(This is the first of a planned series of posts on utopian and dystopian philosophy and literature.)
Naguib Mahfouz’s story “Evil Adored” tells of the Egyptian district of Khnum in a time before the first pharaoh. Despite Khnum’s fertile soil and favorable climate, the peasants starve and die from plague, while the wealthy live in sin and corruption. Three “Manufacturers of Virtue,” the magistrate Sumer, the constable Ram, and the physician Toheb campaign for Truth and Justice.
One day a nameless stranger appears, encouraging people to debate good and evil and bringing chaos. The constable Ram brings him before the magistrate Sumer, who interrogates him. He replies that his goal is to reform the world. Sumer replies that this is the job of the magistrate, the constable, and the physician, but the stranger replies that they have failed. They only treat the symptoms, ignoring the deeper cause:
the stomach is the basis of the malaise in this region. I found many that could not fill its gaping emptiness, so that they howl from hunger. At the same time, others are not only not empty, but consume greedily all that they wish. And from the mutual attraction and revulsion of these two stomachs comes looting, pillage, and murder (7).
The magistrate replies that disease that the stranger has diagnosed has no cure and releases him from custody. The stranger leaves the courtroom and returns to the people. The poor, the rich, and the rebel embrace his message of Beauty and Moderation and a new age of peace and abundance dawns. Everyone is content except for the “Manufacturers of Virtue” who find they have no occupation, no glory, no authority.
Desperate, the three meet and devise a plan: they recruit a dancer of irresistible beauty to incite strife and division. She succeeds and the stomach returns
to its throne, commanding necks and minds alike to bend to its rule. The devilish life came back to quiet Khnum, blowing away the serenity that had prevailed in its parts. The gang of leading citizens resumed their campaign, finding themselves once again fighting the good fight – for Virtue, Justice, and Peace (12).
This parable can be read as satire. People such as the constable, the judge, and the physician who derive their authority and purpose from Truth and Justice have little interest in the realization of their supposed ideals. They nourish themselves from the evils that they pretend to oppose and their moral facade serves only to mask their struggle to control and dominate. Should the malaise that they pretend to cure disappear, they will do everything to manufacture a new one to remain in power. Sadly, this describes the psychology of many people who ostensibly benefit humanity.
Moving away from the psychology of the “Manufacturers of Virtue,” another question arises: what is a world not ruled by the stomach? Our literary, philosophical, and religious traditions have no shortage of ingeniously sadistic dystopias; they have been less successful in imagining paradise. Though the narrator of “Evil Adored” insists that everyone except for the “Manufacturers of Virtue” is content, we are told, not shown this. We learn little about the new age that the stranger brought.
This suggests a misgiving: Is it possible to have a world without inequity, without hunger, without crime, without lust that is not at the same time utterly insipid? If so, would it be a human world, one we could thrive in? And if not, how should we judge the treacherous judge, constable, and physician?