Submission

This post is a little break from phenomenology and AI, but one I’ve been meaning to write for some time now. I read this novel, Submission, by Michel Houellebecq, without knowing much about the author or the controversy surrounding it…I did this on purpose. I wanted to read it on its own merits, then do my googling later.

Spoiler alert…I give the alert, but this isn’t a plot-driven story. Knowing what will happen shouldn’t ruin it for you.

The novel is about a Muslim party taking over the French government. The fusion of religion into French education and culture is central to the themes explored here. Is this fusion a good thing? Bad? The author leaves us in the dark.

We stay in the first person POV with Francois, a Sorbonne professor and expert in Huysmans (whom I’ve never read, apparently an author of the decadent period who later becomes religious). Francois is the embodiment of everything we dislike about the French. And yet, the novel gripped me, despite the fatiguing je-m’en-foutisme of the narrator. Here, the protagonist’s ennui isn’t the point. Rather, it’s part of the point, but only as a reflection of society, as satire. You get that right off the bat, which makes staying in Francois’ head tolerable. Besides, I found myself laughing at the protagonist at certain points, but maybe that’s a reflection of my sick sense of humor. Humor works, however, and I felt pulled along.

The narrator is too aloof and self-centered to give us much perspective on reality. He seems to be a representative of a whole, either academics in general, French academics in particular, or the bourgeois…I don’t know. He basically bumbles about, mostly in his own head. The politics are talked about, but they remain in the background for most of the beginning. This background—revealed to us in dialogue and little details—keeps the tension going throughout Francois’ cliché existential crisis. The author doesn’t take his protagonist’s lack of raison d’être too seriously, and that helps to elevate the novel to a political and moral realm.

Francois does try to become religious earlier in the tale…sort of. I see this chapter as a character-reveal—Francois tries to mirror his own protagonist’s life story—but more than that, comic relief. Before the absolute Muslim takeover, Francois goes to Ligugé Abbey (where Huysmans had taken his vows) in an attempt to etch out some meaning for his empty existence. Only, there were a few things in the way on his path to heaven:

The modern church, constructed within monastery walls, had a sober ugliness to it. Architecturally, it was reminiscent of the Super-Passy shopping center in the rue de l’Annonciation, and its stained-glass windows, simple patches of color, weren’t worth looking at, but none of that bothered me. I wasn’t an aesthete—I had infinitely less aesthetic sense than Huysmans—and for me the uniform ugliness of contemporary religious art was essentially a matter of indifference. The voices of the monks rose up in the freezing air, pure, humble, well-meaning. They were full of sweetness, hope, and expectation. The Lord Jesus would return, was about to return, and already the warmth of his presence filled their souls with joy. This was the one real theme of their chants, chants of sweet and organic expectation. That old queer Nietzsche had it right: Christianity was, at the end of the day, a feminine religion.

All of this might have suited me fine, but going back to my cell ruined it: the smoke detector glared at me with its little red hostile eye.

He quits the monastery because he’s not allowed to smoke in his room. He can smoke outside. I’m reminded of my time in France…I once saw my Plato professor light up a RYO cigarette in the hallway just outside his classroom, right next to a sign that said “No Smoking.” I consulted with a few students who were also smoking in the hallway. I received a few shrugs and snickers before I decided to light one up myself. I found it thrilling and tried to hide my excitement; they took it as a God-given right. Francois would commit suicide if he had to live in California.

And when Francois says he’s not an aesthete, I don’t know whether I believe him. He does eat microwave dinners (ethnic mostly), but he never fails to mention what kind of food and drink is being served, not even when he can hear bombs going off in the distance. And yet, on the other hand, this non-stop food fixation could simply be French, not foodie-French. Just typical bourgeois French. It’s hard to say, being an American and coming at it from my perspective.

