This little book is a translated excerpt from Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux–a compendious early-19th-century envisioning of Harmony, i.e. the social conditions to supersede and abrogate Civilization. If Harmony had come quickly, the World Wars of European hegemony might have been replaced with the gargantuan conflict of petits patés described here. The ur-socialist Charles Fourier (called by his later detractors “utopian”) proposed the wholesale replacement of what we have come to know as the military-industrial complex by a gastronomic-passional enterprise, where food, sex, and humane service would be the channels by which “the omnimode play of the passions” might be developed in honorable competition among empires.
Peter Lamborn Wilson’s brief introduction supplies a sense of the relation of Fourier to the history of ideas, along with some information on the value of the present text (not published even in the original French for nearly a century and a half after his death). Translators Shawn P. Wilbur and Joan Roelofs offer a reasonably approachable English for this material that is somewhat mystifying regardless, taking for granted as it does the reader’s appreciation of Fourier’s passional calculus along with a future history in which the human population of the globe has reached an abundantly-supplied and sustainable four billion.
There are lacunae and interruptions in the text, which I take to be artifacts of the emergence from manuscript in 1967. These enhance its perversely oracular character with something like the documentary conceit common to older adventure fantasies and science fiction. The basic social unit of Harmony, known in other texts as a phalanstery, is here called a tourbillon. As the translator-editors note, this name “suggests the constant, restless movement by which communities in Harmony find the means of satisfying all the passions” (18 n.).
Lytton’s Coming Race is brief, even if a little slow at points. As a seminal piece of 19th-century science fiction, the whole plot is just an excuse for fictional anthropology, since the protagonist/narrator is utterly unchanged by the experience. The utopian element reflects a little bit of Fourierist background (with one explicit reference to Robert Owen), mostly in the small scale of community and the valorizing of the industry of children.
The reader may weigh the extent to which Lytton was actually employing the subterranean civilization of Vril-ya as an alternative in order to criticize modern industrialized nations, democratic politics, and traditional gender mores. The protagonist is never fully persuaded of the superiority of the Vril-ya’s social system, but the fact that the English author used a proud American narrator suggests that the fictional speaker’s convictions don’t necessarily match those of the writer.
What goes without question by the narrator is the physical and technological superiority of the Vril-ya. The book’s title alludes to the idea that any full-scale contact between them and the humanity of the Earth’s surface will only leave the Vril-ya as complete conquerors. But this scenario is left as an intimation of the future.
This novel was almost as influential on the hollow earth conspiracy meme (and eventually UFO culture) as the same author’s Zanoni was for traditional Western occultism. The story seems even to have contributed to Aleister Crowley’s Atlantis, where Lytton’s Vril energy sets a precedent for Crowley’s mysterious ZRO.
Read for it’s own sake as a fictional entertainment, The Coming Race is a little exotic, but fairly dated and plodding. Taken as a node in the discourse of 19th-century social reform and occult science, however, it is abidingly curious and engaging. [via]
Heading into my read of an advance review copy of John Crowley’s forthcoming Four Freedoms, I was unsure what to expect. The publisher’s blurb told me that it was a book about “a disabled man…among a crowd of women” at “the height of World War II.” It didn’t seem obvious that this scenario would be a setting suited to the artful exploration of ideas I had enjoyed in the author’s AEgypt cycle, a set of four novels that develop a complexly interwoven text about the human experience of magic and the magic of human experience. I needn’t have worried.
The Four Freedoms of the title are the ones articulated in FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The fact that the novel is divided into four parts suggests a correspondence, but there’s no obvious one-to-one relationship between those parts and the freedoms. They seem more like the four movements of a symphony, and here is the key to the esoteric dimension of Four Freedoms: the Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinees generales (1808) of Charles Fourier. Crowley is very coy about this element of the novel—unlike his free admission of the historical and scholarly grist for his mill in AEgypt—he never even mentions Fourier by name, either in the novel or in the afterword that discusses his research sources. Still, the unavoidable fact is that Four Freedoms character Pancho Notzing’s “Bestopianism” is Fourierist though and through: a magical ur-socialism founded in “Passionate Series” generating “Harmony” through the satisfaction of dynamic and heterogeneous desires. Pancho himself is even a biographical cipher for Fourier. Where Fourier was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant and had a career as a traveling salesman, Pancho is retiring from a career as a traveling salesman of luxury cloths.
The Theory of Four Movements is Fourier’s earliest and most bewildering exposition of his system. The movements themselves are enumerated only in a footnote and some brief glossary material, where they are given as social, human, animal, and organic—in descending order. The hierarchy of the Fourierist movements perhaps accounts for the sparing but curious use of the first-person plural in the frame of Four Freedoms. The “we” narrating the novel could be the collective identity of the quasi-phalanx of the Van Damme Aero manufacturing plant, a “Temporary Harmonious Zone”—cousin maybe to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone.
Both the little society of the Ponca City plant and the greater society of WWII America with its socialized command economy are especially worth readers’ attention at a time when the US is confronted with a need to fundamentally reorganize its material and industrial bases. The historical setting of Four Freedoms is bracingly topical while we confront a “great recession” or even “greater depression” that seems bound to displace what “postwar” generations have been taught to consider the American “way of life.” A gasoline ration of four gallons per week? That was a reality of the home front.
I cried once in the course of reading this book. If it has that effect on anyone else, I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be at the same place: there’s a lot emotional power distributed through many personal stories over the course of the novel. As I have come to expect from Crowley, his narrative voice is sure—both efficient and beautiful—and his characters are compelling. The plot is largely subordinate to the characters, and tends to fan out from them in individual tributaries of memory, told to one another or simply recalled.
Crowley’s AEgypt (especially as read backwards from the final realizations of Endless Things) can be considered a meditation on “neurodiversity”: the idea that there are many necessarily partial and complementary ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Four Freedoms can be read as a corresponding exploration of physical diversity expressed through sex, age, disability, and race. But this is no moralizing, didactic exercise. I recently had a conversation with a literal fellow traveler on an airplane, regarding the importance of storytelling in the learning process. The stories in Four Freedoms can remind us of the kind of learning we all need to do, and that we will do whenever we remember our diverse radical passions. [via]