“It was towards the end of the twentieth century of the prehistoric era, formerly called the Christian, that took place, as is well known, the unexpected catastrophe with which the present epoch began, that fortunate disaster which compelled the overflowing flood of civilization to disappear for the benefit of mankind.”
After the melancholy and oft-tedious pages of Richard Jefferies’ After London, I was thrilled to discover that The Underground Man was ironic, satirical, and occasionally funny. Published in 1896 in French as Fragment d’histoire future and in 1905 in English as The Underground Man, Gabriel de Tarde’s tale of the end of the world is both post-apocalyptic and utopian. I only hesitate to call it a “cosy catastrophe” because the only character we meet—besides our future historian narrator about whom we know nothing—dies in a tragic battle against this own people, and a cosy catastrophe is meant to show a protagonist who both survives the end of the world and thrives as a result. It is, however, as Tarde puts it in the book’s first sentence, a “fortunate disaster.”
Unfortunately, the satire doesn’t last. Or does it? Once mankind is (almost) wiped out and has moved underground, Tarde moves on to descriptions of the new world’s utopian society, and I became less certain. Was he still being ironic? I hoped so, though all signs off humor had left the page. H.G. Wells, who wrote the introduction to my copy, seems to have been as uncertain as I was:
“One does not quite know how far M. Tarde is in this first part of his story jesting at his common countrymen’s precisions and finalities and unenterprising, exact arrangements, and how far he is sharing them. Throughout he seems to assume that men can really make finished plans, and carry them out, and settle things for ever…”
Having read a little about Tarde—a sociologist by profession—it is likely that he meant every word of the philosophical treatise that follows the chronological narrative of events leading the surviving humans underground. This made what was already a pretty weird book even weirder. Wait you mean you were serious, Tarde? *blushes* *tries not to make eye contact* *whistles while backing slowly away*
Tarde’s vision of mankind in its prime includes some pretty wacky beliefs, especially when it comes to love and sex.
“Heroic lovers are they whose whole pleasure consists in the sublime joy of feeling their love growing within them, blissful because it is shared, inspiring because it is chaste.”
Ok, so if you have a society with extremely limited resources, you need to control the population. Since Tarde wasn’t creative enough to extrapolate a technological advance like birth control, this means enforced chastity. Lovers who feel compelled to break this taboo commit suicide in flagrante delicto in the cold surface air. In order to get permission to have sex—once—a man must create a work of art deemed genius by his peers. Did you catch that? That the man has to create the work of art? There is no mention about woman who want to get laid. They seem to just sit around smiling politely until their chosen partner manages to do something that makes him look smart.
Meanwhile everybody is naked—because who needs clothes when you don’t have weather or temperature fluctuation?—and somehow this is not an issue of tension in Tarde’s utopian. The narrator glosses over the desperation one must feel in order to be willing to face death if it means getting to die having sex. I have a reeeeal hard time believing that one. Like Anne Aguirre’s Enclave, this is a take on sex, love, and chastity that I simply cannot believe. Hormones are too powerful a thing. I don’t believe even taboo would be enough to stop their crazy making. And this is just one small aspect of strange in the concept Tarde sets out as ideal.
How Tarde ends the world
Goodnight, sun. After “150 years of warfare,” mankind reached the “zenith of human prosperity” through a global culture combined through “the great Asiatic-American-European confederacy.” As machines have taken over all menial labor, everyone has time to unleash their inner artist.
During this segment I chuckled often at the absurdity of it all, and Tarde takes a shot at just about everybody, particularly journalists. Improbably, Greek becomes the lingua franca of this global culture, with the argument that people 500 years before the reader’s present would have been surprised to learn that English had spread so far.
“Here and there a few isolated villages in the hollows of the mountains still persisted, in spite of protests of their schoolmasters, to mangle the old dialect formerly called French, German or Italian, but the sound of this gibberish in the towns would have raised a hearty laugh.”
Having a universal language has made competition among authors epic and the spoils of publication enormous. Too bad for them, all the ancient Greek poets have come back in style.
Tardes breezes over the genocide “in Oceania and central Africa of barbarous tribes incapable of assimilation” in a single sentence in a moment of racism so casual as to be doubly horrifying. As far as I could tell there are no people of color in this book.
And then the sun goes out.
