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 Day, John 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.