How come Jonathan Franzen—like many novelists before him—is haunted by Malthus?

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Sept. 23 2010 10:50 AM

Malthusian Madness

How come Jonathan Franzen—like many novelists before him—is haunted by Malthus?

Thomas Malthus.
Thomas Malthus

Are there too many of us? The fear that we've overpopulated the planet can drive people to distraction or worse. A few weeks ago, a man named James Jay Lee arrived at the Discovery Channel's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., and took three hostages at gunpoint. He wanted the cable network to make a documentary based on Daniel Quinn's novel My Ishmael, especially a section inviting solutions to our looming ecological crisis. He also wanted "shows that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race."

You wouldn't have pegged My Ishmael as an incitement to violence. Although it has a bold vision—mankind's original sin was, according to Quinn, to have given up hunting and gathering in the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic era—it's basically a neo-Malthusian novel of ideas. In chapter after chapter, a very wise silverback gorilla, Ishmael, converses telepathically with the book's narrator, a 12-year-old girl named Julie. The gorilla says things like: "Population growth is inherently a function of food availability." The girl says things like: "Yes." "I understand." "Yes. That's amazing—an amazing way to look at it."

But then you remember that the most notable meltdown scene in recent fiction also has a Malthusian motor. It's in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, when the main character flips out at his big press conference and rants, "WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET."

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The fact is that Malthusian thought has exerted a disturbing, and sometimes deranging, fascination since Thomas Robert Malthus published his original treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). With what looked like irresistible logic, Malthus argued that population growth, which people had regarded as a sign of human flourishing, was a harbinger of "misery and vice." That's because humans would, unchecked, breed like blowflies, and their "redundant population" would exhaust whatever subsistence was available. There was ample reason to dread what Malthus, courting another sort of redundancy, called "the future fate of mankind."

It followed, as night followed day, that measures to help the "common people," like the poor laws, would only increase their overall distress, even if they "alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune." Suddenly, the moral order was turned upside down: Helping people was really hurting them, and vice versa.

The influence of these arguments was galvanic, and as much cultural as political. The fictional responses to Malthus—which shifted from disdain to horror to clinging embrace, and then to something more complicated—amount to a barometer of humanity's own assessment of where it stands in the natural order. What was scarier, the specter of teeming hordes of humans devouring the planet—"actuarial terror" is how a scholar of romanticism aptly characterized Malthus's peculiar power—or the sort of measures that might be taken to prevent this?

It's no surprise that the enlightened literati during Malthus's lifetime arrayed themselves against him. He seemed to be justifying a callous indifference toward the worst off. "Sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus," Shelley thought, were "calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security of everlasting triumph." Then, too, the standard narrative of the 19th-century novel was the so-called marriage plotso it was awkward that, by Malthus's logic, it might be better to burn than to marry.

Novelists of a comic temper responded with mockery. Take Thomas Love Peacock's Melincourt (1817), which, like Quinn's, featuredMalthusian themes and a large, furry primate—in this case an amiable, flute-playing orangutan (touted as "a genuine facsimile of the philosophical Adam" and soon awarded a baronetcy). Peacock has a voluble character deplore the "baleful influence of the poor laws," and assure us that overpopulation is the "sole and fruitful cause of penury, disease, and war, plague, pestilence, and famine." Dickens, more pointedly, has Scrooge refer to prospective deaths among the poor as something that might help "decrease the surplus population."

Malthus' shadow grew darker in the 20th century, overlaid as it was by a growing sense of the malign capabilities of industrialized states. In Huxley's Brave New World(1932), where a chief means of contraception is known as the Malthusian Drill, a character offers the motto "Civilization is Sterilization." In one of Anthony Burgess' own dystopian forays, The Wanting Seed (1962), the state vigorously promotes homosexuality ("It's Sapiens to be Homo"), and a physician finds it natural to console a bereaved mother by telling her how much fertilizer her son's remains will yield.

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