Sunday, August 28, 2011

Model for a Tribune that was Never Built

Model for a Tribune that was Never
wood, cement rock, acrylic
50 x 20 x 13 cm


Witte de With’s Melanchotopia is an exhibition that invites more than forty international artists to work with different venues in the city-center of Rotterdam – places where people live and work – and to activate their potential as spaces for ideas, discourse and invention.

From large-scale interventions to very simple gestures, Melanchotopia supports a range of artistic practices that go beyond the classical approach to displaying art in public space. Working with the existing dynamics of the city, Witte de With’s intention is to bring forward the diverse layers of daily life in Rotterdam, creating a rich framework for subjective encounters. It is an exhibition about the reality of Rotterdam.

Today, Rotterdam seems to be on hold between its past and its future: filled with nostalgia for the pre-WWII city and in wait for the utopian future, which is perpetually stalled in unfinished developments and reconstructions. Projections about yesterday and tomorrow drive the image of the city, that seems to lack a present. Melanchotopia performs the present of the city through the specific practice of each artist.

Over the course of the exhibition Witte de With’s galleries will be reconfigured to become the epicenter of Melanchotopia. The projects, which spread throughout Rotterdam’s center, are brought together via a graphic mapping. Besides its new function as an information center, Witte de With will be equipped with a designed bookshop and an auditorium dedicated to a sideprogram of lectures and artist talks. Here you can buy the exhibition guide with Melanchotopia map. The comprehensive educational program provides guided tours, art encounters and a special audio tour.

The Melanchotopia logo is a hybrid composition of Witte de With’s own cloud by Gerard Hadders (Hard Werken) and the Melanchotopia-rain of Sarah Morris, arranged by Markus Weisbeck (Surface).

Michael van den Abeele, Saâdane Afif, Harold Ancart, Danaï Anesiadou, Sven Augustijnen, Dirk Bell, Michael Beutler, Guillaume Bijl, Pierre Bismuth, Monica Bonvicini, George van Dam, Thea Djordjadze, Jean-Pascal Flavien, Olivier Foulon, Murray Gaylard, Filip Gilissen, Adam Gillam, Arnoud Holleman, Adrià Julià, Leon Kahane, Erik van Lieshout, Minouk Lim, Sarah Morris, Alex Morrison, Kate Newby, Ricardo Okaranza, Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Nina Pohl, Tomo Savi-Gecan, Markus Schinwald, Slavs and Tatars, Mårten Spångberg, Tobias Spichtig, Nasrin Tabatabai & Babak Afrassiabi, Zin Taylor, Harald Thys & Jos De Gruyter, Octavian Trauttmansdorff, Kostis Velonis, Lidwien van de Ven, Peter Wächtler, Lawrence Weiner.

Curated by
Nicolaus Schafhausen and Anne-Claire Schmitz
Curatorial assistants: Thomas Cuckle, Amira Gad, Fabian Schoeneich and Sam Sterckx.

Grand Opening
Friday 2 September 2011, starting from 1 p.m. till late
Witte de With Contemporary Art Center, Rotterdam.

Giraffe and Anti-Giraffe: Charles Fourier’s Artistic Thinking

1. After the War

The writings of Charles Fourier (1772–1837) are a glorious fuck you to all that exists. Yet they are neither punk’s provocation nor the apodictic objectivity of Marxian dialectics, but an enculage of civilization through the filigree work of total world reinvention.

Marx complained that Fourier’s utopia was all in his mind, that he was obliged to construct a new society “with elements supplied by his brain” because capitalist production was underdeveloped when he wrote.1 But it is perhaps this appeal to reason rather than history that makes Fourier’s imagination so radical. Even today, it has not been bought and sold: there is still nothing that surpasses Fourier’s projected state of absolute Harmony.

For André Breton, who claimed Fourier for Surrealism in his poem Ode á Charles Fourier (1947), only minds as febrile and immoral as Fourier’s could possess the “extreme freshness” necessary to re-imagine the world in the aftermath of destruction: “Fourier they’ve scoffed but one day they’ll have to try your remedy whether they like it or not …”2 Breton was the first to consult Fourier after World War II, echoing the time when Fourier himself was writing in the early nineteenth century, in a Europe that had similarly collapsed in wars. There was not much available in his historical present that one could appeal to.

Laurent Pelletier, The dreamt Phalanstère of Charles Fourier, 1868. Watercolor on paper.

According to Fourier, the world is cosmically out of whack. He blamed the arrogance of the philosophers and the charlatanism of priests for having systematically repressed the passions, leaving humankind stuck in an incoherent civilized state for 2300 years. Faced with this universal misery, Fourier heralds the triumphant reign of a Harmonian cosmic order based in his science of Passional Attraction—the primordial, ubiquitous force that connects the whole in social series.3 According to this order, government must be based on a consultation of the passions since they essentially characterize the human being and its community. Conversely, a repression of the passions will result in hypocritical social institutions like marriage and the nuclear family, from which Fourier argued that women must be freed—and in fact, Fourier took the proto-feminist view that the measure of happiness was the degree of independence of women in society.

In Harmony, communal living will be the order of the day and will be organized in micro-societies called Phalansteries, founded on collective sensuousness and industry. According to Fourier’s group theory, each Phalanstery would be populated by 1620 people—one male and one female for each of the 810 temperaments Fourier recognized. This combination would enable infinite social, aesthetic, and sexual encounters, through which humankind would regain its equilibrium. It is “schlaraffisch eingerichtet” (Benjamin; “furnished like an El Dorado”), and even pleasures—hunting, fishing, gardening, playing music and theatre, staging operas—are to be rewarded. The children organize themselves in Little Hordes where they raise each other and contribute to the everyday life of the Phalanstery. The social series of temperaments, generations, and divisions of labor describe subgroups and passionate inclinations that work in complex ways across the collectivity, resulting in a communal euphoria, a constant social high. In Fourier’s famous phrase, “the passions are proportional to the destinies.” Forget about genital love: society is erogenous, and Fourier’s scorn for the doubt of the Cartesian subject is endless.4

The Familiestère Godin was constructed between 1856-1859, by the industrial entrepreneur, Jean-Baptiste-André Godin inspired by the ideas of Fourier and Saint-Simon. As a social experiment, work facilities were linked to a communal settlement, equipped with all the necessary amenities: residential buildings, a pool, cooperative stores, a garden, a nursery, schools and a theatre (the temple of the Familistère community). This experiment lasted in cooperative form until 1968.

