“Am I Islamophobic? Probably, yes.”
September 7, 2015 5:16 AM   Subscribe

A profile on Michel Houellebecq. [The Guardian] [Books]
“It’s not my role to be responsible. I don’t feel responsible,” he says. “The role of a novel is to entertain readers, and fear is one of the most entertaining things there is.” To him, the fear in Submission comes in the dark violence at the novel’s start, before the moderate Islamist party comes to power. Was he deliberately playing on a mood of fear in France? “Yes, I plead guilty,” he says. For Houellebecq, the job of a novelist is foremost to hold a mirror up to contemporary society.

Related:

- Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book [The Paris Review]
Interviewer: You remark in your novel that French intellectuals tend to avoid feeling any responsibility, but have you asked yourself about your own responsibilities as a writer?
Houellebecq: But I am not an intellectual. I don’t take sides, I defend no regime. I deny all responsibility, I claim utter irresponsibility—except when I discuss literature in my novels, then I am engaged as a literary critic. But essays are what change the world.
- Colombey-les-deux-Mosquées by Adam Shatz [London Review of Books]
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumission resembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
- The Next Thing: Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire. by Adam Gopnik [New Yorker]
“Like most satirists worth reading, Houellebecq is a conservative. “I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values,” he has said. Satire depends on comparing the crazy place we’re going to with the implicitly sane place we left behind. That’s why satirists are often nostalgists, like Tom Wolfe, who longs for the wild and crazy American past, or Evelyn Waugh, with his ascendant American vulgarians and his idealized lost Catholic aristocracy. Houellebecq despises contemporary consumer society, and though he is not an enthusiast, merely a fatalist, about its possible Islamic replacement, he thinks that this is the apocalypse we’ve been asking for.”
- Houellebecq Speaks Out About Novel on Heels of Charlie Hebdo Attack by Rachel Donadio [New York Times]
“I had to repeat constantly that I hadn’t written an Islamophobic book,” he said, appearing in front of a sold-out audience of 600 at a literary festival in Cologne on Monday. “Now, after what happened, it’s going to be even more difficult because I have to explain that, one, I didn’t write an Islamophobic book; and two, one has the right to write an Islamophobic book.” [ ...] “To become a hero, you don’t have to act heroically,” he added, according to the newspaper. “Sometimes it’s enough to be pigheaded. The cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were pigheaded.
- Slouching Toward Mecca by Mark Lilla [New York Review of Books]
“There is no doubt that Houellebecq wants us to see the collapse of modern Europe and the rise of a Muslim one as a tragedy. “It means the end,” he told an interviewer, “of what is, quand même, an ancient civilization.” But does that make Soumission an Islamophobic novel? Does it portray Islam as an evil religion? That depends on what one means by a good religion. The Muslim Brotherhood here has nothing to do with the Sufi mystics or the Persian miniaturists or Rumi’s poetry, which are often mentioned as examples of the “real” Islam that radical Salafism isn’t. Nor is it the imaginary Islam of non-Muslim intellectuals who think of it on analogy with the Catholic Church (as happens in France) or with the inward-looking faiths of Protestantism (as happens in northern Europe and the US). Islam here is an alien and inherently expansive social force, an empire in nuce. It is peaceful, but it has no interest in compromise or in extending the realm of human liberty. It wants to shape better human beings, not freer ones.”
Previously.
posted by Fizz (66 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Note: Soumission [Submission] by Michel Houellebecq was originally published on January 7, 2015. The translation will be published on 10 September.
posted by Fizz at 5:20 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


He thinks a mostly hated minority of less than 3% of France's population is going to "take over"?

Yeah, I'd say that falls into the territory of Islamophobic.
posted by sotonohito at 6:18 AM on September 7, 2015 [17 favorites]


Same old tired reichwing culture clash shit, dressed up in a sauce of '68 nostalgia.
posted by MartinWisse at 6:29 AM on September 7, 2015 [20 favorites]


Great post, and I am going to read these links, but I just want to say that I am always very, very suspicious of artists who wash their hands of any responsibility and then drop something that reflects a very contemporary take on a contemporary issue. It doesn't work that way. Especially if you have a platform that can reach millions, like Houellebecq does. Like it or not, you do share responsibility in the sense that you might be asked to defend your work and the position it puts forward; "I'm just an entertainer" is not a magic shield.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 6:29 AM on September 7, 2015 [33 favorites]


He thinks a mostly hated minority of less than 3% of France's population is going to "take over"?

