Tea and whimsy at the Hegel cafe

The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat
November 15, 1996

Novelists rarely make good scholars, and scholars rarely make good novelists. The modern scholar, increasingly, craves quantity over quality, accuracy over invention, jargon over perspicuity. When modern scholars write novels, they tend to be terribly parochial affairs, structurally uneasy and stylistically uncertain, reading more like whimsical academic experiments than serious attempts at imaginative expression. The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat, the first novel by that very fine scholar Steven Lukes, is, alas, no exception.

Caritat is a scholar of the Enlightenment. He is a hopeful man. One day, he is dragged off and imprisoned by people who regard hopeful men as troublemakers. He is freed by the underground resistance, who provide him with false papers and an assumed name - Dr Pangloss - and tell him to explore other countries with the object of finding "grounds for optimism", the "best possible world". His first stop is in the city of Calcula in Utilitaria, a brisk, bright, clean and odourless place, founded by Bentham, ruled by sharp-eyed meritocrats; here, academic work is weighed by the pound, pleasure by the unit and people are merely "the producers and consumers of utility".

He fares little better further on in his travels. Bigotaria is a haven for nostalgic misfits. Proletaria, a quaint mixture of rural play centre and industrial promise, intrigues the professor, particularly after his brief encounter with the adventurous Fred and Karl, but it exists only in a dream. Communitaria is "a patchwork quilt of communities, each claiming recognition for the peculiar value of its own specific way of life". It is a fearful, humourless land, full of sad, serious people terrified of causing offence. The poor professor stumbles into a sexual molestation controversy after failing to choose the correct bathroom.

His hurried flight takes him to Freedom, capital city of Libertaria. This strikes him as a tolerable place if one has money, an intolerable place if one does not. He struggles to survive, and, in the end, catches a bus to Minerva, on the frontier, and takes tea at the Hegel Cafe. At night, in a forest, he encounters a talking owl. The owl reminds the professor of the dangers of fanaticism, of tunnel vision and of the need to combat it. The professor is neither despairing nor ecstatic. He realises that "whenever people assure me that my mission is over, I know my journey must continue". The best world possible at the moment, he suggests, is a world that preserves the need to continue thinking and learning.

Caritat is a playful novel, full of academic in-jokes and even the odd Peter Ackroyd-style self-reference. But, as with most "academic novels", the least impressive element is the dialogue. For example, a remark such as "of course, this is not what our friend Habermas would call an ideal speech situation but we must make the best of it", does not serve any real educational or dramatic purpose: it just lies there, bewildering the casual reader and bemusing the critical theorist.

It is not really clear whether Lukes is trying to entertain social and political theorists or educate the public; the hit-and-miss references to such figures as Aristotle, Kant and Rousseau do not really do enough to amuse the academic nor enlighten the lay reader, and, as a modern allegory, the appeal of the grim subtext is hindered by the gloss on the surface.

But it would be too harsh to describe the book as a mistake. A noble failure would be nearer the truth. It is a reasonably pleasant distraction, and its most heartfelt arguments are refreshingly sane and persuasively stated. Candide, if he ever wished to rest awhile from working in the garden, would probably have found it a rather worthy little conceit.

Graham McCann is a fellow, King's College, Cambridge.

The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat: A Comedy of Ideas

Author - Steven Lukes
ISBN - 1 85984 948 2
Publisher - Verso
Price - £14.95
Pages - 261

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