Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Blasphemy in Michel Houellebecq’s Novel Submission – a Linguistic and Psychoanalytical Interpretation

Susanne Schade und Edgar Thomas


The author Michel Houllebecq exerts a considerable influence on French society through his novels. Although Submission is a work of fiction and, as such, must be read and interpreted with this in mind, nevertheless the French literary critic Olivier Bardolle has drawn attention to the unique, sociological quality of Houellebecq’s literary works, stressing the fact that they mirror contemporary French society in a very precise manner just like the works of fiction written by Proust and Celine (cf. Asholt, 2011).

In what follows, we will provide a short introduction to the narrative of the novel, give an overview of its critical reception by the French media and analyse the role that humour plays in his book, especially in light of the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of humour. We will then proceed to offer a critique of the French political party Rassemblement National, as we find that to a certain degree this book plays into the hands of right-wing parties and, in a certain way, can also be viewed as being a repressive form of sublimation.

The Narrative

The protagonist François is a professor of French literature in his early forties in Paris and his academic research focuses on the 19th century reactionary, Catholic author Joris-Karl Huysmans. François soon finds himself caught up in an enthralling whirlwind of events taking place in Paris in 2022. Although he has had many girlfriends, François lacks the ability to love. He is rather lonely and finds alcohol and pornography to be a form of substitute medicine that helps him cope with his depressing life. At the same time, on the political level, the Muslim Brotherhood manages to defeat the Socialist Party in the primary election. The presidential election thus ends up being a contest between Ben Abbas of the Muslim Brotherhood and Marine Le Pen of the right-extremist party Front National. At the university where François works, rumours are circulating to the effect that the Socialists, who are on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, will help bring the latter party to power. Due to this potentially threatening political situation, the Jewish girlfriend of Francois, Miriam, breaks up with him deciding to emigrate to Israel along with her parents.

The looming changes that are going to radically alter society are causing so much anxiety for François that he makes a spur of the moment decision to leave Paris for the countryside. He later returns to Paris only to have both of his parents pass away. During this time, he also receives a letter from his university stating that unless he converts to Islam he will no longer be permitted to continue teaching at his university. François then decides to visit a monastery that is associated with his literary hero Huysmans. Here after a few days of intense prayer he receives the insight that Catholicism has more or less lost its spiritual and societal relevance, which was of great importance, however, for Huysmans.

In Paris, François notices quite clearly that, now that Ben Abbas has assumed the presidential office, his campaign promise to islamicise society has already made striking progress. Polygamy, for instance, has been legalised and François observes, to his great displeasure, that many women are now wearing baggy pants. New Islamic businesses have sprung up, while other stores, where he used to shop, have now gone out of business. François will have to convert to Islam if he would like to be a professor again and, at the end of the novel, it seems that he actually does so in the Grand Mosque of Paris and that he will now be given ‘the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one’ (Houellebecq, 2015, p. 246).

The Critical Reception of the Book in France

The French media reacted in various ways to the publication of Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission, which was published in January 2015. The well-known author Christine Angot (2015) aggressively criticised Houellebecq’s writing style in Le Monde, especially Houellebecq's world view, which - according to Angot - consists of stereotypical images of people. For example, she writes, ‘As soon as he defines his social personalities, Houellebecq reduces them to their physique and manner of speech and that's enough for him. He then lets them walk around in his system like Playmobil figures and that's all he does. The good, old, local, Tunisian grocer. The. Good. Old. Local. Tunisian. Grocer. Do you think there’s even one person who really corresponds to this portrait?’ (Angot, 2015). Angot even called into question his status as a great novelist, attacking his negative view of women and comparing him to Marine Le Pen and her political party Le Front National.

