Feb 25, 2010

The Children of Men, by P.D. James

In the most recent issue of the The Christian Lawyer (now available online), I write about the importance of reading. To introduce my claim that our self-induced addiction to distraction and amusement hinders regular reading and study, I quote from Neil Postman’s wonderful introduction to his important book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he compares the apocalyptic visions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. . . . Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would be come a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

I was reminded of this interesting contrast recently as I read one of P.D. James’s early novels, The Children of Men (1992). It tells the story of a world suffering from mass infertility-- our world has mysteriously lost the ability to reproduce. It’s 2021, and folks can point back to 1995, year “Omega,” as the year the last baby was born, and the governments of the world are working to solve the problem. It is a thriller, of sorts, though not much like the mysteries for which James is justly famous. Its protagonist gets involved in an anti-government movement, only to discover that his recruiter is pregnant with the first baby to be born in 26 years. As the novel progresses, James’s protagonist begins to move away from the fatalistic disillusionment of the masses toward hope, even as real life struggles to return to the world.

What struck me in the context of Postman’s comparison of Huxley and Orwell is the way that James highlights the connection between their major themes. In other words, James writes of trivial culture that has become a captive culture, a culture at once oppressed by Big Brother and at the same time needing, even desiring its oppression.

In the end, it’s a book about the miracle of life. Not just life as in being alive, but the contrast between the rich life of those embracing their duties as creatures made in the image of God and the trivial life, a life that leads ultimately to degradation. Along the way, James explores the relationship of these themes to freedom and oppression, power and sacrifice.

The culture that is the setting for this compelling story is one that has lost hope because it has literally lost its vision. Without a legacy, with no future for the race, vision is gone. Ironically (since pregnancy is no longer a risk), even sex has lost its appeal, and government-sponsored “porn centers” exist to keep interest alive, just in case. The love of life has been replaced by violence, children and family by the regulated breeding of cats and the manufacture of beautiful dolls.

Triviality and violence, oppression and complacency, all mingling in a world that has lost its vision. It’s a poignant picture. And a timely reminder.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings from Korea, Mike!

    I thought of you this morning while reading Bonhoeffer in my study here at Handong in Korea. (I'm in my second semester of a visiting professorship in the U.S. & Int'l Law program within the University's undergraduate School of Law).

    I'm reading Bonhoeffer's little work on Temptation (its included in his Creation and Fall published by Simon & Schuster). In his chapter on "Concrete Temptations and Their Conquest", Bonhoeffer addresses the temptation to desperatio which he connects to acedia. (pp. 140-42).

    Since you pick-up on acedia in your book, I thought you might be interested in his reflections on the topic of this temptation. Here's an inkling:
    Here . . . the grace and promise of God are attacked and put to the test. In this way Satan robs the believer of all joy in the Word of God, all experience of the good God; in place of which he fills the heart with the terrors of the past, of the present and of the future. Old long-forgotten guilt suddenly rears up its head before me, as if it had happened today. Opposition to the Word of God and unwillingness to obey assume huge proportions, and compete despair of my future before god overwhelms my heart (p. 140).
    I'm reading your blog with interest and passing the link along to my undergraduate students here many of whom are aspiring to study law in the States.

    grace & peace,