Friday, February 12, 2016

"Prouder than before to be human" - Paolo Mantegazza's Utopian Novel, The Year 3000. A Dream.


Veduta della città ideale, circa 1480-84, variously attributed to Piero della Francesca, Fra Carnevale, Luciano Laurana, Francecso di Giorgio Martini. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA (Creative Commons licensing)


Now here’s an Italian oddity: an 1897 novel entitled, The Year 3000. A Dream (L’anno 3000. Sogno), by Paolo Mantegazza, a “Renaissance man” once described as a “Physician-surgeon, Laboratory-experimenter, Author-editor, Traveller-anthropologist, Professor, Sanitarian, Senator.” Well-known inside and outside of Italy and respected by Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis among others, Mantegazza wrote some one hundred works including treatises on medicine, psychology and education; travelogues on South America, India, and Lapland; and novels ranging from sentimental romances to the scientific-futuristic work discussed here. The Year 3000, a quintessentially Italian contribution to utopian literature, comes filled with nifty conceits, a few cringe-worthy ideas, and quite a bit of charm and humor. I found myself laughing aloud on numerous occasions.

The Bison Books edition of The Year 3000, the first English translation of the novel, is worth picking up if only for the rich introduction by Nicoletta Pireddu, who offers a masterful assessment not only of Mantegazza’s work but also of utopian literature of the era in general, describing other utopian and science fictions from Italy and elsewhere. Some of these – Folliero De Luna’s The Political Mysteries of the Moon, for example - practically beg one to want to hunt them down. Pireddu also connects Mantegazza’s novel to wider scientific ideas as well as to political debates following Italy’s unification just 36 years before the novel’s publication.

The concept of unification is evident from the novel’s beginning. Europe, united following a war that has ended all wars, by the year 3000 has joined the rest of the world in forming the United Planetary States under a common language, Cosmic. A young Roman couple, Paolo and Maria, leave home in their flying “aerotach” for an extended tour of this new world. Following a trajectory that takes them from Rome to the Ligurian coast then to Egypt, Ceylon and India, the couple arrives in the world’s capital at Andropolis, the former Darjeeling, at the foot of the Himalaya, where they settle for several months to explore its wonders, and where Maria’s impatience over a secret that Paolo has promised to reveal there reaches a climax. Mantegazza uses the couple’s impressions as a means to explore his vision of the fourth millennium and as a platform for advancing his ideas concerning government, religion, education, health, gender, race and culture.

Mantegazza anticipates many technological advances. His world features clean energy, provided both by breaking down water into hydrogen fuel and by organic production of electricity based on a 26th century discovery exploiting the mechanism of bioluminescence in fireflies. Nearly instantaneous prefab building construction assures universal housing, with a variety of models from which to choose. Communities are meticulously planned. The remarkable medical accomplishments of the 31st century include the elimination of pain, advanced imaging methods to allow near instant diagnoses, tissue engineering for quick wound repair, and the pantomass, a whole-body massage/workout suit used in gymnasiums, and that in only a month can turn a “pale bookworm weakened by study” (present!) “into a stout traveler.”

Some of Mantegazza’s notions of future technologies, however, seem quaint, even retrograde. Communications employ luminous characters on a screen but also primarily take place thanks to “the ancient telephone…greatly improved.” The first leg of Paolo and Maria’s trip in their aerotach, from Rome to the coastal town of LaSpezia, takes “only a few hours,” as it does today by car. Readers may also be less than impressed to learn that human longevity has been extended to an average age of 60. Exploration of space is limited to more and more powerful telescopes, including one introduced late in the novel that will finally allow humans to see the inhabitants of nearby planets. And though Mantegazza presciently references human impact on the earth’s climate, today’s climate scientists might demur with his treatment of the subject. In the year 3000, humans have “so deftly controlled the forces of nature that it was enough to direct a strong current of warm air towards the poles to melt the immense ice formations that once occupied the polar zone,” thus cooling Europe by replacing the deserts of Africa with a vast new sea, seen lapping at the foot of the pyramids of Giza when Paolo and Maria swing through Egypt.

In terms of human moral, psychological and social development, Mantegazza’s ideas seem more at home and range more extensively, revealing the writer’s intense interest in psychology, evolutionary biology, and an “elastic” and “proteiform” human nature. In fact, in the year 3000, “Philosophy has been banned…even in name, and replaced by psychology and anthropology.” Religious tolerance abounds, but religion as known in the 19th century has been replaced with belief in “an imaginary God” who serves as a repository for vague spiritual yearnings (the italics are the author’s - readers may be forgiven for laughing at that). Mantegazza’s emphasis is on the practical betterment of humankind, towards which he places enormous faith in individuals gently governed by an elite of the wise.

Among Paolo and Maria’s stops on their travels is Ceylon, known as the Island of Experiments, a living museum of political systems. These include transparently-named metropolises such as the socialistic Equality and the dictatorial Tyrannopolis, as well as less evident smaller agglomerations like Monachia, “a small city made up entirely of nuns devoted to the cult of Sappho.” Something objectionable can be found here for those of almost any political persuasion. These systems, however, allow people to test alternatives to the world government seated at Andropolis, a vision both utopian and dystopian. While governmental power has become extremely de-centralized, the decisions of the elite entrusted with limited central governing include dramatic intrusions into private life, such as ascertaining whether a couple is fit for marriage and parenting and in fact whether babies demonstrate enough fortitude to merit not being incinerated. The book’s most morally ambiguous scene presents a young mother faced with not only the wrenching decision of whether to keep her “weak” baby or have it destroyed, but also a crass doctor who tells her: “Your baby has no awareness that it exists, and its elimination procedure is neither painful nor lengthy. A minute will reduce it to smoke and a small heap of ashes you can keep. You’re young still; you can remarry and bear other children.”

Though Maria in this scene serves as a moral foil to the doctor’s abysmal bedside manner, Mantegazza’s own attitudes towards women express a mixture of liberality and fustiness. All women have the franchise and divorce is a universal right, but the gender roles displayed in the novel are nearly as conventional as Mantegazza’s linear narrative style. Maria defers almost entirely to Paolo, describing herself at one point as “an ignorant little woman” then expressing amazement at her ability to grasp politics. Women, in Mantegazza’s “dream,” seem to have little place in science or industry, and are excluded from certain places, such as Andropolis’ Temple of Deists.

Though a faith in eugenics appears to run through The Year 3000, as is evident in the destruction of frail babies, Mantegazza’s treatment of race and ethnicity appears largely progressive. Increased comingling between different peoples has produced among humans “…a new type, indefinitely cosmopolitan.” However, Mantegazza’s choices in relating the complete disappearance of various ethnicities (sorry, aboriginal Australians and Maori!) may reveal a certain racial tension; the intercourse between the world’s peoples means that “in Africa there is no longer a single pure black person.”

Despite Mantegazza’s faith in cosmopolitanism and globalism, The Year 3000 possesses a charming Italo-centrism. Early on, Paolo revels in translating for Maria from Cosmic into the “dead” language of Italian, asserting that “never did another language have a nobler, greater geneology.” He extolls its having produced among the finest writers in history. Many, if not most, of the historical figures alluded to in The Year 3000 are Italian, and Mantegazza frequently digresses into issues with a particularly Italian flavor.

But perhaps the most charming element in The Year 3000: A Dream is Mantegazza’s depiction of the arts and entertainments of Andropolis, a city of ten million that contains an impressive “fifty theaters” (whatever the merits of Mantegazza’s imagination, his notion of a city of ten million people lacks realistic scale). To give the reader an idea of the capital’s cultural life, the narrator provides a marvelous three-page list of a sample day’s theatrical offerings. These include a production of Hamlet (in Cosmic) at the Theatre of Classical Tragedy; Sophocles’ Oedipus at the Panglosse (in ancient Greek and “reserved for the highly cultured”); a stage spectacular featuring “the cycle of cosmic pleasure, from Homer to the year 3000”; and a show in which the only performers are “speaking flowers, walking plants, and whispering meadows,” and which “depicts the struggle of monocotyledonous of coal-bearing soil against plants of the modern era.” There’s also a kind of electric Kool-Aid acid test sound and light experience and a revue of showgirls. 

And of course there are books. It’s disappointing that Mantegazza doesn’t devote more of his vision to art and literature, but it’s clear where his prejudices lie. While praising Italy as having throughout its history stood at the pinnacle of human artistic expression, the narrator notes a blotch on that record around the end of the 19th century, when artists turned to impressionism, pointillism and decadence, a period that also witnessed the nadir of Italian literature as decadent writers produced an “epidemic of Preraphaelitism, of the superhuman, that affected very high and powerful minds.” As an example, the narrator offers Gabriele d’Annunzio, who, instead of being “one of the great masters,” became “merely a great neurasthenic of Italian literature.”

Of course, since Paolo and Maria are on vacation, they take along some reading material. Of chief interest to them is a book written “ten centuries earlier by a physician with a bizarre imagination who tried to guess what human life would be like a millennium on,” which Paolo intends to translate as they travel, both out of curiosity as to “how well this prophet guessed the future” and in expectation of finding in the book “some beauties to laugh about.” With another 984 years still left to go until Mantegazza’s future arrives, one can already, in 2016, enjoy both his prophecies and quite a few such “beauties” – perhaps a few more than Mantegazza might have intended.