In the Catholic newspaper La Croix, literary critic Sabine Audrerie presented a general and more objective review of the book and even described an important scene in which the hero François slowly but surely perceives the spiritual deficiencies of contemporary Catholicism when visiting a famous monastery (cf. Audrerie, 2015). Above all, she raises the following questions: whether Houellebecq actually offers a moral criticism of modern society in this novel and whether the Muslim community might feel offended by this book. La République des Livres, a reputable online culture journal, praised Houellebecq's sly sense of humour that permeates his entire book but also indicated that he uses stereotypes, that he exploits French fears about Islam and that his hero François is extremely hostile towards women (Assouline, 2015). Ultimately, Submission is a political novel and one of the most subversive ones at that, which is full of critical insights into French society. Nonetheless, there is also an element of irresponsibility in this book, as Houellebecq plays with the idea that a civil war will break out in France in the near future. Interestingly enough, almost a year later, in February 2016, an article by the author and former judge at the Paris Court of Appeals Phillipe Bilger appeared in the important newspaper Le Figaro, suggesting that Houellebecq's vision of a disordered France torn apart by Islamisation could in effect become a reality in light of certain political developments since the publication of his novel. Bilger writes the following about the precarious political situation in his country in 2016, ‘The latest events, the polemics, the controversy, the political debates, the antagonisms regarding burkinis, the exploded left [...], in short, a troubled France that has deviated from its course and which lacks a point of reference: this is the sad picture of a country whose dominant feeling is fear’ (Bilger, 2016). Bilger later goes on to state that most of the French feel that something is wrong with their country on a deeper level and that this has to do with the gradual Islamisation of society (Bilger, 2016).

The Role of Humour

In our analysis, we would like to focus on how the journal La République des Livres rightly praises Houellebecq's skillful sense of humour, which was already apparent in his earlier works such as Whatever (1994/1998), The Elementary Particles (1998/2001) and Platform (2001/2004).

The American literary critic Adam Gopnik writing for The New Yorker also noted Houellebecq's sophisticated sense of humour and claims that this novel, in point of fact, is a satire that targets the French elite (Gopnik, 2015). Gopnik (2015), for instance, writes, ‘This is the central joke and point- the French élite are cravenly eager to collaborate with the new regime, delighted not only to convert but to submit to a bracing and self-assured authoritarianism’ (Gopnik, 2015). In other words, Houellebecq deliberately takes certain dystopian ideas to their extreme here. Thus, in Gopnik's eyes, Houellebecq is not Islamophobic but rather Francophobic. For example, at one point when Ben Abbes and his party have come to power, François expresses his contempt for French intellectuals because over the past century they have voluntarily offered their support and consent to totalitarian regimes. ‘For the French, an intellectual did not have to be responsible. That wasn’t his job’ (Houellebecq, 2015, p. 221). There is, of course, a touch of irony here, as François himself is a French intellectual. It should also be noted that the protagonist tends to use funny sentences in his inner monologue, which are often somewhat cynical. At the very beginning of the novel, François jokes, for instance, ‘The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time’ (Houellebecq, 2015, p. 8).

Here is yet another example highlighting François‘ misogynous personality. ‘…as for shorts, these were obviously out of the question. The contemplation of women’s asses, that small, dreamy consolation, had also become impossible’ (Houellebecq, 2015, p.145). Of course, such humour which does not even spare his Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, does not necessarily have to be perceived as being funny.

In this respect, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin can help us better the understand the humour present in Submission. In his book Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin develops his theory of carnival. A carnival is a theatrical event, rooted in popular culture, which takes place within a certain window of time, where more or less everything is allowed and which is characterised by communal behaviour, excessive and grotesque elements, laughter and the abolition of social norms and roles (Bakhtin, 1994). In regard to this, Bakhtin writes, ‘On the one hand, these forms [of carnivalesque folk culture] are 'nationalized' and on the other hand, they are 'domesticated', that is to say, relegated to domestic, private life’ (Bakhtin, 1965/2020, p. 84). If one now applies the studies carried out by Bakhtin on Rabelais (ibid.) and also on Dostoevsky (Bakhtin, 1969) to Houellebecq’s novel, then one can conclude that it is precisely in the humour of Houellebecq that a public is created, a public culture of laughter that nearly leaves no stone unturned, sparing neither Christianity nor Islam. Houellbecqesque humour is, so to speak, a countermovement to ‘nationalising’ and ‘domesticating’. Bakhtin writes elsewhere, ‘Early Christianity condemned laughter. [...] John Chrysostom declared that jester and laughter are not from God but from the devil. Only permanent seriousness, remorse, and sorrow for his sins befit the Christian’ (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 73). In this respect, Houellebecq gives the reader the opportunity to experience catharsis - a liberation – and, in so doing, to set aside outdated views of what constitutes morality.

