Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lord of the World and the Modern Dystopia

(Disclaimer: I have tried to avoid any major spoilers in the plot for the uninformed reader's sake, yet there are some... but really, is there anyone in the Western world who does not know how the Apocalypse as imagined by the Christian revelation is ultimately resolved? The import of this book, at any rate, is found more in its meaning than its story.)

'...all the forces of the civilised world were concentrating into two camps - the world and God. Up to the present time the forces of the world had been incoherent and spasmodic, breaking out in various ways - revolutions and wars had been like the movements of a mob, undisciplined, unskilled, and unrestrained. To meet this the Church, too, had acted through her Catholicity - dispersion rather than concentration: franc-tireurs had been opposed to franc-tireurs. But during the last hundred years there had been indications that the method of warfare was to change. Europe, at any rate, had grown weary of internal strife; the unions first of Labour, then of Capital, then of Labour and Capital combined, illustrated this in the economic sphere; the peaceful partition of Africa in the political sphere; the spread of the Humanitarian religion in the spiritual sphere.' Lord of the World, p.90

Lord of the World is an apocalyptic novel written by Englishman and Roman Catholic Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson in 1907, but whose setting is over a hundred years in the future, which makes it roughly our present. This title, therefore, begs two comparisons: (1) with similar modern dystopias of the previous centuries such as Brave New World and 1984, and (2) with the state of our contemporary society.

Firstly, 1984 is concerned with a totalitarian, socialistic government which has complete access to the people of Oceania; the book is principally political by nature, its polemic being aligned against tyranny and censorship and anything that oppresses individual freedom. This dystopia is characterized by brutal, unending warfare which is crucial to its economy, and by its political corruption. Its discourse relates to an abuse of power, which is expressed via this oligarchical government whose motives are driven purely by avarice and conceit; it seems to be at once reflecting on the evils of totalitarian governments of the past and foreshadowing the rise of Communistic regimes in the future. This famous excerpt epitomizes the society's fundamental attitude:

'There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.' 1984

Brave New World, on the other hand, is concerned with the emotional and psychical state of modern man, which is presently devolved into purely physical impulses; Huxley's individual has been compartmentalized into man's meanest nature, diagnosed as merely a sentient animal and compelled to live as one. Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud, two of the most influential personalities of the whole of the 20th Century, are seen as gods and certainly archetypes of 'this brave new world'. The standardization of the physical is revealed by Ford's assembly line, his mass conformity of men at work, while the standardization of the psychical is propagated by Freud's reduction of man to a fundamentally erotic being, with his most basic experiences being defined by his sexual ones. This dystopia is characterized by consumerism, sensual pursuits, and the aspiration to abolish all pains in the pursuit of total comfort. Brave New World is therefore successful in depicting the indeterminate hedonism that modern society, in its aim to end the infinite diversity in man, tends to reduce itself to.

'I'm claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat, the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.' Brave New World

The Left Behind series, finally, aside from its clear anti-Catholic bias, is far less motivated to say anything significant about modern society, but is rather concerned with an understanding of Christian eschatology, principally in the literal sense. With all twenty-one Judgments, the drama of the Book of Revelation is acted out during the seven years of the 'Great Tribulation', when the Antichrist ascends to rule the world via an impeccable and irresistible personality; the books' protagonists, the 'Tribulation Force', attempt not only to survive but to proselytize their faith in a post-Rapture civilization. The power of the world is eventually consolidated under the auspices of the former Catholic Church, which becomes the institution for every religion in the world, and the former United Nations, which becomes the 'Global Community', an omnipotent world government with Antichrist as its head. 

Lord of the World precedes all of these attempts chronologically, yet bears within it the best of each of them. It shares with 1984, for example, a deep distrust of political collectivization and the annihilation of the individual conscience; in Lord of the World, the opposition to Marxism in Europe are called 'Individualists'. This does not mean that they are proponents of any kind of 'cult of the individual', where the selfish desires of the person are heralded as the utmost priority; it signifies rather the enemies of the Communist, the program of collectivization at the expense of individual freedoms. The Universities are seen as the worldly equivalent to the Monasteries which were sacked during the Reformation, the last havens of a former way of life that threatened the new Marxist regime, and which are consequently abolished or perverted to their own ends. In doing so, the Individualists are scattered or forced to submit to the new schools.

