On Fourier, II: The Controller of Desires
Introduction to Charles Fourier, Theory of the Four Movements and The New World of Love, with Other Writings on the Work, Education and Architecture of the Society of Harmony, selected and introduced by Italo Calvino (Turin: Einaudi, 1971). The writing of this introduction, dated April 1971, and the publication of the volume concluded a period of reading works on and by Fourier that began in 1968.
An inexhaustible inventor of words, Fourier did not have linguistic good luck on his side. Of all the bizarre neologisms that cram his pages, only one was accepted and consecrated by common use in all the languages of Europe: “phalanstery.” Having little by little lost its futuristic connotations, the term has ended up by standing for the enormous monotonous low-rent complexes on the outskirts of cities—exactly the opposite, in fact, of the multicolored, multiform world imagined by a man who was described by a publicist of his times as “the Ariosto of utopians.”
Although for most people Fourier remains “the one who invented phalansteries,” the word crops up very rarely in the twelve great tomes of his complete works. Much is said there about the series of groups, or passional series, a collective term for the people who devote themselves to various specializations within a certain job or a certain passion; of the seristeries, or premises destined for use by the series; of the phalanx, which is the social unit—agrarian and industrial—formed by the series, and which is to make possible the combination of all 810 of the human characters and temperaments, and finally of the social order, based on the phalanxes, that will establish Harmony throughout the world.
Of the many contexts in which Fourier’s visionary and meticulous spirit anticipated the works and days of Harmony, a place scarcely more than marginal is occupied by the description of the building, or group of buildings, lived in by the phalanx and called the phalanstère. Set amid a rural landscape, it brought together all the conveniences of city life and excluded all the nuisances execrated by our author to an almost obsessive degree: mud, filth, stinks, and noises.
And yet the emblematic success of the phalanstery—both as name and image—began at once, not just among unbelievers but even among his followers, with the title of the first Fourierist newspaper and the earliest community experiments. There must have been a reason for this immediate hold on the imagination. The order proposed by Fourier was, in the first instance, a mental order, not abstract but phantasmal, a system of relationships between people and, even more, of relations within each individual person, concerning knowledge and inner clarity. The first things he asks of those who will listen to him are doute absolu and écart absolu—that is, that one should question and put aside everything that has been said and thought until now in terms of philosophy and above all of morality. Fourier has a good saying that it is not man who should be changed, but Civilization. And since the latter constitutes a large part of ourselves, what he is demanding is still an inner metamorphosis as a preliminary condition. We can understand how both his disciples and his adversaries, rather than racking their brains over this point, preferred to grasp at the more solid, stable, and external image that was offered them, that of the building. The history of the failures that Fourierism came up against in practice is all to be found in the folds of this doctrine, which is presented as irrefutably self-evident.
Even in our own century the rediscovery of Fourier by poets and writers (and psychoanalysts) has been accompanied by a rediscovery on the part of architects, as a precursor of town planning (another failed dream of happiness: Le Corbusier’s ville radieuse is the reference most commonly made). But between the two rediscoveries there remains a hiatus that is hard to fill, consisting in the contradiction between two ways of using the utopia. We can either consider it for whatever there is in it that can be achieved, as the model for a new society that can grow on the fringes of the old one, later to eclipse it through the strength of new values; or we can view it for whatever in it appears inflexible to all conciliation, radically opposed not only to the world around us but also to the inner conditioning that governs our attribution of values, our ability to desire a different kind of life, and our very way of looking at the world: as a total way of looking that sets us inwardly free to free ourselves outwardly. We might say that Fourier is only today beginning to be read, since in his work we no longer attempt to separate the serious aspects from the fantastic or scandalous ones, as his embarrassed followers did, but consider the visionary aspects no less significant than the others, and the most serious aspects as imprinted with the same visionary spirit, and both of them the successful bearers of scandal.
