Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Dystopian Nightmare

This was written for a Utopian Novel class

If the earlier Utopian novels were an exploration of the interplay between nature and nurture, both before and after man had begun to acquire fantastic technology, then the descent into the Dystopian visions of 1984, A Clockwork Orange, A Canticle for Liebowitz, and The Lathe of Heaven are descriptions of how utterly the human project will fail, whether or not it strives for a Utopia. If the visions of Houynhnms served primarily as a way for sharp, painful criticism, viddying the actions of droogs is a numbing action, for the pain of the reality is too great.

What is Wrong with the World

In the Introduction to his novel A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess opined that though he didn’t think this was his best work (but it is precisely because it may have been his best work, because it so resonated with a public that saw the mirror held up to nature) it is for this novel that he will be remembered. What that memorable novel asks of the reader, in a nonstop fashion throughout its first part, is a suspension of disbelief that stands behind a screen of detachment. The acts of violence and the hollow minds that engender those acts horrify even the most jaded reader. Burgess’ vision is terrifying precisely because it’s not that difficult to imagine a future where the thugs are in control. Perhaps in a smaller country like England, which always seems to be a backdrop for our Utopias and Dystopias, such a future could happen even within our lifetime.

Whereas previous Utopian novels always focused on the compelling largeness of a society, Dystopian visions have to radiate their vision outward from the limited sphere of a single gazer. Winston, Alex, Brother Francis, and George Orr can only tell us what they know. They don’t have singular omniscient visions of their respective realities, and in that small, focused snapshot of the individual being slowly crushed by society, the struggle of each individual lends us insight.

What is particularly subversive about A Clockwork Orange is that the reader actually has sympathy for Alex. Throughout the first part he is busy with ultraviolence, in the second part ultraviolence is, in a way, done to him, and in the final part those extremes are reconciled. Surely such evil isn’t “nurtured by Society” and yet what Alex recalls as the headline of a newspaper after his attempted suicide was: “BOY VICTIM OF CRIMINAL REFORM SCHEME” (192). The victimizer victimized – who is the real puppet pulling the real strings? Burgess’ allusions to “society” and “government” are representative of the smoke and mirrors of the liberal nostrums we as a culture repeat in order to shift blame and accountability outside ourselves. If only we could return to the state of nature, if only we could suppress what is human...hence the brainwashing Alex receives. But it doesn’t take because humans are fundamentally defined by free will.

That free will is perhaps what makes Winston so fantastically triumphant and yet so lamentably pitiable as the hero of 1984. It is he who is brave enough to buy a notebook, to write “Down with Big Brother” in big defiant lettering, to meet with Julia, and to reach out to O’Brien. Yet, as he fights the tortures used to get him to accept doublethink (practiced in this day and age in black holes of jurisprudence, like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), we cannot help but accept as true O’Brien’s assertion: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” (220). The tortures used to harm his body provide “white space” in his brain where these assertions can float in and become truth. So too the reader realizes the inevitability of Orwell’s vision: a world with no true happiness and with no redemption in sight.

Yet, redemption is very much a theme woven throughout the complex A Canticle for Liebowitz. When all of humanity has destroyed itself over and over with bombs, it is the monks who remain, not just as guardians of knowledge, but as reminders of the salvific action of Christ. Singular in its recognition of a triumph – of sorts – for Christianity, Walter Miller’s novel reminds us over and over that the dead language of Latin might be the only thing that survives a nuclear holocaust – and not just because Miller knows that the monks of Monte Cassino survived his bombing during the war, or because of some wishful thinking of someone favorable to Catholicism, but because Latin evokes the Romans – men and women who were very much like us and like men and women from every previous age. If Orwell was right that he who controls the present controls the past, and that who controls the past controls the future, then it is precisely the enduring words of the Church (acting in the stead of Christ), whispered, muttered, and copied in Latin, in Miller’s vision that controls humanity’s future.

Ursula Le Guin makes that control of the future the whimsy of an ordinary man. Like Alex, Brother Francis, or Winston, George Orr is no one special. His godlike ability remakes the past, and in an actualization of the ideas of the Party in 1984, he controls the future by controlling the past. The dreams retroactively change people’s memories, and in the one instance where a character is confronted with the change of reality before her eyes (forced doublethink), she is forced to discard the reality she knows for the reality she sees. That is perhaps what is so frightening about The Lathe of Heaven: that even the main character has trouble remembering what his separate “lives” have been like. What hope do we have of remembering, if we can't even forget what we didn't know?

The Ugly Crash of Human Nature

If these dystopian novels give us a primarily individualist view of each imagined world, it also comments on how deeply flawed human nature is (again, returning to the non-redemptive theme). For instance, Winston is able to delight in the simple beauty of a paperweight, yet in the next breath he’s able to say that he “hates purity.” He delights in his adulteries with Julia and is glad she sleeps with many other men. If there is good in humanity, Orwell implies, it is systematically erased by the boot-stamping on the face.

Burgess’ vision of humanity is so dark that it’s not enough that good might be stamped out of humanity, but furthermore, mankind must undergo scientific procedures in order to “be good.” Even then, that good is not a “do good” but simply the negative “avoid evil.” The poignant notion we are left with in the final (restored) chapter of his novel is that goodness must be a choice and must come from within. No social engineering, no Five Year Plans can make the human spirit do something it doesn’t want to do. Mindless automatons result when the programming is forced, and you are left with something less than human.

Both Le Guin’s and Miller’s works go beyond the recognition of mankind’s evil to the acceptance of the cyclical nature of the interaction of good and evil. In A Canticle for Liebowitz, we see this across three different parts of the novel, each with many centuries of gap in between them. Men come and go, technology is attained and lost, but time marches on. In The Lathe of Heaven this same theme is expressed in the different iterations of the worlds that George Orr’s doctor concocts. Man can always think that the solution is around the corner: personal gain, population reduction, the graying of skin to “eliminate” racism. But all those worlds eventually are destroyed and pointless, and the inhabitants of the new/old Earth are left to fend with what they have at that given moment.


St. Thomas More, at heart a humanist, engaged in the thought experiment of Utopia to challenge our popular prejudices while appealing to the better angels of our nature. If the commentary about examining a potential spouse in the nude might be accepted in jest, the mocking of war as a scourge upon humanity which was to be avoided was in deadly earnest. As centuries passed within our own Western Tradition, the smoke from the Industrial Revolution obscured the light from the age of the humanists, and from those shapes and shadows emerged a vision that went beyond accepting our fallen human nature and instead condemned us to a forever cycle of our own destruction. But lest the image that we take from examining these Dystopias be the forever boot on the forever face, the grace that Brother Francis reminds us of in A Canticle for Liebowitz would perhaps be spoken best by the Savage of Brave New World, so desperately trying to quote his Shakespeare correctly: “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (Merchant of Venice V: 1). If it is darkest before the dawn, perhaps when the world is most devoid of good will it see the value in that light that has not been overcome by the darkness.

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