The Ultimate Pleasure and Other Stories

My look at French romans scientifique with an apocalyptical bent continues.

Review: The Ultimate Pleasure and Other Stories, Renée Dunan, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.

Cover by Phil Cohen

While Ernest Pérochon’s The Frenetic People was an argument against justice, equality, and the liberty of scientists, Dunan’s The Ultimate Pleasure attacks human character as a whole though having little to say about the danger of scientists pursuing knowledge unsupervised. Published under the title Le Dernière jouissance, it came out in 1925 as did Pérochon’s novel.

Stableford’s “Introduction” gives a brief bio on Dunan. She was a literary critic and wrote in a variety of genres. She was very prolific between 1920 and 1925 in books and various magazines and may have written more than published. While she claimed that all her fiction was based on “the Neo-Platonism of Bergson, the Relativism of Einstein and the Pansexualism of Freud”, Stableford says the only consistent influence was the pansexualism since Dunan was also known as writer of erotica and sometime hack pornography. Dunan’s tales in this book, particularly The Ultimate Pleasure, are action adventure stories with philosophical ponderings. And, yes, there are some semi-erotic scenes in that novel.

Stableford says it

is a very peculiar addition to the tradition of dystopian fiction, not least because of its curious even-handedness, although that might be partly due to a reversal of opinion while the work was in progress. In its depiction of a future absolute tyranny it is remarkably stark. 

This is a post-catastrophe world. Thirty years before the novel’s main story, a massive fault split the earth open from Peru to the “Far North”. Out of the fault, the Bloody Sweats emerges, blood pouring from its victims’ pores. Millions die from it.

A team of scientists discovers the Bloody Sweats is caused by a gas emerging from the fault. Dubbed Necron, the gas isn’t the only danger. The newly exposed surface alters the atmosphere to produce a great deal of “cyanogen, carbon monoxide and free chlorine”. Oxygen in the atmosphere begins to be depleted. 

 The last relics of civilization disappeared. In parallel, the frenzy of pleasure-seeking and the fury of asceticism increased. Their partisans massacred one another. 

Forests, complete with wild beasts, spring up in once inhabited lands. People flee to Siberia.  Germans vanish entirely, and the Baltic nations kill all foreigners. Cannibalism shows up as do roving rural gangs. 

“In Paris, a special terror reigned, ferocious and concentrated.” Mutual recriminations are made there, both the rich and poor blaming each other for the Bloody Sweats being unchecked. Intellectuals are burned. Communal suicide bcomes common. 

But it is in Paris that salvation comes. A French scientist invents Bion which counteracts Necron.

A new society is constructed led by a “combative group of intellectuals” who possess “a kind of extended occult power”. They conclude that a fraction of humanity can be saved.

But it won’t be pretty. The society that emerges is blatantly based on terror and doesn’t even bother with propaganda. Led by Tadée Brown, it has one rule only: no individual life is of any concern in the struggle against Necron.

Dunan’s state has some unintended modern relevance. In a world where many governments have been using medical pretexts to see how much coercion and control their citizens will accept, a dystopia based on keeping its subjects safe seems too familiar though we haven’t reached this level.

What he imagined then surpassed in atrocity the great misfortune itself. First, he gathered together sixty thousand people and took them to a vast plain not far from Paris, under the “protection” of eight hundred machine-gunners. He left then without food for two days and then, on the third, had sixty people chosen at random sawed in two, alive, on top of immense scaffolds.

The alarm of the crowd quickly attained what he called a ‘motivated’ degree.

He fed them that evening, and the next day he made them file past the active machine-guns. Then they drew lots to select one person in every hundred, who would be crucified by the ninety-nine.

A horror soon reigned in their souls that surpassed in power the terror of the bloody sweat.

We get more details of how Paris is altered to mine for copper, titanium, and other metals. Factories are built to produce artificial food and to produce Brion. 

A massive surveillance system is initiated using tunnels, hidden shafts hidden watch posts, spies, and hidden telephones. The are about 11 million people in this society, and only about 11,000 are the ruling Thousand and their servants. The latter live in the “Louvres”, “a series of edifices with no unity of appearance or order of construction”. 

In the first part, titled “Pleasure”, we meet our two main characters, political enemies: B 209 and Vialy. B-209 was a famous revolutionary taken to the Louvres, first to be the coerced lover of lesbian Sigliaresse then the mistress of Thousand leader, Thadée Broun. 