This is only one of the many reversals in the history of our author’s reputation. Although he spread abroad the picture of himself as an unheeded prophet waiting every day at noon for the patron who would finance his first phalanx, he was during his lifetime (at least for the last twelve years of it) at the head of an ample school of followers that was not lacking generous patrons, either, and he lived to see the first attempt—and failure—at a societal experiment. His school survived for several decades after his death, though amid bitter dissensions, and the experiments multiplied. In the years 1830—48 Fourierism extended overseas. For the influence it had on the revolutionary Russian intelligentsia we need only recall the Petrashevsky circle in Moscow, whose members (including Dostoyevsky) ended up in 1849 facing a firing squad and (after a last-minute pardon) exiled to Siberia. In the United States the experimental commune at Brook Farm, founded in New England by the Reverend George Ripley as an application of Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy (and in which Hawthorne had a hand), was transformed into the North American phalanx as a result of the Fourierist propaganda of Albert Brisbane. Experiments and influence spread as far afield as Romania and Spain.
In spite of all this, as a practical project and a political movement Fourierism got nowhere, not only because the agricultural phalanxes came to grief and dissensions multiplied within the school, but also because the evils of the civilization denounced by the master grew to such proportions that it was no longer possible to hope to cure them with the good example of such tiny colonies.
At the same time as Fourier, his chief rival also declined into obsolescence. This was Saint-Simon, against whose school Fourier had not been sparing in his attacks. But in the oblivion they share, their two paths are radically divergent. If no one today reads Saint-Simon or refers to him, it is because we are living in the midst of his system, because the technocratic and productivistic “industrial society” he prophesied has triumphed. This has not been the panacea for social evils that he promised. Nor has it eliminated from the scene the much-execrated military power, has in fact joined forces with this power, and continues to be the implicit and unchallenged model toward which the historical future is tending, personified by the two colossi who now carve up the planet between them.
Compared with Saint-Simon, Fourier is the last word in outdatedness. Lucid as he was in his critique of the present, he understood nothing of what was then coming to the boil. Both of them spoke of the “new industrial world,” but the Anglophile Saint-Simon (who in addition was a veteran of the American Revolution) had his eyes open on a world that was anything but utopian, whereas the Anglophobe Fourier gives us a kermess of happy farmers, and in his examples refers to nothing but horticulture and gardening, or to workshops scarcely above the level of cottage industry.
This macroscopic error of perspective (or unconscious repression, or deliberate determination to cancel the rejected perspective from his own field of vision) was not all that rendered Fourier impracticable. Eagerness to include the whole universe pervades his farraginous volumes, with their labyrinthine structure upon which complicated subdivisions proliferate a mass of prefaces, interludes, and conclusions indicated by a riot of terminology such as prolégomenes, préambule, intermède, cislégomenes, extraduction, arrière-propos, as well as a selection of antienne, cis-médiante, trans-médiante, intrapause, cis-lude, ulter-pause, ultralogue, ultienne, postienne, postambule, etc., etc., with lists and synoptic tables arranged according to a particular numbering system, so that the numbers alternate with special graphic signs that indicate the pivot, or center of the series (from which radiate the two wings and the two ailerons, ascending and descending), and the ambigu, or term of transition from one series to another, an arrangement that can also correspond to a musical scale, with chords in the major or the minor. But the eccentricities of form are in perfect keeping with the flow of the arguments, which burst their banks in all directions, amid continual references to a future work in which the basics will be found.
What therefore distinguishes this work from the notebooks of so many would-be talented scribblers, constructors of universal systems, which pour continually into the wastepaper baskets of publishers and scholarly reviews—those works by misunderstood philosophers and weekend cosmographers that in his youth Raymond Queneau (a great reader of Fourier, incidentally) proposed to take a census of by combing the catalogues of the Bibliothèque Nationale?
