Novelists and Truth
People involved in the arts, literature, or other creative fields are generally politically left-wing – even far left. It’s much rarer to see someone who is explicitly and openly to the right, though it does happen occasionally.
But there’s another way to look at it. Our ideas of left and right in politics descend from the French Revolution. But what if we defined them differently than we currently do?
My preferred definition of the right, properly understood, is discerning and aligning oneself and the world around him with the truth. Now as a political philosophy or program, this is obviously incomplete. But a commitment to truth is important. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn made this point when he said:
The true rightist is not a man who wants to go back to this or that institution for the sake of a return; he wants first to find out what is eternally true, eternally valid, and then either to restore or reinstall it, regardless of whether it seems obsolete, whether it is ancient, contemporary, or even without precedent, brand new, “ultramodern.” Old truths can be rediscovered, entirely new ones found. The Man of the Right does not have a time-bound, but a sovereign mind.
I would probably qualify this somewhat. Some truth is contingent, not eternal. And one truth is also that man is limited and fallen, and thus can never perfectly discern the truth. This should apply a strong dose of humility to our quest for truth, though truth itself should remain our North Star.
Thus, because great art often expresses Truth, that art is implicitly right-wing regardless of the politics of its creator. The best art, journalism, etc. often overflows the intentions of its creator.
When conservative American Christians talk about literature, they are likely to pick explicitly Christian figures like C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, or Flannery O’Connor. These are fine figures, but ones of a previous era. The main novelist of today who might make the list is Marilynne Robinson.
But many of those who have the greatest insights about today’s world are not Christian at all. Sometimes this makes their work offensive to American Christian readers. But those who pay careful attention will often find incredible truth, particularly about the deformed nature of contemporary society, hiding in plain sight. Today I want to give some examples of this in the form of three contemporary European literary figures: Hanne Orstavik, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Michel Houellebecq.
Hanne Orstavik is a 53 year old Norwegian writer. She is, like many of the most incisive writers about our world today, Generation X, at least so far as such as label could be applied in Norway. She’s a writer I only recently discovered, and only four of her books have been translated into English, but they are all good.
Her 2006 book Love, widely considered her masterpiece, is highly unusual in that it is a story about a single mother behaving badly toward her child. The hippieish Vibeke has just moved to a new small town in Norway to start a new position, bringing along her son Jon, who will turn nine years old the next day as the book opens. Why she moved is never revealed, though another relationship failure is a possibility. Jon’s father is out of the picture, and his mother has programmed him to say of this, “My mom had to get away. She was too young to be tied down.” In other words, his mother dumped his father without good cause.
Jon leaves the house to sell raffle tickets, leaving space he’s sure his mother wants in order to bake him a birthday cake. His adventures have an ominous tone about him as if something terrible is about to happen to him. But everyone treats him well. His mother soon leaves the house too, but as we discover, she’s completely forgotten Jon’s birthday. She’s looking for adventure, and maybe a hookup, for herself. She’s essentially oblivious to her son, who is clearly just baggage she’s stuck with. Rather than a vicious psycho killer in the village, we discover that it is her neglect that is the greatest danger to little Jon.
The Guardian described Love as “a chilling study of emotional distance.” The New York Times called it, “a trim and electrifying novel.” At fewer than 200 pages, and without graphic sex or other features that might mar it for the Christian reader, of all the books I discuss in this newsletter, this is one you might want to sample if you are tempted.
A mother behaving badly is also a theme in Orstavik’s novel The Blue Room. In that book, college student Johanne wakes up to discover she’s been locked in her room. As the book progresses, we discover it was her mother who did it, in order to prevent her from going to America for six weeks with a boy she met at school. This might seem admirable at one level, but we also learn that her mother is manipulative, controlling, and deeply hypocritical. She is, of course, also a single mother, with Johanne’s father nowhere to be found. As the Guardian put it, “We have here a very strong entrant in that sub-category of fiction called ‘novels with creepy mothers in them.’ Johanne’s mother is definitely one of the worst.” Another online reviewer said, “A recent Twitter meme was asking for examples of bad parents in literature, and Johanne’s Mum would be right up there.” I should note that The Blue Room has strong sexual content.
