Occidental Exile (baculus) wrote,
Occidental Exile
baculus

Book Review: Four Freedoms

Heading into my read of an advance review copy of John Crowley's forthcoming Four Freedoms, I was unsure what to expect. The publisher's blurb told me that it was a book about "a disabled man...among a crowd of women" at "the height of World War II." It didn't seem obvious that this scenario would be a setting suited to the artful exploration of ideas I had enjoyed in the author's AEgypt cycle, a set of four novels that develop a complexly interwoven text about the human experience of magic and the magic of human experience. I needn't have worried.

The Four Freedoms of the title are the ones articulated in FDR's 1941 State of the Union speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The fact that the novel is divided into four parts suggests a correspondence, but there's no obvious one-to-one relationship between those parts and the freedoms. They seem more like the four movements of a symphony, and here is the key to the esoteric dimension of Four Freedoms: the Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinees generales (1808) of Charles Fourier. Crowley is very coy about this element of the novel--unlike his free admission of the historical and scholarly grist for his mill in AEgypt--he never even mentions Fourier by name, either in the novel or in the afterword that discusses his research sources. Still, the unavoidable fact is that Four Freedoms character Pancho Notzing's "Bestopianism" is Fourierist though and through: a magical ur-socialism founded in "Passionate Series" generating "Harmony" through the satisfaction of dynamic and heterogeneous desires. Pancho himself is even a biographical cipher for Fourier. Where Fourier was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant and had a career as a traveling salesman, Pancho is retiring from a career as a traveling salesman of luxury cloths.

The Theory of Four Movements is Fourier's earliest and most bewildering exposition of his system. The mouvements themselves are enumerated only in a footnote and some brief glossary material, where they are given as social, human, animal, and organic--in descending order. The hierarchy of the Fourierist movements perhaps accounts for the sparing but curious use of the first-person plural in the frame of Four Freedoms. The "we" narrating the novel could be the collective identity of the quasi-phalanx of the Van Damme Aero manufacturing plant, a "Temporary Harmonious Zone"--cousin maybe to Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone.

Both the little society of the Ponca City plant and the greater society of WWII America with its socialized command economy are especially worth readers' attention at a time when the US is confronted with a need to fundamentally reorganize its material and industrial bases. The historical setting of Four Freedoms is bracingly topical while we confront a "great recession" or even "greater depression" that seems bound to displace what "postwar" generations have been taught to consider the American "way of life." A gasoline ration of four gallons per week? That was a reality of the home front.

I cried once in the course of reading this book. If it has that effect on anyone else, I wouldn't necessarily expect it to be at the same place: there's a lot emotional power distributed through many personal stories over the course of the novel. As I have come to expect from Crowley, his narrative voice is sure--both efficient and beautiful--and his characters are compelling. The plot is largely subordinate to the characters, and tends to fan out from them in individual tributaries of memory, told to one another or simply recalled.

Crowley's AEgypt (especially as read backwards from the final realizations of Endless Things) can be considered a meditation on "neurodiversity": the idea that there are many necessarily partial and complementary ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Four Freedoms can be read as a corresponding exploration of physical diversity expressed through sex, age, disability, and race. But this is no moralizing, didactic exercise. I recently had a conversation with a literal fellow traveler on an airplane, regarding the importance of storytelling in the learning process. The stories in Four Freedoms can remind us of the kind of learning we all need to do, and that we will do whenever we remember our diverse radical passions.
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