Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

Zoo or Farm?

It comes as no surprise, I hope, that I read lots of fiction. While not every book I read makes it onto this blog, a good many of them do, along with some I haven’t read yet. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is one of the latter. A suspicion is itching way down deep telling me that I’ll probably end up a fan. Part of my suspicion comes from having read a story on NPR about the book. First of all: dystopia. Need I say more? I admire those who try to paint a future with a lighter palette, but I’ve been observing the way those in power behave and it kind of makes me think optimism about improvement is just a tad naive. People are too easily lulled into apathy by things like sports and the internet. The Romans used bread and circuses. Meanwhile those in power help themselves to a bit more until you can’t even get on an airplane without a total stranger seeing you sans briefs. If I can’t be trusted by those I elect, what cause do I have for hope? But enough about me. The book’s the thing.

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Night of the Animals, according to the NPR piece, is kind of a reverse ark. The animals in the London Zoo are understood by a man and they ask him to release them. I don’t know what happens, but I sure hope to find out. When interviewers ask Broun what it was like to spend fourteen years working on a novel, he responded in a way that, I suspect, many writers would understand. He said that it was a spiritual journey. Writing this book was his search for God. Many of us must nod our heads to that.

Concentration is becoming a dying art. I’ve written a number of books in my life—by far the greatest number remain unpublished—and I know there’s nothing like the intense concentration you experience when lost in such a world. Yes, it is spiritual. It is also a cry to be heard. As George Orwell well knew, we are the animals hoping to be heard. Zoos represent entrapment. Broun states that he wanted to explore how people are trapped in his novel. Looking at a system that rewards greed and keeps workers in unfulfilling jobs just so they can keep the system going while their CEOs buy another hotel chain or sports team and decide to run for office, I begin to hear the oinks, whinnies, and neighs all around me. And I haven’t even read the book yet.

Pagan Virtue

We are products of our place of birth. One of the truly amazing things about human culture is how quickly it can evolve. As biologists have noted, populations separated by natural barriers such as mountains, big rivers, or oceans, tend to evolve in different directions. They adapt to their environment. So far the world-wide web hasn’t flattened our differences out completely with a cultural creole, and it may be best to celebrate it while we still can. In an article in The Atlantic, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories,” by Colleen Gillard, answers her titular query with religion. The British, she suggests, are better attuned to their pagan past. In the United States children’s stories tend toward the moralistic, reflecting the Puritan values that some decry as absent from culture. British stories lean toward magic and earthiness in a way that American stories don’t.

Any generalization opens itself for criticism. (Including the generalization I’ve just made, I suppose.) Still, I think Gillard is onto something. Children are magical thinkers and have to be taught not to see what they think they see. We acculturate them into the dull, adult world of making money instead of magic. American kids get started on the entrepreneurial pathway with early moralizing about hard work and attaining goals—just glance at the titles mentioned in the article and see if you can disagree. Christianity arrived in Britain much, much earlier, of course. There it encountered a pagan sensibility that tempered its increasingly harsh edges. Puritanism took the remaining joy from the good news and made it into a very serious belief system, indeed, with eternal consequences that persistently threaten any enjoyment of life. You constantly have to examine and prove yourself. The British allowed their former earthiness to survive, as early epistles to Augustine (not of Hippo) demonstrate.

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The article ends by reflecting on recent American dystopian novels for young adults. These, Gillard suggests, reach toward fantasy in a way earlier efforts didn’t. I wonder if a bleak future is the natural consequence of founding a nation under the eye of an ever watchful, and vengeful, deity. Even a Trump may appear righteous with a Pence in his pocket. We’ve got to return to those old Puritan ways of subjecting women to men to make America great again. As this mass insanity continues to grow and infects the internet, dystopian futures appear to be strangely prescient. The C. S. Lewis of real life was not the grinning evangelical that modern-day candy Christians suppose. He knew a faun wasn’t what it seemed.

Stations, Everyone

Station11There has been a movement, of late, among some sci-fi authors, to envision a more optimistic future. I have always been a fan of dystopias, myself. Perhaps it’s the working-class mentality backed up by being raised in poverty speaking, but sometimes I feel that collapse is more fair than progress. What passes for progress, anyway. Maybe I’m thinking this way because I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This book has been on my radar for some time since it is one of the more hopeful dystopias out there. The story of a group among the very few who survive banding into a traveling troop of musicians and thespians is about the most hopeful outcome I can imagine. Not a day passes when I don’t feel the effacement of humanity that has been slowly taking place since I first became aware of the world. Sure, I do appreciate the strides made in medicine. Of this internet, which is the only place anyone ever really sees me, I’m less sanguine. It has its benefits, but even Mandel mentions the cell-phone zombies that are all too real and as omnipresent as an omnipotent deity used to be.

