In the Thirteenth Disciple, Malcolm Maudsley asks “What are we going to do about it? What’s our job to help its beginning again in this collapse of civilization?” (TD 178). This is the question that haunts Gibbon’s work. How might we bring about the utopian new Golden Age? If art should serve as propaganda, what precisely does it encourage us to do?
Mitchell’s problem may be in the question itself. The ego-driven desire to reform society, to impress his likeness upon the material of the world, is such that to produce a great reformation would create a hierarchical positioning. Those who have attempted to answer the great question of life for another, or group of others, end up leaders and influencers; a position of power inherently problematic to Mitchell’s insistence on freedom and equality. To dictate terms to another, even in the more benevolent inspirational mode of political reformers and Christ figures, repeats the very institutional power structures and personal ambitions that Mitchell is keen to avoid. Thus, in his debut novel Stained Radiance, we see how various political reform groups, like the anarchocommunist party, are beset by infighting, power grabs, exploitation, and embezzlement. The drunk poet-vagrant, Koupa, speaks at a meeting of his great utopian vision: “the awakened soul of the common people” (SR 72). Yet, he cannot successfully lead others to that same vision or suggest a course of action to bring about the great Revolution as he gets distracted by writing poetry. At one point, he suggests that others must go seek the vision themselves, but Mitchell undercuts this strategy by making it an excuse for Koupa’s fear of being incarcerated should he leave with them. Mitchell’s female characters, who seem to understand the utopian revelation, set about a path to achieve resolution for themselves, a sort of free existence, but Mitchell recoils from sending them out into the world to make converts. It seems that for Mitchell, one cannot simultaneously save oneself and save the rest of the world. In order to save others from harmful power structures and hierarchical institutionalized values, one must have power and influence, to do so replaces an old system with a new, substituting a new benevolent leader for an old malevolent one.
For Mitchell, the question then becomes how does one change the world while avoiding the necessity for authority? Must we live alone, in exile, to achieve true freedom from oppressive power structures? If we force change on others for their own good, is that not exactly what the Imperialists and the Capitalists have all sought to do?
In the short story “The Road,” Mitchell projects this problem onto women’s liberation by testing the viability of a Christ-like path to leadership and reform. Jane Houten, a young, naïve English woman of mixed heritage, returns to Egypt, the land of her father, to free women from the patriarchal oppression of their native culture: to impress upon them their right to freedom and education. She is kidnapped, raped, and forced into domestic slavery by El Bey. In a divine sort of madness, she performs a miracle of prophecy and becomes a mystical prophet, preaching a feminist religion of El Darb, the road, to the harem women of Egypt. One day, a young man recalls her to her former existence and she recoils from the adoration of her followers, seeing that they worship her and the power of her mysteries rather than the content she preached. However, when one of her followers pleads for her blessing upon a dying woman, Jane gives up her chance of escape. She returns to the dying woman’s side and performs the rituals of El Darb to comfort her. El Bey, her kidnapper and rapist, returns for her, the women revolt, and Jane kills him. His slaves, in vengeful madness, seize her and another woman and drown them. Her story ends with prophesied resurrection. “She escaped upon the water and the darkness, and some day–surely from that Avalon where Arthur dreams, and sleeps the Danish king–she will come again and preach the faith that is to deliver the women of the world” (265).
