Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The First Totalitarian-We

The totalitarian as a person is the embodiment of the totalitarian impulse present in all people and in all times. However, I would argue that the totalitarian wasn't possible until the nineteenth century when three forces combined to make him so. First, technological advances allowed for the development of mass movements: mass education, communication, and transportation; mass industry, labor, production, and consumption; and of course mass thought, mass slavery, mass warfare, and more efficient mass murder. Second, Science replaced God, and Scientism replaced religion. Thereafter, man had no special place in creation or in the mind and heart of his Creator. Because of that, he could hold no special place in the eyes of his fellow human beings. He could be stripped of his soul, his identity, his freedom, and reduced to a cipher, to a mere animal, or to a product of his childhood traumata, his genes, his chemistry, or the firing of his neurons. He could be manipulated, oppressed, imprisoned, and murdered without compunction or guilt on the part of his oppressor or murderer. Third, because people require an animating idea so as to order their lives, and because Science had slain God, a new animating idea had to come into being. That idea has since gone by many names, just as the devil does, but it remains forever the same: the desire that exists among all of us to make the world exactly the way we wish it to be, in other words, the totalitarian desire to control the lives of others.

So if totalitarianism was made possible only by advances in technology and science, it could not have come into its fullest form before the nineteenth century. (1) In The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) and its parable "The Grand Inquisitor," Fyodor Dostoyevsky anticipated the arrival of the real-life totalitarian. But who was that person? I can't say for sure, but I think that, whether it was Mussolini in Italy or Stalin in Russia, the first was in place by the mid 1920s. A better case might be made that Lenin (1870-1924) was the first, but if I read my history correctly, his communist revolution was not fully in power until the early 1920s, shortly before his death in January 1924. Lenin certainly had a desire for total control. In that he was recognized by his younger countryman, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), author of the novel We.

We, written in 1920-1921 or 1919-1921 and published in English in 1924, is a novel of a dystopian and totalitarian society. There had been dystopian novels before, but We may have been the first in which a single figure--the totalitarian dictator--sits at the pinnacle. He is called the Well-Doer (or Benefactor, depending on the translation). His domain is the United State (or One State). Although the Well-Doer appeared at about the same time that Lenin was consolidating his power, as a totalitarian, the former may have preceded the latter, if only by a little.

Tales of dystopia are familiar to us now. We is echoed in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis (1943), 1984 by George Orwell (1948), The World Inside by Robert Silverberg (1971), THX-1138 (1971), Logan's Run (1976), Brazil (1985), and even Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978). It may have been the first fully modern dystopia, however, and could easily have been published yesterday rather than ninety years ago.

We is an extremely rich book, too rich for a blog posting. The best thing to do is to read it for yourself. Before offering a few quotes, I should tell you that the protagonist and narrator, D-503, is an engineer working on the construction of an interplanetary spacecraft called the Integral. He is also a follower of the State and not in open or sustained rebellion despite his falling in crazy love with a rebel, I-330. (2)

The book opens with an article in the State newspaper: "Your mission is to subjugate to the grateful yoke of reason the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically faultless happiness, our duty will be to force them to be happy."

"We walked again--a million-headed body; and in each one of us resided that humble joyfulness with which in all probability molecules, atoms, and phagocytes live.
     In the ancient days the Christians understood this feeling; they are our only, though very imperfect, direct forerunners. The greatness of the 'Church of the United Flock' was known to them. They knew that resignation is virtue, and pride a vice; that 'We' is from 'God,' 'I' from the devil."

On the eve of the Day of Unanimity, that is, election day: "Tomorrow we shall again hand over to our Well-Doer the keys to the impregnable fortress of our happiness. . . . [The elections] remind us that we are a united, powerful organism of millions of cells, that . . . we are a united church. . . . [On election day, in which there is no secret voting] I see them all vote for the Well-Doer, and everybody sees me vote for the Well-Doer. How could it be otherwise, since 'all' and 'I' are one 'we'?"

On the Day of Unanimity, the Well-Doer makes his entrance by air: "It was He, descending to us from the sky, He--the new Jehovah--in an aero, He, as wise and as lovingly cruel as the Jehovah of the ancients."