With his food fixation comes a similar sex fixation. His relationships are pathetic and sad, yet it’s another aspect of his life about which he is blasé. Sex, however, is central to his being, it defines him, even when he gets nothing from it. He did once have a sort-of girlfriend, a Jewish student. Out of concern for her safety, she leaves with her family for Israel. He tries to miss her, but in the end he doesn’t.

I’d like to share with you what I consider the most disturbing passage in the whole novel, but one that sums up our protagonist’s character. Francois has just fled Paris, just lost his position at the Sorbonne, and is now unsure where his life is heading. He arrives at a gas station:

The parking lot was deserted, and right away I could tell something wasn’t right. I slowed to a crawl before I pulled up, very carefully, to the service station. Someone had shattered the window, the asphalt was covered with shards of glass. I got out of the car and walked inside. Someone had also smashed the door of the refrigerated case where they kept the cold drinks and knocked over the newspaper dispensers. I discovered the cashier lying on the floor in a pool of blood, her arms clasped over her chest in a pathetic gesture of self-defense. The silence was total. I walked over to the gas pumps, but they were turned off. Thinking I might be able to find some way of turning them on behind the register, I went back into the shop and stepped reluctantly over the body, but I didn’t see anything that looked like an ON switch. After a moment’s hesitation, I helped myself to a tuna-vegetable sandwich from the sandwich shelf, a non-alcoholic beer, and a Michelin guide.

This distance and lack of empathy is meant to be utterly shocking. However, Francois isn’t portrayed as a bad person, but instead a sick person. His only real relationship, the only one which evokes feeling in him, is the one he has with his favorite author, Huysmans (which amounts to self-love, really). When his father dies, he feels no grief. He’s estranged from his family and this matter is treated in a minor way, as a matter of course, yet it plays a huge role in the novel since it contrasts sharply with the cultural upheaval that follows. It’s once again: modern, independent, free-but-morally-bankrupt man vs. family-centered, hierarchical Islam.

 

Francois ends up finding his raison d’être. He converts to Islam, despite having no religious feeling. In the end, what seems to matter most is not the particular religion he converts to, but having something—anything—to live for. Hence, the submission of modern man. Here we’re reminded of Sartre’s Roads to Freedom series: The protagonist decides to fight against the Nazis not out of moral feeling, but just to have something to do with himself. To give this stance more philosophical credence, you might say he overcame the burden of freedom…you might know the popular phrase—condemned to be free…well, all that, & etc. I tend toward the first interpretation (not a big Sartre fan.)

Of course, there’s a huge difference here: Francois does have a choice, his “submission” is not coerced in any strong way, there are no Nazis at his doorstep, and we know that. But when the moment comes when he must make that choice, we also know his true desires. Francois will submit…he holds no ideals precious, not even humanism, which sits vaguely in his psyche as a sort of cultural embellishment which can easily be discarded. He’s allowed to retire if he chooses not to convert, and he’ll receive a more than fair pension. On the other hand, if he converts, his salary will increase, his prestige will increase, and he’ll be allowed to have multiple wives, all of whom will keep him well-fed and well, um, taken care of. His number of wives goes up in proportion to his salary, which goes up in proportion to his prestige, which has already been chosen for him. He doesn’t have to decide or work much for any of this: it’s been determined that he’s a three-wife sort of guy. He can choose his wives or a matchmaker could do it for him. Francois’ life has altered and, from his point of view, for the better.


 

What Google taught me about the novel:

Submission was published the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack, the same week that Houellebecq himself appeared on the cover of that magazine. To make things weirder, I was reading the novel when the Paris attacks occurred. To make things even weirder—I was reading this passage when I first heard the news:

“That’s the first fighting we’ve had in Paris,” Lempereur remarked, in a neutral tone. Just then we heard a new round of gunfire, this time quite distinct, as if nearby, and a much louder explosion. All the guests turned toward the sound. A column of smoke was rising into the sky above the buildings. It must have been coming from somewhere near Place de Clichy.

“Well, it looks as if our little soiree is breaking up,” Alice said.