The “solar anemia” starts slowly, but nobody believes the “alarmists” predicting it will soon go out forever. Once the sun’s light has faded from red, to orange, to yellow to green, to indigo, to blue, people start to die. “The entire population of Norway, Northern Russia, and Siberia perished, frozen to death in a single night” while the Rhine and Danube rivers freeze solid. Once all the potable water is frozen, people experience drought conditions “followed by an indescribable famine, which obliged thousands of mothers to devour their children.” Snow covers the cities and a final ice age begins at the end of the twenty-fifth century.
But—lo! what bravery!—a man named Miltiades returns from sea, proposes that everybody move underground, that they will survive by excavating tunnel homes, using the power of the Earth’s molten core, SCIENCE, and eating the livestock conveniently frozen in the ice above them, and he becomes the revered leader of the few survivors. Survivors who, by the way, include only smart and good-looking people and women who were used to the cold because they always wore such low-cut dresses (I couldn’t make this shit up). They dig their tunnels, move the contents of every nearby museum and library into them, and move underground.
“Youth, beauty, genius, love, infinite treasures of science and art, writers whose pens were of pure gold, artists with marvelous technique, singers one raved about, all that was left of refinement and culture on the earth, was concentrated in this last knot of human beings, which blossomed under the snow like a tuft of rhododendrons, or of Alpine roses at the foot of some mountain summit.”
Enter utopia, because this is when things start to get really strange (read: unrealistic) and where Tarde monologues about the virtues of artistic pursuit and (chaste) love. Going underground is the best thing that could have happened to the human race. That and the death of all the undesirable elements. Now humans are free to become the love-filled, intellectual artists they each are at heart. *cough*
Machines will set us free.
Like Jefferies, Tarde does not create an apocalyptic vision of the future that pits man against technology. The sun has gone out because it was always going to go out, not because of man’s folly in using technology inappropriately. Instead, technology is put on a pedestal, first as the discipline that cured every known disease and strengthened the human race, then as the means for abolishing the majority of human work.
“The waterfalls, the winds, and the tides had become the slaves of man, as steam had once been in the remote ages and in an infinitely less degree. …this enormous energy freely furnished by nature had long rendered superfluous every kind of domestic servant.”
Once the sun is out, science and technology are what make humanity’s migration underground possible—from the creation of dietary supplements to the harnessing of the power of the Earth’s core to excavate caverns, and provide heat and light.
In 1952 Kurt Vonnegut would take the same conditions—that most human labor has been eliminated by machines and people are free to do whatever the fuck—and write a dystopia called Player Piano that posited that man was nothing without the purpose work gave them. I prefer Tarde’s more optimistic view, but the contrast of these two stories brings up an important point: every utopia is somebody’s dystopia, and while Tarde’s narrator occasionally hints that there are people who are unhappy with the status quo underground, the narrator’s philosophy never allows space for citizens who might see the world differently. No, those folks get thrown in pit of petroleum. Problem solved.
The usual sexism
“..it was the first time that the very simple idea had won acceptance of extending to women and children the right of voting exercised in their name, naturally enough, by their father or by their lawful or natural husband. Incidentally, one may note that this salutary and necessary reform, as much in accordance with common sense as with logic…nearly failed to pass…in the face of a coalition of celibate electors.”
So Tarde foresaw women getting the vote, but could only imagine that they would do so via their husbands or fathers? And wait, women and children have been given the right to vote? While I see nothing strange about, say, lowering the voting age to include what we might call “children” lumping women and children together here seems to make this more of a jab than anything else. If women can vote why not let children? They’re basically the same thing anyway, the argument seems to imply.
That women wouldn’t get the vote in America for another 24 years and in France (for all elections, including national elections) for another 48, it was a progressive thought for its time…if it was meant seriously. But considering the subtle sexism evident in other areas of the book (for example, the process for getting permission to do the dirty described above), I don’t think his thinking will win him any forward-thinking awards.
But is it literature?
The Underground Man is a book I can imagine being taught in college—there is much in it to discuss—but I think its worth is more ideological than as an example of writing so good it must be studied. Though Tarde’s ideas are said to have influenced Freud, this novel did not have a noteworthy influence on the progression of literature. The first section in particular is an interesting study in satire and irony, but as a whole? I can’t stomach calling it a classic, memorable and weirdly interesting though it is.
Read The Underground Man for free
Unless you want to own it on paper, there is no reason to spend any money on this book (and now that you’ve read my review, possibly no reason to even read it! Badabing! Book Punks saves you money!). You can download it for free on Gutenberg Project or from Duke University, and LibrioVox has a free audio recording for the audio book lovers.