But B 209 hasn’t abandoned her revolutionary plans. She has been passing information about the Louvres to the resistance, and, to gain more information, she is working on seducing Broun’s son Pierre. Women like her are rallying cries for the revolutionaries they left behind.

Yet B 209 has an ambiguous attitude toward the society of her one-time oppressors. While she hates being, essentially, a prostitute, she also hates that her unconventional beauty is still not considered the equal of a woman born to the Thousand. She’s even kept some of her pubic hair unlike them, so that, when the revolution comes at lasts and storms the Thousand refuge to kill all, her body may be identified.

If also bothers her that one man is immune to her physical charms and treats her with scorn and suspicion.

And he’s right to do so. That man is Vialy, a policeman utterly dedicated to the security of the regime and has a clear eye about how to do it. He constantly receives reports on subversives and orders their death or confinement.

We first meet Vialy conversing with Pierre. We learn of the many traps to shoot, entrap, electrocute, or, as a last resort, blow up the city, he has throughout Paris and the Louvres.

Vialy has sort of a negative view of happiness, that it’s to be measured by the ills avoided and not by pursuing pleasures. He thinks the trend towards setting up workshops to provide luxury goods for the Thousand has serious security concerns and that the Thousand should be content with their better station compared to the workers (who constantly try to kill Vialy) and not seek luxuries in old books and liquor and clothes (the former two found by agents looting Paris and through contacts with “insubordinates”). “Luxury and security are mutually exclusive” he holds. 

When Pierre questions why Vialy allows revolutionary talk, Vialy explains that his job is to keep that desire a desire. If a committed revolt occurs, willing to take however many casualties as necessary, there is no way it could be stopped. If the revolutionaries are willing to take two million casualties, they will overwhelm the Thousand. 

A messiah, Diavid, has risen up.

Pierre, in his growing involvement with B 209, brings up the subject of love. Vialy gives his honest assessment of the subject in the world “pre-Fault”.

They sought Love from the cradle to the grave, and that desire, for them, was a passion full of charm, even when they complained about it in their books. And they grafted on to that kind of material mysticism a desire and a determination for sensual pleasure equal to that which our friends with the greatest propensity for such games have reinvented. Love was then able to reign without being mingled with cruelty. How can you expect it to be the same here? Our mistresses count for so little! Down there, don’t they hold sexuality in horror—those, at least, who follow the propaganda of Diavide? 

Vialy is under no illusion that, if the Necron containment regime ends and a new world becomes possible, he and the rest of the hated Thousand will not survive. They can’t dismount the tiger now.

B 209’s dream of such a revolution is long on faith and short on specifics.

Afterwards? Bah! It would be necessary, subsequently, to protect themselves from the Necron; the People would take care of that, too, as well as the masters. They would create a great fraternity in which everyone in his place would work for all of society. And the lubricity of the Thousand, their cruelty, their vices, and their scorn for all other human beings, would be abolished forever. 

This view gets a counterpoint at a party held by Thadée which B 209 attends. He seems sincerely convinced that the society he runs has more justice thant he pre-Fault world. He was a rich man in that world, yet he describes it in rhetoric a socialist revolutionary might use:

The revolver was forbidden, but eloquence was allowed. One couldn’t extort money from people by threatening them, but by assuring them that they could trust you with their money one gained a great deal and then refused them a just return. Magnificent and very honorable riches could be acquired in that way, because people were credulous. In principle, money was supposed to be the result of labor, but over the centuries, the idle had perfected very skillful methods of theft, which had the appearance of being within the admitted rules, although they were brazen violations of them, deep down.

The revolt continues to simmer, a danger Vialy’s is aware of. Called away from that party to investigate a new case of sedition, Vialy encounters Sigliaresse, another person dissastisfied with the world even though she is of the Thousand.

To her, the pre-Fault world was a place where one could receive unforced caresses. She is even contemplating suicide.

Vialy provides a cynical retort:

 ‘All human beings before us knew the anguish that’s tormenting you. You’re pursuing a chimera. Before the Fault, as today, there was talk of nothing but revolt and bloodshed. The history of humankind is a tale of cruelty and ignominy. And yet, Sig, the happiness of which you dream was within their reach then. They didn’t find it.’ . . .  