Rather more than that according to Pew, and trending upward. Also note, not mostly hated, not in France at least.

If you have other cites, please cite.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:44 AM on September 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Only 27 percent of French citizens said they had an unfavorable view of Muslims — compared with 63 percent of Italians and 46 percent of Spaniards — but 74 percent thought that Islam was inherently incompatible with France's secular values.

Kind of reminds me of American friends I used to have: "No, I like Mexicans! Really! I just don't think they can integrate into American society and have a culture incompatible with our way of life, that's all."
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 6:51 AM on September 7, 2015 [16 favorites]


"74 percent [of French citizens] thought that Islam was inherently incompatible with France's secular values."
posted by MrJM at 6:53 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am always very, very suspicious of artists who wash their hands of any responsibility and then drop something that reflects a very contemporary take on a contemporary issue.

Narrating society as a clash of cultures or a struggle for survival is not a passive act, nor a benign one.
posted by kewb at 6:53 AM on September 7, 2015 [15 favorites]


It's a gross creature who thinks his only responsibilities are professional responsibilities.
posted by painquale at 6:54 AM on September 7, 2015 [16 favorites]


Metafilter: A gross creature who thinks its only responsibilities are professional responsibilities.
posted by belarius at 7:09 AM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: It doesn't work that way. Especially if you have a platform that can reach millions.
posted by Fizz at 7:30 AM on September 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


I've posted a nearly identical statement elsewhere, likely in the Charlie Hebdo thread: a useful corrective to this shit is The Myth of the Muslim Tide.

When Holluellebecq says:

What is he afraid of? “That it all goes wrong in the west; you could say that it’s already going wrong.” Does he mean terrorism? He nods. Some might say that’s a tiny percentage of people, I begin ... “Yes, but maybe very few people can have a strong effect. It’s often the most resolute minorities that make history.”

He's also wilfully ignoring, in the most irresponsible way possible, the simple fact that the terrorist acts he's referring to are precisely intended to provoke an overreaction. And here he is overreacting and trying to provoke others to overreact.

Espèce de merde.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:40 AM on September 7, 2015 [16 favorites]


He's writing about his own fear and then he points towards everyone else and say "hey it's you not me".
Piece of shit indeed.
posted by SageLeVoid at 7:50 AM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


If you're serving poison, you don't get to absolve yourself on the grounds that you're a cook, not a chemist.
posted by Mooski at 7:56 AM on September 7, 2015 [27 favorites]


Yeah, he's disclaiming responsibility, but it seems like what he's really trying to avoid is accountability.
posted by darkstar at 8:26 AM on September 7, 2015


Reminds me of a few anti-PC comedians with the courage to be provocative, so long as they have the momentum of a certain type of fan behind them but oh so whiney when they actually prevoke a response that threatens their bottom line.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:27 AM on September 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the posts, what I got out of the articles was how the book is more of a conservative critique on contemporary French liberals than a scaremongering of Islam - but the subject matter alone seems to have put him in a particular box.
posted by The Ted at 8:33 AM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


"74 percent [of French citizens] thought that Islam was inherently incompatible with France's secular values."

What's "Islamaphobic" about this belief? Any religion, by definition, is incompatible with "secular values" since one the primary values of secularism is that religion ought to be a private practice that doesn't have bearing on policy or public life, but pretty much all religions include the idea that the religion ought to change both the believer and the world. Those are inherently incompatible.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:43 AM on September 7, 2015 [47 favorites]


Yeah, he's disclaiming responsibility, but it seems like what he's really trying to avoid is accountability.

What do you mean?
posted by Brian B. at 8:55 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Interesting links, especially in conjunction with the recent PC Comedy and Paul Revere post.

Sort of seems to come down to whether you agree with Auden that poetry makes nothing happen, thus relieving poets of their political responsibilities.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.


Bearing in mind the context of the post, it would be interesting to know in France whether Claudel (who seems to be somewhat ahead of his time in being an Islamophobe...) has been pardoned. I sort of suspect his views have instead hastened his work towards the dustbin of history, but I genuinely have no idea. (Although I suspect working in verse drama would make that happen no matter your views).
posted by Hartster at 8:59 AM on September 7, 2015


I found it interesting that the article took the title, Submission, as pertaining to the portrayal of women in the novel. It's a translation of the word Islam. Only knowing of the author through hearsay, I am wondering if he is referring to a more universal form of submission.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:10 AM on September 7, 2015


"74 percent [of French citizens] thought that Islam was inherently incompatible with France's secular values."

