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Scary Words From the Pope

Monsignor Robert H. Benson: Lord of the World

Lord-of-the-World-Robert-Hugh-Benson

I believe it must be somewhere close to thirty years since I first heard of this book, and thought I’d read it someday. But I didn't get around to it, and might still be not getting around to it, except that Janet Cupo recently recommended it to me, and my wife happened to have loaded a free version (it’s out of copyright) onto her Kindle.

It’s an odd book: an Edwardian sci-fi/religious novel about the coming of the Anti-Christ. Robert Hugh Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury who followed what sounds like a Newman-esque path to Rome. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1895 at the age of 24, and received into the Catholic Church in 1904, he published Lord of the World in 1907, and died at 43 in October of 1914. That last date seems significant, coming only two months after Britain’s entry into the Great War which marked the real beginning of the crisis of the 20th century which the novel anticipates—fairly accurately at the spiritual level, rather less so at the historical.

Taken simply as science or speculative fiction, the work is interesting, though perhaps not enough to make it so for people interested in that element alone. Its imagined future is roughly our own time—I don’t remember the year being specified, but an event of 1998 seems, in context, to have occurred no more than ten or twenty years earlier. Not surprisingly, it has a sort of steampunk quality for the contemporary reader (see here if the term “steampunk” is unfamiliar to you). It’s always interesting to me to see the ways a science-fiction writer’s imagination does or doesn’t guess right about the future which is now our past. Benson does imagine air travel, by machines called “volors,” which have wings that flap and are said to be quite beautiful, making a “startlingly beautiful and piercing” musical cry (for reasons not explained as far as I recall). But these vessels are unable to communicate with each other: Benson gets no further in the direction of electronic communications than the telephone and wireless telegraphy, extant at the time he wrote. So there are no radio or television, but a great deal of paper, with newspapers still the great medium of mass communication, and a great deal of important business that requires transporting letters and documents to and fro. Buildings and roadways make great use of rubber for the purpose of dampening sound, and cities are very quiet places; I believe rubber had only fairly recently come into widespread use in Benson’s time.

He does not imagine the modern personality, with its cynicism, hedonism, and frivolity; his characters are distinctly Edwardian. And, interestingly to me, he shares with a writer who came along fifty years later and also wrote about an imagined future Church—Warren Miller, in A Canticle for Liebowitz—the assumption that the language, rituals, and general style of the pre-Vatican II Church would never change. But he does see quite clearly the spiritual movement which was already under way in his time: the displacement of Christianity (and all similar religion) by the quasi-religion of materialistic humanism with which we are all too well acquainted.

You must remember that Humanitarianism, contrary to all persons’ expectations, is becoming an actual religion itself, though anti-supernatural. It is Pantheism; it is developing a ritual under Freemasonry; it has a creed, ‘God is Man,’ and the rest. It has therefore a real food of a sort to offer to religious cravings; it idealises, and yet it makes no demand upon the spiritual faculties.

“Spiritual but not religious”! Apart from the bit about Masonry, this is pretty much the way things have gone.

Then there is the enormous progress of psychology.... First, you see, there was Materialism, pure and simple, that failed more or less—it was too crude—until psychology came to the rescue. Now psychology claims all the rest of the ground; and the supernatural sense seems accounted for.

The only thing missing from this summary is the introduction of vaguely Eastern ideas and terminology into secular Western consciousness.

There is a prologue which outlines the history of the 20th century, and of course it is all wrong historically—Benson did not foresee that tremendously destructive wars would begin less than a decade after he wrote, or envision the brutal totalitarianism which would soon darken much of the globe. Politically, the world is divided into three parts: America, Europe, and The East. A potentially cataclysmic war is brewing, and it is to intervene in this conflict that the character whom we immediately recognize as the Anti-Christ makes his first appearance.

The Catholic reader can readily imagine the broad course of events that will follow, and I don’t want to give the plot away. I will mention that Benson’s conception of the Anti-Christ involves an explicit and specific correspondence of important characteristics with Christ himself: the Christian vocabulary still has a hold on society, and the Anti-Christ is described and honored as Creator, Redeemer, etc. Whether this has any authority in traditional teaching on this subject or is simply Benson’s speculation, I don’t know. But it’s not what I’ve imagined, which is something and someone with less explicit resemblance to religion, the better to establish itself as being entirely different from religion rather than a mere replacement for it, in the manner of Unitarians meeting on Sunday morning for non-worship.