Harmony will bring about vast improvements, genetically and socially. In keeping with the redemption of its Harmonian birthright, humankind will mutate and over nine generations will reach an average height of seven feet and a life expectancy of 144 years. There will be plenitude on all levels. The Earth’s original five moons will be restored and its polar tilt corrected, and the oceans will have lemonade flavoring as the poles become ice-free by 1828. Constantinople is set to be the world capital and planet Earth will be crowned by a permanent aurora borealis. Fourier, a theoretical hedonist if there ever was one, also develops an entire gastrosophie that involves the gratification of all of our 810 senses (again 810!), trumping the common understanding that there are only five. Likewise, food is a cosmic vision, a “psychedelic gastronomy!” as the editor of the first Danish translation exults.5

If all this sounds far out, then consider Fourier’s margin of error: all his calculi, he writes in Theory of the Four Movements (1808), are subject to the exception of a fraction of an eighth or a ninth:

This is always to be understood, even when I do no mention it. For instance, if I say as a general thesis, civilised man is very miserable, this means that seven-eights, or eight-ninths of them are reduced to a state of misery and privation, and that only one-eighth escapes the general misfortune and enjoys a lot that can be envied.6

This margin of error can perhaps also be applied to Fourier’s own brand of radical Enlightenment thinking: if he argues in favor of the emancipation of slaves and women, his anti-Semitism, his prejudiced view of the Chinese, and his hatred of the English show the darker sides of his thinking.

Fourier cannot be taken seriously. This is exactly the power of his text against any esprit de sérieux. With his blatant inventions and inconsistencies, his writings are ridiculous, too much. Roland Barthes called Fourier’s science “overmuch,” and considered his work as a kind of literary practice. “Never was a discourse happier,” wrote Barthes, for it describes a new social order articulated on excess, bedazzlement, and, in Fourier’s own words, the “need to protect everything we call vice.”7 Barthes writes with fascination on Fourier’s “vomiting of politics” in a “vast madness which does not end, but which permutates.”8 As Adorno summed it up, “if it can be said about anybody, then these lines apply to Fourier: ‘a fool leaves the world, and it remains stupid’”9 Benjamin, more politely, took a Nietzschean angle: “Fourier is more of an inventor than a savant.”10

2. Love of Lesbians and the Sound of Absolutely Positive Truth

Fourier’s happy discourse also relates to a systematization and practical application of his radical imagination. He was neither a mysticist nor a reformist or a revolutionary. Contrary to his reception by Marx and other socialist thinkers, he did not consider himself a utopian. Harmony does not demand work and sacrifice, but is rather the inevitable outcome of scientifically-adjusted human behavior. His controversial views on the permissive, innovative character of sexual practices—including homosexual, polygamous, extra-marital, manic, and “omnigamous”—were thus a purely scientific appreciation of one way of moving toward new social structures. (Fourier himself was prone to an ambivalent extra-mania he termed “Sapphienisme” whereby he was a lover and protector of lesbians and promoted their wellbeing. He assessed to be among about 26,400 companions worldwide with similar ideas.)

In this sense, the aim of science is simply to harness Passional Attraction as a cosmic source of energy and to bring mankind within the ordered domain of Passional Gravitation. Thus, Fourier’s socialism is not what ought to be (the essence of Marxian socialism, according to Marcuse), but what will be—naturally, rationally, and without revolution—as soon as our passions are realized socially; as soon as we are tuned in correctly, as it were, to a social space that in Fourier is reconfigured and proportioned harmonically.

The optimism of Enlightenment philosophers was often legitimized by utilitarian application. Truth—that in Fourier is “absolutely positive” (Blanchot)—was the practical task of helping humanity to become humanity, through the eradication of illness, poverty, ignorance, and so forth. The Phalanstery thus provided the ground for the commonsensical applicability of Fourier’s argument. Moreover, utilitarianism rejects the ranking of (moral) value according to a priori criteria in favor of the equal validity of each person’s own search for happiness and pleasure. Fourier, to be sure, accepts and celebrates the subjective multi-directionality of vanity, passion, and inclination. To him, one must embrace the delights of contrast, competition, and rivalry on the level of the individual and social series: in Harmony, Industrial Armies roam the world and compete in aesthetic battles to build large-scale engineering projects, cook the most delicious pie, or stage the most impressive opera. Thus Fourier’s anti-conformist God resides over a Combined Order whose permanent social revelation consists in variety and complexity—difference in age, fortune, ability, temperament. In the 1960s, the hippies would sum up such undogmatic tolerance with the slogan “do your own thing.” Let the pleasure principle rule. Don’t moralize, don’t pathologize.

Of course, Fourier also had a theory for the history of the entire world. His cosmogony is a theory of the “ages of happiness,” which explains the progress and decay of civilization in ascending and descending vibrations, together comprising eighty thousand years and thirty-two social metamorphoses, after which humankind will cease to exist. The ascending and descending vibrations serve to “pattern” movements between different stages of individual and historical being, corresponding to the progression from youth to decrepitude in the human life span. The musical analogy is elaborated in the way Fourier organizes the subject’s passions and senses as a keyboard with thirty-two keys. Like the passions are a keyboard, for example, so is the Sun surrounded by a claviature of planets arranged in octaves; thus social change on Earth will influence the entire solar system and affect the planetary orbits positively. This ties in Fourier’s theories with the ancient Pythagorean and Renaissance beliefs in an affinity between natural law and divine law, between the harmony of the passions and the harmony of the spheres.11

Engraving of A Perfumer's Dress

In 1814, Fourier discovers the Aromal Fluid, a medium for the great chain of being, a connection between the Earth and the rest of the universe.12 The Aromal Fluid (or Aromal Movement) is a “system for the distribution of known or unknown aromas, which control men and animals, form the seeds of winds and epidemics, govern the sexual relations of the planets and provide the seeds of created species.”13 He notes that, “if everything is connected in the system of the universe, there must exist a means of communicating between creatures of the other world and this.” This means of communication is the Aromal Fluid, the supersensible exhalation of the planets. It is an exemplary vital matter: a single, all-pervasive, imperceptible substance—a bit like capital in our present cosmogony, we can say; a universal middleman.

In Fourier’s cosmic order, the world is folded in upon itself in analogies mirroring the principles that constitute it (with octaves, harmonies, planetary orbits, and so on). It has no messianic horizon because it is held together by divine, mathematical laws—geometrical principles that contain parcels of all states of being, including their respective polarities and all ambivalent and transitional forms, and that are only complete in the totality of their variety and infinite multiplicity. Every moment in a geometric time-space corresponds to myriad events that are distributed across a plane defined by cycles, scales, and symmetries.

In the few remarks that he made on Fourier, Maurice Blanchot deconstructs the status of desire in the former’s system. To Blanchot, the “strange gift” of Passional Attraction is a “passion without desire.”14 Where desire is that of an individual subject, of a sovereign “I” that affirms the law that it destroys in the consumption of a transgressive desire, a passion without desire—measured, non-erotic, yet obliging the entire universe to modify itself—never coincides with pleasure, even if pleasure is one of its moments. Blanchot’s reading implies that cosmic happiness goes beyond the individual human subject: instead, Passional Attraction becomes a tendency that rises into the non-time of 80,000 years of ascending and descending vibrations toward universal harmony and sympathetic fusion within the given order of the cosmic household.15 Fourier’s harmonial vibration is the cosmic timbre of a higher pattern to which the soul is already attuned.