This passage came early in the novel—before the creepy gas station scene—but you get hints of that same eery blasé distancing from virtually everyone surrounding Francois. Notice the last line of this passage. Alice’s comment is the epitome of insensitivity. Which leads me to think Francois stands for an entire group, as a representative.

The questions that come to mind are: Is the novelist implying something sinister and racist against Muslims in general, or is he putting down European ‘modern man’ as morally and spiritually bankrupt? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter, especially given Francois’ fair treatment in the end if he’d decided not to convert. That’s the wonderful thing about the novel—it lends itself to interpretation and discussion. And it’s a quick read, nothing like Sartre’s lumbering Roads to Freedom, although it seems to feed off of those themes in a fresh way. Submission’s breezy, short chapters make certain unsavory aspects of this novel work, at least for me. The pacing might feel a bit slow at first for those who are used to dramatic openings, but the humor—sometimes risky and grotesque, sometimes light, sometimes dark—keeps the serious and disturbing elements in check. I found myself not really liking the protagonist, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to. His mundane, mostly food-based fixations were well done—a light touch, just enough to provoke a chuckle here and there. The voice is not what I’d call academic, although it seems that way at first. Later you learn that this Sorbonne scholar has a dirty mind, and why we have the phrase, “Pardon my French.”

Last but not least, here’s a photo of Michel Houellebecq which appears as a cropped version on the back jacket cover:

images.jpeg

“Je m’ennuie.”

 

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What is Freedom?

Just another word for nothing left to lose?

At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:

1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:

“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”

I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.

2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:

“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”

Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.

Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.

3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.

Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?

It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?

Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”

I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.

Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.

However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.

Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.

Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.

But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?

Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?

Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive? 

How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?

In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?

What is your conception of freedom?

As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?

Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!

My Philosophy

I noticed a lot of people “liked” my last post, but didn’t respond. So I thought perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to ask such ridiculously hard questions without breezily answering them myself. I wonder if you will come back again after you get to know me? This is feeling like a first date.

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

I decided somewhere back in my college days that experience is what matters most to me, it’s epistemologically prior to external causation. In other words, it’s what I know most clearly and directly. So I experience being free, therefore I am. Although I’m going further than Descartes here.

How do you determine right from wrong?

I don’t really know. This is one of the hardest and most important questions, in my opinion. I think it’s intuition and quite a bit of utilitarianism that guides me, and I’m okay with it for the most part, but it doesn’t solve everything. I’m not a relativist in the extreme sense—I believe in a right and wrong, but I don’t think it’s possible to figure that out without taking everything into context, which requires consideration on a case by case basis.

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

I think it would be best to do away with this whole rationalism/empiricism divide and just describe what’s actually going on in experience, without the need to reduce or dismiss anything. I experience ideas as much as or more than ‘sense data’, so why place ideas in some ethereal realm?

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

I look to phenomenology for the answer to this. I admit it doesn’t really solve the problem, it merely looks at things from a different angle, the angle of experience, to be sure, and feels like it’s doing away with the problem. But if you were to put a gun to my head, I’d choose solipsism over reducing everything to the machinations of our brains. I do believe our minds depend on our brains in some way—I experience this every time I’m under the influence of some drug…like ibuprofen!…or when it’s that time of the month…yes ibuprofen!—but these two aren’t quite the same thing. How do the two interact? Do they? I don’t know. I just base my opinion here on experience as epistemologically prior which I spoke of in the first answer.

Does God exist?

I think it depends on what we mean by God. Yeah, this sounds like a lot of hemming and hawing, but really, I’m not a religious person (possibly because I grew up in the Bible belt), so I don’t want to say “yes” without being a bit careful. However, I’d say “yes” if it meant a sort of Aristotelian God as an end to an infinite regression, as a rational explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. I’d even go so far as to call God “Reason” or “the Good”…I know…you think I’m crazy now.

Is there life after death? Why?

Hell if I know.