From the literary point of view, the novel is a mixed bag. It’s very well-written in a Victorian-Edwardian way, but the narrative seems a little clumsy to me, and to lack tension; much of it seems a series of set-pieces and speeches rather than a flow, especially when Felsenburgh, the Anti-Christ figure, appears—there are long, florid, and to my taste unconvincing depictions of his effect on people. And the characters do not, for me, come fully alive. I can’t point to any specific reason for this; it’s something that either happens or does not happen when one reads a novel. Partly because we have a general idea of where things are going, there is a lack of dramatic tension, especially in the first half or so. It was only toward the end, when the fate of specific people is in doubt, that I really felt caught up in the story.

I have my doubts as to whether a non-Catholic would care much for this novel. Its ideas are of greater interest than its literary quality, and those ideas might be inaccessible to a non-Catholic, and indeed obscure to many Protestants, who might not grasp its very specifically Catholic view of the Apocalypse. But many Catholic readers would find it interesting at minimum. Especially if they have a taste for steampunk fiction.

367px-Monsignor_R._H._Benson_in_Oct._1912,_Aged_40

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (Wikipedia biography)

The cover image at the beginning of this piece was located via Google and copied from an interesting-looking site called A Catholic Reader, where you can read another view of Lord of the World as well as a description of another Benson novel, Dawn of All, written in response to Christians who found the former too disheartening (!). I take the image to be an early, if not original, cover.


Embarrassed Update: I had forgotten that Janet had written a full and very good review of this book at her blog. You should definitely read it. Among other things, she tells you a lot more about what actually happens in the book than I do (without giving away anything that would spoil the story).

Comments

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I think its a 'good bad' book, a really enjoyable bad book. Bad as literature but very entertaining for those who share its premises

I wouldn't go quite as far as *bad*, but yeah...sort of a curate's egg, literarily-speaking.

One thing I meant to point out about his imagined future: he sees the Middle East, and Palestine in particular, as a quiet, out-of-the-way, mostly forgotten place.

Dawn of All is my least favorite of his novels.

Actually. there has been quite a bit of that messianic language used about the president, which reminded me of this book. And really, the society in the book had quit using those terms, but they were revived for Felsenburgh.

AMDG

Messianic, yes, but not in such specifically Christian terms, at least as far as I've heard. This book actually points up pretty clearly to me what a distance there is between any of our adored-by-the-masses political figures, whether it's Obama or Hitler (not that I'm saying Obama is in the same class as Hitler!--just that he does have his adorers): they have all been extremely divisive, whereas Felsenburgh brings the world together, except of course for the Catholic part thereof.

Actually what you say about the use of those terms was one of the things I thought was weak: with Christianity pretty much forgotten, it seemed implausible that they would be needed, or would have the emotional power that they did.

Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with you there, but I don't have time to do it now. I know you are crushed.

AMDG

Sounds like something I would love to read. God bless the Msr: "anything worth doing is worth doing badly"!

Disagree with which part, Janet? that that's a weakness?

Yes.

I just added to the post a link to your review, which I'm embarrassed to say I had forgotten about:

http://thethreeprayers.blogspot.com/2012/09/robert-hugh-benson.html

I remembered Janet's post on the book!

I don't think it's a weakness. There has been anti-Semitic pogroms at times and places in history in which Jews had little influence, eg in Russia at the turn of the century.

I think that the use of those terms is crucial to the novel. I would imagine that Benson would say that those titles represent realities and that our souls are hard-wired (although I don't think he was prescient enough to use the term hard-wired) to seek out those realities. Some of those terms pre-date Jesus. I just discussed Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives with a group of friends and the most interesting part of the whole book to me was where Benedict talks about how a lot of the things that were said about Jesus were things that were said about Caesar Augustus. He was, for instance, called Saviour.

And I'm trying to remember what was on that flyer that I sent you during the campaign that my daughter had gotten in the mail. It called Obama something that was definitely a term for Jesus--not messiah--something more specifically Christian, I think. Not that I'm saying that he's the Anti-Christ, but that people are looking for someone to attach those names to.

People in this book and in the real world may have left the Church and may hate and reject the Church, but they can't let it alone. It niggles at them. I think those names will continue to have power and that the Anti-Christ, being the Anti-Christ will assume them.

