In what really is a breaking story this morning, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq has been acquitted of inciting racism by describing Islam as “the stupidest religion”.
Houellebecq is the author of several controversial novels of ideas, including Atomised and Platform, which investigate the condition of contemporary life in a Western society where no-one believes in anything much any more. In a grimly prescient twist, his latest novel Platform ends with an Islamic terrorist attack on a beach resort in South East Asia. Houellebecq was charged – following complaints by France’s Human Rights League, the World Islamic League, and the mosques of Paris and Lyon – after a magazine interview he gave, in which he described Islam as “the stupidest religion”, and said the Koran was so badly written it made him “fall to the ground in despair”.
Meanwhile, the British novelist Martin Amis has ignited a storm in the British Muslim community, after his remarks this week that militant Islam is “quivering with male sexual insecurity”.
And so this week, we’re asking whether the Western literary and intellectual establishment is beginning to round on Islam.
David Lawton is the Chairman of the English Department at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. He used to teach me English in the English Department at Sydney University, and he’s the author of a marvellous book entitled Blasphemy, prompted a decade or so ago by the Salman Rushdie affair.
This week in St Louis, Missouri, he met with Salman Rushdie, who has been a strong supporter or Michel Houellebeq, one of the few in fact, and he recorded this interview with me yesterday before the verdict in the Houellebecq case was handed down.
Stephen Crittenden: David Lawton, it seems on the surface, to me, that this is a very different case to the Salman Rushdie case ten or twelve years ago, that it’s not a blasphemy trial. In fact, the lawyer representing the Paris mosque against Houellebecq says it’s a defamation case. But I wonder whether this is as close as you now get to a blasphemy trial, in a secular society like France?
David Lawton: Well, Rushdie calls it a blasphemy trial. Rushdie says that for the court to find in favour of the complaint would be the equivalent of reinventing laws of blasphemy. But of course, you’re reinventing them in a secular, 21st century context, which is very interesting. I mean, you’re in fact following – if it’s a blasphemy trial, it is blasphemy as redefined by the David Blunketts of this world, in England, who wanted to put an Act through parliament not scrubbing the blasphemy law, but changing it so that blasphemy was the category that defended all religions, instead of just Christianity. Which strikes me as being even worse than the original blasphemy laws.
Stephen Crittenden: Do you think this is an important trial?
David Lawton: I think it’s like the Rushdie case in one important respect. It raises all kinds of questions about who speaks on behalf of other people. You’ve got a character, Houellebecq, who is – OK, he’s a writer, he’s speaking for himself, he has possibly foolishly in an interview just said “yes” when somebody said, you know, “are the views of your character your own?” “Yes”, he said, very happily, and immediately rephrased them. But the issue is, who has the right, I suppose, who has the right to take offence? And why people, when they take offence, continue reading a book.
Stephen Crittenden: You’ve said that the whole area of blasphemy is really about a struggle for control over reading – I guess over speaking as well – that in a sense, blaspheming becomes a necessary tool in a struggle against fundamentalism.
David Lawton: Well it’s not just fundamentalism, it is any kind of wall of authorised views telling you that there are certain things you cannot say. You’re not allowed to say certain things, because in some ways this will offend somebody else. Those are very difficult freedoms to infringe, it seems to me, and when Rushdie says that without the power to offend, what happens to self expression? It’s a very clear and cogent case.
Stephen Crittenden: Is there any doubt that this is a case less about the insulting remarks that Houellebecq gave in an interview, and more about the very favourable critical reception of his books in France and the rest of Europe?
David Lawton: Well, it’s always been a very mixed response, and of course one of the peculiarities of this case is that only certain authors have given Houellebecq the kind of support in France one might have expected to have seen all writers giving him.
Stephen Crittenden: Even his publisher’s been fairly circumspect.
David Lawton: Yes, and there’s a certain sort of political correctness which cuts across what Houellebecq has done, and which causes all sorts of discomfort for people who might otherwise have supported him.
Stephen Crittenden: I wonder whether, in fact, sometime during the 80s and 90s, people’s cultural identity became a category that you can’t criticise, and that now after September 11 we’re starting to see that challenged by people like Houellebecq. But on the Left, that’s still something that’s very uncomfortable.