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

Nope. Not necessarily. Like I said above, God’s existence means nothing, pragmatically speaking, to me.

What is a soul? Does it exist?

I think so. I would call it “mind” to sound more modern, but I feel it.

Do dogs have souls?

Yes indeed. And they go to heaven automatically, whereas we’re stuck in purgatory and forced to crawl around under their dinner tables begging for scraps of meat while they tell us to “get down.”

What about parameciums?

Ugh. Yeah. Okay. Sure.

What is Justice?

Hm. I can’t really answer this one with any detail, but I’ll say it’s a world in which everyone is perfectly happy.

What is Love?

Desire to have full possession of the Good forever. No just kidding. Sort of. I do agree that love is desire, and desire is something you can have only for something you don’t already possess. I think I’d better put this in terms of my relationship with my husband. We’ve been together for nine years. Given the odds of our particular circumstances and what we’ve had to go through, this is quite remarkable. He makes me a better person, the person I want to be deep down. It’s a quiet thing for the most part, and often hard  (because sometimes we don’t know or pursue what’s good for us). I tend to be a recluse, but he knows I’m not, not deep down. So he’ll suggest that I go to a coffee shop to write instead of sitting in my comfort zone here in my office. It’s never a selfish desire to change me, or shape me into something I truly am not. It’s seeing potential and truth and good.

And I like to think I do the same for him, except he doesn’t have much that needs to be corrected. But when he does, I’m on it, I’m on it.

I think when you find someone you understand and who understands you, you’re close to being in love. Getting this far in life is a hard thing. Having real friends is a hard thing too, and I’d extend love here (I could only be saying this because I don’t have that many!) When you have someone who not only understands you, but knows what’s good for you, and makes you see that good, you’ve hit the jackpot. You just go from there trying to return the favor.

What is happiness?

Being in love. (See above). A certain amount of money and good health doesn’t hurt, but isn’t necessarily required.

What is courage?

Knowing and doing the right thing, even though it’s hard. Now this is a tricky question. So don’t take my flip answer at face value.

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

I think happiness does factor into ethics. And I think being a good person means being a happy person for the most part. So this answer seems to conflict with my answer above to the question, “What is courage”? But it doesn’t. Because I believe that when you know and do the right thing, you’ll be happy…for the most part. Why do I say “for the most part”? Because I can imagine some pretty crazy awful scenarios that would challenge this view, but I think, for the most part, it’s correct.

What is the purpose of art?

This is where I expect everyone to get up in arms. I don’t think art is an end in itself. I’m with Tolstoy—I think it must have spiritual ends, otherwise it’s empty.

So now, what’s your philosophy?

What’s Your Philosophy?

BLOGGING EVENT!

Tell the world. Don’t be shy. Yes, we’re used to piggy-backing off the famous philosophers, and that’s why I came up with this prompt. Those well-versed in philosophy will appreciate a grassroots approach, even those who spend every waking hour thinking about the transcendental unity of apperception, believe it or not. No need to read everything everyone’s ever said about anything. Just say what YOU think. So rarely do we get a platform for original philosophical thought. Well, this is it.

No need to answer these any or all of these questions, but I thought they might help stimulate things:

How do you weigh in on the free will/fate debate?

How do you determine right from wrong?

Are you a rationalist or empiricist or both? (If you don’t know these terms, don’t worry about it. Or just Google ‘em.)

How would you solve the mind/body problem? (Clue: You can reduce things to one or the other, or…actually solve the problem. Good luck.)

Does God exist?

If God exists, does that mean there is life after death?

What is a soul? Does it exist?

Do dogs have souls?

What about parameciums?

What is Justice?

What is Love?

What is happiness?

What is courage?

Does happiness factor into ethics? (In other words, does being a good person mean being a happy person?)

What is the purpose of art?

Please leave a comment to link to your post, or leave your ideas directly in the comment box, if you wish.

Happy philosophizing!