Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lord of the World

Lord of the World
© 1908 Robert Hugh Benson
352 pages



At the turn of the 21st century, war between the states of Europe and the East threatens; at the midnight hour, however, comes an obscure American politician, a senator of no fame, whose cosmopolitan charm allows him to calm the troubled diplomatic waters and prevent a century of peace and prosperity from being overturned by strife.  Hailed as a savior, the rising star becomes a pivotal figure in world affairs – but the epitome of modernity, this senator has a far darker role to play in cosmic history. He is the Antichrist, and his triumph means the end of the world is at hand.

Published in 1908, Lord of the World is a piece of Catholic fiction driven by conflict between Christian tradition and modernity. The prevailing drives of the 19th century seem to have achieved fruition in Lord of the World; democracy has triumphed over monarchy, social programs and psychology over religion, and --   in general – the material over the spiritual. Europeans across the board are irreligious, with the exception of what is left of the Catholic church, concentrated in Ireland and the City of Rome.  There is a religious sentiment alive in the Europeans, a worship of the human soul, a sense of human beings as divine; this ‘humanitarian’ religion achieves deliberate expression when the American becomes President of Europe and institutes, French-revolution like, a Cult of the Supreme Being – a Cult of the Human.  Initially harmless, it quickly becomes the state religion, mandatory and supreme. Catholic resistance is answered by the obliteration of  Rome, and a new pope-in-exile flees to Judea, there to await the end.
Although the depiction of an Antichrist figure and the ‘Endtimes’ may bring to mind thoughts of the Left Behind series. Lord of the World is far better done.  Each viewpoint character struggles with self-doubt; even the man who ends as Pope begins questioning his own faith.  The spirit of Antichrist is patently seductive;  this 'dystopia' is a progressive dream-world,almost like Star Trek's Earth but without warp drive. But whereas Star Trek's humans have a 'more evolved sensibility'*, Lord of the World's humans are just like us; imperfect.  When a few disturbed individuals mount another failed Guy Fawkes plot against the center of the new cult, Westminister Abbey, the new European president' response, and that of his followers, is far from humane. Violence fills the streets, and a vicious persecution of all remaining Christians ensues.  Simply 'believing in themselves' did nothing to better the people of Earth; it is in fact their perfect faith in themselves that makes them so vicious. Utterly convinced that their cause is righteous,  those who oppose the dream count for nothing, and no action against them is beyond the pale.  Even as the world at large becomes increasingly awestruck by the dear leader's accomplishments, the most idealistic of the viewpoint characters find their faith in him shaken by his cold-blooded savagery.

A century after its publication, Lord of the World seems in part prophetic. Christianity has waned fast in Europe, and rampant consumerism abounds worldwide.. Moderns chase material hopes instead of spiritual succor, ignoring practical philosophy and religion alike for the distracting allure of stuff. From Benson's point of view, however, the west today is not as in as dangerous a position as the west of his book; we are in no danger of being fulfilled. Every commercial and every election reveal our constant frustration and dissatisfaction;  Benson's dread was a drowsy contentedness with the way things are that masks spiritual hunger, something definitely not present in our own lives.  The meat of Lord is not hackneyed attempts to force current events into the poetic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures, or  action movie thriller antics like the Left Behind novels, but soul-searching. While Benson's Antichrist allows everyone to reassure themselves of man's moral perfectibility, his Christian characters understand human nature as frail. When an English priest  arrives in the City of Rome, where many of the trappings of modernity are kept outside the city walls to preserve the interior, he breaths a sigh of relief at the messiness of it:

Yet Percy, even in the glimpses he had had in the streets, as he drove from the volor station outside the People's Gate, of the old peasant dresses, the blue and red-fringed wine carts, the cabbage-strewn gutters, the wet clothes flapping on strings, the mules and horses -- strange though these were, he had found them a refreshment. It had seemed to remind him that man was human, and not divine as the rest of the world proclaimed -- human, and therefore careless and individualistic; human, and therefore occupied with interests other than those of speed, cleanliness, and precision.

Rome's Christianity assures the priest that while he is not perfect, he does not need to be. Human redemption does not stem from machine-perfect order.   Just as The Iron Heel put forth numerous arguments for a democratic-socialist state in the context of a revolution against corporate rule,  Lord's searching sets two different perspectives about human nature against one another; one, optimistic but unyielding; the other, pessimistic but forgiving.  The moral discussion is the heart of the book, though there are minor points of interest for those interested in comparing 'futurist' or alternate histories. Aspects of it are very dated, like the heavy use of zeppelins and telegraphs, and Benson's belief that total command economies would triumph is not dissimilar to H.G. Wells and Jack London's futurecasting, though he's more skeptical about its merits. One peculiarity of this being Catholic fiction is the fusion of the church's foes -- Freemasonry and Marxism have merged here, and Mason lodges have taken over most churches.  I don't know if anyone takes the freemasons as seriously as the Catholic church does, with the exception of the freemasons themselves.

Lord of the World is an altogether different 'endtimes' story, more theologically driven than driven on action.  It is far more humane than 1984 or Brave New World -- whereas those and other dystopias invent worlds where the human spirit has been utterly crushed by systems, in Lord things are more promising. Man is far from God, yes, but not abandoned; unlike those thrillers, where man is left alone to fight against a machine beyond his fathoming, the persecuted Christian remnant awaiting salvation in Nazareth have the hope of resurrection;   God is with them throughout the struggle; as St. Paul noted, even if they die it will be to their gain; even if the world perishes, it will be reborn anew.

For me, Lord is provoking, finding as I do some limited appeal in both temperaments.  Believing in one's self, one's own power is invigorating, and yet it is all too easy to become self-righteous or fatigued by the challenge.  On the other hand,  there is a certain comfort in accepting that one will never be perfect, and such an attitude can lapse into chronic indulgence and excuse-making. Either way, there's a lot of food for thought.





* Star Trek: First Contact

3 comments:

  1. What a strange find. How did you come across it?

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  2. I believe it was mentioned in "Race with the Devil" during a chapter on various books that intrigued the author. When I saw Amazon offering a free version of it, I figured -- why not?

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  3. Free stuff is cool. Why not indeed!

    ReplyDelete