David Lawton: It’s also I suppose a peculiar game of name-calling. I mean, people put cultural identity on others, people assume cultural identity for themselves. Here you have Houellebecq saying that Islam is a stupid religion, then you have a crowd of people who rush out saying “in the name of Islam, we object to that”. And it is the aligning of themselves, it is saying “we have the right to object, because we are the people who have been hurt by this”, that makes this whole transaction extremely difficult. It seems to me that the law possibly shouldn’t want to be in this kind of area at all, that laws which attempt to protect the kind of cultural good name of a minority group, in a multicultural society, end up committing great offences against freedom.
Stephen Crittenden: Salman Rushdie has said that the accusations against Houellebecq are ridiculously slight. You actually spoke to him, met with him and spoke to him only last week, he’s read your book on blasphemy; what did he have to say about this trial?
David Lawton: Well, he feels very strongly of course. He wrote in The Guardian that people need to give to Houellebecq their full support, that in his view this is just as important as The Satanic Verses case. It’s very interesting you know, actually, Rushdie came to St Louis last week and the issue about The Satanic Verses was still very much alive. I have an Islamic colleague who – very much to her credit – came to his talk and asked him questions, and the questions were very much of the same kind of order that Houellebecq’s getting: “how could you hurt an entire community by saying the things you said, by writing the things you wrote?” And his answer to that was “well, how can you presume to speak for that community? You know, I write for individual readers, and in some sense I cannot deal with someone saying that they represent a whole homogenous community”. And of course then Rushdie can produce his correspondence from many Muslim leaders saying “we enjoyed the book”.
Stephen Crittenden: How good do you reckon Houellebecq actually is? You told me in an email exchange before this interview that you thought he was part brat, part Sid Vicious, part Camus, part Anselm Kiefer. But is he any good?
David Lawton: Well he certainly writes well, he’s worth reading. I recall from the nihilism of this work, I recoil from the view that everything that we’ve done since the 1960s, there’s been some terrible crime against humanity in all sorts of ways. But then I would, I’m the child of that age. I think Houellebecq has a very powerful critique, it’s a very powerfully felt critique. He writes wonderfully. At its best, it’s like a kind of scorched-earth, and that’s where the Anselm Kiefer comparison came in, the sort of ravaged canvases which just represent the terrible disruption that we have committed in our own age.
Stephen Crittenden: I wonder whether under the cool, hard-bitten exterior, he isn’t actually attempting a really rather conservative critique of what’s been happening to Western culture. There are certainly buckets of regret about what happened in the 70s and 80s and 90s, the deadness, I suppose. He talks about the depression that’s the hallmark of Western society now. Let me also say that there’s this story overnight about Martin Amis, who’s come out criticising radical Islam, saying that it’s “brimming with male sexual insecurity”. I wonder whether we’re beginning to see a carefully-camouflaged move to the Right, a sort of a hardening of the position of the Western intelligentsia, Western literary types, much more willing suddenly to throw the odd bomb in Islam’s direction.
David Lawton: Well, I think that the Rushdie case oddly made that happen rather more than it might otherwise have happened. It’s a curious kind of fight. The Houellebecq thing is rather different. In a French context, it seems to me that Houellebecq belongs on the Right. I don’t think there’s any doubt there, he stands in a literary tradition going back to Celine, he’s quite clearly got something to do with the kind of xenophobia that gave you Pim Fortuyn’s great triumph in Holland – at least, his great triumph before he was murdered. And you’ve got an intervention into these very strong reactions against the effect of multiculturalism, the effect of immigration, which is setting up Islamic communities where people honestly didn’t expect to find them. And this is, I think, the issue that Europe is slowly coming to terms with.
Stephen Crittenden: Just going back to my question, though, about whether the Western intelligentsia is beginning to round on Islam: you know, I guess the question is, what base that’s happening from – you know, it’s pretty difficult to criticise radical Islam from a postmodern position.
