Images of a ‘Better’ World? Fictional Storytelling in the Radical Right (Part II)

Submission by Michel Houellebecq (BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Books and literature have become important elements of a thriving radical-right that not only sustains political and economic ideas, but also forms a cultural space held together by shared “cultural imaginaries”.

This blog entry is part two of a mini-series that looks at how novels and other pieces of fiction help to envision ideal radical-right subjectivities (i.e. what forms personal feelings, tastes, or opinions) through the cultural imaginaries they produce. In part one, senior CARR fellow Bernhard Forchtner has analysed two novels from the Anglosphere to show how they link hopeful and heroic narratives of a white racial triumph to anti-Semitism and traditional gender roles. In this second part, I will look at France and Germany and the ways established and well-respected writers who are popular in the radical-right speak to fears of a white cultural decline among educated bourgeois audiences.

In Germany and France, the so called ‘New Right’ has been trying to reach a broader intellectual audience since the 1970s. Essential to this attempt has been the shift from a crude biological racism to a cultural racism and the claim to be defending a white European civilisation of Judeo-Christian values against a Muslim barbarianism. As part of this shift several alternative media, think-tanks, publishing houses and bookshops have emerged in both countries. In France, publications such as Elements and Krisis, think-tanks such as the Institut Iliade and bookshops like the Nouvelle Librairie in Paris cater to educated bourgeois audiences. In Germany, these networks have formed more recently around cultural think-tanks, such as the Bibliothek des Konservatismus and the Institut für Staatspolitik, publications, such as Sezession and Cato, as well as bookshops such as the Buchhaus Loschwitz in Dresden.

I will here focus on two different, but related novels popular among these educated bourgeois radical-right milieus in France and Germany: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (Submission) and Monika Maron’s Munin oder Chaos im Kopf (Munin or Chaos in the Head, hereafter Munin). The comparison shows that both novels contribute to the imagination of similar factual but different normative radical-right subjectivities (i.e. imagined possible futures).

Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission

Houellebecq’s bestselling novels mix autobiographical elements, contemporary social developments and political issues in a way that speaks to radical-right fears of Islam, Western decadence, the decline of Christianity and the Occident. Through its embeddedness in the present and its publication shortly before the Charlie Hebdo Islamist terrorist attacks in 2015, Houellebecq’s novel Soumission has achieved the status of a prophecy among the radical-right. The affinities between Houellebecq, the protagonists in his novels and his educated bourgeois readership have helped to create a shared identity and imagined subjectivity.

Published in 2015 Soumission is set in the context of the French presidential elections in 2022. To prevent the radical-right Front National (now Rassemblement National) from winning it, a majority votes for a Muslim party and helps a Muslim to become French President. At the centre of the novel is less a critique of Islam but rather the decadence, nihilism and identity crisis of French conservatism, liberalism and secularism that opens the doors to an assertive and self-confident Islam. The book is full of references to violent clashes between Islam and Christianity in the past and a contemporary culture of decadence.

The novel’s protagonist Francois is a known literary scholar and expert of the 19th century writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Huysmans is a real historical figure who is known for his decadent ‘fin de siècle’ literature. Francois retreats to the French village of Martel to hide from the turmoil surrounding the elections. According to the legend, the village was once the place where the leader of the Muslim troops were defeated in the 8th century Battle of Poitiers (732 AD) and was killed by French soldiers. The battle is central to the cultural imaginary of the radical-right Identitarians, who see it as an example for a century old clash of cultures between Christianity and Islam. Yet, while he seeks refuge and orientation in the village Francois does not resist the submission but, because of his own sexism and opportunism, finds his place in an Islamising society.

The novel, then, expertly blurs dystopian fiction and reality by referring to real political and cultural figures and events in the past and present. The protagonist is part of a morally relativist, educated bourgeoisie that does not have the strength to stand up and resist France’s and Europe’s submission to Islam. This resonates with the radical-right’s narrative of an apolitical educated bourgeoisie and intellectual class (or ‘cultural Marxists’) who have retreated to its ivory tower instead of standing up to defend European civilisation.

