Aldous Huxley Explains How Man Became “the Victim of His Own Technology” (1961)

Just a cou­ple of days ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook tweet­ed out a video pro­mot­ing, “the new iPad Pro: the thinnest prod­uct we’ve ever cre­at­ed.” The response has been over­whelm­ing, and over­whelm­ing­ly neg­a­tive: for many view­ers, the ad’s imagery of a hydraulic press crush­ing a heap of musi­cal instru­ments, art sup­plies, and vin­tage enter­tain­ment into a sin­gle tablet inad­ver­tent­ly artic­u­lat­ed a dis­com­fort they’ve long felt with tech­nol­o­gy’s direc­tion in the past cou­ple of decades. As the nov­el­ist Hari Kun­zru put it“Crush­ing the sym­bols of human cre­ativ­i­ty to pro­duce a homog­e­nized brand­ed slab is pret­ty much where the tech indus­try is at in 2024.”

One won­ders whether this would have sur­prised Aldous Hux­ley. He under­stood, as he explains in the 1961 BBC inter­view above, that “if you plant the seed of applied sci­ence or tech­nol­o­gy, it pro­ceeds to grow, and it grows accord­ing to the laws of its own being. And the laws of its being are not nec­es­sar­i­ly the same as the laws of our being.”

Even six decades ago, he and cer­tain oth­ers had the sense, which has since become fair­ly com­mon, that “man is being sub­ject­ed to his own inven­tions, that he is now the vic­tim of his own tech­nol­o­gy”; that “the devel­op­ment of recent social and sci­en­tif­ic his­to­ry has cre­at­ed a world in which man seems to be made for tech­nol­o­gy rather than the oth­er way around.”

Hav­ing writ­ten his acclaimed dystopi­an nov­el Brave New World thir­ty years ear­li­er, Hux­ley was estab­lished as a seer of pos­si­ble tech­nol­o­gy-dri­ven total­i­tar­i­an futures. He under­stood that “we are a lit­tle reluc­tant to embark upon tech­nol­o­gy, to allow tech­nol­o­gy to take over,” but that, “in the long run, we gen­er­al­ly suc­cumb,” allow­ing our­selves to be mas­tered by our own cre­ations. In this, he resem­bles the Julia of Byron’s Don Juan, who, “whis­per­ing ‘I will ne’er con­sent’ – con­sent­ed.” Hux­ley also knew that “it is pos­si­ble to make peo­ple con­tent with their servi­tude,” even more effec­tive­ly in moder­ni­ty than antiq­ui­ty: “you can pro­vide them with bread and cir­cus­es, and you can pro­vide them with end­less amounts of dis­trac­tion and pro­pa­gan­da” — deliv­ered, here in the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry, straight to the device in our hand.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Aldous Hux­ley Pre­dicts in 1950 What the World Will Look Like in the Year 2000

An Ani­mat­ed Aldous Hux­ley Iden­ti­fies the Dystopi­an Threats to Our Free­dom (1958)

Aldous Hux­ley Tells Mike Wal­lace What Will Destroy Democ­ra­cy: Over­pop­u­la­tion, Drugs & Insid­i­ous Tech­nol­o­gy (1958)

Aldous Hux­ley to George Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Hear Aldous Hux­ley Nar­rate His Dystopi­an Mas­ter­piece Brave New World

Aldous Hux­ley, Dying of Can­cer, Left This World Trip­ping on LSD (1963)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

4 Franz Kafka Animations: Watch Creative Animated Shorts from Poland, Japan, Russia & Canada

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guat­tari thought of Kaf­ka as an inter­na­tion­al writer, in sol­i­dar­i­ty with minor­i­ty groups world­wide. Oth­er schol­ars have char­ac­ter­ized his work—and Kaf­ka him­self wrote as much—as lit­er­a­ture con­cerned with nation­al iden­ti­ty. Aca­d­e­m­ic debates, how­ev­er, have no bear­ing on how ordi­nary read­ers, and writ­ers, around the world take in Kafka’s nov­els and short sto­ries. Writ­ers with both nation­al and inter­na­tion­al pedi­grees such as Borges, Muraka­mi, Mar­quez, and Nabokov have drawn much inspi­ra­tion from the Czech-Jew­ish writer, as have film­mak­ers and ani­ma­tors. Today we revis­it sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al ani­ma­tions inspired by Kaf­ka, the first, above by Pol­ish ani­ma­tor Piotr Dumala.

