Dystopia and the Voice of Prophecy

The Guardian’s Damien Walter has posted a column this morning entitled “When dystopian fiction became reality TV” in which he notes the uncanny resemblance between our contemporary social reality and the dystopias of earlier science fiction,

Dystopian visions used to present dire warnings of futures to come, now they seem more like pale reflections of reality. Today dystopia is just another category of light entertainment, a marketing niche for ebooks which even has its own channel on Netflix. Is this because we no longer have anything to fear? Or have our dystopian nightmares simply become reality?

Unfortunately, Mr. Walter’s observations are all too brief in the article, and the full meaning of the genre of dystopian literature overlooked.

A literary critic (whose name escapes me presently) once noted something that seemingly had been overlooked by others — that since the First World War, no utopian novels had been published in the English language. In fact, the dominant trend was emphatically dystopian — the most prominent dystopias being Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.  Mr. Walter adds the names of a few others like Stephen King’s The Long Walk, the more recent Hunger Games, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. One could add Ira Levin’s This Perfect DayJohn Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up or, more recently, Minority Report to the list as well. There are quite a few.

There are a few things to note about this trend.

First, the dystopian novel was so “novel” between and after the period 1914 – 1945, that even an insightful social philosopher and critic like Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy seemed utterly confused by it. Bafflingly he lumped Aldous Huxley in with Stalin and Hitler, apparently holding that Brave New World, or other dystopian works by Huxley, were actually utopian proposals and blueprints for reconstructing modern civilisation after the destruction of the World Wars and the Great Depression!  Such was the novelty of dystopian literature.

The second thing to observe about dystopian literature is that it represents a profound disillusionment with the European Enlightenment and the hopes for an “Age of Reason”. The First World War, especially, came as a devastating shock and trauma to the intelligentsia — in fact, to anyone with any sense remaining who hadn’t been made completely numb by the scale of the destruction. The happy optimism expressed by the Enlightenment for “the infinite perfectibility of man” (Condorcet) and the human prospect based on “Universal Reason” dissolved with the Great War, and it was replaced with a pessimistic gloom and despair for the human prospect. Dystopian literature expressed not only a disillusionment with that promise and a disenchantment with rationalism, but also announced the onset of a post-Enlightenment lacuna (now formally designated as “post-modernity”) and fears of another Dark Age in which the values of the Enlightenment period would be either negated or perverted — nihilism, in other words.

The third thing to note about dystopian literature, which may have perhaps been the baffling factor for so many, was that it represents “the Spirit of Prophecy” (Blake) and the voice of prophecy in a scientistic age which denied a place for the prophetic voice, and which found the spirit of prophecy and the prophetic voice acceptable only when it came as a “thief in the night”, as it were — as science fiction. “The Spirit bloweth where it listeth”, and in the case of the secular age, the spirit of prophecy assumed the guise of “science fiction”.

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. — William Blake, There is NO Natural Religion

This is exactly what happened, however, to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The “Poetic and Prophetic”, having been denied and suppressed in the name of “rationality” had to be recovered, and they found and recovered their voice in “novel” ways. Dystopian literature was not recognised as the resumption of the ancient prophetic voice.

Therein lies the confusion about such dystopias and the surprise at how “prescient” they have been. But the real question here is why human beings and society have continued to follow this path to dystopia despite the warnings of the Spirit of Prophecy and the voice of prophecy.

The mental-rational consciousness structure, which is the “modern mind”, did not permit “the Spirit of Prophecy”, as Blake calls it, to appear in its traditional form — as the voice summoning the people back to remembrance of a divine origin and a holy destiny, and the dire consequences of forgetting this origin and destiny. This same spirit of prophecy and voice of prophecy appears in Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra”. But one recognises it as such by the archaic language Nietzsche invoked to summon and represent it.

