Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Our Dystopian Future

Do technological advances cause more harm than good?

“Why did the twentieth century produce so many—and such vivid—dystopias, works of fiction depicting not an ideal future but a future as terrible as could be imagined?” Theodore Dalrymple asks in City Journal:

After all, never had material progress been greater; never should man have felt himself freer of the anxieties that, with good reason, had beset him in the past. Famine had all but disappeared, except in civil wars or where regimes deliberately engineered it; and for the first time in history, the biblical span—or longer—was a reasonable hope for many. Medicine had conquered the dread infectious diseases that once cut swathes through entire populations. Not to enjoy luxuries that Louis XIV couldn’t have imagined now was evidence of intolerable poverty.

Yet even as technology liberated us from want (though not, of course, from desire), political schemes of secular salvation—communism and Nazism—unleashed a barbarism that, if not unique in its ferocity, was certainly so in the determination, efficiency, and thoroughness with which it was practiced. The attempts to put utopian ideals into practice invariably resulted in the effort to eliminate whole classes or races of people. Many, especially intellectuals, came to regard the utopian condition, in which earth is fair and all men glad and wise, as man’s natural state; only the existence of ill-intentioned classes or races could explain the fall from grace. Where hopes are unrealistic, fears often become exaggerated; where dreams alone are blueprints, nightmares result.

It is hardly surprising that a century of utopian dreams and coercive social engineering to achieve them should have been a century rich in imaginative dystopias. Indeed, from The Time Machine to Blade Runner, the dystopia became a distinct literary and cinematic genre, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 became so much a part of Western man’s mental furniture that even unliterary people invoke them to criticize the present.

The dystopians look to the future not with the optimism of those who believe that man’s increasing mastery of nature will bring greater happiness but with the pessimism of those who believe that the more man controls nature, the less he controls himself. The benefits of technological advance will be as nothing, they say, by comparison with the evil ends to which man will put it.

In other news: For a poet who supposedly wrote so much about himself, we know surprisingly little about Wordsworth’s interior life. Pamela Clemit surveys his recent biographers: “How might a biographer best tackle the inscrutable Wordsworth? Stephen Gill established the gold standard for Wordsworth biography thirty-two years ago. His William Wordsworth: A Life (1989) turned out to be only the starting point for a critical exploration that has culminated in a magnificent second edition, which displays the same qualities of quiet authority, tact and resistance to speculation, and thus merits consideration as a work in its own right. It takes in not only Gill’s further scholarship, in Wordsworth and the Victorians (1998) and Wordsworth’s Revisitings (2011), a study of the poet’s revisionary practices, but the work of many others through the intervening years. Gill is generous in his tribute to John Worthen’s innovative The Life of William Wordsworth (TLS, November 6, 2015), from which he has borrowed the cover image: Haydon’s 1815 pencil draft of the poet’s head, for ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’ (1820), which conveys a sense of intense, brooding self-containment.”

Samuel Beckett and Quietism: When Samuel Beckett’s Catholic friend, Thomas MacGreevy, recommended that he read Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, Beckett responded that he had already read it: “‘All I ever got from the Imitation went to confirm & reinforce my own way of living, a way of living that tried to be a solution & failed. I found quantities of phrases like qui melius scit pati, majorem tenebit pacem [he who knows how to suffer well shall find the most peace], or Nolle consolari ab aliqua creatura magnae puritatis signum est [to refuse comfort from any creature is a sign of great faith], or the lovely per viam pacis, ad patriam perpetuae claritatis [by the way of peace to the country of everlasting clearness] that seemed to be made for me and which I have never forgotten. Am[on]g many others. But they all conduced to the isolationism that was not to prove very splendid. What is one to make of ‘seldom we come home without hurting of conscience’ and ‘the glad going out & sorrowful coming home’ and ‘be ye sorry in your chambers’ but a quietism of the sparrow alone upon the housetop & the solitary bird under the eaves? An abject self-referring quietism indeed.’ This letter shows that Beckett was drawn to the promise of spiritual release: the Latin phrases he cites all describe a kind of transcendent peace, a peace that is found by going into suffering rather than resisting or shying away from it. But Beckett also acknowledges the dangers of such unearthly priorities. The Imitation of Christ, he says, promotes ‘isolationism’. Don’t go out, it says. Remain in your cell. Shun the company of others. Beckett then proceeds to explain to MacGreevy it was precisely this aloofness and distance from other people that caused his panic attacks to worsen in the first place . . . While he was no closer to a cure for his anxiety attacks, Beckett had begun to see that his personal problems might nevertheless be useful for his growth as a writer. In a diary entry from 1937, he confessed his hope that he might be able to put his suffering to artistic ends and ‘turn this dereliction, profoundly felt, into literature’. Quietism, it turned out, provided a means to do so.”

The fakes of the Russian avant-garde: “At first glance, they might be identical. Two orange lozenges leaning out of shards of blue. Two paintings purportedly by the same artist. But look a little closer, and you’ll start to notice differences. The one on the left seems clunkier, its gradations in colour less subtle. The palette seems reduced, the brushwork less varied and interesting. The one on the right is Painterly Architectonic (1917) by Liubov Popova, a cubist and suprematist painter who lived a brief and active life in early 20th-century Moscow. The one on the left is a fake.”

Santi Ruiz reviews Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power: “Today, it’s hard to find remnants of the empire that once ruled the Mississippi, then the Great Plains, then the American Northwest. But it is as integral and vibrant a part of American history as any. If we Americans tend to confront our relationship with Native Americans by either whitewashing our story, or by recognizing them chiefly as an oppressed contingent of society, books like Lakota America offer us a third way: simply telling their particular, human story.”

Hemingway’s Dante: “Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time has all the traits of a great work of modernist literature except for widespread recognition as such. One trait in particular has been vastly underestimated: the text’s implementation of what T.S. Eliot called the ‘mythical method.’ Although Eliot’s term has more or less been consigned to the footnotes of literary history, its enduring associations with the myth-inflected school of high modernism typified by Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, affords us a serviceable description of In Our Time’s submerged intertextual relationship with Dante’s Divine Comedy. While critics have observed in several of the collection’s short stories allusions to the same Grail legend that Eliot references in The Waste Land, they have persistently overlooked the extensive Divine Comedy parallels which form an indispensable component of In Our Time’s mythical method.”

Photo: Monsanto

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.