An important distinction to make between these two, however, is the role that war and peace play in either text. Whereas war is some kind of hazy ploy meant to deceive the citizenry into perpetual economic slavery in 1984, war is universally seen as an evil in LotW; the threat of the 'Eastern Empire' to Europe is a constant theme in the first quarter of the book, a looming disaster that threatened to be worse than any world war (not that Benson had any conception of one, of course). The occurrence of a 'Julian Felsenburgh', a magnanimously powerful politician with an ineffable, inexorable personality, diplomatically solving the Eastern
crisis is heralded with an almost religious fervour, signifying as it does the advent of world peace at last. Felsenburgh is eventually recognized as the President of Europe, and therefore by the reader as Antichrist, as 'lord of the world'. This peace, however, is not so much the abolishment of war as it is the establishment of a virus, a disease now immune to any immanent turmoil, any potential antidote; the false order of the world, from the economic to the political and spiritual spheres, is now totally entrenched. Father Franklin asks the following:

'War, of course, was terrible. And such a war as this would have been too terrible for the imagination to visualise; but to the priest's mind there were other things even worse. What of universal peace - peace, that is to say, established by others than Christ's method?' Lord of the World, p.55

(The following is arguably the most beautiful passage in the entire text, and it would be criminal of us to not include it in this review, even if we insert it here so haphazardly):

'...the reconciling of a soul to God was a greater thing than the reconciling of East to West.' Lord of the World, (p.56)

The society that Huxley visualizes is defined by psycho-physical conditioning, of a consciousness constituted entirely by the demands of bodily needs and wants; the people know nothing but pleasure, and the security from the troubles of natural illness and the discomfort of death. It is a strictly organized society, with Malthusian methods of population control and planned parenthood eugenics. This is echoed somewhat in Lord of the World, where a purely philosophical materialism is a dead-end, a failure to entrance the common man - but there comes psychology to make up for its lack. The futility of a purely material world is compensated for by a psychological argument that accounts for man's spiritual needs, even if it does not properly fulfil them; we are sexual beings, the argument goes, born to live and procreate and then perish back into the 'Spirit of the World', and thereby contribute to its life force even in our death. This is the essence of the 'Humanitarian-Religion' which comes to supplant the Catholic religion. 

'During those weeks in Rome the cloudy deposit had run clear and the channel was once more visible.... Huge principles, once bewildering and even repellent, were again luminously self-evident; he saw, for example, that while Humanity-Religion endeavoured to abolish suffering the Divine Religion embraced it, so that the blind pangs even of beasts were within the Father's Will and Scheme; or that while from one angle one colour only of the web of life was visible - material, or intellectual, or artistic - from another the Supernatural was as eminently obvious. Humanity-Religion could only be true if at least half of man's nature, aspirations and sorrows were ignored. Christianity, on the other hand, at least included and accounted for these, even if it did not explain them. ....There was the Catholic Faith, more certain to him than the existence of himself: it was true and alive. He might be damned, but God reigned.' Lord of the World, p. 99

Where the psycho-physical satisfies the denizen of Huxley's new world, it is rounded out into a 'trinity' in Benson's by this pantheistic humanism, the 'Humanity-Religion'. There is, first of all, a former priest who ultimately leads the English church of the new compulsory religion, a kind of secular-pagan parody of the Catholic tradition; he exclaims that there is no greater need of man than to worship. This is the completion of the liberal ethos: finally there is something tangible to celebrate in their 'secular' domain, which is of course Man himself, the bringer of progress. Man idolizes himself, makes a religion out of himself. What was always implicit in the liberal ethos has become explicit. Secondly, on the metaphysical level, it excluded any kind of supernatural presence, anything which cannot be determined empirically; the transcendence manifested by the Christian religion is therefore held as the greatest foe to this creed, a final bastion of intolerance against the enlightened new order. The following is from a London newspaper, pronouncing the triumph of this new order:

