I just finished Adjustment Day, by Chuck Palahniuk. Nope, I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, either.
It’s fiction. A dystopian novel. More terrifying than my favorite childhood monster movies, of which I was a rabid fan.
The book begins with a quote from one of the “founding fathers,” John Adams: “Remember, Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.”
In 1954, William Golding published Lord of the Flies, a novel about a group of minor boys who survive a plane crash on a remote desert island. Without adult supervision, the boys descend from civilized human beings into savagery. This book was assigned reading for most of my generation in school.
Lord of the Flies marked for me the first of its genre in modern literature and film: dystopia. A utopia is an ideal civilization of justice, peace, work, play and plenty. Dystopia, of course, is a civilization marked by lawlessness, misery, squalor, oppression, violence, the rule of might and the decay of honor, nobility and decency.
In modern America, you see threads and shivers of dystopia when you hear about looters and profiteers after a crisis of civil unrest or natural disaster. Oh, I suppose if I was the only survivor of a plague (like the Will Smith character in I Am Legend), I would raid the local grocery and hardware stores for sustenance and survival tools. But that’s not looting. Looting and profit gouging is the ugly exploitation of suffering people. I understand the sign “Looters will be shot on sight.” And charging folks $10 for a stick of firewood after a hurricane is, in my opinion, more despicable than robbing a convenience store at gunpoint.
As a genre, dystopia has been the theme of some of the highest grossing films of my lifetime. In no particular order, there is Charleston Heston and The Planet of the Apes series, for which there seems no end of remakes and retellings. Arnold Schwarenegger owes the bulk of his Hollywood career to dystopia: The Running Man, Total Recall, End of Days, and the Terminator series. Escape From New York, starring Kurt Russell. Logan’s Run, a movie about a dystopia disguised as utopia where, upon your 30th birthday, you are obligated to “go on carousel,” ostensibly to “be renewed.” In fact, you just get evaporated by lasers because the powers that be don’t want anyone around over 30.
For me, Blade Runner is the most brilliant of the dystopia films. I easily watch it once a year or so. Have it near memorized.
All zombie films are a picture of dystopia. The original, 1968 black and white by George Romero is still my favorite. That movie was made on a shoe string … and it’s flat terrifying.
All the Invasion of the Body Snatcher films are about dystopia, and the helplessness of people trying to warn others before it’s too late. But it is too late. Always, too late.
When the Rod Taylor character arrives in the future of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, his first glimpse of humanity appears to be a utopia. Only when he digs deeper into relationships does he see that civilization has completely unraveled to emptiness, mindlessness, and amorality. Believe it or not, amorality is one step devolved from immorality. At least most immorality is still connected to vital passion!
Of recent vintage is The Hunger Games, where, in a futuristic dystopia, minor children fight to the death, the victors winning the right to eat for their respective districts. And, while perhaps a stretch, it seems to me that the Christopher Nolan Batman trifecta depicts a Gotham City always hovering on the edge of dystopia.
Have you noticed that virtually all dystopia stories are futuristic. And not once is that future a better place than our current reality. Not once.
Sigmund Freud anticipated all this in 1929 when he published Civilization and Its Discontents. He observed the inherent struggle between peace and harmony in society and the baser instincts – primarily sex and aggression – of individuals. You simply can’t have the former without repressing the latter. And, unless repressed instincts find some creative outlet (sublimation), you get individual and social pathology. Decay. Evil. Dystopia.
It seems obvious to me that this tension abides universally in the human unconscious. Nothing else can explain why it is repeatedly projected into the modern art forms of literature and film. Why we can never get enough of it in books and movie theatres.
The conclusion I draw is not that everything will eventually go to hell. What I take seriously, however, is the precarious truce that acculturation makes with human instinct, savagery and evil. It’s always out there, stalking the boundaries of what you and I call normalcy.
(You may reach Steven Kalas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest who writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)