The first great dystopian writers of the twentieth century came from upstanding British families. Arguably the first twentieth-century dystopian, Robert Hugh Benson was the third son of E.W. Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1882-1896). Following the wishes of his father, Robert took holy orders as an Anglican priest, but, much to the shock of Britain, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1903. Before he passed away in 1914, Robert wrote and published a shockingly enormous number of children’s works, devotionals, articles, plays, hagiographies, historical and contemporary novels, and science fiction.1 The Lord of the World, Benson’s science fiction masterpiece, first appeared in print in 1907. He must have realized that nothing quite like it—with the exception of the last few pages of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—had ever appeared in print. He prefaced it, tellingly, with the warning: “I am perfectly aware this is a terribly sensational book.”2 And, of course, in the very peaceful and idyllic Edwardian age of 1907, it was.
By 1917, however, it would appear as romantic longing for a lost world, so much had the Great War changed the world. More than romantic, it would appear prophetic, akin to Cardinal Newman’s vision of a ravaged world from the previous century. Lord of the World envisions an earth run by an unholy alliance, or fusion, of Free Masons and Communists. Benson’s Communists though, appear rather tame after the innumerable atrocities of their real life counterparts from Bolshevik Revolution through the present. In the novel, they seem more like Swedish hot-tub socialists than those who would run the Soviet gulags merely a decade later. The Catholic Church still exists in Lord of the World, but belief has faltered dramatically, and most of the dissidents of the world live in what was once Italy, now a reservation. In fact, every dissident of every stripe resides somewhere near the ancient city of Rome. Unlike most societies depicted in dystopias, the Free Mason-Communists do well for themselves, and their economy prospers. They have, they believe, created a “New Humanity,” as “external facts were horribly strong just now; and faith, except to one who had learned that Will and Grace were all and emotion nothing, was as a child crawling about in the midst of some huge machinery.”3 To capture the imagination of the population, the Communist-Free Masons take the form of the Mass and replace the essence of the sacramental proceedings with secular ones. Rather than worshipping the Divine, the new Mass seeks to divinize humanity.
Life was the one fount and centre of it all, clad in the gorgeous robes of ancient worship. Of course the thought had been Felsenburgh’s, though a German name had been mentioned. It was Positivism of a kind, Catholicism without Christianity, Humanity worship without its inadequacy. It was not man that was worshipped but the Idea of man, deprived of his supernatural principle. Sacrifice, too, was recognised–the instinct of oblation without the demand made by transcendent Holiness upon the blood-guiltiness of man…. In fact,–in fact, said Percy, it was exactly as clever as the devil, and as old as Cain.4
Such transformations inverted the entire meaning of the Mass, providing the art and liturgy of what once has been transcendently sacred. Only in Rome could one be reminded “that man was human, and not divine, as the rest of the world proclaimed—human, and therefore careless and individualistic; human, and therefore occupied with interests other than those of speed, cleanliness, and precision.” The rest of humanity in Benson’s world has been mechanized and homogenized, voided of all personality.
Once, in the early ages, Satan’s attack had been made on the bodily side, with whips and fire and beasts; in the sixteenth century it had been on the intellectual side; in the twentieth century on the springs of moral and spiritual life. Now it seemed as if the assault was on all three planes at once. But what was chiefly to be feared was the positive influence of Humanitarianism: it was coming, like the kingdom of God, with power; it was crushing the imaginative and the romantic, it was assuming rather than asserting its own truth; it was smothering with bolsters instead of wounding and stimulating with steel or controversy. It seemed to be forcing its way, almost objectively, into the inner world. Persons who had scarcely heard its name were professing its tenets; priests absorbed it, as they absorbed God in Communion—he mentioned the names of the recent apostates–children drank it in like Christianity itself. The soul “naturally Christian” seemed to be becoming “the soul naturally infidel.” Persecution, cried the priest, was to be welcomed like salvation, prayed for, and grasped; but he feared that the authorities were too shrewd, and knew the antidote and the poison apart. There might be individual martyrdoms–in fact there would be, and very many—but they would be in spite of secular government, not because of it.5
Though more overtly religious, Benson anticipates much of what Humanists such as Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More would soon bring into the academic realm. Never before had the Catholic so dramatically possessed the choice between the City of God and the City of Man.
The two Cities of Augustine lay for him to choose. The one was that of a world self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient, interpreted by such men as Marx and Herve, socialists, materialists, and, in the end, hedonists, summed up at last in Felsenburgh. The other lay displayed in the sight he saw before him, telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal from which all sprang and to which all moved. One of the two, John and Julian, was the Vicar, and the other the Ape, of God.6
Lord of the World ends in mass destruction, as the Free Mason Communists launch a full Zeppelin attack on Rome, leveling the reservation with city-cracker bombs, ushering in the Apocalypse as foreseen by St. John the Revelator.
This essay is the third part in a series on dystopian literature.
1 The best work on Benson and his context and age is Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1999), 17-29.
2 Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907; Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, n.d.), preface. In America, it appeared in 1908 through the New York publishing house of Dodd, Mead.
3 Benson, Lord of the World, 37.
4 Benson, Lord of the World, 141.
5 Benson, Lord of the World, 108-109.
6 Benson, Lord of the World, 114.
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