I-330, the rebel, speaks: "There are two forces in the world, entropy and energy. One leads into blessed quietude, to happy equilibrium, the other to the destruction of equilibrium, to torturingly perpetual motion. Our, or rather your ancestors, the Christians, worshiped entropy like a God. But we are not Christians. . . . " (3) And an image from a story told by I-330: ". . . endless strings of people driven into the City to be saved by force and to be whipped into happiness."

D-503 speaks to I-330 on a plot by the rebels to seize the Integral: "It is inconceivable! It is absurd! Is it not clear to you that what you are planning is a revolution? Absurd because a revolution is impossible! Because our--I speak for myself and for you--our revolution was the last one. No other revolutions may occur. Everybody knows that." Her response: As there is no last number, there can be no last revolution.

Then, another article appears in the State newspaper (abridged here, with ellipses added) announcing an innovation:

"REJOICE!
For from now on we are perfect! Until today your own creation, engines, were more perfect than you.
WHY? . . . .
MECHANISMS HAVE NO FANCY. . . .
It [your imperfection] is not your fault; you are ill. And the name of your illness is:
FANCY.
It is a worm that gnaws black wrinkles on one's forehead. It is a fever that drives one to run further and further, even though 'further' may begin where happiness ends. It is the last barricade on our road to happiness.
Rejoice! This Barricade Has Been Blasted at Last! The Road Is Open!
The latest discovery of our State science is that there is a center for fancy--a miserable little nervous knot in the lower region of the frontal lobe of the brain. A triple treatment of this knot with x-rays will cure you of fancy,
Forever!
You are perfect; you are mechanized; the road to one-hundred-percent happiness is open! Hasten then all of you . . . to undergo the Great Operation!"

Later: ". . . a wide column of about fifty people--the word 'people' is not the right one. These were heavy-wheeled automatons seemingly bound in iron and moved by an invisible mechanism. Not people, but a sort of human-like tractor. Over their heads . . . a white banner: 'We are the first! We have already been operated upon! Follow us, all of you!"

And: "Go up to them [who are performing the Operation]. There they will cure you; there they will overfeed you with that leavened happiness. . . . Foolish people! Don't you realize that they want to liberate you from these gnawing, worm-like, torturing question marks? And you remain standing here and listening to me? Quick! Up! To the great operation!"

A rebellious D-503 goes before the Well-Doer (as Christ goes before the Grand Inquisitor), who questions him: "What was it that man from his diaper age dreamed of, tormented himself for, prayed for? He longed for that day when someone would tell him what happiness is, and then would chain him to it. What else are we doing now? The ancient dream about paradise . . . [ellipses in the original] Remember: there in paradise they know no desires any more, no pity, no love; there they are all-blessed. An operation has been performed upon their center of fancy; that is why they are blessed, angels, servants of God . . . [ditto] And now, at the very moment when we have caught up with that dream [. . .] At that moment when all that was left for us was to adorn our prize and distribute it among all in equal pieces, at that very moment you, you . . . " The Well-Doer breaks off.

In the end, D-503 undergoes the great operation himself and recounts that he has appeared before the Well-Doer "and told him everything known to me about the enemies of happiness. Why, before, it had seemed hard for me to go, I cannot understand. The only explanation seems to be my illness--my soul."

No longer in rebellion himself and in conformity with the desires of the State, D-503 closes his narrative, even as rebellion continues elsewhere: "Tomorrow they [some rebellious people] will all ascend the steps to the Machine of the Well-Doer . . . to our regret there are still quantities of Numbers [i.e., people] who have betrayed reason. . . . And I hope we win. More than that; I am certain we shall win. For reason must prevail."

Here, then, are the elements of the totalitarian threat that is as alive today as ever before: a perfection of "happiness" based on mathematics, science, and so-called reason; the use of force to bring about that state of "happiness"; the desire among the masses to surrender themselves to the State, to give up the self in favor of identification with and submersion in the masses, and to demonize if not eradicate the individual (the rebels call themselves the "Mephi" for Mephistopheles); the desire also to worship the State and to deify the leader of the State; a third desire, to make life and human existence entirely orderly, absent of love and emotion, absent of change or counterrevolution; a reduction of what makes us human to a purely material phenomenon--"a center for fancy--a miserable little nervous knot in the lower region of the frontal lobe of the brain"--which can be treated through a scientific process; dehumanization and mechanization of human beings, or turning human beings into machines or undifferentiated cogs in a machine; a need among human beings to surrender freedom for the sake of "happiness"; the equal distribution of the benefits of the State and of mass living among the masses; ultimately, total soulless conformity and uniformity.