Max Ernst, Une semaine de bonté, 1936. Graphic novel.

3. Fourier as a Way of Life

Fourier’s vision for communal living, liberated sexuality, and cosmic harmony resonated with countercultural, “tribal” emancipation and holistic utopian projects of the 1960s, such as Buckminster Fuller’s “spaceship earth” and Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.”16 After his writings were republished in France in 1966–68, commentaries and new translations sprang up across Europe and his work was almost obligatorily referenced in critical writing at the time, as well as and in architecture, with the Phalanstery being an inspiration for Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation (1947­–52). In art and counterculture, Fourier's work had an at least a spectral presence, as in Constant’s New Babylon, the mandatory daily exchange of sex partners in Otto Mühl’s Aktionsanalytische Organisation, or in the name of the Danish student and youth organization Det Ny Samfund (“New Society”). In general, Fourier’s conjoint theorization of labor and love dovetailed with the many post-World War II attempts at thinking Marx and Freud together.

As Fourier’s teachings had been sporadically realized in communes in Europe, North America, and South America in the nineteenth century, so was there also the psychedelic Phalanstery. As members of the San Francisco commune Togetherness explained to Dominique Desanti in the late sixties, “We are Fourierists.”17 Asked whether they have actually read Fourier they reply, “we’ve been told.” Theirs is “Un Fourier par ouï-dire,” infused with elements of Gandhism, concocted in a mix of memory and invention that in itself is quite Fourierian. Still, the members of the commune remain faithful to Fourierian pillars of faith such as the inclusion of children in production, the division of the working day into two-hour shifts, and the integration of male and female tasks. Visitors have told the members of Togetherness that Fourier condoned the use of drugs as an adjuvant or stimulant, and they sell the handicraft of the commune in the Haight-Asbury district: “ex-hippie-capital turned into necropolis, where the bourgeois come to watch the post-hippies, drugged to the point of drifting away, voluntary onlookers, the foam of a broken wave.”18 While Fourier’s nineteenth-century followers tended to underplay or even censor his emphasis on the unrestrained development of desire, it seems that his resurgence in sixties’ collectivism was focused on exactly the Dionysian aspects of his socialism. Accordingly, Togetherness was built on the rule of love, and its denizens embraced Passional Attraction in an amour diffus that included lesbian and gay relationships, and in which orgies, instituted by Fourier as a superior form of love, is an act of principle. In Desanti’s micropolitical turn of phrase, the drop-outs of Togetherness have found “their universal love, a total tolerance of minoritarian and singular tendencies.”19

By 1969, Togetherness suffers a meteoric decline and is dissolved by its members. The former communards choose social revolt as their next endeavor, in factions of post-Proudhonism, post-Marxism, post-Leninism, or “para-Maoism.” Even in its collapse, Fourierism generates difference. Short-lived as it was, the example of Togetherness during the Summer of Love seems to refute Benjamin’s claim that “only in the summery middle of the nineteenth century, only under its sun, can one conceive of Fourier’s fantasy materialized.”20 Writing in 1969, Roland Barthes predicted the decline of the Fourierist commune,

Could we imagine a way of living that was, if not revolutionary, at least unobstructed? No one since Fourier has produced this image: no figure has yet been able to surmount and go beyond the militant and the hippy. The militant continue to live like a petty bourgeois, and the hippy like an inverted bourgeois; between these two, nothing. The political critique and the cultural critique don’t seem to be able to coincide.21

Similarly, to Herbert Marcuse it is also close but no cigar with Charles Fourier. In his Eros and Civilization (1955) Marcuse notes that, “Fourier comes closer than any other utopian socialist to elucidating the dependence of freedom on non-repressive sublimation.”22 But the nature of Fourier’s idea is based on the repressive elements of “a giant organization and administration,” which for Marcuse risks fascism, for the working communities of the Phalanstery “anticipate ‘strength through joy’ rather than freedom, the beautification of mass culture rather than its abolition.” To accuse Fourier of aestheticizing politics seems to rationalize his work through the historical knowledge of a totalitarian modernity. In the mid-twentieth century, however, it was no doubt inevitable to comment on the fascist connotations of the Phalanstère. (Or maybe it was simply a question of irreconcilable temperaments between Marcuse, the well-intentioned utopianist schoolteacher and Fourier the “delirious cashier,” as Flaubert called him.)

Also other post-World War II thinkers were uncertain as to whether Fourier’s imaginative intoxication could be reclaimed for critical purposes. While his work was eagerly referenced, it remained exotic if not intractable; thus Kenneth White asks whether Fourierism is of “any interest to us in the present historical conjecture, or whether it is to be placed, once and for all, as a particularly grotesque item, for dilettante admiration and curiosity, on the shelf of political antiquities.”23 Fourier never quite fit history, yet his happy discourse is a specter that seems to trans-illuminate any given historical moment as an x-ray of that which is not, but exists anyway because it can be imagined.

Fourier wasn’t read only as a “vomiting of politics,” but also as a regurgitation of psychoanalysis. His philosophy was in a sense already anti-Oedipal, corresponding to Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion that desires don’t belong to the realm of the imaginary, and are never transformed through desexualization or sublimation. Once sexuality is conceived as a force of production in its own right (the unconscious as a worker), it escapes restriction into narrow cells of family, couple, person, object. “Sexuality is everywhere,” Deleuze and Guattari wrote, recalling Fourier’s “vibrations and flows” to evoke how libidinal energy proceeds directly to the entire social field:

For the prime evidence points to the fact that desire does not take as its object persons or things, but the entire surroundings that it traverses, the vibrations and flows of every sort to which it is joined, introducing therein breaks and captures—an always nomadic and migrant desire, characterized first of all by its “gigantism”: no one has shown this more clearly than Charles Fourier.24

As a result, and as per Fourier, “we always make love with worlds”—which is, in fact, a good definition of artistic thinking: to make love with worlds—nothing less.

