Essay 46: Novelists As Prophetic?

There are three French novelists who say prophetic things in their writings, predictions that are based on intuition and sensibility and not on any formal forecasting at all, but far-seeing nevertheless. Consider these three:

Jules Verne (died in 1905):

Paris in the Twentieth Century (FrenchParis au XXe siècle) is a science fiction novel by Jules Verne. The book presents Paris in August 1960, 97 years in Verne’s future, where society places value only on business and technology.

Written in 1863 but first published 131 years later (1994), the novel follows a young man who struggles unsuccessfully to live in a technologically advanced, but culturally backwards world.  Often referred to as Verne’s “lost novel,” the work paints a grim, dystopian view of a technological future civilization.

Verne’s predictions for 1960:

The book’s description of the technology of 1960 was in some ways remarkably close to actual 1960s technology.

The book described in detail advances such as cars powered by internal combustion engines (“gas-cabs”) together with the necessary supporting infrastructure such as gas stations and paved asphalt roads, elevated and underground passenger train systems and high-speed trains powered by magnetism and compressed air, skyscrapers, electric lights that illuminate entire cities at night, fax machines (“picture-telegraphs”), elevators, primitive computers which can send messages to each other as part of a network somewhat resembling the Internet (described as sophisticated electrically powered mechanical calculators which can send information to each other across vast distances), the utilization of wind power, automated security systems, the electric chair, and remotely-controlled weapons systems, as well as weapons destructive enough to make war unthinkable.

The book also predicts the growth of suburbs and mass-produced higher education (the opening scene has Dufrénoy attending a mass graduation of 250,000 students), department stores, and massive hotels. A version of feminism has also arisen in society, with women moving into the workplace and a rise in illegitimate births. It also makes accurate predictions of 20th-century music, predicting the rise of electronic music, and describes a musical instrument similar to a synthesizer, and the replacement of classical music performances with a recorded music industry.  It predicts that the entertainment industry would be dominated by lewd stage plays, often involving nudity and sexually explicit scenes.

Flaubert (died in 1880):

In his posthumous novel published in 1881, Bouvard and Pécuchet, a satire on random knowledge-seeking, the two clerks of the book title, conclude that sometime in the future, America will “take over” the world or its hegemonial leadership. To see that America would supplant Europe, in those days, is quite “counterintuitive.”

Bouvard and Pécuchet details the adventures of two Parisian copy-clerks, François Denys Bartholomée Bouvard and Juste Romain Cyrille Pécuchet, of the same age and nearly identical temperament. They meet one hot summer day in 1838 by the canal Saint-Martin and form an instant, symbiotic friendship. When Bouvard inherits a sizable fortune, the two decide to move to the countryside. They find a 94-acre (380,000 m2) property near the town of Chavignolles in Normandy, between Caen and Falaise, and 100 miles (160 km) west of Rouen. Their search for intellectual stimulation leads them, over the course of years, to flounder through almost every branch of knowledge.

Balzac (died in 1850):

In his novel, The Wild Ass’s Skin (La Peau de Chagrin), Balzac describes scenes and conversations which lead one insightful interpreter of his to remark:  “On the level of world history, this incident can be read as an allegorical prefiguration of the contemporary conversion of Asia to the materialistic motivations of the technological societies of the West.”  (Balzac: An Interpretation of La Comédie Humaine, F.J.W. Hemmings, Random House, 1967, page 173)

Hemmings says:  “Europe and then American norms are generally accepted among what we call the advanced societies of the world: a civilization concerned above all to stimulate and then gratify the innumerable private desires of its citizens…In Balzac’s day, this civilization had reached its highest development in Paris.”  (Hemmings’s book, page 173)

These three novelists bring to mind Heidegger’s (died in 1976) more recent sense that science and technology from Europe would take over dominant “planetary thinking” and that would “wring out” any sense of “being” or “being-in-the world.”

These three writers gave us “allegorical prefigurations” (to use the Hemmings’s phrase above) of the present which are startling in their far-seeing sense of things and that raises the question: who might their equivalents be in our time?

Essay 33: How to Jump From a Field to a Larger Understanding: The Example of Globalization

In a university, one is trained to “inspect” fields. That produces what might be called a “monographic” intelligence.

Our purpose is to show and promote something ancillary to this, what might be called a “circum-spective” intelligence (i.e., using the specialized knowledge as one “brick” in a larger structure of understanding).

Let’s do an example:

Think of all the descriptions and analyses of something called globalization. An objective evaluation of the literature on this show two analyses that stand out and tower above the rest:

  1. Prof. Jeffrey Williamson and Kevin O’Rourke, Globalization and History, MIT, 1999 (this is a “quantitative history” or “cliometric” study and a classic).
  2. Elhanan Helpman, Understanding Global Trade, Harvard, 2011 (a masterpiece of trade-based analysis)

Both of these authors are Harvard professors in economics and deserve the high regard that such books have won them. In these two books, there are several technical disagreements of which the deepest is that Williamson focuses on the emergence of one world market price (say for wheat) and argues that this “price convergence” is the best measure of globalization. Thus at a certain point wheat of a certain kind (hard, durum, etc.) was price at the same world rate whether the wheat came from Kansas, Canada, Argentina or Ukraine. The world is then a global price-making market mechanism. This price convergence then extends to their kinds of prices as globalization processes deepen. Williamson explicitly considers other approaches to globalization such as trade share of GDP as confusing.

Helpman, on the other hand, uses export plus imports/over GDP as his measure, clearly disagreeing with the Williamson approach of prices and not trade shares.

Interestingly, both scholars conclude that something we call globalization begins to “show up in the data” in the 1820s. Thus, Marco Polo-type stories are colorful and “multinational” but have little to do with actual (i.e., data based) globalization as we see it, looking backwards from 2020.

Both of these books are classic works and show the intricacies and utility of the “cliometric” approach (i.e., explaining the past quantitatively, using data from economics).

However, there’s a deep perspectival omission in both works:

As the novels of Balzac (1799-1850) show there begins to “co-evolve” with this globalization story a parallel story of global colonization and empire-building by the European powers. Algeria is seized in 1830 and culminates in the brutal Algerian War of 1954-1962. Without de Gaulle‘s supreme prestige as the savior of France, the French would have gone to a destructive civil war and the defeat in French Indochina at Dien Ben Phu. 1954 almost lead to endless strife based on events on the other side of the world.  Balzac’s novels are often set in the 1820s and mention a deepening involvement of France with North African empire-building.

This culminates in Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami from 1885, which centers on the inexorable rise of an unethical “manipulation machine,” who returns from North Africa as a penniless soldier and after many twists and turns makes several killings in North Africa in various shady schemes which he gets wind off via his journalism contacts.  In other words, the rise of Western industrial technology (from railroads to cars to planes) conquers the world one way while the European colonial armies conquer the world another way.

The peoples like the Vietnamese and Algerians “see” the world in colonial terms with colonialism backstopped by industrial technology. Their quest for dignity begins with this analysis and not with the analysis which says industry and science are primary and colonialism a footnote.

It is this fundamental clash of historical interpretations on a worldwide scale which bedevils the changing relationship between the West and the non-West and is more profound than the econometric differences between a Prof. Williamson and a Professor Helpman.

By seeing how these layers and stories are “entwined” gives you a deeper and wide-angle vision which one field—economics or cliometrics—can’t offer because it is one brick or building block in a larger story. Fields have to be “opened up” in this way, which is the mission of this book.