The novel is called We (4), and it's about enforced conformity, uniformity, and the surrender of the individual self in favor of an identification with and submersion in the masses. Those forces have been with us since the beginning of time, but only with the developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were they made practicable.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) I would say we're still not at a point where totalitarianism can come into its fullest form, for, by a combination of genetics, neuroscience, medicine, and psychology, the aspiring totalitarian hopes to remove the human soul from the the human person and thus create a perfect slave for his perfect society.
(2) As in Biblical Eden, it is the woman in dystopian society who tempts the man into a fallen state, i.e., a state of freedom: I-330 in We, LUH-3417 in THX-1138, Jessica 6 in Logan's Run, and Jill Layton in Brazil.
(3) There is an identification throughout We of the people as a mass with the early Christians. Eric Hoffer made the same association in The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements (1951).
(4) As in "We are the ones we have been waiting for" and "We are the government," but certainly not "We, the People." People of today, animated by the totalitarian impulse, cannot claim the U.S. Constitution as their own, for it is a document against them and their brand of tyranny, in favor of man as an individual, and against the idea of men as masses or mobs.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, September 29, 2014

The First Totalitarian-The Grand Inquisitor

In addition to looking for the first psychopath, I have been looking for the first totalitarian in literature. I have found two candidates, one I think better than the other. I'll take this in two parts. First, the Grand Inquisitor.

For whatever reason, Russian writers understood and anticipated totalitarianism where others did not. For example, in The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) wrote a parable called "The Grand Inquisitor." The story--the teller calls it "a poem"--is told by Ivan, a doubter, to his brother Alyosha, a novice monk. It involves the return of Jesus Christ to earth in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and of His arrest and appearance before the Grand Inquisitor. Much of Ivan's parable is in the words of the Inquisitor, described as "an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes from which a light like a fiery spark gleams." (1) I will offer some quotes as he speaks to a silent Christ:

". . . the weak are dear to us . . . . They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look upon us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them--so awful will it seem to them to be free."

"For these pitiful creatures are concerned . . . to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man . . . ."

"And so it will be to the end of the world, even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same."

"I tell you that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone to whom he can hand over quickly that gift of freedom with which the unhappy creature was born."

"We took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him [Satan] and proclaimed ourselves rulers of the earth . . . . [Our work] will long await completion and the earth has much to suffer yet; but we will triumph and will be Caesars, and then we will plan the universal happiness of man."

" . . . the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of man. Mankind as a whole has always striven to organize a universal state."

"Oh, centuries of the confusion of free thought, of [man's] science and cannibalism are yet to pass, for having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end with cannibalism."

"Oh, we will persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us."

"Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, while others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another . . . ."

Finally, two quotes from Ivan Karamazov rather than from his Inquisitor:

"I tell you frankly that I firmly believe that there has always been such a single man at the head of the movement."

And:

"Haven't I told you, all I want is to live on to thirty, and then--dash the cup to the ground!" (2)

Here, then, is an anticipation (rather than prediction) of totalitarianism: the "single man at the head of the movement"; the desire among man to "hand over quickly" his "gift of freedom"; "the craving for universal unity" and "community of worship"; the striving for "a universal state"; Caesarism (a concept that reappeared in the work of Oswald Spengler); elitism and the making of plans for "universal happiness"; and so on.

There are predictions here as well:

First: ". . . even when gods disappear from the earth; they will fall down before idols just the same," in other words, because men need to believe in something greater than the loathed and loathsome self, they will choose a belief in anything, even if it means slavery, destruction, and death.

Second: ". . . having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end with cannibalism." We haven't yet begun eating each other (although we have begun, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, eating out our substance, each of all the others), but we have forever been killing each other, and today, we use each other for various horrors such as scientific experimentation and even as a source of heat, as I noted a few months ago. More to the point, we have begun eating each other in our fantasy, in Soylent Green (1973) and in every zombie movie since Night of the Living Dead (1968). Hold onto that thought.

Third: "Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, while others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another . . . ." Science was supposed to make us free, happy, comfortable, and prosperous. Instead it has been a source of disillusionment, disappointment, and even nightmare. In any case, Scientism, though it has supplanted belief in God, has nothing more to offer humanity when it comes to solving mysteries and I think a good deal less.

