[This article is a version of the eleventh Thomas Taylor Lecture, delivered at the Prometheus Trust’s Annual Conference in June 2016. Although it overlaps some of the previous articles in this series, I hope that it contains enough new material, and a sufficiently original narrative, to be of interest.]
Before commencing an analysis of this kind, it is useful to draw attention to certain technical elaborations of the term utopia, which was initially coined by Thomas More to mean “no place.” Because of the way in which was generalized it was often construed as if it were spelled with an initial “e,” signifying “a better place,” and that is the narrower fashion in which it is employed in this paper, together with two significant modifications, one being “euchronian,” referring to better times, or futuristic hypothetical societies, and the other being “dystopian,” referring to worse places or times.
The French Revolution of 1789 was guided by the slogan: “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” those being the ideals toward which the revolutionaries believed that progress toward a better society ought to be directed, already enshrined in such pre-revolutionary euchronian fantasies as Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771; tr. as Memoirs of the Year 2500), one of the great best-sellers of the period in spite of its circulation being illicit because it did not have the stamp of royal authority then necessary for legal publication in France.
Indeed, before going on to talk about images of liberty in French utopian fiction after the revolution, it is worth bearing in mind the restrictions routinely placed on the authors and publishers of such fiction. Although the revolution abolished the royal warrant, it did not get rid of political censorship, and many works relevant to this issue were written by authors at risk of exile or imprisonment. Nor is political censorship the only kind to which literary works are routinely subjected, subjects deemed unmentionable routinely being suppressed by publishers or authors even without the threat of formal prosecution for obscenity.
The term pornographe was coined in the pre-Revolutionary period by Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne as the title of a utopian tract proposing the legalization and rational social reform of prostitution. Restif was upset when the word, which he intended as merely descriptive of writing about sexual matters, took on pejorative connotations, but it was probably inevitable. Political and religious censorship diminished by degrees in the nineteenth century, but the formal and informal censorship of material deemed pornographic remained powerful for considerably longer, creating a particular difficulty for writers eager to consider the element of potential eutopian reform concerned with liberty in sexual relations. Indeed, if this paper were not concerned with French utopian fiction, it would not be possible to talk about literary approaches to that aspect of liberty at all because it was an issue that utopian fiction in the English language during the period with which I am concerned—extending from the 1790s to the 1920s—was simply not permitted to address.
In spite of its slogan, the 1789 Revolution did not change the situation of eutopian writers overnight. The longest of the numerous eutopian tracts produced during the Revolution was Ma république [My Republic] (1791), signed Plato, which was subsequently reprinted as Eponine, by-lined “the author of The Philosophy of Nature.” The author of La Philosophie de la Nature (1770), Jean-Baptiste Delisle de Sales, had run into trouble with that book because his evolutionist ideas suggesting that human beings were related to orangutans had resulted in aggressive condemnation by the Church and imprisonment. Unfortunately, Ma République/Eponine fared no better; the members of the Convention did not like the advice it offered at all, and Sales was imprisoned again, but he escaped the Terror and was released in 1795 by the Directoire.
By then, of course, the Revolution was largely considered to have been a dismal failure, both by those who thought it had gone too far and those who thought that it had not gone far enough, and that sharp polarization of ideas continued throughout the next hundred years as reactionaries tried to turn the political clock back to various degrees, and radicals strove to advance it further, while pragmatists desperate to find some kind of working compromise tried in vain to achieve what came to be called, often sarcastically, a juste milieu. It was in that context that the works I want to examine were written, building on the ideas of three writers who set the basic agenda for such work.
The first of the three was the Comte de Saint-Simon, whose proposals concerning the reorganization of the “working class” and the suppression of the “idling class” became the foundation of what became known as “utopian socialism,” although his ideas regarding the virtues of minimalist government also made a significant contribution to the development of anarchist thought. Saint-Simon’s ideas had a particularly powerful influence on his secretary, Auguste Comte, who became the most important French philosopher of science of the era. It was to counter what he saw as the malaise provoked by the 1789 Revolution and its aftermath that Comte developed his “positive philosophy” and a prospectus for a godless Religion of Humanity whose central dictum—of which utopian deists as Restif de la Bretonne would also have approved wholeheartedly—of vivre pour autrui [live for others] is the source of the word altruism.
The second important utopian philosopher of the period, who had an enormous influence on subsequent utopian fiction, was Charles Fourier. Initially ambitious to be an engineer but thwarted by the prejudices of rank inherent in the pre-Revolutionary regime, he became a travelling salesman instead, deeply disillusioned by the “knavery” of merchants and the deceits that his occupation forced upon him. He was inspired by the writings of Saint-Simon to extrapolate his schemes although Fourier, unlike Comte, was religious, conceiving his reformist schemes as a literal process of redemption.
