ROBERT HARRIS’S LATEST NOVEL, “Act of Oblivion” is a welcome reminder of fanaticism’s terrifying aptitude for extinguishing human happiness. By recalling that period in English history when God was taken seriously enough to die and kill for, it also serves as a timely check upon our readiness to condemn the excesses of contemporary religious bigotry.
The plot of “Act of Oblivion” concerns the relentless pursuit of the “regicides” Edward Whalley and William Goffe – two of the fifty-nine signatories to King Charles I’s death warrant. As with his many other works of historical fiction, Harris’s novel brings to life a period that is at once starkly alien but also curiously familiar to our own.
Whalley and Goffe were colonels in Oliver Cromwell’s “New Model Army” – a fearsome body of righteous killers that might best be thought of as the Taliban in breastplates. Both men were what their contemporaries called “Puritans” – standard-bearers for a radical Protestantism that sought to strip away from Christian practice all oppressive hierarchies and unnecessary rituals, until only the purified encounter between God and the sinner remained.
Fanaticism was more-or-less built into Puritanism. So much religious falsity was said to have been interposed between the simple Christian seeker and his Bible, and for such base and nefarious purposes, that clearing the path to glory struck the Puritan-in-arms as an inescapable duty. Not the Church of England, not the Roman Catholic Church (whose doctrines and practices were thought to skulk beneath the Anglican Bishops’ surplices) not even the King of England, after years of civil war, could be permitted to go on corrupting and obstructing the path to salvation. Not if these New Model Puritans had any say in the matter.
And for the eleven years of the English republic – dubbed the “Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland” by Cromwell, its “Lord Protector” – they did have a say. In their zeal, the Puritans shut down the brothels and the theatres, and cut down the “pagan” maypoles standing erect over a multitude of English village greens. Not even Christmas – similarly denounced as an excuse for pagan revelry – escaped the attentions of the Puritan Parliament’s censorious legislators. Under the Commonwealth, celebrating Christmas became a crime.
Today, those evincing such unyielding determination to do good would be described as “Woke”. The comparison is far from original. No less a luminary than the English historian, David Starkey, has noted the rather ominous similarities between the Sixteenth Century’s Protestant Reformation (of which Puritanism was but one radical evolution) and the “Woke Revolution” of the Twenty-First.
Both movements were born out of game-changing technological innovation. The Protestants’ progenitor was the printing-press, the Woke communicate via the Internet. If the Reformation was the inevitable corollary to the emancipatory impulses of the Renaissance, then Wokeism is the heir of the counter-cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s.
In both cases, the movements’ intellectual trajectories trace a course from moderation to extremism; liberation to forced conversion. Once accepted as righteous and true by its followers, any system of religious, moral and/or political thought will be refined and intensified to the point where the idea of the rest of humanity continuing to languish in moral and political ignorance becomes intolerable. Those dwelling in darkness must be made to see the light. Those who wilfully reject the enlightenment of the righteous deserve only punishment.
The danger arises when religious and political fanaticism acquires arms. Christianity found the Emperor Constantine and his legions. The Puritans did not so much find as construct their New Model Army. The Bolsheviks enrolled the armed deserters fleeing the Russian Czar’s broken armies.
The Woke have yet to find their army – but they are close.
Like the English Puritans of the 1630s and 40s, the Woke of the 2020s are to be found embedded in the nation’s most powerful political, legal, commercial and intellectual institutions. They are determined and ingenious promoters of their cause, and a significant fraction of the means of communication is under their control. All they need is an antagonist to match the folly of Charles I – someone to deliver them the key to the arsenal.
But, as Robert Harris’s latest novel makes clear, fanaticism burns too brightly to long endure. It also conjures up its own nemesis. For every fanatical action, there is an equal and opposite fanatical reaction.
Extremism consumes itself.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 January 2023.