Trained a sculp­tor, Dumala’s tex­tur­al brand of “destruc­tive ani­ma­tion” cre­ates chill­ing, high con­trast images that appro­pri­ate­ly cap­ture the eerie and unre­solved play of light and dark in Kafka’s work. The Pol­ish artist’s Franz Kaf­ka (1992) draws on scenes from the author’s life, as told in his diaries.

Next, watch a very dis­ori­ent­ing 2007 Japan­ese adap­ta­tion of Kafka’s “A Coun­try Doc­tor” by ani­ma­tor Koji Yama­mu­ra. The sound­track and monot­o­ne Japan­ese dia­logue (with sub­ti­tles) effec­tive­ly con­veys the tone of the sto­ry, which John Updike described as “a sen­sa­tion of anx­i­ety and shame whose cen­ter can­not be locat­ed and there­fore can­not be pla­cat­ed; a sense of an infi­nite dif­fi­cul­ty with things, imped­ing every step.” Read the orig­i­nal sto­ry here.

Russ­ian-Amer­i­can team Alexan­der Alex­eieff and Claire Park­er cre­at­ed the 1963 ani­ma­tion above using a “pin­screen” tech­nique, which pho­tographs the three-dimen­sion­al move­ment of hun­dreds of pins, mak­ing images from real light and shad­ow. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten on just “how demand­ing and painstak­ing an effort” the ani­ma­tors made to cre­ate their work. Their pre­vi­ous efforts got the atten­tion of Orson Welles, who com­mis­sioned the above short as a pro­logue for his Antho­ny Perkins-star­ring film ver­sion of The Tri­al. And yes, that voice you hear nar­rat­ing the para­ble “Before the Law,” an excerpt from Kafka’s nov­el, is Welles him­self.

Kafka’s most famous sto­ry, The Meta­mor­pho­sis, inspired Cana­di­an ani­ma­tor Car­o­line Leaf’s 1977 film above. Leaf’s Kaf­ka ani­ma­tion also takes a sculp­tur­al approach to the author’s work, this time sculpt­ing in sand, a medi­um Leaf her­self says cre­at­ed “black and white sand images” with “the poten­tial to have a Kaf­ka-esque feel—dark and mys­te­ri­ous.” How­ev­er we inter­pret the con­tent of Kafka’s work, the feel of his sto­ries is unmis­tak­able to read­ers and inter­preters across con­ti­nents. It’s one that con­sis­tent­ly inspires artists to use a spare, high con­trast style in adapt­ing him.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

Hunter S. Thomp­son and Franz Kaf­ka Inspire Ani­ma­tion for a Book­store Ben­e­fit­ing Oxfam

Kafka’s Famous Char­ac­ter Gre­gor Sam­sa Meets Dr. Seuss in a Great Radio Play

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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What Is Religion Actually For?: Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury Weigh In

In the nine­teen-six­ties, the music media encour­aged the notion that a young rock-and-roll fan had to side with either the Bea­t­les or their rivals, the Rolling Stones. On some lev­el, it must have made sense, giv­en the grow­ing aes­thet­ic divide between the music the two world-famous groups were putting out. But, at bot­tom, not only was there no rival­ry between the bands (it was an inven­tion of the music papers), there was no real need, of course, to choose one or the oth­er. In the fifties, some­thing of the same dynam­ic must have obtained between Ray Brad­bury and Isaac Asi­mov, two pop­u­lar genre writ­ers, each with his own world­view.

Brad­bury and Asi­mov had much in com­mon: both were (prob­a­bly) born in 1920, both attend­ed the very first World Sci­ence Fic­tion Con­ven­tion in 1939, both began pub­lish­ing in pulp mag­a­zines in the for­ties, and both had an aver­sion to air­planes. That Brad­bury spent most of his life in Cal­i­for­nia and Asi­mov in New York made for a poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing cul­tur­al con­trast, though it nev­er seems to have been played up. Still, it may explain some­thing of the basic dif­fer­ence between the two writ­ers as it comes through in the video above, a com­pi­la­tion of talk-show clips in which Brad­bury and Asi­mov respond to ques­tions about their reli­gious beliefs, or lack there­of.