This doesn't seem like a particularly hard to understand position. And not one that is necessarily hostile to Muslims as people. One can find a people quite pleasant as individuals but still take issue with their religion as it exists as a political or social force.

I can think of any number of conservative Christian denominations whose adherents, insofar as I've ever met them, are some of the nicest and kindest people I've ever run into, but that doesn't stop me from being incredibly suspicious that their religions-as-organizations are, basically, dangerous anti-secular social cancers.

The solution, in both the US and in France, isn't to start expelling people based on their religion, but to build a more robust secular society and secular institutions (government, etc.) that are resistant to influence by anti-secular groups. This is a fine line, because resisting a popular but nonsecular movement is, or can be, inherently undemocratic, but it's one of those situations where democracy can quickly eat itself if one isn't very careful, and where a certain amount of conservatism — true put-the-brakes-on-change political conservatism — is useful.

At least in the US, we have a certain amount of frankly antidemocratic apparatus built into our system of government precisely (arguably for less-than-nice reasons) to put a brake on populist movements, which reduce the risk of someone getting themselves elected God-King overnight. Whether that is similarly true in France, I don't know, not knowing very much about the fine structure of their government. But if it didn't exist, I could certainly see being concerned, and the way in which government was structured would certainly influence the amount and direction of my concerns. In the US, the concern isn't flash-in-the-pan religious revivals, it's nonsecular movements who have decided to play the very long game. In a society where the secular government's checks and balances were structured differently, the risks might be elsewhere.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:16 AM on September 7, 2015 [19 favorites]


I'm more sympathetic to the idea/myth of the irresponsible artist than most Mefites (or most people in general, I guess), but I prefer David Cronenberg's formulation: "It would be a betrayal of one's art to worry about issues of social responsibility. As a citizen I have social responsibilities. But as an artist, I don't."

1. I take Cronenberg's premise to be not that an artist has no responsibilities, but rather that when you act "as an artist" you are actively disregarding the responsibilities that "as a citizen" you continue to have. You don't cease to be a citizen when you become an artist, which means that people who criticize you for acting irresponsibly qua citizen are completely within their rights, even if you qua artist are also within your rights to ignore such criticisms. You're free to consider that good art is more important than good citizenship, and others are free to consider you an asshole.

2. Cronenberg's position is bound up with his belief (which in certain moods I share) that "Art is on the side of the unconscious mind and the id. To see a movie is to enter into a trance or dream state. Realism has nothing to do with it." Houellebecq can't really make that claim; it's not a good look to play the dream-state/free-play-of-imagination/aesthetic-irresponsibility card when your novel is constructed around a hot-button political issue and features actual politicians as characters.

Anyway, thanks for this post, Fizz. I especially enjoyed the Gopnik and Shatz links, which make it seem pretty clear (at least to me, not having read the book) that the "clash of civilizations" stuff in Soumission is basically just a publicity-nabbing topical cover for yet another working-through of Houellebecq's reactionary anxieties and tendency to see the fate of Western civilization allegorized in the fate of his own dick.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 9:23 AM on September 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


What's "Islamaphobic" about this belief? Any religion, by definition, is incompatible with "secular values"

But in a French context, there is a great deal more tolerance for the Catholic faith and the power it has than there is for your everyday Muslim. The full brunt of "but we are a secular nation!" is being put down on them.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 9:36 AM on September 7, 2015 [20 favorites]


This doesn't seem like a particularly hard to understand position. And not one that is necessarily hostile to Muslims as people.

Taken at face value, no. But things occur in context. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, called for greater acceptance of faith in public life and made an official visit to the Pope; he also outlawed the burka. And it is worth noting when the official school holidays fall in France. Laïcité seems to fall more heavily on some religions than others.
posted by kewb at 9:38 AM on September 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


I've read a tiny bit of Houellebecq (some of The Possibility of An Island), and haven't really been able to use that to be able to extrapolate out what he's trying to do as a writer. It's hard not to write him off as an asshole because that relieves me of the responsibility of trying to find out if he's saying anything worthwhile by reading through all his works (or at least a few more).

But I would be interested in hearing from someone who did think him a good writer and who could tell me a little more about him and where he falls in the modern literary tradition/what he's responding to. And whether Islamophobia/misogyny/etc. is what he, as a writer (rather than just what his characters) think/promote.

