In a previous article in these pages (“Technology and Liberty in French Utopian Fiction,” NYRSF #334, based on the 2016 Thomas Taylor Lecture), I identified two interwoven threads in the development of French Utopian fiction in the nineteenth and early twentieth century which addressed the roles to be played in a hypothetical utopian society by advanced technology and sexual liberation. That analysis paid particular attention to a train of thought inspired by the political philosophy of Anarchism reflected in Joseph Déjacque’s L’Humanisphère, utopie anarchique (1858–61; partially tr. as “The Future World of the Humanisphere”), Paul Adam’s Lettres de Malaisie (1898; tr. as “Letters from Malaisie”), André Couvreur’s Caresco surhomme, ou le voyage en Eucrasie (1904; tr. as Caresco, Superman; or, A Voyage to Eucrasia), Gaston Danville’s Le Parfum de volupté (1905; tr. as The Perfume of Lust), Han Ryner’s Les Pacifiques (1914; tr. as “The Pacifists”) and Marcel Rouff’s Voyage au monde à l’envers (1920; tr. as Journey to the Inverted World).
That survey concluded in the year 1920, because it had to reach a cutoff point somewhere, the time allotted for the original lecture being limited, but it is arguable that its sample of relevant texts would have been better rounded out had it been extended one more year to include Nicolas Ségur’s Une Île d’amour (1921; tr. as “An Isle of Love”), which clearly reacts to several of the earlier stories cited, attempting to negotiate between the insistent optimism of Déjacque and the skeptical critiques of that optimism assembled, anxiously and a trifle reluctantly, by the subsequent writers. However, Ségur’s short novel is exceptional in several ways, and there are also good grounds for looking at it in specific juxtaposition with his other work of futuristic fiction, Le Paradis des hommes (1930; tr. as the title piece of the forthcoming Black Coat Press omnibus of the two works, The Human Paradise). The latter is closely related to it but goes beyond the limits of utopian romance to a further realm of philosophical fiction that is much less densely populated, because its exploration requires an imaginative and speculative boldness that very few litterateurs have cared to risk.
“Nicolas Ségur” was born Nikolaos Episkopopolous on the Greek island of Zakynthos in 1874; he began his writing career as a journalist in Athens in the late 1890s, and he published a number of books in Greek. In the early years of the twentieth century, however, he moved to Paris and settled in that city permanently, subsequently writing exclusively in French, and eventually dying there in 1944. He made the acquaintance of Anatole France not long after arriving in Paris and was taken under the latter’s wing in the course of a long and close friendship; one of Ségur’s earliest French publications was a profile of France published in La Revue in 1907. His many long conversations with France subsequently provided him with the material for three memoirs, beginning with the best-selling Conversations avec Anatole France ou Les Mélancolies de l’intelligence (1925; tr. as Conversations with Anatole France), published in the year after the great man’s death. The “melancholies of intelligence” seems to have been one of their favorite topics of conversation, and Ségur’s two futuristic fantasies reflect that subject matter in a striking fashion.
Ségur’s first published volume in French was Pages de Légende [Pages of Legend] (1918), and his love of ancient Greek literature and myth is also reflected in his first novel, Naïs au Miroir [Nais at the Mirror] (1920), which had a preface by Anatole France, and in a sequel to the Odyssey, Le Secret de Pénélope [Penelope’s Secret] (1922). Both of those novels sold tolerably well, as did Une Île d’amour, which he wrote in between them. His fictitious philosophical monologue M. Renan devant l’amour [Ernest Renan on Love] (1923) was subsequently advertised as having sold five thousand copies. From the publication of La Belle Venise [Beautiful Venice] (1924) onwards, however, the level of his commercial success increased significantly as he found a profitable vein, redeploying the philosophical insights regarding the role of amour in human affairs originally deployed in M. Renan devant l’amour in a long series of contemporary novels exploring the problems and unfortunate side effects of amorous passion, often in a melodramatic and sometimes feverish fashion.
Ségur continued to write nonfiction alongside his novels, and he published a notable collection of essays on La Génie Européen [European Genius] in 1926. He also attempted to continue writing earnest philosophical fiction, producing Le Cinquième évangile: Saint François d’Assise [The Fifth Evangelist: St. Francis of Assisi] (1925) and Platon cherche l’amour [Plato in Search of Love] (1926), but the contrast between the sales of those volumes and his contemporary erotica must have been discouraging to him as well as his publisher. It seems highly probable that Albin Michel—a publisher not known for his sympathy to futuristic fiction—only agreed to publish Le Paradis des hommes as a personal favor to the author, since his other books were making him good money.
