Fecundity Demands a Cruel Balance in Anthony Burgess’ The Wanting Seed
“. . . one could not perhaps, after all, and it was a pity, make art out of that gentle old liberalism. The new books were full of sex and death, perhaps the only materials for a writer.”
Late in The Wanting Seed, Burgess gives this quick nod to his careful readers—noting that great art draws from the blood and guts of life itself, that nothing of undeniable potency merely elaborates on the best intentions of the rational mind. Not simply a subtle aside on craft, this bifurcated human obsession with sex and death permeates and inspires the entire novel. The majority will accept rational notions in the context of moral codes or popular wisdom, but cold logic will never excite them or inspire the blinding, addictive passion roused by the keystone carnal combination of sex and violence. It’s a lesson that’s always poignant, and Burgess exploits this reality while methodically instructing the intellectual outsiders embodied by his protagonist, Tristram.
Tristram is a history teacher in an odd future reality where a liberal establishment rules with a shaking finger, but never with the fist. Peace and noble wisdom has prevailed for an age, but the population has exploded and drastically reduced the quality of life. Meat is unknown but for fish products; alcohol is a nearly intolerable distillation of fruit and vegetable peels. Apartments are miniscule, efficient hovels where feel-good television packed with positive messages is viewed on a ceiling-mounted disc over the bed or projected directly onto the ceiling for the less fortunate. Tristram’s brother, Derek, is a rising star at the Ministry of Infertility, a powerful arm of the state that creates and disseminates propaganda encouraging non-reproductive sexuality. As The Wanting Seed was first published in 1962, only two years after the introduction of the female oral contraceptive known as ‘the pill’, Burgess imagines that one means of population control might be the active promotion of homosexuality. Derek’s Ministry does this with catchy slogans such as “It’s Sapiens to be Homo” amongst other forms of propaganda. Those who are ambitious curry favor with the non-reproductive establishment by ‘taking up’ homosexuality, behaving in an extremely effeminate manner (as Derek does), or even by castrating themselves. Avowed heteros and especially parents are routinely passed over for promotions, and are softly discriminated against by those who seem to have society’s best interest at heart. Bibles and religions are outlawed, and reason seems to have triumphed—yet passive law enforcement has its limitations, and the population continues to rise and underground churches prosper despite what seems like ‘common sense’. Eventually, something has to give, as the Earth is pushed far beyond its ability to provide for the ever-growing masses.
As an educator, the fertile Tristram teaches the very heart of Burgess’ message that serves as a plot structure for The Wanting Seed, a lesson which all but an influential few fail to fully grasp (it’s certainly beyond his students)—that the liberal mentality can not endure, that non-violence, stoic discipline and sexual abstinence are against human nature, and perhaps even in conflict with nature itself. To illustrate the conflict between the reason of the mind and the ‘peculiar reason’ of the flesh, Burgess chose an idiosyncratic but fitting set of philosophical and historical adversaries: Pelagius and St. Augustine.
During the childhood of the Catholic Church, a spirited debate occurred regarding the ideas of heresiarch Pelagius. Pelagius, whose birth date is unknown but who likely died in exile shortly after 418 C.E., advocated an apparently intolerable variation on Christianity wherein the Sin of Adam was not inherited by the human race. Pelagian ‘optimism’ suggests that man is by nature good, and is afforded the free will to choose between good and evil. St. Augustine (354-430) served as the Bishop of Hippo after his conversion from a free-thinking Platonist to a staunch Catholic. As an orthodox devotee, he penned various diatribes against Pelagius and his followers, defending the position of the Catholic Church that men are all born sinners; Original Sin ensures that men are all innately evil and can only achieve salvation through the Grace of God. Pelagianism was repeatedly declared heresy by the Holy See, and Pelagian ideas have remained in conflict with the fundamental beliefs of the Church to present times.
Burgess, virtuoso of wordplay, fiddled with language and used this early doctrinal conflict to broadly describe cyclical shifts in sociological thought. Tristram explains Burgess’ cycle as follows:
Pelphase – Interphase – Gusphase
The Gusphase then inevitably transitions back into the Pelphase, and the cycle begins anew.
The Pelphase, or Pelagian Phase
Named after Pelagius, who believed in the innate goodness of mankind, governments operating within a Pelagian worldview see man as innately good or at least reasonable. The assumption is that, given the proper encouragement and led in the right direction, men will naturally act within a moral structure that benefits the larger community. Law enforcement is lax, and people take pride in being part of a peaceful, functioning, optimistic society. People are innocent until proven guilty.
“Disappointment opens up a vista of chaos.”
In the Interphase, respect for the golden ideals of the Pelphase has dwindled, and the virtual utopia fails. The Pelagian honor system has been exploited and order is lost; anarchy ensues. Fearful and desperate, people cry out for authority and protection; police and mob brutality run rampant.
The Gusphase, or Augustinian Phase
Named after St. Augustine, who believed that man was intrinsically evil, states holding an Augustinian worldview enforce order strictly and routinely assume the worst of every individual. Religion is encouraged, as the Augustinian imagines that wretched mankind can only be redeemed by some higher power. In the Gusphase, a man is essentially guilty until proven innocent. However, the theory of the Pelagian/Augustinian cycle holds that man does occasionally demonstrate the ability to behave reasonably well, and eventually Gusphase pessimism gives way to Pelphase optimism, and the cycle renews itself.
The Wanting Seed is a novelization of this cycle, and Tristram’s historical expertise makes him a knowing outsider as he watches the general populace get swept up in the fluctuations of the cycle. As the effete upper class males lead militias of sharply dressed and well armed ne’er do wells through the streets, enforcing the formerly voluntary reproductive limitations, Tristram observes the Pelphase slip into the Interphase. When worldwide crops fail and starvation ensues, a secular state cobbles together cynical prayers to appease angered entities unknown. As society crumbles, long repressed heterosexual urges bubble to the surface. Orgies of sex and violence sweep the barren countryside. Makeshift Bacchanals are overseen approvingly by neo-Christian priests, who serve human flesh as Host to their famished flocks. And in a fanciful but illustrative gesture, Burgess mirrors these fertility rites with a burst of natural fecundity among the flora and fauna, claiming that “All life was one,”
Eventually however, humanity and nature must strike a cruel bargain. Reproduction must be checked for the Earth to continue to sustain these frisky homo sapiens. Yet, man, an animal of urges and instincts only sporadically checked by reason, suffers from “paternity lust” (among other vices) and will not consistently heed sensible warnings. Man is also naturally competitive, aggressive & tribal. Burgess suggests that life has little flavor without both passionate irrational lust, and foolish fiery hatred. In spite of reasonable solutions, the herd of humanity yearns to fuck, fight and perish in some conflict or other—so long as he does it with the illusion of honor and hope for an afterlife. In short, humanity is just one giant Dionysian suicide cult!
If reason is unable to stave off the booming orgiastic mob, how then can human existence and quality of life be sustained on a planet with limited land and resources?
* * *
As improvised governments begin to organize the chaotic countryside, a hoodwinked Tristram finds himself a sergeant in the new British Army, teaching the conscripts. His headstrong treatment of “current affairs”, however, eventually sends him to the front lines. Soldiers in his platoon sing songs of camaraderie, eating bully-tins of “ripe, soft, properly cooked man” as they warily listen to sketchy reports of Enemy activities. After a period of uncertainty, Tristram’s platoon disembarks and the soldiers find themselves on a familiar but unknown piece of land. They rally and head off to a trench, where they wait with a potent combination of fear and resolve to give the Enemy Hell, whomever the Enemy might be. The sounds of explosions and artillery approach, and in a decisive moment the platoon rushes into the frenzy of gunfire and eerily feminine screams.
Burgess, in a brilliant stroke, solves the problem of overpopulation with a literal battle of the sexes meant to yield no survivors. The War Department drafts undesirable segments of the population and sends them off to war with each other, because “everybody has to die…and history seems to show that a soldier’s death is the best death,” Intelligent law-abiding citizens live complacently in luxury, supporting perpetual war efforts against terrible, imagined enemies. In a distinctly Augustinian sentiment, Burgess beautifully links war with fecundity:
“Was war, then, the big solution after all? Were those crude, early theorists right? War the great aphrodisiac, the great source of adrenalin, the solvent of ennui, Angst, melancholia, acidia, spleen? War itself a massive sexual act, culminating in a detumescence which were not mere metaphorical dying? War, finally, the controller, the trimmer and excisor, the justifier of fertility?”
However, it is suggested that even this cruel balance cannot last forever. As the privileged class grows sensitive, liberal and optimistic—they will reject the seemingly heartless (if practical) solution devised by their forebears and begin the Pelphase anew. Of course, Malthusian reality suggests that it will only be a matter of time before the other foot drops again: thus, The Cycle.
The themes explored by Burgess in The Wanting Seed seem all-too-relevant at the dawn of this twenty-first century, as land and resources dwindle and the Earth’s population continues to rise steadily, with the world’s most powerful empires engaged in an undeclared, undefined war on an Enemy whose name is simply ‘Terror’. Is it possible that even now, the masses are being manipulated into support for a pragmatic, never-ending war necessary to sustain a quality of life that seems otherwise unsustainable? Perhaps, as Burgess suggests, the masses won’t have it any other way. Perhaps human existence, for most, really is little more than sex and death—one forever demanding the other.
This review was originally published in the The Black Flame, Number 16. 2005.