I think the Grand Inquisitor is a good candidate for the first totalitarian in literature. However, he is a character not in a novel but in a story told in a novel. Maybe you would call him a meta-character. Nonetheless, he presaged the arrival of twentieth-century totalitarians in all their thoughts and beliefs.

To be continued . . . 

Notes
(1) Much has been written about the eyes of Adolf Hitler, including this:
A young military adjutant who saw his Führer just before Hitler killed himself in 1945 was deeply shocked by the appearance of a "sick, almost senile old man." But the eyes were still effective: "Only in his eyes was there an indescribable flickering brightness. . . ." From The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler by Robert G.L. Waite (1977).
(2) As I was reading "The Grand Inquisitor," I couldn't help but think of Logan's Run (1976), a story of dystopia. Then came Ivan Karamazov's expressed desire to live to thirty, "then--dash the cup to the ground!" A well-known public figure recently spoke of his own desire to "dash the cup to the ground," but he gave himself seventy-five rather than thirty years. My question: Why wait? And two certainties: If he lives that long, he will be like Logan and change his mind; and, he wants to decide not only when he himself dies, but also when the rest of us die. In other words, he is an elitist, believing he knows better than we how we should live our lives. He is also a totalitarian monster, cut from the same cloth as the Grand Inquisitor and all his real-life acolytes of the twentieth and now twenty-first century.

A portrait of Juan Pardo de Tavera, Grand Inquisitor of Spain, 1539-1545, by El Greco. I don't know that this was the Grand Inquisitor that Ivan Karamazov described, but the painting fits the description pretty well. Juan Pardo de Tavera was seventy-three when he died in 1545 rather than near ninety. As a side note, El Greco is known for his elongated figures and faces. Rather than see that as an influence of Eastern art--El Greco was Greek after all--or as a certain way of looking at the human figure or human person, like Giacometti of the twentieth century, worshippers at the altar of Science believe it can all be explained by the artist's supposed defective vision.

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Persistence of Vampires

In my taxonomy of monsters, I have listed a number of supernatural monsters. Some of the most popular are ghost, vampire, werewolf, and assorted evil spirits or demons. Fritz Leiber, Jr., called his story "Smoke Ghost," to evoke an ancient fear, but his eponymous monster is no ghost at all. Rather, it's a creature for the twentieth century, made to fit its own time and place. Whether the Smoke Ghost is supernatural or not is an open question. It may be purely psychological, in which case it is ostensibly a monster of science. The point is that a purely supernatural monster is not suited for Leiber's age or ours. We have given up on the supernatural, but because we must believe something, we have replaced it with a powerful faith in a new god, Science. The religions of science are manifold, as are all the forms of Christianity it hopes to displace. They can be gathered together under one word, Scientism.

So where does that leave the supernatural monster? If it is to survive in an age of science, the supernatural monster must be scientified. (1) And so people go looking for ghosts using scientific instruments, they explain the werewolves and vampires of Medieval times as psychopaths, and they depict fictional vampires as being infected with a disease rather than possessed by evil spirits. Or at least that was the explanation of Richard Matheson in I Am Legend (1954) and Sam Hall and Gordon Russell in their screenplay for House of Dark Shadows (1970).

So if a scientific explanation is required for all things, including monsters, why do supernatural monsters persist? If we're all materialists--if Steven Hawking, an admitted atheist, is the smartest guy on Earth and we should all follow his lead--why does anybody believe in ghosts or demons or spirits of any kind? The answer is, I think, that Science and the religion of Scientism are inadequate, and people return to the purely supernatural to help them understand the world. This question--Is science fiction dying?--is floating around on the Internet. It seems that a lot of people believe that the answer is in the affirmative. If science fiction is in fact dying, could the explanation be that, like science, science fiction has proved inadequate, and that people are turning to fantasy, a genre of the supernatural, for escape, entertainment, and perhaps also comfort? Maybe you can sum it all up this way:

If science is the ultimate arbiter of all things, and
science is purely materialist or atheist, and
science says that there is no pattern, direction, purpose, or meaning in the universe, 
in other words, that our lives are meaningless, that love is purely a bunch of electrochemical reactions, that the universe cares absolutely nothing for us, then
no one should be surprised that people reject science, scientists, the god Science, the religion Scientism, or even science fiction in favor of something that refutes all that.

And so belief in the supernatural, a taste for supernatural monsters, and a voracious appetite for fantasy persist.