Deeply ambivalent regarding the Industrial Revolution that was transforming agriculture and manufacturing, focused on the central motif of the steam engine, Fourier thought that technological progress had taken a wrong turn and that mechanized industrialism was producing horrible results. His plans required the development of a “natural industry” that would employ technology responsibly in support of liberty rather than economic oppression, encouraging fraternal sentiments rather than the rampant egotism fostered by the existing system of ownership.
The key unit of Fourier’s model of social collectivization was the phalanstery: a community working together on the exploitation of an area of land by means of agriculture and animal husbandry with the employment of specialist artisans in various métiers and manufacturing projects. In the first phase of development, the income of the phalanstery would be fixed in accordance with the amount and quality of the contributions of labor made by each individual, but in the fullness of time, Fourier believed that the social harmony induced by that way of life would result in a complete communism of property, including the “sexual property” of marriage, whose disappearance he considered essential to equality and general happiness.
The third influential utopian theorist of the period was Étienne Cabet, who retained the fundamental notion of the collectivization of labor, envisaged not in terms of intricately organized phalansteries but loosely aggregated workers’ cooperatives. He became the popularizer of the term “communism.” Cabet was briefly given a government post after the “July Revolution” of 1830 but was swiftly dismissed because he proved far too radical for the so-called Doctrinaires, although, as a devout Christian, he was considered insufficiently radical by many subsequent communists; he was an enthusiastic proponent of the notion that Christ was the first communist.
Cabet’s 1839 utopian romance, Voyage en Icarie (tr. as Travels in Icaria), depicts a meticulously ordered civilization in which all labor is collectivized, including domestic labor, meals being prepared and eaten communally. As in Fourier’s prospectus, extensive use of technology is made in the spirit of liberating workers from many of the toilsome aspects of labor. Disillusioned by the lack of political progress made in France during the reign of Louis-Philippe, Cabet left France before the Revolution of 1848. Under the influence of the English utopian Robert Owen, he set sail for America in order to found an Icarian community. The first attempt failed dismally, and his administration of his second colony became so dictatorial that he was expelled from it in 1855, thus posting a significant cautionary warning to future founders of would-be utopian communities and supplying satirical fuel to mocking commentators.
Cabet’s version of communism, like Fourier’s system of phalansteries, imagined a democratic but nevertheless elaborate system of economic organization and political control. Saint-Simon’s ideas regarding minimalist government were, however, carried forward by others who thought that any form of authority was undesirable. That kind of thinking acquired an important stimulus when France was subjected to its next major upheaval, the Revolution of 1848, which abolished the constitutional monarchy ushered in by the July Revolution of 1830 and proclaimed the Second Republic. This collapsed ignominiously in 1851 when its duly elected president, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, followed in the footsteps of his uncle, first by proclaiming his presidency permanent and then appointing himself Emperor, instituting an extremely rigorous political censorship.
Joseph Déjacque, a poet who had imprisoned for socialist agitation before the 1851 coup d’état, seems to have escaped from prison during the resultant turmoil and fled the country. It was in the U.S.A. that Déjacque founded a periodical, Le Libertaire, which, between 1858 and 1861, serialized a series of texts reprinted in abridged form as L’Humanisphère, utopie anarchique [The Humanisphere: An Anarchist Utopia], concluding with a vision of the future in which the author sees his egalitarian dreams fulfilled.
Déjacque’s anarchist euchronia is organized around huge edifices much larger than phalansteries, whose construction and maintenance is feasible only because of dramatic improvements in technology, abundant power supplied in the form of electricity to elaborate agricultural and industrial machinery, and sophisticated means of transport, including aerial transport. His image of the future is a highly mechanized and automated world, which inevitably places Science at the heart of its educational system and its Comtean reverence. In Déjacque’s vision, anarchism and advanced technology are intimately interlinked, and his thesis is the ultimate extrapolation of the eighteenth-century philosophy that saw technological and social progress as different aspects of the same process.
Déjacque is adamant that all so-called vices are the by-product of authority, and he is convinced, like Fourier, that the abolition of “sexual property” would necessarily lead to the disappearance of such forms of sexual exploitation as prostitution and rape, although he believes that in the absence of any compulsive restriction, most relationships between the sexes would settle of their own accord into a comfortable serial monogamy, in which he still believes as a kind of ideal.
Déjacque’s vision of the Humanisphere contrasts strongly with Fernand Giraudeau’s dystopian vision of La Cité nouvelle (1868; tr. as “The New City”), a novel written by Napoléon III’s most ardent fan. The narrator, translocated a hundred thirty years into the future, finds Paris full of vast, ugly, dirty buildings, which he is assured are utilitarian; the same principle determines that people now have numbers rather than names. The streets are dangerous, horse-drawn vehicles having been replaced by rapid, mechanized vehicles aptly named “smashalls.” There appears to be no regulation of individual conduct because the sacred principle of liberté allegedly cannot be infringed—except for women, who are not allowed to work, and employers, who are not allowed to dismiss their workers and must pay them exorbitant wages—although the so-called workers, being free, do not actually do any work; the high-powered machinery that still ensures production, at least for the time being, is manned by children.
