The Chronicle Review

Houellebecq Skewers French Academe

Nicolas Guerin, Getty Images

Michel Houellebecq
March 04, 2015

For several years, Michel Houellebecq has been France’s most celebrated writer and also its most controversial. But the infamy sparked by his earlier novels like Whatever, Elementary Particles, and Platform, evaporates under the klieg lights trained on his most recent work, Soumission. It has topped French best-seller lists since its publication in early January—the same week as the terrorist attacks in Paris, when a caricature of Houellebecq was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo. More than a literary sensation, Soumission has become a historical event.

Houellebecq, then, needs no introduction—except in French universities. There, professors of contemporary literature have, for the most part, ignored the chain-smoking, wild-haired, and bleary-eyed novelist. The scholarly quarantine is all the more striking, given the growing wave of research and conferences devoted to Houellebecq in other countries. (In 2012, France finally hosted a conference dedicated to his work, yet the majority of participants were foreign scholars.) As one French specialist on Houellebecq, Antoine Jurga, recently observed: "It’s as if we didn’t want to recognize Houellebecq as one of our own."

If Houellebecq ever lost sleep over this state of affairs, he exacts sufficient revenge in Soumission. With his trademark tone of affectless despair, Houellebecq transforms the groves of French academe into the graves of Western civilization. Yet the novel’s skewering of university life owes far less to Don DeLillo or David Lodge than it does to Ferdinand-Louis Céline. The decrepit auditoriums and failing plumbing, and the disaffected professors and flailing students of the once-glorious Sorbonne become, for Houellebecq, the cratering stage for our postmodern condition.

Set in 2022, the novel’s narrator, François, is a professor at the University of Paris. Not the venerable Sorbonne campus, mind you, but the less prestigious Paris 3, one of the baker’s dozen of satellite campuses created in the wake of the student rebellion of 1968. Though Paris 3 is also on the Left Bank, its hastily constructed and slowly decomposing buildings reflect the sad state of research and teaching in the humanities. Indeed, as François makes clear, these activities hardly merit their names. On the one day each week he teaches, François catches an early Metro, pretending he belongs to the "France that rises early." Yet he has few acolytes who also rise early for his morning literature class. In an otherwise empty auditorium sits a compact group of Chinese students who, turning on their smartphones to record the lectures, take copious notes and never ask a question.

The professor protagonist is a burnout who, thanks to his professional sinecure, has the luxury of cultivating an unearned and unpleasant despair.

As with most everything else in his life, François limply accepts this state of affairs. But he nevertheless wonders about the legitimacy of his profession. A humanities degree leads "to just about nothing—apart, that is, for the most gifted students, to a career in teaching the humanities at university. In sum, we have the rather funny situation of a system that exists solely to reproduce itself, trailing behind it a failure rate of more than 95 percent of those who begin." This observation, of course, reaches across the Atlantic. Having taught in both history and language departments, I have lost count of the ways in which I have been urged by administrators to justify the practical import of my profession. Still, François allows, a liberal-arts degree might help one’s application for a sales position at Céline or Hermès: After all, hasn’t literature "always had a positive connotation in the world of luxury products"?

Such obiter dicta are neither particularly original nor funny, but that is because François is neither original nor funny. He’s a burnout who, thanks to his professional sinecure, has the luxury of cultivating an unearned and unpleasant despair. His most painful professional duty is the weekly meeting with graduate students. Launched onto pathetic career paths, these nameless and faceless students irritate their professor intensely "with pointless questions like, Why were minor poets considered minor and what stopped them from being considered major?" With what is less a confession than a shrug, François concludes: "I didn’t have the slightest vocation for teaching; 15 years later, my career has simply confirmed this initial lack of vocation. … I didn’t like young people—and I never liked them, even when I myself was one of them."

One of the few things he does seem to like, at least at first glance, is literature. But even here he proves not just sloppy, but solipsistic. He wrote his dissertation on Joris-Karl Huysmans, the doyen of decadence and author of A Rebours (Against the Grain). It doesn’t take a crit-lit specialist to underscore the parallels between the hero of A Rebours, Duke Jean des Esseintes, and François: misanthropic and misogynistic, both are either too lazy or too sensual to heave their lives into a meaningful narrative. Instead, they content themselves, when not busy having sex or drinking, to reflect on the moral wastelands their worlds have become. With one difference: François represents the social class, the bourgeoisie, that Des Esseintes finds even more crapulous and corrupt than his own aristocratic caste.

