Han Ryner: The Superhumans (1929)
Contributed by Brian Stableford
Les Surhommes, roman prophétique, first published in 1929 and translated into English as the title story of The Superhumans and Other Stories (Black Coat Press 2011) describes the radical transformations achieved by various human groups during the next in a series of evolutionary metamorphoses, which the Earth allegedly undergoes at intervals, by virtue of the influence of alien stars. While the determination of some humans transforms them into powerful and bellicose "Superelephants" and others become "Immortals", an enlightened few become "Superangels", but the majority remain merely and pitifully human. Physical and ideological conflict follows.
Henri Ner, who published numerous novels under that form of his name before adopting the phonetically-identical pseudonym Han Ryner, was born in Nemours in Oran (now Ghazaouet in Algeria) on 7 December 1861. He described himself in later life as "a hybrid barbarian, the son of a Norwegian father and a Catalan mother", but his first language was French and his literary ambitions inevitably took him to Paris in his twenties, where he lived until his death on 6 January 1938. He published his first novel, Chair vaincue, roman psychologique, in 1889, and continued to write neo-Naruralist novels for some while, and developed a considerable reputation as an author of brief contes and apologues, which were increasingly influenced by his political and philosophical radicalism. It was when he decided that his polemical pacifism and anarchism had to take precedence over literary considerations in his work that he adopted his pseudonym.
As Henri Ner: Chair vaincue, roman psychologique (1889); L’Humeur inquiète (1894). As Han Ryner: Le Crime d’obéir, roman d’histoire contemporaine (1900); L’Homme-fourmi (1901); La Fille manqué (1903); Le Fils du silence (1911); Le Sphinx rouge, roman individualiste (1905); Les Pacifiques (1914); La Tour des peuples (1919), Le Père Diogene (1920); L’Autodidacte (1926); La Vie eternelle (1926)
Les Voyages de Psychodore, philosophe cynique (1903: tr. as "The Travels of Psychodore, Cynic Philosopher" in The Superhumans and Other Stories, 2011); Les Paraboles cyniques (1913); Contes (1967)
Petit manuel individualiste (1903); Prostituées, études critiques sur les gens de lettres d’aujourd’hui (1904); Le Communisme et la liberté (1924).
As Henri Ner: Les Chants du divorce (1894)
Marbal, the effective leader of the Superelephants of Eor
Rismac, Marbal’s chief crony and confidant
Grintzmar, an immortal slave of the Superelephants of Eor
After an opening sequence in Paris, the action of the story is transposed into the future, where the bulk of the story takes place in and around the Oriental city of Eor, where palatial "paradises" have been built by slaves to house the Superelephants. Other locations featured include the Occidental city of Oor, on which war is declared by the Superelephants of Eor; the plain of Elal, which is the battleground where the two hosts meet; and the Valley of the Immortals.
A close passage on the Earth by the Star of Fire, which briefly and inconveniently gifts the planet with two suns, alerts the followers of the unorthodox philosopher Michel Savigny (1832-1903) to the imminence of a metamorphosis of the biosphere, of which forewarned minds might be able to take control. A conference of Savignyite “Hexagramists” is convened in Paris, but breaks down when its members cannot agree on the goal to which their efforts should be directed.
When the story resumes in the aftermath of the cataclysm, human slaves are briefly distracted from their labors by the passage of the Superangels, winged beings who cal themselves Amours and sermonize in song, preaching a gospel of love, peace and harmony—a message that even appeals to the priest overseeing the slaves. The Superangels then pass on in order to preach to the Immortals: troglodytic dwarfs obsessively jealous of their extreme longevity. Once the Superangels have departed, unheeded, the valley of the Immortals is invaded by the Superelephants of Eor, who term themselves Dominators, Masters or Gods, and who enslave the Immortals without undue effort.
The Oriental Superelephants of Eor, who outnumber the Occidental Superelephants of Oor, decide that their numerical superiority entitles them to a larger share of the planet’s resources, and send the captive Immortal Gritzmar to convey their demand to Oor. War ensues, in spite of the Superangels’ attempts to broker a peace. Numerical superiority wins the battle, but the Superelephants of Eor then have to decide what to do with their defeated adversaries—a problem solved by the wise Marbal.
The Superelephants of Eor then set out to conquer the Superangels, eventually succeeding in capturing some of them—but this too becomes a problem requiring a diplomatic solution, and the Superangels are eventually left alone to continue their recruitment of souls. Attempts made by the Superangels to offer a new religion to oppressed humankind come unstuck, however, when many of the humans eager for conversion discover that their new deity will not smite their enemies, and give up in disgust.
Disappointed in their quest for total world dominion, but reasonably content with what they have, the most philosophical of the Superelephants, Marbal and Rismac, began speculating as to what the next world-metamorphosis will bring, and how best they can continue their quest for the ultimate mastery over everything material.
