Submission by Michel Houellebecq imagines France’s transition to Islamic law and, therefore, legal polygamy (the U.S. has already transitioned, de facto if not de jure!). He starts off describing the legacy Western model:
Mostly I had mistresses—or rather, as people said then (and maybe still do), I had girlfriends, roughly one a year. … They would start at the beginning of the school year, with a seminar, an exchange of class notes, or what have you—one of the many social occasions, so common in student life, that disappear when we enter the workforce, plunging most of us into a solitude as stupefying as it is radical. … When we came back from summer vacation and the school year began again, the relationship would end, almost always at the girl’s initiative. Things had changed over the summer. This was the reason they’d give, usually without elaboration. A few, clearly less eager to spare me, would explain that they had met someone. Yeah, and so? Wasn’t I someone, too? … The way things were supposed to work (and I have no reason to think much has changed), young people, after a brief period of sexual vagabondage in their very early teens, were expected to settle down in exclusive, strictly monogamous relationships involving activities (outings, weekends, vacations) that were not only sexual, but social. Yet there was nothing final about these relationships. Instead, they were thought of as apprenticeships—in a sense, as internships (a practice that was generally seen in the professional world as a step toward one’s first job). Relationships of variable duration (a year being, according to my own observations, an acceptable amount of time) and of variable number (an average of ten to twenty might be considered a reasonable estimate) were supposed to succeed one another until they ended, like an apotheosis, with the last relationship, this one conjugal and definitive, which would lead, via the begetting of children, to the formation of a family.
I had made only very occasional forays onto escort sites, usually during the summer months as a sort of stopgap between one student and the next.
The complete idiocy of this model became plain to me only much later—rather recently, in fact—when I happened to see Aurélie and then, a few weeks later, Sandra. (But if it had been Chloé or Violaine, I’m convinced I would have reached the same conclusion.) The moment I walked into the Basque restaurant where Aurélie was meeting me for dinner, I knew I was in for a grim evening. Despite the two bottles of white Irouléguy that I drank almost entirely by myself, I found it harder and harder, and after a while almost impossible, to keep up a reasonable level of friendly conversation. For reasons I didn’t entirely understand, it suddenly seemed tactless, almost unthinkable, to talk about the old days. As for the present, it was clear that Aurélie had never managed to form a long-term relationship, that casual sex filled her with growing disgust, that her personal life was headed for complete and utter disaster. There were various signs that she’d tried to settle down, at least once, and had never recovered from her failure. The sourness and bitterness with which she talked about her male colleagues (in the end we’d been reduced to discussing her professional life: she was head of communications for an association of Bordeaux winemakers, so she traveled a lot to promote French wines, mainly in Asia) made it painfully clear that she had been through the wringer. Even so, I was surprised when, just as she was about to get out of the taxi, she invited me up “for a nightcap.” She’s really hit rock bottom, I thought. From the moment the elevator doors shut, I knew nothing was going to happen. I didn’t even want to see her naked, I’d rather have avoided it, and yet it came to pass, and only confirmed what I’d already imagined. Her emotions may have been through the wringer, but her body had been damaged beyond repair. Her buttocks and breasts were no more than sacks of emaciated flesh, shrunken, flabby, and pendulous. She could no longer—she could never again—be considered an object of desire. My meal with Sandra followed a similar pattern, albeit with small variations (seafood restaurant, job with a pharmaceutical CEO), and it ended much the same way, except it seemed to me that Sandra, who was plumper and jollier than Aurélie, hadn’t let herself go to the same degree. She was sad, very sad, and I knew her sorrow would overwhelm her in the end; like Aurélie, she was nothing but a bird in an oil slick; but she had retained, if I can put it this way, a superior ability to flap her wings. In one or two years she would give up any last matrimonial ambitions, her imperfectly extinguished sensuality would lead her to seek out the company of young men, she would become what we used to call a cougar, and no doubt she’d go on this way for several years, ten at the most, before the sagging of her flesh became prohibitive, and condemned her to a lasting solitude.
Don’t read this book if you’re enthusiastic about settling down in the suburbs:
Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicolored lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favor of clothes that were loose and shapeless.