Vialy fell silent, his eyes moist. Ten million human beings were imprisoned in the gehennas that the Thousand had created, but not one of them thought that the earth, where it was habitable—perhaps everywhere—was waiting to render them happy. They were thinking about killing their masters, not about creating possible happiness. Rancor and hatred alone inspired them, and it was necessary, for that reason, that he, Vialy, could not give way beneath the burden of his responsibilities, nor betray the trust of his peers. 

The fate of both B 309 and Vialy in the novel is ambiguous. B 209 disappears from the story after an encounter with Pierre

The second part of the novel, “Misery”, sees the revolt in full scale. Vialy goes into the city to rescue his mistress Manya, who is also his chief assistant in the police force. There they will travel undercover with the revolutionaries. They will see exultant, shrieking female revolutionaries who occasionally martyr themselves and their grim, silent male companions who are not at all sure the revolution will succeed and know they will die in it.

They will also meet Diavid and his plans for the city.

Dunan’s depiction of humanity, through Vialy, is one of perpetual ingratitude and seeking after the perfect. Vialy is a brutal man, unencumbered by sentimentality (except, possibly, towards his mistress) or sadism. It is through his eyes that we come to realize this is not a simple tale of represser and the oppressed.

Dunan’s novel, by virtue of its cynicism and playing with reader sympathies as well as its action in the second half and characterization, is worth reading.

Kaschmir, The Pleasure-Garden” was published in 1925 as “Kaschmir, jardin du bonheur” It’s another French Oriental story, an adventure story leavened with erotica by virtue of it taking place in a polyandrous society in Kaschmir. After an introduction about how adultery is such a prevalent theme in literature and how one can not know life but by following one’s sexual desire, we hear the story of the narrator, a mining engineer looking for iron.

He wanders into Kaschmir not quite understanding how polyandry works there and ends up kidnapped to be the husband of Zenahab, the local princess. On the eve of sexual consummation, he displeases her and is imprisoned, but he escapes. However, at the end, he plans on going back. 

There is an interesting song encapsulating Zenahab’s attitude toward love and her partners: 

I have four happy husbands,

They rejoice in my body and soul,

But I would not like to prefer one,

Because the favorite must be killed.

Preference degenerates into love,

And love is a slavery.

The day I become a slave I will be no better than a male.

Woman is superior to man;

Amour does not exhaust her,

But sentiment exhausts her

When she has a beloved lover.

That sort of philosophical ponderings was the best part of the story for me.

There’s not a lot of sex (but there are Amazonian women) in “Metal” (“Le Métal, histoire d’il y a vingt mille ans”, 1920), a prehistoric adventure probably inspired by J. -H. Rosny Âine’s work in that vein. It involves a group of Magdalenians (a Cro-Magnon culture in prehistoric France) versus a group of metal workers. (Yes, as Stableford notes, even before the advent of carbon dating, this doesn’t make chronological sense.) There’s not much in the way of philosophical musing here, and I thought the story’s best part was the end which suggests great things for our characters’ descendants and uses French fantasy fiction’s fascination with Atlantis.

Additional thoughts (with spoilers)

After George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, its kind of startling to see the dystopian state the Thousand run is utterly unconcerned with propaganda or psychological conditioning apart from blatant terror. It’s also pretty low tech.

Not much is made of it, but Dunan hints that the Thousand have adopted a colonialist technique: the soldiers and policeman and guards they employ are often blacks or Chinese. Presumably they have less concern with the white Parisians.

It’s not exactly a surprise to learn that the gehennas of Paris are not really threatened by Necron anymore. Diavide knows it because he uses the country around Paris as a base for his revolution. Vialy knows it’s no longer a threat. His mistress seems to know as do other members of the police. But Pierre doesn’t. Vialy seems to be protecting the Thousand from themselves. He knows they will want to explore the world outside Paris and that may weaken their government fatally.

The Thousand are also not above using the Necron as a gas against the workers. Thus, the very danger the state is built to prevent is employed by that state for repression.

The reader can entertain the notion that B 209’s revolution is the answer. It’s not like the Paris of this story is not hellish.