I do not find Islamophobia ok, but I'm pretty out of my depth in parsing French politics and literature.
posted by emjaybee at 9:43 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


[Islam is inherently incompatible with France's secular values] doesn't seem like a particularly hard to understand position.

Allow me to guess, you're not Muslim.
posted by splitpeasoup at 9:55 AM on September 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


When I read Christopher Priest's recent book The Adjacent, the oddest part of it for me was setting the first section in a near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain (especially considering the UK has a lower Islamic population than France; thanks Indigo Jones for the link). By comparison, the time jumps to WWI and WWII felt less traumatic, and the ultimate 'quantum physics yadda yadda' that tied it all together felt less weird. So I can understand the problems with Houellebecq's book.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:24 AM on September 7, 2015


I take Cronenberg's premise to be not that an artist has no responsibilities, but rather that when you act "as an artist" you are actively disregarding the responsibilities that "as a citizen" you continue to have.

I think there's a problem with this formulation -- First, an artist really can't stop being a citizen. Obviously, I can't burn a building down and then say "it was an installation piece!" and expect to be absolved well, not without a bunch of legal work before hand). Presumably, the "moral artist" makes art that arises out of the citizenship (among other things). It is not necessarily an unsocial act to create art that challenges your society -- laws, culture, morals, preconceptions, social structure, etc. You can even argue that the "moral artist" is required to make such art. For myself, I think Cronenberg does not have a specific social or moral agenda in creating the films of his that I have watched, but I'd argue the freedom to put the products of his id on the screen, leading his audiences into contemplation of their own fear of their bodies and those bodies as society, serves a positive moral function for society. But part of that is because I generally like Cronenberg's work.

However, saying "I am just an entertainer" isn't making the same claim -- if art of any sort is valuable, it's because it can affect and move people. And, if I believe that "moral art" (in the sense of art that moves people in directions I approve) actually moves people in those directions, then, by definition, "immoral art" must be able to move people in other, less desirable directions. We can have plenty of discussions over which directions are moral, but, if you really don't believe that your work can have an impact on people, what is the point of being an artist? At all.

Now, although I think "immoral art" has a negative impact on society, I am not in favor of broad censorship, because I think that censoring also has a negative effect on society, because it is almost impossible to draw lines finely enough to exclude art that I think is genuinely damaging while still allow art that is challenging in a good way (and furthermore that something I find damaging may be challenging to someone else who is coming from a different place with different tools), so the cost of being able to watch a Cronenberg film is allowing the Saw franchise to exist (and, who knows, maybe someone derives something positive from watching those films; I dunno).

Based on the interviews linked, I have the feeling that Houellebecq likes the idea of being notorious, the ability to boost sales by appealing to fear and prejudice, while trying to avoid criticisms that he's stoking those very fears and prejudices. It's an incoherent position; either his work can have impact or it can't.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:29 AM on September 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


Every review I have read implies or outright states that the book makes Muslim Frenchmen look reasonable and white liberal Frenchmen look like idiots or weasels. Not exactly a ringing defense of the status quo.
posted by MattD at 11:13 AM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


First, an artist really can't stop being a citizen. Obviously, I can't burn a building down and then say "it was an installation piece!" and expect to be absolved well, not without a bunch of legal work before hand.

Well, I think the Cronenbergian artist would say, not (after the fact) "It was art, you can't arrest me," but (before the fact) "I realize that this will get me arrested, but it seems like the artistically correct thing to do, so I'm going to do it, jail be damned."

It is not necessarily an unsocial act to create art that challenges your society -- laws, culture, morals, preconceptions, social structure, etc. You can even argue that the "moral artist" is required to make such art.

I don't think good art is necessarily unsocial/immoral or that "the artist" and "the citizen" are always in conflict; more like they're orthogonal. Good art can embody good or bad morals, as can bad art.

if art of any sort is valuable, it's because it can affect and move people

Here's our basic disagreement, I think. For me, art is valuable because it's good--because, let's say, it beautifully embodies a powerful imaginative vision. (NB an imaginative vision can be powerful without being admirable or moral.). Art certainly can inspire people to (sometimes praiseworthy, sometimes horrible) action, and the artist-as-citizen might even be reasonably held responsible for the actions their art inspires. But all of that is orthogonal to the question of whether the work of art is good as art.