Station Eleven has, as many dystopias do, a religious sect that emerges after society collapses. This element of bleak futures is actually very accurate, I anticipate. We’re constantly being told by the “intellectuals” of the public variety that religion is for weak-minded dreamers with milquetoast aspirations for fantasy. The fact is the vast majority of people in the world are religious. The numbers are nowhere even near close. If a pandemic were to wipe out all but one percent (and hopefully it wouldn’t be the one percenters that survive) those who remain would, without doubt, turn to religion. People are easily led in this area of life. Mandel gives us The Prophet. His vision of the world is not helpful, but he has no trouble gathering a following. He’s also somewhat messianic: child of a single parent, raised in Israel, he comes to bring a sword to a nation already prostrate in the dust. This is powerful stuff.

Societies that try to rebuild themselves after traumas quite often rely on religion. This is hardly surprising as civilization itself began as religions coalesced into temples and their priesthoods. What is surprising is that so many intelligent people today can’t see just how important religion is to our species. As I suggested before, part of this is that religion defies simple definition. It’s easy to belittle “magical” thinking when it’s assumed religion has to do only with the supernatural. Religion, however, reaches into whatever we believe. Some ideas in modern cosmology, derived from physicists and their mathematics, can look sort of religious when viewed from a certain angle. As those who write dystopias know, religion is complex. It may lead to massive destruction. Chances are, however, that if there are any human beings left to crawl out of whatever pit we dig, they will do so with religious ideas in their heads. As usual, the writers have foreseen it.

Looking Ahead

HistoryFutureA History of the Future is a great title for a book. Classified, I suppose, as a dystopia, James Howard Kunstler’s novel is set in upstate New York, not too far from now. A war in Israel has led to the destruction of major US cities and our electronic, consumptive way of life suddenly comes to an end. Small pockets of people, such as those in Union Grove, try to reconstruct a way of life where executives now have to become farmers and those who were used to having plenty still can’t manage without thinking of others as servants. It is a quiet and disquieting world. Perhaps the most striking thing about Kunstler’s vision is how prevalent religion is within it. An entire swath of the middle of the country has followed a former televangelist back to pre-Civil War ideals and seeks to make white supremacy national policy. Other pockets of governments resist the growing strength of this backlash, but most people are just trying to get by, uninvolved in large-scale politics.

The most sympathetic group in the novel, at least in my reading of it, is the New Faith Covenant Brotherhood Church of Jesus, run by Brother Jobe, himself a former southerner. This church moves, lock, stock, and barrel, into Union Grove and begins to build a commune that, unlike those of the local Presbyterians and secular rulers, manages to thrive. Brother Jobe has mystical abilities and his heart is in the right place. As things continue their decline amidst the everyone for him/herself attempts to restore order, this fellowship manages to pull itself together through common belief and perhaps a bit of divine intervention. In the future these aren’t so easily teased apart.

Not a typical action-packed dystopia with raging violence, Kunstler sketches a more gentle apocalypse. It’s not a final disaster and big government has not yet reemerged to stamp its will on a malleable people. Women and men relearn what it means to work by hand and to live with less. In some ways the vision is comforting. Still, those who will have been patrician in the past manage to become feudal lords, of a sort, in this new world. Not everyone can fit into that pattern. The overall picture in what seems to be a parable is that pre-industrial society did, in fact, work. It wasn’t perfect, of course. Monasteries and lords embodied different values where no one could truly claim to know what this was all about. The future, it turns out, is mostly the past.

Addam’s Evve

MaddAddamDystopias can be optimistic. I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, and came away from it strangely at peace. The third of its eponymous trilogy, the story takes place in a future that is simply a continuation of where we are at the moment. Things have gotten pretty bad—most of humanity has been wiped out, genetic engineering has taken dreadful liberties with creatures human and non, and corporations have fulfilled their dreams and have taken over at last. The few good people left are tormented by those society has made into sociopaths. Global warming has proven the naysayers false, and yet, despite all this, there is room for hope. Tying together the various strands from the previous two books, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam is probably the most eco-conscious trilogy on the planet.

Apart from the many obvious biblical allusions (I often wonder what it must be like to miss so much, for want of familiarity with holy writ), the book also introduces a fully functional faux church. Atwood can be at her best when taking on the charlatans of piety. Cynical and calculating, “the Rev,” father of two of the ensemble cast, is everything a televangelist is, and more. Indulging in all that he denies his flock, even Elmer Gantry would have trouble keeping up. The Church of PetrOleum represents the most damaging of industries in a world already suffering the consequences of the greenhouse effect. Corporations make it rich while the Rev takes out his personal issues on his wives and children. Instead of being on the side of paradise, the church introduces chaos.

Through the gloomy scenario she’s foreseen, Atwood is able to see glimmers of a future that has possibilities. The protagonists are the members of a commune of a green religion, earth-centered and bearing a resemblance to both Wicca and monastic Christianity. That spiritual tradition, an offshoot of more established churches, is seen as dangerous by the corporations. And with good reason. Despite what televangelists tell us, spiritual truth is not on the side of big business. Jesus was no trickle-down economist. Reagan was no messiah. Corporate greed leads to blocking laws to clean up our world. We do not have control over what geneticists are doing, and, in fact, most of us have no idea what we’re eating or wearing any longer. Or what it is they’re packaging our food in. We are the consumers. Taught always to consume more. And the more that we are told to consume is the very planet that gave us life. My hat is off to Atwood, who still seems some possible cause for hope.