Saturday, September 29, 2012

Robert Hugh Benson and The Lord of the World

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson was and unlikely candidate for the Catholic priesthood. An Anglican priest and the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he converted to Catholicism on September 11, 1903.  I first read about Msgr. Benson when Paul, who comments on this blog, sent me the book Literary Converts by Joseph Pearce. 

This was the first time I had read about Msgr. Benson, but I had heard his name before, and, indeed, I owned one of his books, Come Rack! Come Rope! It was something I had picked up at a homeschool book sale because I had heard it recommended, but I had never opened it. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that because I had read the name of the book as Come Back! Come Rope!, I thought that it was about cowboys instead of what it is really about which is recusant Catholics in the time of Elizabeth I.

However, this is the main book I want to talk about today, Lord of the World. This novel was published in 1907. It is about the end of the world which, I am sorry to have to tell you, is, according to the book, upon us even now, indeed, it may have already happened,

Msgr. Benson writes in his preface:
I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others.
But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.
The concerns that Msgr. Benson addresses in his book are very real even though his predictions are premature. He sees Communism as an immediate threat even though the novel was written ten years before the October Revolution. The fall of Europe to Communism in the book takes place in 1917-18. There is a Prologue which consists of a conversation between three men, one of whom is very old and who is explaining the history of the 20th century. The prologue is meant, no doubt to help us approach the novel with some understanding, but I found it rather confusing because I couldn't find a place of reference.

As Advent, the first section of the novel, begins, we find Oliver Brand looking out over the city of London. He is enamored in every way with the efficient Materialistic Communist world in which he lives. He holds an important position in the government and is, at the moment concerned that there will be war with the East. There are rumors, though, about a man who may be able to bring peace between East and West, Julian Felsenburgh. Felsenburgh is an enigma. He is an American, but that is the extent of anything that can be found out about him. He has appeared on the scene very recently, but seems to have access to all the powerful of the world. Wherever he goes, people, leaders, nations seem to fall quickly in with his plans. His mere appearance is enough to convert the masses. After successfully settling the crisis in the East, he comes to London in triumph and accepts the position of President of Europe, Europe consisting of all of Europe, Russia up to the Ural Mountains, and Africa.

The only obstacle to Felsenburgh's complete domination is the Catholic Church. The sole surviving Christian church, the Catholic Church, is beleaguered, barely surviving. As people become comfortable in the materialist society, they begin to see the Faith as something they have outgrown. Lay people, priests, even bishops are defecting to the Quietistic Humanism that is acceptable in the new society with it's core belief is that Man is god.

We see the story of the Church through the eyes of Fr. Percy Frankin, who is a physical clone of Felsenburgh. It is Franklin's job to keep the Cardinal Protectorate of England informed of all that he observes of the currents within and without the Church in England. As the book progresses, he moves to Rome where he is attached to the Vatican, and oversees a new religious order, The Order of Christ Crucified. This order without "badge, habit or insignia" has for it's rule the three Evangelical Counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience, and, "...a fourth intention, namely, that of a desire to receive the crown of martyrdom and a purpose of embracing it." They go throughout the world doing whatever needs to be done for the defense of the Faith.

In the beginning of Felsenburgh's reign, there is a toleration of Catholicism, although there is a fear of persecution and Catholics are treated with scorn. They are allowed to worship on Sundays but have no say in public affairs. Felsenburgh soon initiates a new order of Divine Worhip. Four festivals will be celebrated, "...Maternity, Life, Sustenance and Paternity, celebrated on the first day of each quarter."  Attendance is mandatory, but the punishment for not attending is light--at least at first. The ritual, "...is based almost entirely upon that of the Masons," and presided over by an apostate Catholic priest. Soon Felsenburgh begins to acquire new titles: the Son of Man, Saviour of the World, Incarnate God. "Oh, to have a Saviour at last!" cries the Master of Ceremonies.

There is a great deal in Lord of the World that seems ominously familiar. We aren't living in a state of complete materialism, Christians aren't quite the pariahs that they have become in this novel, but we can definitely see a trend in these directions. I mentioned shortly after I had first begun to write this post that Maclin at Light on Dark Water had written, completely coincidentally, a post about the type of world into which the Anti-Christ might come, and as I was reading it, it seemed eerily like the world that Msgr. Benson describes.

 Lord of the World isn't the world's greatest literature, but it is often compelling. The Church in the novel won't always be attractive to those of us who live in the real 21st century, but Msgr. Benson does convey the  majesty of the Church and her identity as the Body of Christ and her true role in the world. The reigning pope in the novel,
...cared, it appeared, nothing whatever for the world's opinion; his policy, so far as it could be called one, consisted in a very simple thing: he had declared in Epistle after Epistle that the object of the Church was to do glory to God by producing supernatural virtues in man, and that nothing at all was of any significance or importance except so far as it effected this object.
On a lighter note, it's interesting to see where Benson got it right and where he didn't. The characters in the book use a sort of airplane called a volor for travel, but there is no heating on the planes and the travelers must wear furs; however this inconvenience is offset by the fact that they have private compartments on the flight. The walls and floors of the homes are made from asbestos. He completely misses the feminist movement. Women seem to have no part in public life other than to accompany their husbands to events. In an interesting contrast, however, Fr. Franklin includes women in the Order of Christ Crucified. It is as though Msgr. Benson seems to think that only the Church values the contribution of women. And sadly, he sees that euthanasia will be an accepted practice.