Based on the interviews linked, I have the feeling that Houellebecq likes the idea of being notorious, the ability to boost sales by appealing to fear and prejudice, while trying to avoid criticisms that he's stoking those very fears and prejudices.

Here I think we're in agreement. Houellebecq wants to say both "I have no responsibility, I'm just making art" and "I am deliberately playing on my audience's political fears in order to titillate them and sell more books." Sorry, Michel, it doesn't work that way.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:28 AM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Here's our basic disagreement, I think

Perhaps. If it doesn't move me (or, rather, some section of the audience), is it art, though? I don't think art exists outside of the audience. I mean, I find a lot of things pretty or interesting (say, a chemical process) without thinking they were art. Art, I think, requires a greater investment.

Well, I think the Cronenbergian artist would say, not (after the fact) "It was art, you can't arrest me," but (before the fact) "I realize that this will get me arrested, but it seems like the artistically correct thing to do, so I'm going to do it, jail be damned."

Fair enough, but the vulgar, juvenile creator hides behind the artist. The Saw francise doesn't really seem to have anything to say; I think Cronenberg's films have a coherent vision. I may enjoy it or feel disgusted (or, perhaps both at the same time), but he makes me confront my ideas about the body (mine and others') rather than just coming ip with creative ways to mutilate them.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:29 PM on September 7, 2015


"Provocation" and the stance of amoral art have always struck me as such a white dude thing, which is to say, I think, it is only from a place of power that the argument even begins to hold appeal or veracity. (I like to think of "provocation" as the unsolicited dick pic of art.)

Perhaps this is why I find satire unmoving. Defending the virtues of an old, anti-me system is not really entertaining.

And yet, I do think there is value to art that doesn't necessarily *move* people and that is to represent oneself. If I do not see my variety of consciousness and experience reflected in art — and it can be obliquely, artistically, not just one-to-one — there is value in adding it, to me, whether anyone is moved or not.

I suppose then Houllebecq is presenting to us all the old men of the West who do believe the fate of civilization and their penises are intertwined if not the same. They gross me out, and I wish people would stop paying attention to it, but I guess it has *a* value.
posted by dame at 12:39 PM on September 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


"Provocation" and the stance of amoral art have always struck me as such a white dude thing, which is to say, I think, it is only from a place of power that the argument even begins to hold appeal or veracity.

I dunno. Kathy Acker and Monique Wittig were both "provocative" authors, although I agree that being provocative is a bit like being an "equal opportunity offender" as a comic.....
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:53 PM on September 7, 2015


I don't see what could be called "irresponsible" about Houellebecq's book. From what I can tease out the reasoning seems to be, "some people might read this book and believe that all Muslims seek to enforce Sharia tyranny, and this will reinforce discrimination against Muslims, French nativism, maybe even militarism, etc."

To which I call weaksauce. To the extent Houellebecq's dystopian vision resonates with people, it is something worth talking about. If we find it absurd, that is worth talking about too.

If Houellebecq's book bolsters support for Le Pen or get cites as inspiration for anti-Muslim violence, I probably won't be convinced that Houellebecq is at fault. You might as well blame the murdered Charlie Hebdo workers for their own death for publishing such an "irresponsible" cartoon.

Poignant art has often has the effect of bringing out nasty shit. I think the whole Liberal ideology, which I basically buy into, is that a society where we do not consider art to be at fault for things done in its name is ultimately more self-aware and more just than one that does not. The idea that art should be "responsible" seems to militate against that.

If you do anything—art or otherwise—with the reasonable *expectation* that it might cause violence, I think the burden of proof is on you to show why that is OK. I don't think that applies to Houellebecq's book.
posted by andrewpcone at 1:08 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hm, I've only read Les Guérillières but I guess I don't think of it as provacative so much as feminist, which is maybe a provocation if you are anti-feminist, but feels different. Which is to say maybe feminist provocation is different from provocation for provocation's sake or maybe I am a hypocrite who just files things differently when I agree.
posted by dame at 1:12 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Michel Houellebecq: Contre le monde, contre la vie. Everything else has been sequel.
posted by meehawl at 1:20 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


You might find The Lesbian Body more provocative and consciously transgression.

Anyway, I think we can agree that there are few things less tiresome than you white male writers being "transgressive." I mean, once in a while they are, but not often enough for the shtick.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:34 PM on September 7, 2015


But in a French context, there is a great deal more tolerance for the Catholic faith and the power it has than there is for your everyday Muslim. The full brunt of "but we are a secular nation!" is being put down on them.

