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Monday, March 2, 2015

Lord of the World, XII: Denying Truth

Last week we looked at the foundation of the premise in Robert Hugh Benson’s satiric novel, Lord of the World.  That is, take to its reductio ad absurdum everything that the secular world considers good, such as atheism and the establishment and maintenance of universal wellbeing provided by the State (socialism, whatever it manages to get itself called), and show how the secular utopia would turn into a hell on earth.

It's back.
The book is deliberately sensational, as Benson admitted, and just as deliberately exaggerated. “I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book . . . . But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud.”

Benson’s satire thereby comes across as a club rather than his usual rapier. The characters, the plot, the futuristic machines, the very incidents were simply props to the idea he wanted to convey.  His point was that failure to conform the world to the truth of religion and universal moral values would lead to disaster.

Abp. John Ireland
This was a theme found in the works of Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, with which Benson may have been familiar. Given the general attitude toward religion among the typical member of the English upper classes of his day, this struggle could only go one way — and that is the way Benson took it.

“Where faith goes out, superstition comes in. Man is a worshipping animal, and Humanity-worship, even in Comte’s day, demanded an organized cult.” (Martindale, Life of Robert Hugh Benson, Vol. II, 72.)

The task of conforming one’s self to truth is a theme that pervades all of Benson’s fiction in one form or another. Typically, in Lord of the World Benson used a science fantasy to highlight this theme, prevalent in all of his work. Obsessed with the meaning of life, and his own specific vocation, Benson was wont to agonize whether he was truly answering God’s Call, or simply following his own inclinations. Like the question as to whether one has a soul, perhaps that question is best answered by the fact that one can ask it.

Most people did not understand that Benson was juxtaposing a sound exercise of the virtue of religion with a deluded self-sufficient secularism. His public in England reacted to the novel very negatively at first. In other places, such as Ireland and France, the book proved to be extraordinarily popular, but still misunderstood.

Scene from Ibañez's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
After the near apocalypse of World War I, the book acquired the popularity it enjoys today, and probably for the same misguided reason. To many readers, Lord of the World took on a prophetic character, something that Benson explicitly denied. He intended the novel as a parable, not a future history at all. He was fully aware that the science he posited was impossible and the plot line outrageous. It was, however, the most graphic way possible to present the idea of man vs. God, of human self-delusion confronting ultimate truth. As Martindale observed,

“This, then, is what Benson pictures: humanity consciously refusing the higher kind of life which the Church proclaims to it, and insisting on reaching merely that incredibly lofty goal to which its intrinsic efforts can carry it.” (Ibid., 82-83.)

Apropos of nothing, did you know that Robert Hugh Benson’s mainstream novel, None Other Gods (1911) — of which, judging by reviews, many readers seem to miss the point — influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise (1920)? Of course, there are also allusions to Booth Tarkington, G.K. Chesterton, Richard W. Chambers, H.G. Wells, and Rupert Brooke.

Don’t worry.  We’re almost done.  Tomorrow we introduce yet another misunderstood Benson science fiction satire, The Dawn of All (1911), an attempt by Benson to correct the misimpressions people got from Lord of the World.