Friday, August 23, 2013

Robert Hugh Benson's "Lord of the World": Book Review

This imagines, penned in 1907, the apocalypse as envisioned in the Book of Revelation, with innovative plot twists. While Msgr. Benson's vision of 1971 or so of course could not have predicted the fall of the British or Turkish Empires, or the rise of the Bolsheviks and Fascists, it does set up a convincing lurch to a one-world state under the curious and sudden power exerted by Julian Felsenburgh. This Vermont senator takes over, it seems, nearly every land. Rome stands as a holdout, the Vatican regressing to a pre-modern enclave, while velors (nice steampunk touch--giant propelled dirigible-like transports) and trains globalize the realms freed from royalty, who find refuge in Rome.

Alone, the Catholic Church does not capitulate. Its priests hunted and its followers persecuted, Fr. Percy Franklin represents the indirect first-person narrator for much of the plot. He will face an unexpected duty to carry out far from his humble post. His London-based dystopian yet wondrous city gains Benson's detailed and exciting command of detail. The velo-rides over the Alps, London, and later Palestine as seen from above or afar convey a feverish sensibility, as if hallucinogenic--compare Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday." I've never read in a popular novel as "Lord of the World" such an attempt to depict the dark nights and bright encounters of meditation--both a Catholic mystic and a secular approach interestingly compared via Percy and Mabel, one who struggles to believe in the New Faith under Felsenburgh's ascent to dominance.

Here you gain a sample of Benson's style, as he contrasts the Two Cities, of God and Man, and the Lords over each. Mabel "contrasted the selfish individualism of the Christian, who sobbed and shrank from death, or at the best, thought of it only as the gate to his own eternal life, with the free altruism of the New Believer who asked no more than that Man should live and grow, that the Spirit of the World should triumph and reveal Himself {Julian Felsenburgh}, while he, the unit, was content to shrink back into the reservoir from which he drew his life."

The enemy, socialist and humanist thought turned into anti-religious action under a stern if at first somewhat tolerant regime promoting euthanasia, takes over as in such melodramas its own platform to convince the reader. The pace can get creaky, and the preaching by both the Pope's side and his foes does go on and on. The characters do fall into the patterns of mouthpieces for their causes, but Mabel in the author's climactic scene with her does evoke a fantastic, dream-like aura that compels.

Benson does to his credit (and vocation) deliver a sense of the appeal of an anti-Catholic, pro-liberal set of convictions, and his characters do struggle with Catholic teaching during their own dry spells and periods of doubt. He, in Mabel and the ex-priest (one of many in the Last Days) Francis, reveals how often--as a convert himself to the Church and the son of no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury--Robert Hugh Benson must have heard similar arguments against faith and for reason in his own life and his rejection of his family's religion. The tension of reason and belief continues, and both sides try to reconcile the two modes, to speculative and convincing methods recalling the efforts of post-1789 France to eliminate the clerisy and to establish a rationally based public religion. This can get very didactic and the now-vanished air of pre-Vatican II casts a nostalgic, incense-filled glow over what's turned in our reality as antiquated, but Benson keeps the "steampunk" and political thriller-type of action coming, amidst the expected lengthy explanations by the friends and foes of the Vatican's remnant. 

Some lament what they label as anti-semitism in early chapters, but I found these allusions expected if unfortunate in its typical Catholic tone (the Church after all held that it kept the full revelation and means to salvation) for the time, which also sends up Masons and others deemed doughty foes of the Tridentine Church, which fought Modernism during this era. Careful readers may sense in later scenes a subtle shift, while still "orthodox" naturally or spiritually, to a nuanced appreciation of the Holy Land. Trying to apply this End Times thriller to our times, in a changed geopolitical and religious culture and mindset post-Vatican II, seems about as fruitless as any generation's attempt to link scriptural and coded warnings to current events, but the theme retains inherent interest for a few.

One need not be a Catholic to appreciate the aims of this dramatization of the battle between "Supernaturalism" and "Humanism." As with most artifacts a century old, you can admire parts and discard others. The earnest message, while sometimes declaimed by those for and against the Roman legions at more than necessary length, remains a thoughtful way to speculate on the clash of tradition and progressivism as seen from the early part of the last century.  (I read this for free via Project Gutenberg as an Kindle e-book; Amazon US 11-9-12)

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