Friday, December 27, 2013

On the Square

On the Square

Christmas greetings, everyone.  I had gone most of the way towards a post, and then lost it in a program crash caused by an increasingly decrepit and unstable system. 

I confess my historical knowledge comes from magazine articles and thumbnail sketches.  However, I was intrigued by Benson’s unfolding, via the mouths of the priests and their elderly friend, of the century 1907-2007.  I wonder what Benson would think of the real version.  A secular author would probably never dare to put forth as putative events, such towering depravities as those of the 20th century, but maybe a priest has a firmer and more realistic grasp of human nature, and Benson would only nod grimly at the spectacle of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the rest.

Benson’s alternative century maps to our own in some astonishing ways – the increasing irrelevance of conservatism at the hands of the welfare state, for example, and the sidelining of the Anglican church after evisceration by liberals.  He misses the Black Swans of the spread of contraception and other forms of willed infertility, and the commodification of universities, which as a countervailing social force, have been neutered by the application of the profit motive, rather than by becoming increasingly poverty-stricken, as Benson proposes.  He gets right the nationalisation of essential industries.  He absolutely nails the psychological explanations of the religious sense.  Electric fires, multi-lane highways, the formation of power blocs, the rise of Asia, all seem curiously familiar.

Were you surprised, though, at Benson’s unhesitating call of a world-wide conspiracy driving these events?  Did you blink at the idea of Freemasonry – old buffers in starched shirts – being the explicit driving force behind it all?  What do you think of Masonry, or has it hardly ever crossed your mind? 

I have a habit of pruning my possessions, papers, books, trinkets, in search of greater simplicity, which, mistakenly, I identify with owning fewer things.  (To my life-long dismay and chagrin, I find that not actually having said possessions in my direct purlieu doesn’t mean that they lose their grip on my imagination, or that I’m any closer to being free of envy, greed, jealousy and covetousness. Were it only that easy.) 

Be that as it may, one of the many books I’ve owned temporarily and flicked on, was a curious little autobiography by a Welshman, who converted, hard, to a Protestant expression of Christianity, following an involvement in Freemasonry.  Though deeply penitent, he felt he was making little progress in the Christian life until he underwent a sort of self-directed exorcism prayer service, during which he made a bonfire of his both his Masonic regalia and his Masonic books.  About the latter, he was especially regretful, since they had cost him dear, and he could have recouped by selling them to a new Mason, but, no, he set his face against it.  He would, he decided, have no part in causing some-one else to stumble.  (This much had a lasting effect on me – since then I’ve had no compunction about burning books, at least, those that I thought weren’t good enough to live: sex ‘n shopping novels, spy novels that try to kid you you’re actually in the know, and those later Heinleins where he went doollally for incest.  Broo-arrgh.  I’m not ashamed I burned them; I’m ashamed they were ever in the house.)  Blessings on the Ex-mason: he felt much relief from his action, though at that time, my condescending response was that demonic influences could not possibly reside in a few odd items of clothing and books, or if they did, that they could not harm a Christian.

I wish, however, I had that ex-Mason’s biography in my hand now: he cited some details of masonic ritual and ideals that would make interesting companion reading to the prologue of Benson’s Lord of the World.  The ex-Mason believed there was deep objective evil in Freemasonry, and in that, he agrees with the Catholic Church.  If the Church’s teachings on this are less well-known today, it’s because Masonry is less strong than it was in 1907. 

It was extraordinarily strong.  Here’s a little list I found of Freemason lodges in the province of Otago alone:

District Grand Lodge, New Zealand South,
District Grand Lodge, Otago & Southland,
Hiram Lodge, No. 46 NZC.
Lodge Celtic, No. 477 SC.
Lodge Ionic, No. 191 NZC.
Lodge Karitane, No. 221 NZC, Waikouaiti.
Lodge Maori, No. 105 NZC, Ravensbourne.
Lodge Morning Star, No. 192.
Lodge Morning Star, No. 192, Lodge of Instruction.
Lodge Oceanic, No. 154 NZC.
Lodge Otago Kilwinning, No. 143 NZC.
Lodge Otago Kilwinning, No. 417 SC.
Lodge Outram, No. 375 NZC, Outram.
Lodge Peninsula Kilwinning, No. 696 SC, Portobello.
Lodge Roslyn, No. 250 NZC.
Lodge Roslyn Morning Star, No. 192 NZC.
Lodge St. Andrew, No. 432 SC.
Lodge St. Clair, No. 246 NZC.
Lodge St. George, No. 1128 EC, Lawrence.
Lodge St. John, No. 84 NZC, Mosgiel.
Lodge St. John Kilwinning, No. 662 SC, North East Valley.
Lodge St. Patrick, No. 468 IC.
Lodge Strath Taieri, No. 199 NZC, Middlemarch.
Lodge Taharangi, No. 235 NZC.
Lodge Taieri, No. 620 SC, Outram. Later moved to Dunedin
and became Lodge Roslyn, No. 250 NZC.
Lodge Waikouaiti, No. 2115 EC then No. 57 NZC.
Port Chalmers Marine Lodge, No. 942 EC.
Research Lodge of Otago, No. 161 NZC.
Service Lodge, No. 237 NZC.
The Dunedin Lodge, No. 931.
The United Lodge of Otago, No. 448 NZC.