The fundamental question raised by Les Surhommes—explicitly, in the account of the opening conference—is that of what kind of existential or evolutionary goal human beings out to be aiming for. The supposed results of the debate are summarized and incarnated in a series of bodily transformations reflecting different patterns of desire. While a minority of those engaged in the debate prioritizes spiritual development over physical rearmament, its members nevertheless undergo a physical transformation appropriate to their choice, taking on forms resembling the representation of angels in Christian art. Another minority, narrowly focused on the extension of life, acquires that gift, but at considerable expense, both in terms of physical capacity and psychological zest. At first glance, the most successful of those controlling their own metamorphosis are those who are simply intent on becoming physically powerful, since their bulk and innate weaponry render them invulnerable to all other creatures, and able to enslave most of those weaker than themselves. They, too, pay a psychological price for their awesome might, however, in becoming brutal hedonists, able to satisfy their physical appetites but not to provide themselves with any kind of higher purpose: ultimate animals rather than true humans.
The topic of religion is extensively featured in the text, embedded in parables and discussions in addition to the sarcastic sequence in which human slaves decide to institute a new religion but give up when the Superangels cannot offer them a god to their liking. Ryner had undertaken his own intellectual odyssey in search of appropriate beliefs, and the text of the novel recapitulates that odyssey to some extent, weighing up alternative beliefs, not so much in terms of whether or not they are true, but in terms of whether they are life-enhancing.
Ryner described himself as an anarchist, and his description of power politics in Le Surhommes is expectably scathing in its hostility. He was a great believer in the Actonian principle that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” so his attempts to depict the lifestyle and thought-processes of the Superelephants is, in essence, an attempt to imagine the near-absolute corruption consequent on the acquisition of near-absolute power—which is unameliorated even when the would-be Gods discover that the Superangels cannot be made to knuckle under by means of threats.
== Critical Commentary ==` As with many attempts to take the imagination to the limits of conceivability, Les Surhommes is not so much a novel as a fictionalized tract, but the story-line is more robust and more elaborate than many exercises of that sort, so it does lend itself to literary analysis and criticism as well as philosophical analysis in terms of the three many themes of metamorphosis, religion and power identified above, although the two kinds of analysis should not really be separated.
The novel is rather fragmentary, the story being interrupted by lyrical passages that are essentially poems in prose, the subject of which—as with so many poetic poems in prose—is large-scale destruction and metamorphosis. The first chapter, describing the progress of the cataclysm precipitated by the Star of Fire, is the most effective of these, although the fifth chapter, which describes the culmination of the Earth’s metamorphosis, has a similarly doleful majesty. Where the narrative becomes more immediate, however, it also becomes more overtly satirical, often outrightly humorous
The most comedic passages in the novel are those describing the sybaritic life of the Superelephants in their paradises, which also gain narrative zest from their imagination of some mind-boggling perversions. That life is described in terms that are intended to evoke disgust as well as make it unappealing (although a Superelephant might disagree about the lack of appeal), but it is not obvious that any mere human accustomed to human pleasures and desires could find the life of a Superangel any more attractive. The yawning void that the text contains, instead of a satisfactory answer to the Socratic question of how men should live, is perhaps revealing in itself.
As with many writers intent on stretching their imagination, it is far easer to discern what Ryner is against than what he is for, and he actually makes no attempt to suggest how a human society in which people have to work to produce the necessities of life might best be organized at a practical level. In that, and in spite of the extravagance of his imagination in other respects, he was less bold than some of his less pretentious anarchist contemporaries, including Jules Lermina, who managed to sneak a description of a pleasant Utopia ("Mystèreville"; tr. as Mysteryville) into the Vernian and jingoistically-inclined Journal des Voyages in 1905, and Marcel Rouff, who offered a bold description of a blithely daring Utopia in Voyage au monde à l’envers (1920; tr. as Journey to the Inverted World). Nevertheless, Ryner’s conceptualization of the Superelephants as an incarnation of human power fantasies does pack a significant satirical punch, and there is nothing else quite as graphic in the field of anti-Totalitarian literature. Where the narrative is more likely to disappoint is in its portrait of the Superangels, and its religiosity in general.
In Ryner’s view, Jesus and the Buddha were members of a long line of prophets preaching a gospel of love and placidity, which has fallen largely on deaf ears, leading him to a sarcastic near-despair which kept coming out in his work no matter how hard he tried to be upbeat. Although his intention was clearly to have the Superelephants lose the debate by winning the fight, it is not clear that the text is likely to have that effect on more than a few of its readers; in effect, its preaching is only likely to reach the converted, and those in doubt might find it a little too easy to sympathize with the humans who reject the Superangels’ doctrines while admiring their songs.
In spite of this reservation, however, there is no doubt that Les Surhommes is a significant landmark in the evolution of French imaginative fiction, as well as the evolution of French anarchist fantasy. In going beyond conventional Utopianism it opens up further questions regarding the future of life on Earth that really are of some human relevance, in spite of their gaudy display.
- Actes du colloque Han Ryner, Marseille, Théâtre Toursky, 28 et 29 septembre 2002. Villemomble: Les Amis de Han Ryner, 2003.
- Lecha, Gérard. Han Ryner ou la pensée sociale d’un individualiste au début du siècle. Thèse de doctorat, Tours 1993.
- Stableford, Brian. "Introduction" to The Superhumans and Other Stories. Tr. by Brian Stableford. Encino, Cal.: Black Coat Press, 2011: 7-12.
- http://www.hanryner,over-blog.fr (website devoted to Ryner’s thought and works)
- http://www.marxists.org/archive.ryner (includes a biography and small archive of relevant works)
- http://www.raforum.info/spip.pjp?article283 (a comprehensive bibliography of Ryner’s work)