I can't say that reading a novel in which that which we fear most has come upon us is enjoyable, but it is highly worth reading. For one thing, it helps me to get a bit of perspective about the duration of those currents in culture that seem to be coming to a head now. Long before I knew materialism existed, men were concerned about it's obvious outcomes. Our Catholic women's book club will be discussing it the week before the election. It ought to be a thought-provoking discussion.

AMDG

P.S. An anonymous visitor commented that the end of Lord of the World was magnificent, and it truly is. I thought it was important enough to move that statement into the original post. I probably should have at least mention this, but I hesitate to say too much about it because I don't want to ruin it for people who might read the book. 

21 comments:

  1. "..Catholics are treated with scorn. They are allowed to worship on Sundays but have no say in public affairs."

    Well, he sure got that prediction wrong, didn't he? :-/

    I looked for this in the library yesterday but they don't have it. I actually heard of it many years ago, not long after I became Catholic, and have occasionally thought I ought to read it, but have never gotten around to it.

    I'm beginning to think that communism was really only a specific manifestation of this spirit. Communism has mostly failed and is not in good repute, but the more diffuse thing behind it is very much alive and strong.

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  2. I think that most people only have a shadowy idea of what Communism was all about and it might be poised to make a comeback. I don't think that the word "Communist" carries nearly as much negative baggage for most people as the word "Natzi."

    AMDG

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  3. The ending is magnificent

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    1. Indeed it is. I'm going to move that into the original post.

      AMDG

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  4. I don't know if communism can make a comeback under that name and with all the 19th c theoretical apparatus. But if you think of those as particular expressions of something larger, yes, I think it definitely is. And re the negative baggage: that's an understatement. This is something I rail about constantly, to the point of being tired of hearing myself. Those Che images are still popular, and in fairly fashionable circles. And old-time communist imagery of all sorts is considered sort of cute. Nobody does that kind of thing with the Nazis.

    And the openly communist extreme of the left pretty much gets ignored by most of the media. There's a guy who lives in the SF Bay area who calls himself Zombie and has made sort of a hobby of going to left-wing demonstrations and photographing people, signs, literature, and so forth. I don't think there are comparable manifestations of fascism. The people who go in for that (and there are some) tend to stay out of the public eye, and at any rate are certainly not afforded anything like the indulgence that communists are.

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  5. Yes, I was thinking after Mass about this. People are all for a lot of the same government controls that the Communist government had without recognizing that that is where they are going. I think that often people don't see the effect of this control on themselves. They think a certain behaviour is good, for instance a certain way of eating, and they don't have any trouble imposing that on another group of people. They never stop to think what it will be like when someone is imposing that control on them.

    AMDG

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  6. That was me, Grumpy, from my Iphone. It's quite tricky to comment from the Iphone. It's touching the right blob of colour.

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  7. I thought it was probably you because you commented at Maclin's about that same time, but I figured that if I said that, it would have turned out to be somebody else.

    AMDG

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  8. This sounds really good, Janet. I'm going to put it on my list.

    I read "Come Rack! Come Rope!" a few years ago, when I was doing a lot of reading about the Jesuits in Elizabethan England. I thought it was quite good -- his portrayal of Edmund Campion was very memorable and attractive. Unfortunately I don't quite remember how the plot played out. (Hazards of reading at bedtime!)

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  9. I don't remember either.

    AMDG

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  10. The nice thing about being forgetful is that one can enjoy the same books over and over again.

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  11. Then when will I have time to read all the books that you recommend?

    AMDG

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  12. What?! You can remember what they are?

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  13. No, but I know how to look at the archives.

    AMDG

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  14. Janet, re your comment about control: I think that's very true. There's apparently a sizeable contingent that seems to believe that if you *should* do it, or not to it, the government should *make* you do it, or not do it. The argument in matters of health is that bad health has a social cost. I ran across this many years ago in a debate about outlawing smoking. One line of the anti-smoking argument was that "society" is burdened in various ways by smokers with health problems, and therefore "society" has a right to forbid it. One of the creepy things about Obamacare is the way it will tend to advance that argument.

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  15. I love the ending of Come Rack Come Rope. Benson was not the greatest 20th century novelist, but he did a good ending.

    Students always think that the idea in Lord of the World that philanthropy replaces Christianity as a religion is ridiculous and shallow. I do not.

    Grumpy

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  16. Oh, I don't either, and the philanthropy is often directed at causes instead of people: population control, the environment, etc.

    AMDG

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  17. Is my memory playing tricks on me, or did you read Lord of the World before reading about the author?

    It is a novel that is prescient in all sorts of ways.

    I'm often surprised at the number of people who seem to take the view that no existing Communist state of system has been "real" Communism. Somehow you never hear that said about Fascism. ("It wasn't really a Fascist state, the economic situation and foreign pressure, and then the war of course, meant that Fascist ideals could never really be implemented in any true sense" etc.) But then I've also heard it proposed that the Soviets were "not really atheists" because no real atheist would run Siberian labour camps. The heart is perverse and unsearchable.

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  18. Goodness Paul, your memory is much younger than mine and you might remember better than I do. I would have said not, but I might easily be wrong.

    AMDG

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  19. I thought we'd chatted about Lord of the World on Delphi, and given how long ago that must have been, I supposed it must have been before I'd even heard of Joseph Pearce. But I see now that Literary Converts was published in 2000, so it's just about possible.

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  20. Could have been. Chatting on Delphi was such an exercise in patience that the trauma of it has wiped away much of what was said.

    AMDG

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