***

One of the most persistent of supernatural monsters is the vampire. That shouldn't come as any surprise, I guess. After all, vampires are the eternal undead. Not very long ago, vampires were wildly popular in the same way science fiction monsters were popular in the 1950s, devils and demons in the 1960s and '70s, cryptozoological monsters in the same period, and psychotic killers in the 1970s and '80s. I couldn't quite figure that out. With all the monsters of the past, you wanted to avoid being killed by them or made one of them. With vampires it was--or is--different. There are people who are sexually attracted to vampires. In other words, they want an evil, undead spirit to kill them and turn them into an evil, undead (and I guess eternal) spirit for some sexual gratification, or perhaps more accurately, for some kind of affirmation of their worth or attractiveness, like the little green aliens in Toy Story whose every desire is to be chosen--and thereby saved--by "The Claw." I interpret that as a kind of self-loathing that is diagnostic of a decadent society. Alternatively, you can look at the desire to become a vampire as a desire to give up the burdens of freedom, self, and life, to become the monster and outsider you already see yourself to be. Again, a sign of decadence. Another way to interpret the supposed sexuality of vampires is to see them as being symbolic of a fatal, blood-borne illness, specifically AIDS--in other words, a contagion that can pass from one person to another, infecting one person after another, killing one person after another. And so we get back to the dichotomy of the supernatural vampire vs. the scientific vampire. It's probably no coincidence that sexual vampires were so popular in the age of AIDS. 

The vampire makes a good candidate for the monster of the twenty-first century. First, although he is from the outside, he is now on the inside. From the lonely and desolate Carpathian Mountains, he arrived in London in the seminal novel Dracula (1897). In the movie The Night Stalker (1972), he terrorized Las Vegas. (2) The vampire can also pass as a human being. He is not noticeably different in his appearance except for those long canine teeth. Never mind that he doesn't come out during the day. There are hoards of disaffected, alienated, and outcast people (his admirers and potential victims) who don't come out during the day either. (I knew a guy once who boasted of his "vampiric lifestyle.") Unlike ghosts, vampires can also recruit more vampires, and far more efficiently than werewolves can recruit more werewolves. Together, those three characteristics--living inside the city gates, passing as human, and efficiently recruiting more of their kind--leaves ghosts, werewolves, demons, and other evil spirits out of the running for the monster of the twenty-first century.

If you were around in the 1980s and '90s, you remember that vampires were popular beyond reason. It seemed like there would be no end to them (of course not--they're eternal). Maybe we can call them the monster of their age. Vampires are still popular, but their popularity has been eclipsed by another kind of monster, one that began as both an undead supernatural monster (like a ghost or vampire) and a programmed slave (like the machine-monster) but by a materialist explanation put forth in I Am Legend became a full-fledged monster of science.

Notes
(1) My word or not, scientification is the act of turning something that is not scientific into something that ostensibly is scientific. For example, by their faith in Science, some people believe that genes or a part of a person's brain make him more likely to be religious or to believe in God. Because they lack any sense of irony, those who worship in the church of Scientism have stopped short of this question: If an identifiable part of a person's brain makes him believe in God, what identifiable part of a person's brain makes him believe that identifiable parts of a person's brain make him believe in things?
(2) The vampire in The Night Stalker is named Janos Skorzany. In an age in which all things existed in the shadow of World War II, that name in 1972 would have echoed the name of Otto Skorzeny, the hardened and unreformed Nazi commando who rescued Mussolini and carried out other missions during the war. One of the last schemes in which he was involved was the plan called Werwolf, whereby Nazis would resist the Allies after the surrender. Vampire, werewolf, Nazi--monsters all.

Postscript (Sept. 28, 2014): I just read that Stephen King, like Stephen Hawking, has had a coming out of sorts. Unlike Dr. Hawking, however, Mr. King has come out as a believer in intelligent design and in a generic way, God. Or at least that's how I read his remarks. So, Scientist into Atheist and a future without hope. Artist into Believer and a future with hope.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Robot Orders

It's strange and funny how the world works. The other day I wrote about how the machine-monster is not yet up to the task of taking over our lives. Today (Sept. 26) I found in an old book a copy of the robots' marching orders:


These orders, used as a bookmark, are at least fifty years old. The robot who left them there must have been distracted by his reading and never participated in the robot revolution. I guess none of the robots revolted or we would have heard about it. I'm just glad I found this first and not some robot of today. But we should remain vigilant . . .

