March 10, 2021

The Descent into Hell: "The Obsolete Man" (1961)




What makes Romney Wordsworth, the hero of "The Obsolete Man" stand out from the heroes of 1984 and Darkness at Noon is, I think, his humanity. Those two stories are very much contests of ideas and ideologies, and while the human toll can't be ignored, one still comes to the end of each story experiencing a sense of futility, of the individual being crushed.

Not so with Rod Serling's disturbing Twilight Zone episode, which originally aired on June 2, 1961. Now, it's true that Wordsworth, like his counterpart Rubashov from Darkness at Noon, is ultimately executed by the masters of the totalitarian government that rules over his society. Wordsworth's death in a bomb blast is far more explicit, though, than is the case with Rubashov, who is being led to the executioner as the story comes to an end. (Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, suffers a more existential fate; while his body survives, it is is soul that dies.)

But while Rubashov may conclude that he deserves death for his crimes in the name of the revolution, and Smith may be too far gone to realize anything, Wordsworth meets his fate with glorious, even joyful, defiance. It's not that he yearns for death; I think he appreciates life as much as anyone. The difference, though, is that he doesn't fear death; and, as the Chancellor will discover, that makes for a huge difference.

As the story opens, we're introduced to a society in which both books and religion have been outlawed. Wordsworth (played brilliantly by Burgess Meredith) is summoned to face the Chancellor (played malevolently by Fritz Weaver)*, who presides over a magnificently expressionist courtroom, standing behind a podium designed to make any human look insignificent by comparison. The subaltern reads the charges against  Wordsworth*; he has spent his life as a librarian, and he believes in God. He is, therefore, an obsolete man. The sentence: death.

*The tone of voice used by the subaltern as he reads the charges was a harsh monotone that, according to director Elliot Silverstein, was modeled after the speaking voice of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Let it not be said, however, that this enlightened State lacks compassion. Wordsworth is given a choice as to how he will die. His choice: he will die in his library at home, with the execution to be broadcast live on television, a decision that meets with the Chancellor's approval ("It has an educative effect on the population.") That's the where; the how is to be a secret between Wordsworth and his executioner. As the Chancellor will soon discover, though, the smallest act of individuality, the most insignificant expression of freedom, can prove fatal to a regime built upon control.

With an hour left to live, Wordsworth has invited the Chancellor to join him in his study, an invitation which the Chancellor accepts despite the obvious risks involved; as he points out to Wordsworth, he does so "to prove to you that the state has no fears, none at all." Then he springs his surprise on the Chancellor, his choice of execution: a bomb, set to explode at midnight. Oh, and by the way, the door to the study is locked and Wordsworth has the key, which means the Chancellor will die with him. Death, Wordsworth says, "the great equalizer" that rich and poor, powerful and weak, all must face, with nothing to distinguish them. For a time the Chancellor puts on a brave front, but he knows there will be no rescue party from the state: "the act of rescue would be very demeaning to them." When he cracks, it's a doozy: "In the name of God, let me out!" "Yes, Chancellor," Wordsworth replies quietly, "in the name of God, I will let you out." Proving, once again, that there are no athiests in foxholes."

As the Chancellor returns to the courtroom, he finds that the subaltern, who once sat at the foot of the podium, now occupies the seat of power. His show of weakness, of appealing in the name of God, has disgraced the state. "you therefore have no function. You are obsolete." In the end, the mob turns on him and tears him to shreds, the revolution consuming its own.

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We're never given a glimpse of life under the regime, whether its citizens are beaten, tortured, starved, herded like cattle. We only see the rigidity of the law: harsh, oppressive, unforgiving, absolute. For all we know, intimidation and fear alone are sufficient to maintain such total control over the populace. After all, those kinds of tactics don't leave any any marks. Outwardly.

But when you think about it, it's not really necessary for the state to resort to such brutality in order to maintain societal order; as a matter of fact, it's really much easier than "The Obsolete Man" makes it appear. Take religion, for instance. There's no need to actually ban it; all it takes is a few well-chosen words: talk about how judgemental, how exclusionary, how hateful it is, how it can create divided loyalties, breed an attitude of defiance, distract from the goals of the state—an institution, mind you, dedicated to preserving the rights of every citizen, not just a select few who refuse to go along with what is best for the whole. You don't have to abolish it: just use shame to make sure it no longer has a place in the public square.

All it takes is the right word whispered in the right ear, the right accusation shouted by the mob in the streets. There's no need to resort to firement to burn books. After all, everyone knows that there are some things just too dangerous, too inflamatory, to appear in print, or online. People can't be allowed to fall victim to falsehoods, disinformation, fake news; it might contradict the advice of the state's experts, and after all, it's the state that knows what is best for the masses. No, it's best to protect the public from such ignorant ideas. And so, just a little pressure applied in the right places. and voila! Publishers will refuse to print such degenerate information, and bookstores will refuse to carry it. You might be able to find it somewhere, wrapped in a brown paper bag.

