The University of Chicago does not support so-called trigger warnings. At least, that is what the dean of students informed first-years last fall. At the time, I welcomed the dean’s letter; yet, this spring, on the first day of my seminar on the history of European secularization, I trigger-warned. The course’s final reading was Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. The novel imagines a near future in which a Muslim Brotherhood candidate narrowly wins the French presidency and begins to Islamize Europe. Houellebecq narrates these massive social changes through the life of a lecherous, amoral, middle-aged literature professor. So, in the service of Christian values—Warning: graphic fornication. I can provide page numbers if you want to skip those scenes.
Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to skip those scenes. Indeed, one newly married student loved the book so much that he convinced his wife to read it. That must have been an awkward conversation. My wife barely let me teach it.
Actually, I worried less about the sex scenes than about how undergraduates would respond to Houellebecq’s depiction of Islam. No young professor can afford to seem Islamophobic, even by association. I should not have worried. My students enjoyed the novel and argued about it for three hours, as I watched and barely intervened at all. The nine students were diverse, including Americans and internationals, from various religious and secular backgrounds. They held a range of perspectives on Submission, some rather curious. One European student, for instance, contended that Houellebecq’s novel demonstrates why medical professionals must reintegrate religion into the treatment of depression and mental illness. Despite their differences, none of the undergraduates seemed interested in challenging, supporting, or even mentioning Houellebecq’s characterization of Islam as fundamentally discordant with French culture. Instead, I discovered, to my shock, that in 2017, University of Chicago students did not read Submission as being about Islam. They read it as being about Trump.
Trump’s name was never spoken. Yet he haunted the classroom, lurking behind pregnant looks and awkward laughter. “Centrists are pathetic,” said one student, explaining why the novel’s mainstream French politicians lose to the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Front. “All the energy today is in radicalism.” Another pupil disagreed. The Muslim president Ben Abbas, she noted, is an outsider but not an extremist. Indeed, Houellebecq repeatedly stresses common ground between the Brotherhood and the mainstream parties and depicts his main Muslim characters—Ben Abbas and his secretary of universities Robert Rediger—as voices of reason, moderation, economic centrism, and European integration: Emmanuel Macron with headscarves.
The class expressed similar opinions when discussing why François, the novel’s protagonist, converts to Islam at the end. There is nothing Augustinian in François’s transformation. No sweeping emotions or existential angst. Instead, François seeks an arranged marriage to his wives and his god alike. My students called the conversion “rational,” “non-religious,” and “pragmatic,” driven by a desire for career advancement and a happy family life. François’s conversion counteracts his “atomization”—there are no children in the book, nor friendships, nor sexually vibrant marriages—and addresses “the lack of meaning” inherent “in his classically liberal life.” Reasonableness, not zealotry, typifies Houellebecq’s Muslims.
Several of the students noted that François is an arch-consumer. Throughout the book, François consumes cigarettes, alcohol, pop music, prostitutes, nineteenth-century novels, pornography, news media, and churches. He spends his time walking around malls, dining at ethnic restaurants, and surfing the internet. François likes frozen cuisine because its “colorful, happy packaging represented real progress . . . [a] sense of participating in a collective experience, disappointing but egalitarian.” This is a character who does not bother to vote, but calls the election night special “my favorite TV show, after the World Cup finals.” Democracy is a microwave dinner.
As we laughed over the election scene, I noticed students glancing toward me awkwardly. I had taught a number of them in earlier quarters—including Fall 2016. One of these students, for instance, had shown up in class two days after the election still crying and hung-over from a long late Tuesday. Another pupil had joked with me about how much we both enjoyed watching the Republican debates—until we realized Trump was a real candidate. A Catholic student remarked that he could not imagine anyone at the University of Chicago—or at his old Jesuit high school—uttering many of the positions that we discussed. But then, as students noted, Houellebecq sets the novel at a university because universities are out of touch. After a year of campus protests, none of us in the seminar—except perhaps the international students—could avoid guilt when someone quoted François’s statement that “it may well be impossible for people who have lived and prospered under a given social system to imagine the point of view of those who feel it offers them nothing and who can contemplate its destruction without any particular dismay.” Or, as a student of Middle Eastern descent put it toward the end of the discussion, “this book is only dystopic if you already believe that Old Christian Europe was something worth preserving. Otherwise, there really is ‘nothing to mourn’”—the novel’s last words.
The novel’s publication coincided with the Charlie Hebdo shooting, so perhaps circumstances misled me to fixate on Houellebecq’s portrait of Islam. But now, when I compare Submission to the other Houellebecq books I have read—his novel on transhumanism, The Elementary Particles; and his critical work on the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft—I realize that Ben Abbas and his supporters are just there to supply a plot. Houellebecq must always have his characters live through some radical world transformation. They must watch passively as transhumanism drives mankind to extinction, or Islamists de-secularize France, or the great god Cthulhu shatters their sanity. For Houellebecq’s real dread is that none of these things will ever happen—that contemporary Europe is indeed the end of history—that our hearts “hardened and smoked dry by dissipation” can nevermore convert.
Nathan Ristuccia teaches Latin at Rockbridge Academy in Maryland, and is the author of Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe (forthcoming).