Houellebecq ridicules Christianity primarily by depicting strange situations. In one scene, François makes a kind of pilgrimage to an important sacred site. In his tiny room there, François says in an inner monologue, ‘My mood soured, and the prose of Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat — no doubt an excellent monk, full of love and good intentions — exasperated me more and more. “Life should be a continual loving exchange, in tribulations or in joy,” the good father wrote. “So make the most of these few days and exercise your capacity to love and be loved, in word and deed.” “Give it a rest, dickhead,” I’d snarl, “I’m alone in my room”’ (Houellebecq, 2015, p. 179).

Furthermore, the election of Ben Abbes as president and his imposition of Islamic values ​​can be viewed as being the reversal of the social order. Among other things, this means that women practically stop wearing their usual set of clothing overnight. Regarding this situation, the protagonist François remarks, ‘The number of Muslim veils had increased only slightly — it wasn’t that. I spent almost an hour walking around before it hit me: all the women were wearing trousers. To visualize a woman’s thighs and to mentally reconstruct her pussy where the thighs intersect — a process whose power of excitation is directly proportional to the length of bare leg — was so involuntary and mechanical with me, so genetic you might say, that it took me a while to notice what was missing: no more dresses or skirts’ (Houellebecq, 2015, p. 144). Here we see aspects of carnivalesque folk culture, especially the attempt to abolish social norms, but at the same time this can also be interpreted as being an affirmation of stereotypical ideas of gender.

The humour focusing on genitals should also be mentioned here and this, incidentally, is not the only example of it. Bakhtin points out that the body is also an important element of carnivalesque humour. ‘The entire second book [by Rabelais] is saturated with pictures of procreative power, fertility, abundance. The phallus and the codpiece (as a substitute for the phallus) constantly appear within this open sphere. The grotesque body has no façade, no impenetrable surface, neither has it any expressive features. It represents either the fertile depths or the convexities of procreation and conception’ (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 339).

A final aspect of carnivalesque humour that we would like to emphasise here, because a complete account of Bakhtin’s complex theory of humour lies outside the scope of this work, is its life-affirming nature. ‘Laughter showed the world anew in its gayest and most sober aspects. Its external privileges are intimately linked with interior forces; they are a recognition of the rights of these forces. This is why laughter could never become an instrument to oppress and blind the people’ (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 94). And here is another relevant quotation of his: ‘During the period of carnival one can only live according to one’s own set of laws, that is to say, according to the laws of carnival freedom. The carnival has a universal character. It is a state of the whole world, both its rebirth and its renewal, in which everyone participates’ (Bakhtin, 1995/2020, p. 55).

This kind of cathartic reaction only partially determines Houellebecq's sense of humour in his dystopian vision of France in 2022. In a way, he affirms this vision by clearly defining whom can be laughed at and when. But we have to admit that we were both taken and taken aback by his sense of humour: nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Houellebecq humorously devotes himself to his fictional subject matter and creates a parody - whether understood as a satire with dystopian elements or as mere dystopia - on French society. However, in so doing, he plays into the hands of right-wing parties and their adherents by depicting an Islamic seizure of power and thus promoting the thesis of a creeping Islamisation of the West.