And what is the response of the people Zarathustra addresses in the marketplace when he, too, calls them to remembrance of a holy destiny — the “Overman”

And here ended the first discourse of Zarathustra, which is also called “The Prologue,” for at this point the shouting and mirth of the multitude interrupted him. “Give us this Last Man, O Zarathustra,” — they called out — “make us into these Last Men! Then will we make you a gift of the Overman!” — Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The thing about dystopias is, of course, that they have the appearance of being utopias, just as something called “dysfunctional” has the appearance of being effective. Here again, I refer to what I call Khayyam’s Caution: “only a hair separates the false from the true” as shadow is inseparable from light, and even a critical mind like Rosenstock-Huessy’s apparently couldn’t discern Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World as other than a blueprint for a post-modern utopia.

I am presently reading Derrick Jensen’s and George Draffan’s Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control. What was once dystopian science fiction or the decadent Nietzschean “Last Man” (or “Ultimate Man” as some have translated it to contrast with “Overman”) has become the social reality without hardly anyone noticing, so it comes as a surprise that Late Modern society has drifted and sleepwalked, unconsciously, into the dark visions of its unrecognised secular prophets.

Socrates, too, had his daemon, and this daemon, too, was the voice and Spirit of Prophecy. The word “daemon” means “messenger”, and is, ironically, the Greek equivalent of Latin “angelus“. The peculiar thing about Socrates’ daemon, it is said, is that this daemon never instructed Socrates in what to do, only in what not to do. It was the voice of “don’t”. And that is the voice of the dystopian novels, too.

Dystopia is the shadow of utopia, and belongs also to what I’ve been referring to as “the Shadow of the Modern Era”. If many contemporary authors now speak of the Modern Era decaying into a new Dark Age (William Irwin Thompson, Jane Jacobs, Morris Berman, and many others I’ve mentioned) it is because of the Shadow, which is the confusion of the image and the reality, the shadow and the light.

To live in the Shadow of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason — that is the dystopia.

 

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8 responses to “Dystopia and the Voice of Prophecy”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    For those interested in the genre of dystopian literature, here is a brief history of the genre

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dystopia

    There is also a list of “dystopian” works organised by century and decade — very intriguing given the aforementioned literary critics comments on the “explosion” of dystopian novels in the 20th century compared to earlier times, and especially in the early years of the 21st century. That list is posted at

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_literature

    and this chronological arrangement is quite suggestive of the mood over the last century, and which seems to be deepening and intensifying

    Now, I think it may need to be pointed out that some of these works are not properly speaking “dystopias” but anti-utopias. In anti-utopias, the situation is bad and virtually everyone knows it is bad. The difference between an anti-utopia and a dystopia is that almost everyone in a dystopia thinks and believes they are living in utopia, but have been engineered or conditioned to think so, and that only one or a handful of other “outsiders” to the system see that it is, in fact, the perversion of an original ideal.

    That’s the key feature of a dystopia — it looks like the realised ideal, but is in fact a perversion. One could say, then, that the utopian ideal of the Enlightenment of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is disproven by the revealed facts of the Occupy Movement — that, in reality, 1% of the population determines the lives of the other 99%, and that despite the facade of democracy, the reality is that it is a plutocracy. There is a belief or appearance of a realised ideal which is, nonetheless, contradicted by “outsiders” to the system, who see that the facts are otherwise than the delusion.

    An anti-utopia is a negation; a dystopia is a perversion.

    By the way, this principle (which is a utopian ideal) of “the greatest good for the greatest number” has created some problems for economists and politicians around the definition of “the greatest good”. The notion of “equal opportunity for all” has been an attempt to resolve the question of “the greatest good” without seeming to impose a definition. Unfortunately, as they say, some are “more equal than others” in opportunities, and to resolve this question once more, attempts to “level the playing field” legislatively have also created a backlash and a political controversy about granting “privileges” and “entitlements” and so on which continue to be a source of class conflict and political inflammation.