It’s interesting to see not just one, but two books here featuring single mothers behaving badly. Love especially holds up a mirror to the dark side of single motherhood, something American Christians can’t allow themselves to confront, preferring instead to view them through rose-colored glasses as heroes.
Interestingly, in The Blue Room, Johanne and her mother are both, supposedly, devout Christians. Another Orstavik book is about a female pastor in Finland. It makes me wonder what her own relationship to Christianity is.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
If Orstavik’s Love is basically a novella, fellow Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard went to the other extreme with his six-volume, 3600-page work of autofiction (autobiographical fiction), My Struggle. The book was both a sensation and a scandal in Norway, selling almost 500,000 copies there. Keep in mind, the total population of Norway, including children, is only 5.3 million. This success turned Knausgaard into a global literary superstar. Age 54, he too is Generation X.
It’s difficult to describe Knausgaard’s writing. His books are often seemingly about nothing but the banalities of everyday life, yet they are oddly compelling. They’re like a train wreck you can’t stop watching. The best introduction to his style and work can be found in a two-part New York Times Magazine story called “My Saga” (part one, part two) in which he’s asked to retrace the paths of the Vikings in America. But make no mistake, he’s very smart, very widely and deeply read, and an extremely good observer.
While again, he would claim to be left-wing, there’s a strong right-wing streak in his work. He even seems to acknowledge this with a twinkle in his eye at some point. Start with the fact that his magnum opus shares a title with Hitler’s infamous work, which is more explicit in its Norwegian title Min Kamp. Apparently, he’d never even read Hitler before commencing his own series, but in the last volume, he includes a very powerful 400-page interlude on Hitler, which starts with a 75-page analysis of Paul Celan’s poem “Stretto,” a meditation on death in the wake of the Holocaust. It’s also notable that the New York Times chose Knausgaard to write a review of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (see below), also widely seen as having right-wing themes.
My Struggle is right-wing in multiple senses. First is descriptions. His Boomer parents are divorced, presumably in the first generation where this was widespread. His father drinks himself to death and dies in utter squalor. We see where the Boomer “Me Generation” ethos leads. In its minute depictions of the banalities and struggles of contemporary life, we also see the absurdity of much of the modern day.
He also makes many explicit observations and statements that might well get one canceled today, something he avoids through the conceit that he’s writing a character in a novel. For example, while he’s intellectually egalitarian, he can’t help but see his participation in childcare as demasculinizing.
One’s self-image not only encompasses the person you are but also the person you wanted to be, could be or once had been. For the self-image there was no difference between the actual and the hypothetical. It incorporated all ages, all feelings, all drives. When I pushed my stroller all over town, and spent my days taking care of my child, it was not the case that I was adding something to my life, that it became richer as a result, on the contrary, something was removed from it, part of myself, the bit relating to my masculinity. It was not my intellect that made this clear to me, because my intellect knew I was doing this for a good reason, namely that Linda and I would be on equal footing with regards to our child, but rather my emotions, which filled me with desperation whenever I squeezed myself into a mold that was so small and so constricted that I could no longer move. The question was which parameter should be operative. If equality and fairness were taken to be the parameters, well, there was nothing to be said about men sinking everywhere in to the thralls of softness and intimacy. Nor about the rounds of applause this was met with, for if equality and fairness were the dominant parameters, change was an undoubted improvement and a measure of progress. But these were not the only parameters. Happiness was one; an intense sense of being alive was another. And it may be that women who followed their careers until they were almost in their forties and then at the last moment had a child, which after a few months the father took care of until a place was found in the nursery so that they could both continue their careers, may have been happier than women in previous generations. It was possible that men who stayed at home and looked after their infants for six months might have increased their sense of being alive as a result. And women may actually have desired these men with thin arms, large waistlines, shaven heads, and black designer glasses who were just as happy discussing the pros and cons of Baby-Björn carriers and baby slings as whether it was better to cook one’s own baby food or buy ready-made ecological purees. They may have desired them with all their hearts and souls. But even if they didn’t, it didn’t really matter because equality and fairness were the parameters, they trumped everything else a life and a relationship consisted of. It was a choice, and the choice had been made. For me as well.
