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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lord of the World, XIII: Unstuck in Time

Properly speaking, The Dawn of All is not one of Benson’s “sensational novels,” except, perhaps, to a rabid anti-Catholic who would be incensed at the description of an admittedly fantastic (in the sense of fantasy) Catholic England in the enlightened twentieth century. Rather, the novel is something of an addendum to Lord of the World, an effort to correct the general misimpression the public had gained of the earlier work.

Prophecy, Blueprint...or Satire?
In The Dawn of All, Benson seems to have tried to go as far as he possibly could in the opposite direction that he did in Lord of the World.  Believing that the situation in Lord of the World was completely ridiculous (however much we might think today’s world resembles that dystopia), Benson countered the ridiculous (to him) idea of a completely secular State, with the (to him) absolutely ludicrous idea of a completely religious State.

The utterly fantastic is present from the start, and seems to have set Benson laughing from the very beginning.  He almost seems to have been playing a joke on the people who insisted on taking Lord of the World a little too seriously.  “Prophecy?  You want prophecy?” he seems to be saying.  “Take this even more outrageous story and see if you can swallow it.”

Think otherwise?  Try this on for size:

London, 1973?
Using a technique suggestive of Billy Pilgrim’s unsettling affliction in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969) an apostate priest dying in or about 1910 suddenly finds himself with no memory — and a promotion to the Monsignori — sitting on a platform during an ecclesiastical ceremony in London in the year 1973.  No explanation or anything.  Poof.  He’s there.

This time travel device seems to have fascinated Evelyn Waugh, who seems to have appreciated Benson’s sense of humor and satiric touch. Waugh used it to good effect in his short story, “Out of Depth.”

"Unstuck in time, you say?"
Waugh’s version, which may have inspired Vonnegut’s use of the plot device, centers on a “modern” Americanized Englishman of 1933. The protagonist is appropriately named “Rip” Van Winkle. This might have been Waugh’s way of emphasizing that the man was already “dead” in a social or spiritual sense — “R.I.P.” — in addition to recalling Washington Irving’s character.

Paralleling Benson’s apostate priest, Van Winkle is a lapsed Catholic completely unaware of reality. He drifts (or sleeps?) through life in a haze of trivial social engagements. Where Benson’s apostate was dying, Waugh’s layman was already dead — spiritually and intellectually, anyway.

At a party Rip becomes involved with an obvious clone of the notorious Aleister Crowley, the Satanist and New Age theosophist who attempted to revive paganism and “magick” in the twentieth century, ending up insane. Rip is duped into being a guinea pig for an occult investigation. As a result, he finds himself 500 years in the future.

Streets uh Lunnon, A.D. 2433
The English are savages. London (“Lunnon”) is a single row of fifty or so wattle and daub huts on stilts over a Thames mudflat. The Londoners’ chief occupation is digging in the ruins and collecting trinkets to exchange for the cloth, axes, and glass beads of the civilized African traders. African missionaries valiantly attempt to civilize the English barbarians and convert them to Catholicism.

One of Waugh’s satiric twists is to make the African missionaries Dominicans. Thus, instead of white men dressed in black preaching to black men, he has black men dressed in white preaching to white men.

Aleister Crowley, New Age Guru
When Rip wakes to the present of the 1930s, returned as a result of assisting at Mass, he abjures his esoteric adventures and returns to the sacraments.  Interestingly, Waugh’s early novel, Black Mischief (1932), has a naïve African ruler implementing programs that many people think of as “Catholic social teaching,” but which are actually derived from New Age versions of socialism — Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 “New Age Guide to Economics,” anyone?

Waugh’s story “Out of Depth” was clearly inspired by Benson’s novel. The themes are identical, except that Waugh was dealing on the individual level, while Benson was exploring the social effect of a return to the sacraments or conversion to Catholicism by an entire society. Both “Out of Depth” and The Dawn of All end with the protagonists asking to go to confession — and neither of them quite sure whether the whole thing has been a dream.