    In Nietzsche, the dystopian reality takes the form of the society of the “Last Men” who live in a condition of “miserable ease”, as he puts it. Nietzsche’s dystopia is described in Zarathustra (see section five here: http://faculty.washington.edu/cbehler/teaching/coursenotes/Texts/Zarsel.html )

  2. alexjay says :

    Coincidentally, this article appears today on the same theme … are we witnessing a pre-conditioning to what is in store in the not too distant future. All the signs I read seem to be pointing in that direction.

    Tighten your seatbelt, it’s gonna be a hell of a ride …

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/doomsday-visions-imagining-the-end-times/5357324

    P.S. Having researched the backgrounds of the Huxleys and Orwell, I think Mr.Rosenstock-Heussy’s take may not be that far off the mark?

    • Scott Preston says :

      But both scenarios share the assumption that the track we are on leads to a dangerous dead end.

      So-called “apocalyptic” literature is not quite the same as dystopian, but Guma’s intimations of a new Dark Age are noted in any case. The “dangerous dead end” will be reached, one way or another. The question is whether we have the wit and inner resources to transcend it. To “transcend” is one possible interpretation of the word “sur-vive” — to out live is to over-come.

      For the most part, the thing that leads to dystopian outcomes is the delusion that all our problems will be solved by applied science and technology. Conveniently, those who believe that are relieved of having to take personal responsibility for their lives, or for the necessity of change. These are Nietzsche’s “Last Men”. Those who put their faith in machinery will become little more than machines themselves.

      Human self-loathing is a disease that will be resolved in one way or another, either by self-annihilation or self-transcendence. Either way, it must reach a dead-end.

      Once a society has decided that science and technology will save us, society hands over its will and its future to science and technology, which must assume this political role. In effect, one elects for technocracy. Science and technology are useful servants, but make terrible masters.

      • Abdulmonem says :

        It is better called ,lost men and not last men and still better using the word human to include the second part

    • Scott Preston says :

      Just came across this, which might seem to echo your Guma article from the globalresearch.ca website,

      http://dissidentvoice.org/2013/05/the-end-walking-away-from-apocalypse-with-guy-mcpherson/

  3. Scott Preston says :

    The voice of prophecy, by the way, isn’t “clairvoyance” or fortune-telling — like palm reading or genetic determinism — as it is often mistaken to be. Things like “genetic determinism” have a lot more in common with magical thinking and fortune-telling than they do with prophecy. The prophetic voice always proceeds as “if you follow this course of thought and action, then this will be the outcome”.

    Always in the prophetic voice is the implicit recognition of human freedom and not determinism. The prophetic voice recognises the mutability of “human nature”, and is quite opposed to the conservative idea that “you can’t change human nature”, or that so-called “human nature” is something fixed and immutable. If it were so that this “human nature” were fixed and immutable and incapable of transformation or metamorphosis, the prophetic voice would be futile and useless.

    Deterministic thinking in science and philosophy has actually more in common with magical thinking and things like “fortune-telling” than it does with the prophetic.

  4. alexjay says :

    Much to comment on, in agreement mostly – as usual, but just on this:

    “For the most part, the thing that leads to dystopian outcomes is the delusion that all our problems will be solved by applied science and technology.”

    “The times, they are a changin'” …

    I find it refreshing to have heard quite a few (the wonders of the internet!) institutionally trained scientists today come out of the closet, so to speak, and follow the example of David Bohm to recognise the limitations of their materialist/reductionist corporate funded (tech) indoctrination to reunite spirit with matter. Alchemy (the marriage of the magical and rational – female/male, ying/yang etc.) is making a comeback and the failure to integrate is too dire to contemplate.

    Unless we do, “i see a bad moon arisen” …

  5. LittleBigMan says :

    “make us into these Last Men! Then will we make you a gift of the Overman!” ”

    I firmly believe in this. Reaching the point of “Last Men” is necessary condition for becoming then the “Overman.”

    This is very similar to what don Juan told Carlos Castaneda about “death” as a challenge every embodied personality must meet and overcome. When one day we concur the challenge of “death,” from that day forward, death will stop to challenge us. That is to say, we will then move on to living on other plains of existence as Seth and don Juan did.

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