By Kathryn Joyce
“Back in 1985 [Margaret Atwood] was highly amused by the initial reactions to her Orwellian novel. In Britian they said, ‘Jolly good yarn.’ In Canada, ‘Could it happen here?’ In America, ‘How long have we got?’” –Paul Bentley, A Handmaid’s Diary
In my father’s favorite dark fantasy he is Mr. Mead of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Pedestrian”: persecuted for walking alone at night without purpose instead of watching television, as everyone else does in a disturbingly-familiar authoritarian state of the future. That Bradbury’s dystopia sounds a lot like Westchester, where my father grew up, or any other suburb, is of course the real chill — an intended one, one of recognition. As with other morality tales, this slice of gospel is multi-purpose: useful, if hysterical, counsel against watching too much TV, but also a field guide for identifying the portents in the nightly news. Ecological and political disasters, widespread suspicion of corruption (a recent poll numbers U.S. citizens who trust the government at a scant 15-36% of the population), apprehension of myriad new world orders: These are the bad winds shifting in the background footage, pushing dirt and rustling leaves.
That’s how it will happen, my father jokes, with morbid assurance. To a great extent I agree with him, having inherited both the temperament and the world view. It’s not militia-minded or conspiracy theorist so much as the result of reading the type of novel that makes it onto “great books” lists. Such secular literature provides an eschatology like any other. There are sides to choose, tribulations to endure and numerous last stands, large and small; the fear that animates such tales is cousin, of some indeterminate degree, to that other apocalypse, the attention-grabbing star of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series and its arguably lesser-known inspiration, The Book of Revelation according to John.
This set of end-time prophesies is so popular, so prevalent, and perceived as so darkly apt that the texts they’re culled from have become holy books in their own right: Aldous Huxley’s hedonistic Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, about a theocracy wherein women exist for breeding alone, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and, of course, Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984, in which War is Peace and truth is shot down “The Memory Hole.” The world gone wrong is one of society’s favorite stories to tell about itself, and dystopian literature makes for mighty good metaphor.
For nearly every media mention of biblical apocalypse, in politics, presidents or literature, there’s a corresponding reference to the gospel of dystopia, most notably the book of Orwell: accusations of “American Newspeak” are lobbed from both ends of the political spectrum, at both “politically correct” terminology and more recent constructs like “Homeland Security,” “Patriot Act,” and “Enduring Freedom”; Russ Kick, author of the acclaimed website The Memory Hole, which published early Abu Ghraib photos, takes name and mission from 1984, salvaging “disappeared” information; and the National Council of Teachers of English is sponsoring a “1984 + 20” “nationwide discussion” this October, on the “use of manipulative language as a tool for sculpting public policy.” Movies such as Fahrenheit 9-11 and I, Robot owe their titles to the genre; Robert Pappas’s just-released media documentary, Orwell Rolls in His Grave, which rides in on the tag-line, “1984 is no longer a date in the future,” is so full of Orwellian quotations that its effect is almost that of a split-screen comparison between the fictitious world and our own. There are the same heroes — doomed iconoclasts, struggling nonetheless because one should strive to die on one’s feet. As suggested by the draft title of 1984, “The Last Man in Europe,” it’s a romantic genre.
It is also a deeply religious genre, as Erika Gottlieb, author of Dystopian Fiction East and West, suggests. Though Gottlieb labels dystopian literature a “post-Christian genre,” her exploration of it rests on the familiar structure of a morality play. In the secular version, divine judgment is replaced by humanity’s salvation or damnation by society itself. “Salvation is represented as a just society governed by worthy representatives chosen by an enlightened people; damnation, by an unjust society, a degraded mob ruled by a power-crazed elite.” In other words, as in the Bible, the world gets what it deserves.
Also as in the Bible, there is redemption for the world, but it comes only after a long storm. Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, describes the findings of W. Warren Wagar in his study of end-of-the-world literature. “Two-thirds of the examples posit a future different from the destroyed present. Many of the rest predict a cyclical return to a lost past. Only one fiction in six is genuinely a ‘dead end.’”
