Illusions of Immortality

It wasn’t just me who had never heard of Edmond Haraucourt until I read Brian Stableford’s “Going to Extremes: The Speculative Fiction of Edmond Haraucourt” in the April 2015 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Pierre Versins’ Encyclopédie de l’utopie et de la science-fiction from 1974 doesn’t have an entry for him.

The “Edmond Haraucourt” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction only seems to date to the publication of this English language collection.

Stableford’s article, like many of his recent ones for The New York Review of Science Fiction, includes material and commentary on the French authors he translates that doesn’t make it into his introductions for those Black Coat editions. Originally, I read the story because Stableford’s article hinted that one of the stories might be suitable for inclusion.

It turns out it wasn’t, but I’m certainly glad I read this collection.

This review will have spoilers. If you want a shorter, spoiler-free review, you can find it on Amazon.

Review: Illusions of Immortality, Edmond Haraucourt, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012.Illusions of Immortality

 You are going to die.

Your works are going to die.

Your reputation will be forgotten.

The human race will vanish.

Those are the primary themes of Haraucourt.

You’d think that he’d be a downer, a slit-your-wrists-after-reading author. Instead, Haraucourt is a delight to read. Witty, piquant, mordant, he’s the kind of friend who, after you unload your troubles on him, would reply, “What makes you special?” – and you’d still like him.

To quote the wit of Haraucourt is largely to reprint Haraucourt. That wit was not reprinted much in his own land though. Of his futuristic fiction, which is almost as sweeping in speculation and scope as his contemporary H. G. Wells, only “The Gorilloid” was reprinted in his lifetime from its original newspaper appearance. In France, it was only in 2001 some of his shorter works were finally collected.

Stableford, correctly I think, believes Haraucourt’s particular interest in the ephemeral nature of human life and culture and, particularly, the ultimate futility of artistic obsession, came out of his own experience.

In 1882, when Haraucourt was 26, he submitted some poems to the magazine La Jeune France. The editor, Albert Allinet, openly laughed at their absurdity and poor quality. However, there was somebody else in the office that day: the renowned French author Leconte de Lisle. He read Haraucourt’s work and invited Haraucourt to his salon.

A glowing review of Haraucourt’s work followed. He became the darling of the Parisian literary world. Haraucourt became involved with an ailing cabaret in which he performed and wrote material for including some songs you can still hear on YouTube along with some poems of his set to music.

You will note that Haraucourt hadn’t actually published those acclaimed poems yet. That happened in 1883 with the publication of La Légende des sexes. And it made no money and was largely unread. Haraucourt had written the poems when he was twenty, and he began to realize he wasn’t going make a living on poetry. He diverted his effort largely to prose and drama.

The failure of life to live up to the promise of that early review would work its way into Haraucourt’s fiction. So would a lucky meeting in 1894 in a café which resulted in Haraucourt taking a job as a curator of the Musée du Trocadero’s sculpture collection.

Haraucourt would remain a museum curator for the rest of his working life. He developed an interest in archaeology. It was probably then, I suspect, he developed the knowledge and interest that allowed him to make such credible and relatively exact speculations on geological and evolutionary matters that show up in the works of this volume. It was also out of that experience that came a work of science fiction that he was known for in his own time: Daâh: The First Human from 1914, an early work about prehistoric man.

Immortality: A conte philosophique” is, as the name suggests, not science fiction but philosophy couched in terms of a fantastic story with, apart from the narrator, no distinct characters. Published in 1888, the sting of not living up to your publicity was fresh in Haraucourt’s mind. It wittily assaults the notion that an artist’s creations can provide a sort of metaphorical immortality when real immortality is lacking.

The story opens with the narrator, a writer, on his deathbed. After death, his soul wanders for a while until he is admitted to the Garden of Letters. There he is promised a land of his intellectual peers and freedom from the worldly impotence that is so often the author’s lot. He won’t even have to pretend to blush over compliments. It’s an exclusive club. Writers seeking popular appeal aren’t allowed in. They didn’t follow pure art.

The inhabitants of the Garden act out their creative obsessions. (Haraucourt’s theory is that all great writers have one obsession they return to in varied forms.) Of the talent of the writers we are told “they are full, not of talent but of their own talent.” The story’s gag is that these writers, supposedly indifferent to popular acclaim, are constantly consumed by their reputation back on Earth. They constantly bug newcomers about how their worldy reputations are faring. When they aren’t going well, popular acclaim is despised and the world is full of fools who can’t appreciate them. When their reputation is high, well, that’s the way it should be.

