Michel Houellebecq has an unusual gift for revealing the nervous underside of modern life, so when his “futuristic” novel about an Islamic France, Submission, was released on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the coincidence was both horrific and apropos. Most criticism focuses on the anti-Muslim and anti-Enlightenment elements of the novel, but in this article I argue that Submission should be seen primarily as an engaged work of cultural politics. Houellebecq, measuring the temperature of today’s France, presents a culturally collapsed nation of the near future and focuses on women and Jews as the victims—sacrificed, as it were, by the secular elite. In so doing, I maintain, he pulls heavily from current events, all the while drawing on the memory of Vichy and the Occupation. The novel’s premises, topical at the time of its publication, are even more so today.
Seth Armus is Professor of European History at St. Joseph’s College in New York. In 1999 he wrote a piece here on the then new author, “The American Menace in the Houellebecq Affair” (French Politics and Society 17, 2 [Spring 1999]).