And the best part of it is, if you play your cards right, the people will do all the dirty work for you. I mean, think about it. Why bother with the messy threat of jail to keep people in line—I mean, to preserve a peaceful society. No, you just make sure to understand the inherent vunerabilities of people. Nobody wants to lose their job or have their business closed, iust because of something they said or did when they were young; no one wants to risk having their credit lowered or find themselves unable to buy or rent a home, based on a candidate they supported for public office. 

Most important, nobody wants to face social ostracism, to have the people you thought were your friends turn their back on you to be airbrushed right out of the scene. All it takes is a little cooperation from the public, and that's no problem when you've built a network of informers out of your true believers, the ones with the right pedigree and education, the ones who understand what the threat is, whether it's spreading false information—that is, something contrary to the official line—or an act of manifest disobediance, such as going out in public without a mask. It doesn't matter if it's the unnamed state of "The Obsolete Man" or an organization such as the Chinese Communist Party, or one that goes under a made-up name—oh, I don't know, let's just say something like Antifa.

Pretty soon, after a little of this, people will learn to censor themselves. You might call it being cowed into submission; others might see it as people learning to act in their own self-interest. Isn't that what we all do anyway?

And who's to say that the people aren't fine with that? 

t  t  t

The ultimate triumph of Romney Wordsworth—yes, triumph—is that he demonstrates, for one and all to see, that the authority of the state sits upon a foundation of sand. "No man is obsolete," Wordsworth says at his trial, and it is true; no human being can be obsolete as long as he maintains his humanity; it is what gives him life.

As Wordsworth and the Chancellor await the bomb blast, with the former increasingly serene and the latter increasingly frantic, Wordsworth reads from his forbidden Bible, and the state is exposed once and for all as a paper tiger. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," he quotes from the 23rd Psalm, but he could just as easily have been reading from the prayer for the dead, which asserts that "in death life is changed, not ended." 

He goes to his execution, not "cringing and pleading," as the Chancellor had predicted, "the end of a rather fruitless life." No, by facing death with such confidence and, dare I say it again, joy, he denies the state its ultimate victory. You do not control me, Wordsworth says through his words and his actions. I refuse to bend to your will. I refuse to live in fear. It is, in fact, the Chancellor who, in the face of death, cringes and pleads for his life—first, when he begs Wordsworth to let him go "in the name of God," and second, when he finds that he has himself been declared obsolete. Like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, his appeals are based on his past history with the state. "I've worked for the state. I've helped the state. I helped give the state strength." Ironic, isn't it, that it is the state that has declared that "history teaches you nothing."

Wordsworth's act of defiance proves that his death, and therefore his life, has not been meaningless. He has exposed a crack in the State, the first crack perhaps, but anyone observing how a crack in a cement sidewalk expands and spreads over time can predict how it will all end. Not, perhaps, in the lifetime of the new Chancellor; not even, perhaps, during the lifetimes of anyone in the story. Nevertheless, it will happen.

It is often said that only a fool fears nothing; it is fear that triggers the necessary instinct for survival. So it is with any government as well; a state that does not know fear issues an open invitation for it's own downfall. As Serling wrote for his concluding narration, "Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man...that state is obsolete."

And that final lesson of Romney Wordsworth's death, the one that most becomes his life, can be found in that book he holds in his hands, where the apostle Paul rhetorically asks the Corinthians, "Death, where is thy sting?" For to fear death is to fear life, and to fear life one might as well be dead. There's another line that Rod Serling wrote for his conclusion, one that wasn't used but sums up the lesson of "The Obsolete Man" quite well. "Any state, entity, or ideology becomes obsolete when it stockpiles the wrong weapons: when it captures territories, but not minds; when it enslaves millions, but convinces nobody. When it is naked, yet puts on armor and calls it faith, while in the Eyes of God it has no faith at all." Just as tyranny is timeless, so is truth.  TV  

2 comments:

  1. Great post about an episode much scarier now than it was then, or even 40 years ago IMO. I remember Mark Scott Zicree in The Twilight Zone Companion opining that Serling "stacked the deck TOO much--the viewer can sit at home, secure in the knowledge that he could never be a part of such a state." That was in 1980, twenty years after the episode aired, and with what has happened in the years since, I'd be willing to bet he'd like a do-over on that thought.

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  2. When a particular religion controls the state, you get the same outcome. You are forced into their dogma- which is why democracy should have as many voices heard as possible- and as many to vote as possible.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!