iSelf: Meditations on history and literature

I remember how, to me as a child, the possibility of a conjoined political and metaphysical evil was very real. Of course, I wouldn’t have described it this way at the time, but that’s what it was. Many of my friends’ fathers, uncles, and grandfathers had fought to end the rise of evil in Europe and the spread of Japanese imperialism. My best friend’s father, an army medic, had hit the beach at Normandy on D-Day. My choir teacher had been assigned to a navy detail commissioned with disposing of the dead—both US and Japanese—at Iwo Jima. He told me about the stink of rotting corpses, bodies piled high and incinerated with flamethrowers. But this evil was almost mythological to me, something hidden in an Age of Legends, not likely to ever happen to anyone I knew.

A significant body of literature arose in the first half of the twentieth century that spoke to this kind of evil. One part of it anticipated and interrogated developments in socialism, communism, and unchecked capitalism. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), somewhat humorously, imagines a world dedicated to “community, identity, stability” in the service of hyper-consumerism, self-indulgence, and political stasis. At the other end of the spectrum, in his dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), George Orwell paints a bleak picture of the relationship of the individual to the state wherein the dignity of the human individuality disappears into state collectivism. Predating and to some degree informing both of these books was the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) which was inspired by the author’s experiences of the collectivist project through the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. It is not a flattering portrait

Another school of literature, rather than attempting to depict the ramifications of the ascendency of the evils of state control in imaginative form, sought to analyze just how such power over the masses had become possible, or, in some instances, pointed to the not-so-funny absurdities inherent to such an enterprise. Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind (1953), for instance, examines the gradual and, eventually, complete acquiescence of certain members of Poland’s intelligentsia to state-sponsored careerism and their willing submission to the Communist apparatchik. A product of the Russian version of statist absurdity and cruelty, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s  monumental Gulag Archipelago (written between 1958 and 1968, published in 1973) documents the abuses of a government that could not rule without the threat of imprisonment and punishment and could not exist without a citizenry devoted to social monitoring.

The writings I mention here are only the most often mentioned, though I don’t think they are nearly as often read. Very few of my college students have read any of the books listed here (though, occasionally, I find they have heard of Orwell) and very few have anything remotely similar to the sense for political and metaphysical evil that was familiar to my generation. Indeed, when I have those in my freshman composition classes read an anonymous section from Mein Kampf as a way to help them read an argument critically, I am no longer surprised when I tell them the author was Adolf Hitler that the majority of them are only vaguely familiar with the name.

I cannot blame my students for what they do not know. Such kinds of evil, even if they were aware of them, would seem unreal, something found only in the fiction of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, or J. K. Rowling. Understanding the more subtle manifestations of evil that convinced so many German nationals that Jews were the problem with society, that the individual should be subservient to the state, and that the spread of empire was synonymous with prosperity and peace would be lost on a generation taught that Christians are hypocrites, government programs are here to help, and having an iPad is an intrinsic good. 

Spero columnist Michael Martin teaches English at Marygrove College.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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