Love thy neighbourhood

Terry Eagleton

  • The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat by Steven Lukes
    Verso, 261 pp, £14.95, November 1995, ISBN 1 85984 948 2

Most astrophysicists could write a bad novel, whereas few novelists could rise to being even poor astrophysicists. Those who live in the world of letters have to suffer the humiliation of knowing that, like courting or clog dancing, writing fiction is something that almost anyone can do indifferently. There is a nasty piece of work inside most of us. The author of a study of Durkheim would not seem the most obvious candidate for literary creation, but Steven Lukes’s novel is as enjoyable as it is because, not in spite of, the fact that he is a political philosopher. Political theorists, after all, concern themselves with human conduct, as astrophysicists do not; and Anglo-Saxon philosophers are notable for their penchant for jokes, satiric gibes, homespun examples, dotty anecdotes, as German Neo-Hegelians on the whole are not. One would not rush to open a novel by Jürgen Habermas, but Richard Rorty no doubt has a few suave short stories inside him. There are philosophical idioms which are inherently anti-fictional – positivism, for instance – and those which lend themselves naturally to literature. It is no accident that Sartre, whose philosophical thought turns on angst and nausea, should have been the novelist and playwright that one suspects Frege or Husserl could never have been. For many Anglo-Saxon philosophers, this is more or less equivalent to confessing that Sartre wasn’t doing philosophy at all, even though one of the texts they most revere, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, is a ragbag of fictional devices. The style of philosophising of the Investigations is that of a man who valued art above philosophy, and who dreamed of writing a philosophical treatise consisting of nothing but jokes.

Steven Lukes’s moral fable is in the tradition of tall travellers’ tales from Swift and Voltaire to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Butler. Professor Nicholas Caritat, unworldly scholar of the Enlightenment, is forced out of Militaria, his savagely autocratic homeland, and sent off by an improbable plot device in pursuit of the best of all possible societies. His first port of call is Utilitaria, a lethally rational state whose Houyhnhnm-like inhabitants ride roughshod over individual freedom and justice in the name of the general happiness. They run an efficient welfare service but have no fear of death, sense of gratitude or conception of human rights, and (since Utilitarians are ethical consequentialists) they spurn the past and fetishise the future. They are also toying with the idea of putting Frustricide into the water supply, to eliminate desires which can’t be satisfied. A thinly disguised version of the Birmingham Six case exposes Lord Denning’s judgments on the matter (better to imprison the innocent than bring the law into disrepute) as a classic example of Utilitarian callousness.

From this anodyne utopia, Caritat beats a retreat to Communitaria, a country which works in Gadamerian vein through ‘unspoken understandings, unexamined traditions and slowly evolving customs’, and whose motto is ‘Love Thy Neighbourhood as Thy Self.’ Ethnically obsessed and stiflingly conformist, Communitaria is North American identity politics at its most Stalinistic: all cultures deserve equal respect, none can be criticised by another, and the self is rigorously defined by its communal allegiances. There are Acute Akimboists and Loose Akimboists, Stalagmites who see life as upward progress and Stalactites who view it as progressive decline. A list of these groups is available at the airport and enrolment is compulsory. The most grievous crime here is to slight another’s cultural identity, and a young artist hounded for blasphemy, for supposedly satirising his own people, sounds dimly familiar. He hadn’t actually meant his rock opera to be satirical – indeed Communitaria has no such concept – but the Post-Structuralist law court has judged that meaning is socially constructed rather than authorially intended.

Besieged by furious feminists from Polygopolis Unidiversity, the hapless professor flees to Libertaria, dreaming briefly en route of being shown round another country by two guides, Karl and Fred. In Proletaria, the state, law, money and markets have withered away, the division of labour has been abolished and there is material abundance for all. Libertaria turns out to be more or less the opposite: a glittering wasteland of social despair and neoliberal greed, ruled over by the formidable Hilda Juggernaut, where they are selling off shares in the National Library and turning schizophrenics into the street. Forced to survive as a hospital porter, Caritat, accompanied by a garrulous owl of Minerva, finally makes his escape over the border in search of Egalitaria, a land which may prove either a heuristic fiction or a historical possibility. On this wistfully suspended note, the novel shifts out of its satirical register into a genuinely moving conclusion.

Caritat, who holds imaginary conversations with Kant and Condorcet, is a liberal rationalist much in the mould of his creator. There is a smack of such rationalism about the very form of the 18th-century moral fable, which subdues the contingencies of experience to a diagrammatic whole; and this artistic shape is in tension with Lukes’s liberalism, which seeks to redeem human freedom and complexity from the tyranny of a single doctrine. What the novel says, and what it does, are thus intriguingly at odds: its allegorical, universalising narrative at once defends and undercuts the particular, just as its disillusioned substance runs counter to its light-hearted style. (‘A Pessimist says: “Things could not be worse.” An Optimist says: “Oh yes, they could.” ’) Like all anti-Utilitarian exhortations, it cannot avoid falling prey to a certain didactic utility itself, just as Tom Jones tries paradoxically to teach us that virtue is for the most part spontaneous.

