After the Good War
After the Good War, by Peter Roger Breggin, New York: Stein and Day, 1972, 235 pp.
The literary tradition of the utopia is now quite dead. It was born with the Enlightenment and the hope that human beings could firmly and finally establish a regime with enough power and wisdom to guarantee peace, happiness, and prosperity for everyone. It reached its high point in the late nineteenth century when, augmented by various ideas of collectivism, it produced such works as Bellamy's Looking Backward, Morris's News from Nowhere, and Wells's Modern Utopia. It was killed off mainly by the obvious irrationality and horror of World War One and the rise of the viciously rational (structured according to an ideology) total state in the Soviet Union. Its last gasps were the ludicrously entitled Walden Two (1948) and Huxley's pastiche of Southern California fads, Island (1962).
What rose out of the ruins of people's hopes for combining benevolence with coercion was the "anti-utopia" or "dystopia," apprehensive of a combination of coercion with irrationality or malevolence First Zamiatin, then Huxley, Rand, C.S. Lewis, and Orwell proceeded to describe various regimes all of which attempted to impose an order or structure on society but which failed (whether through malice or error) to allow for the full development of human individuality and which systematically suppressed independent thought. In the classical dystopias plot was of relatively minor importance and even characterization was secondary; the main purposes were three: to show the fundamental nature of the regime—that is, its fundamental principles; to show those principles in operation—that is, the kinds of social control the regime found it necessary to exercise over its subjects; and to show those principles made flesh—that is, what sort of people the regime produced or required.
Anti-utopias have proliferated since 1984. Evelyn Waugh, Ray Bradbury, David Karp, Kurt Vonnegut, L.P. Hartley, Anthony Burgess, Ira Levin, James Park Sloan, and Geo. Alec Effinger have all used that genre as a vehicle for their analyses of various forms and methods of tyranny. It is to this tradition that Dr. Peter Breggin's second novel, After the Good War, belongs.
The novel takes place 112 years after the "good war," a totally successful preventive war which resulted in world hegemony for the United States. The State has assumed responsibility for the public happiness, and has determined, not entirely incorrectly, that a state of individuality or independence can be productive of genuine unhappiness. Thus, the State proclaims that "the group" is the basic social unit, that dependency is a cardinal good, and that physical pleasure—especially sex, of course—is to be officially encouraged. To make sure that the people are continuously happy the largest bureaucracy in the State is that of the National Agency for Mental Security, a sort of State psychiatric institute which requires frequent "attitude checks," implants pleasure producing brain probes, practices psycho-surgery, and—in extreme cases—something called "capping" which renders the subject a harmless happy drone.
The chief evil the regime recognizes is The Hebrew Disease, an atavistic survival of a condition associated with Jews in which the victim cries or feels shame or guilt or anxiety and accordingly is more than usually aware of himself as an individual thinking and feeling being. But of course, such feelings are simply the reverse side of the ability to feel love, pride, self-esteem, and joy, so that incapacity to feel the former is incapacity to feel the latter. Sex serves the book as a metaphor for this whole issue: the effect of frequent sex with a demand for high performance produces a continuous genitalic ache in most men; their impossible desire is for absolutely painless pleasure. The Hebrew Disease, of course, turns out to be Individualism pure and simple. (One of the best glosses on the Hebrew Disease would be Lane's Discovery of Freedom, Pt. II, Ch. 1.)
The plot concerns one T.E.P. Rogar (an obvious avatar of PETer ROGER Breggin), a historian who is urged by a kind of vision to try to understand the Hebrew Disease and account for its origin. Such an enterprise involves him in reconstructing history between the U.S. of 1970 and his own time, a happy occasion for something like a roller-coaster ride through Breggin's (deliberately) fanciful and provoking extrapolations from current social trends, as well as the plausible results of a world without pressures or conflict after the Good War. Breggin's scenario contains veiled references—satiric, if you will—to contemporary culture from wispy allusions like "I only have needs for you" to short jabs at B.S. Fakir (author of Beyond People) and a Vonnegut-like "Church of Abused Mankind."
In accumulating material on the disease, Rogar gradually is able to reconstruct the Pentateuch ("I AM WHO AM" keeps echoing in his mind), the Declaration of Independence, and a book by another avatar of the author, one O. Peter Braggard, M.D., an opponent of State psychiatry and psycho-surgery in our own time. Perhaps Braggard's most interesting notion is that by his time virtually no one could be called independent any longer: "He defined the typical American as Nondependent whose apparent freedom was really an inability to relate to anyone" (p. 37). This psycho-emotional poverty is simply institutionalized in the era of the novel. One way, perhaps the only way, out of this shallowness is to experience genuine love. Rogar early on meets, conspires with, and comes to love one J.A.R.D. Gambol, and the growth of his love for her results in greater self-understanding and self-awareness. At this point the inadequacy of the pain-pleasure dichotomy becomes clear. There is a greater good: being a man, or woman, or full human being.
Finally, having determined that he has the Hebrew Disease, Rogar realizes that he must try to escape with Gambol, and the last part of the book retells that attempt. Taken altogether, the book is a clever and thought-provoking performance, told with sufficient distance and detachment so that the reader is prevented from watching the plot too exclusively and is encouraged to reflect on what he is reading. Breggin's ideas about the necessary nature of childhood, the development of the "self," the category "human being," and individuality properly understood (the real topics of the book) are well worth brooding on.
Mr. Varnell, quondam Instructor of English at Northern Illinois University, is a doctoral candidate in English at Indiana University, and the Editor of the quarterly The Libertarian Scholar. His dissertation is on the political philosophy of Swift's Gulliver's Travels.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "After the Good War".