AMDG

Grumpy, I noticed that on my blog you said that the end was magnificent--not the end of the post, the end of the book.

AMDG

By the way, you can download "The Essential Works of Robert Hugh Benson" on a Kindle. Also "A Mirror of Shallot," a bunch of ghost and supernatural stories that may be my favorite book of his. All the stories aren't good but one of them has left such a vivid impression in my mind that I long to see the phenomenon he describes.

AMDG

Your view of the use of those terms is plausible, though they struck me as incongruous. "I think those names will continue to have power..." Maybe--that's really the theological point I was wondering about when I said I don't conceive the A-C as having such specific correspondences.

One note: I found the end rather vague and confusing, partly because I didn't recognize most of the Latin and thought it might be essential to understanding. But I was also reading sort of hastily, because I had something else I needed to do, so maybe I should re-read it.

I don't conceive the A-C as having such specific correspondences.

I'm curious about why you think that. I think it's an unusual opinion.

AMDG

No "why", beyond what I said in the post--that's just how it has always struck me.

O dear! No offence meant by calling it a good bad book. I'm an academic. It's not a book in the same class as Dante or Homer or Dostoievsky or Shakespeare or Melville. It's not in the second rank with Dickens or Flannery O'Connor or Evelyn Waugh. For me it's quite compatible with saying the end is magnificent, and in fact I loved it, with calling it 'good bad'.

I once got in trouble like this on Clio's webpage. I wrote something like, 'I like the middle brow books you write about here.' Well they *were* middle brow!

Oh, I wasn't saying that at all! The magnificent didn't have anything to do with the "good bad book." I agree with you completely on both counts.

AMDG

Actually, I have half a post about Benson's None Other Gods and that's basically what I say. There always seems to be something lacking in his books, but I like them anyway.

AMDG

exactly

That's funny about the trouble on Clio's blog--which unfortunately doesn't seem to be active anymore.

I wasn't offended by "good back book," if you were including me in that.

I noticed the mention in RHB's bio of ghost stories and thought they would be worth investigating.

Oh, and I wanted to say earlier today but was too busy, on the question of the use of Christian terms for the A-C in the book: you, Janet, said "People in this book and in the real world may have left the Church and may hate and reject the Church, but they can't let it alone."

That's certainly true in the real world today, but really that was my problem with it in the book--just from the literary point of view, setting aside the theology--it didn't seem to me that for the most part there was very much of that "can't let it alone" going on in the society at large, apart from a couple of people who had actually been Catholic, like Oliver's mother, and who got others thinking about it. Though of course we didn't really see much of society at large, except in its mob aspect, and a few govt people.

Had a blog post about that one, too. :-)

AMDG

Not sure what specifically you mean by "that one"? Post us a link.

The ghost stories. I must have been thinking this was going to be right under the comment where you said something about them.

A Mirror of Shalott

AMDG

I'm glad you told me to post that link. When I got to my blog, the post that I thought was scheduled for tomorrow was already up.

AMDG

I have an old copy of a book of his stories called 'The Light Invisible' but I've only read a few of them. They're good supernatural stories, quiet but not cozy. Of course his brother E.F. was very well known for his supernatural tales -- he wrote four collections of them.

Oh, thank you. I will have to check that out.

AMDG

I noticed that about his brother in the Wikipedia bio. Sounds like both (RH's and EF's) are worth checking into.

I remember that post now, Janet. The name of the book didn't ring a bell. I notice that I left a question unanswered in the comments, too. The answer is "the Google image search trick."

When I look at the question, that answer doesn't make sense, but that's okay. I'm sure I'll live without an answer.It would only start a conversation that you don't have time for. ;-)

AMDG

I think I must have fallen into the spam filter.

Oh Grumpy! Melville of the first rank and Dickens of the second? Surely not?

Gosh, that didn't sink in on me. Well, it's been so long since I read Melville that I can't really argue the point.

Yes, Janet, you did have a comment in the spam filter. This is annoying. As for my answer to the question: it's actually nonsense, because this time I misread the question. [insert Gmail crazy-eyes emoticon] I *think* the answer to the actual question is yes, I thought the stuff about people leaving the Church is timely because it's like what's going on now.

Yeah, I figured that was what was happening.

AMDG

Well yes I am afraid that is my opinion, but it is open to dispute.

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