In this short story, Mitchell tests the viability of taking public action to bring about the Golden Age. Within the particular Imperialist context of “Polychromata,” Mitchell attempts to set up his test with conditions most favorable to a positive progressive outcome. The story is largely patterned upon the evangelism, death, and resurrection of Christ, a religious figure Gibbon respects once removed from the oppressive power dynamics of the official church. He avoids the inherent male supremacy in Christianity, though, by replacing the male christ with the female mystic, Jane Houten, and the male disciples with the women of the harem. Her mission, even in the throes of mysticism and ritual, remains largely secular and pacifist: “She preached no war on men, but rather the flaming creed that was to purge love of cruelty and abomination” (257). The focus is on the path, El Darb, rather than on obedience to and adoration of a particular God. God remains fairly obscure in the text, figured primarily as inversion of the traditional patriarchal God of abrahamic religions. Jane preaches “a God scorned and denied of men” (258). The City of God, the grail of her reforming quest, is not a place of exclusivist religious salvation, but rather “an amazing, essayable happiness, life freed and eager, life in the sunlight beyond the prisons of fear and cruelty” (258). The Gospel according to Jane is only imperialist in terms of the treatment of women: she does not seek to obliterate native culture as a whole, only those beliefs and traditions that directly harm women. Mitchell even attempts to alleviate some of the racial imperialist concerns inherent in reformation by utilizing the same structure of exile and return that features so heavily in Hebrew prophecy. Jane is the daughter of an Egyption man, exiled for his progressive beliefs, and an English woman. Thus, when she returns to Egypt, she has some claim to kinship with the population she seeks to enlighten.
Yet, despite his efforts to neutralize many of the traditional oppressive power structures at work in revolution and reform, Mitchell cannot avoid the inherent power a leader retains over their people.When she performs a miracle of prophecy upon a curtain, Jane awes and terrifies the other women into a type of fearful worship. Jane’s quick transformation from disempowered mad woman to powerful supernatural mystic affects an immediate power reversal in the harem. Zuria, the head of the harem women, sees her own prophesied death and falls “grovelling” upon her hands in front of Jane. Now, standing above her would-be tormentors, “with a light unearthly in her eyes and hands outstretched to the terrified women,” Jane can enlist the women of the harem in her mission of liberation (257). Mitchell seems to suggest here that it is the power itself, in this case a supernatural power rather than any aspect of philosophy, that draws followers and forms a leader.
Critical of the means through which change can be enacted, Mitchell does not allow Jane to continue in her supernatural supremacy. A young, educated man enters the story and, infatuated with Jane, asks who she is. This questions breaks through her haze of supernatural mysticism: recalling Jane to herself, to her own fallible human ego. She then sees her leadership and power over these women for nothing but a disgusting adoration born out of fear and awe. Rather than liberate the women, she has only succeeded in supplying them with a new, kindlier master: herself. She is tempted to escape with this man who will see her safely back to England, but to do so would mean abandoning the women she had sought to help. If those in power recognize the injustice of their power, should they immediately relinquish all power or do they then have a responsibility to those who had followed them? Can the true mission of utopian reform survive without a leader? In “The Road,” Mitchell resolves these issues by following the same lines as the Christ story. Though Jane wishes to reject the power given her, she cannot reject her disciples. They revolt, and she pays the price of leadership: she is murdered along with her first disciple, and thus becomes a martyr and legend.
Ultimately, the women of Egypt carry on her crusade, years later, by marching and protesting. Reformation has not been completely successful, they have yet to gain a true utopian revolution, but the mission remains alive and active. However, part of its duration depends upon the legend, the notoriety and subsequent martyrdom of Jane Houten: in Her name, they carry on. In this test, like in Mitchell’s Spartacus, social revolution cannot be totally independent of a great ego, a singular powerful and charismatic leader, and thus is susceptible to whatever flaws that leader possesses. Ultimately, Mitchell’s anxiety about leadership and authority was nearly supernatural in its timeliness. Published in 1929, Mitchell’s fantastic, almost supernatural, short story deals with the very real problems of rising authoritarian movements. Mitchell’s critique of the structures of revolution and leadership seem especially important when we consider that the Nazis were elected into government in 1932, due in part, to the popularity and charisma of Adolph Hitler. The power to lead, to mobilize and unite groups of people to propagate one particular ideology, can be dangerous indeed.
“The Road” was first published in The Cornhill, 67 (1929), pp 341-52. It can be found in the Smeddum anthology.