Although two of the near-contemporary Albin Michel titles listed in the preliminary material of Le Paradis des hommes are advertised as having sold thirty thousand copies, and the least of the four as having sold ten thousand, the copy of Le Paradis des hommes that I used for translation is marked “second thousand.” It was a remainder copy, its pages still uncut 86 years after publication, so that second thousand obviously did not sell out. That was, however, not an unusual fate for imaginative fiction of the period, when such fiction was exceedingly marginal in the literary marketplace, and the cause for wonder is not the book’s commercial failure and subsequent fall into virtual oblivion but that fact that the author succeeded in persuading the publisher to issue it at all. All of his subsequent fiction stuck to the safer rut, following a pattern that became increasingly stereotyped until he died in 1944.
In examining the connection between Ségur’s two futuristic fantasies, it is necessary to bear in mind that the second was actually begun first. His brief introduction to Le Paradis des hommes states that the early chapters were written in 1918, emerging from discussions that the author had with Anatole France before the end of the Great War, although it then suffered a long interruption before the final version was written, apparently in 1929. It is evidently not only a companion piece to Une Île d’amour, on which the influence of the discussions in question becomes obvious with the aid of hindsight, but also a companion piece of sorts to Anatole France’s masterpiece, La Révolte des Anges (1914; tr. as The Revolt of the Angels), on which the influence of earlier discussions of the same topic are similarly evident in retrospect. Satan’s celebrated final speech in France’s novel overlaps thematically with God’s final message in Le Paradis des hommes, and the latter is, in a sense, a sympathetic riposte to it. King Henri’s final judgment of the island of Pamphilia in Une Île d’amour is neatly intermediate between the two, representing the human perspective on the same problem, the classic philosophical poser: how should men live?
Like all utopian fantasies, Une Île d’amour is an essentially satirical work, but it is one of the most amiably good-humored in its nature and style, scrupulously wearing a soft velvet glove over its steely claws. In setting up the utopian island of Pamphilia, in the late twenty-first century, as a truly and uniquely desirable place for humans to live, it spares no effort in singing its praises, even as it progresses inexorably to examine in detail the costs that the island’s inhabitants have incurred in electing to live happily. As in the works discussed in the earlier article, the supposedly responsible and carefully limited deployment of technologies and the careful social institution of “free love” are the central pillars on which the utopian design is built, enthusiastically advertised by the earnest arguments eloquently voiced by King Henri (Pamphilia is the opposite of Anarchist, being benignly despotic). The subtextual rhetoric, however, argues forcefully that the engineering of human happiness requires far more than technologically supported physical wellbeing and the social provision of abundant and enjoyable sexual intercourse.
The plot of Une Île d’amour begins when King Henri’s leisurely daily routine is interrupted by having to judge a complaint brought by one of his subjects against a rare visitor to the remote island: Jules Brandin, a Parisian aviator forced to land there when his experimental long-range aircraft ran out of fuel. The islander had offered the castaway hospitality, including the sexual services of his wife, but Brandin had then made the awful mistake of expressing amour for the wife and inviting her to reciprocate—a hideous breach of local mores. Henri compensates the islander for the affront, but excuses the ignorance of the stranger and takes him under his wing in order to educate him in the island’s folkways.
The King’s hospitality is even more generous than the commoner’s; he unhesitatingly offers the visitor his virgin daughter as a companion during his sojourn, partly by way of an incentive to stay longer. Henri finds the presence of a Parisian a welcome break in his routine, and a uniquely pleasing one, because his grandfather, the architect of Pamphilia’s society, had emigrated from Paris with his followers in the immediate aftermath of the Great War (referred to in this text, as in Le Paradis des hommes, as “the War of 1914,” perhaps suggesting that both texts were begun before the armistice allowed the concluding date to be added).
Henri explains to Brandin that although sexual relief is considered a necessity of happiness, and Pamphilia’s society is therefore organized to enable all its citizens to obtain an abundant and satisfactory supply, obsessive amour is considered there to be a mental illness and a dire threat to the social order. Intractable sufferers from it are exiled to a special asylum, which is the second stop on Brandin’s guided tour, in order that he can properly evaluate the necessity of protecting happy innocence from such a powerful destructive disease.