Catholicism has been ruthlessly suppressed and has virtually disappeared while science and the arts are also in steep decline—the advanced technologies in use are left over from an intermediate period of history—but public meeting places that combine the functions of restaurants, theaters and brothels are thriving. The abolition of marriage has led to the universality of prostitution, that being the only economic resource now open to women.
In effect, Giraudeau’s argument is that the whole idea of “liberty” in its radical manifestations is a sham, a cover for the most brutal repression, and that, paradoxical as it might seem, the only means of granting the maximum of pragmatically feasible liberty to individuals is to protect it by means of the rigid authoritarian control of absolute monarchy, while a powerful institution of marriage protects privileges of women and children that would otherwise be trampled.
One of the most striking utopias of the period, Paris en l’an 2000 (1869; tr. as Paris in the Year 2000), bylined Docteur Tony Moilin, describes the reorganization of labor and society by the establishment of a State monopoly on all commerce—but not manufacture—and a determined minimum and maximum level of earnings, all income over the legal maximum being taxed at 100%. The egalitarian systems of education and democratic republican government follow a line fairly typical for the socialists of the era, but what made the work unique was the first chapter, “The Transformation of Paris,” which depicts the transformation of the outer first-floor rooms of all the buildings of the city into a continuous network of covered corridors—effectively a system of pedestrian streets one level above the network of vehicular streets, itself greatly refined, much of the mechanized transport and distribution system consisting of subterranean railways.
The architectural practicality of the envisaged transformation is dubious—although new building technologies are invoked to compensate for the sacrifice of load-bearing walls as the work of transformation progresses—but its scope and daring is an obvious product of the era in which Baron Haussmann was busy completely remodeling the city along supposedly utopian lines. The author was rapidly imprisoned on trumped-up charges of conspiracy, and although he was released from prison in order to employ his medical expertise during the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870, he was summarily shot by the troops of the so-called Third Republic when they recaptured the city from the Commune established in early 1871, as “a socialist of the most dangerous kind.”
The brutal suppression of the Commune, followed by the execution of its leaders and the mass deportation of a large number of its participants to the prison colony of New Caledonia, further radicalized the opposition to the new government, although, for the remainder of the century, the radicals marching behind the black flag of anarchism expended almost as much effort disputing with those marching behind the red flag of socialism as they did with the Republic. Futuristic political speculation in France after 1871 was, however, dominated by the idea of anarchism either as the ultimate ideal at which to aim or as the ultimate bugbear to be avoided at all costs. In spite of the commitment to pacifism expressed in Déjacque’s vision of the “Humanisphere,” the creed was swiftly mythologized by its association with bombs, represented by its own extremists as “propaganda by action,” on the grounds that it would be impossible to establish a new society without first destroying the existing one.
The developing tension between eutopian and dystopian images of hypothetical societies and the uses of advanced technologies envisaged therein was subjected to an interesting literary analysis by a former Communard, Paschal Grousset. Grousset had published two political tracts in 1869, but his new manuscript reflected his ambition to cultivate a career as a writer of popular fiction—a path followed by several anarchists who found it difficult to obtain orthodox employment because of their politics, including Jules Lermina and Michel Zevaco.
The publisher to whom Grousset submitted his novel, who was also Jules Verne’s publisher, asked Verne to rewrite it, and he subsequently published it under Verne’s name, although it is not the kind of novel that he had previously encouraged Verne to write. By way of compensation, he did go on to publish other books by Grousset under the pseudonym of André Laurie, but the author never published anything else as interesting as Les Cinq cent millions de la Bégum (1879; tr. as The Begum’s Millions) and the novels he wrote as André Laurie carefully avoided political issues, as Zevaco and Lermina found it politic to do, wearing voluntary gags while writing fiction.
The published version of the story describes what happens when two men each inherit a half-share in a vast fortune accumulated by a French adventurer in India. The French physician, Sarrasin, elects to build the new city of Franceville to his own eutopian model, while the German scientist Schultze incarnates his own ideals of technological progress in the industrialized city of Stahlstadt. The plot takes up the story five years later when Schultze is in the process of building a huge cannon with the intention of obliterating Franceville. The story is, to some extent, an allegory of the Franco-Prussian conflict, but it is also a graphic study of the manner in which technology can be used for either life-enhancing or life-despoiling purposes, depending on the economic and political motivations of its users. The textual description of life in Stahlstadt pays particular attention to the extreme regulation of time and effort within the vast factory complex and its associated mines and also to the dire effects of industrial pollution—two issues that were to become increasingly important in dystopian imagery related to the oppressive aspects of advanced mechanical technology.