He says in another volume:
It’s a known fact that children of divorce are overrepresented in the crime figures, and the younger they were when the parents divorced, the greater the risk of them getting into trouble. But we won’t give up the right to divorce, so instead we say it’s best for the kids. In any system it’s impossible to foresee all the effects. To get back to the automobile: if anyone had said the invention of the automobile was going to kill thousands of people every year, would we have put it into production and center our lives around it the way that we have? No. So we don’t talk about that, we say the automobile brings us freedom and opportunity instead. And when capitalism increased its hold and we needed more labor, did anyone say that women have got to leave the home now and start producing goods, so we can double the labor force? Not to mention double the number of consumers? No, they didn’t. That was women wanting the same rights as men. The right to work, what kind if a right is that? How’s that supposed to be liberating? It’s just the opposite, a prison. The consequence of that is that our kids are farmed out to an institution from the age of two, and what happens then? Mom and Dad are almost driven insane, aren’t they? They’re riddled with guilt, so they spend all the time they can on their kids when they’re not at work, trying to be as close to them as possible. Compensation, compensation, compensation.
He also speaks disparagingly of Sweden, and repeatedly highlights its many cultural differences from Norway.
Oh, how I hated this s—ty little country. And how smug they were! If everything was how it was in Sweden, that was normality; anything that was different was abnormal. And this at the same time as embracing all the multicultural and minority issues! The poor immigrants who came from Ghana or Ethiopia to the Swedish basement laundry room. Having to book a slot two weeks in advance and then getting your ears chewed out if you left a sock in the tumble dryer. Or being subjected to a man appearing at the door with one of those damn IKEA bags in his hand and sarcastically asking if by any chance it is yours! Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia, for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia, and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities. Just to see what they would say.
Perhaps the worst aspect of all of this was that Sweden was so admired in Norway. I had been the same when I lived there. I knew nothing, of course. But now that I knew and tried to tell people at home in Norway, no one understood what I meant. It is impossible to describe exactly how conformist this country is. Also because the conformity is laid bare by an absence; opinions diverging from the norm do not in fact exist in public. It takes time for you to notice.
The ghetto outside the city is, of course, where Sweden has dumped its migrants. He makes a number of observations on this (see below).
If two countries so ethnically and linguistically similar have such a cultural gulf, what does that say about multi-culturalism? He says:
The wonder of Japan, a country that had been isolated for so many hundreds of years and had developed what seemed to us in every way to be such a peculiar culture, of that culture dissolving into that of the West and being lost forever, to exist as a mere variation of our own, was as great a loss as the extinction of any species of animal. But the Western world was so strong, and so expansive in its nature, that it would soon have the rest of the world subsumed within it, not by violence, as in the days of colonialism, but by promise. In this wide perspective, I was against immigration, against multiculturalism, against notions of sameness of every kind.
He also writes this further passage which might have come from an American culture warrior today.