Before visiting the enclave of the amorous, however, King Henri attempts to put it in perspective, first by describing the history of the island and explaining his ancestor’s careful decision to be rigorously selective in allowing technological devices to be employed there. After that, he takes Brandin to the Insemination Palace, where the most sophisticated of those technologies are put to careful eugenic use in maintaining and perfecting the reproduction of the population. At the age of puberty, girls are divided into two groups, those selected for breeding being sent to the Palace for a limited term, during which they give birth to a number of children, many by means of artificial insemination. The remainder are sent directly to the Gardens of Pleasure, where they are freely available to all citizens one day a week. Thus, Henri explains, the maximum liberation of sexual intercourse, supported by careful contraceptive technology, is combined with the most rigorous eugenic control of reproduction and the severe prohibition of obsessive amour and its corollary jealousies. Brandin is able to witness the ingenious organization and lavish provisions of the Gardens of Pleasure—where psychotropic drugs are available as well as sex and vigorous dance music—on the relevant day of the week.
The enclave reserved for victims of amour is not, however, the only one on the island, because there are other dangerous mental illnesses requiring asylum and isolation, lest they threaten the happiness of the mentally healthy. Brandin is also taken to the enclave where the island’s creative thinkers—its poets, painters, and philosophers—are imprisoned, in order that they can safely indulge their artistic and intellectual proclivities without any danger of them undermining the contented blissful ignorance of their fellows. Although the citizens of Pamphilia are allowed to view paintings and sculptures—especially landscapes and female nudes—that are as carefully selected as the technological devices of which they can make use, for their beauty and utility, and are abundantly supplied with simple and uplifting music to which to sing and dance, they are carefully protected from creative artists and their more ambitious productions. That policy is an extrapolation of the suggestion made in Plato’s Republic that, because they nourish the well of the emotions while the authentic road to fulfillment requires drying it up and achieving ataraxia, poets ought to be exiled from the ideal state. Thus Ségur, like Plato, is constructing a design for human happiness which he would be constitutionally unable to share—a utopia from which he himself would be banished.
Henri explains to Brandin that every effort is made to discourage Pamphilia’s citizens from thinking about philosophical and metaphysical questions, and annual prizes are offered to citizens who can swear that they have never let such matters cross their mind. He also explains to his visitor that women are allowed into the artists’ and philosophers’ enclave only for one orgiastic week per year, the enforced celibacy of the remaining 51 weeks being conducive to the concentration of the creative forces fueling their work—a restriction implying that the author might have found the internal exile of Pamphilia as unsatisfactory as the ordinary members of the population would have found his presence in their midst.
The last piece of the jigsaw that Henri slots into place in Brandin’s tour is that of the religion of the islanders. Because they already live in paradisal bliss, their religion says nothing about Heaven, and the prospect of an afterlife is one of the ideas that the islanders are specifically discouraged from contemplating. By contrast, it places a heavy emphasis on the threat of an entirely material Hell, proving periodic compulsory visions of its horrors in order to inform the Pamphilians of what would inevitably happen if they were to lapse from the stern regulations protective of their happiness. Henri takes Brandin to the carefully designed underworld where those visions are cinematically displayed with appropriate special effects and shows him a sample of them, in which Brandon recognizes all the worst aspects of contemporary French society and industry; in essence, the Pamphilians’ Hell is the world in which Brandin and the novel’s readers actually live.
Although suitably impressed by everything that he has been shown, Brandin refuses the King’s urgent invitation to stay on the island, made with the assurance that he would not be expected to conform to all its regulations immediately. All things considered, he tells Henri, he prefers the Hell of Paris to the paradise of Pamphilia. The King then reveals that he understands that viewpoint perfectly; as the island’s ruler he is obliged to indulge in all the philosophical considerations and concerns forbidden to his subjects and to keep himself informed of everything that is happening in the outside world. As Brandin will not stay to keep him company, he begs the aviator to take him with him to Paris, where he hopes to make a living as a poet—a request that places his guest in an acute dilemma.