More even than the vision of a society dedicated to festivals and processions, in costumes garnished with plumes and flounces, with the challenge of combat in gastronomy and galanterie, a society that domesticated zebras and ostriches, it was the cosmic prophecies that bore the brunt of the derision of the wits: the aurora borealis that would become permanent and turn the whole world into a temperate zone; the sea that would acquire the flavor of lemonade; the moon that, long since murdered by the fetors of the earth, would be replaced by five smaller moons; and animals useful to man—the antilion, the antiwhale, the anticrocodile—that would take the place of fearsome beasts. *
Was Fourier a madman, then? Or a hoaxer who poked fun at his readers? Or a humorist appealing to a crafty reader? Or was it all a smokescreen to help him smuggle in the real content, the radical critique of society? Maybe none of these definitions is exact, and if Fourier shares something with the thinkers of his time, and before and after, it is precisely the ambition to extend his argument to fields as far as possible from their point of departure, to the natural sciences and to cosmology; this would be in keeping with the age-old systematic tradition that the specialization of disciplines has never entirely suffocated. “Is this not perhaps the habitual attitude of the philosopher who is absolutely determined to bend reality to the system he has discovered?” observes one of his most recent commentators, Emile Lehouck. “Fourier, who upsets the disposition of the plants, is no more ridiculous than the Hegel of the Philosophy of Nature, who claims to explain the animal and vegetable kingdoms by a series of theses, antitheses, and syntheses… . The most illustrious thinkers have had recourse to bizarre and highly artificial constructions to escape from the contradictions of their metaphysics or to reconcile scientific discoveries with religious beliefs… . Yet these philosophers are not treated as madmen, but studied with the greatest respect.”
However that may be, our way of reading him was bound to change radically with changes in social outlook. From 1848 on, all projects for future society had to reckon with the fact that the industrial workers had entered the field as a “class” of their own. And the umpteenth contradiction in the story of Fourier is that the theorists of the new revolutionary perspective were not only the ones who buried his doctrines forever, but also the most sympathetic, congenial, and modern of his nineteenth-century readers.
Pitilessly sarcastic about other theorists of their time, Marx and Engels willingly took up the cudgels in behalf of their three precursors of a generation earlier: the “utopians” Saint-Simon, Owen, and Fourier. But for the last of the trio, apart from a solid historical understanding, and in defiance of his detractors such as Karl Grün or Eugen Dühring, they express an instinctive admiration on the poetic level. “Some of these novels—for example, the system of Fourier—are stamped with a truly poetic spirit; others, such as those of Owen and Cabet, are without the least grain of poetry.” And having stigmatized the orthodox Fourierists as “doctrinaire bourgeois … at the antipodes” from their master himself, Marx and Engels point out the contrast between the “systematic form” and “real content” of the system, which remains the ultimate way of reading him (and not only him), a way that has now been developed and redefined very acutely by Roland Barthes as the contrast between system and systematic.
It was chiefly the temperament of Engels that established a congenial bond that extended to all the basic aspects of Fourier’s work: the critique of society, of the family, of the economy (as the discoverer of the “plethoric crisis” of capitalism, because of which “superfluity becomes the source of poverty”), as well as his gifts as a satirist (“one of the greatest satirists of all time”) and perhaps even as a mathematician. And as for his historical vision, Engels does not hesitate to declare that Fourier “handles dialectics with as much mastery as his contemporary Hegel. Faced with all that chitchat about the infinite perfectibility of man, with equal dialectical skill he stresses the fact that every phase of history has its ascending branch and also its descending one, and he applies this way of seeing things also to the future of humanity.”
Marx, who was less keen than his friend to exalt Fourier’s work in toto, also read it with amused familiarity, but points out its basic incompatibilities. In the Grundrisse, while quarreling with Adam Smith, who looked upon labor as sacrifice and nothing but, Marx at the other extreme taxes Fourier with ingenuousness and frivolity for having believed that labor could ever become a pleasure and a diversion. For Marx, emancipated labor—free creativity or participation in the socially productive process—will no longer be a sacrifice because man will fulfill himself as the subject of productivity, though this will involve no less effort.
Today we may realize that this raises the most dramatic question of our time. If socialism realistically accepts that suffering is still a necessary element in the process of production, what distinguishes exploited labor from emancipated labor will in the end boil down to a sublimation of the toil and suffering on the part of the workers. The conviction that one is realizing socialism as a philosophical model absolutely must precede any perceptible satisfaction. But for how long? And who can guarantee that this conviction is not also the result of some ideological manipulation that, in order to attain emancipation, the true revolution is not going to go on perpetrating forever? When we come to think about it, the utopian imagination, with a model that was immediately perceptible to the senses, also had a certain “realism” of its own; or, better, its own possibility of a swift comparison with reality. One could see at once whether the attempt to put it into practice corresponded to the model: if le bonheur was not an immediate result, then the experiment was a failure. And this did not mean that the model itself could not go on exerting its influence as an inflexible opponent to reality.
In opposition to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought, which looked to reason as a basis for morality, Fourier thought that the only solid ground on which to base a moral position was the principle of pleasure. In this sense the modern commentators who tend to consider him as a precursor of Freud have every right to do so, as long as they bear in mind that Freud did not think that any kind of human civilization was possible without repression and sublimation. What I mean is that the relationship between Fourier and Freud emerges as something not unlike his relationship with Marx. Fourier aims to construct a cognitive and practical system without sublimating anything or anyone, let alone repressing them. Or rather, it is “passions” accepted for what they are, that lead directly to a sublime result. With the organization of the Little Hordes—the most famous and surprising of Fourier’s thoughts as an educationalist—children who have a taste for dirt become the benefactors of society in Harmony because the task of garbage collecting is for them as pleasing as a game. In hussar uniforms, the Little Hordes gallop around on ponies accompanied by the clamor of trumpets, bells, and drums, in a perpetual subversive carnival. (Their “antisublimation” extends even to language: the Little Hordes speak in argot.)
In Fourier’s classification of the passions, along with the “five simple appetites of the senses” and the “four simple passions of the soul” (ambition, friendship, love, parenthood), it is chiefly the three “distributive” ones that he was proud of having discovered, la cabaliste, la papillonne, and la composite. These he describes with the greatest color and warmth, and they are in a position of privilege as basic mechanisms of the societal system.
The cabaliste (from cabale, “plot,” and a key word in court diplomacy under the ancien régime) is the passion for intrigues and rivalries. The composite (otherwise referred to as “exalting” or “meshing”) is the demand for pleasures that fulfill both the senses and the spirit by abandoning oneself to a blind enthusiasm. The papillonne (“butterfly,” also known as “alternating”) is the passion for change, novelty, and stimulus. The series or groups into which the social life of Harmony is arranged are chiefly based on these three passions—or better, on the cabaliste and the papillonne. Insofar as it is an irrational “letting go,” he does not succeed in bringing the composite so clearly into focus. A day in Harmony involves hopping around continually from one group to another, in the fields or in the workshops (one never does more than two hours at a stretch at any one job), and the same thing is true at meals and festivals. Contrary to what the name might seem to imply, to rise to the heights of the papillonne required the most methodical and punctilious organization. Each “industrial group” was rather like a football team, and by passing from one group to another each “societary” took on roles and responsibilities that differed from one moment to the next. To make up these teams, to arrange the shifts to fit in with the timetables of other squads, and to put them into friendly competition so that each separate activity was like a match in one unending championship, required the stimulus of the cabaliste, the passion for strategy, for team games, for aggressiveness and the urge to conflict brought into play as a social force.
Next to the most illustrious classifiers of human passions—both in the church, from Saint Thomas to the Jesuits, and in philosophy, from Descartes to Spinoza—Fourier appears at one and the same time more simplistic and more inventive. But what strikes us about his system is his diagrammatical practicality applied to such debatable and elusive material. In any situation one can always to a certain degree put something in the pigeon hole that corresponds to a certain sense of smell or touch, of ambition or the pleasure there is in parenthood.
Let us not forget that the three “distributive” passions discovered by him were also called “mechanized,” while one of them (the composite) was even called “meshing.” Walter Benjamin, even in his rather negative assessment, was the first to stress an essential point that makes Fourier less foreign to the age of technology than he seems to be at first sight. His utopia “owes its most profound impulse to the advent of machinery… . This incredibly complicated organization appears to us as a mechanism. The cogwheels of passion … are rudimentary analogies of the machine in the psychological field.”