Atwood’s and Orwell’s novels exemplify this masochistic optimism. Both promise that things will get better, but only after they get much worse. In both, salvation is revealed by appendices written hundreds of years after the books’ time-periods, in a future of the future when the horrors described can be coolly examined by a reasonable, advanced group of anthropologists. Their testimony is possible because things got better, but only after the dystopias ran their courses. 1984’s protagonist, Winston Smith, and Atwood’s nameless handmaid are vindicated — saved — by posterity. In the span of their actual lives they are hapless martyrs, sacrificed as it were, for the sins of society which allowed the dystopia to come into being, and to make possible society’s eventual rebirth.
Margaret Atwood — inspired and terrified by Orwell at an early age — saw a race in the 20th century, “between two versions of man-made hell”: Orwell’s and Huxley’s. “With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,” she writes, “it seemed for a time that Brave New World had won — from henceforth, state control would be minimal, and all we would have to do was go shopping and smile a lot… But with 9/11, all that changed. Now it appears we face the prospect of two contradictory dystopias at once — open markets, closed minds — because state surveillance is back again with a vengeance…tacitly legitimizing the methods of the darker human past, upgraded technologically and sanctified to our own uses, of course. For the sake of freedom, freedom must be renounced. To move us towards the improved world — the utopia we’re promised — dystopia must first hold sway.”
If, as Richard Hofstadter wrote in his celebrated essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the style borrows much from apocalyptic or millennial sensibilities, the secular counterpart to apocalypse also lends itself to a political outlook, a dystopian style whose champions are “always manning the barricades of civilization.” As for the paranoid right-wingers and McCarthyites of Hofstadter’s era, the dystopians’ “enemy” is not only starkly evil, but also invested with “vast and terrifying,” “gigantic and demonic” power. Such an enemy of course cannot be defeated and so the dystopian must place his hope in the reasoning and judgments of a better future.
Like this: “Anthropologists are going to dig us up and they’re not going to understand us,” Michael Moore warns in Orwell Rolls in His Grave. “And we’ve made a mistake — we left a record of ourselves. Oh, we’re going to look like assholes. We’d better leave a note behind to explain our actions.” A presumably liberal audience cheers, comforted by the thought of looking “like assholes.” It will be a kind of victory.
If I was there, I’d applaud too. I was raised on the last-stand religion just like the rest of America. As a culture, writes feminist theologian Catherine Keller in Apocalypse Now and Then, we have an “apocalypse habit.” Not just Christian fundamentalists but liberals and leftists as well. John’s Revelation has historically held a special attraction for the downtrodden as a description of anti-imperialist struggle, and the promise of eventual justice. The problem is that it’s hard to “sustain resistance to destruction without expecting to triumph.” “[We] see ourselves (or perhaps others) as innocent victims, and hope for ultimate vindication, and are soon disillusioned with the prospects…We wish for messianic solutions and end up doing nothing, for we get locked into a particularly apocalyptic either/or logic — if we can’t save the world, then to hell with it.”
By itself, fear isn’t a very lasting motivation for change. But “the apocalypse pattern,” as Keller calls it, is simultaneously deeply-rooted and close to the surface. Hofstadter writes that while certain religions, national inheritances and historical catastrophes may better prime a culture for the paranoid style, the circumstance that best encourages the paranoid tendency is “a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.”
But many in this country do see irreconcilable differences — there seem to be more binaries of America than can be kept track of: secular and devout, pro-choice and pro-life, pro-peace and pro-war. There’s nothing that we won’t allow to divide us, and even with nothing we’d find a way.
“The situation becomes worse,” Hofstadter continues, “when the representatives of a particular social interest…are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find that their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.” And the shutting out from power of an increasing number of American citizens is a plain fact about both government insularity and media control through consolidation, as shown in Pappas’s film. In other words, to paraphrase Woody Allen, just because they’re dystopians doesn’t mean that the world, as it stands, isn’t screwed.
Jeff Dickson, writing about the incredible potency of War of the Worlds, proposed that the public’s credulity in it was not based solely on the merits of the story. There was also “the power of the medium itself to influence the imagination, not to mention the eagerness of the human psyche to accept such a nightmarish scenario as gospel, with very little prompting or hesitation.” A predisposition to the “apocalypse habit.”
My own favorite nightmare comes from Atwood’s description of the last days before America became the dystopian “Republic of Gilead.” “It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control. I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen? That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching their television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on. Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.”
The trick is harnessing that feeling before there is need for any last stands, that is, before it comes.
Kathryn Joyce is managing editor of The Revealer. Her last essay for the site was “Re-Branding Revolution.”