bureaucratically designated “garden of memory” does not exactly inspire reverence. François describes these events bloodlessly and remotely, a remoteness mirrored in the lack of human connection and lack of lasting consequences from these events. He meets his father’s girlfriend and his lawyer, and everyone exchanges pleasantries while divvying up the estate without fuss. Then they go their separate ways without ever getting in contact again, because, well, what would be the point? Thus passes his father.

Houellebecq tries hard to emphasize the strangeness of this alienation, but really what we’re seeing here is the logical culmination of a trio of lives lived with the commonplace and essentially well-meaning goal of avoiding unpleasantness. The parents divorced, presumably amiably but without warmth, rather than “continue to make one another miserable.” The protagonist and his father’s new girlfriend, after circling for a bit, don’t try to connect over the shared memory of his father, because man, it’s already awkward enough when you’re divvying up his stuff. And there is some short-term benefit from this culture of niceness. For example, in order to divide the estate, the lawyer realizes that they will have to sell the house where the girlfriend lived in luxury for several years. And she accepts this without bursting into tears or showing any other signs of emotion, making the legal transaction much easier.

But look a little past the short term, and this lack of courage results in a horrifying landscape of atomization. In general, every social relationship involves some friction. There is always a temptation to take the easy way out, to exit from demanding obligations to family and friends. But when you spread out a little conflict-aversion throughout a society, this avoidant behavior gets amplified into atomization.

There are probably fewer family feuds now than in any previous point in American history. But this is not because people have learned how to better get along with one another; rather, they figured out how not to have to get along with one another. And in a conflict-averse culture, it’s considered preferable to have no extended family ties than to have occasional family rancor.

One of the subtle touches in Submission is that the narrator clearly suffering from depression, but is totally unselfaware about it and gives no explanation as to why. It’s up to the reader to act as a sort of proxy therapist and puzzle it out. It’s not an easy question. François seems to have all the accoutrements of success, and all his social needs appear to be fulfilled. He’s a Sorbonne professor whose dissertation people are still talking about, with guaranteed prestigious employment for life. He has a number of faculty friends who he can always invite out for a drink. He’s even (being French) got a new coed mistress every academic year.

And yet, as you read along, you get the sense of a guy whose life feels terribly hollow, has no real human relationships, no intellectual life, and tries to drown his anhedonia with lackluster pursuit of sex and gourmet food. What’s going on here?

I think what it boils down to is that he realizes, on some level, the impermanence of all of this contentedness. When the Muslim Brotherhood comes into power, they close the universities, and all of his faculty friends dissolve as a community as soon as that Schelling point is removed. Like his annual relationships, his friendships were a matter of convenience. Similarly, when his job was taken away, he had no independent ideas for scholarly work without the direction of the University. Left to his own devices, all he could think to do was to enjoy his pension with the typical Houellebecqian pursuits.

Even before the political disruption, he realizes on some level that his lifestyle is leading nowhere good. He is already about as materially well-off as he’s ever going to get, he’s not building up any financial, social, or intellectual capital. All he has to look forward to is the slow turnover of his social relationships, his slowly dimming academic star, and the slow decay of the flesh.

And this comes back to the notion of courage, because all of these problems, including the resulting depression, are self-inflicted. The simplest way for him to become happier is not to run off and join a monastery, but to stay a professor while pursuing depth in all of these aspects of his life. He can do real intellectual work rather than coasting on the sinecure. He can deepen work friendships into collaborations and true friendships. He can get married to one of the coeds and have a family. In various ways, if he makes his life more demanding in these virtuous ways, meaning and happiness will follow. This is entirely within his power, and indeed most of his ancestors would have considered these choices not even remarkable enough to rate as conscious decisions at all.

But all of that requires courage. Any new piece of real intellectual work is probably not going to be as well received as his dissertation. Ask more from his friends, and some of them are sure to refuse, with resulting awkwardness. And marriage is in a real sense more terrifying than the other two put together, with highs and lows and conflicts and compromises that, to a certain cast of mind, sounds like way too much trouble when casual, commitment free relationships are available on an à la carte basis.

Submission has been advertised as a dystopian novel about the Muslim takeover of France. But the dystopia he paints is not the Muslim takeover, but rather the state of French culture as it exists today. And on the personal as well as the political level, it shows the consequence of a culture without courage, and of a life lived on the principles of maximizing niceness and avoiding discord. In the long run, Houellebecq shows, it doesn’t look anywhere near nice, and its peacefulness is the peace of the grave.