But then we encounter Daivide and his plans:

““For I am your chief. Without me, what would you be? I am the one who has discovered everything, who has organized and regulated everything. A vile prostitute of our race, B 309, has given us useful information, but I want to prove to you that no one can be redeemed who has given herself to the Thousand. Although her aid has served us, my implacable justice can make no compromise. Whoever has belonged to that abject and filthy race will be sacrificed with them. Know this: if we are victorious there will be no pity for B 309. And let that serve as an example, to prove that Diavide’s justice is above gratitude, in the bosom of the most perfect equity!”

Diavide’s motto is “Die or vanquish!”, and he plans to detonate those explosives below the city if the revolt fails.

Vialy explains to Manya about some of the people, “insubordinates”, who live outside Paris:

‘It’s a popular instinct that is unleashed in great crises: the need to leave nothing that might be useful or pleasant to someone else. That fury lasted for years, and you’ll see that human beings more bestial than beasts have devastated everything everywhere, that testified to the comfort, the grace and the tranquil gaiety of old.

‘It’s necessary to understand that thirty million people have passed over these roads. We sometimes had to destroy them, like rats. I remember one valley near here, further to the south, where three hundred thousand of those wretches died.’

 ‘You had them…’

‘We had them surrounded by an insurmountable wall of toxic gases. What do you expect? They were partisans of a new religion which they called Adamevism. To please them, it was necessary for only a single couple to live, in order to recommence the creation with a clean slate.’

‘What happened?’

‘They cut one another’s throats and drank the blood of the dead. But the horror of that religion, most of all, was the rapidity of its growth. Everything that is bloody fascinates human beings. Adamevism snowballed. It threatened to drown us. They had already murdered two hundred thousand of their companions of both sexes; in their eyes, the selection of the new Adam and his Eve was gradually being made. You wouldn’t believe the delirious joy with which women and men aggregated in that madness, in the hope of being the future creators of a new humanity. Each of them believed themselves to be the male or female of the unique couple. We destroyed that, pitilessly.’

 ‘What horror! But how do people dare to talk about the sweetness of the life that prevailed before the Fault, with things like what you’ve just told me?’

‘Manya, the charm of the life before the Fault existed— but that was primarily because humans had got into the habit of a certain domination of their most ignoble instincts. And that, as well as the old habitude of familiar cares, was what gave birth to that apparently smiling and esthetic, but superficial civilization, which crumbled so rapidly…’

‘All of it was nothing, in sum, but appearance? Which is to say, hypocrisy…’

‘Hypocrisy, Manya, is the whole of civilization.’

While the pre-Fault world died by natural hands, the Thousand fall perhaps, as Vialy suggests, because they did not realize luxury and security can’t exist together. Their regime was more brutal than the pre-Fault world, despite Thadée’s contentions, but it exhibited, in its own way, the same flaw: the inability to control instincts and desires. Discontents like Sig and even Pierre would never have been completely happy in the pre-Fault world, just miserable in a different way.

Le Dernière jouissance could also, notes Stableford, be translated as The Last Pleasure, and that’s entirely appropriate for how this book ends. While we last see B 209 in the arms of Pierre where she utters a “great orgasmic cry”, fear “transformed against her will”, Maya and Vialy end up in somewhat similar – and also ambiguous — circumstances.

After a post-coital cigarette, they see the atmosphere in turmoil. Diavide followed through with his plan and blew up Paris. The novel concludes:

The explosion had completed its work. Now, would the toxic gases, hurled into the atmosphere in millions of cubic liters, the meteorological devastations and the Stygian darkness leave alive the dreaming couple who had escaped?

Scarlet and gilded, the minuscule flame of a cigarette was henceforth the only thought in the world…

3 thoughts on “The Ultimate Pleasure and Other Stories

  1. Bookstooge February 16, 2023 / 6:57 pm

    So She-hulk is the ultimate pleasure?
    In all seriousness though, how did that cover artist avoid getting sued by marvel?
    Or does that cover predate marvel?

    • marzaat February 16, 2023 / 7:07 pm

      Beyond the name, I know nothing of She-Hulk. I’m also a little uncertain as to which character in the book she is supposed to be.

      Put it down to Black Coat Press also publishing comics.

      • Bookstooge February 17, 2023 / 4:11 am

        She’s one of the marvel cadre of super heroes and is pretty much every teen boys fantasy. And she looks a LOT like that cover image.
        But if Black Coat also does comics, that would explain it…

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