Two Dystopias: “Voltaire’s Bastards” and “Paris in the Twentieth Century”

I’ve told this story before:

. . . . I recalled a brief exchange, one of many conversations we shared over clattering golf clubs.  These words came shortly after my reading crossed a very special threshold:

“Dr. Crowther, do you find that the more you read the more everything seems to connect together?”

Dr. Crowther held her golf bag still and looked at me.

“Oh, yes, John!”

When one reads a lot and widely, the connections come fast and furious.  Now and then, when one is, like me, a reader who always have a dozen books on the go, the connections appear unexpectedly between two books one is currently reading.  This pleasant surprise has happened to me recently.

In 1989, Jules Verne’s great-grandson discovered the manuscript of an unknown novel by his famous ancestor.  Paris in the Twentieth Century was published in French in 1994. Shortly after it was published in 1996, I bought Richard Howard’s English version, read it as a curiosity, and set it aside, largely forgotten save for its title.

That title, however, has stuck in my mind for almost two decades as the kernel of an art project I have finally started concrete work on.  As I began preliminary sketches, I realized I should probably reread the novel whose title had been rolling around in my mind so long.

Two years before Verne’s lost novel was published, John Ralston Saul published the sweeping yet remarkably readable study of modern Western society and it’s history, Voltaire’s Bastards.  Somehow, it took me two decades to get to it.  And, somehow, I found myself reading Voltaire’s Bastards with Paris in the Twentieth Century as its tag-team partner.

So, 19th century French science fiction writer and 20th century Canadian philosopher. Two hundred page dystopian novel and six hundred page carefully researched (I’ll ignore the little Frankenstein error) philosophical study of western social history since the Renaissance.

What’s the connection?

Just this: Verne and Saul describe virtually identically structured societies, although the details are, inevitably, different.

As I remember, the marketing of Verne’s novel in North America concentrated on the Gosh! Wow! factor of his predictions.  This emphasis is evident in the blurb’s on the back of the paperback.  People Magazine is quoted about the “overcrowded metropolis”, the homeless, and automobiles.  And elevators and fax machines.  Of course, when we really think about it, none of these predictions were that unpredictable.  Indeed, Paris in Verne’s time was far from sparsely populated or free from the homeless.  In fact, Verne’s technological predictions are minor details of the novel.  Ray Bradbury, as quoted on the paperback, is perfectly correct that Paris in the Twentieth Century is “an absolute necessity” for those interested in the history of Speculative Fiction.  But Verne’s novel, hidden until just twenty years ago, has not been at all an influence — it was unknown.  Its science fiction interest is purely antiquarian and its technological prophecy is modest.

Of another kind of interest — again antiquarian — is Verne’s predictions about the shape of Western society in the second half of the Twentieth century.  It is here that Verne is startlingly on the money, and on the money to a degree made clear by a reading of Voltaire’s Bastards.

Voltaire’s Bastards is a challenging book, not because of its size — it is stunningly artful and, as I mentioned, readable — and not because its arguments are complicated — Saul is conversational, straight-forward, and eminently sensible.  I took thirty-seven pages of notes while reading  Voltaire’s Bastards — not as a chore, but because Saul’s points are so darn well taken and so worth remembering. What is challenging about Voltaire’s Bastards is that it challenges almost everything you think you know about Western Society and its historical underpinnings.  If you read Voltaire’s Bastards well, you will be changed, the scales may just fall off your eyes, you may just have taken Morpheus’ Red Pill.  But it probably won’t make you feel too happy.

The world Saul delineates — our world — is a society run by administrators of a system — technocrats.  The System, either the perpetuation of it or personal advancement within it, is the ultimate reason for every decision.  The bottom line is always the bottom line.  Saul is emphatic that all the social -isms — Fascism, Communism, and so on — are “dialects” of the single language of “Reason” that has ruled the West with ever growing strength since the Renaissance.  Art and literature are no longer about pursuit of beauty or social engagement.  Rather, artists and writers have become technocrats within their own branch of the system.  Saul argues that everything in Western society is directed at sustaining the system rather than toward the well-being of the people trapped within it.  When one considers, as Saul does at length, the obscene waste of money spent on arms in the modern world, one can’t help but conclude that most of Voltaire’s Bastards is filling in the details.

Verne’s Twentieth Century Paris is drawn with less detail — it’s a novel, after all, concerned with character and the personal impact of Verne’s future, not with the minutia of that culture.  Verne concentrates principally on the arts in his future.  And the state of the arts is disturbing.  All art is absolutely dismissed from 1960 Paris unless it has been turned to the purposes of applied science, technology or finance.  Great drama of the past is rewritten to conform by assembly lines of dramatists, each specializing in a type of scene.  Symphonies are written to commemorate great chemical experiments.  The languages of the past have been abandoned, poets are out of print, universities have become the “Academic Credit Union” which now teaches only science and business.  The language itself is changing into a collection of jargon.  I’m afraid I see too much of Verne’s Paris 1960 in the 21st Century world, not least in the fact that most universities have become mildly glorified vocational colleges producing technocrats in their bloated business schools, defunding “frills” such as the humanities, and turning students’ minds to “this is how” and away from “let’s ask why?”