In Stahlstadt, advanced technology enables its owners to enjoy the leisure denied to the workers and its pollution is only held at bay for their benefit; the center of the city is a privileged enclave centered on a beautiful tropical park. Perhaps the most obvious impact of late-nineteenth-century reality on literary imagery of this sort, in fact, was the notion of increasing social division: that the poor would be condemned to live in squalor while the rich and privileged would build exclusive eutopian microcosms for themselves, the eutopia of the few being built at the expense of the dystopia of the many.
Meanwhile, the idea that the potential iniquities of Stahlstadt could be avoided by the Fourieresque employment of technology deployed in Franceville as in the phalanstery and the Humanisphere increasingly came under suspicion as writers of futuristic fiction increasingly began to wonder whether such a separation was achievable, even in the presence of good intentions. In La Vie électrique (1892; tr. as Electric Life) by Albert Robida, a sequel to his classic humorous account of Le Vingtième siècle (1883; tr. as The Twentieth Century), the author extrapolated the technological imagery of the earlier novel considerably in a much darker vein.
The story opens in 1953 when a violent electrical “tornado” causes massive disruption to communication and transport throughout Western Europe. The authorities responsible for weather control react immediately, ordering emergency measures to ameliorate the disaster, thus providing a key exemplar for the author’s account of the domestication of the “Great Slave” of Electricity and its multiple applications, which include the enormous communication system facilitated by the telephonoscope, or Tele, whose applications have increased the pace and intensity of everyday life enormously.
The typical man of 1953 is characterized as a
sad and fragile human animal, whom the truly electric excess of our breathless and feverish existence wears away so rapidly when he does not have the will-power or the opportunity periodically to rest his mind ... far away from centers of business, factories, offices, shops; far away from politics, and, above all, from those tyrannical social agents that make life so harsh and enervating, the Teles—all those phones, those pitiless engines, pistons, and motors of absorbent electric life in the midst of which we live, run, fly, and pant, carried away in a formidable and fulgurant whirlwind!
That became the central theme of Robida’s updated image of the future. The technology that has made life so much “freer” has also accelerated its pace dramatically; in its freneticism, it has become vulnerable to catastrophic stumbles, but even when nothing goes wrong, its general effects are gradually deleterious; the everyday effects of the pace and pressure of “electric life” are even harder to oppose or repair than its occasional disastrous disruptions.
There are aspects of La Vie électrique that now look like errors, including the fact that virtually all traffic in Robida’s twentieth century is air traffic, mostly consisting of dirigible airships. That assumption leads to corollary architectural fancies with regard to the construction of the houses of the future and technologies of traffic control. That nexus of anticipations, however, has a basic intelligence that was ahead of its time. If the specific focus on airships is set aside, what is suggested is that in the twentieth century, large numbers of people would have their own private vehicles and that buildings and the environment in general would have to undergo sweeping changes in order to accommodate those vehicles. Seen from one viewpoint, the fact that everyone has his own private means of transport is a dramatic expansion of personal freedom, but the collective result of that freedom is a radical transformation of the environment, whose dystopian aspects, including massive environmental pollution, were to be dramatically exaggerated in subsequent novels by Robida, culminating in Un Chalet dans les airs (1925; tr. as Chalet in the Sky). In Robida’s vision, unlike Grousset’s, the eutopia of the few is not bought at the cost of the dystopia of the many, but eutopian liberties granted to everyone inevitably bring with them drastic dystopian side effects.
An equally deep-seated irony can be found in Paul Adam’s Lettres de Malaisie (1898; tr. as “Letters from Malaisie”), which attempts, among other things, to tackle frankly and robustly the question tentatively raised by Déjacque with regard to the abolition of sexual property and the establishment of a culture of total sexual freedom. The story starts from the premise that a disciple of Étienne Cabet disillusioned by the fate of Icarian colonies in the U.S.A., sets out to carry out a similar experiment in the Far East and that the experiment, after overcoming initial difficulties, has been spectacularly successful. Bearing in mind what actually happened to the communities that Cabet and others tried to establish, however, Adam describes a society that has been forced to become extremely authoritarian in order to maintain a theoretical philosophy of liberty, which includes the orgiastic application of complete amorous license.
Joseph Déjacque would have disagreed strongly with Paul Adam’s account of the likely consequences of amorous anarchy, but he would have found much that was familiar to him in the advanced electrification and mechanization of the cities of the new society, although the complete community of property and the corollary absence of money are strongly reinforced by law rather than merely voluntary. Tobacco and alcohol—both freely available in the Humanisphere—are banned in Malaisie, and backed by powerful sanctions, any possession thereof being considered as attempted murder.
