Michael D. O’Brien and the War between Good and Evil in an Incarnational Universe

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Michael D. O’Brien. Plague Journal. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999.

Michael D. O’Brien.  Eclipse of the Sun. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.

Michael D. O’Brien. Strangers and Sojourners. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997

 

One way to introduce Michael D. O’Brien is with a scene in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. High on soma one clear moonless night, Henry and Lenina remain “happily ignorant” of the “depressing stars” because the drug raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.” The stars are depressing because by stubbornly existing they assert that reality is beyond the total power of the global Controllers, that Humanity’s loveless “civilized society” of universal “happiness” is grounded in an imaginary reality. After centuries of lies that engender only despair human beings have forgotten what genuine happiness is.

A few years before his death Huxley observed that Western society was following the path toward totalitarianism even more rapidly than he had expected in 1931. Totalitarianism, of the “soft” variety, has, one might say, entered a metastatic phase in which its spread has proven to be inversely proportional to truth, happiness, and the life of the soul because, as Eric Voegelin points out in his essay “The Eclipse of Reality,” human consciousness is able to erect an almost impenetrable barrier against reality and to substitute an imaginary closed, self-sufficient psyche for its true nature as “the sensorium of transcendence.” While “modern man” delusionally “liberates” himself he is actually shrinking and deforming his humanity to “a self imprisoned in its selfhood.”[1] As Voegelin also notes, “the primary process [in the history of spiritual deformation] runs its course from the exuberant projecting of the eighteenth century to the self-analysis and despair of the twentieth,” which is the effect of “the realization of the nihilistic impasse into which the eclipse of reality has led.”[2]   Between the closed soul’s fantasy of self-sufficiency and the ineluctable truth of reality, Voegelin laconically observes, “frictions…are bound to develop.”[3]

To isolate the imaginary self from the irruptions of reality modern man creates “a Second Reality, as the phenomenon is called, in order to screen the First Reality of common experience from his view.”[4] This does not and cannot solve the self’s problems, however, because “the frictions… far from being removed, will grow into a general conflict between the world of his imagination and the real world.[5] This conflict produces the fluctuating moods of modernity: “optimism, pessimism, egotism, altruism, egomania, monomania, and nihilism,”[6] to which one might add euphoria and despair as successive responses to the project of self-divinization.

Furthermore, people of the democratic West take their freedom for granted; yet in recent decades the relentless propaganda of the secular-progressivist Second Reality has steadily diminished it to the unhindered gratification of desires upheld by utilitarianism, consumerism, and liberalism. Promoting secularism and portraying hedonism as the epitome of happiness have generated the evils of abortion, euthanasia and even infanticide, evils which Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” and his successor “the dictatorship of moral relativism.”   In 1976, before he became Pope, then Cardinal Karol Wojtiła rather starkly diagnosed the spiritual condition of the modern world as on the verge of “the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel.”[7]  Having endured what are generally agreed to be the worst eruptions of evil (so far) in human history, Cardinal Wojtiła predicted worse, even the final apocalyptic battle. Nazism and Communism, as he clearly saw, were particularly hideous manifestations of the disorder produced by the modern penchant for imaginary realities manifested in the turn toward materialism in various forms and the determination to do without God. O’Brien believes that this prediction of the apocalypse is quite possibly correct.

How, then, does the Aristotelian “man who desires to know” true reality respond to a Zeitgeist of such grave spiritual deformity? Voegelin’s philosophy is certainly one way of diagnosing the disorder and attempting to restore luminous consciousness of the true order of existence. But another way is that of the novelist, who could seek the same goals by a kind of mythopoesis, by writing fiction that restores the First Reality through stories, symbols, and concrete human characters who are not deformed but experience reality in all its fullness while forced to deal with the “frictions” caused by the culturally pervasive Second Reality.