A Psychoanalytical Critique of the Rassemblement National

In what follows, we would like to explain in greater detail how close Houellebecq's dystopia lies to the current statements of the French right in order to then subject these statements to a psychoanalytic critique focusing on the ideas of Otto Fenichel.

The Rassemblement National, the new name of the Front National, is not officially anti-Islamic. However, a major part of their political programme is the radical reform of French immigration policy, which is currently legally letting significant numbers of people immigrate from former French colonies in Africa and from other countries. Of course, there is also the issue of undocumented migrants, especially from Africa. A significant proportion of both groups of people is Muslim and Michael Lipka at the Pew Research Center, for instance, estimates that the total number of Muslims is close to 6 million, that is, 8.8 percent of the people living in France (Lipka, 2017). The Rassemblement National wants to drastically curb mass immigration and also to transform French immigration policy taking into account certain economic and cultural factors (Messiha, 2018b). In this respect, one can argue that the Rassemblement National is anti-Islamic. Their official website has references to ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ and similar expressions but, to be fair, President Macron also makes use of a similar rhetoric. Whether such statements represent an authentic form of Islamophobia is a question open to debate. However, high-ranking party members of the Rassemblement National have clearly expressed their vehement opposition to Islam. Marine Le Pen's special adviser, Jean Messiha, who also happens to be an Egyptian immigrant of Christian heritage, said the following in a television interview in Egypt in July 2018, ‘…we are at war now. Our country is under invasion and we are fighting this invasion. [...] Three months ago, the newspapers exposed a fundamentalist Islamist militia that was searching the bags of people leaving the supermarkets, and removing anything that was not halal. [...] Why come from Algeria, Morocco, or Senegal to live in France, if you continue to live as an Algerian, a Moroccan, or a Senegalese, forcing Senegal, Morocco, and Algeria upon the French people?’ (Messiha, 2018a). Marine Le Pen's niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who also happens to be her main rival within the Rassemblement National, attended a conservative gathering in Washington D.C. In February 2018, where even the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, was present. She quipped in her political speech, ‘After 40 years of massive immigration, massive lobbying and political correctness, France, which used to be the eldest daughter of the Church, has now become the little niece of Islam’ (Hausalter, 2018). With regard to Islam, Marine Le Pen probably represents a somewhat strange case within her own party. For example, it is publicly known that she rejects Islam and (in her eyes) the gradual Islamisation of France. However, it surprised members and non-members of her party and even shocked some people in certain cases when she said in an interview in 2016 that Islam is compatible with the French Republic. ‘Well, as for me, yes, I think that's possible. An Islam that’s familiar to us, an Islam that has been secularised by the Enlightenment philosophers, as is the case with other religions’ (Baudin, 2018). Yet, staying true to her Islamophobic nature, she also emphasised in the same interview, ‘I don't like the Islamic religion at all’ (ibid.).

The psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel (1981/1998) wrote a critique of anti-Semitism at the time of the Second World War that is still highly relevant. He argues that groups that are more defenceless than others are especially suitable as scapegoats. In this case, Muslim people in France, in particular, are structurally disadvantaged because they are often not given the opportunity to participate socially in the same way as their native French (Français de souche) neighbours. Many Muslims have fled to France to escape war and poverty and now live there in squalid conditions. Fenichel emphasises the fact that when ‘social order (or rather disorder) produces excessive misery’, when many people feel socially dependent, ‘victims of misery are rarely able to discover its origin’ (Fenichel, 1998, p. 376). Many Rassemblement National voters face a plight from which they can hardly get out of by solely relying upon their own efforts. What needs to be done is to analyse the underlying cause and to understand the context in which both they and their Muslim counterparts find themselves in so as to be able to act against it. Instead of this, they look for the cause of their misery in another group of people; namely, the Muslims. People are being placed in competition with each other, which is affecting in a negative manner everyone’s socio-economic standing. Instead of resorting to blaming another group of people, the underlying economic principle behind their precarious situation ought to be denounced.

