…[W]e can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at great nightfall, took the loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.
– Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley, 1954
Whittaker Chambers, never the most optimistic of chaps at the party, once famously quipped that when he joined Christianity, conservatism, and the West against his old communist cohorts, he was joining the losing side of history. When he wrote to a young William F. Buckley in 1954 telling him that Western civilization was already a wreck from within and that the task was now largely no more than one of collecting and hiding remnants for some unknown future generation to discover, he captured a spirit that has occasionally kept us all going during dark days of teaching or trying to get published.
I have been doing a lot of reading in dystopian political literature recently and have been struck by a uniting theme that Chambers would recognize and appreciate. Author after author working in the field of “political science fiction” (if there is such a genre) have found the same mechanism for undermining gnostic governments, totalitarian dictators, and corrupt cultures. At just the right moment, a book is found, a remnant is uncovered, a song heard anew and the light breaks through from a distant and lost past to transform the world.
Winston’s view of Big Brother begins to crumble under the power of an old junk shop, an old song, a little notebook, a pretty piece of glass that seems to have no utilitarian function. “The Ancient House” left standing inside the green wall fires the imagination and leads D-503 to an older, more organic, more human world beyond. The chance conversation of a playful boy with the jester-of-a-king creates an Adam Wayne capable of defending home and rekindling a local patriotism of resistance to the utilitarian, centralized, and bureaucratic world beyond. A buried subway station from the “Unmentionable Times” contains manuscripts and strange technology that have long been lost to the age of conformity and Equality 7-2521 is transformed.
It is no mere coincidence that at the center of the work of dictators, totalitarians, Gnostics, ideological multiculturalists, communists, and collectivists is the abolition of questions. Here, as in so much of life, art imitates experience. Children must be conditioned against books and entertained by ever-improved technology and drugs to protect the stability of the Brave New World. The Simpletons must destroy all books, readers, and knowledge in retribution for the great Flame Deluge. Instead of putting out fires, in Ray Bradbury’s imagination firemen become the men who burn books. The beast called the DWEM is to be pushed out of the curriculum in order to make room for heroines and writers that are more suitable to the new age under construction. “Service Learning” is treated as the equivalent of traditional methods of learning that once used books, writing, discussions, and intellectual effort.
Old books contain ideas dangerous for the modern utilitarian impulse. Old ideas, old poems, old songs, old houses, old stories, dead heroes, all carry images dangerous to the smugness of the modern dream. The skills of the dead threaten our chronological snobbery. With T. S. Eliot, the modern creators of dystopian utopias seem to understand, “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” It is that old copy of Shakespeare found in the trunk in the desert of New Mexico that forms the worldview of John the Savage and permits him the emotions necessary to be repulsed by the civilization built upon the worship of “Our Ford.”
And here we have our conclusion. It is not some ungrounded dream of the future that holds the saving grace for a withered civilization. Salvation will not come from a distant hope or feel-good psychology. It is not teaching our children to be successful in the world as it is that will offer them the tools to make something better. Culture can be protected or reclaimed, freedom guaranteed or regained, because memory has not been lost. It is the transcribed book, the unappreciated lecture, the retelling of stories, the remembering of heroes, the resuscitating power of new scholarship that are the most effective efforts we can make in the service of our values, our country, our culture.
In this way, the teaching and writing of history is the larder against the day when the forces of amnesia will reign. The dystopian literary tradition of the last century provides many examples of the power of the preserved idea, the rediscovered memory, the discovered memorabilia. Our history teachers, our literature teachers, our political scientists and philosophers all share in the responsibility of preservation and recovery. It is not enough just to earn tenure. We should consider how what we do serves our students and might serve some future citizens groping for evidence that life could be different. Perhaps we could all benefit from a new scale for measuring the importance of what we do—one measured in decades and centuries rather than the few years until the next sabbatical or promotion.
I hope the reader will forgive me if this little review strikes them as a bit depressing. One seems always to have to be optimistic, the happy warrior, these days. But, I hope I will be forgiven. After all, I am reading dystopian novels and so can’t be blamed for being a bit in a funk. Who could be anything but depressed to hear a drunken and broken Winston whisper that he loved Big Brother? Though, no worries. John the Savage’s end will not be my model. For mine, I will take the good monks of the Order of Leibowitz. In their dark age, they preserved and proliferated what they could with the faith that someday, perhaps long in the future, someone would have need for them and desire evidence that life could be different.
As teachers and scholars, it is our job to preserve and promote the good, true and beautiful as well as to get tenure, isn’t it? Perhaps you will find, as I have of late, that “political” literature is a very effective way to reach our students with ideas and images that do not come and go as the flies of summer. But, that is another story for another day.
Books Referenced in this post:
G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (1924)
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931)
Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938)
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)