Monday, May 19, 2014

What Is the Monster of the Twenty-First Century?-Part Six

The Totalitarian Monster

"The Dreams of Albert Moreland," a short story by Fritz Leiber, Jr., written in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, opens with the narrator's remembering the autumn of 1939, "not as the beginning of the Second World War, but as the period in which Albert Moreland dreamed the dream." Albert Moreland is a chess player, and in his dreams of that tragic season, he plays a nightly game against an unseen foe. His foe's key piece is one Moreland calls "the archer." The narrator, Moreland's friend, writes:
He [Moreland] described it as representing a kind of intermediate, warped life form which had achieved more than human intellectual power without losing--but rather gaining--in brute cruelty and malignity. . . .
Later, when the narrator himself sees a representation of the piece, he remarks on its "expression of bestial, supernatural malevolence." In his reaction to the physical appearance of "the archer," Albert Moreland revisits Leiber's thesis about the monsters of the past vs. the monsters of the present:
"God knows how my mind ever cooked up such a hideous entity," he finished, with a grin. "Five hundred years ago I'd have said the Devil put it there."
The significance of Moreland's nightly struggle is not lost on him or his friend. The narrator writes:
He [Moreland again] had traced a frightening relationship between the progress of the game and of the War, and had begun to believe that the ultimate issue of the War--though not necessarily the victory of either side--hung on the outcome of the game.
The game and the story play out to ambiguous endings, but then both take place at the outset of a war, the outcome of which was then entirely in doubt and cause for fear and extreme anxiety. (1, 2)

Leiber's story is set in New York City. Elsewhere in that city, at the same time and with the same non-fictional events as a backdrop, another author was at work. Sitting in a dive on Fifty-second Street, the British poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) penned "September 1, 1939," which has since become one of his most famous. Some lines from that poem:

Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god . . . .

Linz was the boyhood home of Adolf Hitler. The phrase "huge imago" is supposed to be Jungian in origin and may refer either to Hitler's own father, or something greater, perhaps the German nation or the history of the German people. Robert G.L. Waite used the next phrase in the title of his book The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler (1977), called by Publishers Weekly "a powerful dissection" and described by James McGregor Burns as "gripping, immensely revealing and ultimately horrifying." It is, in short, the biography of a totalitarian monster, represented less powerfully and in fictional form--specifically because it is fictional--in Fritz Leiber's cruel and malignant "archer" and the unseen hand behind it. Significantly, Auden saw that the totalitarian (in the person of Adolf Hitler) is a kind of apotheosis of the psychopath.

It has become a cliché to call Hitler a monster, but calling a word or an idea a cliché is not the same as saying it is inaccurate or false. Hitler and the parade of totalitarian dictators that made the twentieth century their own were in fact monsters, and--being human--the only true monsters known to us. The totalitarian, as Leiber suggested, was a new kind of monster for the twentieth century. Although the threat of a certain kind of totalitarianism has receded, the totalitarian monster is still with us and is a candidate for the monster of the twenty-first century. I'll write more about that next time.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) The outcome, which would have been so seriously in doubt in 1939, was more certain when "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" was published in The Acolyte in Spring 1945Robert Avrett and E. Hoffman Price, who with Leiber contributed to Weird Tales, also had works published in that issue of The Acolyte. Thomas G.L. Cockcroft, indexer of weird fiction and weird verse, also contributed, in his case, a drawing.
(2) The name Moreland (more land) may or may not be ironic for a story of the Second World War.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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