Franscisco Goya, The Witches' Sabbath, 1797-98. Oil on canvas.
4. Giraffe, Reindeer, Dog

Planetary lovemaking makes us recognize strange signs in civilization. According to Fourier, the hieroglyph of truth is the giraffe:

The hieroglyph of truth in the animal kingdom is the giraffe. Since the characteristic of truth is to surmount error, the animal that represents it must be able to raise his head higher than all the others: this the giraffe can do, as it browses on branches 18 feet above the ground. It is, in the words of one ancient author, “a most fine animal, gentle and agreeable to the eye.” Truth is also most fine, but as it is incapable of harmonizing with our customs, its hieroglyph, the giraffe, must be incapable of helping humans in their work; thus God has reduced it to insignificance by giving it an irregular gait which shakes up and damages any burden it might be called upon to bear. As a result we prefer to leave it to inaction, just as nobody will employ a truthful man, whose character runs counter to all accepted customs and desires.25

Fourier reasons that just like truth is only beautiful when it is inactive, so the giraffe is only admirable when it is at rest. With this analogy he proves that God created nothing without a purpose—even the giraffe, which is supremely useless. Thus, if one wishes to know what purposes it will serve in societies other than Civilization, one can study this problem in the “counter-giraffe,” the reindeer. A creature that only lives in hostile climates, the reindeer is “an animal which provides us with every service imaginable: you will see that God has excluded it from those social climates, from which truth will also be excluded for as long as Civilization lasts.”26 Fourier continues,

And when the societary order has enabled us to become adept at the use of truth and the virtues which are excluded from our lives at present, a new creation will provide us, in the anti-giraffe, with a great and magnificent servant whose qualities will far surpass the good qualities of the reindeer, which so excites our envy and arouses our anger at nature for having deprived us of it.27

Fourier’s delirious parable will get us nowhere near objectivity and consensus, yet it in its irreducibility it circumscribes the absence of truth. As we wait for this fantastic animal—the anti-giraffe—to arrive, we can delectate its profoundly aesthetic incongruence with all that exists, its devastating power of counter-actualization. If one wants a social aesthetic, then this is it: all that Fourier’s philosophical system talks about is the social, yet it can never be socialized, never become one with society, never become operational or ameliorative. Power will never be able to use Fourier to heal the miseries it has created. More than 200 years after Fourier wrote his first book, at a time when art is encroached by economy like never before, this fact alone seems more important than ever for the thinking and the making of art.

If we were to consider Fourier’s text a blueprint for a new life-world then we will, melancholically, get sucked back into the Real that we can never master. Just think of the personal misery of Charles, who each day at noon waited for the patron who would sponsor the realization of one of his Phalansteries, but who never arrived; who dreamt of gastronomic orgies but ate bad food his entire life; who was found dead kneeling by his bed in his old frock-coat… Instead, if contemporary life appeals to none of your 810 senses, one can take a hit of the perverse systematic of Fourier’s Harmony to invigorate sensing and speculation. “It was all in the mind,” said Marx of Fourier—but so is any other theory, institution, and discourse that reproduces the world. Most of all, reading Fourier today is a perfect anachrony to capital’s pre-emption of the future through calculated responses in the present. Even (or especially) capital will never catch up to this. It is a text that tops off all the absurdities that we are being served, by economy and politics alike, revealing them not as false and theatrical, but as gnomic and forlorn—incapable of touching Fourier’s divine and unapologetic bullshit that makes you defenseless, lifts you up and sets you free.

Adorno and Horkheimer write that in the culture industry, imagination goes to the dogs. Not so in Fourier. Here we always make love with worlds.


1 Marx quoted from Kenneth White, Introduction to Ode to Charles Fourier by André Breton, trans. Kenneth White (London: Cape Goliard/Grossman, 1969).

2 André Breton: Selections, ed. Mark Polizzotti (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 32.

3 In Fourier there are twelve passions common to everybody. The five “luxurious” passions (that correspond to the five senses) tend toward luxury, pleasure, the formation of groups and affective ties. The four cardinal, affective passions—friendship, ambition, love and “familism”—concern relationships with others; and finally the three “distributive or mechanizing” passions, the Cabalist, the Butterfly, and the Composite that have to do with calculation and organization of pleasurable work. The twelve passions combine in a thirteenth super-passion, Unityism, that rules the Destinies for all time. This is the “inclination of the individual to harmonize everything around him and of the whole human race … it is a boundless philanthropy, a universal well-being,” the comprehension of the whole. Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements, eds. Gareth Stedman Jones, Ian Patterson (1808; Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1996), 81.

4 Walter Benjamin, “Fourier,” (c.1940), in Das Passagen-Werk (Berlin: Suhrkamp), 792.

5 Michael Helm, introduction to Stammefællesskabet by Charles Fourier (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1972).

6 Fourier, Theory of the Four Movements, 34.

7 Fourier, Theory of the Four Movements, 72. To Barthes, Fourier is a “logothet,” the founder of a new discourse whose social inventions are facts of writing. Roland Barthes, Sade Fourier Loyola (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971), 83.

8 Barthes, Sade Fourier Loyola, 88.

9 Theodor Adorno, forward to Theorie der vier Bewegungen und der allgemeinen Bestimmungen by Charles Fourier, trans. Gertrud von Holzhausen (Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1966), 5.

10 Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, 775.

11 For Joscelyn Godwin, Fourier’s cosmogony is “as traditional as could be” viewed from the point of a Pythagorean tradition. See Joscelyn Godwin, The Harmony of the Spheres. A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music (Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 1993), 357. Unlike Godwin, Benjamin holds that “Man muss sich klar machen, dass Fouriers Harmonien auf keiner der überkommenen Zahlenmysterien beruhren, wie dem pythagoräischen oder dem keplerschen. Sie sind gar aus ihm selber herausgesponnen und sie geben der Harmonie etwas Unnahbares und Bewahrtes: sie umgeben die harmoniens gleichsam mit Stacheldraht. Le bonheur du phalanstère es tun bonheur barbelé.” (Das Passagen-Werk, 785–6).

12 Fourier’s Theory of The Four Movements covers the social (or passionate), animal (or instinctive), organic and material movements.

13 Fourier, Theory of The Four Movements, 16.

14 Maurice Blanchot, “En guise d’introduction” Topique, 4–5 (October, 1970), 8.

15 Barthes talks about the domesticity of utopia: “The area of need is Politics, the area of Desire is what Fourier calls Domestics. Fourier has chosen Domestics over Politics, he has constructed a domestic utopia (but can a utopia be otherwise? Can a utopia be political? Isn’t politics: every language less one, that of Desire? … Politics is what forecloses desire, save to achieve it in the form of neurosis: political neurosis or, more exactly: the neurosis of politicizing.” Barthes, Sade Fourier Loyola, 85.

16 Linda Sargent Wood discusses holistic world views in the postwar era and how their influence peaked in the sixties; apart from Fuller and King, she discusses Rachel Carson, Teilhard de Chardin, and the Esalen Institute. Linda Sargent Wood, A More Perfect Union. Holistic World Views and the Transformation of American Culture after World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

17 “Ex-capitale hippie devenue nécropole oú les bourgeois viennent contempler des post-hippies, drogués á la dérive, figurants volontaires, écume d’une vague brisée” Dominique Desanti, “San Francisco: Des hippies pour Fourier,” Topique, 4–5 (October, 1970), 209.

18 “Leur Love universel, une tolerance totale des tendances minoritaires et des singularités” Ibid., 210.

19 Ibid., 209.

20 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 638.

21 Roland Barthes, “A Case of Cultural Criticism,” in The Language of Fashion, trans. Andy Stafford, ed. Michael Carter (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 113.

22 This and the following quotes from Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), 217–218.

23 White, Introduction to Ode to Charles Fourier by André Breton

24 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 293 and 292.