Eighteenth-century satirists like Swift and Fielding commonly operate a kind of double optic, using some unworldly innocent to lay bare human degeneracy while deploying the fact of vice to deflate the idealist illusions of the innocent. How can virtue look out for itself, be worldly-wise, and still be virtue? So it is that Swift can round brutally on the bone-headed Gulliver just as we are tempted to take him for our window on the world, a temptation encouraged by the very form of the traveller’s tale. Readers understandably identify with fictional travellers, however morally dubious they may be, since they provide the one constant factor in a fleeting succession of locales, and so seem more real than their environs. To undercut one’s own protagonist is a neat way of frustrating readerly expectations; and it is to Lukes’s credit that he is a good enough liberal to be open-minded about his own liberalism. In a scene reminiscent of the metaphysical encounters between Naphta and Settembrini in The Magic Mountain, Caritat’s Enlightenment faith is put to the test by a priest who, with impressive eloquence, rubs his nose in the nightmare of history. Yet one cannot help detecting something of a shuffle here. For Caritat is in fact a somewhat muted Enlightenment apologist, more of a mild reformist than a full-blooded Progressivist; and this means that the novel can allow itself to send up grandiose rationalist notions of universal progress while covertly rescuing its own more qualified liberal principles. Those principles are not allowed to be challenged by having the professor actually drop in on a liberal society. The Enlightenment is upbraided for its academicist idealism; but ineffectiveness is not the same thing as error, and the novel does not always draw the line or grasp the relation between the two. Nor is the Enlightenment fundamentally criticised for being itself one of the sources of places like Utilitaria, Libertaria and even – by strident over-reaction – Communitaria. It remains a Utopian alternative to these dismal regimes, which indeed it is, rather than being also, in its less savoury aspects, a fetishism of Reason and suppression of the particular which helped to produce them. The novel is thus not quite as even-handed about its own informing beliefs as it would wish to appear.

As for the belief-systems which Caritat encounters, the story is, one might claim, at once too even-handed and not even-handed enough. Lukes has some wonderful fun at the expense of his monstrous doctrinaires, but the mischievous partisanship of satire is at odds with his own liberal values. The treatment of Utilitaria contains some rich reflections, but it is for the most part crudely caricatural: everyone carries a calculator around and jabbers about productivity, and while it is funny to have a family called the Maximands it is cartoonish to have a character called Stella Yardstick. For Lukes, as for the equally glib Dickens of Hard Times, Utilitarianism seems to come down to a cold-hearted obsession with statistics, a straw target which is hardly in line with the subtle ethics examined by James Griffin in his study Well-Being. Communitaria is a brilliant comic riot but lamentably skewed: not all feminists are moral fascists, and respecting other people’s cultures, as opposed to treating them as holy writ, is a necessary if not sufficient condition for the just society. Here, Lukes risks playing straight into the hands of the Daily Mail. It is part of the self-assurance of Gulliver’s Travels, as well as part of its deviousness, that it can occasionally find something of value in the social orders it lampoons: the Brobdingnagians are a fairly commendable species, and even the Yahoos have their finer points.

In the end, however, Lukes is too judicious. Caritat’s final judgment on his various ports of call is that each of them pursues one admirable ideal – order, freedom, happiness, community and so on – but in doing so loses sight of the others. The political enemy is not really callousness or greed or bigotry but fanaticism. This is an impeccably liberal claim: but it is stated rather than shown, and one wonders to what extent the text itself subverts it. Libertaria, for example, is a hell-hole not because it fails to combine its inherently admirable idea of freedom with the demands of community or stable identity, but because its idea of freedom is a grisly parody of the genuine article. Communitaria does not enjoy a rich conception of community which is fatally flawed by what it excludes, but practises a form of collectivism which is intrinsically oppressive. It is not just a matter of seeing things steadily and seeing them whole. In any case, the novel advances that doctrine with understandable unease – for how is one to distinguish between a liberalism which aims to mediate all points of view from yet another tyrannical totality? As Will Ladislaw remarks in Middlemarch, there can be a ‘fanaticism of sympathy’ too, and a synthesis is not easily demarcated from a monolith.

The novel’s most ‘symptomatic’ moment, in the Freudian sense of the term, is its Proletaria episode – a fantasy within a fiction. The curious brevity and dreamlike status of this chapter are not the only indications that the author does not know quite what to think about his own creation. There are satirical markers in plenty, but few substantive criticisms of a Communist land of Cockaigne which has long since left its dogmatic phase behind. Perhaps the novel feels able to indulge this pastoral idyll precisely because of its unreality; or perhaps it is Marxism which is objectionably tunnel-visioned rather than the pluralistic Communism to which it might lead, in which case the novel’s distaste for monistic views is interestingly complicated. Whatever the reason, the odd faltering of tonal consistency here shows up, by contrast, what is overachieved elsewhere. The suppleness of Swift’s satire means that we are sometimes unnervingly unsure of what exactly is under assault, which is hardly ever the case with this latter-day reinvention. Lukes’s allegory, while deftly sustained, is rather too instantly decodable, in need of a little more opacity and obliquity. In good rationalist mode, it is somewhat too transparent: a truly effective allegory generates ambiguous relations between its manifest and latent meanings. On the other hand, although it sacrifices the pleasures of the enigmatic, it is replete with the delights of recognition, at once estranging and reinforcing the familiar. And it manages for the most part to tread a hair-thin line between esoteric in-jokes and laborious explication. The trick isn’t always successfully turned; the force of a verbal slip in Utilitaria between ‘Pushkin’ and ‘pushpin’ is blunted by a dutiful citation of Bentham’s notorious levelling of poetry and pushpin. But this is just an instance of the author’s enlightened democratic impulse getting the better of Enlightenment élitism, and so a microcosm of the vexed relations between abstract ideas and political power which this novel so satisfyingly explores.