Thursday, December 19, 2013

Benson’s Apocalypse

About a month ago we learned, on Siris (link), that Pope Francis had made reference to a science fiction work, Lord of the World, written by Robert Hugh Benson, a British Catholic priest. The book was published in 1907! Well, that was irresistible. We had a copy of it within the week, and since then Brigitte and I read it together in daily segments right after lunch; Brigitte did the reading. We finished yesterday—and indeed, it was a tour de force.

Benson was a quite prolific and popular writer. He wrote science fiction (3 works), historical novels (7), contemporary novels (10), children’s books (3), devotional works (8), apologetics (10), plays (4), and other books (4) including biographies and a book of poems.

Lord of the World is a profoundly philosophical work—its story being the ultimate victory of absolute materialistic secularism the world over. That might suggest slow, weary reading. But the book was intensely suspenseful, quite a thriller, and we had a real job keeping from reading on and on, as rapidly as possible, to discover what happens next—although we already knew the end before we even began.

Benson was born in 1871 and died in October 1914, thus three months after World War I began. He’d lived intensely and had died young of heart failure. His prophetic gift was significant—but muted. He saw the future clearly in its essence, but not its tawdry nature. The future’s technology is smooth, clean, silent, and pleasing to the eye. He projected the triumph of materialism in every category—except the spiritual. The few great outbreaks of disorder that he shows carry powerful premonitions of, say, Nazi mobs. There is no sense of what we see now, the “war of all against all,” disguised as markets, free speech, and competition. The world’s a kind of physical paradise, its air-traffic almost silent, its ground-traffic underground, its surfaces soft and sound-absorbing. The conflict is all in the “sky”—as in Dürer’s image (shown elsewhere here). Nor does he recognize that everything constellates its own resistance—in reality—so that the great tendencies he saw have not yet, and never shall, actually achieve victory. The reason for this, however, is explained in Benson’s brief prefactory paragraph:

I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.

At the same time, the book has extraordinary insights into spiritual life—at the collective as well as at the individual levels. These passages in no way interfere with, indeed they heighten, the story-telling tension. Surprising subjects are touched upon, like the post-death vision of one of our favorite of four major characters that carry this story, Mabel Brand.

A most unusual book—weirdly modern, weirdly out of this world. The book produced some widespread reactions—because of its gloomy ending. This impelled Benson later in his life to write a kind of utopian work, Dawn of All. Needless to say, Amazon is flying it to us now—not yet on Benson’s famous volors nor yet on Bezos’ future drones—just by plane and UPS truck. We can hardly wait.

2 comments:

  1. I re-read the book, too, and was also (this time) struck by Mabel Brand's story, which can easily be lost amid all the big global events, but which in its own way captures the dystopia -- and yet also the victory -- just as well as everything else does on a bigger scale.

    You'll have to let us know what you think of Dawn. As I said, I don't think it's as interesting a story (but utopias usually aren't as interesting as dystopias), but it's fascinating as an inventive way of handling all the familiar utopian tropes about progress. And part of what makes interesting connects it this post. From the Preface to Dawn of All:

    "We are told occasionally by moralists that we live in very critical times, by which they mean that they are not sure whether their own side will win or not. In that sense no times can ever be critical to Catholics, since Catholics are never in any kind of doubt as to whether or no their side will win. But from another point of view every period is a critical period, since every period has within itself the conflict of two irreconcilable forces. It has been for the sake of tracing out the kind of effects that, it seemed to me, each side would experience in turn, should the other, at any rate for a while, become dominant, that I have written these two books."

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  2. Just to note, here, Brandon, that the book arrived yesterday. We read the first chapter and are in full agreement with your take on sci-fi conventions. More later...

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