Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is one of France’s leading novelists, maybe their leading novelist. He is known for being controversial. This is the only book of his I’ve read. It made me want to read another.

The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is relatively well-known in academic circles, but feels his career is at a dead end. He has frequent affairs with his female students. He is especially attached to one young woman, but otherwise feels lonely.

The novel is set in the near future. What may have made it controversial is that Houellebecq imagines that a new political party is having great success in France. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood. An election is coming and it looks as if they may win. Nobody knows what will happen. The professor isn’t really interested in politics, but he’s nervous about his future in a country that appears to be rapidly changing.

The arabic word islam means “submission” or “submission to the will of God”. I suppose Submission is satire, and it’s funny at times, but it addresses serious themes. I only wish I had understood more of the cultural references. The author refers to lots of French historical and literary figures, as well as current politicians and pundits. If I’d known who he was talking about, I’d have appreciated more of the jokes.

Philosophy Professors Say the Darndest Things

Colin McGinn is a well-known former professor of philosophy. He was asked to resign from his tenured position at the University of Miami last year after a female graduate student filed a formal complaint.

From the New York Times of August 2, 2013:

“the student’s boyfriend and a fifth-year graduate student in philosophy at Miami, said she had been subject to months of unwanted innuendo and propositions from Mr. McGinn, documented in numerous e-mails and text messages of an explicit and escalating sexual nature she had shown him…

Amie Thomasson, a professor of philosophy at Miami, said the student, shortly after filing her complaint in September 2012, had shown her a stack of e-mails from Mr. McGinn. They included the message mentioning sex over the summer, along with a number of other sexually explicit messages, Ms. Thomasson said. “This was not an academic discussion of human sexuality,” Ms. Thomasson said. “It was not just jokes. It was personal.”

McGinn is in the news again because he was recommended for a one-year teaching position by the Philosophy Department at East Carolina University. However, university administrators decided against giving him the job.

From an article at the Chronicle for Higher Education:

Michael Veber, an associate professor of philosophy who led the search committee at East Carolina that chose Mr. McGinn, says he didn’t put much stock into what went on at Miami. “After reviewing the evidence, Miami never even accused him of harassment,” says Mr. Veber. “So I don’t see how anyone could justify denying him a position because of any of that.”

Given that one student made a formal complaint, another student (albeit her boyfriend) spoke out publicly, Professor Thomasson offered the negative appraisal described above, the U. of Miami encouraged McGinn to resign (for not reporting the relationship with his student), and McGinn did resign, while responding in an unbelievably cringe-worthy fashion in interviews and on his blog, it’s fair to say that anyone, even the average associate professor of philosophy, could easily justify denying him another academic position.

By the way, McGinn is now 64 years old, an age at which many people suddenly find themselves out of a job, only because they can be replaced by someone cheaper.