I thought about Annelise’s life—and the life of every Western woman. In the morning she probably blow-dried her hair, then she thought about what to wear, as befitted her professional status, whether “stylish” or “sexy,” most likely “stylish” in her case. Either way, it was a complex calculation, and it must have taken her a while to get ready before dropping the kids off at day care, then she spent the day e-mailing, on the phone, in various meetings, and once she got home, around nine, exhausted (Bruno was the one who picked the kids up, who made them dinner—he had the hours of a civil servant), she’d collapse, get into a sweatshirt and yoga pants, and that’s how she’d greet her lord and master, and some part of him must have known—had to have known—that he was fucked, and some part of her must have known that she was fucked, and that things wouldn’t get better over the years. The children would get bigger, the demands at work would increase, as if automatically, not to mention the sagging of the flesh.
Bruno and Annelise must be divorced by now. That’s how it goes nowadays. A century ago, in Huysmans’s time, they would have stayed together, and maybe they wouldn’t have been so unhappy after all.
Don’t read this book if you’re depressed about aging:
my body was the seat of various painful afflictions—headaches, rashes, toothaches, hemorrhoids—that followed one after another, without interruption, and almost never left me in peace—and I was only forty-four! What would it be like when I was fifty, sixty, older? I’d be no more than a jumble of organs in slow decomposition, my life an unending torment, grim, joyless, and mean.
Houellebecq’s novel predicts the outcome of the 2017 elections:
The National Front was way ahead, with 34.1 percent of the vote.
(Marine Le Pen actually won 33.9 percent.) He added that the Muslim Brotherhood was running as well (and ultimately prevails in forming a government). He also described the potential for voters to fail to obey instructions from the elites:
the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to a situation that was chaotic, violent, and unpredictable.
French Christians are excluded from the country’s educational system:
It was two weeks before I received the letter from Paris III. According to the new statutes of the Islamic University of Paris–Sorbonne, I was no longer permitted to teach. Robert Rediger, the new president of the university, had signed the letter himself. He expressed his profound regret and assured me that this was no reflection on the quality of my scholarship. I was, of course, welcome to pursue my career in a secular university. If, however, I preferred to retire, the Islamic University of Paris–Sorbonne could offer me a pension, effective immediately, at a starting monthly rate of 3,472 euros, to be adjusted for inflation. I was invited to schedule a meeting with HR in order to fill out the necessary paperwork. I reread the letter three times in disbelief. It was, practically to the euro, what I’d have gotten if I had retired at sixty-five, at the end of a full career. They really were willing to pay to avoid any trouble. No doubt they had overestimated the ability of academics to make a nuisance of themselves. It had been years since an academic title gained you access to major media, under rubrics such as “tribune” or “points of view”; nowadays these had become a private club. Even if all the university teachers in France had risen up in protest, almost nobody would have noticed, but apparently they hadn’t found that out in Saudi Arabia. They still believed, deep down, in the power of the intellectual elite. It was almost touching.
But they react by converting to Islam. At which point dating and marriage procedures change…
“What about the girls?” [a former Christian colleague] grinned. “Obviously, that’s all changed. I guess you could say things are organized differently now. I got married,” he added, rather brusquely. Then he elaborated: “To one of my students.” “They arranged that for you, too?” “Not exactly. Let’s just say they don’t discourage the possibilities of contact with female students. I’m getting another wife next month.” With that he headed off toward the rue de Mirbel, leaving me openmouthed at the top of the stairs.
I’d been waiting two or three minutes when a door opened to my left and in walked a teenage girl wearing low-waisted jeans and a Hello Kitty T-shirt, her long black hair loose over her shoulders. When she saw me, she shrieked, tried awkwardly to cover her face with her hands, and dashed back out of the room. At that very moment, Rediger appeared on the landing and came down the stairs to greet me. He had witnessed the incident, and shook my hand with a look of resignation. “That’s Aïcha, my new wife. She’ll be very embarrassed that you saw her without her veil.” “I’m so sorry.” “No, don’t apologize. It’s her fault. She should have asked whether there was a guest before she came into the front hall. She doesn’t know her way around the house yet, but she will.” “Yes, she looks very young.” “She just turned fifteen.”