25 Fourier, Theory of The Four Movements, 283.

26 Ibid., 284.

27 Ibid., 284.

Text by
Lars Bang Larsen
e-flux Journal#26,6 /11

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Introducing Objectivism by Ayn Rand

The following is a short description of Objectivism given by Ayn Rand in 1962:

At a sales conference at Random House, preceding the publication of Atlas Shrugged, one of the book salesmen asked me whether I could present the essence of my philosophy while standing on one foot. I did as follows:

Metaphysics: Objective Reality
Epistemology: Reason
Ethics: Self-interest
Politics: Capitalism

If you want this translated into simple language, it would read: 1. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” or “Wishing won’t make it so.” 2. “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” 3. “Man is an end in himself.” 4. “Give me liberty or give me death.”

If you held these concepts with total consistency, as the base of your convictions, you would have a full philosophical system to guide the course of your life. But to hold them with total consistency—to understand, to define, to prove and to apply them—requires volumes of thought. Which is why philosophy cannot be discussed while standing on one foot—nor while standing on two feet on both sides of every fence. This last is the predominant philosophical position today, particularly in the field of politics.

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:

Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Copyright © 1962 by Times-Mirror Co.

Ayn Rand and Thunderbird, 1964

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Der grüne Sommer ist so leise
Geworden, dein kristallenes Antlitz.
Am Abendweiher starben die Blumen,
Ein erschrockener Amselruf.

Vergebliche Hoffnung des Lebens. Schon rüstet
Zur Reise sich die Schwalbe im Haus
Und die Sonne versinkt am Hügel;
Schon winkt zur Sternenreise die Nacht.

Stille der Dörfer; es tönen rings
Die verlassenen Wälder. Herz,
Neige dich nun liebender
Über die ruhige Schläferin.

Der grüne Sommer ist so leise
Geworden und es läutet der Schritt
Des Fremdlings durch die silberne Nacht.
Gedächte ein blaues Wild seines Pfads,

Des Wohllauts seiner geistlichen Jahre!

Georg Trakl

Decline of Summer

The green summer has grown
So gentle, your crystalline countenance.
By the evening pond the flowers died,
A frightened call of a blackbird.

Futile hope of life. Already the swallow
In the house prepares for the journey
And the sun sinks at the hill;
The night already beckons the starry journey.

Stillness of villages; the abandoned forests
Resound all around. Heart,
Now bend more tenderly
Over the tranquil sleeping woman.

The green summer has grown
So gentle; and the stranger's footstep
Rings through the silver night.
May a blue deer remember his path,

The harmony of his spiritual years!

Georg Trakl

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bird on Stamp

Ain Draham is a city in northwestern Tunisia.
Its name describes the sulfurous hot springs in the area used by the Romans in antiquity.

Our sweet companions-sharing your bunk and your bed

Our sweet companions—sharing your bunk and your bed
The versts and the versts and the versts and a hunk of your bread
The wheels' endless round
The rivers, streaming to ground
The road. . .

Oh the heavenly the Gypsy the early dawn light
Remember the breeze in the morning, the steppe silver-bright
Wisps of blue smoke from the rise
And the song of the wise
Gypsy czar. . .

In the dark midnight, under the ancient trees' shroud
We gave you sons as perfect as night, sons
As poor as the night
And the nightingale chirred
Your might. . .

We never stopped you, companions for marvelous hours
Poverty's passions, the impoverished meals we shared
The fierce bonfire's glow
And there, on the carpet below,
Fell stars. . .

Marina Tsvetaeva
Translated By Sasha Dugdale

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Architecture in Uniform

Bill Hedrich, CCA Collection. Gift of Federico Bucci

In October 1939, the RIBA Journal called upon its members to “fight as architects in the fullest sense of the word”. The stress here was on “architects” (originally in italics) and the journal went on to warn of the dangers of losing professional territory to the enemy: engineers. RIBA’s fear was that “If it is a system designed by an architect it will probably allow adequately for the plan-function factor, if by an engineer for structural factors only.”

Architecture in Uniform, an exhibition curated by Jean-Louis Cohen at the Centre for Canadian Architecture in Montreal, looks at what architects actually did in the war and, very briefly, the postwar legacy of that work. Given the dangers of thematic sprawl, the exhibition focuses on a few key subjects. It devotes its central section to the masterplans of four military-industrial projects: the Pentagon, whose diagonal corridors meant that no journey from one office to another took longer than seven minutes; the Manhattan Project’s production plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Peenemünde, home to the V-2 project until the Baltic Sea base was bombed in 1943, and Auschwitz (located next to the IG Farben factory). The displays seem to support the view of Architectural Forum (expressed on the Pentagon’s completion in January 1943) that “as building approaches the scale technically feasible, the distinction between architecture and city planning vanishes”.

The architect who emerges as the exhibition’s leading figure, even though he died in December 1942, is Albert Kahn, “the producer of production lines”. An entire wall is covered in a giant flowchart showing the structure of the Kahn organisation. There then follows a detailed account of two of its monumental factory projects: the Chrysler Tank Arsenal at Warren Township and the Ford bomber plant at Willow Run. As the majority of American industrial plants went over to wartime production, the architect of Fordism was setting a standard not only in the United States, but also in the Soviet Union where Kahn Associates had worked between 1928 and 1932; the conversion of his tractor factory in Chelyabinsk to tank production in 1940 earned it the nickname of “Tankograd”.

Willow Run is a good case of politics never being far away. The factory’s L-shape was to keep it from crossing a Michigan county line and confine the plant to a Republican county where unions were not recognised. The new plants naturally required new housing for their workers and among these projects Richard Neutra’s Channel Heights near a naval shipyard in San Pedro, California, stands out (partly because of its dramatic site) as an example of high-quality, prefabricated housing.

The politics of British air-raid shelter policy are examined in detail. After observing the bombing of the civilian populations of Madrid and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, the Tecton Group and Ove Arup presented a scheme for collective, underground shelters in the 1939 book Planning ARP. This was at a time when official policy focused on individual homes and led to the distribution of the Anderson and Morrison shelters. Churchill (not yet in government) wrote to Berthold Lubetkin to say that “the wide circulation of such a book would not be helpful at the present juncture”.

The influence of Paul Virilio’s work can be detected everywhere in Architecture in Uniform, not least in its near-total omission of the war in the Far East. Like Virilio, Cohen is stronger on the technological aspects of the war, than on its lasting effects on society. The idea of the wartime situation room as an early form of multimedia, for instance, is particularly convincing. (And the Nuremburg Tribunal is intriguingly likened to a retrospective situation room.) This and the legacy of other wartime innovations are easy to recognise. Elsewhere, the centralised, large-scale planning the exhibition examines, and the role of architects within these systems, seem much further removed from us, and lead one to wonder what architecture “in the fullest sense” might be.

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War is at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until 18 September 2011.