The reason for this is likely because the long-standing heritage and history of France is Catholic and Christian. In contrast, the experiment of Muslim immigration is only a couple of generations old, so it's unlikely that French people will be sentimental about Islam in the way they are sentimental about Christianity.
posted by theorique at 1:52 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Provocation" and the stance of amoral art have always struck me as such a white dude thing, which is to say, I think, it is only from a place of power that the argument even begins to hold appeal or veracity.

I agree that the orthogonal-to-morality view of art is a privilege thing that corresponds to "a place of power." I'd only ask, are we talking about a place of power that no one should occupy, or one that anyone should be able to occupy? I'd argue that aesthetic disinterest, or whatever you want to call it, should be available to whoever wants it. Like education and health care! (Only, you know, less necessary for life.)

As for "provocation," here's a passage from The Obscene Madame D., by my latest semi-obsession, Hilda Hilst:
Oh Lord, do you have like we do the same fetid hole? Hidden back there, but recalling itself to you how many times a day, hidden all compressed, humble back there, but draining all vanity, impossible for a man with that luxury in his back to believe himself to be a sneeze emanated from the Divine, senators, endless speeches, the polished vests of politicians, a carnation at the buttonhole, women in satin, looking askance, fussing, their permed hair, but the hole there, did you think of it? Oh hole, are you also there in your Lord? For ages we've been praising it to the skies the whole of it compressed. Who knows whether you have been dethroned, Lord, in favor of that hole?
Is that provocative or not? I can think of a few people I've known who would be provoked by it. But as for "provocative" art in the Daniel Tosh/Chuck Palahniuk/et al sense, yeah, fuck that. Bad moral art at least has its citizenly virtues going for it; bad immoral art has no excuse.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 2:07 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


But in a French context, there is a great deal more tolerance for the Catholic faith and the power it has than there is for your everyday Muslim.
Why would you even say something so far off the mark? It's simply not true, unless you mean 'people are more used to those whose culture has been there longer', in which case it is trivially true. Insulting the church is a mainstream activity in France, in a way no critic of Islam as a religion has come close. Very, very famous artists, the most famous in their respective art, even - Hugo, Brassens, Prévert, Coluche, say - were vocally anti-Catholic, and they are the canon taught in schools. Until he died you'd hear Jean Yanne violently mocking the church most days on the biggest radio station. I don't know who's the flag bearer nowadays, but more minor wits can be heard constantly. Hollande is openly atheist; Catholics are summarily associated with the far-right, reactionary bourgeois, more conservative even than the standard FN voter. Being Muslim is actually preferable to pushing Catholic values, in the mainstream culture - you can be a well-meaning Muslim, but only vicious idiots and inbred aristocrats are militant Catholics.
posted by Spanner Nic at 3:41 PM on September 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


The reason for this is likely because the long-standing heritage and history of France is Catholic and Christian. In contrast, the experiment of Muslim immigration is only a couple of generations old, so it's unlikely that French people will be sentimental about Islam in the way they are sentimental about Christianity.

Or, to put it more succinctly, because of racism.

Please don't call migration an 'experiment'. Moving about it what people do. If we didn't we'd all still be in Africa.
posted by howfar at 4:22 PM on September 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


No, because of secularism. The French are the second-most atheistic nation in the world, and you don't push religion without blowback. Race isn't a major factor there in matters of religion, unlike most other matters, because all religions are suspect.
posted by Spanner Nic at 4:31 PM on September 7, 2015


Some would seem to be more suspect than others.
posted by tonycpsu at 4:35 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


"74 percent [of French citizens] thought that Islam was inherently incompatible with France's secular values."

What's "Islamaphobic" about this belief?


Take out the word "secular" (which is a smokescreen and a lie) and think real hard.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:51 PM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Why would you even say something so far off the mark? It's simply not true, unless you mean 'people are more used to those whose culture has been there longer', in which case it is trivially true. Insulting the church is a mainstream activity in France blah blah blah

Ever try buying something on Sunday?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:55 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I agree with andrewpcone, in that I do not agree with all of the condemnation the work is receiving in this thread. Placing some type of 'responsibility' on Houllebeq as an artist and criticizing the novel for 'provocation' is ridiculous.

"Provocation" and the stance of amoral art have always struck me as such a white dude thing, which is to say, I think, it is only from a place of power that the argument even begins to hold appeal or veracity."

