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Predictive texts

The eerily prescient authors whose work is worth revisiting

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April 23, 2019

For our predictive texts series, we have asked our contributors to select a book which sheds eerily prescient light on our lives today. We weren’t after HG Wells or George Orwell, we wanted something less predictable. Here is the foresight so far.

There’s an obscurity that especially bedevils futuristic novels. Of all those millions of books that have been published, so many of that ilk, in particular, sink into the oblivion of the copyright libraries.

Occasionally, though, a few will bubble back up to the surface to surprise you. And a book you have never heard of before, will suddenly be on the lips of various and unexpected people. This was the case for me, with Robert Hugh Benson’s novel Lord of the World, which was first mentioned by a friend in Silicon Valley, and then recommended by the Pope – though not personally in the latter case.

It was on a flight from the Philippines, in January 2015, that Pope Francis mentioned the novel to a group of journalists, with the words “I advise you to read it“. The novel was duly reissued, and Robert Hugh Benson’s works saved from obscurity.

If ‘Benson’, as the surname of an author, means anything to anyone today then it is most likely because of Robert Hugh’s brother, EF Benson. His Mapp and Lucia novels still have admirers, and have twice been adapted for television, first in the 1980s with Nigel Hawthorne, and then more recently, in 2014, by the BBC.

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The Bensons were a remarkable family, as a biography of the family published three years ago (A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Bensons in Victorian Britain by Simon Goldhill) made clear. The father – Edward White Benson – rose to become Archbishop of Canterbury but all six of his children were queer in several definitions of the word. As, apparently was their mother.

Between them they produced scores of books, including novels and memoirs. AC Benson edited Queen Victoria’s letters and wrote the words to Land of Hope and Glory by his friend Edward Elgar. But it was Robert Hugh who published his strange dystopia in 1907, three years after becoming ordained as a Catholic priest (to the horror of the family).

Lord of the World is a strange and unsettling work, set in the early 21st century, it depicts a world in which secular humanism has almost completely replaced religion. Like all futuristic novels some of the details no longer convince. For instance Esperanto never quite caught on so much as Benson seems to have anticipated it doing.

But the novel is full of other disturbingly prescient insights. These are both specific – he predicts, for example, a ‘European Parliament’ – and more general – universities have become moribund and closed, made irrelevant by their own areas of study. As one character puts it: “The object of secular education is presumably the production of something visible – either character or competence; and it became quite impossible to prove that the Universities produced either – which was worth having.”

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The idea that most houses of worship have been converted to secular uses didn’t require much foresight – Benson could have looked back to the French Revolution to discover that inevitability. But it is his description of the details of the outlook of people in the secular humanist world that he gets strikingly – if exaggeratedly – right.

Euthanasia has become an entirely normal facet of life. When there is a Volor accident – a Volor is a type of aircraft in which everyone travels – squads of government euthanasia specialists move in to deal with the injured. The mother of one of the leading secularists in the novel makes a late life return to Catholicism, which her son clearly disapproves of. As she nears her end, she is euthanised at the command of her daughter-in-law, while her husband is away. She is clutching a rosary as she is killed.

Throughout the novel, Benson manages to capture the difference in outlook between those few remaining believers – centred in Rome – and the secularised world which rules. Yet the book is not pure invective against that world, any more than the picture of the church and its clergy is remotely hagiographic. The subtle differences in life and world outlook that manifest in the absence of religion are persuasively depicted.

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Time and again throughout the book, Benson seems uncannily attuned to some kind of deep, eternal truths which mean that when he predicts a thing, he predicts it accurately along with its consequences. So just as he foresees the world’s leaders travelling around by Volor from one summit to another, he also anticipates the evil ends to which this sort of advance will be put. The idea of aerial bombing, and specifically the wiping out of whole cities, occurs to Benson more than three decades before it occurs to – and was put into practice by – the leaders of Europe.

And in the novel’s central figure there is something so strikingly prophetic, that it is understandable why the work retained a few faithful – not to say cult – followers. Julian Felsenburgh is a mysterious figure who rises to startling prominence. He captivates all those who cross his path and many who have not but who are fascinated with the stories of his origin and reputation.

Felsenburgh is said to have a tremendous charisma, able to command and to speak softly. He rises to become the leader of Europe because he promises to bring peace. Of course, the promise comes only if the public are willing to blindly submit to him, but vast proportions of them are willing to do precisely that and so the hell into which Felsenburgh is able to catapult the world comes not in spite of the people, but with their enthusiastic participation.

In many ways Lord of the World is a typical depiction of the anti-Christ story from Biblical apocalypse texts. Felsenburgh comes in order to stand against the mother church and bring about the end times. But if that were all that Benson had written, the novel would not have had much enduring appeal.

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Its resonance lies, instead, in the fact that Benson identified deep undercurrents in religion and secularism that we feel tugging at us now: the want of meaning, the vulnerability to almost any new idea or leader. Benson understands that the character of mankind will never change. Specifically, he sees that man’s desire to worship and believe does not change. What happens is that man merely transfers his allegiances from one set of orthodoxies and hierarchies with which he has become disenchanted, in order to prostrate himself (imagining this to be freedom) before almost any other. And, as Benson suggests, a world wholly without religion may also be a world wholly without defences.