Freedom in Question

The April edition of The New York Review of Books carries a magnificent article by Mark Lilla on Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission. Calmly disdaining the dominant moral-political panic reactions, he asks what the book is really about, and finds something far more interesting than Islamophobic spleen. Its fundamental suggestion is not that the great Western project of emancipation is endangered, and in need of one more effort in its defense, but that liberation teleology is exhausted — and unmistakably unwanted. Submission is the final act of volition, through which the West — and first of all France — frees itself from the dream of freedom. Whether or not one agrees with Houellebecq — and he is not a writer to court cheap consent — it is difficult to disagree with Lilla.

Since Soumission is fiction, its historical vision is embedded, and ironized. Through the figure of Robert Rediger, university president and opportunistic Islamic apologist, we are exposed to a perception of the cultural crossroads that is supple, wide-angled, and fatalistic:

The Roman Empire lasted centuries, the Christian one a millennium and a half. In the distant future, historians will see that European modernity was just an insignificant, two-century-long deviation from the eternal ebb and flow of religiously grounded civilizations.

It is nothing on this scale of grandeur that leads Houellebecq’s hero François to convert, but rather the personal revelation — received through pornography more than religious scripture — that: “Freedom is just another word for wretchedness.”

And so François converts, in a short, modest ceremony at the Grande Mosquée de Paris. He does so without joy or sadness. He feels relief, just as he imagines his beloved Huysmans did when he converted to Catholicism. Things would change. … why not? His life is exhausted, and so is Europe’s. It’s time for a new one — any one.

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