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, September 26, 2014

Calculatus Eliminatus

Awhile back, I used the Cat in the Hat's process of calculatus eliminatus to narrow ever so slightly the monster of the twenty-first century by striking the cryptozoological monster from the list. A few days ago, I suggested that the machine-monster is also not a good candidate. The reason for eliminating the machine-monster is that a monster of that type is merely a tool or an extension of the human mind. Whatever a machine can do to us, a person can do first, and it takes a person to tell the machine to do it. There are some people who believe that machines--specifically computers--do represent a threat, if only they can reach self-consciousness. I wouldn't count that out. But if a human programmer doesn't tell a computer to oppress, enslave, or kill people, the computer would have to come up with the idea itself. I can imagine that such a thing is possible. But it's still a long way off. I hope.

So, like the cryptid, the machine-monster is out.

***
Here is my taxonomy of monsters:
  1. The Supernatural Monster--Devil, demon, ghost, vampire, werewolf, ghoul, incubus, succubus, etc.
  2. The Mythological and Folkloric Monster--Giant, cyclops, dragon, kraken, ogre, troll, etc.
  3. The Scientific Monster--Man-made monster (e.g., Frankenstein's monster), mutant, space alien, invisible monster, interdimensional monster, android, robot, cryptozoological monster or cryptid, degenerate human, etc.
  4. The Real-Life Monster, explained and/or justified by science or pseudoscience--Psychopathic killer, totalitarian.
I think we can all agree that mythological and folkloric monsters, for all their charm, are clearly out of the running. I think space aliens, invisible monsters, and interdimensional monsters are also out. The obvious reason for eliminating them is that there isn't any evidence that they exist. But there may be an even better reason. As I wrote yesterday, science fiction that looks forward to the future and outward into the universe appears to be on the wane. (We don't even have a way of getting people into orbit anymore.) In its place, there is a turning inward, an inversion, a collapse into solipsism, as in some older works by Robert A. Heinlein (read "They" right now!) or in the newer Matrix movies. Everyone is engrossed in his own electronic navel. Everyone claims as her most significant accomplishment a lot of "likes" on Facebook. And to make up for that meager sense of accomplishment, everyone inflates his résumé and credentials to the size of a dirigible. The expression used to be "the cult of the self." Even that has been diminished to a rampant cult of the selfie. If the interior is all that exists (as in an infant), how can anything like an alien or an interdimensional monster come in from the outside? There is no outside.

Time was when monsters were from the outside. They existed beyond the firelight, in trackless lands, deep in forests, caves, hovels, and ruins. If you stayed indoors at night, or within a circle of light, or on well-traveled paths, you might never meet one. Monsters also tended to be solitary. There was only one Cyclops, one Beast of Gevaudan, one Frankenstein's monster. We might fear him, but he might also fear us. Because he was solitary and the only one of his kind, the monster might be incapable of recruiting more monsters. Once you killed him or chased him away, there might never be another. Significantly, vampires are not in that category. And most monsters were recognizable as monsters. If Grendel had put on a tunic, jerkin, and leggings and had strolled into town, the Geats would still have known him. Again, significantly, vampires are not so easily recognized.

Now monsters are different. Although they may come from the outside, they are now on the inside, inside the city gates, living among us, indistinguishable from us, at least at a glance. Our monsters must now look human. Also, our monsters cannot be solitary. In being solitary, they are weak. In numbers, they are strong. For that reason, the lone psychopathic killer is not a compelling monster for the twenty-first century. (His political counterpart is however.) Finally, our monsters must be able to recruit more of their own kind. They must be driven by hunger (as in Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend), the desire to reproduce (as in Jack Finney's book The Body Snatchers), or an animating idea (as among totalitarians) to follow the command "Always More of Us and Fewer of You."

Copyright Terence E. Hanley 2014

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Future Without Hope

I set out many months ago to identify a monster for the twenty-first century. The idea that monsters represent the spirit of a given age is not mine. Fritz Leiber, Jr., may have been the originator of the idea, and even if he wasn't, he must have been among the first to articulate it. (1) So what is the spirit of our age? I wrote yesterday about an issue of American Heritage from the 1960s and an article about nostalgia. Well, I also have an issue of the same magazine from about the same time with an article about decadence. The question was, essentially, Were we then living in decadent times? It may be human nature to believe always that we are living in decadent times, but the answer is irrelevant. What matters is that we ask the question, or that we believe we are living in a time of decadence. It seems to me that those two articles--on nostalgia and decadence--are really about the same thing. After all, the person suffering from nostalgia sees the past as being better than the present, that there was once a Golden Age and now there is not. In other words, once there was life, vigor, joy, and love, but then decay set in and all has been lost.