'But what has been done is as follows. The Eastern peril has been for ever dissipated. It is understood now, by fanatic barbarians as well as by civilised nations, that the reign of War is ended. "Not peace but a sword", said CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. "Not a sword but peace" is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST's claims or have never accepted them. The principle of love and union learned however falteringly in the West during the last century, has been taken up in the East as well. There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned His own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it has never been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife.' Lord of the World, p. 70

In Left Behind, one of the most interesting aspects is its creation of the Antichrist character, a 'Nicolae Carpathia'. In many ways he is the fully fleshed out embodiment of Benson's Felsenburgh; both have an immaculate charm, immense persuasion via otherworldly means over humanity, and intriguing depths of
personality. Both are estimated to be thirty-three years of age, which of course is the estimated age of Christ. While Carpathia is drawn-out and exposed where Felsenburgh's character is only hinted at mysteriously, both are certainly living archetypes of ideal man; each is the expression of man expressed as Man, expressed as the idea of Man. The reality of man, of fallen man, is of course left out in each case; there is only man's principle; there is in him the purity of Adam but not the divinity of Christ. Where Christ came to fulfil man by introducing divinity into his nature, Antichrist comes merely to corrupt man by the enlargement of his ego. He says to modern man as he said to primordial Adam: eat the fruit of wisdom and become wise yourselves, and we gleefully agree, enchanted not only by his pristine beauty but by the power he offers us. He knows our dreams, and allows us to live them. It is said that the Devil is the ape of God, and truly Antichrist is the mockery of Christ.

'Felsenburgh was called the Son of Man, because he was so pure-bred a cosmopolitan; the Saviour of the World, because he had slain war and himself survived... even Incarnate God, because he was the perfect representative of divine man.' Lord of the World, p. 91

One thing that is common to all four of these stories is the prevalence of a 'borderless world', of gigantic superstates that have little definition between themselves. In 1984 there are but three major states that continually war with each other but have little genuinely distinctive identities of their own; in Brave New World there is the World State, alien to which are merely savages of the more desolate, underdeveloped regions; in Left Behind, after the demolition of the United States and her allies, there is the Global Community which is exactly that, a one world government which dictates the political and spiritual affairs of the entire planet; and in Lord of the World, where the three major conglomerates (excluding the Catholic hold-outs in Rome and Ireland) all recognize the supreme worldly authority of Julian Felsenburgh. There is in the latter, though, an understated notion of nationalism that would be better stated as a notion of distinction. William Blake said, 'General Forms have their vitality in Particulars', and this is no less true on the political level than any other. Rome, for example, which acts as the antiquated antithesis to the world (even technologically - the streets of Rome are described like the streets of Victorian London),  is organized into four distinct sectors: Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Latin, and Eastern, each with their own unique identity, from the wide, efficient streets of the German to the brilliant colours of the Syriacs. This is established as the healthy antidote to the burgeoning 'monoculture' that had consumed the rest of the world, and really
represents a remarkable omen for how our own modern West unveiled itself in the next hundred years.

'...[Papa Angelicus] had divided [Rome] into national quarters, saying that as each nation had its peculiar virtues, each was to let its light shine in its proper place.' Lord of the World, p.87