Unlike Déjacque’s standardized humanispheres, the cities of Adam’s new society are carefully specialized. The protagonist’s journey in the company of two female guides who quickly introduce him to the joys and (for him) the sentimental stresses of free love begins in Minerve, which is the center of education and bureaucracy and where he attends the first of the various institutionalized orgies in which citizens are encouraged to discharge their erotic energies with the aid of all manner of aphrodisiac assistance. In Jupiter, he is handed a document outlining the rigorous egalitarian reforms that the utopians intend to impose on the nations of Europe as soon as its airfleets have bombed them into surrender.
Mars lodges the army and the abattoirs on the grounds that all slaughter ought to be aggregated in the same hands, and it is also the society’s penal colony, conscription into the army being the only penalty for any and all crimes in order that antisocial tendencies can be productively channeled. The orgies occurring there horrify and sicken him more than the ones he has so far seen, seeming to him to be direly perverted—but not as perverted or as nauseating as the one he witnesses in Mercure, the city of science, where a remarkable initial rhapsody on the wonders of science and the glory of the intellect is brutally juxtaposed with an account of a discovery that has been made of a means of channeling erotically generated “psychic force” for technological employment.
In Adam’s opinion, unlike Déjaque’s, the complete liberation of innate sexual urges would inevitably lead to manifestations far less prepossessing than the Humanisphere’s discreet and seemingly painless serial monogamy; the story really does provide a significant series of dispatches from the psychological realm of Unease, conscientiously nightmarish in its amalgamation of eutopian ideals with their alleged dark underside.
Befitting the advent of a new century, euchronian fiction obtained a significant updating in its imagery and philosophy with the publication of Caresco surhomme, ou le voyage en Eucrasie (1904; tr. as Caresco, Superman; or, A Voyage to Eucrasia) by the physician André Couvreur. The novel is fulsomely dedicated to Paul Adam and takes up several of the themes broached in Lettres de Malaisie, especially the depiction of a fully eroticized eutopia.
The eponymous antihero is a surgeon who has become fabulously rich and has bought an island newly thrust out of the sea by volcanic eruption. There he constructs the closed and heavily defended utopian society of Eucrasia [good health]: a society in which everyone is beautiful, thanks to the assistance of his advanced surgical techniques, and easy sexual fulfillment is permanently available to everyone although only a select few males and a larger but still limited population of fertile females are allowed to breed, most of the population being contentedly sterilized.
Various sexual inclinations are abundantly supplied in Eucrasia, thanks to the provision of entire classes of highly trained and versatile female “courtesans” and male “gitons”—catamites—who supplement the wide-open marriages between sterile males and fertile females. Anyone in need of artificial assistance has access to sophisticated aphrodisiac technologies. Possible political resentments due to the stratification of the society are soothed by a carefully designed religion that offers compensation for present status deficiency with the promise of reincarnation: a religion of which Caresco is the prophet, and—in the eyes of the subjects to whom he has delivered perfect health and guaranteed happiness—the incarnation of god.
The novel describes the arrival in the eutopia of the romantically inclined but deeply disillusioned Marcel Girard and his mentor, the neo-Stoic philosopher Zéphirin Choumaque. They arrive in the company of a visitor, the political activist Mary Hardisson, who has come to implore the assistance of Caresco’s awesome military technology in order to save her African homeland from annexation by imperialist colonial powers. Inevitably, Marcel falls in love with Mary before the bizarre flying-machine ferrying them to the mysterious island even touches down, but she is completely immune to sexual arousal—a situation that becomes extremely dangerous for her and Marcel when Caresco also becomes obsessed with her. Caresco refines his aphrodisiac technologies even further in the quest to break down her resistance.
In the meantime, Choumaque provides a skeptical eye that tries hard to pass scathing judgment on the supposed falsity of the eutopia, although he is by no means immune to its seductions, especially when he discovers that his own long-lost first love, an ex–child prostitute, is now applying her hard-won expertise to training Eucrasia’s courtesans. Marcel, selected as a male breeder, is even more distracted, although his determination to escape with Mary, if her resistance can ever be broken down, is increased when Choumaque discovers that Caresco’s particular sexual fetish is surgical in nature. Caresco’s scientific endeavors include attempts to perfect transsexual surgery, to create human hermaphrodites, and to perfect “the human Monad”: the surgical reduction of human being to the minimum of flesh, coupled with a complementary enhancement of the power of the mind.
