Sunday, January 25, 2015

About Michel Houellebecq and his novel Submission / Appearance in Cologne

Below, find my translation of most of an article from this link in a German newspaper:!153208/

Re: Michel Houellebecq's appearance in Cologne to discuss his new novel "Soumission", on the occasion of the launching of the German translation "Unterwerfung" (submission). 


About the Fatigue of a Society:  the French author Michel Houellebecq  insists that he has not written an islamophobic novel with his new work "Soumission" (Submission).

Too bad, that he did not give the reading himself, personally, even if it had been from the French original.  Michel Houellebecq courageously fielded questions and answered them, no complaints about all that.  But I would have loved to know, on this unsettling evening, how this French author, who is so interesting, many-layered, slant--sometimes called a cult-author, sometimes a scandal-author--would interpret his own work--whether he is giving it something complaining, something breathless, or just simply something tired.  In spite of all the excitement that has been generated (the German translation has already sold a quarter million copies)--I, myself, would tend to go with the "fatigue".  Nevertheless, at least in comparison to posted videos, Houllebecq looked surprisingly fresh, even under his breathtaking side parting of his hairdo.

And there were real worries.  After the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which at the time of the murders was bearing a caricature of Houellebecq, the author has been staying out of the limelight.  Among the murdered were his friends....

Indifferent from Sheer Exhaustion

...the story does not just deal with societal exhaustion, indeed exhaustion is written right into it. From the first person perspective of a come-down French Everyman, he writes as indifferently about the best sex of his life as about a man who has been shot whom he finds at a gas station by the freeway.  In between all that, there is a lot of eating and drinking.  This is not an emotionally introspective story;  there is no driving plot. Already you can hear in the social media, voices who opine that the novel is not at all as scandalous as they had been led to expect.  Well.  If you want to put it this way:  the "grey" of the tone is about the most exciting thing about the voice of the narrator.  He tells not only of the catastrophic events of a civil war of the future, but sounds already, as if it had been written after the catastrophe. In fact, the whole Cologne event was filled with such ambivalence. Just as I felt that I could like Houellebecq because of the beautiful smile he gave to the hard-working translator, he comes out with a sentence that takes your breath away.  One of these sentences declares that, at least, the patriarchy was workable as a society, which is not something one can say about self-actualization.  And this sentence did not refer to the perspective of a character in the new novel. The 68's have made everything worse for himself, really.

Basher of 68, but not a Right-wing Reactionary

Another sentence connects this observation about society with biology and expounds that the population groups who bear the most children will also push through to dominate with their values;  this is assuming that they will be able to gain control of the education system.  With such, to some degree crude, Darwinisms, Houellebecq truly does operate as an author.  At the next moment he withdraws to the unassailable position of the artist:  literature allows him to live many lives;  and then he smiles a wee bit:  "What do I know."


Well-formulated Confession

But with one point Houellebecq was very direct and clear, in Cologne, and this was with a kind of declaration He had said this already at the beginning of the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo in connection to his novel.  He denies to have written an islamophobic novel with "Soumission"--but, in the same breath, he defends his right to write an islamophobic novel.  Sharply, he spoke against all commentators who wanted to relativise this statement. He formulated a plea for the freedom of art, which, in order to give opportunity for fresh thinking, must be able to be irresponsible.  Together with all ambivalences and satrical double-bottoms, of which this author is capable, he delivers a well-formulated lecture that is also a statement of belief.  Indeed, those who read "Soumission" specifically for islamophobia actually miss the truly cutting in this novel, which at the center paints a very dark picture of liberal society as a whole.

The point is not that an Islamic party fields the president, takes over the society, establishes a soft, fascistic dictatorship.  But the point is that it has the right, because the liberal mainstream society has long become decadent and ruined.  The liberal society, in essence, is abolishing itself.

An Evening full of Ambivalence

And this is the point that leaves us somewhat at loose ends:  Houellebecq does not stand there completely alone with his diagnosis.  Slavoy Zizek has also said in an interview that Liberalisms, if left to itself, must gradually hollow itself out.  And even a deep thinker like Habermas has long said that the liberal society needs religious meaning to shore up its own ideals.

Does the fatigue of Houelelbecq demonstrate something like the truth about liberal society?  Is the liberal society completely drained?  This is the truly interesting question posed by the novel, also asked of those on the left of the political spectrum, not the topic of islamophobia.  But the evening left room for ambivalence and perplexity.  But this, too, a society has to be able to come to face.  We may be all able to agree with Houellebecq about the freedom of the artistic enterprise, even with the fatigue in his manner.  Perhaps, he would have been able to laugh a lot, himself, if he had read the novel out loud to us that evening.

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