16 comments:

  1. As is often the case when I read your reviews, I find myself wondering how you stumbled across this book. It does sound right up your alley, though.

    The concept of the whole-body massage/workout suit caught my eye...can't work out whether that would be a good thing or not!

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    1. In this case, Jacqui, I found it in my favorite way: it was on the shelf in the library in the vicinity of something else I was seeking.

      The body suit is fitted with thousands of tiny metallic stimulators that can provide different textures and pressures. I'm not sure whether that would be a good thing or not either, but Mantegazza certainly seems to be a fan!

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  2. I had never heard of this one.

    For anyone interested in this type of book this sounds like a must read.

    It is always so interesting to go back and look at what folks in the past thought that the future would look like.

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    1. For anyone interested in utopian literature, The Year 3000 is absolutely a must read. As an example of that genre, this is a real treat, one that - as the outstanding introduction notes - seems to operate at a level of imagination quite a bit more developed than most other utopian works of its time.

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  3. “a period that also witnessed the nadir of Italian literature as decadent writers produced an “epidemic of Preraphaelitism, of the superhuman, that affected very high and powerful minds.” As an example, the narrator offers Gabriel d’Annunzio, who, instead of being “one of the great masters,” became “merely a great neurasthenic of Italian literature.”

    Interesting observation, of course, but the “epidemic of Preraphaelitism, of the superhuman, that affected very high and powerful minds” was a European phenomenon not just an Italian one. Freud, symbolists, syphilis, femme fatale, Schnitzler, Rodenbach, Munch, Maeterlinck, Berg . . .and all sorts of other key words. Oddly enough, the only source denied English only readers is d’Annunzio.

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    1. The flip side of Mantegazza's charming Italo-centrism is that he has blinders on when it comes to the rest of the world. And it's fairly astonishing that of Italian writers, he only mentions (aside from a handful from Roman antiquity) Dante, Carlo Porta, and d'Annunzio.

      I should have mentioned a bit more about Mantegazza's own ostensible aesthetics as displayed in The Year 3000. The architecture of Andropolis sounds rather austere and Neo-classical, and the capital features a few immense, symbolic and unbelievably kitsch statues that might not look out of place in North Korea.

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  4. Poor Italians, they get their Unification and still everything goes wrong.

    I'll note that there is - or perhaps more accurately once was - lots of d'Annunzio in English. His novels, especially. He had some best-sellers.

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  5. On d'Annunzio . . .yes, agreed but "once was." If one has access to a good library with a big collection of old stuff, d'Annunzio can be found. But for new glittery translations . . .not much.

    Accepting arguments concerning the quality of his prose, the quality of his politics, the quality of his love life, it's shallow to teach Italian Literature without a look at his body of work. One book and a poetry or two collection, just doesn't reflect what d'Annuzio was to Italian Literature. I, regularly, beat a drum on this topic, apparently to a non-existent audience.






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  6. Scott is the perfect person to read some d'Annunzio and report back, right here on this very blog. I meant to read something by d'Annunzio last year, I swear I did, but it did not happen.

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    1. Strangely enough, in moving some books around last night, out of one of them fell my "passport" to the 1980's interactive theater production of John Krizanc's Tamara, set at d'Annuzio's Lake Garda villa. It's about the closest I've yet come to knowing anything about the writer - and a rather poor means of becoming informed, from what I've gathered - so, Tom, I'll accept your kind nomination and will get over to the library promptly.

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  7. Tom, I hope Scott really picks up on your d'Annunzio prod. When you, Tom, were doing the Italians last year I hoped for some d'Annunzio, but alas.

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    1. Any particular d'Annunzio suggestions? I see at least half a dozen possibilities in English translation in the library here.

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  8. I suppose you have to do Il Piacere and L'innocente. They're not my favorites. Avoid all Georgina Harding translations because they were considerably "cleaned up" for English speaking readers. My favorite was the nasty little novel Giovanni Episcopo. One of his short stories, San Pantaleone,available in a collection of Italian short stories at Gutenberg, bears an uncanny resemblance to Suskind's Perfume.

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    1. Great thanks - very helpful. I'll see what I can find.

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  9. Also, I'm curious about the play Tamara. In Paris, I saw a show of her work in which her letters to d'Annunzio were included. In one, she firmly refused an affair with him because she didn't want to take syphilis home to her husband, whom she rather liked.

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    1. Tamara from what I gather and recall, was nearly void of anything of substance having to do with d'Annunzio or de Lempicka. It was, instead, all about the novelty of having the audience run around in a villa following a character to whom they were assigned. A meal was served at intermission. For Los Angeles, where it ran for years, it was the perfect popular production, allowing the audience to run around in a spectacular house and feel involved in the sordid affairs of celebrities without having to be bothered with a single thought. The best part of it by far was the house itself.

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