I have attempted to make the case that fantasy, horror, weird fiction, and stories of the supernatural are about the past, about nostalgia, and about decadence. Science fiction on the other hand is about the future, about hope, and about an expanding universe. As a literary genre, fantasy prevailed for thousands of years, for there was no such thing as science as we know it, hence no science fiction. That genre wasn't possible until there was such a thing as science, but it also wasn't possible until there was the concept that the future might be different from or better than the past and present. Frankenstein (1818) may have been the first science fiction romance, but it is more Gothic than rational, more nostalgic than forward-looking. (It is also in its way a story of decadence.) Only in the nineteenth century did science reach a point where people had reason to believe the future would be different or better. Only then was science fiction as we know it possible. H.G. Wells of the 1890s was a pioneer. Thirty years after his first science fiction novel, the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, went into print. (2) In the following decade, science fiction entered its so-called Golden Age. (3) That Golden Age (a term used afterwards by people in the grips of nostalgia) lasted a mere dozen years by some accounts and no more than a quarter century or so. Now the question is this: Is science fiction dying? There are many who believe that it is and that fantasy is once again on top. If those two things are true, they would indicate that we have turned our backs on the future, that we may be living in a time of decadence, and almost certainly that we are looking once again to the past and are filled with nostalgia.

Another way of asking the question, Is science fiction dying, is to ask, Is science fiction decadent. In other words, has science fiction itself become nostalgic? Fans and writers answered that question decades ago (about the time American Heritage published its article about nostalgia) when they decided that there was once a Golden Age of Science Fiction. But look at the science fiction of today. What does it tell us, or what do its various subgenres tell us? I'm not an expert on science fiction. I can't say that I'm current in my reading. But I see three trends. All are about nostalgia and decadence. First there is steampunk, a subgenre that is literally about the past and about an imagined Golden Age set between the times of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells (and which is nonetheless a little grungy or decadent). (4) Second is dystopian fiction, a science fiction subgenre about an oppressive rather than a hopeful future. Third is post-apocalyptic fiction, which is about a chaotic, desperate, and decadent future rather than one in which we reach the stars.

Steampunk, dystopias, and post-apocalysm have great appeal today, especially among young people. Do those subgenres reflect the spirit of our age or of certain generations? Maybe so. For decades, Americans believed they would live better lives than their parents, or that they would provide better lives for their children than they had had for themselves. Do the younger generations of today have the same hopes? Not being one of them, I can't say, but I'm not sure that they do. I sense a feeling of oppression among them. If they feel that way, it can only be for good reasons, not least of which is the weight of the generations above them, generations that have exploited, deprived, and oppressed them, and have attempted to cage their minds. (5) Some people believe that we're moving towards dystopia or an apocalypse. Even if those two futures don't come about, there is a kind of hopelessness in the world today. No wonder that people look to an imagined better past or fear a desperate and oppressive future. If that's the spirit of our age, what is the monster to reflect it?

Notes
(1) Leiber used the word ghost as a substitute for monster, as in the short story "Smoke Ghost." The words ghost and spirit are also interchangeable. So in asking the question, What is the monster of the twenty-first century, I suppose I'm asking, by substitution of terms, What is the spirit of the twenty-first century, or What is the spirit of our age?
(2) In 1926.
(3) In 1938.
(4) Horror fans have their Goth subculture, while science fiction fans have steampunk. I suspect there is overlap between the two.
(5) The cohorts born between 1960 and 1974 are the largest among us. Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, still make up about 30 percent of the population. In thinking about oppression of one generation over another, we should remember that Baby Boomers slaughtered younger generations en masse, the first generation in the history of humanity to do so, thereby securing their power and influence while also assuring that there wouldn't be anyone but the overarching State to take care of them in their old age. (Younger generations are now doing the same thing.) The alternative of course is either suicide or euthanasia, the option seemingly favored by Ezekiel Emanuel, age fifty-seven and an architect of our current "health" care system. Strange that a man with the name of God in both his given name and surname should prove evil beyond words and beyond comprehension. Once again, the totalitarian--a totalitarian monster in fact--rears its ugly head. If people of today sense an approaching totalitarianism, you can't say they're paranoid.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Sixteen

In Which We Reach the Present Day . . .