At that moment the door opened, just in time to save me from having to answer. It was a plump woman, perhaps forty years old, with a kind face, carrying a tray of warm canapés arranged around an ice bucket. This held the promised bottle of Meursault. “That’s my first wife, Malika,” he said once she’d left. “You seem to be meeting all my wives today. I married her when I was still living in Belgium … Yes, my family’s Belgian. So am I, for that matter. I was never naturalized, though I’ve lived here for twenty years.”
“Islam accepts the world, and accepts it whole. It accepts the world as such, Nietzsche might say. For Buddhism, the world is dukkha—unsatisfactoriness, suffering. Christianity has serious reservations of its own. Isn’t Satan called ‘the prince of the world’? For Islam, though, the divine creation is perfect, it’s an absolute masterpiece. What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to his laws. In general, I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn about Islam by reading the Koran, unless of course you take the trouble to learn Arabic and read the original text. What I tell people to do instead is listen to the suras read aloud, and repeat them, so you can feel their breath and their force. … even if his arguments were well rehearsed, that didn’t take away from their strength. And look at how he lived: a forty-year-old wife to do the cooking, a fifteen-year-old wife for whatever else … No doubt he had one or two wives in between, but I couldn’t think how to ask.
“Um, yes…,” [a different former colleague] answered, without my having asked him anything. “I took the plunge. Funny, I’d never thought of doing it before, but it’s actually very pleasant. I’m very glad to see you, by the way. How are you?” “You mean you’re married?” I needed to hear him say it. “Yes, yes, married, exactly. Strange, when you get right down to it—one flesh and everything. Strange, but awfully nice. And you, how are you?” He might as well have said he was a junkie, or a professional figure skater, nothing could really surprise me when it came to Loiseleur; still, it came as a shock, and I repeated stupidly, staring at the Légion d’Honneur barrette in the buttonhole of his revolting gas-blue jacket, “Married? To a woman?” I’d always assumed he was a virgin, a sixty-year-old virgin, which after all may have been the case. “Yes, yes, a woman—they found me one.” He nodded vigorously. “A student in her second year.”
The main character doesn’t think this is all bad:
Under an Islamic regime, women—at least the ones pretty enough to attract a rich husband—were able to remain children nearly their entire lives. No sooner had they put childhood behind them than they became mothers and were plunged back into a world of childish things. Their children grew up, then they became grandmothers, and so their lives went by. There were just a few years where they bought sexy underwear, exchanging the games of the nursery for those of the bedroom—which turned out to be much the same thing. Obviously they had no autonomy, but as they say in English, fuck autonomy. I had to admit, I’d had no trouble giving up all of my professional and intellectual responsibilities, it was actually a relief, and I had no desire whatsoever to be that businessman sitting on the other side of our Pro Première compartment, whose face grew more and more ashen the longer he talked on the phone, and who was obviously in some kind of deep shit. Our train had just passed Saint-Pierre-des-Corps. At least he’d have the consolation of two graceful, charming wives to distract him from the anxieties facing the exhausted businessman—and maybe he had two more wives waiting for him in Paris. If I remembered right, according to sharia law you could have up to four. What had my father had? My mother, that neurotic bitch. I shuddered at the thought.
He eventually submits…
Obviously, it’s very hard to come out and ask, What will you pay me? How many wives do I get?” “I already have some kind of idea about the pay.” “Well, that’s basically what determines the number of wives. According to Islamic law, wives have to receive equal treatment, which imposes certain constraints in terms of housing. In your case, I think you could have three wives without too much trouble—not that anyone would force you to, of course.”
“There’s something else … But, well, this is really awkward … The thing is, Islamic dress has its advantages, it’s made social life so much more restful, but at the same time, it’s very … covering, I’d say. If a person were in a situation where he had to choose, it could pose certain problems…” Rediger smiled even more broadly. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed! You wouldn’t be a man if you didn’t worry about these things … But let me ask you something that might sound strange: Are you sure you want to choose?” “Uh … yeah. I mean, I think so.” “But isn’t this an illusion? We know that men, given the chance to choose for themselves, will all make exactly the same choice. That’s why most societies, especially Muslim societies, have matchmakers. It’s a very important profession, reserved for women of great experience and wisdom. As women, obviously, they are allowed to see girls naked, and so they conduct a sort of evaluation, and correlate the girls’ physical appearance with the social status of their future husbands. In your case, I can promise, you’d have nothing to complain about…”
More: read Submission.
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