The three main characters of Lord of the World are each fascinating in their own way. Oliver Brand, for example, a high level orator and bureaucrat for the English state, epitomizes the attitude of the secular world, and acts as the mouthpiece for its predominant philosophy. He is described as a logician par excellence, and indeed we are reminded by his character of the Chesterton quote: 'The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.' This is made more eminently true by the poesy enacted by his anti-type, Father Franklin, but principally in Brand's own words and actions. There is hardly a waver in his judgment, hardly a flinch in his worldview; he is right, he knows he is right, and he is reminded that he is right by the blossoming of his views, his profoundly humanistic hope, in the living world. The euthanasia clinics, the killing of Catholics, the compulsory devotion on the whole of Europe to the Humanitarian-Religion are all seen as logical consequences of Brand's creed, which they really are. This is not a human view; this is the view of Urizen, the pure mind who lacks both conscience and the human passion. His relationship with his wife is, until the very end, one of willful, mental domination rather than of love; their union is almost entirely based off of their philosophical agreements. Any debate in this respect and their union is divided. Oliver Brand's mechanical weltanschauung is perfectly expressed in the prosaic content of his pseudo-religious wondering:

'Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him "God" was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men against one another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God Transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.' Lord of the World, p. 15

His wife Mabel, on the other hand, is portrayed more sympathetically, at least for this reader. She is constantly dismissed by her husband Oliver as 'just a woman', as mentally inferior; and she is, too, submitting to him by force of personality whenever a debate between them arises. Her main attraction to the Humanitarian-Religion becomes the personality of Julian Felsenburgh rather than the strength of its argument. She falters from this 'faith', however, when she perceives its injustices; the killing of priests, the annihilation of cities, the legal compulsion to not be a Christian awaken in her a natural, conscientious reaction that swells from her heart. While Mabel always admits that her husband is right, she finally realizes that she has to be wrong, that she cannot be right in the way that Oliver is; his cruel, unyielding, invulnerable logic is repulsive to her, and she becomes the symbol of both youthful innocence, and the moral and intellectual naivety of the good woman. She also represents the confusion of humanity's mass, the well-meaning but poorly guided ordinary person who follows the grooves laid down by her environment. This becomes a significant moment in the story, and reminds the reader once again that the drama of the world is a tragedy, that even when we see through its evil we do not always see all the way to its good. 

The third and most important character is, of course, the priest, Father Percy Franklin. Benson does an excellent job with this character in two ways, firstly in the temptation of hopelessness of the modern Christian, especially as the story draws on. Percy continually refers to how easy it would be to die, to pass from the unlimited struggles of his vocation, and how he envies the elder priests of his order. The fight against the Christian enemy is a futile one, because only the unworldly can defeat the worldly; all he can do is organize the Roman Church to the best of his ability and let prayer do the rest. Another continual theme is the question of why does God do nothing when His servants are so willing to die for Him; how long does the patience of God endure? He is nonetheless encouraged in the outward sense by the material resplendence and organization of Rome, the beauty of her dogma and tradition, and the quiet work ethic of his fellow clergymen in the Vatican; Rome soothes his spirit as England merely agitated it. 

'It seemed to Percy Franklin as he drew near Rome, sliding five hundred feet high through the summer dawn, that he was approaching the very gates of heaven, or, still better, he was as a child coming home. For what he had left behind him ten hours before in London was not a bad specimen, he thought, of the superior mansions of hell. It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency - a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being.' Lord of the World, p.79

The second thing Benson does well with Father Franklin is also the second thing by which he is encouraged: the career of his inner life, the constant maintenance of his spirit via the saying of mass and earnest, wearying prayer. There is in these passages a legitimacy that acts as a triumphant antidote to the confused visceral feeling of Mabel or worse the chilled clarity of Oliver's reason; Percy's acts of prayer are pure Faith, the perfect consummation of feeling and reason, of heart and mind. This alone is what keeps him sane, connected to the world and to God, and which allow his peers to recognize his importance to their cause. The inner life is sanctified against the turmoil of the world, even as it perpetually wreaks havoc within his mind. Father Franklin, who in the book physically resembles almost exactly Julian Felsenburgh, becomes the antidote to him as well - the Antichrist has no measure against the Vicar of Christ, just as the lord of the world has no measure against the lord of Heaven.