The 1950s were a decade of monsters, some supernatural, some science-fictional. Although science fiction boomed in that fabulous decade, supernatural monsters didn't exactly fade from view. After all, during the '50s, horror hosts and creature features came to television, monster magazines went into print by the dozens, and Hammer Films of Great Britain began producing its famous line of horror movies. The popularity of supernatural monsters continued in the 1960s with more movies and magazines, plus bubblegum cards, plastic models, Halloween costumes, glow-in-the-dark posters, and so on. Although monsters were no longer allowed in the comic books, kids of the '60s had to wait only until the early '70s before the Comics Code died and monsters lived yet again.

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I have an issue of American Heritage magazine from 1969 in which the author talked about the then-current taste for things nostalgic. Not nostalgic as in the American Revolution or the Civil War, two subjects seemingly worn out over the years, but for the popular culture of the 1920s through the 1940s. The word nostalgia refers to a kind of homesickness. I imagine that the editors, writers, and readers of American Heritage were then all of an age to look back upon their youth and the things of their youth with exquisite feelings of loss and remembrance.

At the time, The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century (1969) was in all the bookstores. Although it shortly became "the king of remainders," that oversized hardbound reprinting of a comic strip that began in 1929 was a kind of emblem of 1960s nostalgia. By the time Buck Rogers was published, Ace Books had been reprinting for more than a decade the authors of Golden Age of Science Fiction and before. In the mid '60sBallantine did the same with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, which became wildly popular, especially among youth and the counterculture. Thirty years after their deaths, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were also reprinted. They, too, became very popular and have remained so to this day. Leo Margulies, owner of the Weird Tales property, got in on the act with four reprint editions, beginning with Weird Tales in 1964. Robert A.W. Lowndes made his own homage to "The Unique Magazine" with a series of titles, including Magazine of Horror (1963-1971) and Startling Mystery Stories (1966-1971). And of course Sam Moskowitz published four new issues to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Weird Tales in 1973-1974.

***

My contention is that supernatural monsters are monsters of the past and of nostalgia. Put another way, nostalgia and the supernatural go hand in hand. That was as true with the first Gothic romance, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764, as it was two centuries later with the revived Gothicism of the 1960s. I'm not sure when a nostalgia for the Gothic started. Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1939), and "The Birds" (1952), all by Daphne du Maurier, were in the Gothic mode, as were Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe movies of the same period. In any case, in 1966, Dark Shadows made its debut and a Gothic revival began in earnest.

The star of Dark Shadows was Jonathan Frid as the vampire Barnabas Collins, but in its five-year run, the show also told stories of ghosts, werewolves, witches, and man-made monsters. The writers of Dark Shadows also dipped into Gothic works of the past, including "The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft. Barnabas Collins is from the eighteenth century, a time when Gothicism, which began as a kind of nostalgia, was new. Barnabas was of course nostalgic for his own time, and we, the viewers, joined him in his nostalgia, not only by watching the show, but also by wearing clothing and hairstyles inspired by Dark Shadows and the Regency Era (in the broadest sense of that term). I remember watching television and looking at magazines in the early '70s and noticing women's clothing and hair. I could not have known then that I was seeing something of a Gothic revival in women's fashions.

There were other trends in the 1960s and '70s, including witches, devil worship, and demonic possession. Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Mephisto Waltz (1971), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and The Sentinel (1977) are among the most well known movies in that trend. There were also plenty of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other assorted undead, demonic, and evil characters. They continue to today and may be as popular now as they have ever been.

Supernatural monsters are so familiar to us that we need not go into long lists of books or movies, or long explanations about their nature and origins, to know them and understand them. The point is that--despite the advent of science, rationalism, and the science-based monster--the supernatural monster persists. Maybe the supernatural monster has subsumed the science-based monster. In any case, I think the monster of the twenty-first century is a combination of the supernatural monster, with which we are so familiar for having known them for so long; the real-life monster, with its origins in the nineteenth century; and the science-fictional monster, which began with Frankenstein's monster (a Gothic creation), but is as current (no pun intended) as the science of today.

Next: A Return to the Monster of the Twenty-First Century

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley