Gabriel Tarde, Cave Dwelling Artists, Asian Cannibals, and a Dreadful Lack of Condoms…
I know I promised to discuss werewolves next, but I must say that I have had trouble getting into Guy Endore’s book, Werewolf of Paris. It’s not what I thought it would be, but then again, I really can’t find much written on it either, except for some fairly trustworthy sources that claim it’s one of the best werewolf novels ever written. For me, I just don’t get it. At least, not so far. I will return to it though in a week with fresh eyes. But, I decided to put my “off put” to good use, and read something else.
I came across Gabriel Tarde’s Underground Man…not to be confused with Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. I read it because it does include an apocalypse, the near extinction of mankind, the utter death of the natural world, and a necessary identity alteration for all remaining human beings. There are even some cannibals. Yet, it’s a utopian novel rather than a dystopia. Yes…I will elaborate further.
Even though this novel is frustrating in its level of racism and sexism, it nevertheless offers an elegant, albeit bizarrely optimistic, philosophy on the foundational brickwork of naked human nature. That is, a study of human nature when not caught up by the stumbling blocks of the world: physical, social, political, emotional, sexual, psychological, spiritual, and all the myriad of desires that human beings reach for as part of their hierarchy of needs. When the needs of this world—because we as humans must necessarily live in this world—are stripped away, what do human beings look like? Gabriel Tarde’s response is strongly conditional, but promising.
Basically, his assessment seems to be that when a human is allowed to be a human without the negative effects of the world, the human will be ultimately reasonable, will strive for happiness through a search for beauty, and will live in a community based on an equal measure of law and justice for all. (Tarde obviously read Plato’s Republic.) And indeed, when separated from the natural world—which is oddly enough the enemy here—human beings dispense with the need for politics, clothing, sex, and plants and animals, and are happier for it. Without the “weight of the world on their shoulders” they speak Greek, run around naked or almost naked, eat chemically engineered food created from rocks, sculpt, write music, and spew forth great poetry. There is no need for armies or police, and the politicians are unpaid pencil-pushers who work eagerly for the community. What was once considered love has changed to mean the freedom from everything. It’s hard to know whether or not to take Tarde’s narrator seriously.
But underneath this beautiful utopia where everyone is happy, carefree, safe, and uninhibited in the best way possible, a darkness lurks. It is from this darkness that Tarde’s philosophy is fully revealed. Not all is as it seems to be, and weren’t we all just waiting for that other shoe? The audience sees lovers exposing themselves to the sunless earth, and dying instantly, still embracing, still kissing, because they will not live without physical intimacy, or people who break the law by having a child and are thrown into a lake of petroleum. Not all is harmonious in this labyrinth of underground cities carved out by artists, philosophers, and poets. Not even a global climate disaster caused by the death of the sun, and the slow deaths of all who could not get to the underground communities, could quash human individuality. As it turns out, human beings will learn to exist in almost any sort of community, even becoming more successful through dire hardship than they were in a secure past, but the heart trumps the head. According to Tarde, humans are driven by deep-seated needs that cannot be unlearned, driven out, or ignored. At least, not indefinitely.
I kept reminding myself that Underground Man was first published in French in 1904 and then in English in 1905. The “science fiction” element in this novel is somewhat amusing today, especially considering ideas such as the thought that mankind could make a livable society underground under a sunless earth, where mankind would live on synthetic food, and travel by lightning speed electric trains, but that something like birth control had not been thought of. Another laughable notion is that the plot is set millennia in the future, and women have just now got the right to vote—but must be represented by their husbands, fathers, or brothers. Oh dear.
I have not decided if this novel is the utopian vision of a flakey philosopher/sociologist, or if it is actually a dystopia, or if it is a dystopia posing as utopia. But, how does this fit in with my project discussing monsters in popular culture over the past several decades and how our fears are being reflected in the monster of choice today—the post-apocalyptic, mindless, man-eating zombie chasing the ragged human survivors all over the place. Well, it is a very good resource for comparing the thoughts from “then” against what is becoming the most common school of thought “now.” And it is this…what will the survivors become? And today, humans don’t really have a lot of hope provided—unless they wish to trade their humanity in the process. Thus, in contrast, Tarde’s novel shows the audience that humans came out on top; they didn’t merely survive the end of the world, they survived it beautifully, and in time, began to look to the stars and consider life elsewhere.
So far, the zombie stories I have taken in are all terribly depressing, but Tarde’s story offers some relief, even though it is delivered with a pang underneath.
Okay, after I complete my readings and refresher readings in Adorno, Camus, Nietzsche, Freud, and Baudrillard, I will return to the Werewolf. Hopefully he will offer a better story thrill the second time around.