The narrator concludes that literary acclaim is just a function of fashion. Eventually, man vanishes from a much changed Earth. A new version of humanity arises, and the Garden’s inhabitants long for a second death – which they eventually find in an “inviolable desert” and lay down for the “sleep that would be endless”.

To Haraucourt, no amount of talent will insure figurative immortality. The question of just how talented the narrator of “Immortality” really is doesn’t come up nor does his worldly life of creation.

That’s not the case of “The Madonna” (1890). This is a realistic tale about the futility of artistic obsession – regardless of talent. A talented and unworldly painter works in solitude, but, one day, he sees a young girl going to a well. He becomes obsessed with her, thinks her the embodiment of the Virgin Mary. He sketches her with her father’s permission. He eventually marries her. All during this time he sketches her but never captures the quality he seeks.

Years go by. The couple have a child which dies. The signs of age began to creep onto their faces. They become “two phantoms”, one of suffering, one of folly. The woman leaves (it is suggested she commits suicide).

The artist continues to work, prays to his pictures of her. Then, an epiphany, “one dot, one shadow” is added to the work. The painting is complete. After his death, the painting becomes famous and is acclaimed. But it ends up as a sort of billboard for a draper and is painted over after 30 years. Talent does not triumph over the ages. The artist has squandered a life and happiness for little acclaim.

The End of the World” is a doomsday variation on a similar theme as a painter goes off to paint the end of the world. But it is also a well-done piece of social and psychological extrapolation. The multi-part story opens with an exact prediction: the moon will crash into the Earth at an exactly specified time 3,748 years in the future. The story then jumps to a time five years from that predicted end. The frission and drama of extinction has become god for this “atheistic world” Thrift is gone, sexual license abounds. Then, weeks before the end, our painter packs himself off to Ceylon, the projected impact point. He’s still tinkering with the painting at the end of it all:

“The green of the shadows isn’t blue enough!”

He drew nearer to the easel, and raised his arm.

It’s not the lack of talent that’s the problem in Haraucourt’s stories: it’s the pointlessness of the effort.

Creation of the scientific kind is the concern of “Doctor Auguérand’s Discovery” (1910). Auguérand has discovered a life extending drug. (It only gives humans back their normal life span which the nervous and sexual strains of modern life have shortened.) It’s cheap, easily made, and he’s is going to turn the secret over to the French government at a specified hour.

Chaos ensues. Are the old and rich going to make way for the young and poor? Who will pay their pensions? How is everyone going to get fed? Should the drug be destroyed or distributed? France divides into two parties. Foreign nations think France should be forced to hand over the drug.

Besides giving a plausible set of reactions to such an announcement, Haraucourt avoids two narrative paths that showed up early on in science fiction tales of inventions. First, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle, Auguérand’s work is not going to go away for good. Second, Auguérand is no bad and mad scientist. He is reasonable and up front in his dealings with society. It’s society that goes mad.

The weighing of scientific actions is also done in “A Christmas Gift” from 1906. Here a horse is given voice by a visit from Father Christmas, but this is no pleasant talking animal story. Father Christmas visits a vivisectionist lab where the horse is being dissected while unanesthetized. The horse relates the horrors the lab to a reporter. The second part of the story is a dialogue between a reporter and Father Christmas with the latter being accused of holding up medical progress by giving the horse a voice.

To be precise, Haraucourt was against vivisection of animals who were not drugged. He specifically talks about how England and America get by with having banned the practice. The story’s outrage at cruelty and the plight of a helpless victim may owe something to an incident from Haraucourt’s childhood when a schoolteacher watched, day after day, him write a novel. He even stopped to read passages each day and said nothing. When Haraucourt completed his work, the schoolteacher ripped the work up in front of the class.

Two stories of racial and species extinction framed as future histories show up in “A Trip to Paris” (1904) and “The Gorilloid” (1906).

A Trip to Paris” is set in 6983 with tourists from Oceania visiting a sunken Paris and meeting a lighthouse keeper exhibiting atavistic sexual jealousy on the way. As with Edgar Allan Poe’s “Mellonta Tauta”, we get treated to some bad historical interpretations by the Oceanians which, of course, casts doubt on our attempts at reconstructing the past. We also hear how whites were supplanted by Orientals who were supplanted by blacks. The latter’s triumph is enabled by the “religion of Humankind” which supplanted Christianity and aided the eventual victor with unreciprocated notions of charity and pity.

Haraucourt actually is rather detailed in his geological extrapolations.