Asi­mov may have writ­ten a guide to the Bible, but he was hard­ly a lit­er­al­ist, call­ing the first chap­ters of Gen­e­sis “the sixth-cen­tu­ry BC ver­sion of how the world might have start­ed. We’ve improved on that since. I don’t believe that those are God’s words. Those are the words of men, try­ing to make the most sense that they could out of the infor­ma­tion they had at the time.” In a lat­er clip, Brad­bury, for his part, con­fess­es to a belief in not just Gen­e­sis, but also Dar­win and even Jean-Bap­tiste Lamar­ck, who the­o­rized that char­ac­ter­is­tics acquired in an organ­is­m’s life­time could be passed down to the next gen­er­a­tion. “Noth­ing is proven,” he declares, “so there’s room for a reli­gious del­i­catessen.”

One sens­es that Asi­mov would­n’t have agreed, and indeed, would have been per­fect­ly sat­is­fied with a reg­u­lar del­i­catessen. Though both he and Brad­bury became famous as sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers around the same time — to say noth­ing of their copi­ous writ­ing in oth­er gen­res — they pos­sessed high­ly dis­tinct imag­i­na­tions. That works like Fahren­heit 451 and the Foun­da­tion tril­o­gy attract­ed such dif­fer­ent read­er­ships is explic­a­ble in part through Brad­bury’s insis­tence that “there’s room to believe it all” and Asi­mov’s dis­missal of what he saw as every “get-rich quick scheme of the mind” ped­dled by “con men of the spir­it”: each point of view as thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can, in its way, as the Bea­t­les and the Stones were thor­ough­ly Eng­lish.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Wit­ty, Eru­dite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Ray Brad­bury Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion (in Which Case We Need More Lit­er­a­ture!)

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

Carl Sagan Answers the Ulti­mate Ques­tion: Is There a God? (1994)

50 Famous Aca­d­e­mics & Sci­en­tists Talk About God

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

RIP Paul Auster: Hear the Master of the Postmodern Page-Turner Discuss How He Became a Writer

In the Louisiana Chan­nel inter­view clip from 2017 above, the late Paul Auster tells the sto­ry of how he became a writer. Its first episode had appeared more than twen­ty years ear­li­er, in a New York­er piece titled “Why Write?”: “I was eight years old. At that moment in my life, noth­ing was more impor­tant to me than base­ball.” After the first big-league game he ever went to see, the New York Giants ver­sus the Mil­wau­kee Braves at the Polo Grounds, he came face-to-face with a leg­end-to-be named Willie Mays. “I man­aged to keep my legs mov­ing in his direc­tion and then, mus­ter­ing every ounce of my courage, I forced some words out of my mouth. ‘Mr. Mays,’ I said, ‘could I please have your auto­graph?’ ”

Mays says yes, but there was a prob­lem: “I didn’t have a pen­cil, so I asked my father if I could bor­row his. He didn’t have one, either. Nor did my moth­er. Nor, as it turned out, did any of the oth­er grownups.” Even­tu­al­ly, the young Auster’s idol “turned to me and shrugged. ‘Sor­ry, kid,’ he said. ‘Ain’t got no pen­cil, can’t give no auto­graph.’ And then he walked out of the ball­park into the night.” From that point on, as the mid­dle-aged Auster tells it, “it became a habit of mine nev­er to leave the house with­out mak­ing sure I had a pen­cil in my pock­et.” Even in this child­hood anec­dote, read­ers will rec­og­nize some of Auster’s sig­na­ture ele­ments: the icons of mid-cen­tu­ry New York, the life-chang­ing chance encounter, the state of bit­ter regret.

