Few other ideas have so fascinated the imaginations of those on the right than the idea of a re-Christianization of Europe. Faced with the dual threats of mass Muslim immigration to the continent and the demographic crater caused by decadent secularism, it would seem to be the only way Western Civilization can save itself. Much of Benedict XVI’s papacy was predicated on this concept–the best illustration of this impulse was his establishment of the “Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization” to coordinate efforts and increase dialogues concerning how Western society should be re-evangelized.
However, these earnest and pious discussions where ultimately answers to the wrong question. The real issue was never whether or not Europe should be re-evangelized but, rather, whether or not it can be.
No other recent literary work, fiction or nonfiction, has attempted to answer this question with more honesty than Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. The book received much fanfare due to its scandalizing near-future premise: a peaceful Muslim takeover of a spiritually exhausted France.
Most of the novel’s publicity has come from the negative reviews of unsophisticated progressives, who decried its allegedly “Islamophobic scaremongering.” This charge can not cease to bemuse anyone who has read the book, as not only is Islam presented in a relatively positive light, but it isn’t even the main subject of the narrative. The novel’s real subject of scorn isn’t Islam, or even the played out secularist hedonism Houellebecq caricatures so well. The real subject of scorn is Europe’s lost faith: the Catholic Church itself.
The main plotline of Submission is a kind of classic spiritual journey set against political upheaval. The protagonist François is a moderately successful academic who specializes in the 19th-century decadent author Joris-Karl Huysmans. His life is one of similar decadence; François’s middle age orbits mostly around smoking, seducing his students, and selecting an appropriately appealing microwave dinner when he returns home to his empty studio apartment. Like Huysman himself, who in middle age left his libertine existence to convert to Catholicism, François seems more than ready to embrace a more transcendent solution. Houellebecq’s original intent for the novel had been as a Christian conversion tale, as he told the Paris Review:
But my project was very different at the beginning. It wasn’t meant to be called Soumission—the first title was La Conversion. And in my original project, the narrator converted, too, but to Catholicism. Which is to say, he followed in Huysmans’s footsteps a century later, leaving naturalism to become Catholic. And I wasn’t able to do it.
This failed Catholic conversion stands at the center point of the novel and is the event through which all the preceding and following events can properly be understood. François leaves the chaos and political upheaval of Paris for the tranquility of the French countryside and finds himself drawn to Rocamadour and especially its legendary and ancient shrine to the Virgin Mary. François stands before the Black Madonna and is struck by its mysterious beauty:
It was a strange statue. It bore witness to a vanished universe. The Virgin sat rigidly erect; her head, with its closed eyes, so distant that it seemed extraterrestrial, was crowned by a diadem. The baby Jesus–who looked nothing like a baby, more like an adult or even an old man–sat on her lap, equally erect; his eyes were closed, too, his face sharp, wise, and powerful, and he wore a crown of his own. There was no tenderness, no maternal abandon in their postures. This was not the baby Jesus; this was already the king of the world. His serenity and the impression he gave of spiritual power–of intangible energy–were almost terrifying.
This vanished universe François bears witness to is none other than the lost world of Medieval Christendom and its muscular, unapologetic faith, a faith so incredibly different than the Catholicism of the contemporary West. As François noted:
This superhuman image was a world away from the tortured, suffering Christ of Matthias Grunewald, which had made such a deep impression on Huysmans. For Huysmans the Middle Ages mean the Gothic period, really the late Gothic: emotionally expressive, realistic, moralizing, it was already closer to the Renaissance than to the Romanesque. I remembered a conversation I’d had, years before, with a history professor at the Sorbonne. In the early Middle Ages, he’d explained, the question of individual judgment barely came up. Only much later, with Hieronymus Bosch, for example, do we see those terrifying images in which Christ separates the cohort of the chosen from the legion of the damned.
Although temporarily enraptured and hypnotized by the gaze of the Black Madonna, François is ultimately unable to follow her beckoning call. Not for lack of allure, but due to the fact that the Madonna in whose presence he knelt no longer existed in the soul of the Church that had been built around her. The distinction between the awful spiritual power of the Black Madonna and the Catholics who venerated her could not have been starker.
Throughout the novel, François continually notes the distinctive, milquetoast form of “Humanitarian” Catholicism he found practiced by the contemporary members of the Church. This stood out to François, especially in regards to the nativist movement led by Marine Le Pen, which remained the only barrier left to the full Islamization of the country. While Le Pen herself was Catholic, François noted, her voters were distinctly secular, since France’s Catholics “care too much about welfare and the Third World” to ever bring themselves to support her candidacy. François again sees this brand of Catholicism at the shrine of the Black Madonna herself:
I sat in the next-to-last row; attendance was sparse. Most of the audience was made up of young people in jeans and polo shirts, all with those open, friendly faces that for whatever reason you see on young Catholics… The alexandrines rang out rhythmically in the stillness, and I wondered what the patriotic, violent-souled Peguy could mean to these young Catholic humanitarians…did they love their homeland? Were they ready to give up everything for their country? I felt ready to give up everything, not really for my country, but in general.
Ultimately, it is this disconnect that thwarts François’s conversion to Catholicism. Between the Ancient Christian faith he sees within the terrifying majesty of the Black Madonna’s gaze and the banal, pseudo-Arian humanitarianism preached from the pulpits of the contemporary Church. It was hard not to conclude that the Christianity of the Black Madonna was as inaccessible as the very 11th century that had built her. Some event, both catastrophic and violent, had happened between then and now, forever severing François and by extension France itself, from the strength and virility of the faith the Black Madonna represented. She now stood silent, as a simultaneously both a witness to a forgotten past and a judge upon a present that could only be unrecognizable to her. François ends his journey with a bitter realization: “That old queer Nietzsche had it right; Christianity was, at the end of the day, a feminine religion.”
