In 1962, a little-known professor of English published an important book that demonstrated how the experience of the twentieth century gave the lie to the misplaced optimism of the nineteenth century…
From Utopia to Nightmare by Chad Walsh (Harper Collins, 1962)
Almost no one remembers Chad Walsh anymore. Our loss. A professor of English at Beloit College for much of his professional career, Walsh knew C.S. Lewis well, even writing the cover story for the famous essay in Time magazine on that profound Inkling in 1947. This essay alone introduced thousands upon thousands of readers to the Christian apologist.
Two years later, Walsh wrote the first book published about Lewis, and he even described a then-relatively-unknown friend of Lewis: the Oxford don, J.R.R. Tolkien.
A published poet, Walsh also became an Episcopal priest after meeting Lewis, inspired, it seems, by the Anglo-Irishman’s faith and theological acumen. Walsh’s poems, often quite religious, appeared in a variety of journals, including the Saturday Review and the Sewanee Review.
Though it would be impossible to label (precisely) Walsh politically, he tended to hold strongly humanist as well as liberal (nineteenth-century classical liberal as well as New Deal liberal) views. I mention this now as it becomes important in some of his books of literary criticism.
While all Walsh’s works should be remembered—especially by the humanists of The Imaginative Conservative—one of his best books, From Utopia to Nightmare, came out in 1962 from the English press, Geoffrey Bles. While most of the first half of the book offers what has become a rather standard survey and history of utopian and dystopian literature, the second half of the book presents some significant insights into the nature of humanity in an ideological age. Justly hard on the Nazi horrors, Walsh is a little too soft on the Communists, still hoping in 1962 that they might exist as an unfortunate but intermediary stage between Tsarism and democracy. While this seems incredibly naive to me, I can forgive the author, but mostly because his writing seems so perceptive otherwise. So, let’s leave this poor judgment aside for the time being.
It’s not until chapter nine (out of thirteen) that Walsh’s true gifts emerge in From Utopia to Nightmare. Though each page up to this point presents some powerful ideas and witticisms, it’s in chapter nine that Walsh brings his considerable reading and knowledge into a coherent form of timeless wisdom.
A reasonable (not “knee-jerk”) patriot of Western civilization, Walsh humorously notes that it is the West—and the West alone—that originated the footnote, one of the great contributions to humanity. Not only does the footnote acknowledge genius and hard work, but it also allows the writer and scholar to unveil inconsistencies in his own arguments and in those of others. While those who remember Walsh usually identify him with C.S. Lewis, it would not be inappropriate to recognize his wit as more akin, at times, to G.K. Chesterton’s.
Walsh believes that the experience of the twentieth century gave the lie to the misplaced optimism of the nineteenth century. “When I say utopia has failed, I mean simply that the twentieth century has cruelly disappointed the expectations of the nineteenth century.” Crucially, Walsh argues that our Western views of evolution radically and fundamentally have shaped our views of utopia and dystopia. In the beginning (Darwin, not Genesis), evolutionary theory precipitated euphoric views and seemingly unlimited possibilities of and for the human condition. By the 1930s, though, we had come to see its vast and seemingly impenetrable limitations. Our optimism not only faltered, but it nearly collapsed completely. In one telling moment, Walsh explains how his first generation of students could not in any way, shape, or form understand the darkness of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” By the 1950s, however, “The Waste Land” seemed almost tame, at least to a much more jaded and wary generation of students.
If Walsh’s naivety about communism and the Left appears at all, it does so in his longing for the return of the lost innocence of the progressives of his youth. After all, he asks, why would any sensible person oppose “peace, social justice, diffusion of culture among the masses, democracy, the rights of the individual, plenty to eat, health, long life”? If nothing else, Walsh laments with some rather obvious nostalgia, his students of the late 1950s and early 1960s no longer believed that man could leave his “apeness” behind and evolve past the mere status of primate. Such a view deeply saddened Professor and Reverend Walsh.
In perhaps the most power moment of From Utopia to Nightmare, Walsh asks—again in a very Chestertonian manner—how we can readily distinguish the good from the ill? We all love literacy, but not if it leads to reading Mein Kampf. We all love science, unless we live in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in late 1945. We all love medicine, but not if it preserves only the body and not also the mind.
We all question the good and the bad of a thing. But few of us, Walsh reminds his readers, have the words to articulate such fears, reservations, and qualms. The dystopian, as well as the utopian, writers give voice to our greatest concerns as well as our greatest hopes.
It is best, Walsh claims, to think of the writers of dystopias as modern-day equivalents of Old Testament prophets. “I submit in addition that many of the dystopian writers are the prophets of our times,” he claims. “I use the word prophet in something of its biblical sense, to mean one who observes society, evaluates it in accordance with principles he considers eternal and offers messages of warning where he sees is going astray.” Should such prophets arise today, they “would be writing and publishing inverted utopias.” An Aldous Huxley or a George Orwell? After all, “for one person whose armor of self-deception is penetrated by pulpit preaching, there must be a dozen who have been pierced by 1984 or Brave New World.”
A confession on Walsh’s part, perhaps doubting his own abilities as a homilist? Perhaps. I must admit, though, that I’m not sure the anarchist Orwell or the drug-addled Huxley would agree. But, I take the author’s point.
Most critically for Walsh, though, is not the loss of optimism but the loss of faith in human free will. With the failures of Western civilization, the rising jaded generations, and the prevalence of war, we have come to accept our fate.
As such, our fate will be our fate. Especially should we choose not to choose.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.