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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

It Would be Impious

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The essay is about apocolypse, revolution and Robinson Crusoe. It was first published May 15 2020.

In the short story ‘The Machine Stops’ by E. M. Forster, when the archetypal resident of the machine is informed of the titular event, namely the end of her world, she responds chiefly in disbelief, ‘It would be impious,’ says Vashti, ‘if it was not mad.’ There are many things to unpack about that story, which I recently reread with my wife. And if we get round to a recorded conversation, hopefully some of those things will be unpacked, but for now I would like to sit with Forster’s depiction of this all too human response to crisis.

There is a cheap saying often repeated on the left, which I have mentioned in my blogs before and still consider worthwhile interrogating for the very fact of its currency; that is, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The truth is that the end of the world and the end of capitalism should not be so neatly divided. We live and breathe capitalism. As Marx observed, ‘The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.’ For the quite strange utopian Marxist Alexander Bogdanov, Lenin’s failed rival, ‘The philosophy of a class is the highest form of its collective consciousness.’ That is not to say that such ideas need to be all-encompassing, although as Mark Fisher persuasively argued in Capitalist Realism they can come close.

Apocalypse in the past never meant an end of the world in the quite literal sense of today’s apocalypse fiction, of which ‘The Machine Stops’ is just one of the subtlest and most effective examples. The modern apocalypse has its antecedents more in the idea of civilisational collapse, in the alleged, quite speculative cycles of conquest, flourishing, decadence, decay and conquest of Ibn Khaldun or the long waves of Nikolai Kondratiev; in the myths of Atlantis cum Frank Herbert’s Dune (about to be remade for the screen, still channelling a confused bundle of reactionary and liberal ideals). This set of tropes finds its articulation in everything from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) to The Walking Dead(2003). But earlier, religious ideas of apocalypse were closer to what we might now mean by the end of capitalism.

This was an idea connoting revelation, a revealing. For Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium, the millenarianism of Western Europe’s eleventh to sixteenth century poor revolts were to some degree indeed ‘the precursors of some of the great revolutionary movements of the present century.’ These religious visions often involved notions of debt forgiveness if not an outright shifting of power, albeit often also buoyed by religious intolerances and common social prejudices. As Neil Faulkner explains examining Jewish revolts in antiquity, ‘the religious conception is inextricably intwined with the social.’ Faulkner rejects the idea of religion ‘as a kind of cloak, a cloak for social aims, a cloak for political ambitions.’ He argues that this constitutes

a denial of the thought-world of ancient and medieval people. Their thought-world, their belief system, creates a kind of language which is religious, which is theological, for making sense of their own world. You can’t separate the two things at all.

The apocalypse in this sense then is what is precluded when we are unable to imagine the end of capitalism. Such an apocalypse is, in today’s terms, a revolution against capitalism, precisely an overthrowing of capitalism. We cannot conceive a great, let alone a mythic, reordering of the world, one rooted in a revealing of our social order for all its foundational faultlines. When we can conceive material relationships faltering, but not the ideas that are an ideal expression of those relationships, we are left imagining humanity as it is bereft of the world that situates it. So doing, it’s quite easy to imagine Shelley’s Last Man as the embodiment of the age, or at least the age as it is experienced in the wealthier environs of our time:

For a moment I compared myself to that monarch of the waste — Robinson Crusoe. We had been both thrown companionless — he on the shore of a desolate island: I on that of a desolate world.

Many of the great speculative genres have taken Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) as providing the truest image of man (invariably a man) experiencing some unknown future. Crusoe the utopian in the work of Thomas Spence, whose first foray into such writing was entitled, A Supplement to the History of Robinson Crusoe(1782), Crusoe the apocalypse’s sole-survivor (Shelley), Crusoe the dystopian (of course, ‘The Machine Stops’), Crusoe the anti-utopian, the satirical Crusoe (J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island). Atomised, rational, alone, always ready for a Covid-19 lockdown, always happy to forgo human contact, so alienated that alienation is no longer experienced as any kind of suffering but a frictionless relief.

Recently, I read Stefan Zweig’s Chess, which has one of my favourite Crusoes, Dr B. — a favourite because he is a kind of deconstruction of the whole type, and is the most pitiable and sympathetic of his literary forebears. This Crusoe is a victim of Nazi isolation as torture, a process that drives him to an unusual mania rooted in the horror of being cut off and separated from society:

Nothing was done to us — we were simply placed in a complete void and everyone knows that nothing on earth exerts such pressure on the human soul as a void. Solitary confinement in a complete vacuum, a room hermetically cut off from the outside world, was intended to create pressure not from without, through violence and the cold, but from within.

Vashti is similar to Dr B., except that she is not aware of the spiritual violence being done to her. In part because her condition is not one of torture imposed, but is rather more of a social condition adopted and adapted by her entire way of life. Nor is she truly hermetically cut off, but only partially so, and in a semi-voluntary arrangement. But the subtleties ultimately do not change the consequences. Human beings are social animals, our consciousness is embodied, and Forster’s story is not far from a gothic horror.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ captures something not dissimilar, the domestic horror of someone whose economic circumstance, the restrictive gender politics of their time, holds them in an environment that cannot allow for real human flourishing. Crusoe as a woman does not adapt to the island, but regards it with an apt disgust, ’It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw — not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.’ Gilman’s narrator projects her mental distress quite correctly on the environment itself.

In the autobiographical ‘A Journey Round My Room’, Xavier de Maistre, experiencing home arrest, uses his creativity to adapt with more success than Dr B., ‘They have forbidden me to go at large in a city, a mere speck, and have left open to me the whole universe, in which immensity and eternity obey me.’ But as with Dr B., we the reader have a hard time seeing this as an authentic triumph.

Both Gilman and de Maistre, as with Forster, Spence, Zweig and Shelley, relate the idea of the human being alone to that of a crisis of society. A fault line. The end of the world is intensely lonely, while the apocalypse of former times was a collective exultation. At the end of ‘The Machine Stops’ Vashti asks her somewhat revolutionary son, but a revolutionary in lieu of a revolution, ’Is there any hope, Kuno?’ He responds, bluntly, ‘None for us.’ It is not the crisis that is the problem, it is a myopia borne of an intense isolation. The residents of the machine are sufficiently separated from one another that any genuinely revelatory apocalypse becomes impossible, and the end of the world is the end of everything rather than the commencement of a new and better world.

During a pandemic such as Covid-19 it is impossibly reckless to say that we need to connect in an embodied and social way. Ultimately, however, we do. And in the meanwhile, resisting the false freedom of a far right that urges a coming together that is, in its implicit violence (its rejection of social wellbeing in favour of a deceptive economic necessity, a class war), we still need to come together with the technologies we have (however alienated) and resist atomisation and alienation.

And likewise we need to have the two-sidedness to see that (however necessary lockdown is, however further we rightly insist it should go in countries such as the UK or US), it is exasperating a condition of alienation at a time when traversing the crisis requires overcoming alienation wholesale. Just as we should not want a return to the normal that prevailed before this pandemic, that was so poorly prepared to handle this pandemic, we should not accept the conditions prevailing now as a ‘new normal’. Our new normal must be far more ambitious, it must be apocalyptic, it must revolutionary.


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