Muslims, at first glance, may appear strange or different in some way to most people. They tend to have a different appearance in public, many women wear a headscarf, they tend to spend time within their own social circles, pray several times a day and have other customs that may appear quite foreign to people who vote for the Rassemblement National. ‘The ruling powers and those who belong to their own people are not easily suspected of evil. But people who look differently, express themselves differently and behave differently can be capable of doing anything’ (Fenichel, 1981/1998, p. 377).

Fenichel then goes on to argue that a phenomenon is at play here that Freud described as repressed drives that live on in the unconscious (ibid., p. 379). Islamophobic people are not really turning against another group of people, against external objects per se, but it is rather the case that they are afraid of their own instincts that live on in their unconscious. It is thus not surprising that polygamy, which is an aspect of Islam, is denounced because the Rassemblement National voters may well be mainly afraid of their own desires and some of the males among them, at any rate, may desire to enter into an intimate relationship with several women. What seems archaic about Muslims is part of what people notice about themselves and this, in turn, causes a deep sense of fear. ‘This can be expressed in one sentence: even your own unconscious is something foreign’ (Fenichel, 1981/1998, p. 380).

Islamic fundamentalists are not seen by Rassemblement National voters as the wind that they themselves have sown and whose whirlwind they are now reaping. It is rather the case that the members of this political party are making generalisations about an entire group of people so as to stave off acknowledging their own role in the matter.

According to Freud, that which is imbued with the greatest sense of fear is also of great attraction. The aggression that is ascribed to a whole group of people due to their potentially becoming terrorists is part of the aggression that the Rassemblement National voters carry within themselves - something ‘foreign’ that has split off. Viewed in this manner, the Rassemblement National supporters' own unconscious foreigner appears but they then project it onto the foreigner to be found in real life. They are always a bit foreign or estranged to themselves because they can neither permit nor integrate this side because it represents their fear of their own aggression. ‘Fear is not dispelled and therefore they must continue to despise and humiliate others in order to refute this irrefutable fear’ (Fenichel, 1981/1998, p. 381).

In summary, it can be said that the Islamophobia of the Rassemblement National comes about through an externally stimulated process of displacement. The Rassemblement National not only view Muslims as their own social oppressors but also fear their own unconscious instincts, which have become dirty and terrible due to social repression (cf. Fenichel, 1998, p. 387).


In Submission, Houellebecq draws attention to a social dimension in capitalism, the struggle of religions, which is increasingly becoming a central political and social issue, obscuring the underlying competition among nations. He also denounces the French élite, which finds itself ready to be seduced into two extremes: bringing the Muslim Brotherhood or the Front National to power. Both anti-humanist ideologies represent a great seductive fantasy to French society in the sense that, by collaborating with anti-humanist ideologies, France could achieve its ideal of being la grande nation. The fact that Houellebecq humorously criticises both Catholicism and Islam clearly indicates that he is focusing on them, as he regards religion as being one of the great issues of the future whilst, at the same time, distancing himself from both of them. In doing so, Houellebecq also raises the question of what values internally hold the world together. This struggle for a community of values was and still remains a constant issue for intellectuals to engage in.


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Acknowledgment: This paper originally appeared in German with the title ‘Blasphemie in Michel Houellebecqs Roman „Unterwerfung“ - Eine linguistische und psychoanalytische Interpretation’ in the book Krieg nach innen, Krieg nach außen - Die Intellektuellen als Stützen der Gesellschaft?

Schade, Susanne & Lynch, David (2019). Blasphemie in Michel Houellebecqs Roman „Unterwerfung“ - Eine linguistische und psychoanalytische Interpretation. In: Bruder, K.-J., Bialluch, C., Günther, J. & Zimmering, R. (ed.). Krieg nach innen, Krieg nach außen - Die Intellektuellen als Stützen der Gesellschaft? Frankfurt a.M., Westend Verlag.

Pictures: Wikipedia (2024) Fronteiras do Pensamento | Luiz Munhoz

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