Fourier’s dream, described in the title of one of his chapters as “the alliance of the marvelous with arithmetic,” we might today call “the alliance of Eros with cybernetics” without weakening the force of the contradiction, the irreconcilability that exists between dream and reality. The way we see it, Harmony is one vast controller of desires. The phalanx relies on a constantly active computer to make the calculations needed for the perfect sorting out of the various groups. Fourier worked for a lifetime in order to establish data that would bring about the happiness of the human race on punched cards.
The tradition of which we might call him the final outcome is that of La Mettrie, Helvétius, and Diderot—or, at any rate, he would have shared their execration of the philosophes, of the “inexact sciences,” and of the whole culture of the century in which he was born. Fourier’s anti-eighteenth-century rebellion spares nothing and no one. With all the rancor of a tradesman ruined by the curses and woes of the turn of the century,* he avenges himself on the real or supposed authors of his misfortunes, from mercantilism to Robespierre, from the continental blockade to Rousseau and Voltaire. When he intones against austere Republican virtues, against egalitarianism, against atheism, Fourier is a positive de Maistre. In the revolution and the Napoleonic Wars he saw nothing but massacres and failures.
As I sit writing these pages, the Aufklärung is not getting a very good press from intellectuals, and no one will accuse Fourier of being a reactionary because he was an enemy of the Enlightenment and of the Immortal Principles of 1789. But even if we considered it a rationalistic progressivism that had undergone no setbacks, it would still be hard to mistake Fourier’s argument for that of a legitimist. Rather, one gets the impression that he is talking about something else, that on each and every occasion he is so far ahead of the debate of his times that he is only using the same words to say things that are completely different.
Thus, when he declares that to object to the throne or the altar is useless and damaging, we must bear in mind that the society he wishes to found upon inequality is expressed chiefly in terms of formal hierarchies, as well as in the distribution of four-twelfths of all profits to the capital investors. On account of this—apart from the parody honors paid to them as to a king at a costume party—the sovereigns of Harmony have all the characteristics of solid bourgeois who enjoy the benefits of a larger stock portfolio than others have. Otherwise they participate in the various series with various functions and duties, regardless of their royal dignity, and get up every morning at four o’clock to pick bergamots or bake vol-au-vents just like everyone else. As for the clergy, far from abolishing it Fourier would aim to increase it. It is composed of both priests and priestesses (also called “corybants” and “corybantesses”) who direct the marriage rites, and in this “omnigamous” regime enjoy prerogatives that are far from ascetic.
In a word, it is precisely in his fantasies of throne and altar that this negator of the French Revolution shows himself to be a son of the revolution—or, rather, its remote descendant, just as if he were not writing under the Restoration or the July Monarchy, but in a world that had centuries ago forgotten the meaning of the old institutions. Similarly, this overturner of the rationalist eighteenth century reveals himself as a son of the eighteenth century in every crevice of his thought.
Certainly the culture of the eighteenth century that produced him is more complex than any label that could possibly be applied to it, and Fourier himself does not know whether to place it at the end of the line of the lumières (that is, of the Enlightenment) or of the illuminist es, in the sense this word still retains in French, that of illuminati or occultists. These are two areas of the eighteenth-century map that are partly opposed and partly superimposed.
Typical of this sphere of ideology is the belief that human actions ought to collaborate in carrying out the divine purpose, which is perfect in itself but requires man’s help to put it into effect. It is not for nothing that Fourier’s preaching apparently started in the Masonic lodges of Lyon. In spite of this, he directs harsh reproaches at the Masons for not having profited from the opportunities opened up by the revolution, for the founding of a new religion. Certainly his theory of the “aromatic bodies” of the stars falls within the vast tradition of occultism, even if with applications that are typical of Fourier, such as the conviction that the dead in the other world cannot be happy unless the living are happy. If the living are unhappy, how in the name of justice could it be possible for the dead to be happy?
Fourier was in fact so other, so different from everyone else, that we can scarcely be surprised that the second half of his century and the first half of ours turned their backs on him. Poets and writers included: Baudelaire went through a phase of sympathy for Fourier that then turned to antipathy; Flaubert knew enough of his writings to make Bouvard and Pécuchet go through a Fourierian stage during their frustrating encyclopedic wanderings.