Given that Eucrasia is designed in the form of a human body, with Caresco’s secret lair situated in its loins, inside the cone of the volcano that gave birth to the island, few readers familiar with Symbolism would have been surprised by the nature of the climactic eruption that brings the entire thought experiment to a close. Not all of them, however, would have been convinced by the post-apocalyptic discussion in which Choumaque offers a conspicuously weak-kneed championship of his pseudo-Stoical doctrine and his principle of philosophical equilibrium, which insists that the satisfactions provided by a eutopia, even one as physically satisfying as Eucrasia, can only be temporary because “happiness” becomes meaningless once there is no unhappiness to sharpen it by comparison, and a desire fulfilled is bound to disappear. Even Choumaque is unconvinced, however, that he is really doing Marcel and Mary a favor by returning them to the awful pressures and frustrations of a mid-twentieth century society that is suffering all the symptoms of Robidaesque freneticism.
A more radical transformation of eroticism is imagined in L’Amour dans cinq mille ans (1908; tr. as Love in Five Thousand Years) by Fernand Kolney, which could be construed as a reply of sorts to Caresco surhomme, going to an opposite extreme in its imagination of a society from which the sexual urge has been banished by scientific contrivance, thus removing a fundamental source of tension and inequality. The novel is set in an enclave established in the wake of a global catastrophe in which the problems corollary to amorous desire have been sternly canceled out by a system of technological castration, enabling everyone to devote themselves to quests for purely intellectual satisfaction, resulting in the rapid and extensive scientific progress required to hold the aftereffects of the global upheaval at bay.
That premise has the inevitable corollary of posing problems for the reproduction of society, but the author institutionalizes an elaborate technology of what J.B.S. Haldane would later call “ectogenesis”: the creation and development of embryos in vitro, in artificial wombs subjected to much more sophisticated and delicate control than those provided by nature. The novel opens in the “Artificial Fertilization Laboratory” in question, with the hero, Sagax, hard at work pursuing his sacred task as a “Creator of Humans,” carefully providing the next generation of citizens with the prenatal potential necessary to produce not only appropriate numbers of males and females but also adequate quotas of mathematicians, physiologists, pedagogues, etc.
Although subdued, all the potentials of the sexual act still remain, and they soon begin to make a turbulent reappearance in the supposedly tranquilized society. The plot maps the unfolding of the apocalyptic breakdown of the hypothetical society as it is invaded by the force of erotic desire, returned to it by virtue of an irreparable breakdown of the technology of technical castration. Sagax watches as others are gradually overtaken by lust, and he observes himself with equal horror as libidinous urges invade and take possession of his own flesh until the general unleashing of fervor rips the society apart.
Because the idea of artificial fertilization as applied to human reproduction is now familiar to us, it is not easy to imagine how shocking it might have seemed in 1908. It had been treated in French literature prior to that date, very tentatively, notably in Le Faiseur d’hommes (1884) (signed “Yveling Ram Baud and Dubut de Laforest” but probably written by the signatory of its preface, Georges Barral), a sentimental melodrama in which a husband who initially believes that his pregnant wife must have committed adultery eventually has difficulty deciding whether that explanation might have been preferable to the truth of her technologically determined conception. The gap between that tentative approach to the notion and Kolney’s depiction of a society whose sole mode of reproduction is based on artificial fertilization is, however, an exceedingly wide one, further widened by the supportive logic of the hypothetical institution.
The assumption made by Adam and Kolney and only tentatively modified by Couvreur—that the liberation of sexuality could only lead to lurid or catastrophic consequences—was further modified by “Gaston Danville,” the pseudonym employed by Armand Blocq, who attempted to develop a new school of neo-Naturalist fiction based on the psychological theories of Théodule Ribot, of whom he was a dedicated disciple. Danville wrote psychological essays of his own, including “L’Amour est-il un état pathologique” [Is Amour a Pathological State?] (1893), a preliminary sketch of an elaborate scholarly account of La Psychologie de l’Amour [The Psychology of Love].
Danville’s novel Le Parfum de volupté (1905; tr. as The Perfume of Lust), describes the plight of a the crew and passengers of a disabled ship trapped in the internal waters of a resurgent land when a submarine eruption returns a fragment of the lost continent of Atlantis to the surface and its crew and passengers are subjected to strange mental influences that stimulate their erotic impulses. The novel coyly employs multiple devices to put narrative distance between the reader and the story, but its real interest is not its convoluted literary apparatus but its psychological argument regarding the psychological roots of lust as the characters undergo the fundamental psychological modifications necessary to adapt them temporarily to life in the lost Atlantean paradise of free love and perpetual ecstasy before it sinks again, forever.
The internal evidence of the text suggests that Les Pacifiques (1914; tr. as “The Pacifists”) by Han Ryner was written in the same year as Danville’s novel although it was not published until nine years later. Like Danville, Ryner employs an ingenious narrative strategy, sending a deliberately unsympathetic narrator representative of everything reprehensible in contemporary society to an unsunk remnant of Atlantis, whose anarchist inhabitants treat him with a mixture of pity and sarcastic mockery.