One such writer is the Canadian and devoutly Catholic novelist, essayist, and painter Michael D. O’Brien, who has, to date, published ten rich and complex novels that paint word pictures that show flawed but beautiful, open, and richly human souls in an imperfect yet luminously beautiful world and the ways in which their lives are affected by the frictions between First and Second Reality.[8]   On his website O’Brien says that his goal is “to contribute to the restoration of Christian culture… [to try] to express the holiness of existence and the dignity of the human person situated in an incarnational universe. Each visual image and each work of prose is an incarnation of a word, a statement of faith. At the same time it asks the questions: What is most noble and eternal in man? Who is he? Why does he exist? And what is his eternal destiny?”[9] None of these anamnetic questions survive in the spiritual amnesia of the modern world. Like Voegelin, O’Brien seeks the restoration of consciousness and the fullness of order, truth, and humanity, and therefore he writes richly symbolic stories in which spiritually aware human beings engage, in the concrete circumstances of their lives, in the struggle against the insidious political, social, cultural and intellectual evils of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. (So far only his novel Theophilos does not take place in the modern world.) And one of the vital anti-Second Reality points that he wants to make is that “throughout the entire salvation history the Lord prefers to choose the small and the weak of the earth to confound all the powers of the enemy.”[10]

Since O’Brien began to publish his novels he has been interviewed many times and his website contains interviews and essays in which he discusses the rising tide of evil in the modern world. He emphasizes modernity’s loss of the sense of the hierarchical universe, the mendacious Western form of “soft” totalitarianism that pretends to uphold freedom and democracy even as it works to destroy both by relieving people of personal responsibility in order to save them, supposedly, from themselves, the rejection of moral absolutes, the radical diminishing of the value of human life that accompanies the elevation of the State, the oppressive nature of liberalism, the deceptively beneficent appearance of the Antichrist, and the modern mood of “absolute despair.”[11]

Indeed he sees in the West such a profound but generally inarticulate dread of impending evil that “apocalypse begins to function as catharsis.” He understands evil as an absence of love and truth, a denial of reality, the lie that God does not exist and therefore death is the annihilation of a meaningless life. Enveloped in this lie people try to escape the resulting despair through the false distractions of pleasure, violence, and complete materialism. By surrendering their freedom they seem to escape the burden of despair, but the lie to cover the lie serves only to increase the power of evil. Having seen that the aspiring tyrants of the world consider the Catholic Church the major obstacle to their triumph because the Christian worldview is the antithesis of modern enslavement, materialism, and despair, O’Brien has discerned his task as working to strengthen the Catholic opposition to the modern Second Reality project.

Although the war between good and evil appears as a theme in all of O’Brien’s novels, it is central to his apocalyptic Children of the Last Days series with its focus on steadily intensifying evils, totalitarianism, the Antichrist, and the end of time as modern secular man more and more closes himself off against transcendence. Three volumes, Strangers and Sojourners, Plague Journal, and Eclipse of the Sun, constitute a trilogy that traces the history of the Delaney family through four generations in British Columbia in the twentieth century, beginning with the young English child Anna Kingsley Ashton on the symbolic date January 1, 1900. Twenty-two years later, after serving as a nurse in World War I, she becomes the schoolteacher in Swiftcreek, a small frontier town in British Columbia, where she meets and marries a troubled and taciturn Irish Catholic trapper named Stephen Delaney. Anne (as she is now known) is not herself a religious believer but she is an open and admirable soul in search of truth. The first book focuses on her wilderness life as teacher, wife, and mother, but also on the problems that come with the gradual arrival of modern civilization and a more substantial presence of the Canadian secularist government. In Plague Journal, which takes place in the late 1990s, the government has become essentially “soft” totalitarian, as Anne and Stephen’s grandson Nathaniel comes to understand when he finds himself first ostracized and then forced to flee because of his “Thought Crimes.” Eclipse of the Sun continues this theme as Nathaniel’s children are pursued by a government that professes a concern for their welfare but actually wants only to control their minds.   The thematic focus is O’Brien’s critique of modern politics and mass culture in his meditations on the growing conflict between the soul open to transcendence and mystery and a society ruled by the belief in the power of man to perfect himself by closing himself off against transcendence.