But it takes more than a pen­cil to become a writer. “The thing about doing this, which is unlike any oth­er job, is that you have to give max­i­mum effort, all the time,” Auster says. “You have to give every ounce of your being to what you’re doing, and I don’t think there are many jobs that require that. You see lazy lawyers, lazy doc­tors, lazy judges. They can get through things. You even see lazy ath­letes.” But “you can’t be a writer or a painter or a musi­cian unless you make max­i­mum effort.” Even after pro­duc­ing noth­ing usable in one of his usu­al eight-hour writ­ing shifts, “I can at least stand up and say, at the end of the day, I gave it every­thing I had. I tried 100 per­cent. And there’s some­thing sat­is­fy­ing about that, just try­ing as hard as you can to do some­thing.”

There’s some­thing thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can about these words, as indeed there’s some­thing thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can about Auster’s twen­ty post­mod­ern page-turn­ers (to say noth­ing of his many vol­umes of non­fic­tion and poet­ry). Yet he also had one foot in France, where he lived in the ear­ly nine­teen-sev­en­ties, and sev­er­al of whose respect­ed writ­ers — Sartre, Mal­lar­mé, Blan­chot — he trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. He gained his first and most fer­vent fan­base there, becom­ing a beloved écrivain amer­i­can of long stand­ing. The announce­ment of his death on April 30th must have set off some­thing like a nation­al day of mourn­ing, and an occa­sion to remem­ber what he once said to France Inter: just as a writer should always car­ry a pen­cil, “cha­cun doit être prêt à mourir n’im­porte quand.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Paul Auster Read the Entire­ty of The Red Note­book, an Ear­ly Col­lec­tion of Sto­ries

Paul Auster Reads from New Nov­el Sun­set Park

Read and Hear Famous Writ­ers (and Arm­chair Sports­men) J. M. Coet­zee and Paul Auster’s Cor­re­spon­dence

Philip Roth Pre­dicts the Death of the Nov­el; Paul Auster Coun­ters

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Behold The Drawings of Franz Kafka (1907–1917)

Run­ner 1907–1908

Runner 1907-1908

UK-born, Chica­go-based artist Philip Har­ti­gan has post­ed a brief video piece about Franz Kaf­ka’s draw­ings. Kaf­ka, of course, wrote a body of work, most­ly nev­er pub­lished dur­ing his life­time, that cap­tured the absur­di­ty and the lone­li­ness of the new­ly emerg­ing mod­ern world: In The Meta­mor­pho­sis, Gre­gor trans­forms overnight into a giant cock­roach; in The Tri­al, Josef K. is charged with an unde­fined crime by a mad­den­ing­ly inac­ces­si­ble court. In sto­ry after sto­ry, Kaf­ka showed his pro­tag­o­nists get­ting crushed between the pin­cers of a face­less bureau­crat­ic author­i­ty on the one hand and a deep sense of shame and guilt on the oth­er.

On his deathbed, the famous­ly tor­tured writer implored his friend Max Brod to burn his unpub­lished work. Brod ignored his friend’s plea and instead pub­lished them – nov­els, short sto­ries and even his diaries. In those diaries, Kaf­ka doo­dled inces­sant­ly – stark, graph­ic draw­ings infused with the same angst as his writ­ing. In fact, many of these draw­ings have end­ed up grac­ing the cov­ers of Kafka’s books.

“Quick, min­i­mal move­ments that con­vey the typ­i­cal despair­ing mood of his fic­tion” says Har­ti­gan of Kafka’s art. “I am struck by how these sim­ple ges­tures, these zigza­gs of the wrist, con­tain an econ­o­my of mark mak­ing that even the most expe­ri­enced artist can learn some­thing from.”

In his book Con­ver­sa­tions with Kaf­ka, Gus­tav Janouch describes what hap­pened when he came upon Kaf­ka in mid-doo­dle: the writer imme­di­ate­ly ripped the draw­ing into lit­tle pieces rather than have it be seen by any­one. After this hap­pened a cou­ple times, Kaf­ka relent­ed and let him see his work. Janouch was aston­ished. “You real­ly didn’t need to hide them from me,” he com­plained. “They’re per­fect­ly harm­less sketch­es.”

Kaf­ka slow­ly wagged his head to and fro – ‘Oh no! They are not as harm­less as they look. These draw­ing are the remains of an old, deep-root­ed pas­sion. That’s why I tried to hide them from you…. It’s not on the paper. The pas­sion is in me. I always want­ed to be able to draw. I want­ed to see, and to hold fast to what was seen. That was my pas­sion.”