At a guess, Otago had not more than 80 000 in population in 1907.  30 lodges, maybe, though some are probably subsets of other lodges.  One lodge for every 1300 Otago men.  One in nearly every small town.  If you plotted them on a map, you would have something very close to a parish system. 

Looked at it this way, the question is not, what did the Church see?  It’s, what were the rest of us missing?

Now I must confess to a personal interest: in 1907, my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my great-uncle were all Freemasons, and around this year my great-grandfather had a terrible industrial accident, fell into his own machinery, and died.  He had a huge Masonic funeral, such a source of pride to the family, that newspaper clippings were preserved carefully, right into the twenty-first century.

Masonry had the hearts and minds of the men in my family.  It was a serious financial and emotional commitment.  We still have  - I still have – souvenirs.  A Masonic order decoration, a couple of Masonic song books, family photographs of the men in their regalia.  There were, I’m told, white kid gloves, which were presented by masons to their wives.  Family members were co-opted to help the men-folk move through the degrees.  There was a grandmastership, in the end. 

There was also damage.  My great-grandfather was cut out of his father’s will.  My grandfather became alienated from his Presbyterian roots.  He took to drinking, and never regained a Christian faith.  After Gallipoli, after the trenches, the Brotherhood of Man didn’t look so good. Masonry bears huge responsibility for giving a whole generation of men an inadequate theology of suffering, and allowing them to take it into the trenches.

The First World War frost-burnt Freemasonry in New Zealand.  The lodges were never the same, afterwards, and now there are fewer than 8 000 masons in the whole of New Zealand.

I don’t have any doubt that the programme of Masonry was and is inimical to that of grace.  However, it’s hard to know whether an explicit political programme could ever have been executed by the “mafia of the mediocre,” as Freemasonry has been called.  But the observable numbers and the structure are such as to make you wonder what the Church knew about her humanistic antitype. Whatever it was, I'm happy to take her wisdom seriously, and give Masonry a wide berth.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

I've had similar thoughts as I read. At times Benson's version of future history threw me out of the world of the novel. I'm used to reading speculative fiction, but not works of speculative fiction written before WWI.

I thought it interesting that Benson like Orwell and Huxley imagined a future of consolidation, everything moving toward these great superpowers, blocks of East vs West. And I remember a time when that vision still seemed possible. But as I came to adulthood my own experience was the fragmentation of those seeming blocks into smaller and smaller pieces. Last time I looked at a map of Europe I was puzzled: I don't know what all those little countries in Eastern Europe are! I used to be great at geography but I totally failed an online quiz because what used to be USSR when I was first drawing maps is now unrecognizable.

I was also quite flummoxed by the Masons. Though I've read historical novels in which Masonic conspiracies play a role and fantasy novels with Masons as wizards, it definitely felt odd to have them treated as such a political powerhouse.

My personal interest is quite personal as well: my father-in-law is a Mason and a Catholic. Though I'm not sure how active he is with the Masons, he has at times been a daily Mass goer. It seems rather schizophrenic. But then I suppose most of his life is since he's also divorced and remarried with three more children in that second marriage. No, I can't see that the Masons have at all been a positive influence.

Emily J. said...

Making my way slowly through the book, stalled by Christmas celebrations and other books (A Passage to India - lyrical). I'm in danger of reading a spoiler here, but thought I would check in. It's surprising to me that Benson's world seems so little changed in some ways from early 20th century Britain, and then things like a Volor appear. The people's manners also seem rooted in a past that no longer exists - what would he make of the changes in male/female relationships? Of youth culture? Then again, human nature hasn't really changed much - Melanie's use of shizophrenic seems like a good word to use to describe the desire for a universal brotherhood of tolerance and equality coupled with an equally strong desire for individual power and glory. Haven't read far enough to make a judgement about how this plays out in the novel, nor do I know enough about Masonry to say much about it. Does it still have much influence or has belonging to societies died out?

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm about 50% through The Lord of the World myself and have a pretty good feeling what is going to happen to Percy before the end. ;-) And I kind of wish this were a TV show we were watching in "real time" so that we could all make bets about it. LOL!

Like Emily, I know next to nothing about Freemasonry, so when it comes up in the story, I lump it in with a general movement toward humanism and secularism. But this is because these two movements are the most powerful today, not necessarily because I'm reading Benson properly.

Otepoti said...

On the topic of how much political influence masonry could wield, there's an interesting article here on how governments have perceived and dealt with freemasonry. The spectre of the masons gave many states, democratic to communist, the moral panics good and proper, right up to the 1990s. (Hitler even put masons in the concentration camps.)

A good conspiracy theory has many useful purposes for a government; such a unifying effect, happily unfalsifiable. I'm still slightly more likely to take a priest's conjectures seriously, though.

Incidentally, our Parliament building is the shape of a beehive, a masonic symbol, and was commissioned by a suspected Mason of a known Mason. Spo-o-o-oky.

Shall we have a look at the first chapters now we're past Christmas?

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I finished reading it last night. Wow. Not what I expected at all. Yes, let's have a look at the first chapters.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm a little over halfway done myself. =) Let's go ahead and discuss it, Otepoti! I actually got someone else to read it and she seems to have powered through it. I'm sure she is impatient for posts, although she's shy and probably won't comment. =)