I do not agree. There is a strong history of marginalized groups using "provocation" to gain attention to the cause. For example - "F*** the Police". Granted, it was a reflection of the environment, but clearly intended to provoke.

"Narrating society as a clash of cultures or a struggle for survival is not a passive act, nor a benign one."


What does this even mean? I can make the argument that Fox News as well as Keith Olberman (or whoever is current Democratic equivalent to Fox these days) does the same thing each day.

"But I would be interested in hearing from someone who did think him a good writer and who could tell me a little more about him and where he falls in the modern literary tradition/what he's responding to."

I would not say I find him a good writer - his novels are sometimes too over the top and typically have some needless sexual portions which only minimally add to the story/point and clearly just his own personal fantasies. However, the satire is on point. I have literally laughed out loud at some passages. Houllebecq says "I show the disasters produced by the liberalization of values" which is a pretty common theme in his work.
posted by seesom at 4:55 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


make out the word "secular" (which is a smokescreen and a lie)
Yes? You seem to be an expert on French culture, along with everything else, so what arguments do you have to show that they are a smokescreen and a lie?

Ever try buying something on Sunday?
Are you saying that it is a religious observance rather than a tradition defended by the atheist unions? Are you aware that it's the Catholic Sarkozy who tried to stop that tradition? Or is this just another vacuous drive-by snark?
posted by Spanner Nic at 5:15 PM on September 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


metafilter: another vacuous drive-by snark
posted by el io at 5:31 PM on September 7, 2015


Are you saying that it is a religious observance rather than a tradition defended by the atheist unions?

Yes, and that tradition is very much steeped in religion, even if it's practiced in a secular manner today (and I'd bet that if you tried to move it from Sunday, the response to doing so would be vehement.)
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:26 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ever try buying something on Sunday?
Are you saying that it is a religious observance rather than a tradition defended by the atheist unions?


Yes. I am. If a non-Christian wishes to close their business one day a week -- perhaps on their Sabbath -- but stay open Sundays, that ought to be equally acceptable to French Socialists, but is it?
posted by Sys Rq at 6:28 PM on September 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Take out the word "secular" (which is a smokescreen and a lie) and think real hard.


Well, yeah, you're right, if I alter the statement by removing a key predicate than it does mean something completely different.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:41 PM on September 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


And if you ignore some stuff in parentheses...

*eyeroll*

Look, here's the thing: To an outside observer from a country where Catholics are a minority, France is a really, really, really, really alarmingly Catholic place. Perhaps the French are just blind to it, or assume it's the way things are everywhere.

It's a little hypocritical to say, for example, that the Muslim call to prayer goes against France's "secular values" when there are church bells ringing all the goddamned time for the exact same reason.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:00 PM on September 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


I didn't ignore the stuff in parentheses; it just arrived with nothing to demonstrate it ought to be taken as anything more than your opinion, so I took it as your opinion.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:07 PM on September 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


“It’s not my role to be responsible."

That's it! That's my next t-shirt.
posted by carping demon at 7:16 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]



I do not agree. There is a strong history of marginalized groups using "provocation" to gain attention to the cause. For example - "F*** the Police". Granted, it was a reflection of the environment, but clearly intended to provoke.


1. What marginalised group does old douchey belong to? Racist frenchies?

2. "Fuck the Police" wasn't meant to just be some 'oh, let's provoke like Banksy'. It was meant to fuck the police.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:59 PM on September 7, 2015



1. What marginalised group does old douchey belong to? Racist frenchies?

I was responding to the PP's statement which was quoted in the post that provocation is a white dude thing. Clearly Houllebecq is a white dude and not a member of a marginalized group.

2. "Fuck the Police" wasn't meant to just be some 'oh, let's provoke like Banksy'. It was meant to fuck the police.

Oh really? Ice Cube and NWA wanted to have sex with police officers? In all seriousness Banksy and NWA are both using controversial methods to get attention.
posted by seesom at 8:33 PM on September 7, 2015


Being Muslim is actually preferable to pushing Catholic values, in the mainstream culture - you can be a well-meaning Muslim, but only vicious idiots and inbred aristocrats are militant Catholics.

It doesn't make sense to compare "well–meaning Muslims" with "militant Catholics". You should at least compare the level of prejudice against "well–meaning Muslims" with that directed against "well–meaning Catholics".

This article cites a number of ways in which French law discriminates against Muslims, but it can be hard to recognise privilege when it has become embedded in the State itself. Besides the points made in that article, I would ask whether Catholic dietary preferences have ever been a cause for alarm and concern?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:12 PM on September 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


France is a really, really, really, really alarmingly Catholic place.

