The University Bookman


Spring 2015

L’Engle’s Conservatism

Jordan J. Ballor

A newly discovered section of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time (1963), which was excised before the book’s publication, makes clear the author’s classically conservative vision of political and social order. The passages have to do with the origins of totalitarianism on the alien planet of Camazotz.

book cover imageAs readers will recall, the Murry siblings Meg and Charles Wallace travel with their new friend Calvin O’Keefe to the planet of Camazotz in search of the Murrys’ father. In the course of their rescue attempt, the three children confront the creature IT, a disembodied brain that resides in the planet’s capital city and that imposes, through strength of intellect and will, supreme order throughout the entire planet. L’Engle describes IT: “A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT. IT was the most horrible, the most repellent thing [Meg] had ever seen, far more nauseating than anything she had ever imagined with her conscious mind, or that had ever tormented her in her most terrible nightmares.” But the world of Camazotz under the tyranny of IT is not merely aesthetically repellant; IT’s vision of life is morally repugnant as well.

At one point IT speaks through Charles Wallace: “Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live their own, separate, individual lives. I’ve been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with. Camazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT. And that’s why everybody’s so happy and efficient.”

Just as individuals have been done away with, so have individual goods. IT is the consummate central planner. IT embodies, in IT’s uniquely disembodied way, the ethos and the hubris of collectivism. IT is a mind completely given over to the libido dominandi, and Camazotz is a vision of the hellish existence of collectivism. As Jennifer Maloney wrote in The Wall Street Journal, this collectivism has long been understood from within the context of the Cold War: “Many readers, then and now, have understood the book’s dark planet Camazotz—a regimented place in which mothers in unison call their children in for dinner—to represent the Soviet Union. But the passage discovered by L’Engle’s granddaughter presents a more nuanced worldview.”

This “more nuanced worldview,” however, is one that is deeply resonant with classical conservative critiques of both atomistic individualism and totalitarian collectivism. In the excised section, Meg has a conversation with her father after his rescue. Meg wonders how IT came to rule Camazotz, although she is also clearly concerned with similar dangers back on earth. Mr. Murry explains that IT’s domination “was the logical outcome of two things.” First, “complete totalitarianism in certain countries,” which he compares with “Russia under Khruschev,” “Germany under Hitler,” as well as Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, Castro’s Cuba, and Mao’s China. This is the familiar list of dictators associated with various forms of totalitarian rule in the twentieth century.

But the second factor, says Mr. Murry, has to do with dangers inherent in democratic regimes. Too much political tyranny can result in totalitarianism, but so also “can too much prosperity. Or you could put it that it’s the result of too strong a desire for security.” Here Mr. Murry is pointing to the totalitarian dangers of Western-style social democracies and welfare states, which implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) promise complete material security.

When Meg defends security as a good thing, Mr. Murry allows that this is true, but that it also “is a most seductive thing.” In the interests of security one might decide to sacrifice political liberty. In the interests of material affluence, one might entrust to government that which only ought to be entrusted to God. In the interests of prosperity, one might create an idol of political and economic power.

In a gloss on the famous passage from Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, Mr. Murry concludes that the love of security is “the greatest evil there is.” Placing security as the highest social good leads people to stop taking risks, to cease being entrepreneurial, to give up liberty, and even love itself. Mr. Murry goes on to talk about the insidious nature of such “lust for security.” It is often hard to detect, and therefore all the more difficult to combat. It is a form of, to borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, the “soft despotism” intrinsic to democratic forms of tyranny.

At least initially, the “lust for security” in the excised passage takes on a deeply individualist tenor. The security that one is concerned for is construed to be narrowly personal and individualistic: my security, my prosperity. When a person is concerned only for one’s own material security, there is little basis for taking risking danger for the good of others. “Suppose your great-grandmother, and all those like her, had worried about security?” asks Mr. Murry. “They’d never have gone across the land in flimsy covered wagons.” A version of this more common in Europe today is that they might stop having children altogether. “Our country has been greatest when it has been most insecure,” says Mr. Murry. Or one could say, democratic peoples are at their best when they are concerned not for their narrow, individual selfish interests, but are instead lovingly other-directed, when they will and do the good of others.

But much like Edmund Burke’s reading of the French Revolution, and those of others in the great tradition of classical conservatism, including Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Kuyper, Wilhelm Röpke, and Russell Kirk, radical individualism and collectivism both end up in the same place. They have the same “logical outcome,” as Mr. Murry puts it: totalitarianism of the kind found on Camazotz.

Even if this didactic section was rightly omitted for literary and aesthetic concerns, hints remain of this deeper connection between atomistic individualism and totalitarian collectivism in the published text. IT’s emphasis on economic “efficiency,” for instance, shows how economic and political collectives often cohere. L’Engle’s vigorous classically conservative vision of social life also comes to expression in the book’s major themes of respect for individual gifts, talents, and diversity combined with loving sacrifice and the importance of institutions like the family. A Wrinkle in Time thus remains a powerful articulation of the dangers of worldly ideologies, such that even its unpublished sections have things to teach us today.  

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Posted: May 10, 2015 in Essays.

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A poor man, if he has dignity, honesty, the respect of his neighbors, a realization of his duties, a love of the wisdom of his ancestors, and possibly some taste for knowledge or beauty, is rich in the unbought grace of life.

Russell Kirk


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