When I was a kid, the last day of school was a solemn occasion. We sang the national anthem. But that was banned. They said it was racist to sing the national anthem. Can you imagine? I could indeed. Equality was the supreme principle, and one of the consequences was that expressions of the singularly Swedish were seen as exclusive and discriminatory, for which reason they were shunned. When it came to religion, one had to tread carefully, church had long since been separated from state, and now things had got to the stage where the priests no longer mentioned God or Jesus or the Bible when addressing schoolchildren, since this could cause offense to the many who came from Muslim homes. It was this same ideology, hostile to all difference, that could not accept categories of male and female, he and she. Since han and hun are denotative of gender, it was suggested a new pronoun, hen, be used to cover both. The idea human being was a gender-neutral hen whose foremost task in life was to avoid oppressing any religion or culture by preferring their own. Such total self-obliteration, aggressive in its insistence on leveling out, though in its own view tolerant, was a phenomenon of the cultural middle class, that segment of the population which controlled the media, the schools, and other major institutions of society, and it existed, as far as I could tell, only in northern Europe. But what did this ideology of equality actually entail? A recent study said that differences between pupils in Swedish schools had never been greater than they are now. The gap between the ablest children, for whom the future is bright, and the least able, whose futures lie outside the zones of influence and wealth, is widening year by year. The trend in the study is clear indeed: the strongest pupils are those from Swedish backgrounds. While we might be concerned not to offend people from other nations and other cultures, and go so far as to eliminate everything Swedish, this happens only in the symbolic world, the world of flags and anthems, whereas in the real world everyone who does not belong to the Swedish middle class , which is hostile to all difference, is kept down and excluded: most immigrants in Malmö, welcome as they are, live in ghetto-like public housing projects outside the center, in miserable apartments, areas where unemployment is massive and prospects are dim. It is also that case that the middle class, hostile to all difference, prefers not to send its children to schools attended by children from immigrant communities, thereby further reinforcing the segregation, with a knock-on effect on the next generation. Many immigrant children have parents with no education, and what the Swedish school system formerly considered to be a priority, lessening differences by providing equal opportunities to able and less able students alike, has now been completely invalidated as a guiding principle, the result being that the haves receive more, the have-nots less. Equality in Sweden is confined to the middle class, they alone are becoming more equal; elsewhere the only equality is in the language, managed by the same middle class. In Sweden something happening in language is much worse than something happening in reality. An instance of one moral code applying in language and another in reality used to be called a double-standard. This was what was going on at Vanja’s last-day-of-school event; the idea of everyone being equal, and fame and wealth being unimportant, applies in the language of the priest, whereas the reality surrounding that ideology said the opposite: the most important thing was to be rich and famous. Every child there harbored that dream, it was in the air. And the more I see of it, the self-blind and self-satisfied ideology of equality, believing as it does that the conclusion that it has reached is universal and true and must therefore govern us all – although in fact it is valid only to a small class of the privileged few, as if they comprised some little island of decency in an ocean on commercialism and social equality – the more the significance of my life’s struggle diminishes, for what difference does it make if I spend more or less time with my children, if I change their diapers or don’t change their diapers, if I do the dishes or don’t do the dishes, if I spend time on my work or don’t spend time on my work? Oh, how then, for crying out loud, can we make the lives we live an expression of life, rather than the expression of an ideology? All the thou-shalt-nots by which our small middle-class lives were constrained, all the things we weren’t supposed to say or do, or else were obliged to say or do, how I longed not to give a damn and do as I pleased.
Here we see the twinkle in his eye about being right wing:
The café I was in belonged to Liljevalch’s art gallery, whose rear was formed by the fourth and last wall of the garden area, and the cloistered passage at the top of the steps was a part of it. The last exhibition I had seen there was Andy Warhol’s work, which I was out of my depth to judge as far as quality was concerned, whatever perspective I took. This made me feel ultra-conservative and reactionary, which I certainly did not want to be. But what could I do?