Text by Fatema Ahmed

A Garden around Melnikov's House

Konstantin Melnikov’s house in Krivoarbatsky Lane in Moscow, completed in 1927-1929.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

About the House

Like a city built on rock and roll, the house is structurally unsound. It consists largely of stairs and stairways and staircases, and all the small things stairs require. Balusters and balustrades. Bullnoses and open risers. Handrails. Newel posts. Landings, flights, mitred joints, drops, scrolls, winders, treads. It’s an assembly of curves and helixes. It’s held together with spirals and strings.

Every door in the house is slightly smaller than its corresponding frame, and so each one has a tendency to open and shut without warning. Nothing fits as it should. The windows stick; the floors tilt. The walls meet at all the wrong angles. The roof extends beyond the bounds of decency. It defies all modes of description.

Gillian Devereux

Anarchist Morality

Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, Anarchist Morality.
The Czech cover is designed by Josef Capek and published in 1919.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Intimate Orwell

The intimate Orwell? For an article dealing with a volume of his diaries and a selection of his letters, at first such a title seemed appropriate; yet it could also be misleading inasmuch as it might suggest an artificial distinction—or even an opposition—between Eric Blair, the private man, and George Orwell, the published writer. The former, it is true, was a naturally reserved, reticent, even awkward person, whereas Orwell, with pen (or gun) in hand, was a bold fighter. In fact—and this becomes even more evident after reading these two volumes—Blair’s personal life and Orwell’s public activity both reflected one powerfully single-minded personality. Blair-Orwell was made of one piece: a recurrent theme in the testimonies of all those who knew him at close range was his “terrible simplicity.” He had the “innocence of a savage.”

Contrary to what some commentators have earlier assumed (myself included), his adoption of a pen name was a mere accident and never carried any particular significance for himself. At the time of publishing his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), he simply wished to spare potential embarrassment to his parents: old Mr. and Mrs. Blair belonged to “the lower-upper-middle class” (i.e., “the upper-middle class that is short of money”) and were painfully concerned with social respectability. They could have been distressed to see it publicized that their only son had led the life of an out-of-work drifter and penniless tramp. His pen name was thus chosen at random, as an afterthought, at the last minute before publication. But afterward he kept using it for all his publications—journalism, essays, novels—and remained somehow stuck with it.

All the diaries of Orwell that are still extant (some were lost, and one was stolen in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, by the Stalinist secret police—it may still lie today in some Moscow archive) were first published in 1998 by Peter Davison and included in his monumental edition of The Complete Works of George Orwell (twenty volumes; nine thousand pages). They are now conveniently regrouped here in one volume, excellently presented and annotated by Davison. The diaries provide a wealth of information on Orwell’s daily activities, concerns, and interests; they present considerable documentary value for scholars, but they do not exactly live up to their editor’s claim: “These diaries offer a virtual autobiography of his life and opinions for so much of his life.” This assessment would much better characterize the utterly fascinating companion volume (also edited by Peter Davison), George Orwell: A Life in Letters.

George Orwell on Southwold Beach, Suffolk, early 1930s

Orwell’s diaries are not confessional: here he very seldom records his emotions, impressions, moods, or feelings; hardly ever his ideas, judgments, and opinions. What he jots down is strictly and dryly factual: events happening in the outside world—or in his own little vegetable garden; his goat Muriel’s slight diarrhea may have been caused by eating wet grass; Churchill is returning to Cabinet; fighting reported in Manchukuo; rhubarb growing well; Béla Kun reported shot in Moscow; the pansies and red saxifrage are coming into flower; rat population in Britain is estimated at 4–5 million; among the hop-pickers, rhyming slang is not extinct, thus for instance, a dig in the grave means a shave; and at the end of July 1940, as the menace of a German invasion becomes very real, “constantly, as I walk down the street, I find myself looking up at the windows to see which of them would make good machine-gun nests.”

To some extent, the diaries could carry as their epigraph Orwell’s endearing words, from his 1946 essay “Why I Write”:

I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue…to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

Very rarely the diarist does formulate a sociopsychological observation—but then it is always strikingly original and perceptive—thus, for instance this subtle remark on a specified

discomfort inseparable from a working man’s life…waiting about. If you receive a salary it is paid into your bank and you draw it out when you want it. If you receive wages, you have to go and get them on somebody else’s time and are probably left hanging about and probably expected to behave as though paying your wages at all was a favour.

Then he describes the long wait in the cold, the hassles and expenses of journeys by tram back and forth to the paying office:

The result of long training in this kind of thing is that whereas the bourgeois goes through life expecting to get what he wants, within limits, the working-man always feels himself the slave of a more or less mysterious authority. I was impressed by the fact that when I went to Sheffield Town Hall to ask for certain statistics, both Brown and Searle [his two local miner friends]—both of them people of much more forcible character than myself—were nervous, would not come into the office with me, and assumed that the Town Clerk would refuse information. They said: “he might give it to you, but he wouldn’t to us.”

The writing of the diaries is terse, detached, and impersonal. I just wish to give here some space to one example—it is typical as it expresses both the drastic limitations of the form adopted by the diarist, as well as some remarkable features of his personality. It is the entry of August 19, 1947, dealing with the Corryvreckan whirlpool accident.

On the Hebridean island of Jura, in the solitary, spartan, and beloved Scottish hermitage where, in the final years of his life, Orwell spent most of his time—at least when not in hospital, for his failing health had already reduced him to semi-invalidity—he used a small rowing boat equipped with an outboard engine both for fishing (his great passion) and for short coastal excursions. Returning from one of those excursions with his little son, nephew, and niece, he had to cross the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpool—one of the most dangerous whirlpools in all British waters. Normally, the crossing can be safely negotiated only for a brief moment, on the slack of the tide. Orwell miscalculated this—either he misread the tide chart or neglected to consult it—and the little boat reached the dangerous spot exactly at the worst time, just in the middle of a furious ebbing tide.

Orwell realized his mistake too late; the boat was already out of control, tossed about by waves and swirling currents; the outboard engine, which was not properly secured, was shaken off its sternpost and swallowed by the sea; having steadied the boat with the oars and passed twice through the whirlpool, Orwell headed toward a small rocky islet that was nearby. The boat overturned just as it was being pulled ashore by his nephew, spilling its occupants and all their gear into the waves. Orwell managed to grab his son, who had been trapped under the boat, and he and his son and niece swam safely ashore. Perchance the weather was sunny; Orwell proceeded immediately to dry his lighter and collect some fuel—grass and peat—and soon succeeded in lighting a fire by which the castaways were then able somehow to dry and warm themselves. Having gone to inspect the islet, Orwell discovered a freshwater pool that he conjectured was fed by a spring of freshwater and an abundance of nesting birds. Under his unflappably calm and thoughtful direction the little party settled down without any panic. Some hours later, by extraordinary chance in such forlorn waters, a lobster boat that was passing by noticed their presence and rescued them.

