Tuesday, May 20, 2014

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

More on the Totalitarian Monster

It seems to me that there are three conditions necessary for the rise of totalitarianism: mass movements, a removal of all restraints, especially any belief in God or the soul, and most importantly, an animating idea. The nineteenth century provided those conditions. The twentieth put them into action. The result was a period of extraordinary violence and destruction, especially in the period from 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, to the 1970s, when Mao died and the Soviet Union went into rapid decline.

The totalitarians of the twentieth century did all the things monsters do. They threatened and terrified us. They invaded our homes, like Grendel breaking into Heorot. They waged war against us, like the forces of Sauron waged war against elf, human, and Hobbit. Totalitarians murdered, maimed, mutilated, imprisoned, starved, tortured, and even ate us. They gassed us, shot us, drowned us, burned us, and cooked us in ovens. They collected our teeth, hair, glasses, and artificial limbs like trophies, piling them in middens the way a monster piles bones at his doorstep. A great deal of the violence and destruction of the twentieth century came at the hands of four men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Their politics are irrelevant, for when you are lined up in front of a ditch, you don't ask whether the bullet fired into your brain comes from a fascist or communist, a leftist or reactionary. The effect is the same.

Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy, was famous for his villains: Pruneface, Flattop, The Mole, Little Face, The Brow, Influence, etc. Each is uglier than the next and for good reason: Gould made them physically ugly to express the ugliness of their souls. Dick Tracy made its debut in 1931 when everyone knew the mugs and monikers of Depression-era gangsters. Most of those criminals were shot or imprisoned by 1940. By then, there was another rogue's gallery to take their place, for like the villains in Dick Tracy and like the monsters of nightmare and folklore, totalitarians were ugly as their souls were ugly: Hitler, with his flatulence, halitosis, and unspeakable sexual perversion, moreover, with his array of psychoses, neuroses, and profound personality problems, all of which led to mass murder and Götterdämmerung; rat-faced Goebbels, among whose many crimes were the murders of his own children; jowly, corpulent, arrogant, self-important Goering; bulging-eyed, neurotic, murderous Himmler. Communists were not much different. Mao never in his life brushed his teeth. He consumed young women like some people eat potato chips and had millions starved and murdered for the sake of his system. Stalin, building the cult of his own personality, maintained a manikin-like public face, almost like his mummified mentor, Lenin. And like Lenin, totalitarians were preserved as if they might survive their own deaths, like the god-kings of ancient Egypt; or as if they should remain objects of veneration, like relict saints; or as if they--like the monstrous undead--might one day return from the grave. Thankfully, their brand of totalitarianism is in retreat. But the totalitarian impulse remains.

To be continued . . . 

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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