Check out some of Kafka’s draw­ings below. Or def­i­nite­ly see the recent­ly-pub­lished edi­tion, Franz Kaf­ka: The Draw­ings. It’s the “first book to pub­lish the entire­ty of Franz Kafka’s graph­ic out­put, includ­ing more than 100 new­ly dis­cov­ered draw­ings.”

Horse and Rid­er 1909–1910

Horse and Rider 1909-1910

Three Run­ners 1912–1913

Three Runners 1912-1913

The Thinker 1913

The Thinker 1913

Fenc­ing 1917

Fencing 1917

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Franz Kaf­ka Says the Insect in The Meta­mor­pho­sis Should Nev­er Be Drawn; and Vladimir Nabokov Draws It Any­way

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delight­ful But­ter­fly Draw­ings

The Art of William Faulkn­er: Draw­ings from 1916–1925

The Draw­ings of Jean-Paul Sartre

Flan­nery O’Connor’s Satir­i­cal Car­toons: 1942–1945

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

Hear Flannery O’Connor Read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1959)

Flan­nery O’Con­nor was a South­ern writer who, as Joyce Car­ol Oates once said, had less in com­mon with Faulkn­er than with Kaf­ka and Kierkegaard. Iso­lat­ed by poor health and con­sumed by her fer­vent Catholic faith, O’Con­nor cre­at­ed works of moral fic­tion that, accord­ing to Oates, “were not refined New York­er sto­ries of the era in which noth­ing hap­pens except inside the char­ac­ters’ minds, but sto­ries in which some­thing hap­pens of irre­versible mag­ni­tude, often death by vio­lent means.”

In imag­in­ing those events of irre­versible mag­ni­tude, O’Con­nor could some­times seem outlandish–even cartoonish–but she strong­ly reject­ed the notion that her per­cep­tions of 20th cen­tu­ry life were dis­tort­ed. “Writ­ers who see by the light of their Chris­t­ian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the per­verse, and for the unac­cept­able,” O’Con­nor said. “To the hard of hear­ing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and star­tling fig­ures.”

In April of 1959–five years before her death at the age of 39 from lupus–O’Connor ven­tured away from her seclud­ed fam­i­ly farm in Milledgeville, Geor­gia, to give a read­ing at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty. She read one of her most famous and unset­tling sto­ries, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The audio, acces­si­ble above, is one of two known record­ings of the author read­ing that sto­ry. In her dis­tinc­tive Geor­gian drawl, O’Con­nor tells the sto­ry of a fate­ful fam­i­ly trip:

The grand­moth­er did­n’t want to go to Flori­da. She want­ed to vis­it some of her con­nec­tions in east Ten­nessee and she was seiz­ing at every chance to change Bai­ley’s mind. Bai­ley was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sit­ting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports sec­tion of the Jour­nal. “Now look here, Bai­ley,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the oth­er rat­tling the news­pa­per at his bald head. “Here this fel­low that calls him­self The Mis­fit is aloose from the Fed­er­al Pen and head­ed toward Flori­da and you read here what it says he did to these peo­ple. Just you read it. I would­n’t take my chil­dren in any direc­tion with a crim­i­nal like that aloose in it. I could­n’t answer to my con­science if I did.”

After you lis­ten to this rare track, you can fol­low this link to a record­ing of O’Con­nor read­ing her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in South­ern Fic­tion,” in which she writes: “I have found that any­thing that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the North­ern read­er, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called real­is­tic.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Flan­nery O’Connor Reads ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in South­ern Fic­tion’ (c. 1960)

Hear Flan­nery O’Connor’s Short Sto­ry, “Rev­e­la­tion,” Read by Leg­endary His­to­ri­an & Radio Host, Studs Terkel

Flan­nery O’Connor’s “Every­thing That Ris­es Must Con­verge” Read by Estelle Par­sons

How the Year 2440 Was Imagined in a 1771 French Sci-Fi Novel

Many Amer­i­cans might think of Rip Van Win­kle as the first man to nod off and wake up in the dis­tant future. But as often seems to have been the case in the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, the French got there first. Almost 50 years before Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing’s short sto­ry, Louis-Sébastien Merci­er’s utopi­an nov­el L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771) sent its sleep­ing pro­tag­o­nist six and a half cen­turies for­ward in time. Read today, as it is in the new Kings and Things video above, the book appears in rough­ly equal parts uncan­ni­ly prophet­ic and hope­less­ly root­ed in its time — set­ting the prece­dent, you could say, for much of the yet-to-be-invent­ed genre of sci­ence fic­tion.

