"Man can indeed do what he wants but cannot will what he wants."
If I am getting it right, Schopenhauer believes that we are driven by our ego. The ego is where our desire for our own pleasure and happiness comes from. It has little to do with compassion and love, both of which we are more than capable of accessing and, in doing so, inoculating ourselves from what he and Freud labeled as "the hedgehog's dilemma." By staying safely within our own orbit, the orbit defined by our ego and our self-absorption, we avoid getting hurt, being humbled, creating uncertainty and disruption. The imperative to always fly through life in Business Class, is, in fact, so strong that ultimately introversion and isolation is the destination. The isolation of the hedgehog frames the lives of today's wealthy as they physically retreat from the world around them, living only within their own affluent self-absorptions. If this describes much of what motivates the secular world of modern capitalism, what kind of world will we create ... or, more in the spirit of this novel, what kind of world will we allow to happen? This novel portrays the inevitable collapse of such an entropic world. It is about a barely futuristic France, a vision of where she and the West are drifting. The novel has left a trail of disturbed, frightened and furious readers. This is not a politically correct novel. It is satire at its darkest, barely humorous center. Do not read it if you like happy endings.
The protagonist is a brilliant professor who wrote one highly regarded book about a even more highly regarded novelist of late 19th century France. Our professor teaches and seduces while watching the familiar world of secular France, a liberal democracy once grounded in the faith of the individual to find meaning in life through reason and free agency, disintegrate from a lack of conviction. The author, like France itself, submits, having failed to resist the ego's short term, spiritually vapid urges.
One way to approach this complex and cynical novel is to ask what, in fact, the protagonist has "submitted" to. On the political front, the parties of secular moderation, whether Socialist, liberal or conservative, have lost their voices among the masses. In their place are the angry mob of the right, filled with the conviction of xenophobic hate, and the measured but ruthless voice of an Islamic alternative filled with the conviction of religious certainty. The voice of doubting secular moderation and its daily preoccupations with comfort and pleasure are swept away by both parties. In the end, financed by Arab oil money, France succumbs to the security of an Islamic order -- an order financed by the oil she and the rest of the world has purchased over the years. Each barrel of oil represents a small nail in the coffin of the West. Each barrel fueling a secular world of materialism and distraction that over time create a spiritual vacuum all too easily filled by the sure voices of either hate or faith. Our protagonist submits without a fight. Bribed by Arab money, an easy conversion and the promise of layers of female attention and subservience, he submits to conviction's certainty. This novel suggests that Yeats' was right in "The Second Coming,'" the "centre cannot hold", as the "best lack all conviction" and, in this novel Islam and the extreme right "are full of passionate intensity."
The pieces that make up this satiric rendering of Yeats' prophetic and terrifying poem are starkly rendered. The protagonist cannot maintain intimate human relationships. He has no real friends, is separated from his family, seduces his students and fails to hold onto the one person, a Jewish woman who flees to Israel, who might offer the opportunity for an intimate, committed world. Instead, he degenerates into increasingly carnal, meaningless sexual encounters, drinks himself to sleep, and, finally, accepts the Islamic overthrow of the Sorbonne, happy to trade his academic freedom for Arab money and multiple young wives. The degeneration of his sexual appetite mirrors the loss of his soul and his capacity to engage and believe, leaving him a cypher to the Islamic tyranny enfolding around him.
Our protagonist tries to flee Paris and finds nothing to hold onto as he reaches out into the French countryside. In his flight, he returns to the remnants of the Catholicism of his youth as a refuge from his descent into meaninglessness. He revisits a remembered Christianity only to discover churches bereft of both parishioners and priests - a religious landscape devoid of its once vibrant spiritual urgency. He fails to find any solace in the empty spaces of France and returns to Paris, to debauchery, isolation and, in the end, to Islam. The author suggests that the West's fall can be marked from the moment she released her hold on the certainty and power of medieval Christianity and began to get lost amidst "the widening gyre" that came with the misleading knowledge of the Enlightenment and the seductive promises of modernity. What makes this apparently Opus Dei view of the world relevant, however, is the degree to which this ultra-modern 21st century seems to be increasingly dominated by the fierceness of orthodox faith and the violence of hate. The more we liberate, the more we digitize and connect, the more toys we produce, the more we entertain, the more we seem to feed the voices of reaction, the voices of unreasoning certainty. With divorce commonplace, fertility rates plummeting, prescription medicines soaring, sexuality degenerating, is the West more of an empty vessel than we want to admit? Are the sounds we hear from home grown terrorists and hateful right wing politics actually the rush of desperate human beings trying to fill the void created by a distracted, materialistic modern world lost in the gratification of its collective and individual egos?
I suspect that there is a canary in Houellebecq's terrible coal mine or, rather, he suggests there is a canary in our Western coal mine - women. Women submit in this book's Islamic world. They submit to men and become extensions of the male ego. They submit to a state of permanent arrested development. The young Islamic women in Paris are mixed and matched by the men, traded as dependent, sexual objects. As the women are "arrested", so is the whole society - a world held in "arrest" by a static, all-encompassing faith. The dark irony, however, is that while, from the start, the protagonist and much of the academic world he inhabits, may pay lip service to a woman's degrees and the trappings of her liberation, in fact, what they want first and foremost, like their Islamic counterparts they so contemptuously dismiss, is her "submission". Is this the canary we are not listening to? Has the West, despite all the legal and social trappings of equality, failed to love "the woman in man" as much as it loved the Virgin Mary of Medieval Christianity? Has the secular liberation of desire, ambition and comfort left the modern woman stripped of the sacredness and mystery of her femininity? Has this been "the stony sleep" of Western man within which creeps the "rough" Islamic "beast" of ego certainty?
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle'
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?