David Lawton: Radical Islam and a postmodern position don’t seem to leave each other very much room, do they? I mean, it’s not a conversation which is terribly easy to have. The Western intelligentsia is rounding on what, I suppose, to an extent what it sees as an attack. There is a response to 11 September here, and there is a way in which Western intelligentsia is kind of playing with the old Enoch Powell line – you know, “I see the River Tiber foaming with blood”. It’s not a particularly productive attitude. When it – I don’t know what Martin Amis knows about Islam, you see. I’m very conscious of the fact that Salmon Rushdie knows a lot, he actually was brought up in an Islamic tradition, and he studied it. I don’t think actually Houellebecq knows all that much. I think the real problem with Platform is the kind of weakness of the plot, where in the end, when you’ve got this main character who’s gone off and set up his sex farm in Thailand – which, by the way, appears to be at least as much an attack on kind of globalising capitalism as an attack on Islamic fundamentalism – but hey presto, along come the Islamic terrorists and blow it all up again.
Stephen Crittenden: And how prescient was that, of course, given Bali last week.
David Lawton: Well, indeed. Gloomily so, dreadfully so – and what can one say, other than the fact that writers do occasionally write plots which prefigure things that actually happen in the world.
Stephen Crittenden: Where do you think all this is heading?
David Lawton: In terms of literature?
Stephen Crittenden: Yes.
David Lawton: I think it is heading towards a degree of polarisation. I think that in some sense, what we’re seeing is an incompatibility between various religious fundamentalist traditions. I mean, I’m exposed to very different types of fundamentalism here in the USA. And the novel itself: just because of what you just said, you know, that here he writes this novel and it actually gloomily foreshadowed the most dreadful events of last week, the novel is not as kind of innocent of its social implications as many fiction writers care to pretend. The reader who reads it as in some sense a political intervention isn’t wrong. It’s a terrible mistake to take that then to court, but the novelist knows exactly what he’s doing. And the novel, in that sense, Houellebecq’s work is like a kind of essay.
Stephen Crittenden: You seem to be suggesting that we could be about to see art and literature which is more socially and politically engaged.
David Lawton: It certainly is a much closer engagement with real things, and I think what died on 11 September was postmodernism. I think it’s over, I think that was the end.
Stephen Crittenden: Why?
David Lawton: Because there was no safe place from which to be an observer any more. You can see it in what’s happened to Houellebecq. I mean, the absolute astonishment that his book has caused, this kind of controversy, one would have thought a man prophetic enough to invent a plot like that, might at least have foreseen that his book was going to cause this kind of stir, and that it was going to be personally extremely difficult. I mean, people saw Rushdie living through the fatwa with great difficulty living through it. But what you’ve seen is Houellebecq becoming like his main character – you know, completely isolated, completely upset, saying that he can do absolutely nothing any more, he will never write again, and so forth. And now there’s a space. It’s the space Rushdie talked about, the space for fiction. In a sense, that space doesn’t exist any more.
Stephen Crittenden: Because there’s no safe place, and what comes now?
David Lawton: Well therefore, you’ve got these characters wandering around, realising that they’re engaging in pretty direct terms with the world. You know, you can hardly plot an escapist novel any more. What would you do, if you want to write escapist fiction? Where can you go?
Stephen Crittenden: Obviously not Thailand, obviously not Bali.
David Lawton: That’s right. It’s certainly not going to be South East Asia, but you see it’s not going to be France either. And it’s certainly not going to be the USA.
Stephen Crittenden: The brilliant Professor David Lawton, Chairman of the English Department at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. And his book, Blasphemy is published by Harvester Wheatsheaf.
And overnight, since that interview was recorded, Michel Houellebecq was acquitted of inciting racism in that court case in Paris.
That’s all this week.
Guests on this program:
Author and Associate Professor of South East Asian History, University of Wollongong
Author and Professor of English, Washington University in St Louis, MI
Bali: A Paradise Created
Author: Adrian Vickers
Publisher: Periplus Editions (1990) ISBN 0945971281
Author: David A. Lawton
Publisher: Harvester Wheatsheaf (1993) ISBN 0812215036
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Publisher: Heinemann (2002) ISBN 043400989X
Author: Michel Houellebecq
Publisher: Vintage Books (2001) ISBN 0099283360
A platform for closed minds
Salman Rushdie writes in The Guardian on the Houellebecq case
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