'[Persecution] would no doubt cause apostasies, as it had always done, but these were deplorable only on account of the individual apostates. On the other hand, it would reassure the faithful; and purge out the half-hearted. Once, in the early ages, Satan's attack had been made on the bodily side, with whips and fire and beasts; in the sixteenth century it had been on the intellectual side; in the twentieth century on the springs of moral and spiritual life. Now it seemed as if the assault was on all three planes at once. But what was chiefly to be feared was the positive influence of Humanitarianism: it was coming, like the kingdom of God, with power; it was crushing the imaginative and the romantic, it was assuming rather than asserting its own truth.... It seemed to be forcing its way, almost objectively, into the inner world. Persons who had scarcely heard its name were professing its tenets; priests absorbed it, as they absorbed God in Communion... children drank it in like Christianity itself.... Persecution, cried the priest, was to be welcomed like salvation, prayed for, and grasped; but he feared that the authorities were too shrewd, and knew the antidote and the poison apart.... Finally, he expected, Humanitarianism would presently put on the dress of liturgy and sacrifice, and when that was done, the Church's cause, unless God intervened, would be over.' Lord of the World, pp. 91-2

While we have witnessed and may yet experience more of the horrors that the totalitarian state impinge upon man, while contemporary man is undoubtedly conditioned to a utilitarian regimen of pleasure and comfort via commercialization and other nefarious instruments, it is unquestionable to this reader that neither of these literary perspectives approach the heart of the modern world, at least not so closely as Lord of the World does. The above passage, for example, expresses the natural fear of humanitarianism, the religion of man devoid of God; does this not sound so utterly familiar to us by now? The dogma of tolerance, freedom of religion, complete moral autonomy, the tendency to 'world peace' via a global government, the socialistic usurpation of Christian Charity, the persistent slander against whatever stands for tradition in the Church, the ongoing standardization of society in every sphere until there will conceivably one shapeless mass, removed of any hierarchy or qualitative differentiation whatsoever... all of this is either hinted at or expressed openly in this magnificently precocious book. While all of the other titles (well, maybe not Left Behind, except as a self-indictment against modern evangelicalism) have certainly revealed various factors of our present nature, only the final one has revealed our fundamental nature, which is, namely, the war of the world against that of God. Arguably beginning in the Renaissance, man has progressively elevated himself from something which is inherently fallen, needing supernatural help, to something which is not unlike Milton's Satan, so terribly proud, so beautifully facile.

'The two Cities of Augustine lay for him to choose. The one was that of a world self-originated, self-organised, and self-sufficient, interpreted by such men as Marx and Herve, socialists, materialists, and, in the end, hedonists, summed up at last in Felsenburgh. The other lay displayed in the sight before him, telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal from which all sprang and to which all moved. One of the two, John and Julian, was the Vicar, and the other the Ape, of God....' Lord of the World, p.96

Robert Hugh Benson saw that the world in his day was under siege by various ideologies - Marxism, Humanism, Communism, Globalism, all propagated by Freemasons and the like. This has not changed, except that all of these are more entrenched than ever in the Western consciousness, only more slyly, more inconspicuously, because we have become used to their presence. It is a frightening fact that our world is looking more and more like a dystopia in itself; that our reality in the current century is increasingly similar to the fictions of the previous century.

While Benson saw that the Church retreated more and more from the world into something as fixedly supernatural as it ever was, it is unfortunate in reality that the Church has submitted somewhat, that it has if anything retreated into the world; from the mildness of the new liturgies to the feminization of the new priest, the secular standardization has breached the frontier of the sacred. In any case, however, Benson's final portent of Christ's victory over the world, the unflagging determination of some few Christians despite the momentous setbacks they repeatedly suffered should give us all hope - hope that no matter the violence done to us in the world it is only the world, that the lord of this world has no dominion anywhere else, and hope that, in His own good time, Christ will inevitably return.

'And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more.
And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me: Write, for these words are most faithful and true.
And he said to me: It is done. I am Alpha and Omega; the beginning and the end. To him that thirsteth, I will give of the fountain of the water of life, freely.
He that shall overcome shall possess these things, and I will be his God; and he shall be my son.' St. John, Book of Revelation (21:1-7)


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