The second, complementary theme of his work is “the miraculousness of life,” “the mysteriousness of being,” “the bottomless interiority of matter,” and the spiritual consequences of denying this reality. All of O’Brien’s novels are so rich in complex, believable, human characters that embody and experience in different ways the miraculous and mysterious depths of existence that it is impossible to do them justice in a brief review. Some characters are devoutly religious persons who cling to Christ in a deeply loving and personal relationship, some are devoutly anti-religious, some are enamored of the modern secularist ideology without fully understanding its implications, some are, with varying degrees of open-mindedness, seeking the truth, and a few are downright evil, although they are convinced they are promoting a greater good. Also, as a man who has spent his life in rural areas O’Brien makes abundant use of nature, particularly birds and stags as symbols of the divine good and beasts as symbols of evil. Because symbols shape both our consciousness and our conscience he believes they are essential to our perception of the structure of reality itself and their destruction leads ultimately to deformation in knowledge and action. O’Brien believes that “the world is an incarnational universe, radiant with signs and symbols of our Father-Creator,” and that we are caught up in a cosmic war between good and evil, between God and Satan, a war that rages also in the human heart. Accordingly, he makes extensive use of dreams, which are often prophetic, and he relies heavily on what some would dismiss as unlikely coincidence but which he considers symbolic of the providentially woven tapestry of life.

The second and third novels provide a particularly detailed, trenchant critique of the currently reigning ideology of secular humanism and of the mentality of its propagators. Plague Journal is essentially a confrontation with modernity by Anne and Stephen Delaney’s grandson Nathaniel who, having become a somewhat lapsed Catholic, nonetheless holds to “the old world view” and, although he is undecided about whether or not he has a soul, he does recognize that “there are tremors on the edge of consciousness that indicate undiscovered dimensions of our being.”[12] This means, he says, “the human person is complex, unpredictable, a mystery,” and “above all we are not machines.”[13]

Having taken over as the editor of the newspaper that his grandmother bought and then edited herself for many years, he writes editorials decrying the new bioethics with its advocacy of abortion and euthanasia that put him on a collision course with the Canadian government which fines him $5,000 for “hate speech” because of an editorial critical of euthanasia. He discovers that his young son and daughter (the third and youngest child has been taken by his ex-wife Maya) are subjected to indoctrination in the progressive view of sex and everything else. Their education is similar in its basic purpose to that imposed on children in Communist countries because the point is not to nourish their minds and foster their unique individualities but to mold and homogenize them so they grow up to fit “happily” into the easily manipulated masses.

Finally something occurs that makes it clear he must flee the Canadian totalitarian regime with his children. During the next few days he keeps a journal in which he records his thoughts about the gradual decay of democracy and the collapse of civilization, the dogmatic, intolerant orthodoxy of secular liberalism, the essential similarity of Marxist and North American materialism, the “atmospheric lie” that seems to infect every soul, and the creeping social revolution of mass enslavement that insidiously presents itself as liberation—from dogmatism, religious authority, and the absolute value judgments of the old morality. He also recalls sometimes heated arguments with his father who has adopted a much more secular humanist worldview. In short, he is experiencing “the dictatorship of moral relativism” in which there are no moral absolutes except for the opinions commanded by the secular authorities. He has also observed “the profound misery of the enlightened” who, despite their conviction that they were liberated, “remained unconvinced of the goodness of being.”[14] The mentality propagated by zealous members of the intelligentsia is the “sociopolitical plague,” disguised as the cure for all hitherto existing sociopolitical problems and disorders currently afflicting Western civilization. Eclipse of the Sun, the longest novel in the trilogy, presents a detailed pathology of the effects of this plague that infects the oppressive and aggressive government, the society, and even, alas, the Catholic Church and culminates in intimations of the apocalypse.

In a 2009 interview O’Brien explained why he writes: “Above every other factor, a true artist creates what he loves. He is a person deeply in love. If a Christian loves God… and mankind not merely in the abstract, he realizes that he passes through this world as if through a garden of wonders and miracles. He tells stories about what he sees, because he wants others to see what he sees, both the tragic and the glorious. He desires that Love… and Truth be loved. He desires that the reverent wonder he feels, the wonder which draws us towards Paradise, will grow and bear fruit that will last.” He does not, of course, think that he can bring about the restoration of the openness to divine Goodness simply by his own labors. Rather he sees his work as telling stories about God’s intimate involvement with human life as one means by which, in the midst of a world rife with evil, God reawakens the experience of Him and the desire to participate ever more fully in His infinite goodness. This is a truth that the modern world has forgotten, along with much else, and therefore O’Brien through fiction as Voegelin through philosophy is engaged in the practice of a kind of anamnesis, a remembering of what was forgotten, a reopening of the soul to the First Reality and the Fatherhood of God. The reader of these novels knows that O’Brien’s work has its own providential role to play in the cosmic war between good and evil.

 

Notes

[1] Eric Voegelin, ”The Eclipse of Reality,” in What Is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings, ed. By Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella, Vol. 28 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Louisiana State University Press, 1990) 111.

[2] Ibid., 151.

[3] Ibid., 111.

[4] Ibid., 112. The term “Second Reality” comes from Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities.

[5] Ibid., 112.

[6] Ibid., 117. Italics in the original.

[7] Quoted in Michael D. O’Brien, “Sign of Contradiction and the Meaning of Easter” on O’Brien’s webpage StudiObrien (www.studiobrien.com/). This excerpt also appears on several other websites.

[8] O’Brien’s overt and unapologetic Catholicism puts him at odds with the reigning liberalism of contemporary culture. In his native Canada he has never been able to publish any of his novels. For about eighteen years Canadian publishers returned his manuscripts with the avowal that they would be happy to publish his novels if he would just eliminate the Catholicism or warp it into some sort of deformed Christianity they claimed would be more palatable to readers. Only when he submitted Father Elijah to Ignatius Press in the United States did his career as a published novelist begin. To date Ignatius Press has published all ten of his novels and also his work of cultural criticism A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind. O’Brien’s novels with their dates of publication are Strangers and Sojourners (1997), Plague Journal (1999), and Eclipse of the Sun (1998). These three make up the Delaney family trilogy and should be read in the order given. Also in The Children of the Last Days series are Father Elijah: An Apocalypse I(1996), Sophia House (2005), a “prequel” to Father Elijah, and A Cry of Stone (2003). The latter three can be read in any sequence.

Four other novels are not officially part of The Children of the Last Days series: Island of the World (2007), Theophilos, (2010), The Father’s Tale (2011), and Voyage to AlphaCentauri (2013). In one interview O’Brien suggests that Island of the World and The Father’s Tale could be considered part of the series.   O’Brien has also published a critique of the Harry Potter novels, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture with Fides et Traditio Press in Rzeszów, Poland in 2010 and a collection of essays called Arriving Where We Started: Faith and Culture in the Postmodernist Age with the Canadian publisher Justin Press in 2012.   Since he is an artist whose work has become entirely religious O’Brien also produces the cover art for his novels.

[9] This is his statement of purpose on the home page of his website StudiObrien

[10] “Battle with dictatorship of moral relativism,” comments by O’Brien at the annual LifeSiteNews staff meeting on August 20, 2011. On StudiObrien website.

[11] In Father Elijah the Pope says that modern man “suffers from the major disease of our century, a kind of absolute despair” (Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p. 60).

[12] Plague Journal, 19.

[13] Ibid., 19.

[14] Ibid., 124.

 

Also available are reviews of “The Father’s Tale,” “Sophia’s House,” “A Cry of Stone,” “Father Elijah,” “Voyage to Alpha Centauri,” “Theophilos,” “Island of the World,” “Elijah in Jerusalem,” and “The Fool of New York City.”

Michael Henry

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Michael Henry is a Board Member of VoegelinView, Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York, and was editor of The Library of Conservative Thought series at Transaction Publishers (1998-2016). His latest book is The Loss and Recovery of Truth: Selected Writings of Gerhart Niemeyer (St. Augustine's, 2013).