Virtually nothing of this dramatic succession of events is conveyed in Orwell’s desiccated note: half the diary entry is devoted to naturalist observations on the islet puffin burrows and young cormorants learning to fly. To get the full picture, one must read the nephew’s narrative in Orwell Remembered, edited by Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick (1984). There, one is struck first by Orwell’s total absence of practical competence, or of simple common sense1—and secondly by his calm courage and absolute self-control, which prevented the little party from panicking. And yet, at the time, he had entertained no illusions regarding their chances of survival; as he simply told his nephew afterward: “I thought we were goners.” And the nephew commented: “He almost seemed to enjoy it.”

Conclusion: if one had to go out to sea in a small boat, one would not choose Orwell to skipper. But when meeting with shipwreck, disaster, or other catastrophes, one could not dream of better company.

Orwell left explicit instructions that no biography be written of him, and he even actively discouraged one early attempt. He felt that “every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats too humiliating and disgraceful to contemplate.” And yet the posthumous treatment he received from his biographers and editors is truly admirable—I think in particular of the works of Bernard Crick and of Peter Davison, whose volumes are models of critical intelligence and scholarship.

In Davison’s selection of the correspondence, Orwell, unlike many other letter writers, is always himself and speaks with only one voice: reserved even with old friends; generous with complete strangers; and treating all with equal sincerity. As the director of the BBC Indian services, for which Orwell broadcast during World War II, wrote, “He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge and, in early days, would have either been canonized—or burnt at the stake! Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage.”

The letters illustrate all his main concerns, interests, and passions; they also illuminate some striking aspects of his personality.

Orwell once defined himself half in jest—but only half—as a “Tory Anarchist.” Indeed, after his first youthful experience in the colonial police in Burma, he only knew that he hated imperialism and all forms of political oppression; all authority appeared suspect to him, even “mere success seemed to me a form of bullying.” Then after his inquiry into workers’ conditions in northern industrial England during the Depression he developed a broad nonpartisan commitment to “socialism”: “socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.” The decisive turning point in his political evolution took place in Spain, where he volunteered to fight fascism. First he was nearly killed by a fascist bullet and then narrowly escaped being murdered by the Stalinist secret police:

What I saw in Spain, and what I have seen since of the inner workings of left-wing political parties, have given me a horror of politics…. I am definitely “left,” but I believe that a writer can only remain honest if he keeps free of party labels. [My emphasis.]

From then on he considered that the first duty of a socialist is to fight totalitarianism, which means in practice “to denounce the Soviet myth, for there is not much difference between Fascism and Stalinism.” Inasmuch as they deal with politics, the Letters focus on the antitotalitarian fight. In this, the three salient features of Orwell’s attitude are his intuitive grasp of concrete realities, his nondoctrinaire approach to politics (accompanied with a deep distrust of left-wing intellectuals), and his sense of the absolute primacy of the human dimension. He once identified the source of his strength:

Where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in.

This uncanny ability received its most eloquent confirmation when Soviet dissidents who wished to translate Animal Farm into Russian (for clandestine distribution behind the Iron Curtain) wrote to him to ask for his authorization: they wrote to him in Russian, assuming that a writer who had such a subtle and thorough understanding of the Soviet reality—in contrast with the dismal ignorance of most Western intellectuals—naturally had to be fluent in Russian!

Orwell’s revulsion toward all “the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls” also explains his distrust and contempt of intellectuals: this attitude dates back a long way, as he recalls in a letter of October 1938:

What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen. I was always struck by this when I was in Burma and used to read anti- imperialist stuff.

If the colonial experience had taught Orwell to hate imperialism, it also made him respect (like the protagonist in a Kipling story) “men who do things.”

In the end, Orwell seems to have essentially reverted to his original position of “Tory Anarchist.” In a letter to Malcolm Muggeridge, there is a statement that seems to me of fundamental importance: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”
The Human Factor

Even in the heat of battle, and precisely because he distrusted ideology—ideology kills—Orwell remained always acutely aware of the primacy that must be given to human individuals over all “the smelly little orthodoxies.” His exchange of letters (and subsequent friendship) with Stephen Spender provides a splendid example of this. Orwell had lampooned Spender (“parlour Bolshevik,” “pansy poet”); then they met: the encounter was actually pleasant, which puzzled Spender, who wrote to Orwell on this very subject. Orwell, who later became a friend of Spender’s, replied:

You ask how it is that I attacked you not having met you, & on the other hand changed my mind after meeting you…. [Formerly] I was willing to use you as a symbol of the parlour Bolshie because a. your verse…did not mean very much to me, b. I looked upon you as a sort of fashionable successful person, also a Communist or Communist sympathiser, & I have been very hostile to the C.P. since about 1935, and c. because not having met you I could regard you as a type & also an abstraction. Even if, when I met you, I had happened not to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet someone in the flesh you realise immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken with anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more.

Which immediately calls back to mind a remarkable passage of Homage to Catalonia: Orwell described how, fighting on the front line during the Spanish civil war, he saw a man jumping out of the enemy trench, half-dressed and holding his trousers with both hands as he ran:

I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at “Fascists”; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “Fascist,” he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.


From the very start, literature was always Orwell’s first concern. This is constantly reflected in his correspondence: since early childhood “I always knew I wanted to write.” This statement is repeated in various forms, all through the years, till the end. But it took him a long time (and incredibly hard work) to discover what to write and how to write it. (His first literary attempt was a long poem, eventually discarded.) Writing novels became his dominant passion—and an accursed ordeal: “writing a novel is agony.” He finally concluded (some would say accurately), “I am not a real novelist.” And yet shortly before he died he was still excitedly announcing to his friend and publisher Fredric Warburg, “I have a stunning idea for a very short novel.”

As the Letters reveal, he reached a very clear-sighted assessment of his own work. Among his four “conventional” novels, he retained a certain fondness for Burmese Days, which he found faithful to his memories of the place. He felt “ashamed” of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and, even worse, of A Clergyman’s Daughter and would not allow them to be reprinted: “They were written…for money…. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved.” He was rightly pleased with Coming Up for Air, written at one go, with relative ease; and it is indeed a most remarkable book—about an insurance salesman who finds that the places he knew as a boy have been ruined—and it is quite prescient, in the light of today’s environmental concerns. Among the books worth reprinting he listed (in 1946—Nineteen Eighty-Four was not written yet) first of all, and by order of importance: Homage to Catalonia; Animal Farm; Critical Essays; Down and Out in Paris and London; Burmese Days; Coming Up for Air.
The Common Man

The extraordinary lengths to which Orwell would go in his vain attempts to turn himself into an ordinary man are well illustrated by the Wallington grocery episode, on which the Letters provides colorful information. In April 1936, Orwell started to rent and run a small village grocery, located in an old, dark, and pokey cottage—insalubrious and devoid of all basic amenities (no inside toilet, no cooking facilities, no electricity—only oil lamps for lighting). On rainy days the kitchen floor was underwater; blocked drains turned the whole place into a smelly cesspool. Davison comments: “One may say without being facetious, it suited Orwell to the ground.” And it especially suited Eileen, his wonderfully Orwellian wife. She moved in the day of their marriage, in 1936, and the way she managed this improbable home testifies both for her heroism and for her eccentric sense of humor. The income from the shop hardly ever covered the rent of the cottage. The main customers were a small bunch of local children who used to buy a few pennies’ worth of lollipops after school. By the end of the year, the grocery went out of business, but at that time it had already fulfilled its true purpose: Orwell was in Barcelona, volunteering to fight against fascism, and when he enlisted into the Anarchist militia, he could proudly sign “Eric Blair, grocer.”