Saul ends his book referring back to Rome through Voltaire, calling for “sensis communis”, a true, old common sense, a sensibility which relies on questioning, including self-questioning.  Saul is calling for the embracing of dissent, of kicking at the traces of all that we do without thinking.

Verne’s protagonist, Michel, is just such a dissident in 20th century Paris, a poet in a world with no use for true poetry.  He is unable to live the life of the system drone, and, in the end, is crushed by that system and its failure.  Verne’s vision of the future is a brutal dystopia a hundred years ahead of, and so more prescient perhaps than Orwell’s.

Disturbing is the uncanny resemblance of Verne’s fictional dystopian Paris to our own society as Saul exposes it.  Here, all decision is administration, fundamental doubt or questioning is either ridiculed or impossible to consider, and the corporate model is applied to all aspects of life, including the life of the individual.  Can anyone really deny that today “public good” means not increasing individual well-being but “economic growth” and “economic growth” means “maximized profit and maximized GDP”.  As Saul writes on p. 74:

In other words, reason equals structure equalls happiness and that is freedom.

What both Verne and Saul point out is that technology and systems administration are dehumanizing when accepted without questioning and doubt.  Absolute reliance on “Reason” leads to failure followed by ever thicker layers of “reasonable” systems.  Not only are doubts and questioning the only route to discovery and invention, but only the flexibility doubt brings us, indeed, sometimes only panic gives us what we may need to see and solve a crisis.  In the closing chapter of Verne’s novel, a killing winter descends on Europe.  The administrative State’s efforts to help the poor are ineffective and “Scientific resources were impotent.” (p. 196)  But “Public charity did somewhat more.” (p. 197)  Only individualParisians operating from their hearts can help their fellows where scientific management has failed them.

A good portion of Voltaire’s Bastards is devoted to pointing out the failures of scientific management in the real 20th century.  Saul is very careful to explain that the system our technocrats manage, whatever the -ism they labour under, is the hopeless idea that human society can be managed by rational means alone:

Perhaps the most damaging part of our obsession with expertise and systems has been the restructuring of elected assemblies to make them more efficient.  This equation of the idea of efficiency . . . with the process of democracy shows just how far away we have slipped from our common sense. (p.28)

[Professional managers] have been free to apply the theory of unfettered capitalism as if it were a perfectible abstraction, not a human reality. (p. 29)

These technocrats Saul describes are the identical twins of the horrid, joyless cyphers who labour to no real human purpose in Verne’s 20th Century Paris:

“A hundred times over,” Jacques opined. “This world is nothing more than a market, an immense fairground, and you must entertain your clients with the talents of a mountebank.” (p. 78)

In his novel, Vern concerns himself principally with the life of his poet protagonist, Michel, and with Michel’s writer and musician friends, the hardship of their lives under the Parisian technocracy.  In Paris, poetry is moribund, just as, Saul argues, it is passé in our society.  Poetry has led the charge into obscurantism, followed closely by the “serious” novel, Saul argues.  If Byron were alive today, he would be a rock star, Saul writes (p. 610), lamenting the disengagement of the poet and the common folk.  Of course, in the early ’90s, Leonard Cohen had not yet resurged to the stadium-filling rock star poet he is today.  And I expect Saul would find hope in the remarkable engagement and popularity of Canadian spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan.  Perhaps Cohen and Koyczan are exceptions that proves  Saul’s point.  “Serious” writers, Saul argues, no longer engage with society at large.  In contrast, Verne anticipates a society which no longer engages with its poets.  But, is it not a two way street?  How long will a poet be a voice in the wilderness before she either caves and writes what sells, or, on the other side, starves in a garret, or freezes in a cemetery above Paris?

Both Verne and Saul describe a world which has lost human meaning, in which individuals carry on within the system they’ve inherited, unquestioning, never imagining the possibility of a different way, let alone a better one, deriving little joy from their petty advancements.  Verne’s novel is disturbing because it is at once absurd and prescient.   Such a society in fiction seems impossible, but our own society is a pea in the same pod.  Saul’s sensibly argued examination is terrifying because he is brutally correct.  Modern society is an organism which serves only its meaningless self, not the humans who service it and are indifferently sloughed like so many skin cells or fingernail clippings.

A technocratic, systematic society always has answers, whether or not those answers are helpful.  But, as Saul concludes of societies such as ours

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions. (p. 630)

John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is published by Penguin Books.

Richard Howard’s English translation of Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is available in paperback from Del Rey Books.

Now I think I’ll reread Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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9 comments on “Two Dystopias: “Voltaire’s Bastards” and “Paris in the Twentieth Century”

  1. […] Ralston Saul mentions in Voltaire’s Bastards that “Almost no one travels today to see the future” (p. 485) Can the same be said of […]

  2. […] Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul cautions us all of the rise of the technocratic class, the Men of Reason who […]

  3. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:
    Strange how we speculate on future dystopias, while we are living in one. The great writers shine the truth on it. The subtle and covert power games of Brave New World have won over the overt oppression of 1984.

  4. Brian Turner says:

    A desire for domination and control is what comes from ‘competing’ for ‘resources’. In the past 30-odd years especially we’ve moved further away from a sincere commitment to the value/s of the common good. We’ve also got better and better and plundering and raping Nature – commodities rule!

  5. […] was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into […]

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