According to a 2009 survey, only 4.5% are practicing Catholicism, and only 64% identify as Roman Catholic. It may be that they are still nominally Catholic by tradition, but the point of the linked reference is that Islam is the dominant religion of France.
posted by Brian B. at 10:41 PM on September 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Or, to put it more succinctly, because of racism.

It may indeed be racism, or it may simply be the natural French people wanting their nation to remain a majority ethnic French, and a secular nation with a Catholic tradition. And just because a modern Frenchman may hate churchmen and Catholicism doesn't mean he wants Islam in its place.

If you asked your average native French person, "do you hate ethnic/religious minorities?" he would probably say no. If you asked him "should France become an Islamic nation?" or "should your French granchildren be an ethnic minority in France due to migration?", he would probably also say no. (And not because of racism.)

Demographic change is often hard for people to perceive because it takes place over decades and tends to be regional.

Please don't call migration an 'experiment'. Moving about it what people do. If we didn't we'd all still be in Africa.

I mean an experiment in the modern sense of "contemporary nation-state of France importing large numbers of people from Africa and the Middle East during a few decades". Not in the slow sense of hunter-gatherers crossing the Bering land bridge or migrating across the steppes of Central Asia.
posted by theorique at 1:47 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


ethnic French

I think you'd find it hard to convince my Breton friends that such a thing exists. My late friend Marcel, who was beaten and bullied as a boy in the 70s, for coming from a Protestant family in southern Brittany, might have objected to the idea that Catholicism is some sort of minor force in French culture, too.
posted by howfar at 2:01 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Has anyone here actually read the book? my French wouldn't be up to it, but it's been out in German for a number of months, so I got to it earlier than most people here, I gather. In this discussion there seems to be a lot of kneejerk "anything that a middle-aged white guy says about Islam in France is racist".

My reading was that it's a very-well thought-out examination about what it actually would be like if Islam became the dominant culture in a European country, and how something like that could come about, and how members of the new Christian underculture (for example middle-aged white guys like himself) might react.
posted by illongruci at 3:25 AM on September 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also FWIW: where I live in Bavaria, most people are not active church-goers, but it is absolutely the case that the reason you can't buy anything from a supermarket on a Sunday is because of the power of the church over the lawmakers.

See also: Tanzverbot. It's forbidden to dance in a public place on Good Friday or All-Hallows Eve, in this pretty secular country. No bar or club is allowed to play music. Every time someone mounts a legal challenge to that, it gets squashed immediately with "we are a Christian country". It's only tangential to the topic at hand, but can someone say whether there are similar rules in France?
posted by illongruci at 3:30 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


It may indeed be racism, or it may simply be the natural French people wanting their nation to remain a majority ethnic French, and a secular nation with a Catholic tradition.

Even with a cursory reading of French history, it should become quite clear that what many of the qualities some might describe in 2015 as the "natural French people" is a convenient invention, not some autocthonous mode of being. It's an identity constructed over time, some of it of relatively recent vintage.

And even so there's considerable variation within the supposed "French identity," as howfar and other point out. Some of that variation is simply what happens to any country that has a long history of colonization. That set of connections leads either to cultural hybridity or to endless internal struggles. 130 years of French Algeria, almost 75 of French-run Tunisia, and 44 of Morocco as a protectorate do not simply go away because France eventually leaves.

And this is without considering the many, many hybridizations and compromises and conquests that happened within what is today the territory of the French state: the histories of Bretagne, the formerly French-controlled portions of the Rhineland, and Corsica are particularly notable, but France has been a part of many other places, and many other places a part of France, since before anyone called it "France." There's nothing organic about the nation-state, and thus nothing organic about any identity one wishes to construct around it.
posted by kewb at 5:11 AM on September 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


If you're interested in the methods of construction of the modern French nation state and the sometimes quite radical heterogeneities that subtend it, Graham Robb's The Discovery of France; A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War is an excellent read.
posted by Wolof at 6:30 AM on September 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think Houellebecq is an important and compelling writer. The Elementary Particles (aka Atomised) remains his best work and is a must-read novel, in my view. The Map and the Territory is also interesting and humorous. However, some of his other novels have been disappointing by comparison. I am curious where Submission will stand among his other works.
posted by ageispolis at 8:11 PM on September 8, 2015


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