He also speaks of the loss of meaning under the conditions of modernity:
There are many kinds of wind that blow through man, and there are other entities inside him apart from the depth of the soul. The authors of the books of the Old Testament knew that better than anyone. The richest conceivable portrayal of the possible manifestation of humanness is to be found there, where all forms of life are represented, apart from one, for us the only relevant one, namely our inner life. The division of humanness into the subconscious and the conscious, the rational and the irrational, whereby one always explains or clarifies the other, and the perception of God as something you can sink your soul in, such that the struggle ends and peace prevails, are new concepts, inextricably linked to us and our time, which not without cause has also let things slip out of our hands by allowing them to merge with our knowledge of them or with our image of them, while at the same time turning the relationship between man and the world on its head: whereas before man wandered through the world, now it is the world that wanders through man. And when meaning shifts, meaninglessness follows. It is no longer the abandonment of God that opens us to the night, as it did in the nineteenth century, when the humanness that was left took over everything, as we can see in Dostoyevsky and Munch and Freud, when man, perhaps out of need, perhaps out of desire, became his own heaven. However, a single step backward from that heaven was all that was necessary for all meaning to be lost. Then it was evident that it was not only empty, black, and cold, but also endless….Dostoyevsky has become a teenager’s writer, the issue of nihilism a teenage issue. How this has come about is hard to say, but the result is that any rate that the whole of this vast question has been disregarded while at the same time all critical energy is directed to the left, where it is swallowed up in idea of justice and equality, which of course are the very ones that legitimate and steer the development of our society and the abyssless life we live within it. The difference between the nineteenth-century nihilism and ours is the difference between emptiness and equality. In 1949 the German writer Ernst Jünger wrote that in the future we could have something approaching a world state. Now, when liberal democracy reigns supreme in modern societies, it looks as though he was right. We are all democrats, we are all liberal, and the differences between states, cultures, and people are being broken down everywhere. And this movement, what else is it at heart, if not nihilistic? “The nihilistic world is in essence a world that is being increasingly reduced, which naturally of necessity coincides with the movement towards a zero point,” Jünger wrote.
Note that he quotes Ernst Jünger, an explicitly right-wing German figure. My Struggle also references right-wing figures or influences like Oswald Spengler, whose The Decline of the West Knausgaard has read, and Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima.
An interesting fact about Knausgaard is that he was involved in creating an updated Norwegian translation of the Bible. Here’s a bit he had to say about that:
It was at that time I got a job working as a consultant on the Norwegian revision of the Old Testament, and since I had no grounding in the linguistic, cultural, or religious aspects that were involved, I had no option but to work hard and meticulously, nothing was going to come to me on a plate, and what revealed itself then, when I went through the first sentence of creation word for word, for instance, was the way in which entire worldviews might be encapsulated in a comma, in an “and,” in a “which,” and with those insights, how different the world becomes if its description is coordinate with rather than subordinate to the metaphor, for example, or the way a word not only has lexical meaning, but is also colored by the contexts in which it appears, something the writers of the Bible exploited to the full, for instance, by allowing a word at the beginning to apply to the sun’s relation to the earth, and then to let that same word many pages on to apply to man’s relation to woman. The word is merely there, in the two different places, and the connection is as good as invisible, yet decisive. People have been reading the Bible as holy Scripture for a couple of thousand years, and every word it contains has been considered meaningful, a dizzying tight mesh of different meanings and shades of meaning have thereby arisen, which no single human can ever possibly command. What happened when I started working on those texts was that I learned to read. I began to understand what it meant to read.
Michel Houellebecq (pronounced roughly WELL-beck) is arguably France’s most celebrated and infamous living novelist. His books have been eerily prescient, appearing shortly before events they seem to foreshadow, whether that be a terrorist attack or France’s yellow vest protest movement.
A deeply misanthropic writer, Houellebecq is one of the great diagnosticians of the diseases of our contemporary culture. A late Boomer himself by birth, he ruthlessly critiques the legacy of the ‘68ers. His very own unattractive physical appearance seems to be a mirror of his critiques.
Unfortunately, Houellebecq’s novels are extremely sexually graphic, which makes them unsuitable for many people. But the sex is critically important in his work, which is harshly critical of the sexual revolution. In fact, he’s one of the best if not the best at describing the consequences of our society’s embrace of the ethic of sexual liberation. (One book you could sample that is not in that mold is The Map and the Territory, which won the Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize).
His first novel, Whatever, published thirty years ago in 1994, correctly anticipated, among other things, the “incel” phenomenon and its link to violent crime and terrorism. Its central and most famous passage describes the neo-liberalization of sex, with its resulting inequalities mirroring the economic world (see my writeup in newsletter #21).
It’s a fact, I mused to myself, that in societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.
Note: “the extension of the domain of the struggle” is the literal translation of the French title of the book.
He also analyzes our society as suffering from a type of malaise or decadence, in which human relationships above all suffer.