It is not an accident that François specializes in Huysmans: Both he and his colleagues at Paris III resemble their research subjects the way dog owners often resemble their companions. The mention of one utterly unexceptional colleague, who specializes in Rimbaud, brings a snarl to the lips of a Balzacian: "Rimbaud is probably the subject the most picked over in theses, with the possible exception of Flaubert." The imperious Chantal Delouze is "an implacable gender-studies specialist" while Lempereur is a sinister and shadowy figure. Having defended a dissertation on the militant Catholic poet and novelist Léon Bloy, he now defends the nationalist and authoritarian National Front. Finally, Alice is as sweet and unobjectionable as her dissertation subject, the bohemian writer Gérard de Nerval whom, she observes, "no one ever got angry at." (Except, perhaps, the poor lobster that the impoverished poet would take for walks at the Palais Royal.)

With a monograph on Huysmans and a professorship, François has thus fulfilled his professional, perhaps even his human, destiny. From time to time François tweaks this fate with the occasional "sharp, incisive, brilliant" article sent to the Journal des dix-neuvièmistes, but he cannot help but wonder if this activity can "justify a life." But as soon as he poses the question, François asks why he need bother. "Doesn’t the vast majority of humankind live their lives without feeling the slightest need to justify them?" Still, François concludes, "as a Huysmans specialist, I feel obliged to do a bit better than that." No doubt because Huysmans also felt obliged to do a bit better: Decadence, he wrote in his autobiographical En Route, becomes "singularly weak and lamentably false when age advances, when infirmities declare themselves, when all around is crumbling." A few years after the publication of A Rebours, Huysmans made a celebrated conversion to Catholicism. Desperately seeking an epiphany similar to Huysmans’, François makes a pilgrimage to the medieval holy site of Rocamadour. Entering the chapel and kneeling in front of the wooden statue of the Black Madonna, François does his best to capture the spirit, but after 30 minutes comes up empty. He returns to Paris and the trawling of online escort services.

In his 2003 review of Platform, Julian Barnes wrote that Houellebecq seemed "a clever man who is a less than clever novelist," particularly when he dealt with the subject of Islam. Barnes’s insight is even more relevant today. Apart from inventive escort girls, the one activity that excites François is the presidential election of 2022. After the first round of voting, the two leading parties are Marine Le Pen’s Front National and a newly formed Muslim Fraternity. The latter is led by Mohammed Ben Abbes, a character who resembles former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, only far more intelligent and subtle. In order to bar Le Pen’s path to power, the Socialists and Conservatives join the Muslim Fraternity to form a "republican front." They carry the election and, in the subsequent palavers over the new government, President Ben Abbes forgoes the traditionally important ministries like Defense, Treasury, and Interior. His one demand—and here lies Houellebecq’s cleverness—is to appoint a fellow member of the Muslim Fraternity to the Ministry of National Education.

For Ben Abbes, it is pedagogy, not the economy or military, that will guarantee the Muslim conquest of France. Given the galloping birthrate among French Muslims, Houellebecq suggests, how could it be otherwise? Just as the secular public schools and universities had, during Huysmans’ age, transformed peasants into Frenchmen, their Islamicized successors will turn Frenchmen into Muslims. Bought by a Saudi sheik, the Sorbonne morphs into a Muslim institution requiring professors to convert to Islam if they wish to remain. In order to defuse protest, the new management offers professors golden retirement packages—a move that makes François smile. The Saudi owners, he reflects, have overestimated the "nuisance potential" of French academics: "Even a unanimous protest by the faculty would pass nearly unseen." How touching, he concludes, that the new management "still believes in the power of an intellectual elite."

In a way, of course, the Sorbonne returns to its original vocation: a religious institution for the teaching of the faith. Except now, it is no longer Christians who qualify to teach in petrodollar-polished halls but Muslims. Many critics have dismissed this plot wrinkle as a paranoid fantasy, but Houellebecq might reply that paranoia feeds on the crumbs of reality. In a 2004 interview, he said he places events in the near future in order "to distance humanity." A cynic might reply that if Houellebecq distanced humanity any further, the universe would require an annex. But, in the case of Soumission, he is not only pushing humanity further away but creating space to comment on the present. As in any good science-fiction novel worth its salt, Soumission doesn’t invent a future. Instead, it projects a possible tomorrow based on an increasingly bleak today. (Commentators often note the uncanny fashion in which the climax of Platform, with Islamic terrorists wreaking havoc at a Thai vacation resort, seems to have anticipated the Islamic terrorist bombing in Bali a year after its publication.)

