On Fourier, I: Brief Introduction to the Society of Love

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

On Fourier, I: Brief Introduction to the Society of Love

L’Espresso, April 18, 1971; written on the occasion of the publication of a selection from the writings of Charles Fourier, edited by Italo Calvino (see headnote to the next essay).

Fourier was distinguished by the particular quality of his visionary imagination even in his own times. Someone described him then as “the Ariosto of utopians,” though this was not meant to prevent his being taken seriously. Yet he had followers eager to put his detailed instructions for the foundation of “phalanxes” and “phalansteries” into practice point by point, and not only in France. Dostoyevsky was, as it were, a Fourierist who found himself one day in front of a firing squad, and in the United States the phalanx at Brook Farm had illustrious supporters, including Hawthorne. Stendhal called Fourier a “sublime dreamer”; Engels called him “one of the greatest satirists of all time.” But the modern reputation of this utopian from Besançon begins with André Breton, who in the Ode à Charles Fourier celebrated him as the forefather of the Surrealist revolution.

A businessman who went from financial disaster to disaster during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Fourier worked out a radical critique of commercial civilization—indeed, of Civilization tout court, because for him Civilization was a determinate period, preceded by Barbarism, and as it had begun so it was destined to end, giving place to Harmony.

Another target of his furious polemic was the family. His analysis of the hypocrisies of marriage was considered scandalous even by his own disciples, while his vindication of the freedom of women makes him today a precursor of women’s liberation.

Fourier had an obsession with classifying everything in long lists divided into genera and species. He even drew up a classification of the various types of cuckolded husbands, which along with other lists (for example, the various types of financial bankruptcy) was to have been part of a general analysis of the defects of Civilization.

This aspect—the critique of Civilization—occupies a large part of Fourier’s work, but there have always been and continue to be numerous critiques of Civilization. What makes Fourier a writer unique in his kind is his ability to see a completely different world, to describe it in the most minute detail, and to analyze the mechanisms of its motivations.

Unlike almost all social thinkers before and after him, Fourier does not want to change human “passions”: the “passions” are the sole essence of man, positive by definition, and the negative thing is what checks and represses them, which is to say Civilization. Starting from an analysis of these “passions,” Fourier piece by piece constructs a model of society in which everyone’s passions can be satisfied; indeed, a society in which the satisfaction of the passions of others guarantees the fulfillment of one’s own. The result is a vastly complex organization. Contrary to what one might think, an antirepressive theory taken to its ultimate consequences, as is this one of Fourier’s, leaves precious little margin for spontaneity, or chance, or the vagueness of psychological impulses. Everything is calculated, ordered, and precise.

The organization of a working day in the phalanx—in which everyone moves on from one job to another without spending more than two hours on any one, assuming different tasks and roles in the various “series” with which he or she is associated—is based chiefly on the fulfillment of the feeling known as “butterflying,” the wish to change occupations and company. Shows and masquerades, uniforms and parades have great importance in social life—and, indeed, in productive life as well, because “splendor in the workshop” and mythological or exotic get-ups and decorations for every social category are big incentives to social productivity.

The aspect of life in Harmony that the author described most exhaustively is the educational system, and these are the most surprising pages. Fourier considered motherly virtues to be useless, and life with fathers actually damaging. While still at the breast, children begin a collective life in the care of professional nannies. At three years of age, while amusing himself by shelling peas, the child begins to do useful work, a perfectly natural thing in a world in which it is difficult to draw the line between work and play.

The most famous and extraordinary trouvaille of Fourier as an educator is that of the Little Hordes. Those children who like to play with muck—which is to say the vast majority—are organized into Little Hordes and are responsible for collecting the garbage. Thus what in Civilization is a vice becomes in Harmony a passion much appreciated by society, and what in Civilization is a repellent chore becomes in Harmony a game that answers to an inner vocation. Instead of being looked down upon, the Little Hordes are surrounded by the veneration of the public, their members are thought of as little saints, and this prestige stimulates their dedication to the common welfare. The children of the Little Hordes wear hussar uniforms, blow trumpets, and ring bells, as well as ride ponies (whereas the Little Bands, composed of gentler children who tend flowers, are mounted on zebras, animals of which Fourier was very fond). Making noise and using rough language are the prerogatives of the Little Hordes, indivisible from their social duties, which include catching reptiles and preparing tripe in the butcher shops. (Psychoanalysts find an exact coincidence between the description of the Little Hordes and what Freud says of the anal-aggressive phase of infancy.)

The path of social sanctity, on which one starts in infancy with the Little Hordes, can be pursued in adulthood in two main fields: gastronomy and the love life. When he writes of “gastronomic science” (or “gastrosophy”) Fourier, who not for nothing was a relative, fellow townsman, and friend of Brillat-Savarin, is always in top form. The classification of gastronomic tastes and the association of lovers of this food or that, or of this or that way of cooking a certain foodstuff, is fundamental to the smooth working of the phalanx. An old hen, which when put on the table by an imprudent bride can cause a conjugal squabble, can gladden the hearts of fanciers of elderly poultry, who in Civilization do not know one another and rarely find those who understand them, whereas in Harmony they can get together periodically to enjoy their favorite dish.

The classification of tastes also regulates the perfect working of the system in matters of love. Before Krafft-Ebing and the Kinsey Report, Fourier felt the need to explore the world of sexual manias. A contemporary of Sade, and like him a visionary and compulsive writer, Fourier is not tempted by sadism. Where there is sadism there is the suffocation of a passion. The Princess Stroganoff, who tortured her serfs, was lesbian without knowing it. If her passion had been truly fulfilled, it would not have caused the suffering of others, only pleasure.

Lesbianism receives particularly close attention from Fourier, and he is very much aware of the predilection. He also shows himself to be solicitous about the amorous satisfaction of old men and women. But of all amorous passions, it is Platonic love that appears to him to arouse the most consuming desires. This aspect, better than any other, defines Fourier’s character, his extreme freedom of thought, and his fundamental candor.

The recently discovered manuscripts of Le Nouveau Monde amoureux contain a real and proper novel, Fakma, or The Whirlwind of Cnidos. It is an erotic fantasy set in a stylized Orient such as we find in Barbarella cartoons. A host of beautiful women and young men take part in erotic warfare. Having fallen into an ambush, the lovely prisoners have to earn their ransoms by giving sexual services that are also trials of virtue. Fakma, a gigantic queen who aspires to sanctity, has been seized by the desire for a chaste Platonic affair. She may fulfill her dream only on the condition that she yields carnally to fifty-six people.