Stendhal’s prediction remained isolated and unfulfilled. In September 1837, just a month before Fourier’s death, Stendhal said—or put into the mouth of a Fourierist friend in Mémoires d’un touriste—“His status as a sublime dreamer will not be recognized for twenty years.” This prophecy on the part of a contemporary as congenial as the man who saw beauty as the promesse du bonheur, who thought of aesthetic meaning as a utopia with which to challenge the present, hits the mark today, when the terms have been reversed and we can once more read the promesse du bonheur of Fourier’s utopia and enjoy it as an aesthetic object. Only in this indirect way can we again put it forward as a promise of happiness, at a time when all promises of happiness seem to be suspended and indirect, as in an interplay of mirrors.
From there we come straight to the Second World War. André Breton, then a refugee in the United States, read a work of Fourier’s and wrote a verse essay that is at one and the same time a diary of this experience, a journal of his American travels, and a bitterly disenchanted discourse on the state of the world. The Ode á Charles Fourier, published in 1945, remains one of the meatiest and most impassioned items in the bibliography of this utopian, in the form of a discussion with him against the background of a world situation that seems to negate all his prophecies.
In the postwar years one can say that there is no piece of work by Breton or initiative inspired by him that is lacking in echoes of Fourier. Breton’s rediscovery was followed by the finding of the “censored” unpublished Nouveau Monde amoureux, the anastatic reprinting of the Complete Works, a renewed feeling of Fourier’s modernity in a climate of protest and antirepressive thought, and finally, in 1970, a series of treatments of him by outstanding figures in French culture: Butor, Barthes, Klossowski, and Blanchot. (Queneau had gone exploring on his own as early as 1958—59, in the course of his encyclopedic “pataphysical” travels.)
At the time when Breton wrote the Ode, the manuscripts on the love life of Harmony were not yet known, for neither the author nor (still less) his disciples had dared to publish them (and Breton did not fail to reproach Fourier for his reticence on this point). Le Nouveau Monde amoureux, the volume that contains them, was published in 1967 in an edition that more philological care would have rendered even worthier than it is; since then it has been a text of central importance to the evaluation of Fourier.
If, within the austere climate of his political doctrines, the proposal put forward for polygamous and “omnigamous” unions did and will continue to cause scandal, the reader who approaches this text with preconceptions formed by its libertine reputation will instead find an element of unbending prudery in Fourier. He insists that girls and boys under the age of fifteen should be kept clear of all information on sexual matters. He has the Romantic cult of emotional purity, and in the sample book of the phalanx (in which every type of passion must find its adepts) he foresees couples so angelic as to love each other solely Platonically. He gets furious with women who, by yielding too soon and without any emotional preamble, catch a man unprepared, make a fool of him, and then proceed to treat him as impotent. This vindication of spiritual dignity for the male sexual “fiasco” inspires one of his most stirring pages directed against the “imperiousness of the Civilized.”
It is true that the “angelic” couples preserve their chastity by establishing a network of carnal relationships with other persons of both sexes. All the same, it is Platonic love that Fourier gives preference to—so much so that it almost seems as if the whole roundabout of sexual relations provided for in his love affairs “in orchestra” or “amorous quadrilles” has no other purpose than to surround and exalt the rarest and most yearned-for joy of all, which is spiritual love.
In Harmony, the more the passions are satisfied the less they are left to their own devices. Nothing can ever be left to chance. To put the complicated organization of “omnigamy” into action, the theoretical argument is at a certain point transformed into a real and proper novel, or, we might say, a piece of theatre, since it is largely written in dialogue. This is Fakma, or The Whirlwind of Cnidos. Not that it shows Fourier at his best as a writer. Far from it, and he knew it himself, declaring: “I provide the theme, and let someone else add his prose. It needs flowers of rhetoric and the dust of butterfly wings.” But it tells us a lot about the literary roots of Fourier’s world, set somewhere between the seventeenth-century “precious” style of Honoré d’Urfe’s Astrée and the eighteenth-century satirical fictions inspired by The Arabian Nights. The visual repertoire of evasion has not really changed much since then. In the eyes of the modern reader, the adventures of the vast and stupendous Fakma will seem much like the erotic fantasies of the Barbarella cartoons.
However, the real surprise of Le Nouveau Monde amoureux is quite another: the explanation of the world of “amorous manias.” Sexual perversions are the final test for Fourier’s ethics, with their refusal to see “wrong” in any passion, whatever it may be. Methodical and imperturbable, the author succeeds in demonstrating that the passions always can and must do good to one’s neighbor and never do him harm, because there is only wrong when a passion is opposed or repressed. Using the example of a Russian princess who delighted in torturing her serfs, but only because she was not free to follow her lesbian preferences, Fourier, with the least of effort, succeeds in removing the gigantic stumbling block put in his way by the parallel work of that other great compulsive writer and visionary, Sade. The sadistic component of Eros, destructive and blindly egotistical, is dissolved (“evaporated,” says Barthes) in the perfect distributive mechanism of the societal system, in which every secret propensity can be understood and satisfied.
To describe Fourier in relation to Sade—seeing that in French critical thought today it appears that the whole of literature can be viewed only in relation to that extreme point—therefore becomes obligatory.* For Pierre Klossowski, Fourier’s work, in which “the seriousness of perversion must be replaced by play,” is to be considered without hesitation as “as unusual, as important, as frenzied as that of Sade.” On the other hand, Maurice Blanchot, in a piece in which he casts a distinctly cold eye on our author, describes Fourier’s as “a passion without desire … a measured passion, not erotic, which satisfaction succeeds in fulfilling and which therefore always reaches its objective. Which would be very insipid if behind every passion, as its unfailingly disguised power and truth, the sovereign passion of unity did not watch over its alternations, amounting to a system the complications of which are forever postponing its achievement.” According to Blanchot, Fourier was animated by the “concern to reassure himself by reassuring us with the certainty of a happiness that has become a universe… . Measure—measured happiness—is such a measureless necessity that it not only forces the whole universe to change, but is not content with the universe and makes it one element of another, and so on almost endlessly, until we reach that tranquil night in which everything comes to a halt but nothing fades.”
One could say that any tragic vision of the world is incompatible with this viewpoint which, though extremely sensitive to whatever is negative in his (and our) civilization, is always capable of dissolving negativeness, evil, and vice simply by the strength of its regulative serenity. Even perversions, for all their exclusiveness and egotism, if publicly accepted and practiced with the help of the social organization, become a precious aid to general harmony. The distribution tables of passional tendencies, necessary to the proper functioning of the groups and series, have to start from the rarest and most bizarre tastes, both gastronomic (like those of the astronomer Lalande, who was said to eat live spiders) and erotic (like those of a Prussian officer who confined himself to scratching his beloved woman on the heels). The census of manias is essential to the discovery of which other characteristics accompany them, and then to the extension of the study of correlations to tendencies that become little by little more common. Fourier heralds the need for a “Kinsey Report” on a large scale, and one that will make it possible to establish the “horoscope” of each individual from birth, thus preventing crime and not allowing talent and genius to go to waste.
In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision. It was not for nothing that Fourier was a kinsman and friend of Brillat-Savarin, the author of The Physiology of Taste. His own gluttony is never generic: he always refers to a specific dish, and a particular way of cooking that dish.
Some of his examples of bonheur were inspired by the high-life habits of the rich. His violent quarrels with mercantile civilization censured not wealth, for it was a bearer of pleasure, but, rather, the inability to enjoy wealth. We should not forget that in his diagram of the passions, or “passional tree,” the word luxisme is applied to the branch that spreads out into the five appetites of the senses; by luxisme he means the desire for “inner luxury” (or health) and “outer luxury” (or wealth), both being conditions needed for the full exercise of the senses. Far from trying to dissolve the connection between wealth and pleasure. Harmony strives to generalize both.
