Gore Vidal’s 1954 dystopian satire Messiah is the story of a religious movement that forms around a charismatic undertaker named John Cave. Cave’s central message is, simply and profoundly, that people should not be afraid of death; not because they could look forward to an afterlife of eternal bliss in paradise, but rather because oblivion means an end to all human suffering. His magnetic personality and vision of a world freed from thanatophobia quickly attract devoted followers, and so the odyssey begins.
Cave’s story is narrated by Eugene Luther, an intellectual and writer who is drafted into the nascent Cavite movement by a mysterious older woman named Clarissa, who affects to be over two thousand years old, and a brilliant younger woman named Iris, with whom Luther falls (literally) hopelessly in love. Luther is tasked with refining and elaborating John Cave’s philosophy – which quickly becomes known as “Cavesword” – into a plausible, organized doctrine. Backed up by the Madison Avenue promotions and psychoanalytic acumen of others in their small (but extremely well-financed) cohort, the Cavites succeed beyond Luther’s wildest (and most troubling) dreams.
Major thematic and plot spoilers follow …
Understanding that there is no literal afterlife, John Cave believes that
We are small. In space, on this tiny planet, we are nothing. Death brings us back to the whole. We lose this instant of awareness, of suffering, like spray in the ocean: there it forms … there it goes, back to the sea.
Although Eugene Luther intuitively and quite enthusiastically accepts Cave’s premise, he also intuitively modifies it to fit his own humanistic, progressive sensibilities:
I think people will listen to you because they realize now that order, if there is any, has never been revealed, that death is the end of personality even for those passionate, self-important I’s who insist upon a universal deity like themselves, carefully presented backwards in order not to give the game away.
How dark, how fine the grave must be! Only sleep and an end of days, an end of fear: the end of fear in the grave as the I goes back to nothing. . . .
… and Luther continues:
How wonderful life will be when men no longer fear dying! When the last superstitions are thrown out and we meet death with the same equanimity that we have met life. No longer will children’s minds be twisted by evil, demanding, moralizing gods whose fantastic origin is in those barbaric tribes who feared death and lightning, who feared life. That’s it: life is the villain to those maniacs who preach reward in death: grace and eternal bliss . . . or dark revenge . . .
Neither revenge nor reward, only the not-knowing in the grave which is the same for all . . .
And without those inhuman laws, what societies we might build! Take the morality of Christ. Begin there, or even earlier with Plato or earlier yet with Zoroaster . . . take the best ideas of the best men and should there be any disagreement as to what is best, use life as the definition, life as the measure: what contributes most to the living is the best.
But the living is soon done and the sooner done the better. I envy those who have already gone . . .
Luther, however, presses on:
If they listen to you, Cave, it will be like the unlocking of a prison. At first they may go wild but then, on their own, they will find ways to life. Fear and punishment in death has seldom stopped the murderer’s hand. The only two things which hold him from his purpose are, at the worst, fear of reprisal from society and, at the best, a feeling for life, a love for all that lives . . . and not the wide-smiling idiot’s love but a sense of the community of the living, of life’s marvelous regency . . . even the most ignorant has felt this. Life is all while death is only the irrelevant shadow at the end, the counterpart to that instant before the seed lives.
Messiah is a dystopian story largely because Cavesword is not, in fact, the memento mori ergo carpe diem message Luther takes it to be. Within a mere three years, the Cavites attain a near-total cultural, political and legal hegemony in the USA. Having concluded that death is preferable to life, the movement inevitably transforms into a national and then international suicide cult, complete with tastefully appointed thanatoria in every urban center. A hierarchy of exquisitely-trained counsellors coach their adherents into taking the candy-coated euthanasia drug Cavesway, which promises a pleasant farewell to earthy travails (this, in a novel that was published 24 years before the Jonestown tragedy):
Our plan is simple. We will provide at each Center full facilities for those who have listened to Cavesword and have responded to it by taking the better way. There will be a number of comfortable rooms where the suicidalist may receive his friends for a last visit. Not everyone of course will be worthy of us. But the deserving, those whose lives have been devoted and orderly, may come to us and receive the gift.
Appalled, Luther confronts Cave and his council directly:
Life is to be lived until the flesh no longer supports the life within. The meaning of life, Cave, is more life, not death. The enemy of life is death, an enemy not to be feared but no less hostile for all that, no less dangerous, no less wrong when the living choose it instead of life, either for themselves or for others. You’ve been able to dispel our fear of the common adversary; that was your great work in the world … now you want to go further, to make love to this enemy we no longer fear, to mate with death … and it is here that you, all of you, become the enemies of life.
Attempting to shock Cave out of his reverie, Luther points out that, according to his own teachings, Cave must now take his own life; but as events transpire, he doesn’t get the chance. In the aftermath, Luther flees the now inevitably doomed United States of America for Egypt and is subsequently written out of the glorious history of the Cavite Establishment, living the rest of his long life under an assumed name, as an exiled heretic.
In his old age, though, Luther recalls his early conversations with Cave and reflects that:
Yes, I believed all that, all that and more too, and I felt Cave was the same as I; by removing fear with that magic of his, he would fulfill certain hopes of my own and (I flatter myself perhaps) of the long line of others, nobler than I, who had been equally engaged in attempting to use life more fully. And so that evening it welled up suddenly: the hidden conviction behind a desultory life broke through that chill hard surface of disappointment and disgust which had formed a brittle carapace about my heart. I had, after all, my truth too, and Cave had got to it, broken the shell . . . and for that I shall remain grateful . . . until we are at last the same, both taken by dust.
Excitedly, we talked . . . I talked mostly, I think. Cave was the theme and I the counterpoint or so I thought. He had stated it and I built on it, built outward from what I conceived to be the luminosity of his vision. Our dialogue was one of communion, I believed and he believed too. Only Iris guessed, even then, that it was not. She saw the difference; she was conscious of the division which that moment had, unknown to either of us, separated me from Cave. Each time I said “life,” he said “death.”
At the very end of the story, Eugene Luther reveals a chilling secret that demonstrates how achingly close they all came to utopia. I’ll leave that secret for you to discover.
I recommend Messiah to anyone with an interest in new religions, partly because Gore Vidal was a superb storyteller and partly because so much of the plot plays out as a thought experiment in establishing a new religion; specifically, a nontheistic, anti-superstitious creed of radical death acceptance.