Orwell’s sense of fairness was so scrupulous, it extended even to Stalin. As Animal Farm was going into print, at the last minute, Orwell sent a final correction—which was effected just in time. (As all readers will remember, “Napoleon” is the name of the leading pig, which, in Orwell’s fable, represented Stalin.)

In chapter VIII…when the windmill is blown up, I wrote “all the animals including Napoleon flung themselves on their faces.” I would like to alter it to “all the animals except Napoleon.” …I just thought the alteration would be fair to [Stalin] as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance.

Poverty and Ill-Health

Orwell was utterly stoic and never complained about his material and physical circumstances, however distressing they were most of the time. But from the information provided by the Letters, one realizes that his material insecurity (which, at times, reached extreme poverty) ceased only three years before his death, when he received his first royalties windfall from Animal Farm; while his health became a severe and constant problem (undiagnosed tuberculosis) virtually since his return from Burma, at age twenty-five. In later years he required frequent, prolonged, and often painful treatment in various hospitals. For the last twelve years of his short existence (he died, age forty-six, in 1950) he was in fact an invalid—yet insisted most of the time on carrying on with normal activity.

His entire writing career lasted for only sixteen years. The quantity and quality of work produced during this relatively brief span of time would be remarkable even for a healthy man of leisure; that it was achieved in his appalling state of permanent ill-health and poverty is simply stupendous.

In his relations with women, Orwell seems to have been generally awkward and clumsy. He was easily attracted by them, whereas they seldom found him attractive. Still, by miraculous luck, he found in Eileen O’Shaughnessy a wife who was able not only to understand him in depth, but also to love him truly and bear with his eccentricities, without giving up any of her own originality—an originality that still shines through all her letters. If Orwell was a failed poet, Eileen for her part was pure poetry.

Her premature death in 1945 left Orwell stunned and lost for a long time. A year later he abruptly approached a talented young woman he hardly knew (they lived in the same building); with a self-pity that was utterly and painfully out of character for such a proud man, he wrote to her telling her how sick he was and offering her “to be the widow of a literary man.”

I fully realise that I’m not suited to someone like you who is young and pretty…. It is only that I feel so desperately alone…. I have…no woman who takes an interest in me and can encourage me…. Of course it’s absurd a person like me wanting to make love to someone of your age. I do want to, but…I wouldn’t be offended or even hurt if you simply say no…

The woman was flabbergasted and politely discouraged him.

Some years earlier he also made an unfortunate and unwelcome pass at another woman; this episode is documented by the editor with embarrassing precision—at which point readers might remember Orwell’s hostility toward the very concept of biography. Do biographers, however serious and scrupulous, really need or have the right to explore and disclose such intimate details? Yet we still read them. Is it right for us to do so? I honestly do not know the answer.
Solid Objects and Scraps of Useless Information—Trees, Fishes,Butterflies, and Toads

In his essay “Why I Write,” Orwell said:

I do not want completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue…to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

And in his famous “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” he added:

If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia?… I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and…toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.

His endearing and quirky tastes, his inexhaustible and loving attention to all aspects of the natural world, crop up constantly in his correspondence. The Letters are full of disarming non sequiturs: for instance, he interrupts some reflections on the Spanish Inquisition to note the daily visit that a hedgehog pays to his bathroom. While away from home in 1939, he writes to the friend who looks after his cottage: his apprehensions regarding the looming war give way without transition to concerns for the growth of his vegetables and for the mating of his goat:

I hope Muriel’s mating went through. It is a most unedifying spectacle, by the way, if you happened to watch it…. Did my rhubarb come up, I wonder? I had a lot, & then last year the frost buggered it up.

To an anarchist friend (who became a professor of English in a Canadian university) he writes an entire page from his Scottish retreat, describing in minute detail all aspects of the life and work of local crofters: again the constant and inexhaustible interest for “men who do things” in the real world.
The End

While already lying in hospital, he married Sonia Brownell2 three months before his death. At that time he entertained the illusion that he might still have a couple of years to live and he was planning for the following year a book of essays that would have included a long essay on Joseph Conrad (if it was ever written, it is now lost). He also said that he still had two books on his mind—besides the “stunning idea for a very short novel” mentioned earlier.

He began drawing plans to have a pig, or preferably a sow, in his Scottish hermitage of the Hebrides. As he instructed his sister who was in charge of the place:

The only difficulty is about getting her to a hog once a year. I suppose one could buy a gravid sow in the Autumn to litter about March, but one would have to make very sure that she really was in pig the first time.

In his hospital room, at the time of his death, he kept in front of him, against the wall, a good new fishing rod, a luxury he had indulged himself with on receiving the first royalties from Nineteen Eighty-Four. He never had the chance to use it.

His first love—dating back to his adolescence and youth—who was now a middle-aged woman, wrote to him in hospital out of the blue, after an estrangement and silence of some twenty-seven years. He was surprised and overjoyed, and resumed correspondence with her. In his last letter to her, he concluded that, though he could only entertain a vague belief in some sort of afterlife, he had one certainty: “Nothing ever dies.”

1 On this subject, Orwell's wife, writing to his sister (from Marrakech, in 1938), observed with wry amusement: "He did construct one [dugout] in Spain [during the Civil War] & it fell down on his & his companions' heads two days later, not under any kind of bombardment but just from the force of gravity. But the dugout has generally been by way of light relief; his specialties are concentration camps & the famine. He buried some potatoes against the famine & they might have been very useful if they hadn't gone mouldy at once. To my surprise he does intend to stay here [in Marrakech] whatever happens. In theory this seems too reasonable and even comfortable to be in character."
2 A young and beautiful woman—though somewhat harebrained, she managed to edit (with the collaboration of I. Angus) the excellent Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (Secker and Warburg, 1969). These four volumes still remain invaluable: not every reader can afford the twenty volumes of Davison's editions of the Complete Works

by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison
London: Harvill Secker.
George Orwell: A Life in Letters
selected and annotated by Peter Davison
London: Harvill Secker.

Text by Simon Leys, May 26, 2011.
Source :

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cute Dustbins in Moscow

Moscow, 1 August 2011