In the case of French public universities, while tomorrow may not be as grim as forecast by Houellebecq, the trends do pose questions. In 2006, the Sorbonne turned itself into a franchise and established a campus in Abu Dhabi. Doubts over the wisdom of lending the Sorbonne brand to a theocracy were, it appears, overcome by the promise of great profits: no small matter for an institution fiscally foundering. Of the deal brokered between the Sorbonne and Abu Dhabi, the president of the University of Paris-Panthéon, Pierre-Yves Hénin, denounced it: "We are sacrificing the French university for financial interests." The case of Nasser bin Ghaith, a faculty member who was arrested for advocating democratic reforms during the Arab Spring—an arrest Sorbonne officials refused to criticize—confirms not just Hénin’s warning, but lends some flesh to Houellebecq’s fantasy.

There is, as well, the abyss between France’s public universities and the so-called grandes écoles. Hatched by the Revolution, and furthered by Napoléon, these elite institutions form a parallel system of higher education in France. Unlike public universities, which until recently had to accept all lycée graduates, grandes écoles like Polytechnique and the Ecole Normale Superieure accept only those students who excel in a punishing series of national examinations. Conversations with keen observers of French politics and culture suggest the situation is more complex than Houellebecq presents. Marc-Olivier Bherer, an editor at Le Monde, was sharply critical: "From the depths of his cave, Houellebecq imagines the world as it isn’t, and will not run the risk of seeing it as it is." Echoing this sentiment was Eve Morisi, a professor of French literature at the University of California at Irvine, who studied at Paris 7 and praised the rigor of her professors and the rich diversity of the student body. On the other hand, Nelly Noury-Ossia, a colleague at the University of Houston who graduated from the University of Paris 4, spoke for many of her peers when she told me that she could rely "on neither the academic system nor the professors. … I felt like their aim was to make us quit and feel bitter about life and the humanities." A French historian I know, a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure and professor at the University of Paris 13, insisted he does what he can for his students, but that the two systems are nevertheless "galaxies apart."

In 1997, under the headline "The 10 Most Dangerous Establishments," L’Express Magazine surveyed not the nation’s prisons or nuclear reactors, but its public universities. The list of unheated classrooms, asbestos-filled walls, darkened buildings, shattered windows, and foul toilets made for grim reading. Just last year, a student advocacy group published a new survey of universities, titled "The Ruins of Universities," which reveals the growing competition for the 10-most-dangerous list. When it rains inside classrooms and a trip to the restroom spurs existential angst, one feels less a student at university than a character in Sartre’s Nausea. Would any of this change even if France were not captive to its budget deficit and subject to austerity measures imposed by Brussels? Given the Socialist government’s growing interest in privatization, many on the left, including students, are not optimistic.

So Houellebecq’s near future is disquieting, but France’s recent past is no less so. A few years ago, Marine Le Pen described the sight of Muslims praying on the sidewalks in Paris as a "foreign occupation." As most everyone in France understood, the allusion was to Paris under the Nazis during the Second World War. It was a shocking reference, but also an ironic one: Le Pen’s father, the National Front’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is notoriously less critical of the German Occupation than he is of its victims, particularly French and foreign Jews.

But this is a minor irony compared to Houellebecq’s hijacking of the theme: the Sorbonne’s being occupied, in effect, by a foreign power. Just as there were entire academic departments willing to accommodate the new order, and only the rare protest when Vichy purged the faculty of Jewish professors, so too is this the case with François. Rather than resist, he and his colleagues either bend to the new circumstances or cultivate their gardens. In fact, Houellebecq uses the word "collaboration" as the novel reaches its dreary climax. Attending the conversion to Islam of another professor, François observes the large turnout of former colleagues curious about the event. Vichy specialists, in particular, will enjoy his description of gatherings of academics at the Institute of the Arab World. It echoes gatherings at the German Institute during the Occupation: a few zealots, but mostly mediocrities filling their bellies at the richly supplied troughs provided by the Nazis.

As we know, Houellebecq is constitutionally allergic to optimism—as one scholar modestly suggests, he cultivates "une sorte de néantisation," or state of nothingness. But he does offer a glimmer of hope in his novel. The bearers of light, however, are not academics but lay readers. A former spy named Tanneur, who takes literature to be a life and death matter, downs beers with François in a provincial bar. Tanneur suddenly recites a passage from Eve, the epic poem by the great Catholic, nationalist, and progressive poet Charles Péguy. Written on the eve of World War I, the poem, despite the awful reality of the war that was about to contradict it (and take Péguy’s life), still seizes the imagination: "Happy are those who die for the carnal earth / But only if it be for a just war / Happy are those who died for a plot of ground / Happy are those who died a solemn death."

With this uniquely uplifting moment, Houellebecq provides a glimpse of salvation, perhaps despite himself.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, is just out from Harvard University Press.