If, as seems likely, Une Île d’amour was begun while the Great War was still raging, its original inspiration might be regarded as an escapist endeavor, an attempt to get as far away from the war, imaginatively, as possible, by constructing a paradise antipodal to its Hell—a Hell even more infernal than the peacetime Hell established as a horrible example for the Pamphilians. Considered in that light, the early chapters of Le Paradis des hommes are complementary, in that they offer a satirical description of what life in wartime Paris was actually like in the early months of 1918, only slightly exaggerated by their narrative relocation to 1949, the fourth year of a second world war: “the great petroleum war.”
The story begins with the main characters gathered in a bunker in the cellars of the novelist Leparfait’s Parisian house, where he is desperately trying to preserve a fugitive remnant of civilized social intercourse beneath the rubble to which Paris, like all the world’s cities, has been largely reduced by bombardment. The discussions of extinct salon society are still feebly echoed there, in various voices, but particularly that of the skeptical philosopher Martigny, who has been forced to become a film director and scenarist in order to earn a living; he becomes the story’s principal commentator on the developments of the plot.
The issues debated in Leparfait’s cellar include the news that, having arrived at a breaking point, the beleaguered people of the world, on both sides of the conflict, have organized an evening of simultaneous prayer, making one last common appeal to the Creator to intervene in order to stop the war. This time, in contrast to previous occasions, God answers the plea, first working a few miracles in order to prove his identity, and then selecting a mouthpiece—a young woman considered highly unsuitable by the matrons of Parisian society—and instructing the nations of the world to send delegates to a conference at the Sorbonne in order to hear his will, as relayed by her.
Being an exceedingly busy deity—understandably, given the size of the universe—God is somewhat annoyed at being summoned to Earth, taking the view that humans really ought to be capable of sorting out their own problems by now, but he generously agrees to answer the request to stop the war, even accepting the limitations that the persnickety delegates want to place on a general diktat that would put an end to all conflict. Even more generously, he offers to call in on the planet again after a suitable interval to allow time for discussion, at which time he promises to grant all the requests that human beings care to make of him, provided that their delegates are unanimous.
After some argument, the great majority of people of the world come up with a list of three desiderata for their appointed spokespersons to put to the deity. First, they are to ask for universal happiness; second, they are to ask for immortality; and third—less expectably and perhaps less plausibly—they are to ask for continence: the ability to resist the temptations of passion. Although they fear that they might be asking too much, God grants all three wishes unhesitatingly, and then withdraws, leaving humans being to enjoy the paradise of their own design.
That enjoyment, however, does not last long, in spite of the inbuilt guarantee of happiness. The removal of the most obvious evils from life is unquestionably a great relief, but it has the unanticipated side effect of depleting the quality of the rewards. In the complete absence of unhappiness, happiness simply becomes a state of being: normal, neutral, and essentially tedious. In the absence of the possibility of dying, life loses its excitement and savor, and in the presence of universal immunity to temptation, the concept of virtue is left devoid of meaning.
The later chapters of the novel map out the process by which the people forced to live in the paradise they have designed for themselves begin to find it unbearable—far more so, obviously, than King Henri of Pamphilia, who still has a modest supply of problems with which to contend. Eventually, that discontent culminates in a further worldwide prayer session, in which humankind begs God to return again and take back his gifts. God does so, but not without delivering a stern lecture on the unwisdom of doubting the fundamental provisions of the divine plan. To soften that lesson, however, God condescends to make a few small modifications to human nature that might assist, over time, in allowing humans to sort out their problems more effectively, and enable them to avoid any more world wars without the aid of divine intervention. Whether those ameliorations will actually prevent the pendulum of complaint from swinging back to the other extreme is left to the imagination of the reader, but the skepticism of the laconic narrative voice is obvious.
Le Paradis des hommes was not completed until some years after Anatole France’s death, so Ségur was not able to read the concluding chapters of the novel to his friend as he had read him the early ones, but it is probably safe to say that the older writer would have loved it and would have been proud to have made some contribution to it. Evidence to that effect is provided not only by the deliberately anti-climactic conclusion of La Révoltes des anges, but by the depiction of a communist utopia set out in the final section of Sur la Pierre blanche (1905; tr. as The White Stone), in which the guide who shows the timeslipped protagonist around the future utopia concludes, with melancholy intelligence, that although it is perhaps the optimum social organization that politics and advanced technology can provide, humans will never be happy there, because happiness is an illusory objective, essentially unobtainable.
