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The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy

by Charles Fourier; translated and with an introduction by Geoffrey Longnecker
Wakefield Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
120 pp. Paper, $12.95 US
ISBN: 978-0-9841155-5-6.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Some of us first heard of Charles Fourier (1772-1837) in Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, where Wilson traced 150 years of revolutionary fervor from French philosophies through Lenin and Trotsky.  He was a savant, social critic with a twinkle in his eye, and visionary socialist in that thoughtful and optimistic century of William Morris, Edward Bellamy, Oscar Wilde...and, oh yes, Karl Marx.  Fourier arranged human history into six societal stages of progress, from "Savagery" to "Harmonism", with the "Civilization" of his time merely the third.  A feminist, Fourier felt that the charades of cuckoldry were a result of the absurd demands of monogamous marriage, and would disappear as humankind grew in maturity and clarity.  "Social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women towards liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women."  Hello!  Can we now convince radical Christianists in the U.S. and similar Islamists in Egypt of those seemingly self-evident truths?

Translated by Geoffrey Longnecker, who provides a fine introduction, this little volume gives us an eccentric sample of Fourier's thought and style in two essays published together for the first time.  These are not varieties of romantic anguish but subtleties of shame, and their juxtaposition proves the similarities of a husband wronged by a wife, and an investor wronged by the vagaries of the economy.  Fourier detects the ways the tables can be turned, the situation managed.

Fourier asserts that cuckoldry must be handled deftly by the cuckold, to maintain his dignity under the circumstances.  The implication is that before entering into an extramarital arrangement, the sagacious must consider all varieties cuckoldry, whether classed among the Common, Short-horned or Long-horned.  Swaggering, Wily, Jeering, Prescriptive, Recalcitrant or Irate; these are all among the 75 varieties therein.  Number 66, among the Compound Orders, is the Judicious, or Guaranteed, Proto-cuckold.  Fourier calls him "the flower of cuckolds, the flower of the race," for he'd married a rich woman to insure they both had liberty to do their own things, with whomever.  The results of this arrangement are "liberty, respect, protection and reciprocal friendship."  The author adds, "This is the species of cuckoldry to which I would aspire if I ever married."

Fourier goes on to provide related taxonomies of attraction (three), passions (three), and the Seven Objectives of Marriage.  He keeps up the same measured, logical tone as the subject turns to bankruptcy, broken into three Orders, nine Genres and 36 Species.  Species 17, the Graded Bankruptcy, "is that of a speculator who, if he carries out the operation wisely enough, can make a career out of seven or eight consecutive bankruptcies."  Fourier then lists the recommended percentages of funds looted to carry off the operation credibly, so the businessman can gain, not lose, respect with every step.  Goldman Sachs, John Corzine, UBS, please note.

I like lists.  Recall the marvelous sequence in Peter Greenway's 1991 movie "Prospero's Books", where the contents of Prospero's library are inventoried in multi-layered sequence, a savvy use of then-new digital film technologies.  There are bestiaries and alphabets, both forms explored in the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, whom nobody seems to read anymore but was omnipresent in the 1970s. Systematizing is like bird watching.  Fourier's categorizations evoke Denis Diderot's Dictionary, or Gustave Flaubert's Encyclopedia of Received Ideas, a collection whose cynicism is like Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary.  They certainly prefigured Roland Barthes' cool and thorough A Lover's Discourse, and Barthes himself analyzed Fourier's work in comparison to the Marquis de Sade and St. Ignatius of Loyola.  The book is so methodical that I sometimes had to put it down to remind myself I was reading for pleasure.  Perhaps his taxonomies are most like eighteenth-century naturalist Linnaeus.  Imagine a vaudeville skit or college magazine parody: Carl Linnaeus, enough with the fershlugginer classifications, already!  Oh wait, that sounds like Jewish humor, an ethnic group whose businesspeople Fourier viewed with disdain.

Bankruptcy is Fourier's term for a swindle on investors, like cuckolding a spouse, a breach of trust; think Bernie Madoff or Charles Ponzi.  Fourier's Hierarchy of Bankruptcy sorts Crimes of Commerce into three Orders, nine Genres and 36 Species.  Least swashbuckling and cheerfully roguish are the three Species of Agitators that "disregard moral methods and jeopardize the august profession."  These include the Large-Scale Bankruptcy, who ruins "hundreds of landlords, members of the lower middle class, and other good people."  His description sounds like a Wall Street trader's memo, gazing upon Autumn 2011's crowd of Occupy patriots, as he notes how it "hurts non-merchants and greatly harms the profession by giving rise to rather unflattering thoughts concerning the honest fraternity of traders."  The Widespread Bankruptcy "makes public opinion rise up against the intrigues of merchants and against the stupid laws that allow this disreputable gambler such utter freedom."

These are good times to read The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy.  One possible U.S. Presidential candidate says, "Corporations are persons too, my friend" (affirmed, alas, by the US Supreme Court), and will bet a rival $10,000 in a wink that he's right.  Another one preaches the sanctity of marriage, after commencing an affair and divorcing his cancer-stricken first wife, to repeat the process upon a healthy but unhappy second spouse with his religiously devout third wife.  The news announced the bankruptcy of Kodak Corporation, the firm that commercialized mass photography in the United States in the nineteenth century, a bulwark of industry made vulnerable not by a new young lover, but by digital camera technology.  Perhaps this handsome little book could offer its corporate officers some consolation, or at least understanding.  One also imagines it protruding from the suit pockets of politicians meeting to decide the economic fate of Europe; or, well thumbed, from Frau Merkel's purse.

Last Updated 3 March 2012

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