Pub­lished in Eng­lish as Mem­oirs of the Year Two Thou­sand Five Hun­dred (of which both Thomas Jef­fer­son and George Wash­ing­ton owned copies), Mercier’s nov­el envi­sions “a world where some tech­no­log­i­cal progress has been made, but the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion nev­er hap­pened. It’s a world where an agrar­i­an soci­ety has invent­ed some­thing resem­bling holo­gram tech­nol­o­gy, where Penn­syl­va­nia is ruled by an Aztec emper­or, and drink­ing cof­fee is a crim­i­nal offense.” Its set­ting, Paris, “has been com­plete­ly reor­ga­nized. The chaot­ic medieval fab­ric has made way for grand and beau­ti­ful streets built in straight lines, sim­i­lar to what actu­al­ly hap­pened in Hauss­man­n’s ren­o­va­tion a bit under a cen­tu­ry after the book was pub­lished.”

Merci­er could­n’t have known about that ambi­tious work of urban renew­al avant la let­tre any more than he could have known about the rev­o­lu­tion that was to come in just eigh­teen years. Yet he wrote with cer­tain­ty that “the Bastille has been torn down, although not by a rev­o­lu­tion, but by a king.” Mercier’s twen­ty-fifth-cen­tu­ry France remains a monar­chy, but it has become a benev­o­lent, enlight­ened one whose cit­i­zens rejoice at the chance to pay tax beyond the amount they owe. More real­is­ti­cal­ly, if less ambi­tious­ly, the book’s unstuck-in-time hero also mar­vels at the fact that traf­fic trav­el­ing in one direc­tion uses one side of the street, and traf­fic trav­el­ing in the oth­er direc­tion uses the oth­er, hav­ing come from a time when roads were more of a free-for-all.

L’An 2440, rêve s’il en fut jamais offers the rare exam­ple of a far-future utopia with­out high tech­nol­o­gy. “If any­thing, France is more agrar­i­an than in the past,” with no inter­est even in devel­op­ing the abil­i­ty to grow cher­ries in the win­ter­time. Many of the inven­tions that would have struck Mercier’s con­tem­po­rary read­ers as fan­tas­ti­cal, such as an elab­o­rate device for repli­cat­ing the human voice, seem mun­dane today. Nev­er­the­less, it all reflects the spir­it of progress that was sweep­ing Europe in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. Merci­er was reformer enough to have his coun­try aban­don slav­ery and colo­nial­ism, but French enough to feel cer­tain that la mis­sion civil­isatrice would con­tin­ue apace, to the point of imag­in­ing that the French lan­guage would be wide­ly spo­ken in Chi­na. These days, a sci-fi nov­el­ist would sure­ly put it the oth­er way around.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Old­est Voic­es That We Can Still Hear: Hear Audio Record­ings of Ghost­ly Voic­es from the 1800s

Jules Verne Accu­rate­ly Pre­dicts What the 20th Cen­tu­ry Will Look Like in His Lost Nov­el, Paris in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (1863)

In 1896, a French Car­toon­ist Pre­dict­ed Our Social­ly-Dis­tanced Zoom Hol­i­day Gath­er­ings

How French Artists in 1899 Envi­sioned What Life Would Look Like in the Year 2000

1902 French Trad­ing Cards Imag­ine “Women of the Future”

A 1947 French Film Accu­rate­ly Pre­dict­ed Our 21st-Cen­tu­ry Addic­tion to Smart­phones

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Beautiful Digital Edition of the Poet’s Pressed Plants & Flowers Is Now Online

So many writ­ers have been gar­den­ers and have writ­ten about gar­dens that it might be eas­i­er to make a list of those who didn’t. But even in this crowd­ed com­pa­ny, Emi­ly Dick­in­son stands out. She not only attend­ed the frag­ile beau­ty of flow­ers with an artist’s eye—before she’d writ­ten any of her famous verse—but she did so with the keen eye of a botanist, a field of work then open to any­one with the leisure, curios­i­ty, and cre­ativ­i­ty to under­take it.