One of the inhabitants of Atlantis guides the stranger patiently through its customs, explaining its carefully selective and responsible use of advanced technologies, its institutionalized vegetarianism, based on biologically enhanced fruits and vegetables, the operation of the “belts” that give every individual the power of flight, and the elements of its egalitarian and leaderless social organization. The narrator runs into difficulties when he is invited to address an informal class of children eager to know about the society of the wider world, whose members raise naïve objections to his account of its religion and politics, initially refusing to believe him and eventually concluding that the “Cruels” must be insane. He runs into further trouble when he attempts to service his sexual needs in a society where prostitution does not exist and the rituals of courtship associated with free love require polite formalities to which he cannot accommodate himself.
Although he is impressed by the technology of the pantoscope, which allows him glimpses of the world he has left behind, and the advanced mechanical technologies of Syndynamics, the castaway deems the uses made of them in anarchist society far too modest and thinks that capitalist society could make far more of their exploitation. With that in mind, he joins a conspiracy headed by the captain of the ship whose foundering stranded the castaways to take over the island by armed force—they know that the Atlanteans, being confirmed pacifists, will not put up any resistance—in order to establish themselves as its rulers and open it up to a commerce that is bound to be extremely profitable. The plan goes badly awry, but the Atlanteans are obliged to agree that there is no place in their society for the likes of the captain and the narrator, who are sent back to the Cruel world that they love so stubbornly.
Like Déjacque but unlike Adam and Kolney, Ryner seems content to assume that the eventual outcome of the social institution of free love would be a trouble-free and contented monogamy. He does, however, tackle more straightforwardly than any of his predecessors the other face of the coin of free love: the freedom of refusal. In Caresco’s Eucrasia that issue is largely avoided because only attractive people are admitted, whereas in Adam’s Malaisie desirable women consider it a matter of politeness occasionally to grant their favors to undesirable males if necessary while under the influence of aphrodisiac psychotropics like those ever-present in the atmosphere of Danville’s Atlantis. But Ryner’s Atlanteans do not use such technological supports, and their politeness will not go far enough to tolerate the crude lusts of his unsympathetic protagonist, who swiftly discovers that the rewards of free love are not for the likes of him.
Les Pacifiques eventually appeared mere weeks before the Great War broke out, marking the end of a historical period uniquely rich in the production of speculative fiction fascinated by euchronian ideals, having produced—albeit not without difficulties in achieving publication—numerous works anxious either to promote or decry them. The importance of the potential roles that technological progress might play in the amelioration or spoliation of future society made euchronian and dystopian fantasies an important branch of roman scientifique, or roman scientifique an important branch of utopian fiction, depending on the viewpoint adopted. The importance of that association did not change after the Great War, but the fundamental attitude underlying any and all approaches to the question did; in the aftermath of the war, all dreams, even if they had not turned to literal nightmares, had become deeply steeped in the kinds of anxiety that had invaded such fin-de-siècle exercises as Lettres de Malaisie. After 1914, all utopian dispatches had to be sent from a land of Unease, even if they were conscientiously stamped with other postmarks.
The war did not, however, put a complete end to the train of thought developed by the sequence of eutopian fantasies just detailed, which culminated in Voyage au monde à l’envers (1920; tr. as Journey to the Inverted World) by Marcel Rouff. The story confronts a decorated airman displaced from a wartime mission into a vision of an anarchist eutopia although it never becomes clear whether his journey takes him into the far future, a long hallucination, or some kind of parallel world. In a frame narrative set in 1918, the aviator professes himself to be a follower of Rousseau, firm in the belief that civilization is corruption and that happiness can only be achieved by its eradication, and the reasons for that become clear in his account of his strange adventure. The society in which he is stranded is extremely selective in its employment of technology and eccentrically minimalist in its approach to government and law, although it seems initially delightful in its exceedingly relaxed sexual mores, which avoid the distasteful aspects of free love stigmatized in Letters de Malaisie.
In spite of its erotic delights, however, the aviator finds living in the exotic society uncomfortably alien to his habits, and he is initially intrigued to discover that there is a neighboring region, the Accursed, to which exiles are banished and where things work in a fashion much closer to the system with which he is familiar. When he slips away in order to investigate it, however, he finds that he cannot face the idea of having to readapt to it; in contrast to Han Ryner’s protagonist, his sojourn in the “inverted world” has made the defects of the old world far too obvious to him and no longer tolerable. He decides, in consequence, to settle for perfection—but too late, as the citizens of the eutopia have decided, like Ryner’s Atlanteans, that they cannot accommodate a person afflicted with his atavisms.