Does such insight not drive so much of the despair of the Right? After all, how does one revive a “Christendom” without a Christianity?
The popular intellectual parlor game of “where the West went wrong” has been played over and over again. Theories abound, with everyone from Martin Luther to Saint Augustine being forwarded as a prime suspect in the “decline of the West” and the rise of the Enlightenment. Catholic traditionalists like to point to William of Ockham and nominalism as the moment of Modernity’s birth and the beginning of the end of Western Christendom. The Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, tend to locate the crisis as having originated perhaps in the work of Aquinas, with his importation of Aristotelian rationalism into Christian theology, thus giving rise to a to a fastidious and suffocating Scholastic rationalism.
Oswald Spengler, the melancholy German chronicler of Western decline, was more well read than Nietzsche and had the advantage of possessing a far deeper knowledge of Christianity than his more famous predecessor. This enabled him to forward a diagnosis that, if not ultimately more precise, was at least more quixotic and interesting. Spengler was able to distinguish between the organic “Magian” Christianity of the first millennium and the acutely “Faustian” variety to which Nietzsche had been subjected to in his native Germany. As he states in The Decline of the West:
The Moral Imperative is Faustian and only Faustian. It is quite wrong to associate Christianity with the moral imperative. It was not Christianity that transformed Faustian man, but Faustian man who transformed Christianity.–and he not only made it a new religion but also gave it a new moral direction. The “it” became “I” the passion-charged centre of the world, the foundation of the great Sacrament of personal contrition. Will-to-power even in ethics, the passionate striving to set up a proper morale as a universal truth, and to enforce it upon humanity, to reinterpret or overcome or destroy everything otherwise constituted.
As Spengler states, this particular interpretation of Christianity remains a Faustian phenomenon which would have been completely foreign to the eyes and ears of the men who carved Rocamadour’s Black Madonna.
It is the religion of our “enlightened” humanitarians and social workers, of Immanuel Kant and G.W.F Hegel, the religion of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, as well as of the Argentine Jesuit, who currently sits on the throne of Saint Peter. It is the desire for the establishment of a neutral morality deducible by reason alone–a neutral morality that can transcend culture, biology, religion and even the very Christian gospel that spawned it.
The Grace dispensed by the Black Madonna’s gaze transformed nature, but the grace preached by acolytes of the Faustian God can only destroy that which it seeks to save. Every facet of the natural order of the world will be sacrificed to the Faustian god of “Reason” and “Progress” in hopes of achieving Hegel’s violent Gnostic fantasy of the “Absolute Spirit”. As Albert Camus observed in his brilliant meditation “Helen’s Exile”:
Our Europe, on the other hand, off in pursuit of totality, is the child of disproportion. She negates beauty, as she negates whatever she does not glorify. And, through all her diverse ways, she glorifies but one thing, which is the future rule of reason…Our Reason has driven all away. Alone at last, we end up by ruling over a desert. What imagination could we have left for that higher equilibrium in which nature balanced history, beauty, virtue and which applied the music of numbers even to blood-tragedy? We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty. Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them, and the blood that trickles from them is the color of printer’s ink.
It is this Faustian Christianity, with its perverse idolatry of universal “reason,” which gave birth to the “Hollow Men” of T.S. Eliot’s eponymous poem and the “Last Men” against whom Nietzsche so justifiably railed. The Christianity to which Houellebecq could simply not bring himself to submit his protagonist.
Faustian Christianity led its current representative, Pope Francis, to condemn the Islamic attack that ended in the martyrdom of one of his own priests merely as another example of “absurd violence.” He continued and stated that it wasn’t fair to “equate Islam with violence,” that it was ultimately a religion which “sought peace” and equated the recent orgy of Islamic terror attacks to Catholics who kill their girlfriends.
When faced with such displays of moral cowardice, of such transparent dishonesty, is it any wonder that François (serving as a stand-in for France and all of Western Europe) could not bring himself to convert? To join a religion that no longer even believed in the tenets of its own faith? Is one not forced to agree with Nietzsche? To recognize this Faustian Christianity as merely the milquetoast creed of Hollow Men, nothing more than an empty form of Trotskyism with a Catholic face?
The West and its people are in crisis and as Heidegger so perceptively observed: “Only a God can save us.” But if a new salvation is to appear it will not be at the hands of the god of Faustian Christianity and his Grand Inquisitors–a god who demands his followers perform a Consolamentum of self-immolation to atone for their sin of merely existing, who is worshiped by a camp of saints dedicated solely to engendering the sanctimonious collective suicide of their own societies, in the mad hope that it will cleanse them of their original sin: the sin of being born European.
It is in the face of this pitiless religion of ressentiment that the West, if it is to save itself, must relearn the value of Blasphemy, of the feel of whips and cords in its hands as it begins the defenestration and eventual restoration of the Church which has been desecrated for so long.
Only then will her enemies relearn that most primal of all sensations, which is the beginning of all wisdom: fear.
This fight for restoration, is a defense of beauty itself, as Camus noted: “All those who are struggling for freedom today are ultimately fighting for beauty.” Only once the Black Madonna’s gaze is freed from her Modernist tomb, guarded with vigilance by earnest “humanitarians” like Francis and his band of resentful eunuchs, will Europe finally, perhaps, be able to return to her. And on that day, if it ever comes, perhaps François will pray, and mouth something like Peguy’s own words of repentance: