Cuckoldry, Bankruptcy and Utopia
By Karl Whitney.
Charles Fourier, The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy, Trans. Geoffrey Longnecker, Wakefield Press, 2011.
This wickedly entertaining pair of taxonomies emerged from the mind of Charles Fourier, the French utopian socialist who, in the early nineteenth century, suggested collective living in phalanstères – large buildings which housed communities that would live according to social principles established by the philosopher. His flights of fancy often saw him mocked: for example, he had suggested that human beings would evolve to the point where they would develop a fifth limb, the archibras – essentially a powerful tail with a hand-like claw at the end. (Caricaturists sometimes depicted it as an eye on the end of a tail – see below.) Nevertheless, Fourier justly became a major influence on subsequent socialist thought. With these two texts, newly translated by Geoffrey Longnecker and published by the excellent Wakefield Press, we find Fourier in a playfully satirical mood, gleefully pointing out the foibles and shortcomings of bourgeois society.
But, as the translator’s introduction indicates, there was a serious point to Fourier’s satire, albeit one that was often buried within a complex, playful and dizzying construct, ‘mingling fantastical poetic imaginings with cutting critiques of society. Fourier outlined his plans for a future society with the often endearingly dry talent of a maniacal bookkeeper, but he would also wilfully tease his readers or bury and hide ideas like a political alchemist, either paranoid in thinking his ideas could be stolen from him, or worried that his readers would not yet be ready to hear what he had to say.’
The peculiar experience of reading Fourier now, at this moment in human (and economic) history, is that both sides of Fourier speak to you – the constructor of utopian alternatives to the vapid ‘way things are’ and the ludic, sometimes explosively vituperative, sometimes self-mocking humorist. This suggests to me that, rather than Fourier being divided between the system builder – from whom later socialists such as Victor Considerant excavated a more sober system of thought – and the quasi-lunatic who spoke of lemonade oceans and mutant tails, both were complimentary strands, and were part of the same project. In order to set oneself against society in the way Fourier did, one had to take a risk and unfetter the imagination. Fourier is not our contemporary – he’s weirder and more challenging than that. Nevertheless, his work has something cryptic and discomforting to tell our faulty contemporary world.
Fourier’s first hierarchy consists of a classification of cuckolds under various headings, such as ‘the Sympathetic Cuckold’, ‘a man who grows fond of his wife’s lovers and makes them his close friends’, and ‘the Transcendent, or High-Flying Cuckold’, who ‘marries a beautiful woman [but] gives her up for something with high stakes, like a big position or an important partnership’. The literal visual indicator of cuckoldry recurs as a refrain in Fourier’s text – variations on the cuckold’s wearing of horns, such as ‘[he] would do better to keep an eye on what is growing on his forehead’, sprout throughout the work. And Fourier doesn’t leave himself out of the equation. Of the ‘Judicious, or Guaranteed, Protocuckold Cuckold’, ‘the man who marries a rich woman for the comfort of liberty’, he writes: ‘this is the species of cuckoldry to which I would aspire if I ever married. Any woman who would introduce me to this title in the fraternity would make an excellent bargain, as much for her as for me.’
But cuckoldry, rather than being a trivial joke to Fourier, was actually the signifier of what he saw as a serious fault in bourgeois society, where passions were constrained, and women kept unemancipated, through the institutions of marriage and monogamy. However, he saw cuckoldry as a minor societal hypocrisy when compared with bankruptcy, which his second hierarchy enumerates. His taxonomy of bankruptcy is largely an attack on the laissez-faire capitalist system that encourages too many merchants and traders and legitimates wastage and fraud. (Fourier summarizes such a system in this way: ‘the lovely principle: let the merchants do what they will, they know very well what best suits their interest’.) When things go wrong, the get-out clause of bankruptcy is casually invoked, and Fourier suggests that this easy-come, easy-go attitude encourages regular, ostensibly honest men to become men of commerce, and eventually – inevitably – file for bankruptcy.
It is in this hierarchy that Fourier is at his most aphoristic: here is where he shows his claws, or, if you prefer, reveals his archibras: ‘A bankrupt man is a true citizen of the world when, after having exploited one kingdom, he then goes on to create bankruptcies in several others.’ ‘In certain cities,’ Fourier writes, ‘one no longer asks who has gone bankrupt, but who has not’. His description of the ‘Transcendent Bankruptcy’ reads thus: ‘immense and rapid growth […] and then a sudden collapse, a terrible fall whose repercussions echo throughout the four corners of the world and leave behind such a tangled mess that businessmen will be skimming profits off its repercussions for ten years after.’ Sadly, Fourier is very much of his time in his anti-semitism, visible when he elides the cheating merchant with Jewishness in a way that, the foreword suggests, is ‘unworthy of a visionary.’
These two texts provide a brief introduction to Fourier’s knottily imaginative thought. One can here witness two projects intertwining: firstly, the satirical skewering of the middle-classes that makes the book something of a companion to Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas; secondly, one can easily detect the straining of the utopian to think society in a radically different way. Fourier’s book of barbed observations thus forms part of his visionary attempt to open a gateway to another world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Paris. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph. His essay on Georges Perec and the Situationists is in the third issue of The White Review.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 25th, 2011.