The Gorilloid” is nothing less than the antecedent to Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. It’s a long story framed as a gorilla giving a lecture. In this world, ice sheets extend as far south as Africa. Man is extinct – or, at least, it was thought so until an expedition to the Alps found a small group left.

Haraucourt presents a sort of ballistic metaphor for evolution. A species’ evolution pushes it beyond its natural “limit of development” and further evolution only “accelerates the fatal and inevitable disorganization” of that species. That happened with man. Like all intelligent species, it lived to excess and killed itself.

Professor Sffaty’s description of the morphological evolution of man reminded me of H. G. Wells’ 1893 essay “The Man of the Year Million” on the future of man’s evolution. Human bodies wither with the brain and hands hypertrophied. Mechanization required no more. When geological upheavals changed the environment, man does not adapt.

The story concludes with the Sffaty showing us the last living human – who mourns for her mate who supplied the bones that Sffaty has been exhibiting.

The Antichrist” is the least interesting story of the book. It’s a parodic recapitulation of Christ’s life in Haraucourt’s France. He even re-uses some of the biblical names from the New Testament. But all his work in serving his father Satan comes to nought, the antichrist learns, for God is dead and damnation no longer possible.

The story that drew me to the book was “The Supreme Conflict” from 1919. It certainly was inspired by World War One, but it is set far in the future when Earth is gripped in a new ice age, many stars have burned out, energy is scarce, and only two groups of humans exist. Both are dependent on machines, have degenerate bodies of huge heads and eyes, and enormous joints. Their societies have no mores, no abstract ideas. They are emotionless and egotistical.

Haraucourt tells us that when we speak of the barbarism of war, we only mean the methods, not the act. He details the 132 minute war that finally wipes out humanity in the far future: “When the pale sun rose for the second time, humankind no longer existed – for the human race, by whose hand all the other species had perished, was only to perish, like the rest, at human hands.”

As we’ll see in a future post, Haraucourt was not the only Frenchman to take such a bitter lesson from the Great War.

 

Quotes

Watching over the centuries, I looked forward to my resurrection. One day, people of small importance adopted me in good faith, and I was moved, without vanity.
“Yes,” I said, “to do one’s work is a duty, not for the masses, about whom it is permissible to care as little as they care about us, but for the few, who will find joy in it, and the consolations of a stainless friendship, for the unknown brothers we would have cherished, and who will cherish us, whose soul will bathe in that momentary communion, the quiet confidence of the book that listens, in order to persuade itself of the duty of amity.”
But then, again, buried in the distant dust of accumulated books, I was only touched by those who plagiarize, devourers of the dead, vampires of letters, who know how to rob tombs and nourish themselves on the cadaver of glory.
–“Immortality”
Like worthy writers consoling themselves for the pages they have written with the pages they will write, worthy painters forgive the canvases completed when they salute the majesty of new ones.
— “The Madonna”
All weariness was comforted. People waited. The human race was like a crowd in a railway station hoping for the whistle of the departing train. To some, the interval seemed long, and they would gladly have advanced the hands of the clock to hasten the departure, but no one wanted to leave alone, and suicides were rare. They wanted to see! No one any longer killed themselves because their business had failed or because they had undertaken some shameful enterprise. Only occasional insensate individuals, racked by amorous chagrin, cried out in the solitude: “I don’t give a damn about the moon!” Then they killed themselves abruptly, without reflection.
They were mourned with slight disdain; they were imbeciles for not having understood the sublime spectacle that was offered to them, and impolite toward the universe that had brought them to it.
— “The End of the World”
“Messieurs, we owe our life to that ideological pity: the life that the white and yellow peoples allowed us was for them a new cause of death, for we precipitated their end in a bloody fashion. We have no remorse for that ingratitude. The species has but one duty, which is not that of gratitude but that of propagation … “
— “A Trip to Paris”
The day when people had decided to abolish their armies, with the innocent illusion that they were thus abolishing war, they had merely given it its most homicidal form; in the desire to suppress it, they generalized it.
What were combating armies, in effect, but emissaries of a country, representatives of a race posted as an advance guard, in order to cover and protect their fellows? The bloodiest battles, therefore, only constitute skirmishes between these advance guards; once that curtain of troops has been removed, collision is contrived between the peoples themselves, and battles, instead of striving to crush an opposing army, henceforth strive, with much greater force, for the very annihilation of the enemy race.
— “The Supreme Conflict”
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One thought on “Illusions of Immortality

  1. Pingback: Scientific Romance | MarzAat

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