The world is becoming more uniform before our eyes; telecommunications are improving; apartment interiors are enriched with new gadgets. Human relationships become progressively impossible, which greatly reduces the quantity of anecdote that goes to make up a life. And little by little death’s countenance appears in all its glory.
He gets to his main thesis. Our civilization, he says, suffers from vital exhaustion. In the century of Louis XIV, when the appetite for living was great, official culture placed the accent on the negation of pleasure and of the flesh; repeated insistently that mundane life can offer only imperfect joys, that the only true source of happiness was in God. Such a discourse, he asserts, would no longer be tolerated today. We need adventure and eroticism because we need to hear ourselves repeat that life is marvellous and exciting; and it’s abundantly clear that we rather doubt this.
Prolonged boredom is not tenable as a position: sooner or later it is transformed into feelings that are acutely more painful, of true pain; this is precisely what’s happening to me.
I don’t like this world. I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke. My entire work as a computer expert consists of adding to the data, the cross-referencing, the criteria of rational decision-making. It has no meaning. To tell the truth, it is even negative up to a point; a useless encumbering of the neurons. This world has need of many things, bar more information.
He also describes the destructive effects of free love:
She had certainly been capable of love; she would have wished to still be capable of it, I’ll say that for her; but it was no longer possible. A scarce, artificial and belated phenomenon, love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals which characterizes the modern era. Véronique had known too many discothèques, too many lovers; such a way of life impoverishes a human being, inflicting sometimes serious and always irreversible damage. Love as a kind of innocence and as a capacity for illusion, as an aptitude for epitomizing the whole of the other sex in a single loved being rarely resists a year of sexual immorality, and never two. In reality the successive sexual experiences accumulated during adolescence undermine and rapidly destroy all possibility of projection of an emotional and romantic sort.
Whatever was apparently a foundational text influencing the development of the so-called “manosphere.”
His 1998 novel The Elementary Particles (UK title Atomized) is widely considered Houellebecq’s masterpiece. It follows the lives of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, damaged children of a 1968er-type hippie mother. Bruno is essentially a failure in life turned sex addict, while Michel becomes a successful if introverted microbiologist who is working on what is in essence a transhumanism project.
Once again, he traces the arc of the sexual liberation movement, noting its self-contradictory elements, and how the people who promoted and embraced it ended up suffering downstream effects later in life. Having declared sex to be the supreme value, what does that do to the self-conception of those who have aged and are no longer sexually desirable?
Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, and the progressive influx of ever-younger girls onto the field of seduction was simply a return to the norm; a restoration of the true nature of desire, comparable to the return of stock prices to their true value after a run on the exchange. Nonetheless, women who turned twenty in the late sixties found themselves in a difficult position when they hit forty. Most of them were divorced and could no longer count on the conjugal bond—whether warm or abject—whose decline they had served to hasten. As members of a generation who—more than any before—had proclaimed the superiority of youth over age, they could hardly claim to be surprised when they, in turn, were despised by succeeding generations. As their flesh began to age, the cult of the body, which they had done so much to promote, simply filled them with an intensifying disgust for their own bodies—a disgust they could see mirrored in the gaze of others. The men of their generation found themselves in much the same position, yet this common destiny fostered no solidarity. At forty, they continued to pursue young women—with a measure of success, at least for those who, having skillfully slipped into the social game, had attained a certain position, whether intellectual, financial or social. For women, their mature years brought only failure, masturbation and shame.
Or, as it puts it, “A world that respects only the young eventually devours everyone.”
He again multiple times draws an analogy between the sexual revolution and the raw forces of the neoliberal marketplace.
It is interesting to note that the “sexual revolution” was sometimes portrayed as a communal utopia, whereas in fact it was simply another stage in the historical rise of individualism. As the lovely word “household” suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.
Perhaps Houellebecq’s most profound meditation on the malaise of the West is his novel Submission. Submission was controversial because it was nominally about a Muslim takeover of France. But that is not its true theme, which is that Christianity is dead in France, and because Christianity is dead, France is dead. The neoreactionary blogger the Social Pathologist observed, “For the literate moron, this book is about the Islamic takeover of France. For the Puritan, it is about the puerile expression of Sex. For the feminist, it is about misogyny. But for the Christian reactionary, this book is deep. Really deep.”