Utopian romances that conclude and emphasize that no utopia can be perfect are not scarce, and the opinion that humans are constitutionally incapable of organizing their affairs in an optimum fashion is commonplace. In a sense, Une Île d’amour is merely an unusually ingenious and effective restatement of that case, and Le Paradis des hommes only takes the argument a single step further by removing the practical limitations inherent in the objectives for which humans might, in principle, strive.
The principal argument of the latter work, as voiced by Martigny, echoes one put forward by the stoic philosopher Zéphirin Choumaque in André Couvreur’s Caresco, surhomme (1904; tr. as Caresco, Superman), to the effect that the concept of happiness is inseparable from its opposite and loses its meaning if detached from its complementary magnetic pole. Whereas Choumaque asserted, however—albeit a trifle half-heartedly—that the optimum state of being was one of perfect balance, and that existence itself would tend to level out the components of happiness and unhappiness in human existence, Ségur’s novel rejects the possibility of any such equilibrium, as well as the necessary equality of the two tendencies. It envisages a kind of permanent instability in which no situation can remain for long, and which is, in the end, bound to result in catastrophic destruction. The conclusion of Ségur’s second analysis of the problem is, therefore, more radical than most other treatments of the theme, in suggesting that not only is utopia unattainable, but that the attempt to achieve it, however well intentioned, must, in the end, be disastrous.
Une Île d’amour does not go that far, of course, and it is not impossible that reading the story might leave at least some readers thinking that Pamphilia would, all things considered, be an excellent abode, where even curmudgeonly intellectuals afflicted with a Burtonian innate melancholy could find adequate provision made for their disease. If it offers a challenge to the popular idea that ignorance is bliss, it only does so very politely. Indeed, it openly makes fun of the artists and philosophers who find blissful ignorance intolerable and the creative impulse inescapable. The satire of the chapter that describes the visit to the intellectuals’ enclave, and the work that is being done there, is Swiftian in its sarcasm, strongly reminiscent of Gulliver’s visit to the Academy of Lagado. By contrast, the visit to the amorous enclave is lachrymose, sympathizing with the poor sufferers from the curse of amour, finding a beautiful heroism in their reaction to the crueler side effects of the affliction. Given that Ségur was an intellectual himself, in no uncertain terms, and that he made a lucrative career of constructing literary case studies of amorous catastrophe, the argument of the novel has an admirable paradoxicality about it.
As an examination of the classic Socratic question of “How should men live?”, Ségur’s hypothetical analyses could hardly be expected to reach a conclusion, given that philosophy itself has not made any significant progress, at least since the era of the Stoics and Cynics, and perhaps not since Plato. The two works can, in fact, be regarded as a restatement of the case made by the Cynics and the Stoics, which has been overlaid in the intervening centuries by various kinds of optimism, most recently by the philosophy of progress. Intertwining technological and political progress, it has provided the impetus, positively or negatively, of almost all serious futuristic fiction written since its formulation in the late eighteenth century, including all the works cited in the first paragraph of the present essay. It is worth observing, however, that neither of Ségur’s works is as pessimistic as a bald statement of their central argument might suggest. Both stories are, in fact, buoyant, amiable, and humorous; while mocking ignorant bliss, they also mock despair, celebrating the joy that is, in their world view, the inseparable counterweight of melancholy. Ségur’s commentary leaves no doubt that although his conversations with Anatole France might frequently have been devoted to “the melancholy of the intellect,” the intellectually serious discussions in question were both cheerful and extremely enjoyable. The same is true of Une Île d’amour and Le Paradis des hommes—a further extrapolation of their celebration of paradoxicality.
Individually fascinating, the juxtaposition of the two works under discussion and their judgments regarding the suitability of humans for living a utopian or paradisal existence adds an extra dimension of interest to them and must surely make connoisseurs of imaginative fiction regret that Nicolas Ségur was not able to follow his evident inclinations in that direction further. Alas, that has long been the common fate of serious writers of that stripe, operating in a marketplace fervently committed to the notion that, so far as the vast majority of potential readers are concerned, intellectually directed flights of the imagination are indeed diseased and better quarantined. Although we do not live in Pamphilia, and certainly do not share the bliss of its islanders, the court of popularity has always succeeded in passing a sentence of effective exile on the majority of writers possessed of imaginative verve and scope, usually silencing them after a few signs of rebellious intelligence ... but not always permanently.
Brian Stableford lives in Hadleigh, Essex.