“In an era when the sci­en­tif­ic estab­lish­ment barred and bolt­ed its gates to women,” Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va writes, “botany allowed Vic­to­ri­an women to enter sci­ence through the per­mis­si­ble back­door of art.”

In Dickinson’s case, this involved the press­ing of plants and flow­ers in an herbar­i­um, pre­serv­ing their beau­ty, and in some mea­sure, their col­or for over 150 years. The Har­vard Gazette describes this very frag­ile book, made avail­able in 2006 in a full-col­or dig­i­tal fac­sim­i­le on the Har­vard Library site:

Assem­bled in a pat­terned green album bought from the Spring­field sta­tion­er G. & C. Mer­ri­am, the herbar­i­um con­tains 424 spec­i­mens arranged on 66 leaves and del­i­cate­ly attached with small strips of paper. The spec­i­mens are either native plants, plants nat­u­ral­ized to West­ern Mass­a­chu­setts, where Dick­in­son lived, or house­plants. Every page is accom­pa­nied by a tran­scrip­tion of Dickinson’s neat hand­writ­ten labels, which iden­ti­fies each plant by its sci­en­tif­ic name.

The book is thought to have been fin­ished by the time she was 14 years old. Long part of Harvard’s Houghton Library col­lec­tion, it has also long been treat­ed as too frag­ile for any­one to view. The only access has come in the form of grainy, black and white pho­tographs. For the past few years, how­ev­er, schol­ars and lovers of Dickinson’s work have been able to see the herbar­i­um in these stun­ning repro­duc­tions.

The pages are so for­mal­ly com­posed they look like paint­ings from a dis­tance. Though most­ly unknown as a poet in her life, Dick­in­son was local­ly renowned in Amherst as a gar­den­er and “expert plant iden­ti­fi­er,” notes Sara C. Ditsworth. The herbar­i­um may or may not offer a win­dow of insight into Dickinson’s lit­er­ary mind. Houghton Library cura­tor Leslie A. Mor­ris, who wrote the for­ward to the fac­sim­i­le edi­tion, seems skep­ti­cal. “I think that you could read a lot into the herbar­i­um if you want­ed to,” she says, “but you have no way of know­ing.”

And yet we do. It may be impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate Dick­in­son the gar­den­er and botanist from Dick­in­son the poet and writer. As Ditsworth points out, “accord­ing to Judith Farr, author of The Gar­dens of Emi­ly Dick­in­son, one-third of Dickinson’s poems and half of her let­ters men­tion flow­ers. She refers to plants almost 600 times,” includ­ing 350 ref­er­ences to flow­ers. Both her herbar­i­um and her poet­ry can be sit­u­at­ed with­in the 19th cen­tu­ry “lan­guage of flow­ers,” a sen­ti­men­tal genre that Dick­in­son made her own, with her ellip­ti­cal entwin­ing of pas­sion and secre­cy.

The first two spec­i­mens in Dickinson’s herbar­i­um are the jas­mine and the priv­et: “You have jas­mine for poet­ry and pas­sion” in the lan­guage of flow­ers, Mor­ris points out, “and priv­et,” a hedge plant, “for pri­va­cy.” There is no need to see this arrange­ment as a pre­dic­tion of the future from the teenage botanist Dick­in­son. Did she plan from ado­les­cence to become a recluse poet in lat­er life? Per­haps not. But we can cer­tain­ly “read into” the lan­guage of her herbar­i­um some of the same great themes that recur over and over in her work, car­ried across by images of plants and flow­ers. See Dickinson’s com­plete herbar­i­um at Har­vard Library’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions here, or pur­chase a (very expen­sive) fac­sim­i­le edi­tion of the book here.

Note: Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­pris­ing Map of Plants: A New Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Plants Relate to Each Oth­er

His­toric Man­u­script Filled with Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Cuban Flow­ers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

How Emi­ly Dick­in­son Writes A Poem: A Short Video Intro­duc­tion

The Sec­ond Known Pho­to of Emi­ly Dick­in­son Emerges

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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