Monika Maron’s Munin oder Chaos im Kopf

In Germany, it is Monika Maron who, alongside Uwe Tellkamp, has emerged as a central figure in the radical-right’s intellectual scene that has become more assertive since the radical-right AfD’s election into German Bundestag. Maron is a well-known writer who grew up in the socialist GDR and fled to West Germany in the 1980s. Her books explore questions of German identity and memory in relation to the pollution of the environment, Germany’s Nazi past as well as non-conformist life in the socialism of the German East. In articles for conservative and radical-right media, she recently declared her political move from the Greens to the AfD, speculated on Angela Merkel’s use of drugs (Maron 2015) and warned of a “spiritual suicide” in the intellectual struggle against Islam.

Maron’s most recent novel Munin or Chaos in the Head (hereafter Munin) was published in 2018. Since its publication, Maron’s work has appeared with the radical-right Antaios publishing house. On its cover, the book is introduced as a work that “reveals the insanity of the World” and as a “parable on the decomposition of society”.

In the book, the journalist Mina Wolf struggles with three layers of reality that inform her political imagination. First, her personal life in an educated bourgeois Berlin neighbourhood that is disturbed by a “crazy” neighbour who assumes to be an opera singer, practices daily on the balcony next door but cannot sing. Secondly, the “cruelties of the Thirty Years’ War”, a religious war that devastated large parts of Europe in the 17th century and whose 400th anniversary was in 2018, the year of the publication of the Munin. Wolf, the main protagonist, is working on an article on the war. And lastly, the chaos of the contemporary world that she sees in the refugee crisis, global capitalism, terrorism, gender mainstreaming and Islam.

While the first layer is Wolf’s immediate surroundings in the present, the second introduces a distant past. The third takes the shape of a harbinger of a dystopian future. Together, they create a threatening environment that leaves the protagonist feeling powerless and incapable to act in the face of an upcoming catastrophe.

In the book, Wolf says that reading Soumission has made her realise that “everything is possible” and that a Europe that is lacking the belief in itself can descend into an “African tribal- and religious” war similar to the Thirty Years’ War. Here, we can see parallels to radical-right dystopian imaginaries of a civil war that are also present in Saunders’ novel From the Land All the Good Things Come that was discussed in part I. In Munin, the educated bourgeoisie and Germany’s intellectual culture are depicted as decadent, careless and naïve, having lost their vision for existential threats to European culture. At first, Wolff and her educated bourgeois milieu belittle “ordinary” working-class people and populist movements that resemble Dresden’s PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) and who stand up against immigration, Islam and detached elites in politics, culture and media to “save” European culture. Only when her neighbourhood sees several rapes and the violence committed by refugees does Wolff and the educated bourgeois around her wake up and join the ordinary folk in a nationalist revolution.

Discussion: Parallels and Differences between Soumission & Munin

The cultural imaginaries that Houellebecq and Maron develop in their novels speak to educated bourgeois and intellectual fears of cultural decline that reach beyond the radical-right. Both novels blur the lines between reality and fiction and draw on traumatic and violent events in the past and present. Both resonate with anxieties over a precarious white European civilisation that is threatened by the “barbarism” of Islam, non-white immigration and an emerging leftist totalitarianism. In both novels, the protagonists represent perceived factual intellectual subjectivities who, as members of a disoriented and relativist educated bourgeoisie, are responsible for Europe’s cultural decline.

Yet, they imagine different normative subjectivities (or imagined possible futures). Houellebecq’s protagonists symbolises the tragic ideal of an intellectual who comes to terms with dystopia instead of fighting it. Maron, on the other hand, conceives a protagonist whose resistance is woken up by the heroic protest of the ordinary people on the street. Her novel, thus, speaks to an ‘anxious hope’ for an alternative radical-right future in which the educated bourgeoisie and intellectuals embrace populist movements for a cultural and white nationalist revival.

While the novel’s discussed in part 1 don’t hide their racism, Munin and Soumission resonate with an educated bourgeois’ cultural racism. Their cultural imaginary, factual and normative subjectivity are directed at an intellectual audience that identifies with Wolf and Francois. Yet, while different in their form, all novels resonate with anxieties over a white-Christian supremacy that is seen as precarious and under attack by Islam, globalisation and weak European elites. Whilst only perceived and imaginary, such pieces of fiction give us an insight into the mindset of the radical-right and the shared cultures of these movements.

Mr Julian Gopffarth is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate at the European Institute, London School of Economics. See his profile here.

© Julian Gopffarth.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).