Before he is sent back home, the airman is allowed to see the museum in which the citizens of the anarchist state have put away all the technologies that they have forsaken, including all those adapted to the purposes of war, and he realizes how far his own society might have to follow the thorny road of social progress before coming to the conclusion that the desired destination can only be reached by a drastic change in fundamental psychology, akin to the one tentatively sketched by Danville. When he arrives back in Europe, the war is still in progress with no end in sight, and the poor aviator knows that he is now a stranger in his own world, doomed to be a disapproving misfit until he dies. That does not take long—unsurprisingly, given that the penultimate line of his journal begins: “I shall go on and on, straight ahead, loving the taste of death that I have on my lips....” That aftertaste of the war was something that many people could not get out of their mouths for more than a decade after the signing of the armistice, and it permanently changed attitudes to the liberating effects of technology that had already been called severely into question.
Albert Robida, the most sophisticated of the prewar skeptics, was the first person in the queue to say: “I told you so.” As soon as the armistice was signed, he vented the pent-up feelings he had not been previously allowed to express because of wartime censorship imposed in the interest of maintaining morale, writing one of the most remarkable works of a period spectacularly rich in tales of extreme disillusionment, L’Ingénieur von Satanas (1919; tr. as The Engineer von Satanas).
The novel begins with two prologues, the first describing the exploits of the legendary thirteenth-century discoverer of gunpowder, Berthold Schwartz, here frankly represented as the Devil in disguise, tempting the powerful with a destructive power capable of sowing evil and chaos for centuries to come. The second is set at a Peace Conference held in 1909 at the new Palace of Peace in The Hague, where all the attending diplomats are congratulating one another warmly for having ushered in an era of permanent world peace while nevertheless lending a covert ear to the descriptions of his latest inventions modestly offered by the German engineer von Satanas, who bears a striking but unapprehended resemblance to Berthold Schwartz.
The main story follows the adventure of Paul Jacquemin, a naturalist attached to an expedition that departed for the Arctic in April 1914 and became stranded there. Its member eventually escape after fifteen years of isolation, but after sailing for a long time in strangely deserted seas, the boat is suddenly blown up. Paul, the sole survivor, takes refuge on a fragment of mast already inhabited by the survivor of a similar accident. When the two castaways finally reach the shore they find nothing but debris that is barely recognizable as that of houses. They are seized by hooded men who force uncomfortable masks upon them and drag them into a cellar. They realize, however, that their lives have been saved from an advancing cloud of poison gas, and when it has dissipated, they are able to introduce themselves to their rescuers: a cosmopolitan aggregation, many of them crippled by injury, who have taken refuge in the cellars of a house in Haarlem. Nothing substantial remains above ground of that house or any other in the city, which has been bombarded for years—and is still being bombarded albeit on a reduced scale—by German troops entrenched in what was once the Palace of Peace but which has long since been converted into a factory producing chemical and biological weapons.
The new arrivals are welcomed into the troglodyte company, one of an inestimable number eking out a frugal and fugitive living in the ruins of the city and its surrounding villages since war flared up again mere months after the armistice of 1918, resuming more fiercely than before and fought with even deadlier weapons. The community includes a Danish doctor and a Swiss historian, who often pass the time by engaging in philosophical debates; the latter has much to say about the history of warfare and the various motives that produce and perpetuate it, but the deeply embittered Dane considers that there is one only guilty party responsible for the present destruction of the world: “that slut Science.”
Initially, that apparent blasphemy horrifies Paul, who does his best to defend the disinterested quest for knowledge, but the Dane’s vitriolic tirades eventually wear him down, and Paul finally begins to accept that what he had previously thought of as the beating heart of social progress—the advancement of science and technology—has indeed brought about the destruction of everything human beings had achieved, returning them to a way of life even more primitive and less dignified than that of the original “cave men” who began the sad saga of progress a hundred thousand years before.
That kind of disenchantment did abate slightly with time, but it never went away, and the issues raised and discussed in the fugitive prewar eutopian fantasies were for the most part simply abandoned in the face of a general conviction that even if they could somehow be settled in an abstract fashion in the context of some imagined far future—which had begun to seem unlikely—any such settlement was simply irrelevant to the practical problems of living in a world likely to be torn apart at any moment by its inherent, aggressive lusts, armed with technologically advanced weaponry. Ironically, the philosophy of anarchism had already spelled out the seeds of its own destruction, at least in the image constructed by its assailants, in its “propaganda by action”: the assumption that nothing good could be constructed until evil had been obliterated by bombs ... except, alas, that the possibility of anything surviving the bombs, once their employment had escalated to full capacity, seemed henceforth to be exceedingly small.
A hundred years later, it is difficult to argue that there has been any fundamental change either in France where at least the issues had been briefly raised or elsewhere, where the various forces limiting freedom of expression had prevented them from even coming into view in the literary arena until it was too late.
Brian Stableford lives in Hadleigh, Essex.