The main character of the book, François, is a professor of literature who is a student of Joris Karl Huysmans, a French writer of the decadent movement who later in life turned to Catholicism. Trying to imitate his subject, François too goes in search of a spiritual awakening, but he doesn’t find it.
I stayed until the reading ended, but once it was over I realised that, despite the great beauty of the text, I’d have preferred to spend my last visit alone. What this severe statue expressed was not attachment to a homeland, to a country; not some celebration of the soldier’s manly courage; not even a child’s desire for his mother. It was something mysterious, priestly and royal that surpassed Peguy’s understanding, to say nothing of Huysmans’. The next morning, after I filled up my car and paid at the hotel, I went back to the Chapel of Our Lady, which now was deserted. The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the car park.
The Social Pathologist’s excellent review observes:
This I think is the pivotal point of the book. Here, where Francois was actively reaching out for God, God failed him. Despite wanting to and seeing the need for it Francois simply cannot invoke the religious impulse. Christianity is dead. And, as the Christian God is, in Francois’ eyes, intrinsically tied to the idea of European civilisation so is it. It is this central premise which provides the understanding as to why Islam achieves a victory in France and makes strides into Northern Europe as well. Houellebecq’s realises that Islam does not need to conquer by force, all it needs to do is fill the vacuum as the ability to resist it has gone.
Again, I very much commend his review.
I hope this sampling of three contemporary novelists helps illustrate how great art can speak profound truths about today’s world in ways their creators may or may not have intended. Novelists very often explore the realities of the human condition and illuminate many of the dysfunctions of our modern world. Very often the people who do this are not Christian, and frequently create scenes and use language many would find offensive (Bret Easton Ellis is a good American example here). But for those whose consciences allow them to read these, many novels even today identify and describe key truth our society would like very much to deny.
What I was trying to say in my usual incoherent fashion in The Prisoner of Sex is that biology, or physiology if you will, is not destiny, but it is half of it. And that if you try to ignore that fact, you then get – at least so far as I can see any perspective of the future – you then get into the most awful totalitarianism of all, because it’s a left-wing totalitarianism.
I think there’s something in the human spirit that can, somehow, bear the notion of a fascist or right-wing totalitarianism because it at least gives us the romantic dream that we can all form into underground cadres and have an adventurous life at the end, where all of us, women and men, are equal and comrades. But if we get a left-wing totalitarianism, that means the end of all of us because we’ll have nothing but scrambled minds trying to overcome the incredible shock that the destruction of human liberty came from the left and not the right.
And there is an element in women’s liberation that terrifies me. It terrifies me because it’s humorless, because with the exception of, let’s say, Germaine Greer’s book on The Female Eunuch, there’s been almost no recognition that the life of a man is also difficult, and that all the horror that women go through – some of them absolutely determined by men, even more than, I suspect, determined by themselves – because we must face the simple fact that it may be that there’s a profound reservoir of cowardice in women, which had them welcome this miserable, slavish life. But in any case, whether it’s their fault or men’s fault, what has to be recognized is that there’s nothing automatic about female liberty. Every female liberty is going to be achieved the way that every liberty is achieved, which is going to be achieved against the grain, against the paradox of the fact there’s much in human life which forbids liberty.
So I’m not here to say that every woman must have a child, or that every woman must have a vaginal orgasm, or that every woman must conceive in any way I lay down. Anyone who says that about me doesn’t know how to read my sentences. What I’m trying to say is, let’s really get hip about this little matter, and recognize that the whole question of women’s liberation is the deepest question that faces us. And we’re going to go right into the very elements of existence and eternity before we’re through with it. Because the whole question of how much liberty women and men can find with each other, and how much sharing of those dishes they can do, goes into the center of everything.Norman Mailer at a forum on women’s liberation at Town Hall, April 30, 1971
*This article was originally published at Aaron Renn’s Substack. Republished here with permission.
*Photo Credit: Unsplash