Some scholars have attributed to him a life style in conformity with his hedonistic theories, but it is not clear whether he had any direct experience of pleasure-loving ways. Of any sprees he might have enjoyed as a traveling salesman and guest in family-run pensions, no evidence is left to us. In Le Nouveau Monde amoureux he hints, as if speaking of a basic moral experience for him, at having by chance discovered in himself an “amorous mania”; the pleasure of being present at and sharing in the love play between two women. In the erotic phantasmagoria he constructed, lesbianism is surrounded by a particular kind of nimbus. Another passion that emerges from his pages, though unconfessed this time, is gerontophilia. With what fervor of dedication do we see young men girding up their loins for acts of “amorous charity” toward elderly matrons and “patriarchesses.” Also, one of the most delightful of his gastronomic examples concerns the predilection for leathery old hens… .
But these constants of his fantasy world do not allow us any inferences about the man and his private life. Disciples and memorialists agree in describing him as an austere, cold, surly man, a character that corresponds well with the features we see in his portraits and the fanatical concentration to which the great mass of his written work bears witness. They say he never laughed, spoke little (his closest friend, Just Muiron, was deaf), lived alone in a modest apartment full of cats and flowering plants, and walked the streets with a surveyor’s stick because he had a mania for measuring everything. Frank E. Manuel, an American historian who has tried to reconstruct the psychological portraits of the “Prophets of Paris,” wonders whether “this inventor of the system of passionate attraction had ever experienced one.”
The “perennially gay nature” to which Engels attributed Fourier’s satirical genius was therefore one of those natures that find their good cheer only in the act of writing. While putting Fourier into his Anthologie de l’humour noir, Breton found his real antecedent—even temperamentally—in Swift, who with Sade and Lichtenberg precede him in the genealogy of “black humorists.” A vein of latent misanthropy runs through the pages of this missionary of universal happiness. The echo of Molière is explicit in Hiérarchie du cocuage, Fourier’s best effort as a “moralist,” which is quite in the line of the great French seventeenth-century authors of “Characters.”
One of the derogatory judgments made about him in the nineteenth century (that of Eugen Dühring, who called him a “social alchemist,” thus provoking a heated defense from Engels), in today’s changed intellectual attitude toward alchemy, which dispenses with the rudimentary dichotomy between charlatanism and science, strikes us as a happy metaphor. If alchemy was first and foremost a technique of knowledge and the inner transformation of man carried out by means of a ritual transformation of matter, Fourier’s way—diverging from that of science, and based on a system of analogies hailing from the medieval tradition—is similar to alchemical research; as such, it establishes a relationship of affinity with the work of artists and poets, in their manipulation of linguistic and mythical material in the hope of managing by their means to “change life.”
A lot is said nowadays about the modernity of Fourier, making him out to be a precursor of psychoanalysis (of Freud, or of Reich, or of group therapy), comparing him to Norman O. Brown (who refers to him often) or to Marcuse (who on the contrary never mentions him), or considering him as one of the classics of antiauthoritarian and antirepressive teachings, or adopting him as a tutelary deity (whether by the Paris students of May 1968, or the hippie communes in California, or the feminist revolution, or communal experiments in free love). In my opinion, all the “operative” messages that are attributed to him do nothing but subject him to a kind of interpretation from which he had the good luck to escape when he ceased to be read as a handbook for the foundation of a new society, while continuing to function as a test of our ability to think and “see” the freedom of all and sundry, to give meaning and stringency to limitless satisfaction of our desires. One might almost think that Fourier felt compelled to mingle social organization and “astral copulations” in his pages to prevent his words from being accepted as gospel. Every time his argument runs the risk of being taken at face value—lo and behold—his practical instructions for the phalanx give way to vegetable or animal “hieroglyphics” or the positioning of the “biniverses” and the “triniverses,” and the reader is obliged to remember that what he has before him is a written text, the effectiveness of which does not lie in its “illusion of transparency.”
It is no coincidence that by means of a text that is “bastard,” “ambiguous,” and “composite,” as is that of Fourier (I give these adjectives the positive meaning they had for him, which they fully deserve), one finally gets to the point of defining the experiment that a literary discourse has made upon itself, for its own use, for the public use as well, and which it can pass on for the use and the usefulness of each and every other kind of discourse.